What is Car Camping? + Top Tips for Your Next Adventure

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What is Car Camping? 

Car camping involves sleeping in a tent next to your car (also called drive-up camping) or sleeping inside your car at an established campground, the backcountry, or a parking lot (often called wild camping).

I never considered car camping until I lost my job and needed a more economical way to see the country. Since sleeping inside my car at National Parks, Cracker Barrel, Walmart, or in state forests and public lands, I’ve come to love car camping and see it as a fantastic way to travel the country for cheap!

Pro Tip: Sleeping in a car at a US National Park without a campsite reservation is illegal.

Car camping is not without its challenges, but it is fun and inexpensive, and it’s one of the easiest travel methods out there. There is no checking in and out or dealing with grouchy hotel staff or smelly hotel rooms; it’s so much easier to pack for and allows the opportunity to wake up in some of the most beautiful places. Plus, you won’t have to lug your belongings to your campsite.

I’ve learned a lot since my first car camping trip and now I feel like a car camping pro. Luckily, from my safety routine, strategic planning, and proper execution, I have never been in any scary situations. That is not to say it can’t happen, but being prepared and knowledgeable for possible things to come is a great way to help prevent the unwanted.  

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In this post, I am sharing all I have learned over the years and the main takeaways to answer the questions; 

  • What is car camping?
  • Is it safe to car camp? 
  • Where do you park overnight when car camping?
  • What are the best vehicles for car camping?

Along with more practical car camping tips, including how to shower while camping, easy car camping meals, and my top 10 essentials you don’t want to car camp without

Where to Park Overnight While Car Camping 

There are several overnight parking options when car camping. You can pay for a campground or park for free on public lands or at travel centers and store parking lots.

I usually spend each morning deciding where I will spend the night. If I drive between destinations, I usually look for a Walmart or Cracker Barrel along the way and even wait until evening to decide how far to drive.

If you want to stay at a campsite, book campsites in advance since they fill up and don’t often accept walk-ins. Check the state park website of whatever state you are in, or use apps like Hip Camp or All Stays to find local campsites.

Popular Overnight Parking Options:

  • Public Lands or BLM Land (Bureau of Land Management)
  • Established Campgrounds
  • National Parks or State Parks
  • Parking lots such as Walmart, Lowes, Cracker Barrel, Camp World, Bass Pro Shops, Loves Travel Center, or Pilot Truck Stops.

Knowing the local rules for sleeping in your car and parking overnight is essential. Some towns forbid it, but not all enforce it. Look out for “No Overnight” parking signs that should be posted if car camping is illegal where you are.

Car Camping Apps for Overnight Parking:

  • Hip Camp (campsites and private property for a fee)
  • Free Roam (great for free spots)
  • All Stays (campgrounds and RV parks)
  • iOverlander (wild camping)
  • Freecampsites.net

Some people choose to “stealth” camp, which means going unnoticed when parking overnight. Usually, stealth campers park late at night and leave early in the morning in neighborhoods or in areas where car camping is illegal with the purpose of getting in and getting out without being caught.

Sometimes, there is a fine if you are caught sleeping in your car overnight; other times, an officer will knock on your door and ask you to move. There is unclear information on what areas have laws against car camping and which ones enforce those laws. Reading reviews on car camping apps helps navigate the guessing game.

True Story: I parked where I knew it was not legal because my alternatives at the time were not “safe.” I did this twice in California, where I knew the fine for illegal camping was $100. The first time, nothing happened, no fine, no knock. The second time, I did get a knock at 12 a.m., and yes, it shook me up, but everything ended well. The understanding officer told me I needed to move and sent me to a hotel 45 minutes away (that didn’t show up on my apps), where it was ok to park and sleep in my car overnight. No, fine, just a discussion about the county trying to eliminate people who set up camp and defecate in the state forest since there were no public bathrooms. He said he was not concerned about me since I would be leaving at sunrise, so there was no ticket. Clearly, do your best to park legally, but there may be situations where staying where you are is the “safest” option.

BLM Land is free to use but sometimes requires a 4×4 and high-clearance vehicle to access. Again, reading the reviews on the apps helps to know what you are getting into. I do not have a 4×4 car, so I avoid muddy or sandy roads but have driven down plenty of packed dirt and gravel roads in my high-clearance SUV (Hyundai Santa Fe).

I often park at travel centers along the highway between destinations because they offer 24-hour bathrooms. They are much noisier, and I never sleep in my car as well compared to national parks or state forests, but they are very convenient when driving long distances.

Pro Tip: If you can’t find a travel center with 24-hour restrooms, find an overnight location near a Starbucks since they open around 5 am and have public restrooms.

How to Sleep in Your Car When Car Camping 

Over the years, I’ve learned much more about sleeping comfortably in a car. While comfort levels are subjective, I always have a comfortable sleeping setup and avoid car camping in warm temperatures.

There are several different ways to sleep inside your car and a ton of different setups. My sleeping setup includes a sleeping pad, self made level sleeping platform, a cozy sleeping bag, and two regular-sized feather pillows. 

I prefer this memory foam mattress over air mattresses because there is no blowing up or deflating. The memory foam is always ready to go. 

I also prefer to car camp in cold temperatures. To be comfortable while sleeping in my car, I need it to be below 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Some people may be comfortable in warmer temperatures, but anything over 60 degrees gets really uncomfortable for me.

If I can not avoid warm temperatures, I open a window or my sunroof to allow airflow and use this mesh window cover to prevent bugs from flying in. This also lets in more noise, so I only do it when I have to. I also use a battery operated portable fan. Its not the best way to stay cool but it helps on warm nights.

Other popular car camping setups include a rooftop tent or a trunk tent that pops up over your open-door hatch or connects to the bed of a pickup truck. These are good options for wild camping or established campgrounds but would draw a lot of attention and not be as secure for overnight camping in public areas like truck stops and Walmart parking lots. The choice is yours, though, as there is no wrong way to sleep in your car, or on top of it!

Safety Tips for Car Camping 

Safety is so subjective, especially when it comes to traveling. While anything can happen, I always travel consciously and stay aware of my surroundings. I listen to my gut and remove myself from any uneasy situations.

When it comes to car camping, choosing a safe place to sleep at night (along with these other car camping safety tips) is one of my top priorities. In addition to always keeping my car’s maintenance in check, having a car emergency kit with an up-to-date first aid kit is another important safety measure. 

Here are a few more things you can do to help keep yourself safe while car camping. 

Replace Tires

Along with regular oil changes and up-to-date car maintenance, always ensure your tires are in good condition. Check the tread and tire pressure regularly, especially if you plan to drive long distances during your car camping adventure. Average tires should last up to 60,000 miles. However, some wear faster than others.

Here is a great DIY tutorial on how to check your tire tread.

Be Prepared for Inclement Weather

A cold-weather car emergency kit is an excellent idea for camping in the cold.

Use RainX and install functioning wipers to help keep your windshield clear. 

Don’t Sleep with the Engine Running

Never sleep with your car engine turned on. Leaving the engine running increases your chances of inhaling dangerous exhaust fumes, possibly leading to death. Sleeping with the car on (even if you are dying for AC or heat) can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, which can be very dangerous, especially in enclosed spaces. For optimal safety, use a battery-operated CO detector in your car to ensure levels do not get dangerously high.   

Safety Tips for Sleeping in Public Parking Lots

I often park in travel centers or Cracker Barrels while driving cross-country between destinations. Travel Centers are my least favorite places to car camp because there is so much noise and traffic from other travelers coming and going. However, these lots have saved me time and time again. I much rather sleep for free in my car than pay $100 or more for a sketchy motel I am only sleeping at.

When sleeping in a public parking lot, call ahead to ensure the business allows overnight parking.

Most of the US is car camping friendly, but there are a few areas in the US that have local ordinances prohibiting sleeping in your car. If this is the case, a “No Overnight Parking” sign is usually posted in the lot. If there is no sign posted, and I can not get a hold of anyone on the phone, and I do not see any other RVs, vans or car campers, I will often choose a different location if possible. There are times when there have been no other nearby options, and I have slept in the questionable parking lot anyway, and luckily, I have not had any issues.

Decide Where to Park Overnight Before Dark

I like to check out where I plan to sleep in advance. If I feel uneasy in that location, I will change locations if possible, even if that means driving for another hour or two (as long as I am not sleepy). Even though I arrive to where I plan to park overnight, I usually leave and then return right when I plan to go to sleep rather than hanging out in the parking lot.

Don’t Draw Attention to Yourself

Don’t draw attention to yourself by being loud, or setting up chairs or cooking a meal outside your car while in a public lot. Many big box stores have guidelines for overnight parking and only allow 1 night. Don’t set up chairs, or make food or play loud music or hang out as if you would at a campsite. Parking lots are not campsites, and this behavior makes some towns forbid car camping.

Also, having a well-maintained car free of damage will help avoid unwanted attention.

Sleeping on Public Land Safety Tips:

The best camping spots, in my opinion, are public lands, national parks, and state forests. You can’t beat how quiet and dark it gets!

If you are sleeping on BLM Land, there are a few more things to remember for optimal safety.

Store Food Correctly

Always store food correctly if you are car camping at a developed campground or on public lands in Bear County. This is the number one safety measure you should take to deter bears from entering your campsite or trying to open your car.

Bring Plenty of Fresh Water

There are no facilities or water sources on public lands, so you must bring everything you need and pack it out with you. 

I bring lots of water, including a 5-gallon refillable water jug (this one too) and a 3.5-gallon Rinse Kit (a portable shower) for washing my face, and hands and cleaning dirty dishes, mugs, and silverware if I have them.

A Rinse Kit is also great for taking showers while backcountry camping. It is refillable and has lasted me weeks when using it sparingly. (I keep the nozzle on “mist” to conserve water).

Bring Enough Food

Plan your meals to make sure you have enough food for your trip. I use a cooler, electric travel kettle, and portable propane stove to prepare food when I’m not eating out. There are many types of car camping coolers but I love the Yeti Roadie 24. It fits perfectly behind my passenger seat, is leakproof, and holds a good amount for a one-person car camping trip.

Follow all Fire Rules

This is SO IMPORTANT! Some backcountry areas require a fire permit, and some campgrounds will provide a fire ring and not allow firewood to be brought in. Please follow all fire rules.

Eating While Car Camping 

One of the most popular car camping questions I get is “How do you eat?” while car camping. Unless you are heading out to a remote destination with no facilities for miles and miles, eating has never been a problem.

You can have delicious “home-cooked” meals if you want to. You just need to bring the right supplies and learn how to make some simple car camping meals (check back in a few weeks when that post goes live) on your camp stove.

If you are camping on BLM land or in rural areas without access to supplies, bring everything you need, from drinking water, a car camping cooler, a propane stove, and cooking essentials. Plan meals ahead and stock up on the right amount of food & supplies before you leave.

Almost anything can be cooked over a campfire or on a propane stove. Make sure to bring a foldable table to have somewhere to cook on if there are no picnic tables available.

For quick meals, I use a travel electric kettle to heat water quickly for dehydrated soups and oats. I use the Jackery Portable Battery to power the electric kettle. It uses about 10% of battery power to boil 8 oz of water.

Pro Tip: If you are in bear country (Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington) make sure to store any food in bear proof containers at least 100 feet from your camp. In some areas, sorting food in an airtight cooler or in the trunk with car windows closed is ok. Anything that has a scent can be considered food by a bear. Always wash your dishes quickly to avoid lingering scents that can attract bears and other animals.

The Best Cars for Car Camping 

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to car camping. There are many things to consider when choosing the best vehicle for car camping, including your height, length of trip, type of terrain, and where you’ll be sleeping.

If you will be sleeping inside your car, your height is the most important thing to consider when deciding what vehicle is best for car camping.

Add on a few inches since you gain length when lying down. For optimal comfort, make sure your car camping vehicle is long enough for you to sleep lying down. You can gain a few extra inches inside your car if you move the front seats up.

In addition to having a comfortable size car, a high clearance vehicle with all-wheel drive and a spacious cargo area are other essential features that make camping more enjoyable and remote locations more accessible.

The Subaru Outback has been named one of the best car camping vehicles time and time again. Pick-up trucks and Jeep Wranglers are also popular options for 4×4 roads and backwoods camping.

Pick-up trucks like the Honda Ridgeline and Ford F150 are popular car camping vehicles. A pop-up rooftop works well with both of these vehicles, or you can cover the bed of a pick-up truck and convert that into a comfortable sleeping area.

Pro Tip: Search “Car camping setups” on YouTube for a ton of car camping setup examples.

I sleep inside a 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe. My 5’3″ frame fits perfectly while lying down, and I do not have to move the front seats forward.

Toyota 4 Runners are another popular car camping SUV with large cargo space for storage and sleeping. However, you can car camp with anything you have! The possibilities are endless.

open trunk of an SUV with camping supplies
Hyundai Santa Fe Trunk Space

Car Camping Essentials

Depending on your trip style, trip length, and personal preferences, you may need to add additional gear to your car camping packing list. I go into more detail with my top essentials in this post, but below is a quick list of all the things I don’t car camp without.

Car Camping Gear List

  1. First Aid Kit
  2. Car Emergency Kit
  3. 5 Gallon reusable jug of drinking water
  4. Rinse Kit for pressurized portable water
  5. Jackery portable battery
  6. Comfortable Pillows
  7. Sleeping pad/ mattress + comforter or 15 F degree sleeping bag (for cold weather)
  8. Window Covers (self made)
  9. Cooler (I use the Yeti Roadie 24 and a IceMule Backpack cooler)
  10. Electric Kettle or propane stove (with fuel)
  11. Cooking supplies and utensils
  12. Back Seat Toiletry organizer
  13. Quick dry towel for body, face and hands
  14. Plenty of nonperishable foods and snacks
  15. Biodegradable wet wipes
  16. Toilet Bags (just in case there are no bathrooms around)
  17. Flashlight or headlamp

***

I hope you’ll find this post helpful when planning your next car camping adventure. Feel free to ask questions in the comments below and share your car camping experiences. I love hearing about them!

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