You may have heard stories about people going on the road to camp in their vehicles and seeing the U.S. in ways that other forms of travel can’t provide.
Some people live like this full-time, but it’s also a great way to camp without investing in the expense of an RV or dealing with towing a pop-up camper.
But, what is car camping?
Let’s take a look at everything to know.
What Is Car Camping?
Car camping consists of putting your camping gear into your car and heading to a campsite that allows you to park your car and set up your car with a specially designed tent or set up a separate tent nearby.
Using your car for camping allows you to sleep out under the stars or in a tent, use your car for a place to sleep if you don’t want to sleep outdoors, bring equipment that you can’t easily carry with a backpack, and have access to shelter and electricity in the event of bad weather.
Car camping makes camping more accessible for people with mobility issues or for people who want to enjoy being outdoors but don’t have the wherewithal to or time to buy a camper or have the time to hike trails for a few days at a time.
What Kind Of Vehicle Is Best For Car Camping?
Any type of vehicle works for car camping as long as it’s capable of reaching your destination and has room for your camping gear.
You can find tents that attach to the roof of a car, connect through an open hatchback, or rest on the bed of a truck and use the tailgate for extra length.
You’ll want to evaluate your vehicle and figure out a tent layout that works best for your vehicle.
A rooftop tent for a car can sound like a great idea on the surface, but you have to consider your ability to easily get up to the roof of your car, and if you can make it comfortable enough for sleeping.
You’re probably better off using a traditional tent for shelter and a place to sleep if you don’t have a car with a hatchback.
There is no one right or wrong vehicle to use for car camping so much as it’s making sure the area you choose for camping is accessible for your car.
Most modern cars have front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive capabilities, which enable them to handle slightly challenging terrain.
However, if you want to go off-road, you’re going to need an SUV-type vehicle with a drivetrain that’s capable of handling dirt roads, can handle some mud, and has enough clearance to get through water hazards.
Your daily commuter car is sufficient for reaching campsites that have paved or packed roads and don’t require a lot of hill climbing.
Before you start heading off to a campsite that allows you to bring your car for camping, you need to equip your vehicle with everything you need to camp comfortably and deliver the advantages that come with car camping.
Preparing Your Car For Camping
As previously mentioned, you can camp with your car and use it to support your tent, or you can use your car as a shelter.
Using your car either way requires preparation so you don’t have to pull up stakes in the middle of your trip because you forgot something.
However, having your car with you while camping can make the experience less stressful and give you a sense of security when you’re away from home and living out in the open.
First, ask yourself how you want to use your car for camping.
Do you want to use the car as a place to sleep and make it your base camp?
Would you prefer to bring a tent that connects to your hatchback?
Camping out of your car, even if it’s not a hatchback, is very doable and can be more comfortable than you might think.
It’s a matter of how you equip the interior.
An air mattress in a twin or full size will fit in the back seat of your car, and you can take advantage of rear seats that fold down to extend your overall sleeping area into the trunk.
Make sure to bring enough bedding to stay warm at night, since it can get cold inside your car.
You can also get air mattresses that are specifically designed to go over the rear seats of the car.
Also, make sure to place your bedding in such a way that your head is higher than your feet so you avoid rolling out of bed.
This is true when you’re camping in your car or in a tent near your car.
Maintaining Sanitation While Car Camping
Many campsites offer shower and bathroom facilities for convenience and sanitation.
However, if no facilities are available, you can bring a toilet of a design and function that suits you, along with a camp shower.
Pack warm clothing even if it’s the middle of summer when you’re camping.
Some campsites can get cold at night, and you don’t want to rely on your car’s engine to keep you warm.
The combination of warm bedding and clothing gives you the insulation you need to stay warm when the air temperatures are at their coldest.
Lighting Your Campsite Without Using Your Car’s Electrical System
Buy a solar charger and/or bring a spare 12-volt deep cycle battery if you have the room.
You don’t want to run your car’s battery down by charging all of your electronics through the charging ports.
You can run a power inverter off a spare 12-volt battery and use the solar charger to power smaller electrical items.
Purchase battery-powered LED lights in sizes and shapes that work for your needs.
These types of lights last for a long time on battery power and alleviate the need to recharge your items from your car’s electrical system.
The more independent you can be of your car’s electrical system, the better, as you won’t get stranded by a dead battery.
Packing Food For Your Camping Trip
Bring a cooler for items that need long-term refrigeration and put the rest of your food supplies into containers to keep them fresh and dry.
If you’re camping in a tent, you can take advantage of the storage space in your vehicle for your foodstuffs.
Pack as many gallons of water as you can easily fit.
You need about a gallon of water a day for hydration, and you’ll need more for cooking and washing if there are no nearby shower facilities.
Bring a gallon for each day you plan to camp and figure on needing a half-gallon of water for each meal.
It’s better to have too much water than not enough.
Bring reusable or compostable plates and cutlery for eating, and make sure to have garbage bags handy for your waste.
Always pack out what you pack in to reduce your impact on the environment.
A camp stove that uses butane or propane for fuel can easily accommodate full-sized cookware such as pans and pots.
Check with your camping destination about the need for a fire permit, and make sure to follow fire pit guidelines.
Miscellaneous Tips That Come In Handy
Get a small gas can, then fill it with gasoline and store it in your trunk in the event you wind up using your car’s engine more frequently than you anticipated and run low on gas.
Pack folding chairs so that you can close your car doors and sit outside instead of inside the car when you want to relax or eat.
Privacy shades for the windows to keep out the hot sun and prevent unwanted attention from other campers.
Always keep your windows cracked to allow air to circulate whenever you’re sleeping inside the car.
Picking A Tent For Car Camping
Your car can also act as a support for your tent, whether you’re attaching it to your vehicle or as a stand-alone.
All the tips for camping in your car also apply to camping in a tent, with a few differences.
Tents that attach to vehicles come in a variety of designs and configurations that include extending the back of your car into a sleeping or sitting area and turning the roof of your car into a tent platform.
You may prefer to have a tent that’s separate from your vehicle, which enables you to pack more gear and leave your campsite if needed.
The type of tent you choose comes down to personal preference and needs, and how you want to experience camping in the great outdoors.
Using a tent that attaches to the vehicle lets you use less space while maintaining a reasonable level of comfort.
Using a separate tent requires a little more space but usually doesn’t require much more by way of setup.
One advantage that comes from bringing a separate tent for car camping is the fact that you can bring a larger tent.
The only consideration is one of fitting the tent in your car.
You’re free to use a tent that provides just enough space for sleeping, or you can use a deluxe tent that has an attached awning so you can get out of the sun without needing to go inside.
The convenience of entry is another consideration, as you may not want to crouch down to get into a tent.
You can easily fit a taller tent with a stand-up-sized entry in your car.
Make sure that the car tent you buy comes with the necessary hardware and is easy to connect to your vehicle.
If you’re opting for a stand-alone tent, look at how it’s supposed to be set up and that it has the necessary anchors to keep it from flying away.
Regardless of how you decide to camp, your car provides you with the support that you wouldn’t have if you were hiking to the campsite and carrying your gear.
Consider The Nature Of Your Destination
The joy of camping is one of getting close to nature and seeing different varieties of flora and fauna as well as landscapes you never knew could be so beautiful.
However, one of the drawbacks of camping is the fact you’re more exposed to the elements.
Car camping helps you avoid the worst of the elements apart from cold weather.
On the other hand, sleeping in your car when it is hot outside can also be uncomfortable, even with the windows down.
You’ll want to adjust your camping equipment depending on where you’re going to stay.
Hot and arid climates typically require light clothing during the day and heavier clothing at night, and you’ll need to bring more water.
Mountainous climates are typically cooler, even in the middle of July.
Be sure to bring clothes for layering throughout the day and night.
Test Your Car Before You Get On The Road
Now that you’ve got all of your gear together, you need to test your packing skills and figure out where everything’s going to fit in your car.
Empty everything from your car apart from emergency equipment you may need, such as a tire inflator and battery jumper pack.
These items can also be used for your inflatable mattress and power lights in a pinch.
Have all of your camping equipment and gear at hand, then start figuring out where to put everything.
Ideally, you want to place large or bulky items low and smaller items high.
Larger items can be used as a base for smaller items.
Focus on stacking your gear in a way that it won’t go flying when you’re driving and have to stop quickly.
Use straps to secure your camping equipment when possible.
Once you’ve figured out how to put everything in your vehicle in a satisfactory way, you can make a checklist and note where items should go.
Also, make sure to bring a small toolkit with items such as a hammer, screwdrivers, and wrenches.
These items will come in handy when you’re setting up camp or have a minor emergency.
If you’re borrowing gear, ask the person you’re borrowing from about any quirks the item has to avoid frustration later.
Be sure to ask if there’s anything sensitive or delicate about the gear that you need to be aware of.
Put Safety First When Car Camping
Car camping provides you with a measure of safety that ordinary camping doesn’t provide.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t pay attention to your surroundings.
The major advantage that comes with car camping is the ability to get in and out of a given location easily.
It also enables you to bring along your electronics and power safety gear without the need to carry extra batteries.
However, you shouldn’t assume that your car will get you out of a jam.
Start your camping trip by arriving with as full a tank of gas as possible.
It’s best to avoid getting into a jam in the first place by paying attention to the weather forecast and checking local conditions for issues such as flash floods and rock slides.
The ability to communicate with the outside world is another safety consideration.
Camping is all about getting away from the world for a while and turning off your electronics.
However, you need to be able to get in touch with emergency services, listen to the local weather broadcast for adverse conditions, and let people know that you’re okay from time to time.
Getting a cell phone signal can be tough in some areas, but you may be able to get a data signal.
Before you head to your camping destination, check reviews of other campers or the website for the campground to find out what kind of signals are available.
You may want to invest in an internet hotspot from a cellular provider that’s dedicated to receiving a data signal and broadcasting through WiFi.
Keeping an eye on your safety while camping with your car helps you enjoy your camping experience and get back home to talk about it.
Make sure to always follow campsite rules, pay attention to your surroundings, and keep an eye on your vehicle to make sure you can leave in the same way as you arrived.