How to Camp In Your Car

Camping in your car can be a great alternative to sleeping in a tent. Here's how to get the most out of the experience.

Surfing and sleeping on the beaches of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Photo by Alex Dolan
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If you are on a roadtrip, especially as an adventurous solo traveler, there can be a lot of advantages to being set up to sleep in your vehicle. Not only will you be able to avoid the cost of hotel rooms and expensive tents, you can often find yourself waking up in some amazingly beautiful and remote places.

Another benefit of car camping is how much time you save setting up and breaking down a tent to sleep in. If you are planning a big roadtrip, you will likely find yourself on the move too often to set up camp every night. You may often just want to crawl into bed after a busy day of activities and hours behind the wheel. Sleeping alone in the woods can sometimes get a little spooky, but sleeping in your vehicle will also give you a safe place to rest your head and your worries since you'll be able to lock the doors at night.

With the #vanlife craze at an all time high, you may feel left out of the club if you don't have a Sprinter van with solar panels and running water. But it really doesn’t matter if you've got a camper van, a large SUV, or even a hatchback Honda Fit. As long as it has enough room to lay down and stretch out comfortably, the possibilities of where you can settle in to get a good night's rest are endless. As a whitewater rafting guide, I have spent countless nights calling my Honda Element home. After developing a system of organization to suit my needs and making some slight modifications, I have made my little vehicle a really comfortable shelter that goes anywhere I can park it.

Where to Park

A blue SUV and a hammock next to a river
Sleeping next the the Chilliwack River in British Columbia. Photo by Alex Dolan

So, where are the best car camping spots? Of course, parking at a state park or private campgrounds will be the most comfortable and safest option. Check for availability before you show up. A little planning goes a long way, and a quick phone call will save you from arriving at a full campground and scrambling for a backup plan. You can count on a toilet, and a forest ranger or security being close by. But sometimes these aren't options that are available, and free campsites will help you save some gas money.

If you are really far out there, US Forest Service roads allow overnight parking. As long as you aren't planning to take up permanent residence there, feel free to pull over wherever you see a suitable spot and enjoy your surroundings for free. You'll want to bring along plenty of water and food since there won't be any grocery stores of coffee shops close by. Just make sure that you pack out all of your trash and bury your waste.

Legs in the back of an SUV facing towards a beach and the ocean
Waking up ocean front in Washington. Photo by Alex Dolan

If you are closer to civilization, it's a safe bet there's a Walmart parking lot close by. While this isn't the most luxurious or private place to spend the night, almost all Walmart parking lots in the United States allow overnight parking as well. On the plus side, you'll be close to running water when you wake up in the morning.

If you are on a cross country roadtrip, You'll pass by plenty of rest stops and truck stops along the way. This is maybe a middle ground between a busy parking lot and a remote Forest Service road. You'll be able to stay there overnight without being bothered, but it certainly won't feel like a place you'll want to hang out for very long and set up a hammock. It won't be the most epic part of your adventure, but it will be a place to get a good night's rest before you hit the open road again in the morning. On the plus side, there are some facilities that will be available to you 24 hours a day and a snack machine if you are really hungry. Some rest stops these days even have free Wi-Fi. You can check state highway websites to scout out just where these rest stops are and what they offer.

What to Bring

Food and water are two things that we all need to keep living. If you want to be self-sufficient, save money and eat healthy, you'll want to be fully stocked with groceries and a way to cook them. And you can never have too much water. Get yourself a 5 gallon BPA-free water container and fill it up. This will help you avoid buying a pallet of water bottles and pilling up plastic garbage. While you won't be able to toss a frozen pizza in the oven on a night you are feeling lazy, you will be able to cook some amazing meals with a simple 2 burner stove, a pot, a pan, and a cutting board. If you have enough room in your rig for a decent-sized cooler that will keep ice for a few days, you can really get extravagant with dairy and meat dishes that require refrigerated ingredients. If you want to keep things simple dry foods, freeze dried meals, fruits, and vegetables will keep your belly full of nutritious dishes. If you don't feel like lighting the stove, you can never go wrong with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Getting Good Sleep

Start with a good parking spot. You are much more likely to get a good night’s sleep if all four tires are level. If you have to park on an incline, make it as small as possible and put your head at the highest point. Once you're parked for the night, slide both of your front seats forward as far as they'll go to maximize your sleeping space.

Just because you are sheltered by the four walls of your vehicle doesn't mean you’ll be protected from cold weather. Remember to bring a sleeping bag rated for the temperatures that you'll be sleeping in. An extra blanket isn't a bad idea, either. Your vehicle probably didn't come with a cushy surface fit to sleep on so make sure you havea sleeping pad or mattress. An air mattress may get the job done for a night or two, but I don't find them to be very reliable in the long run.

A red and grey sleeping bag on a sleeping pad set up inside an SUV
Simple yet luxurious compared to tent camping. Photo by Alex Dolan

Since you don't have to worry about the weight or packed size of your sleeping surface, feel free to get creative. There are some custom mattresses out there to fit around your wheel wells. A futon mattress will contour to the shape of the floor and the wheel wells as well as give you the cushion you need to be comfortable. Bring a big comfy pillow. Again, packing weight isn't an issue, bring whatever you need to make yourself comfortable. You may be winging it on your campsite each night, but make sure you do a little planning to ensure you are comfortable. Get yourself a roof rack for your mountain bike or kayak to open up more space in the vehicle.

Avoid using your vehicle's power after you turn the engine off. It can be really easy to forget about a dome light or fall asleep with the radio on and wake up with a dead battery. If you are parked in a remote location you could end up with a long hike ahead of you to getget a jump start. Instead, pack a headlamp for reading a good book before bed or to use if nature calls in the middle of the night.

If you have slept in your vehicle before, you probably noticed condensation on the inside of your windows when you woke up. This is caused by the moisture that is in every breath you exhale. To avoid this you'll want to crack a window or sunroof. By doing so, however, you'll be opening up the vehicle to insects. You can get some screening from the hardware store to easily cover these openings to let the condensation out and keep your car free of bugs.

To keep out light and maintain privacy, it is a good idea to make some car curtains. A bungee cord will make a great makeshift curtain rod, or some simple linens and some Velcro tape will make a great easy to set up curtain system.

So, are you ready to hit the road with your own car camping set up to sleep in? Do you have any tips that I didn't mention? You can click on the link to my expert profile below and live chat with me any time. I'd love to hear where your next adventure is taking you.

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I have years of experience planning and executing multi day river trips for up to twenty customers at a time and countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element, moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. I have also toured the San Juan Islands via kayak, and circumnavi...

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