It can be overwhelming to know what to include on a car camping packing list, especially if it’s your first-time car camping. I had no idea what I was doing when I first started car camping, but it is amazing what you pick up when forced to learn by doing.
When I was packing for my first cross-country car-camping road trip, I scoured the internet for weeks searching for the perfect car camping packing list only to find they were all different, and the amount of stuff these guides said to bring was more overwhelming than the trip itself, not to mention expensive.
I ended up bringing a lot of car camping gear and did not use hardly any of it. I learned that a lot of the suggested gear was best suited for tent camping or backcountry car camping which I did not do. If you are on a road trip and car camping through states and cities and moving around frequently on highways and state roads, you don’t need to bring traditional camping gear as more amenities are available while driving. Some purchases were worth the cost, but in retrospect, I could have gotten by with much less.
In this post, you will learn what items are at the top of my car-camping packing list. These items are worth the cost and can be used multiple times. Remember, your initial investment will stretch a long way if you end up car camping frequently.
What is Car Camping?
It depends on who you ask. In my opinion car camping is when you sleep in your car. Some people consider car camping to mean sleeping in a tent next to your car, but I consider sleeping in a tent camping, not car-camping. There are major differences between sleeping in a tent and sleeping in a car. The gear you need is also vastly different.
When I car-camp, I move from place to place quickly and usually only park somewhere for a night or two if it is a great area to explore. I prefer to keep moving and find convenient areas to park overnight along the route to avoid backtracking and setting up “camp” only to take it down the next day. I am rarely at developed campgrounds (on purpose) and actually feel safer parked in a public lot or a random spot on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land than most campgrounds.
What to Pack for Car Camping
In this guide, I’ll be sticking to my version of car camping (sleeping in your car) and sharing all my favorite car camping gear to make your next car camping experience one you won’t forget for all the right reasons. These are my go-to must-have car camping supplies, and some add a little bit of luxury to the experience.
The Car Camping Necessities
Water is a must-have survival item and should be at the top of everyone’s car camping packing list. Drinking at least 2 liters (about 64oz) of water a day is recommended, especially in hotter climates. I always bring a refillable 5-gallon jug and refill at grocery stores or campsites with potable water as needed.
Bring extra water for washing hands, face, brushing teeth, and even showering. I use a Rinse Kit on my road trips that hold 2 gallons of portable pressurized water that I strictly use for these reasons. The Rinse Kit fits nicely on one of my seats and lasts me about 2 weeks or more before I need to refill it. It is the number one tool I use to shower while camping so I can stay clean, fresh, and stay happy while camping longer.
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Don’t forget to add food to your car camping packing list. I have tried many different food and snack options throughout my road trips and finally narrowed down my favorite brands. I often stop in towns to try local foods but stick to the below when that isn’t an option. I use many dehydrated foods (add boiling water) or pre-cooked meal packets because when I am on the road, I love quick, easy, and no clean-up meals to leave more time to explore.
Easy car camping foods
- Dehydrated soups
- Boxed soups (refrigerate after opening)
- Maya Kaimal Foods, precooked Everday Dal
- Good to Go Food Kits
- Snack Bars
- Protein Cookies
- Gummy Bears
- Tuna Lunch Kits
If traveling off the beaten path, add a Jet Boil or Wild Wind outdoor cooking system to your car camping packing list. I use a Wild Wind stove (a knockoff Jet Boil) to heat water for soups, noodles, and tea a few times a week. It boils water in 5-ish minutes (advertised 2mins, but I always waited at least 5mins for 1-2cups) and works great for heating small amounts of leftovers.
In addition to the jet boil, I brought a compact double burner camping stove that I only used once. I wanted to avoid washing dishes but really didn’t need both. I love the Wild Wind for on-the-go car camping since it’s more compact, but the stove is great for longer camping stays or wanting to cook specific foods that fit better in a pan, such as quesadillas or eggs.
For those of you that can’t survive without coffee, try the GSI Java drip or the classic stay hot French Press. I can’t vouch for them as I do not drink coffee, but these are two options my backpacking friends love.
If you like cold drinks like me, a well-made cooler is a must. I was tempted to skip this one to save space in my car (and money), but I am glad I didn’t. Instead, I brought a Yeti Roadie 24 after trying a few other brands and sizes. This one fit perfectly behind my front seat and has a fabric handle which made it easy to fold down. I stored yogurt, drinks, fruit, vegetables, cheese, and eggs in my cooler with the yeti ice pack. The ice pack helps keep ice frozen, but it needs to be refrozen often, and since that is not possible while car camping, I will switch it out for only ice in the future.
Pro Tip: Coolers work better if you chill them before use. I loaded my Yeti Roadie with a 1lb of ice 72 hours before I needed it. Then, before I left, I dumped the old ice and replaced it with fresh ice to keep my food chilled longer.
If you plan on cooking your own food, don’t forget the kitchen utensils. Most of the time, I usually stick to my Wild Wind, but if you want to cook gourmet while car camping, you absolutely can! Bring a burner stove and add all of these must-have kitchen utensils to your car camping packing list. It is also good to have a water source nearby to make clean-up a breeze.
- Foldable Table to set a stove on
- Collapsible chair
- Portable stove + fuel + lighter
- Reusable Mess kit:
- Includes: plate, bowl, utensils, mug
- Frying pan
- Cooking utensil set
- Paring knife or knife set
- Cutting Board
- Reusable bags (for food scraps or leftovers)
- Biodegradable dish soap
- Towels, napkins, or paper towels
- Camping cookware sets
- Camping utensil sets or try this all-in-one cooking set
Comfort Must Haves for Car Camping
When car-camping, you can afford to have little luxuries to make your experience more comfortable. Using a comfortable mattress, blanket, sleeping bag, cozy pillows (I prefer feathers), and a bed platform are some of the best items to add to your car camping packing list for optimal comfort.
I used a DIY bed platform to make a level sleeping area as my car (2010 Hyundai Santa Fe) has foldable back seats that do not lay completely flat. I tried sleeping with the incline, but it was not comfortable.
Depending on your car, you may or may not need a sleeping platform, but you will need a comfortable mattress. I chose a foldable memory foam mattress that I cut down to size. It was incredibly comfortable, but there are many options, including blow-up mattresses and less bulky sleeping pads.
During my US west road trip, temps varied from 20 degrees F to 70 degrees F overnight. I used a 20 degree sleeping bag on the cold nights that kept me very warm, but I only needed a sheet and summer weight blanket when temperatures rose into the 70s.
As far as pillows, don’t skimp when sleeping in your car. Bring as many as you need to feel comfortable (and have the room for). I use two feather pillows that stay cold and mold so well to my body. When sleeping in a car, you don’t have to worry about early morning dew or rain destroying your favorite pillow, so if you are a pillow person and you want to sleep in a car comfortably, bring as many cozy pillows as you can.
Another must-have item on my car camping packing list is black-out window coverings. These are important for a few reasons, window coverings help block out light, regulate inside air temperature, and add privacy to help protect against theft.
I DIY-ed with roll-up insulation from home depot and black spray paint and secured them with duck tape. For a more refined approach, check out Weathertech. They custom-make window shades for every car on the market.
If you want to sleep comfortably in a car, add mesh window coverings or a portable fan to your car camping packing list. These are the best ways to increase airflow when your car is parked and keep you comfortable through the night. Idling the engine or, worse, leaving your keys in the ignition to crank the A/C are two things you should never do. You’ll be breathing in the dirty exhaust, wasting gas and oil, and draining your car battery.
I used to use a magnetic mesh sunroof covering that is great at preventing bugs from flying in. However, airflow was still a struggle, especially on warm, humid nights (I don’t recommend car camping in hot temperatures). However, once I started using a fan, I slept so much better.
Portable Power Device
If you are planning a long road trip and want to bring some electronics with you, a portable battery power should absolutely be on the top of your car camping packing list. I love using the Jackery 300. It worked like a champ charging a phone, camera, lab top, and other small devices simultaneously and fast. The Jackery’s compact size fits so well in my car, and its charge lasted for at least a week with multiple phone and computer charges. I almost didn’t spend the money on this one, but I tested charging my devices on my car power outlets, and it took them so long to charge that I knew I needed a better way. The Jackery was it!
I always add plenty of lights to my car camping packing list. Of course, I love a hands-free headlamp, but I also use these pull-up lanterns and this solar-powered lantern. I hang them with an S hook to the handrail in my car for easy access. These lanterns are compact but come in handy to illuminate your car in the evening when your window shades are up, plus the LED light lasts for ages. Lanterns are also necessary when hiking at night or walking to a campground bathroom in the dark.
Safety Must Haves for Car Camping
You never know what you will run into, so of course, it’s always best to be prepared. Here are a few popular car protection and personal safety items I (almost) always add to my car camping packing list.
- AAA Membership
- Flat tire kit
- Jumper Cable or Battery Starter
- Car user manual
- Service your vehicle before you hit the road
- Bear Spray
- First Aid Kit
- GPS tracking device (or at least let someone track your phone)
In addition, I follow these car camping safety tips. As a solo female traveler, it’s imperative to be aware of your surroundings and always have a plan B if plan A doesn’t feel right. Besides a dead battery and flat tires, I’ve never had any real car trouble or scary situations while camping. That’s not to say it won’t ever happen but knowing car basics and sticking to a sold safety routine gives me (and my family) peace of mind while on the road.
Paper maps and electronic maps should both be on your car camping packing list. Google Maps is still my go-to GPS and location searching app. I love flagging areas of interest, but you have to download offline maps over strong WiFi for the best experience.
There have been so many times I forget to do this, so I also use offline maps. All Trails and Maps.me are my favorites. All Trails is great for searching for hiking info and Maps.me is best for driving directions.
Personal Hygiene Items
When showers become luxury items, staying fresh and clean can be challenging when car camping out on the road. Some may not mind that gritty “natural” feeling, but I, for one, can not go too long without a shower before it becomes unbearable. I usually never go more than three days without a shower, but when showers aren’t possible, and there isn’t a clean lake or river nearby, I use these hygiene items and a Rinse Kit to keep myself feeling fresh while camping.
- Full Body Wipes
- Deodorant wipes
- Wet wipes
- Biodegradable Campsuds soap
- Environmentally friendly toiletries (face wash, toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion, shampoo)
- Shower shoes
Remember to follow Leave No Trace Principles when camping. To avoid contamination, always bathe at least 200 feet from a water source and use biodegradable soap. Avoid using scented items and environmentally unfriendly materials such as deodorant, perfume, hairspray, and shampoo that contain harmful chemicals such as sodium Laureth sulfate, parabens, phthalates, ammonium chloride, formaldehyde, and fragrances.
Click here to download my Car Camping Packing List
I hope this car camping packing list and PDF checklist are beneficial when planning your next car camping road trip. Some items are pricey, but you will be able to hit the road many times to come with your initial investment.
If you aren’t sure if car camping is for you, this article “15 most popular car camping questions answered” has some great insight into what it is like on the road. I love how easy, freeing, and inexpensive car camping can be. Of course, it is not for everyone, but car-camping is an adventure and an experience you may not realize you love until you try it.
If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below. Also, check out my additional car camping and road trip guides to better understand what life is like on the road!