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

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What is Car Camping? 

Car camping is usually one of two things; 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.  

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!

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

Car camping is fun, inexpensive, and one of the easiest travel methods. There is no checking in and out, packing and unpacking suitcases, only taking what you can carry and the opportunity to wake up in some of the most beautiful places.

I’ve learned a lot over the years and now 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.  

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?

With plenty more car camping tips, including how to shower while camping, easy car camping meals, and the best car camping essentials

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.

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 I am driving.

If you want to stay at a campsite, book those in advance since they fill up and don’t often accept walk-ins.

The most popular overnight car camping options are:

  • 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

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.

To find campsites and free overnight places to park, I use these apps:

  • Hip Camp (campsites and private property that offer spacing to camp for a fee)
  • Free Roam (great for BLM land)
  • Campendium
  • iOverlander
  • Freecampsites.net

Some people choose to “stealth” camp, which means going unnoticed. 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 not clear 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 mins 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 situatuions 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.

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 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, here is what I do for optimal comfort while sleeping in my car.

The two biggest things I do, is to ensure I have a comfortable sleeping setup, and I never car camp in sweltering temperatures (if I can help).

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 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 don’t car camp in hot temperatures if I can avoid it. 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.

Sometimes I can not avoid warm temperatures, so if it’s warm outside, I open a window or my sunroof to 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.

Other popular 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!

How to Stay Safe While Car Camping 

Safety is so subjective, especially when it comes to traveling. While anything can happen, at any time, in any country, I always travel consciously and stay aware. 

During some of my international travels, there are times when I have felt a little uneasy, whether it be an awkward taxi ride or men following me on the street, I always remember to stay confident (even if I am freaking out inside) and fortunately, I have always gotten of out sketchy situations before they turned into anything more serious. 

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 on track, 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. 

Car Safety Tips:

  • Replace tires when needed

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 inclimate weather:

A cold-weather car emergency kit is an excellent idea if you are camping in the cold.

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

  • Always turn your car off to sleep.

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) 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 a night for a dinky motel I am only sleeping at.

When choosing to sleep in a public parking lot:

  • Call ahead to make sure 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 anyways, and luckily have not had any issues.

  • Check out your overnight location 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

Plan to park and go right to sleep without exiting your vehicle. If You need to make food or wash your face, do that before you arrive at your overnight spot. I never leave my car once I get to my overnight spot. I climb into the back from the front seat and go right to sleep.

In the a.m. I climb into the driver’s seat never exiting the vehicle and head to the closest public bathroom.

Also, having a well maintined car free of damages also helps avoid unwanted attention.

Campsite or Public Land Safety Tips:

The best camping spots in my opinion, are public lands, national oarks 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 country. 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 that means you must bring everything you need with you and pack it out with you. 

I bring lots of water, including a 5-gallon refillable water jug (this one too) and3.5-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 with a car. It is refillable and has lasted me weeks when using it sparingly. (I keep the nozzle on “mist” to conserve water).

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  • Bring enough food

Plan your meals to make sure you have enough food for your trip. There are many types of car camping coolers but I love the Yeti Roadie 24. It a good size for me and is leak proof.

  • 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.

General Travel Safety Tips:

  • Tell friends or family your route
  • Let someone track your phone
  • Send regular safety updates to family and friends
  • Don’t share too much information with people you just met.
  • Have an emergency plan B

Read More: How to Shower while Car Camping | How to Plan a Cross Country Road Trip | Top 15 Car Camping Questions Answered | Top Essentials for a Car Camping Emergency Kit

Eating While Car Camping 

Depending on your travel style, whether you are setting up camp for a while or jumping from place to place there are plenty of food options. Finding food on the road has never been an issue; from fire pit cooking to propane stoves, electric kettles, or local diners, there are a lot of options.

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 and quick car camping meals (check back in a few weeks when that post goes live).

If you are camping on BLM land or in rural areas without access to supplies, make sure to bring everything you need with you, from drinking water, a reliable car camping cooler, a propane stove (or another kind of camp stove in case there is not a fire pit) and cooking essentials. It is a good idea to plan meals ahead to make it easier to know what food to bring and how much. 

Almost anything can be cooked over a campfire or on a propane stove. Make sure to bring a foldable table to make stove cooking easier if there is no picnic table to cook on. 

I have only cooked with my propane stove twice while car camping. I found my meals needed to be quicker and easier since I was moving from place to place rapidly and didn’t want to bother with washing dishes.

At first, there were a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fast food and unhealthy grab and go snacks but I got tired of that fast and started using my cooler more for yogurt, fruit, cottage cheese, applesauce, salads, cheese, deli meats and raw veggies. I use the Yeti Roadie 24 and love it. Replenishing ice does get a bit tiring but it worth it to have fresh healthy food.

I also bought an electric kettle that I now can not car camp without. It allows me to boil water much quicker than the jet boil but it does have to be plugged in. This car adapter is amazing to use for all different cables. I also have a Jackery Portable Battery and my electric kettle uses about 10% of battery power to boil 8 oz of water. I use it all the time to make tea or hot lemon water in the morning and for dehydrated food such as oatmeal (RXBar Brand is my favorite– and i’ve tried them all), soups and noodle dishes. 

If you are cooking your own meals and are in bear country, 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.

Consider investing in a Rinse Kit to make cleanup a breeze. It really the #1 tool I can’t car camp without. It makes my life so much easier on the road.

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 Wrangers are also popular options.

Pick up trucks such as the Honda Ridgeline and Ford F150 are popular car camping vehicles but work best for pop-up rooftop campers or drive-up campsites. You can cover the bed of the pick up truck and convert that into a great covered sleeping area.

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

I use a 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe, perfectly fitting me and my gear. The space inside is perfect for my bed set up without moving the front seats forward (i’m 5’3″).

Toyota 4 Runners are another popular car camping SUV with large cargo space for storage and sleeping. 

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

Car Camping Essentials

After a few years of car camping, I’ve realized I do not need a lot to stay comfortable.

Here is a general packing list of the car camping essentials I always bring.  

Keep in mind everyone’s travel style is different, and you may find the items I bring not as valuable to you. Your best option is to buy the bare minimum and then start camping to know what you will use. This will help prevent overbuying and wasteful spending on luxury items you don’t need. I over-bought for my first car camping road trip and completely regret it. 

Top 17 Car Camping Essentials Checklist

  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)
  10. Electric Kettle or propane stove (with fuel)
  11. Cooking supplies and utensils
  12. Toiletries 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 found 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 with me. I love hearing about them!

Hi, I'm Sam

After a lay off from the corporate fashion world I decided to SEE the world. Sharing all my bucket list experiences to help spark your wanderlust and inspire your next adventure!

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