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How to Camp in Your Car Cover

How to Camp In Your Car (And Actually Enjoy It)

Whether you've always been an outdoorsy person or the year of quarantine has you dreaming of wide open spaces, there's no better time to dip your toes into an increasingly popular pastime: car camping.There's something liberating about being able to pick up and go while having everything you need within arm's reach. Want to gaze up at the stars on a clear night? Want to wake up and hike at sunrise, or see the kids' faces the first time they see the mountains, or hit up your favorite music festival?Better yet, do you want to do it without sacrificing your comfort or budget? If so, you'll want to give the car camping experience a shot. Check out our article below to learn more about this style of camping and decide if it's for you!In this article:
Check out my buddy Evangeline's car camping setup and tips in this video!
Car Camping with Air Mattress

What is Car Camping?

Car camping has a couple of definitions.
  • Driving up to a campsite and setting up your tent (rather than parking at a distance and bringing your gear in separately). For tips on picking the perfect spot for your tent click here.
  • Camping in your actual car.
Car Camping vs Tent Camping Regardless of which definition you go by, there are some solid benefits to using your car like a pack mule rather than stuffing your gear in a backpack and hiking until you find a place to set up your tent.
  • You can bring more stuff. The biggest benefit to car camping vs traditional camping? Not skimping on the stuff or cramming it all into a couple of backpacks. Want to bring that cooler full of ice-cold beer? Cool, just load it up in the backseat. No need to haul it yourself.
  • It's great for families with small kids. Kids and pets mean extra supplies, and chances are your 4-year-old isn't going to be much help carrying gear. (In fact, you may end up carrying him, too.) Car camping is a great way to bring along the extra food, just-in-case first-aid equipment, and outdoor games. And it's a lot easier to drive your kiddos to the campsite than expect their little legs to keep up.
  • It provides more security. Car camping can involve sleeping in a tent, but it can also mean sleeping in your actual car. This can provide a sturdier barrier against the elements, not to mention campsite critters and other people. Personally, I feel safer locked in my car than zipped in a tent. I can also ride out a thunderstorm a lot more comfortably in my car than in a tent.
Location with Forest and Mountains

Where to Go Car Camping

It all depends on what type of camping experience you want. Are you looking for a fun outdoor experience with amenities like toilets and showers? Do you want something more rugged—just you, your gear, and Mother Earth? Are you hoping to hike, bike, fish, kayak? Fortunately, whatever you're hoping to do, there's a place to do it. It pretty much comes down to whether you want to camp at a campground or if you want to try dispersed camping. There are a few important differences.
Location with Forest and Mountains
The Campground Experience: Why You Should Try It: This can be a great way to dip your toes into car camping while still enjoying some amenities like bathrooms, picnic tables, and even showers. These sites are typically pretty accessible, so they're a great way to get out in nature without going completely off the beaten path into the wilderness. Skip This Experience If:If you have something a little more rugged in mind, or if the whole point of your camping trip is some peaceful solitude, you probably want to check out dispersed camping below. Also keep in mind that campgrounds tend to come with more rules as far as what activities are allowed (such as biking or hunting), quiet hours, whether dogs can be off leash, etc. If you want more freedom to do as you please, check out some less regulated lands outside of campgrounds. Where to Find and Book a Campground: If you live in the US, you already own a campground (kind of)! As a member of the public, you have access to a long list of State and National Parks. Isn't that awesome? You've no doubt heard of the big ones like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but there are a ton of others all over the country. You typically need a permit or reservation for these campgrounds, but fortunately there are any number of great websites and apps to help you book these sites. Here area a few resources I found particularly easy to use (all are available as websites and apps):
  • HipCamp
  • The Dyrt
  • Reserve America: They have both an app and a website, but only the website lets you book campgrounds directly.
  • Recreation.gov
These apps and sites let you search by location and use filters to narrow down what you're looking for in terms of amenities, preferred activities, and pricing. You can even read reviews and check out images posted from other campers. If you've ever used websites like Kayak, Google Travel, Expedia, etc., you'll have no trouble using these resources to book a campground.
Tent and Awning Secured to Car
The Dispersed Camping Experience: Why You Should Try It: If you're after a more rugged, just-you-and-nature kind of experience, I'd suggest dispersed camping. You'll enjoy a lot more freedom as far as your activities; you can usually hike, shoot, cycle, etc. without worry, as long as you clean up after yourself and leave only footprints. Most dispersed camping land is free or at least very inexpensive to book a pass or permit. And unlike at campgrounds, there are no other campers surrounding you. If you're after some solitude and don't want neighbors, dispersed camping is the way to go. Skip This Experience If: As fun as it is, dispersed camping isn't for everyone. You won't have the same amenities (like plumbing) you can usually expect at campgrounds. That's kind of the point, but it doesn't mean that it's an experience everyone wants to have. Where to Find Dispersed Camping: The best places to find dispersed camping are BLM lands (Bureau of Land Management lands) or National Forests. These are going to be more remote than National Parks (as well as less crowded). Unlike campgrounds, you don't book dispersed camping sites in advance. You just find the boundaries of your preferred BLM land or National Forest on the map, show up, find a free spot, and set up camp. Just make sure to check with the local ranger station beforehand to make sure camping is indeed allowed in the particular area you want to camp and that there are no restrictions you need to be mindful of. (For instance, some areas have fire bans to prevent dry land catching fire.) I'd also definitely recommend a map. Where you're going, your GPS won't be much use. Some helpful resources for finding dispersed camping spots:
  • United States Forest Service website - Maintained by the US Department of Agriculture, this website lets you select your state or a specific National Forest and read up on your chosen location. The site includes information on required passes/permits, dispersed camping locations and maps, and activities.
  • TheDyrtPRO - At the time of writing this article, it's $35.99 per year for a subscription to this app. You get a lot of perks with this, but the most relevant one here is Map Layers, which lets you find dispersed camping areas on public lands. It even works offline.
Tent and Awning Secured to Car
Other Car Camping Experiences: As mentioned above, music festivals are a popular place to car camp. Make sure to check the regulations for the specific festival you're interested in for info about required passes and any rules about what's allowed. (For instance, the popular festival Coachella allows alcohol but only in can or box form—no glass.) Other than these types of regulations, car camping at a music festival requires basically the same supplies as car camping at a campground with amenities. Other common areas to spend a night or two are rest stops and Walmart parking lots. Just make sure to check any local and state laws first (many have restrictions on how many hours you can stay), and call ahead if you plan on sleeping in a Walmart (or other retailer) parking lot, and always stay respectful of others during your stay (avoid loud music or huge cookouts).
The main thing to remember when planning any kind of car camping trip is to do your research. Read up on any regulations online or ask a ranger service if you have any questions about what's allowed. And of course, obey any state or local laws about where you can stay or how long you can stay there.
Black tent on roof of black car

The Best Cars for Camping

There's no one-size-fits-all choice when it comes to the best cars for car camping. Generally, an SUV or van is going to be the most comfortable, but plenty of people camp in smaller cars, too. What should you keep in mind when selecting the perfect camping car? The most important quality to consider is space. What do you plan on bringing with you? How much space do you need to sleep? To cook? You can certainly camp in a Honda Civic (a quick search shows plenty of creative setups), but you'll obviously have more room to spread out in a 4Runner. (And I can guarantee you, no matter how big you think your car is, you won't have as much room as you think.) You'll also want to consider off-road capability. If you plan on trekking off the beaten path, stick with 4x4 or AWD vehicles built for off-roading. These considerations aside, a benefit to car camping is being able to convert your current ride into camp, so even if you don't have the "perfect" camping vehicle, chances are you can still make it work with a little creative problem solving and gear-Tetris in the backseat. Here are some of the most popular vehicle choices for car camping:
Toyota Highlander
SUVs
  • Toyota 4Runner
  • Subaru Outback
  • Toyota Highlander
Honda Element
Compact SUVs
  • Toyota Rav4
  • Subaru Forester
  • Honda Element
  • Ford Escape
Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van
Vans
  • Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van
  • Chrysler Pacifica
  • Honda Odyssey
Ford F-150
Trucks
  • Toyota Tacoma
  • Ford F-150
  • Honda Ridgeline
Jeep Wrangler
Jeeps
  • Jeep Wrangler
  • Jeep Cherokee
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
Honda Fit
Subcompact Cars
  • Mini Cooper
  • Honda Fit
Car Camping Tent Setup

Car Camping Setup and Tips

There are a few questions that inevitably come up when you get past your initial rose-colored (or maybe Instagram-filtered) visions of gorgeous mountain views and picturesque sunsets enjoyed from the back of your tastefully decorated SUV. Questions about sleeping, bathing, storing food, and accessing the internet (you know, the essentials). Let's go over some of the most frequently asked car camping questions to give you an idea what to expect.
Pro-Tip: Take Care of Your Car, and It Will Take Care of You When you're car camping, your car is everything: bed, kitchen, living room, transportation. So proper maintenance is crucial in making sure your ride keeps on riding. Make sure your tires are filled, your fluids are full, your oil is clean, and that pesky "check engine" light is taken care of. Car trouble happens, but if you can prevent it from happening in the middle of nowhere, you'll be much better off.
Air Mattress in Truck Bed
Sleeping in a Car While CampingThe most-asked questions about car camping (yes, even over "how do I access the internet?") is about sleeping in your car. A bad night's sleep can ruin the experience and leave you longing for your own bed, so I'd definitely recommend splurging a bit on your sleep setup if you plan to do this camping thing more than a couple of times. Car camping sleep setup tips:
  • Get yourself a mattress or sleep pad, a sleeping bag, a warm blanket, and a soft pillow. Of course, if you're going to be sleeping in a tent outside your car, grab the tent too. If you're inflating something, don't forget the air pump.As far as which type of mattress you should buy, air mattresses are great if you have limited storage space, but they don't provide the same cushion or insulation as a good foam mattress. On the other hand, since foam mattresses can't deflate, they take up more space in a car where space is already at a premium. You'll have to figure out whether space or comfort is more important here. Also make sure your blanket and sleeping bag are sufficiently warm. You might consider a wool or electric blanket. (I was gifted a blanket that plugs into my car's 12V outlet, much like this one, and to this day it's one of the best gifts I've ever received.) Sleeping bags come with cold-weather ratings, so make sure yours is heavy-duty enough to keep you warm (you might consider purchasing a sleeping bag with a colder rating than the weather you plan on staying in, just to be sure). Bring plenty of blankets and pillows to lie on or cushion any uncomfortable angles of your car. Also, make sure to actually measure your sleeping space to make sure your mattress fits!
  • If you can, lay your backseats flat and make your bed here. Try to park on level ground for your own comfort, but if you're parked on a slope, you'll probably want to sleep with your head elevated.
  • Prevent moisture buildup and keep your windows from fogging up by cracking your windows a bit at night. No need to roll them all the way down (I'd recommend keeping them up high enough where no one could reach a hand in). Use mosquito nets to keep the bugs out. You can also throw some Damprid in there to help, well, rid the car of dampness.
  • Grab some car window curtains or covers for privacy. Or, for a budget-friendly alternative, hang some sheets with a bungee cord. (This is especially important at a campground, where your dome lights will turn your car into an illuminated fishbowl after dark.)
  • Boil some water on your camp stove, seal it up in a bottle, then stick the bottle in your sleeping bag, and boom—you've got a simple DIY heater. Or, if it's hot, grab a 12V fan.
  • Don't forget those little items to help you wind down at night. Download some movies or TV episodes to watch offline. Bring a book or download a podcast.
  • Obviously, you should dress for the weather, but new campers often misjudge what the conditions will actually feel like long term. You might be fine walking from your car to the grocery store in a T-shirt on a brisk day, but sleeping all night in your car is a different story. Layer up and make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes if you're camping in cool/cold weather. Don't forget a warm hat, gloves, socks, and thermal underwear. Sleep in layers, and bring a little electric fan if it's hot! You can't be too prepared for the weather.
  • Don't forget flashlights or lanterns. It can get pretty dark in the wilderness with nothing but the moon and stars to light your way.
  • Public campgrounds come with their minor annoyances: late-night partiers at the next spot over, wandering flashlight beams at 4 am from someone trying to find the bathroom... If you're in a pretty public place, it helps to have some headphones and a sleep mask on hand to block out sound and light. To prevent losing your ear buds in your sleeping bag, I recommend a sleep headband with built-in headphones. Even better, these easily slip over your eyes and double as an eye mask.
  • Don't leave your car running or keep your lights on all night. You'll wake up with a drained tank of gas or a dead battery.
  • There's absolutely no shame in grabbing a hotel room or Airbnb if the temps drop too low. Even if you've done all you can to prepare, the fact is that cars were not designed for camping in sub-zero temperatures. It doesn't make you any less of a camper to draw the line on what you'll deal with; it just makes you a warmer camper.
Cooler with Drinks

How to Store Food When Car Camping

Chances are you're not Snow White, so you probably don't want merry little woodland creatures digging into your food at the campsite. Plus, bears. Enough said. Proper food storage is important, and you should read up on your camp location's guidelines about what that looks like. For instance, some will advise you to keep food sealed and covered inside your car, while others will advise you to hang it from a tree away from your campsite. Some will require you to use a food storage locker at the campsite or use bear-proof containers (you can find these at most camping and sporting goods stores). Food storage tips for wildlife safety:
  • Read up on local guidelines and abide by them
  • If you have a tent, don't leave food in it
  • If you leave food in your car, seal it inside airtight bags and cover it with a blanket (yes, some animals can recognize the sight of food too!)
  • Don't leave your car windows open with food unsealed inside
  • Purchase bear-proof canisters to store food
  • Also seal up soap, toothpaste, bug spray, etc. — anything with a scent can smell like food to wildlife
  • Keep a clean campsite and car — get rid of wrappers, crumbs, stray candies, etc.
  • Immediately wash any dirty dishes
  • Try not to cook messy, greasy foods like bacon
  • Don’t burn your food waste - it isn't likely to burn hot enough to destroy all food remnants
  • Mice repellant doesn't hurt to have on hand
  • Remember that the rules are in place for the safety of not just you but also the wildlife and future campers. A bear that's afraid of humans will usually stay a safe distance away. A bear that associates humans with food may act aggressively, get too close, and end up endangering humans or itself.
Food storage tips for your own convenience:
  • Plan out your meals ahead of time. Layer your meals with the first day's food at the top and the last day's food at the bottom of the cooler.
  • Freeze some bottled water or juice, and use them as extra ice packs. Unlike ice, you won't have to toss them when they melt; you'll just have a drink ready to go. Plus, it saves room in the cooler!
  • Freeze meals you plan on eating later in the trip and let them thaw out in the cooler so they last longer
  • Keep a cooler for drinks and snacks you plan on accessing regularly, then keep a separate cooler for meat and bigger meals that you don't have to open as often.
  • If you're really serious about getting into car camping, there are portable car fridges you can buy.
Furrion Wi-Fi Booster
WiFi, Hotspots, and Internet Satellite for Car CampingYes, it's nice to "unplug" from your devices when camping, but there are a lot of reasons we might want cell service even in the middle of nowhere: staying in contact with family members, using a GPS, or being able to call for help in case of an emergency. Depending on where you're going and what you want to do, you have a few options.
  • Stay at a campground with Wi-FiMake sure to get the Wi-Fi password from the campground host when you check in. Of course, the network is likely to be slow if you're far from the modem/router, and if it's a busy campground with a lot of people connected. I recommend a Wi-Fi booster to get a stronger signal.
  • Stay within cell-service boundaries and use your phone's data plan If you're close enough to a cell tower, you may be able to hop on your phone and use your monthly data (just keep your data limits in mind if you don't have an unlimited plan). You can use a cell signal booster to strengthen your signal. If you need internet on other devices like your tablet or laptop, you can turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot. The benefit here is that this will act as your own personal Wi-Fi network, so you don't have to share with anyone else. The downside is that this will drain your phone battery, and you may be limited on your hotspot data usage (check with your carrier if you're not sure).
  • Use a vehicle or mobile hotspot If you're worried about draining your phone battery or need more data than your phone's hotspot can provide, it's a good idea to purchase a separate Wi-Fi hotspot device and plan. These devices are ideal for traveling on the road frequently or working remotely, as long as you have access to cell service. To use a mobile hotspot, you'll need to purchase a hotspot device and pay for a monthly data plan from a provider like AT&T or T-Mobile. Many newer vehicles also allow for a built-in hotspot with plans through providers like OnStar or cell service providers. Once your hotspot is set up, you can connect your other devices like laptops and tablets to the network. You can also connect your phone to your vehicle's Wi-Fi to avoid using up all your phone's data.
  • Use a satellite device These are more for remote campers outside of cell service boundaries. As the name suggests, these solutions rely on satellites. A full-fledged satellite setup will cost thousands, so you probably only want to consider it if you're going to go hard-core camping in the backcountry for a lengthy period of time. There are, however, satellite devices like the Spot Gen4 and Spot X that can be combined with Spot data plans and used for basic functions like checking in with loved ones and sending out an SOS signal.
Electronic devices being charged by portable charger

Car Camping Battery Setup

You've got options when it comes to staying charged, and it all depends on what devices you need to keep juiced up. There's a huge range of portable chargers. If you're only charging a couple of small devices like a cell phone and tablet for a couple days at a time, you'll most likely be fine with a power bank (or one of those cool lanterns that doubles as a charger). If you're going to be running heavier equipment like laptops, TVs, or even car vacuums or tire inflators, you'll want a power station (basically a bigger power bank). You can also pick up a portable solar charger to charger your devices directly or help keep your power bank/station charged. Most power banks and stations also offer 12V charging options, so you can plug it into your vehicle's 12V outlet and use your car's battery to stay powered up. And if you really plan on going hardcore, there are always generators.
Clip-On 12V Fan Mounted Inside Car

How to Ventilate Your Car Camper

The easiest way to get some air flowing in your car is to crack a window (after making sure all your food is properly sealed and stored, of course). You can use a window net or mesh to keep the bugs out. You can also use a 12V fan to keep cool.
Yakima RoadShower Portable Solar Shower

Where to Shower When Car Camping

Nothing beats a shower at the end of a long day outdoors, especially when you're covered in a greasy layer of sweat, dirt, bug spray, and sunscreen. Many campgrounds have showering facilities, so this makes it easy to scrub up (just make sure to bring a pair of flip flops to wear inside. Trust me on this). If you're camping somewhere more remote, your best bet is a portable shower, which come in tank or bag styles. Fill up with water, let the sun do it's thing and heat it up, and rinse off at the end of the day. No, you won't get unlimited hot water, but at least you won't be stinking up your own sleeping bag.
Amber S.
About Amber S.As a content writer for etrailer, I might spend my morning loading and unloading a bike on five different bike racks to figure out which is easiest to use. I might be in the parking lot, taking pictures of an impressive RV battery setup our techs came across in the shop and discussing the benefits of the setup with the owner. I might spend an afternoon in a manufacturer training classes for some hands-on experience with new products, and then sit down to assemble all this information into a coherent article.At etrailer, one of our core values is that we are always learning, and I learn something new every day. I start each morning with the goal in mind of taking all of this information and figuring out the best way to answer the questions people ask us (and the ones they don’t know to ask yet), and helping people get the solutions they need to make their lives easier, safer, and more fun. I’m a DIYer at heart, so it brings me great joy to help a fellow DIYer find what they’re looking for, whether that’s a product, an answer, or a community.
Related ArticlesRelated ProductsWritten by: Amber S. Updated on: 7/20/21

Stan

5/4/2023

Nice! Any tips on beating the heat during the summer? Cracking the windows only does so much.....

Etrailer Expert

John H.

5/4/2023

@Stan I like to put wet rags around my neck.


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