In 2021 I decided to go on my first cross-country car-camping road trip. It all started at the end of 2020, when I was getting antsy for adventure after losing my job, booking 6 months of travel, then canceling 6 months of travel to be quarantined for three months. By the end of the year, I decided it was time for a new adventure, and a cross-country car-camping road trip sounded like the perfect new experience. Before this trip, I had never car camped before or thought it would be something I could (or should) do as a solo traveler.
But that didn’t stop me. I rented my condo, stored my stuff, packed up my car, and planned a 12-week road trip across the USA in my 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe. It was a fun, exhilarating yet exhausting trip that I would absolutely do again (but with some changes). I wanted to share my experiences and everything I learned as a beginner car camper in a series of posts to inspire others to get out there and adventure, even if that means going solo.
This post is all about answering the most popular car camping questions I received including, how to shower, where to sleep, what to eat, how much it costs, supplies you need, and more.
Before we dive in, let me answer this question, Why are you car-camping and not staying in hotels, especially as a solo female traveler?
Why Car camp?
Many people told me, “I’d go on a road trip but only if I stayed in hotels.” While the comforts of hot showers, Wi-Fi, and air-conditioners are fantastic, car camping is much easier and cheaper. I loved not having to pack and unpack as I was in a new spot almost every night. It was so nice to wake up to a sunrise right outside my front window without driving hours, and did I mention all the money I saved?
Besides being inexpensive and convenient, car camping allows you to have a more flexible travel schedule. You won’t need to plan as much when you are sleeping in your car; perfect for road trips when you want to hit the road and see what happens. Although it is not for everyone, with all the car-camping and RV resources out there, campgrounds, and big box stores welcoming campers, car camping is really a great way to explore the US.
There were times I was a bit uncertain about safety but I always follow common sense and stick to a list of car-camping safety precautions and have yet to have any safety issues while on the road. In my opinion, car-camping is a very safe way for solo females to travel the country.
How did you plan your route?
Four steps to planning a cross-country road trip
- Decide where to go. I usually choose a trip theme (hiking, waterfalls, lighthouses, towns, National Parks ect.) and go from there
- Research the internet, blogs, and IG hashtags for location ideas, best things to see, and itineraries for each area I am interested in visiting.
- Use Google Maps to highlight and save all desired locations and landmarks + check driving distances
- Use Google Sheets to plug all info into a spreadsheet for easy reference. It works well to ensure you don’t forget where you want to go!
I knew this trip was National Park focused, so I googled “list of all National Parks in the US” and starred each one in my Google maps. Then, I planned a driving route based on this information + took into account what states and towns/cities I wanted to visit and locations where I had friends and family that offered to host me for a few nights.
I did not plan overnight stops way in advance. Instead, I set up a google doc sheet with my overall itinerary, states, cites, landmarks, and parks I wanted to visit. I waited to plan my overnight stays no more than a week in advance to allow for flexibility. I often stayed longer in an area or left earlier than planned because of area closures, weather, or sleeping arrangements.
Here is a link to the google sheet I created to aid with planning.
What sleeping setup do you have?
I have a 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe. I folded the back seats down and built a sleeping platform on one side of the interior to make the trunk/cargo space level. I used a memory foam mattress, a summer weight goose-down comforter, a -15-degree sleeping bag (way too warm) for cold nights, and two very cozy feather pillows.
I still had space for a cooler, rinse kit, large Tupperware, and an additional duffle bag for clothing. I stored toiletry items in a seatback storage organizer and used magnetic mesh coverings over my sunroof for airflow at night.
I also have a storage compartment built into my car’s cargo space where I kept most provisions and kitchen/cooking items.
What did you eat?
Food was one of the easiest things to come by- maybe not all my preferred brands, but there were only a few small towns in the southeast desert, Dakotas, and Mid-west where food sellers were scarce.
Knowing I would be in the middle of nowhere quite a bit, I took a cooler with yogurt, fruit, milk, cottage cheese, and applesauce and stopped for ice every once in a while. I used a Yeti Roadie 24, which worked really well to keep food cold for long periods of time.
I brought a Colman stove (that I only used once to make quesadillas) and a Jet Boil that I used the most to boil water for oatmeal, soups, pasta, and tea.
I frequently ate canned tuna + crackers, PB&J, snack and protein bars, raw veggies + ranch or peanut butter, and salads in a bag. I had plenty of cookies, gummies, and Little Debbies as driving snacks (I never buy those at home, but on the road, it is the perfect road trip sugar high to get me through those 10 hour driving days).
I stopped in towns and tried some local foods (nothing really wowed me except Randy’s sandwich shop in Monterey, CA).
I ate 1-2x a week at Chick-fil-a, McDonald’s, or Dairy Queen. I’m a fan of Spicy Chicken + chick-fil-a sauce, Cheeseburger + honey mustard sauce, and blizzards!
It wasn’t the best diet, and I definitely did not lose any weight, but I never went hungry.
How did you go to the bathroom?
This was probably the biggest thing I wanted to be prepared for, only to realize 98% of the time there is nothing to worry about.
Gas Stations, grocery stores, visitor centers, campsites, fast food restaurants, parks all had public toilets. Some were vault toilets, but there was always someplace to “go.”
Optional bathroom supplies
- A hand trowel
- Portable & collapsible toilet
- Tidy Care commode liners
- Go anywhere toilet kits
- Flushable toilet wipes
I brought all of the above only to use the wipes and three of the Tidy Care commode liners the entire trip. When on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, you are meant to dig a hole or use the Go Anywhere kits (i never stayed in one place long enough to need them). When in public parking lots like Walmart and Bass Pro, I got a little more creative if I had to go during the night.
There is no privacy in a large open parking lot, so I had to squat on my front seat and go in the absorbent liner bags (only happened three times during the road trip. It turns the liquid into gel. I placed the bag on the outside of my car and threw it away in the am. I don’t recommend it, but without any other options, it worked well.
Did you take showers?
I will never take a hot shower for granted again! The longest I went without a shower during my car-camping road trip was 3 days. When the weather is cool, it’s really not a problem because I’m not sweating, but if I’m hiking and sweating and it’s 90 degrees out, we got a problem.
Flying J Truckstops have pay for showers ($12-$14) that are really nice, but they are mainly off of major interstates. I found enough campgrounds and YMCA centers with clean showers for purchase ($3-$10). I used google maps and iOverlander to search for shower locations but only needed to pay for three showers during my trip.
I also have a Rinse Kit that acts as a portable shower, although I’ve never used it as one. I only used the rinse kit to clean dishes, wash my face, hands and brush my teeth. It has a 2-gallon tub with a pressurized hose and multi-spray nozzle and even has a heating option. One tank lasted me about two weeks with the nozzle on mist mode.
Weren’t you scared?
I’ve gotten this question a lot, and initially, I wasn’t sure how to answer it.
To me, being scared is more or less anxiety about the unknown. I don’t want that kind of fear to stop me from doing anything new. I don’t want fear to make decisions for me. If you’re too scared to do something, you’re not choosing for yourself; you are letting fear decide for you. If I let fear creep in, the anxiety of the unknown always wins.
There were plenty of things I wasn’t sure about, but I knew if I let fear stop me, I’d be more disappointed than if I just went for it. So no, I wasn’t scared. Instead, I was uncertain but also more excited than anything else.
How did you know where to park overnight?
This one was tricky. I wanted to sleep for free during my cross-country car-camping road trip as much as I could, so I used iOverlander + Freecampsites.net as my go-to apps to find safe places to park overnight. 90% of the time, I didn’t have a problem, but there were times when I wasn’t sure if I was legally parked, which didn’t help me sleep.
KOAs and state and national park campsites are great options when car camping. They cost money, and some state and national parks work on a lottery system and may book out 6 months to a year in advance. It just requires some searching and planning if you want to stick to campgrounds. Even though they cost more, most developed campgrounds have bathroom facilities, running water, and sometimes showers. It was also easier to sleep at night when I know I was parked legally and safely in a developed campground.
I focused on public parking lots in big box stores (Walmart, Bass Pros) and 24-hour casinos known to welcome campers to save money. State laws and regulations are all different when it comes to overnight parking, so reading the signs, researching, and asking before you park is recommended. Sometimes people get away with parking in a “no overnight parking zone,” other times you wake up to a note on your windshield, or you may be fined after a loud knock on your car door (this only happened to me once, I wasn’t fined but asked to leave).
Stores that welcome car campers and RVs
- Camping World
- Bass Pro Shops
- Cracker Barrell
- 24 hour casinos
Apps/sites for finding free and paid-for campsites:
What was your favorite place you went to?
One of the most popular questions I continue to get is this one. This is the hardest one to answer because everything is always so unique it is hard to compare. But for the sake of answering, I narrowed down my favorites and feel comfortable saying,
- White Sands National Park in Alamogordo, NM at sunset was my favorite experience
- Favorite town to revisit would be Jackson Hole, WY or the unique western town of Tombstone
- Favorite National Parks I would go to again, Yosemite, Grand Tetons, White Sands, Badlands
- The most surprising state would be Iowa- yes there are farmlands as far as the eye can see but the farmlands here felt homier and they have some awesome cave parks, (Maquoketa Caves, Crystal Lake and Wapsipinicon State Park). In addition a few famous movies were filmed here (The bridges of Madison County and Field of Dreams) and you can still visit the movie sets and shooting locations.
What places would you not go back to?
I visited 23 states on my cross-country car-camping road trip, and truthfully there is nowhere I would not go back to. The US is so big! I did not even scratch the surface of everything to see in each state.
Many states surprised me with some amazing experiences unique to each state; here are a few of the standouts.
- Arkansas: Hot Springs National Park, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (both free), Fort Smith National Historic Site
- Mississippi: Gulf Islands National Seashore, Vicksburg National Military Park, Elvis Presley’s Birthplace & museum, Natchez Trace Parkway
- Nebraska: Carhenge, Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff National Monument, Sandhill Crane Migration (Spring & Fall)
- Kansas: Syracuse Sand Dunes, Cedar Bluff State Park, Cosmosphere, Flint Hills
- Oklahoma: Iconic Route 66, Pops 66 Diner, Arcadia Round Barn, Blue Whale of Catoosa, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
- Iowa: Maqueta Caves State Park, covered bridges from the movie “Bridges of Madison County”, the Field of Dreams Movie set from the academy-winning movie of the same name, home of the house that inspired the famous Grant Wood painting “American Gothic”
What supplies did you buy?
I bought many things for my car-camping road trip, some things I didn’t use but some I would never car camp without. See my notes in the table below and read “13 Must-Have Items for your Car Camping Packing List” for a more detailed list of supplies I can’t car camp without.
Car Camping Supply List (with costs)
|Item||Cost||Would I rebuy it?|
|Jackery 300 portable power station||$200||Yes! I charged my phone and laptop a lot faster than the car|
|Jackery Solar Panels||$180||No, never used, and they are slow to charge|
|Rinse Kit Plus||$180||Yes, a must for teeth brushing and washing my face daily|
|Folding table||$40||No, I never used it. Great for a tent camping set up|
|Folding memory foam mattress||$80||Yes, this one was so comfortable|
|Folding chair||Free (borrowed)||No, I never used it. Great for tent camping|
|Bed Platform||$50||Yes, it’s a must to have a level sleeping area|
|Sleeping bag (-15 degrees)||$140||Yes, but I didn’t need it this warm. I was sweating during the 30 degree nights|
|Coleman camp stove||$60||No, I didn’t use it enough. Only for tent camping|
|Wild Wind Camping Stove||$50||Yes! The best thing for heating water in under 5 mins|
|Wool Blanket||$50||No, I never used it. The sleeping bag was enough|
|Luna LED Mirror||$40||No, I never used it.|
|headlamps + lanterns||$20||Yes! A must, great for the car and walking to the bathroom at night|
|Yeti 24 Roadie Cooler||$200||Yes! The best brand to keep items colder longer|
|Cooler dry storage trays||$25||No, not a must-have item|
|Yeti Cooler Ice pack||$20||No, I didn’t get a chance to freeze it up often|
|Tool for recycling fuel canisters||$10||No, I never used it.|
|Tarp||Free (borrowed)||No, I never used it. Good for tent camping though|
|Tent||$70||No, I never used it. Good for tent camping though|
|Waterproof Blanket||$40||Yes, even though I only used it two times. It is great for wet ground to sit on|
|large clear Tupperware||$5||Yes, clear is the best to store things to find things easily|
|Portable battery-operated fan||$17||Yes, a must for airflow while sleeping (bought after I started the trip)|
|Window Covers||$20||Yes, a must-have for privacy and blocking light|
|Backseat car storage bag||$30||Yes, it worked great to put my toiletries in|
|Hand Trowel||$17||No, I never used it. Great for wild camping|
|Body wipes||$20||Yes! The best for no shower days|
|Collapsible sink basin||$8||Yes, great for washing dishes, face, and teeth daily|
|Fuel Canisters||$40||Yes, but I bought way too many (6). I only used 1|
|Camping kitchen supplies (silverware, lighter, pots, pans, storage, etc.)||$50||Yes, but I didn’t use all of it. You only need one of everything, then wash it|
|Emergency supplies + miscellaneous||$30||I never used my 1st aid kit or medicine|
|Sky Roam WiFi Device + 3-month service||$120||It hardly ever worked! 🙁|
|Total Cost of Supplies||$1792||wow, it turns out it’s more than I thought!|
Must-have car camping supplies:
You will need to invest in a few supplies while on a car-camping road trip. These items are necessary to make your home on wheels a bit more comfortable. You can rough it but when you are already sleeping in your car, spending the extra money on these items was well worth it in the long run.
- Comfortable bed-level wood platform, sleeping bag for cold nights, sheet, comforter and two feather pillows
- Jackery portable battery power– this worked like a charm and kept my phone, cameras and computer charged up for at least a week with one full charge of the system
- Drinking water canister– Must have plenty of drinking water!
- Rinse Kit- Additional water for dishes, washing my hands, face, and teeth is necessary and the Rinse Kit just makes storing and using “washing” water so convenient.
- Window coverings are a must to keep light out, help hide your gear, and give you privacy during the night. I made mine from insulation I bought at Home depot but Weather Tech custom makes coverings for practically any car on the market.
- Cooler-this isn’t a must if you don’t want to eat or drink cold food but there is something about ice cold drinks that really brighten my day so for me a cooler is a must-have when car camping.
- Portable battery-operated fan– I needed this when I didn’t have it and I regret not getting one sooner. A fan for increased air flow would have made some of my sleepless nights much more comfortable.
How much did the trip cost?
My one mistake with expenses is not setting a supply budget at the beginning. I thought I would be saving money by sleeping in my car and thought I should buy everything I might need regardless of cost. If I had a supply budget, it might have prevented me from buying unnecessary things.
- Gas $1,300 for 10,000 miles
- Food $1,000
- Hotel 400,000 Hilton points + $1,135
- Supplies $1,800 on camping/car supplies
- Car Maintenance $740 before I left (but I would have done this anyways)
- Tolls/Parking + Park entrance Fees $200 (I used the $80 a year America the beautiful National Park Pass)
How do you take your own photos?
As a solo traveler, I am forever taking selfies with a tripod in hand. Taking your own photos takes time and patience, and there are many times I can’t get “the shot,” mostly because I can’t prop a tripod floating in the air. I am often forced to be more creative in the shots I do capture.
- Wake up early– seriously the easiest way to beat the crowds and have locations all to yourself. It’s a lot less intimidating to get the shots you want w/o a bunch of people watching you try.
- Sturdy tri-pod– I use a Gitzo travel tripod for my phone or mirrorless camera and a Smatree Smapole collapsible selfie stick for phone or GoPro both with a cell phone holder attachment.
- Bluetooth remote– The real secret. These are a must. They allow you to wirelessly connect to your phone or camera to remotely press the shutter button up to over 300 feet away.
I have a few generic ($5) remotes from Amazon for my phone that allows me to be up to 15-30 feet away, and then I use a Vello free wave plus $50 for the mirrorless camera that allows me to be 300 feet away from my camera and still take a photo.
Many cameras now connect to an app on your phone and you that acts as a remote shutter; however, the Bluetooth remote is by far the easiest and most reliable way to take a photo of yourself without pressing the camera’s shutter button.
The last thing you should learn how to do is edit your photos. Editing helps photos come to life as many scenes don’t translate as well through a lens.
My favorite photo editing apps
- Snapseed– I use the double exposure function in this app the most to layer photos on top of each other, it’s free
- Lightroom– my go to color editing app. I pay $9.99 a month for the desktop version but the mobile app version is free
- Touch retouch is the app I use the most to remove people or objects such as trash cans or dirty spots on the street. $1.99 and so worth it!
What mistakes did you make?
As much as I enjoyed my car camping adventure, it was still a learning experience. However, there are a few things I would do differently.
- Pay to sleep at campgrounds more-I really wanted to sleep for free each night to stretch my savings but in some cases, I was not sure what the car camping rules were and I did not get a good night’s sleep thinking about whether I was parked legally or not. If I would have paid $20-$40 dollars to park at a campground, I would have gotten a much better night’s rest. It is hard to pay for a campground with no amenities, but in retrospect, I think the payoff would have been worth it.
- Use a fan for airflow while car sleeping-many locations were hotter than I expected and some nights had rainfall. I usually kept my sunroof open with a magnetic mesh overlay, but staying comfortable on those warm or rainy nights was tough. In the future, I will car camp with a battery-operated fan and avoid hot temperatures for optimal comfort.
- Covering too much ground- I wanted to see it all but shouldn’t have planned to see so much when I knew I needed to be back in NY at a certain time. I felt rushed and tired at the end of the trip, causing me to skip out on a few states I now regret.
- Not bringing enough water- I had enough drinking water, but I should have planned to get more for dishes, washing my face and brushing my teeth. I was worried to run out of water which forced me to eat more junk food so I wouldn’t have to waste water on dishes and dehydrated foods.
- Buying too many supplies- I thought of it all but didn’t end up using it all. I wish I would have bought some items (Jackery solar charger, pop-up toilet, wool blanket, multiple fuel canisters) if I needed them rather than upfront. I have plenty of space in my car to store everything but it would have been nice to save some money on unnecessary supplies.
Would you do it again?
YES! I still have to make it back to FL. I’m planning another car-camping road trip beginning in October from NY. I’m driving through the northeast during fall foliage season before I make my down south through some of the last 7 states I have yet to visit (DE, WV, KY) and a few more I’m anxious to go back to (NC, TN, VT, CT). I plan to car camp the whole way for at least 30 days straight, ending back home in Miami, FL.
As scary as trying something new can be, I’m proof that having the courage to do something out of your comfort zone (as long as you are prepared) can be a great decision. My first cross-country road trip as a solo female traveler was an incredible experience I am happy to have had. Car camping is a fun and safe way to travel the US and has helped me explore more of my home country than I ever would have otherwise. It may be just the experience you need to start living the life of your dreams.
If you are thinking about going on a car camping road trip and would like more tips on making this kind of trip work best for you, please leave your questions in the comment section below! I’d love to help you plan a wonderful experience so you feel more confident on your cross-country car-camping road trip.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this article. If you are interested in learning more about car camping and road trips, look at my other road trip articles in the links below. Also, if you have any questions, please ask in the comments. I am always happy to help in any way I can! Follow me on Instagram @Seeing__Sam and subscribe to my email list to stay up to date on all my adventures.
More posts you might like:
- How to Plan a Cross-Country Car Camping Road Trip
- 13 Important Car Camping Safety Tips for Solo Female Travelers
- How to comfortably sleep in a car while car-camping
- 13 Must-Have items for your Car Camping Packing List (+FREE Checklist)
- 49 Essentials for your road trip packing list you can’t travel without (+FREE Checklist)