How to Plan a Cross Country Car Camping Road Trip

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If you told me a year ago, I’d be planning a cross-country car-camping road trip; I wouldn’t have believed you, but now all I seem to be planning are car-camping road trips.

If you are new here, you might not know I lost my corporate job in early 2020 and after a dreadful job search, I decided to take some time off and travel for a few months. Unfortunately, after booking six months of international solo travel, the COVID pandemic happened, which forced me into plan B. I ended up laying low in upstate NY for half the year.

At the end of 2020, my wanderlust was still burning bright, so I decided I had to get back out there in the “safest” and most convenient way possible. I always wanted to take an RV across the US, visit all 63 National Parks, and explore all 50 US states, and I thought now is the time. I still wasn’t convinced I would be car camping in my 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe, but once I realized car camping was the only way to travel cross country on the budget I had, I was committed to planning my first cross-country car-camping road trip. My route took me over 17,000 miles, through 23 states and countless cities. I ended up visiting 23 National Parks and learned so much about car camping and myself.

This post will take you through how I planned and organized every element of my road trip. I’m sharing everything from choosing my supplies, sleeping comfortably, planning the route, road trip costs, the mistakes I made and how I stayed safe along the way. I hope this guide to planning a cross-country car-camping road trip will help inspire you to hit the road and give car camping a fair try!

What is Car Camping?

There are two main ways to answer the question What is Car Camping? Either you drive up to a tent site where you will sleep in a tent next to your car or you actually sleep in you car parked overnight in a number or areas including campsites, public parking lots, or public use land. This post will focus on the latter, because I sleep inside my car when I car camp.

Overview of my car-camping road trip

I left Miami on March 1, 2021, and drove to the west coast of Florida. I stayed in Tampa with my family for two weeks while building my bed platform, setting up my car, and testing out my camping supplies. I was off by 7 am on March 25th and made it to Mobile, Alabama, for my first car camping night at a Bass Pro parking lot.

I spent 73 consecutive nights on the road (March 25th-June 7th, Tampa, FL to Redwood, NY). I did not car camp the entire time. I slept in my car 50% of the time and stayed with family or in hotels when I was desperate for WIFI, a hot shower, or air-conditioning while I slept the other 50% of the time.

Since my first road trip, I have learned a Black Card pass to Planet Fitness is the best way to score hot showers for cheap. I’ve also learned sleeping in my car when its 60+ degrees is pretty unbearable for me. I make sure to plan trips during cool weather now- the colder the better for me.

In early June, I ended the first leg of the road trip in Redwood, NY. Redwood is a small community surrounded by acres of farmlands, fishing lakes, and charming villages near the 1,000 Islands in Upstate New York. It’s only a few hours from the Finger Lakes region, where there are many scenic driving routes, waterfalls, hiking trails, and locally produced wineries. I stayed with family and explored the surrounding towns, and took a few short road trips until I chased fall foliage in October all the way to Florida in the fall.

Why car camp?

In my opinion, the pros of car camping out weight the cons. So here are my four biggest reasons to go car camping.

  1. It’s cheap– Car camping is the most cost-effective way to travel the US for long periods of time assuming you already own a reliable car.
  2. It’s convenient- There is no packing and unpacking, waiting around for a check-in time, or being rushed to check out. It is a lot easier to come and go as you please and allows you to leave quickly if need to.
  3. It’s great for outdoorsy gals– Sleeping in your car means you can wake up at the most scenic places, pull over for a hike whenever you want, travel easily to off-the-grid locations, and watch the sunrise from your car window.
  4. Less Planning– With car camping, there is no need to plan exact details and overnight stays way in advance. Car camping welcomes those who desire a flexible schedule, like me!
girl in a yellow dress running toward a wooden barn in a field with snow capped mountains in the background

Is a car-camping road trip for you?

Car camping is not for everyone, but there are many things you can do to make your journey more enjoyable. Before planning a cross-country car-camping road trip, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you like to camp?
  • Can you fit in your car lying down?
  • Can you sleep with slight noise and light?
  • Are you ok not showering every night?
  • Are you able to sleep through the night without needing a restroom?
  • Is your car reliable?
  • Are you comfortable without A/C?

If you answered NO to any of these questions, you might need to upgrade to an RV or luxury van before planning a cross-country car-camping road trip. Car Camping is not a luxury option, and it can be draining finding safe places to sleep every night, but it is great for those who like adventure and do not need to have a solid plan every step of the way.

Choosing the best car to sleep in

There are so many options when it comes to automobiles to sleep in. Choosing the right one is important when planning a cross-country car-camping road trip. These days people sleep in everything from pickup trucks and minivans to Toyota Prius and SUVs. So it’s important to do your research and choose something best for your own preferences, needs, and budget.

You can convert your own automobile or rent one from Outdoorsy.com. Outdoorsy is like Air B&B but for RVs and vans. They have many rental options all over the US, with standard-size SUVs and built-out vans renting for around $130-$200 a day. I knew I wanted to take my own car but renting is a great option if you do not have a car to sleep in or if you want to try out van life before going all in.

I got a lot of inspiration for my Hyundai Santa Fe conversion from searching “car camping setups” on YouTube. There are all kinds of conversions for every size and type of car. I’m amazed at how some of these people transformed their car’s interior into a complete house on wheels.

I kept my setup simple opting to lay my seats down and build a level sleeping platform. The platform was big enough for me to sleep comfortably on but small enough to allow space for a cooler, water jug, rinse kit, and large tupperware, among a few other car camping essentials.

What to look for in a car camping car

Your needs may vary, but ideally, most car-camping setups have the below.

  • Large cargo space
  • Storage compartments
  • Roof rack (for extra storage)
  • Aux plugs throughout
  • Lay down or easy-to-remove seats
  • Reliable engine
  • Spare tire compartment
  • Level sleeping platform
  • Adjustable front seats
blue river in a park with hot springs smoke and sleeping bison on the grass

How to make your car more comfortable for sleeping

I’ll admit even though my setup was very comfortable, it was hard to get a good night’s sleep while car camping. There are a few things I learned to do to sleep comfortably in my car but there were many things out of my control that did not make sleeping in my car easy, such as noise from the public places I usually slept in.

I love car camping in parks and established campsites because the noise is minimal and the sky is dark. But that wasn’t an option every night. Travel centers, truck stops and Cracker Barrel are the most convenient places to park over night when driving long distances across the country on interstates.

These four things are the most important when building a sleeping setup. It’s also smart to find sleeping locations away from the noise and only go camping in cool temperatures for added comfort.

  1. Build a sleeping platform to have a level bed
  2. Use a comfortable mattress, comforter or warm sleeping bag, and pillows
  3. Use window covers to block light, add privacy and help regulate inside temperatures
  4. Use mesh covers for windows or sunroof to allow airflow while sleeping or relaxing. These work great when sleeping in remote areas or at campsites, but at travel centers, the noise was just to loud to have my windows down.

Planning the cross-country road trip route

It can be a bit intimidating when trying to plan your first car-camping road trip. I knew I had to remain flexible for whatever may come up, so I followed the below four steps, to plan a route before I left. Once on the road, I planned each week’s destination and sleeping locations a week in advance. I changed up my route frequently based on overnight parking and weather, but for the most part, I followed my pre-planned route.

Four steps to planning a cross-country road trip

  1. Decide where to go. I sometimes pick a theme (hiking, waterfalls, lighthouses, towns, national parks ect.)
  2. Research the internet, blogs, and IG hashtags for location ideas, the best things to see, and itineraries for each area I am interested in visiting.
  3. Use Google Maps to highlight and save all desired locations and landmarks + check driving distances
  4. Use Google Sheets to plug all info into a spreadsheet for easy reference. It is the best way to ensure you don’t forget where you want to go!

Click on the Google Sheets link above to gain access to my simple planning template. If you are not automatically redirected email me at info@seeingsam.com with the subject line ”Road Trip Template” to alert me that you are trying to gain access and I will approve ASAP. Just make sure you “make a copy” of the template and do not edit the original document so others can enjoy it.

My goals for planning my first cross-country car-camping road trip, were to visit new states and National Parks i have never seen before. However, I also thought about areas where I had family that offered to host me for a few nights to save money.

I used Google Maps to search for National Parks and surrounding areas of interest. I LOVE how easy Google Maps is to use and the convenience of having my searches update seamlessly on all devices.

If you are not sure how to save locations in Google Maps, read my brief guide below.

How to save locations in Google Maps

  1. Open Google Maps (you’ll need a google account) on a mobile phone or desk computer
  2. Use the “search here” bar at the top of the screen to search for a location
  3. After the search results appear, near the bottom, next to directions click “Save”
  4. The save options will appear. Select the star, heart or flag for each location to save it in your map. I use a star for a town or city, a heart for landmarks I want to visit, and a flag for where to sleep.

Google Maps saves everything you highlighted to your main world map to reference in the future.

Planning sleeping locations

One of the most important aspects of planning a car camping road trip route is knowing where you will be sleeping overnight. It is important to choose a legal and safe location away from noise and light if possible. Car camping regulations change frequently and vary from state to state, so knowing where to sleep way in advance can be tricky. It is important to do your research and even ask local authorities if you are unsure of car camping policies. Some towns may fine you for illegal overnight parking, while others fail to enforce car camping guidelines altogether.

These apps are all beneficial when researching camping spots, and most provide real-time reviews from campers which I found very helpful.

The best car camping resources

  • iOverlander (app)
  • Freecampsite.net (website)
  • FreeRoam (app)
  • Hip Camp (app)
  • The Dyrt (app)

I slept for free when I could but sometimes stayed in developed campgrounds for a fee. Pilot Flying J Truck Stops and Loves Travel Stops are great for overnight parking. Most have clean hot showers for purchase and a large convenience store to pick up essentials. KOA (campgrounds of America) are also popular for car campers. They cost money ($40-$80) but are much less than a hotel. The benefit of staying in a developed campground is having the peace of mind no one will be knocking on your window in the middle of the night, and some offer amenities like showers, potable water, and 24/7 flush toilets.

Once I planned my route and possible overnight spots, I plugged the information into a Google sheet for easy reference across my devices. Again, I stuck to my general plan, only editing out a few National Parks and states along the way mainly due to weather conditions or extended driving time.

Tunnel View at Yosemite National Park

Costs of a car-camping road trip

The biggest drawback to traveling has to be the cost, especially when traveling in the US. Between food, accommodations, and experiences, travel can be costly. Car camping alleviates a lot of these costs, but it still isn’t free. Gas, car maintenance and safety, and supplies are major expenses when planning a cross-country car-camping road trip. The good thing about supplies is they may be expensive upfront but will last for many trips to come.

Buying groceries and cooking yourself is a great way to save on food, and regular car maintenance will help prevent costly repairs at one time. Below is an overview of my car camping expenses. Take a look at “How Much Does It Actually Cost to Car Camp” for a more in depth explanation of what my car camping road trips cost.

Travel expenses

  • Gas $1,300 for 10,000 miles
  • Food $1,000
  • Hotel 400,000 Hilton points + $1,135 (this was much higher than I thought but once them temps got into the 80s in some locations I could not bear the heat and needed to sleep indoors).
  • Supplies $1,700 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)

Much of my big purchases were evergreen supplies that will last for years to come. While I spent money on a good cooler, a portable battery, a rinse kit, sleeping bag and bed mattress, I’ll re use all of these items on future trips so my supply costs will be much lower next time.

Avoid these Mistakes

I learned so much about car camping and myself during this first cross-country road trip. It was a great experience that allowed me to gain self-confidence and a new appreciation for the country I call home. Although everything went well during my road trip, I would do a few things differently next time.

  • Pay to sleep at campgrounds-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 paying for a campground that has no amenities but in retrospect, I am thinking the pay off 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 it was tough to stay comfortable on those warm or rainy nights. 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 definitely felt rushed and got tired at the end of the trip causing me to skip out on a few states which I now regret.
  • 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 when and 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. The Jackery solar charger, a pop up toilet, a heavy wool blanket, and buying too many fuel canisters were the most unused of the lot.

Car camping across the US has been a fun, eye-opening journey but not without its struggles. I’ve learned so much and can’t wait to hit the road again this October when I journey back to FL through New England’s fall foliage. Despite all the ups and downs and many uncertainties, I am so glad I made this trip happen. I met a lot of people curious about my travels but mostly about my safety. There were a few times I was a little uncertain about an area, but I followed all my safety rules and never had a real cause for concern.

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I’ll be hitting the road again so make sure to follow my travels on Instagram at @Seeing__Sam and head back here to read more about my car camping adventures.

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6 Comments

  1. Good to hear! I flew across and around the country in a small airplane with my bike and camping gear. Did it again by car, then again with a small RV Trailer and my next adventure is on a Bicycle from New York City to San Diego. Love your Spirit! My best to you.

    1. Samantha Stamps says:

      wow, I’ve never know anyone to fly, drive and bike the US. What a great way to see and experience the country! What is your favorite mode of transportation so far?
      Congratulations on your accomplishments! Best wishes for a safe and fun biking trip’

  2. dont waste your time over planning. be aware of what lies between your two points of travel, whats a good view so daylight would be important and of course the weather like will it be raining so maybe something inside. keep it simple !

    1. Samantha Stamps says:

      This is a great way to plan a road trip. The luxury of just seeing what you see is so fun to me. Overplanning can definitely be waste of time!

  3. Hi Sam,
    I wanted to thank you for your blog and all the super wonderful information you’re sharing. I am a newly retired RN in FL, planning a solo car camping trip next year. I’m taking the whole thing very slowly to make sure I’m ready to go and fully prepared. Sadly, I’m getting very little support from friends/family so I’m keeping my excitement to myself. So glad to have your encouragement and enthusiasm to cheer me on! My plan will be to go from home to Yellowstone and back with lots of adventures in the middle both ways.
    You’re my inspiration!

    1. Barbara, this message brought me so much joy! I am so glad you are gaining some helpful advice and car camping tips from my posts. This is the reason why I spend so much time documenting my travels and sharing all my experiences, I just want to inspire others to get out there and see the world! It is sometimes hard to know if I am reaching anyone so thank you so much for taking the time to send me this message, it is so appreciated. There are so many adventures from FL to MT you’ll have trouble wanting your trip to end. I am so thrilled to hear you are pumped up for this next adventure despite the less than thrilling response from your friends and family. I too have been in a similar situation a few times before and while it would feel great to have support from loved ones, I’ve learned self motivation is the key, especially when the people you are surrounded with do not share the same ideas for adventure. I know they love and care about you but know there is a community out there cheering you on! I’m sending good vibes your way. Please let me know if I can answer any additional questions or anything else to help your trip go smoothly. Here’s to seeing the world xx

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