There’s nothing like waking up to the sound of the natural world – birds humming, critters rustling, trees creaking, last night’s fire whispering. It’s something you can only experience from camping.
Camping, also known as sleeping in the woods, is what you make of it. Backpackers pitch a tent or crowd around a fire in the backcountry. Glampers pay for an experience with farm-to-table food, teepees or airstreams, and stunning views. RVers look for electric hookups and community in established campgrounds. And car campers turn each of these camping experiences into their own adventure on four wheels.
What is car camping?
Car camping is sleeping in or near your car. What does that look like? There are several ways to car camp, including sleeping on a pad in your trunk, rigging a rooftop tent to your vehicle, or pitching a tent near your car. If you’re new to camping or looking for different ways to explore the outdoors, consider car camping.
What are the pros of car camping?
Camping in your car offers explorers more freedom to roam. Here are the advantages of car camping:
- You have more access to camping locations, including off-roading campsites, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas, Forest Service roads, and stealth camping in cities. Stealth camping is camping without being seen, heard, or noticed.
- Car camping is safer than tent camping. It is safer because you can lock your doors. This creates a barrier between human and animal predators. Vehicles also provide added weather protection from the elements.
- Depending on if you already own a vehicle, car camping is a low-cost option for getting outside. Save on gas by exploring your local area.
- Car camping is more convenient than other ways of sleeping outside. With more areas to access, campsites are easier to find, especially during the busy summer months. With your sleep situation already established, setting up camp is more efficient. What does this mean? More time for activities!
- Compared to sleeping in a tent, sleeping in your car provides more storage space for gear, food, and creature comforts. When you have more space, you can bring more goods that make camping feel like glamping.
- Although car camping is not as luxurious as RV camping or glamping, sleeping in your vehicle significantly elevates comfort and warmth.
What are the cons of car camping?
Here are the disadvantages of car camping:
- A downside to car camping is the lack of space for everyday errands and passengers. If you choose to sleep in your car, your car quickly becomes congested with sleeping setups and outdoor gear.
- Dispersed camping is popular with the car camping community, but this means a lack of facilities compared to RV or tent camping in an established campground with bathrooms and showers.
- In some cities, towns, and even campgrounds, there are laws and rules against sleeping in your car as an attempt to dissuade long-term situations.
- Although camping from your vehicle can be inexpensive depending on the car and how dialed you want your sleep system, car camping can be an expensive endeavor. Investing in a four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle, building a sleeping platform with storage, buying a rooftop tent, and taking long road trips through states with expensive gas (looking at you California) is costly.
- If you camp near or in your car, your vehicle will be dirty and hard to clean no matter what.
How do you start car camping?
Research, research, and research some more
The best way to immerse yourself in the car camping community is to engage with it! Use resources like YouTube videos and blogs to learn how to camp from your car and utilize your space. Join Reddit forums and Facebook groups to ask questions and gain beta by location, car, and method of camping.
Another way to immerse yourself with car campers is through Instagram. Here you can follow people and hashtags like #carcamping for inspiration.
Don’t forget to visit your local gear store, where they can kit you and your car. These locally grown stores staff knowledgeable folks that know the surrounding area, including where to camp with the best views.
Prepare your vehicle
The most crucial part of car camping is ensuring your vehicle is safe, reliable, and spacious enough for you and your gear. Most vehicles will suffice – you don’t necessarily need a 4WD SUV with off-roading capabilities. Plan your first road trip based on the car you have, not the car you want.
Before you head out on your maiden voyage, prepare your vehicle with camping, roadside, and safety essentials like a sleeping bag, pad, first aid kit, jumper cables, and an air compressor.
Pro-tip: Don’t buy everything before your first car camping trip. Use this as a shakedown experience to see what you actually need and want for the future.
Instead of conquering a cross-country road trip immediately, plan your first camping trip in your backyard.
This is an ideal way to plan a cheap staycation, appreciate and learn more about your local wilderness areas, and ease into car camping. If you ever feel uncomfortable or unprepared, you’re not far from home or the drawing board.
What are the best cars for camping?
The best cars to sleep in have several key features to look out for, including 4WD or all-wheel drive (AWD) with ground clearance. Search for a vessel with ample cargo room, headroom, fuel range, and weight capacity. Another factor to consider is roof rack capabilities because rooftop tents and roof cargo boxes are a perfect way to expand your storage for car camping. Most importantly, invest in a vehicle with high safety standards on and off the road.
Best Cars for Camping
- Jeep Wrangler – Can get you anywhere
- Honda Pilot – Great all around
- Subaru Crosstrek – Great gas mileage – small space
- Subaru Outback – Good gas mileage – slightly more space
- Toyota Tacoma – Can get you anywhere and has truck bed
- Toyota 4Runner – Can get you anywhere, lots of space
- Nissan Xterra – Great all around vehicle
- Hyundai Kona Electric – Great all around electric vehicle
Regardless of what car you own or choose, a camping adventure awaits! The above are only a few good examples of cars.
What gear do you need for car camping?
Car camping necessities depend on the person and trip, but here is a gear guide to get you started.
Sleeping outdoors can be complicated, but car camping makes it easier if you take the time to research and invest in a sleep system that works for you and your vehicle. Your typical options are a sleeping pad, foam mattress pad, or even an actual mattress.
Some other things to consider are you traveling with a partner? Do you want a layout that easily folds up for day use and storage? Would you prefer a platform rig that provides more space and organization?
The least complicated option is buying a sleeping pad, like the Exped Megamat, or foam mattress. This will help you decide on the level of comfort you need and address the question of building a platform or not for daily use. If you buy a foam mattress, buy one at least four inches thick for optimal comfort.
Pro-tip: Even if you don’t build a platform, find a piece of solid wood to slip under your sleep system for more support and comfort.
Some say a camp pillow is a luxury, but really it’s a necessity, especially when you’re car camping and have the space.
Although Thermarest and Exped make quality pillows, the best pillows for car camping are the ones you regularly sleep with. A comfortable place to lay your head is a piece of home.
Sleeping Bag, Blanket, Quilt
Are you sleeping in the cold? Do you have to sleep with a cover of some kind even if it’s unbearably hot? Do you hate when your feet are covered? These are questions to ask when deciding if you’re a sleeping bag, blanket, or quilt sleeper.
Sleeping bags are a reliable option for campers that sleep cold or camp in the winter and at high altitudes. Why are they reliable? Sleeping bags offer a temperature rating, which means each bag has comfort and the lowest temperature ratings that can help equip you for your environment.
Car camping allows space for extra blankets, sheets, and sleeping bags. When you’re boondocking at a high elevation, it’s a comfort to have a warm sleeping bag like the Sierra Designs Nitro.
Even if you have your sleep system dialed, pack a tent. It’s the only option for those clear, starry nights and those campgrounds that offer beautiful walk-in campsites. Car camping is all about choices!
While some camp kitchens rival at-home setups, others are minimal, but they all have one thing: a cooler. Coolers are imperative for preserving food, keeping beer cold, and extending your stay in the backcountry. They’re also a great stand-in for tables, chairs, and cutting boards.
Your camp kitchen is not complete without a stove. There’s nothing like a warm meal on a cold night outdoors.
What stove should you buy for car camping? You have options. Are you cooking for yourself or a crew? Regardless, you have affordable options for two-burners, one-burner, or even a backpacking stove. Backpacking stoves are ideal for quick meals like ramen bombs, boiled eggs, or coffee. Although, the Coleman stove is a tried and true classic.
To elevate your cooking experience outdoors, invest in a cast iron skillet, chef’s knife, utensils, cutting board, foldable table, and a camp sink.
The best meal is a meal shared with friends outdoors.
Regardless of where you camp, water is important! Aside from staying hydrated, you will use it or wish you had it more thank you think, especially for cleaning and washing. Any campsite near a water source is a bonus.
As a safety precaution, it’s also a good habit to keep a water filter in your car.
We always recommend bringing a battery pack for your electronic devices, or a power station for glamour car camping experiences. Investing in a power station that can also jump your car in emergencies can be useful as well.
What is the number one creature comfort to camping? Lighting. Invest in lighting your campsite because your phone flashlight or dim firelight won’t cut it, especially when you’re attempting to organize your life under the moon or find somewhere to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Plus, it’s comforting to think it scares off any predators.
Organization is the key to staying sane when car camping. Storage and cleanliness are your friends in a small space. At the very least, invest in cheap, labeled (or multicolored) bins for your kitchen supplies, bathroom toiletries, gear, and clothing separated. Keep your home base clean and gear in good shape.
Other ways to organize are investing in a cargo box, maximizing your space with a bed platform with storage needs incorporated, and designating areas of your car to different items.
Imagine pulling up to your vista campsite overlooking a rolling green valley sheltered by towering mountains at sunset. What would make this feeling of awe even more joyous and unexpected? An easily accessible camp chair to lounge and watch the world play before you.
Like lights, camp chairs are an indispensable luxury, especially Kelty’s Low Loveseat. The loveseat is perfect for two people or one person and a dog. It’s also festival-friendly.
Splurging on a camp chair also creates a space separate from your sleeping arrangements and car.
First Aid Kit
It’s good practice to equip your car with a first aid kit. You can purchase one from a grocery, gear, or convenience store. Although the best first aid kits are home-assembled with needs specific to you. Here is what you should start with:
- Different sizes of adhesive bandages
- Butterfly bandages
- Antiseptic ointments
- Sterile wipes
- Pain medicine
- Safety Pins
- Eye drops
- Triple antibiotic ointment
- Hand sanitizer
- Emergency blanket
- Duct tape
Emergency Road Kit
Like a first aid kit, an emergency road kit is essential no matter how often you use your car. Here is what should be inside your emergency road kit:
- Air compressor
- Tire gauge
- Jumper cables
- Lug wrench
- Engine oil
- Ice scraper
Familiarize yourself with your car before you hit the road to avoid disaster.
Car camping laws
Is it legal to sleep in your car? Technically, yes. Although, car camping explores this grey area, especially when it comes to stealth camping.
No federal law prohibits sleeping in your car, but there are perimeters and state laws and regulations to follow. You can not sleep in your vehicle while intoxicated and local laws deem where and when it’s legal. Each state is different.
The states with the strictest laws are Colorado, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Hawaii. What makes a state harsh on car camping? These states don’t allow people to sleep in their cars at rest stops. Other states have time limits for how long you can sleep or rest at each highway stop.
So what general locations are car camping friendly across the United States?
- BLM Land (most areas allow you to camp up for 14 days out of a 30-day period)
- National Forests
- Cracker Barrel
- Sam’s Club
- Pilot Flying J Truck Stops
- Love’s Travel Stops
If you’re staying outside of a business, research and contact that specific location to confirm they welcome overnight stays. Practice camping etiquette and support the business that allows you to stay. Remember overnight parking does not always mean camping.
Best states for car camping
Do you feel comfortable on the road? Are you and your vehicle prepared? Did you try a shakedown trip? Then you are ready to start car camping!
The best car camping trips feature beautiful landscapes, dispersed camping, recreational areas, and resources within a reasonable distance. Important resources are grocery stores, laundromats, showering facilities, and gas stations.
The best states for car camping are Vermont, Tennessee, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, California, and Oregon.
Tips for car camping
- Read your car’s manual to understand the make and model. Why? Prepare yourself with potential issues your vehicle could face, and it may give insight into features you never knew about. For instance, do Subaru Outback owners know they can adjust their roof rack into cross bars?
- Invest in window covers for more privacy. If you’re doing it on a budget, you can purchase rolls of Reflectix and cut your own according to your windows.
- Avoid moisture build-up in your car and create a breeze by cracking opposite windows when you sleep.
- Text someone your location before you go to sleep or before you arrive to your campsite. For off-the-grid connection, purchase a Garmin Inreach.
- Prep your food before you go camping or plan to prepare one-pot recipes for quick and easy to clean meals.
- Bring cash for smaller towns and cash-only campgrounds.
- Keep your lights in the off position. When you’re car camping you will open your doors a lot, so avoid a dead battery with no service. Make sure your car emergency kit has jumper cables too.
- Download everything movies, podcasts, audiobooks, and maps.
Resources for car camping
Recreation.gov: Use this resource to find camping on BLM and Forest Service land.
Roadtrippers: Are you a planner? Roadtrippers is the perfect app to map out your entire roadtrip, especially if you purchase the pro version.
Campendium: This free app provides in-depth reviews of campgrounds. Campendium includes stealth camping, dispersed and established sites, and RV parks.
The Dyrt: Like Campendium, The Dyrt is a camping database filled with insight on over 40,000 sites across the United States.
iOverlander: iOverlander is another camping database with an informative map of the United States that helps campers find new places to camp around their route.
GasBuddy: If you want to save on gas, GasBuddy is your number one resource in finding the cheapest gas along your traveler’s trail.
FAQ about car camping
How to start car camping?
Start car camping by researching, investing in a sleeping setup, prioritizing safety, and venturing to local recreation areas.
What is stealth camping?
Stealth camping is as it sounds. It’s camping without being noticed. This is typical in urban areas where car camping laws are greyer. The advantage of stealth camping is its convenience, but the disadvantage of stealth camping in your car is law enforcement knocking on your door and a possible fine to follow.
What is boondocking?
Boondocking is another common term in the camping space. Boondocking is dispersed camping on public lands without amenities. A lot of car camping is considered boondocking.
Is car camping legal?
Car camping is technically legal, but it depends on where you are. Each state has a different approach to car camping.
Madeleine is a freelance writer and social media manager in the outdoor, gear, and travel space. She loves being buried in the snow, running single-track, and eating gummies next to high alpine lakes. When she’s not writing or traveling, you can find Madeleine in Telluride, Colorado romping around in the San Juans.