Top 10 Essentials You Don’t Want To Car Camp Without

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It can be overwhelming to know what to pack when car camping, especially if it’s your first-time. 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 essentials and car camping packing lists only to find they were all different, and the amount of things these guides said to pack was more overwhelming than the trip itself, not to mention expensive.

I ended up buying 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 on public lands which I was not doing at the time. I was sleeping in public parking lots most of the time, moving around frequently through small towns and across highways. You don’t need to bring traditional camping gear for this kind of car camping. Some purchases were worth the cost, but in retrospect, I could have gotten by with much less.

In this post, I’m sharing my car-camping essentials and the items I rarely used, but you might find helpful on your next camping trip. The best thing about the car camping essentials is that your investment will last for years to come. You will be able to use the big ticket items on this packing list repeatedly on your next car camping trip or adventure into the great outdoors. 

What is Car Camping?

The biggest thing to consider when packing for a car camping road trip is, what kind of car camping will you be doing. 

There are a few different answers to the question, What is car camping?  This post dives a little deeper into answering that question.

In short, car camping means either sleeping inside your car parked legally (in a neighborhood, at a Walmart, Cracker Barrel, travel center or public land) or driving up to a campsite and sleeping in a tent next to your car. There are major differences between sleeping in a tent and sleeping in a car and the gear you need is also different. 

Car Camping is a great way to bring heavier items. Set up a full camp site complete with camp kitchen, big tents and plenty of space to spread out and is a perfect way to introduce someone to camping. Since I mostly travel solo, I never set up a full on camp site while car camping. I try to be discrete and not advertise that I am solo.  Unless I am at a National Park, I usually sleep in parking lots and explore new areas during the day and drive somewhere new at night just to sleep inside my car. 

In this post, I’ll touch on what to pack for both kinds of car camping. 

The Car Camping Essentials

If you are car camping at a campsite, in a state park, on BLM (bureau of land management) public land or in national parks, you will need to bring more camping essentials including a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, camp stoves, camp chairs, a tent, and table if a picnic table is not available. 

When I car camp, I sleep inside my car and am usually only in the same place for a night or two. I don’t set up a full campsite and hardly ever use a tent, sleeping bag, table, chair or propane stove. I’d love to stay in more state parks and national parks but because I do not plan far enough in advance, I miss out on many campsites inside the parks. Some require bookings months in advance. 

If booking a campsite in a state park or national park, I always look for a drive up campsite which tells me my car is next to the tent site. In some developed campgrounds and national parks, you are not allowed to sleep in your car even with a tent site reservation. I am not sure how strict they are with enforcing this rule, but I know it exists at certain parks.

Fresh Water 

Fresh water is a must-have survival item and at the top of my car camping essentials 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. I bring a 32 oz refillable water bottle that is leak proof as well and a hydration day pack and collapsible water bottle for hiking. I recently purchased the 40oz Hydro Flask All Around Travel Tumbler and love it for long car rides. It is not leak proof so it is best used while in the car, not while hiking or putting in a bag or backpack.

Rinse Kit

I also use a 3.5 gallon Rinse Kit, a portable pressurized water system that can be used for a variety of washing needs. I mainly use it for washing hands, face, brushing teeth and rinsing dishes. Although it was initially designed for showering while camping, I’ve never used it as a shower. I don’t take daily showers while camping but I do wash my face and brush my teeth 2x a day. To get a full shower, I drive to a Planet Fitness gym a few times a week. 

The Rinse Kit has become one of my top car camping essentials to help me stay fresh while on the road. 

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Cooking Supplies

You may want a full on camp kitchen set up if you are car camping at a campsite for a long time. A portable propane stove is a great option for a campsite set up.

Since I move frequently and often eat on the go, I now rely on my travel size electric kettle and cooler the most and I enjoy tasing the local cuisine when traveling through new cities so rarely use a propane stove, but if you do not have access to electricity, a propane stove is the best option. 

Jet Boil Mini Cooking System

Very portable, great for heating water and cooking small portion sizes. You have to purchase a small propane tank and use a lighter to cook.

Dual Burner Propane Camping Stove

I have this compact double burner camping stove, (that I never use) best for sautéing and preparing larger portions. You have to buy propane tank and use a lighter to cook.

Electric Kettle

I recently purchased this portable kettle so I could heat water inside my car quickly. I use it in the morning for oatmeal and dehydrated soups and noodles, it works great in combination with my Jackery portable power system. You have to plug it in to use it so you could also use your car battery with a outlet converter. Just make sure to purchase one that works with the watts and voltage of what you want to use it for.

Java Drip

For those of you that can’t survive without coffee, try the AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Press. I can’t vouch for it as I do not drink coffee, but one thing my backpacking friends love. 

If you plan on cooking your own food, don’t forget the kitchen utensils. You can absolutely cook gourmet while camping if you want to, just bring a burner stove and add all of these must-have kitchen utensils. It is also good to have a water source nearby to make clean-up a breeze. You’ll need a flat surface to set your stove on, picnic tables are usually available at campgrounds but if you are car camping in the back county you need to bring your own portable table. 

Food

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.

On the Go car camping foods

If you are setting up camp with a camp stove then your food list will look a bit different. When I stay for longer trips at campgrounds I use my camp stove, and Wild Wind water boiler to make some delicious and easy car camping meals. I’m working on a blog post with some of my favorite easy car camping meals that should be live in two weeks. 

Yeti Roadie 24 Cooler

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 bought a Yeti Roadie 24 after trying a few other brands and sizes. This one fit perfectly behind my front seat when pulled forward to give additional space, and has a fabric handle which made it easy to fold down. I store yogurt, drinks, fruit, vegetables, cheese, milk and hard boiled eggs in my cooler.

At first I used it with the Yeti ice pack to help keep it cool, but the ice packs need to be re-frozen often, and since that is not possible while car camping, I stopped using it.

I also purchased two Yeti cooler dry baskets which are really helpful when the ice starts to melt. They keep things elevated from the water so they don’t become water logged but still stay cool. I bought two but only need one. Two does not fit when my cooler is full. 

UPDATE: While I still use my Roadie 24 on every road trip, I’ve started to use it to store dry food (anything that does not need refrigeration) because dealing with ice become a pain. To keep food cool I started using an Icemule Back Pack cooler. Although, it does not hold as much, it makes emptying ice a lot easier.

Bedding and Sleeping Pad 

To make the car camping experience better, I recommend using a comfortable mattress, blanket, sleeping bag, cozy pillows, and a bed platform. All of these things work together to make sure you get a good night’s sleep.

I used a DIY bed platform to make a level sleeping area in my car. The 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 the size of 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 air mattresses and less bulky sleeping pads great for tent camping. 

To keep warm in temperatures in the 30s and below, I use a 20 degree sleeping bag but I only need a sheet and summer weight blanket when temperatures are warmer.

Pillows are my favorite things so I use two regular size feather pillows when sleeping in a car. Because you are covered, you don’t have to worry about early morning dew or rain destroying your favorite pillow, so if you are a pillow person like me and you want to sleep in a car comfortably, bring as many cozy pillows as you want.

If you are sleeping in a tent, and don’t want to use a fabric pillow consider a blow up camping pillow or this popular HEST Camp Pillow.

Window Coverings

Another must-have item on my car camping packing list are black-out window coverings. These are important for a few reasons, window coverings help block out light, regulate inside air temperature, add privacy and help protect against theft.

I DIY-ed by cutting a pattern of my window shape from newspaper and then cut out the shapes from Double Reflective Insulation I found at Home Depot. I spray painted one side black and secured them to the windows with duck tape. For a more refined approach, check out Weathertech. They custom-make window shades for every car on the market. 

Pro Tip: After a few car camping trips the spray paint begins to peel and flake off of the window coverings. You may want to glue fabric to one side to avoid the tiny specks of spray paint that get everywhere. I also learned that a thicker insulation is best as they fit snugly into the windows without having to use duck tape to secure them but the thicker cut is hard to find. You can also cut the insulation out slightly larger than the window to help hold them in place.

Airflow Device

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 have a magnetic mesh sunroof covering that is great at preventing bugs from flying in while giving a little fresh air. However, airflow is still a struggle, especially on warm, humid nights (I don’t recommend car camping in hot temperatures). I also have mesh window coverings. These work by rolling your window down which gives a breeze but also lets in light and noise. I only use these when I sleep in a dark quiet place. Public parking lots and Travel Centers are just too noisy.

I use this portable fan the most during warm temperatures. I really don’t need it often because I prefer to car camp in cold temperatures. 

Portable Power Device

If you are planning a long road trip and want to bring some electronics with you, you should pack a portable battery. I love the Jackery 500. It is great for one person and works 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 lasts for days with multiple phone and computer charges. For reference, my electric kettle burns bout 10% charge each time I use it. 

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! The Jackery also comes with and optional solar panel in different sizes to charge itself. I purchased these but have never used them. They are great for anyone camping long term with direct sunlight otherwise they are extremely slow to charge.  Since I am able to re-charge my Jackery 500 while driving I didn’t need the solar panel. If you are camping for a few days without the ability to charge up the Jackery you might want to go with a lager power like the 1000.

Lighting Source

I love a hands-free headlamp, but I also use these pop-up lanterns and this solar-powered lantern. I hang them with an S hook to the handrail in my car for easy access or set them on a picnic table when eating. 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. They are also great for 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 car protection and personal safety items I carry with me on my car camping road trips; but the most important thing is to have your car serviced regularly. 

  • AAA Membership
  • Flat tire kit
  • Jumper Cable or Battery Starter
  • Car user manual
  • Bear Spray
  • Mace
  • First aid Kit
  • Offline Google Maps or paper maps

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.

Personal Hygiene Items

Thanks to my Rinse Kit and gym membership, showers and staying fresh and clean while car camping is a lot easier. Some car campers may not mind that gritty “natural” feeling, but I can not go too long without a shower before it becomes unbearable if its warm outside or I have been sweating. I usually never go more than three days without a shower, but when showers aren’t possible, I use the following items and a Rinse Kit to keep myself feeling fresh while camping.

I have a stash of Go Anywhere Bags, just in case. I’ve only used them a few times over three years but if I am in a parking lot (no bushes or forest around) and have to go to the bathroom so bad in the middle of the night and there are no public restrooms open I have no other choice. 

Handy Tools

The following items are a few little things that always seems to come in handy. 

  • Bendable wire
  • Duct tape
  • Bug Spray
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Scissors 
  • Extra batteries

Recap of my Top 10+ Car Camping Essentials

I explained a lot, so here is a recap of what I always pack for my car camping road trips. Remember, these items work best for me because I sleep inside my car in public lots or developed campgrounds and do not go to one remote location for long periods of time.

  1. 5 Gallon refillable water jug or this more budget-friendly option
  2. Rinse Kit 3.5 Gallon
  3. Yeti Roadie 24 Cooler + one dry basket
  4. Electric Kettle
  5. Jackery 500
  6. Memory Foam mattress on a sleeping platform
  7. Pillows 
  8. Sleeping bag or comforter (depending on weather)
  9. Reusable kitchen utensil kit
  10. Black-out window covers
  11. Hands free headlamp or lantern
  12. Bear Spray + First Aid Kit
  13. Biodegradable body wipes
  14. Go Anywhere Bags

Remote Car Camping Checklist

This checklist covers the items you will need if you are car camping at a remote campsite or on BLM land for multiple nights without access to supplies. 

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. 

***

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. 

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10 Comments

  1. Jonathan David Rossi says:

    hey are you still out there patrolling the world?

    1. Still out there road tripping across the country! Looking forward to another fall road trip this year, but this time I’m heading west

  2. Your article has inspired me to plan a car camping trip with my kids this summer. I’m excited to create lasting memories in the great outdoors at a campsite near manila

    1. Samantha Stamps says:

      That is so wonderful to hear! Thanks for sharing and I hope you have an amazing time, making a ton of life long memories! I know I sure have 🙂

  3. Hi, my name is Wahab, and I am a camper for 3 years now. Your guide on car camping packing list is so effective for campers and me Aswell packing was like headache to me. Thank you so much.

    1. Samantha Stamps says:

      I am so glad to hear that article was helpful! It can be overwhelming, but the more you do it the easier it gets!

  4. Hello! This is a great article it’s exactly all the info I need as a solo female about to start this journey. Thank you!

    1. Oh I am so glad this article is helpful to you! Have a great experience. Feel free to reach out with any questions!

  5. Just found your site today, love the practical advice you offer. Our family (of 3) have car camped out of our 2005 Prius and it was great! We could leave the a/c on overnight and it did not take a gas hit. We had a full tank when we went to sleep (around 9pm) and woke up (around 8am) with still a full tank of gas. We’d loved it! Our round trip was 21 days from Texas to New York and back to Texas. We were so stressless and just took our time. It was truly wonderful and we plan to do it again going the other way. Thank you for your site! Very useful information!

    1. WOW what a trip! I am so glad you found my site helpful. It sounds like you are a car camping pro. I never leave my air on but I now only car camp when its cold enough out so I don’t need it either. I hope you continue with your road trips! Some of my best memories are from road trips with my family when I was young. Cheers!

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