Car Camping 101: The Basics

With springtime just around the corner, lots of people are eager to pack up and get out! If the winter season keeps you indoors then I’m willing to bet that you are just itching to be out of the house for a few hours (or days!) to get some fresh air and warm sun. Although spring tends to bring with it a fair bit of moisture and the chilly nights do linger, it’s one of the best times to be adventurous. Plants are budding, flowers blooming, rivers are picking up from snowmelt and if you’re early enough, foot traffic is still light.

However, to those who haven’t sharpened their tools of the outdoors, springtime can seem daunting. The weather can be unpredictable and if you aren’t prepared for the cold nights or the wet mornings, things can get tricky. This brings me to recommend my favorite form of camping; with the most comfort and security, and convenience to bring essentially anything you’ll need…

car camping!

Waking up in the back of my car to a view of the Grand Teton Mountains, Wyoming August 2016.

There are different types of car camping, depending on your level of experience as well as the type of car you drive. This post is mostly for those who are looking to get their feet wet and test out the waters of car camping; whether you’ve never done it before in your life or you’ve tried it out but want to get better. I’m going to cover all the ground for anyone who has ever wanted to go car camping and needs to start at square 1.

***The most important skill anyone can have when going camping or adventuring in the outdoors is preparedness. Before you leave, be 100% sure to check the weather for the 24 hours in the area you will be traveling or call the Ranger Station if applicable. If there is any sort of forecast for harsh conditions (freezing temps, rain, snow, etc.) I recommend postponing unless you have the gear and/or experience that will keep you safe, dry and alive.***

Remember this as well: camping is fun, but camping with friends is better. Gather a big group, get people with different levels of experience in on it, pool together your materials… all of this makes it easier and more enjoyable! You also might learn a thing or two from your friend who knows how to build a good fire.

Sleeping Arrangements


The set up I had during my month long road trip

Car vs Tent:

First thing to do if you are considering going car camping is ask yourself this: can you sleep in your car? If you drive something that is spacious enough in the back for you to lay down and comfortably fall asleep, you have the easiest and cheapest option of car camping. If this is the case, go ahead and move onto the next section.

If you drive something more compact that isn’t as rugged, you will need a tent. If you have a tent already, great! Move on to the next section.

Nowadays it’s super easy to connect via social media and advertise that you are looking for something in particular, so go ahead and ask around if anyone has a tent that they could lend you. If this is something you see yourself doing often or want to upgrade your old one, buy yourself a tent! I’m not going to go into detail on what to look for when buying these camping items, because I could elaborate on that in an entire post. I will say though, if this is something you’re not sure you’re going to use often, start small and cheap. If you’re looking to invest, buy something highly rated and try to go light.

(Click here to see the tent that I take on backpacking/camping trips)

Blankets, Sleeping Pads, Sleeping Bags:

The beauty of car camping, like I said, is that you can essentially bring whatever you want. First, let’s talk about actual sleeping. If you’re spending the night in your car, you can get away with throwing a bunch of blankets and pillows in there and calling it a bed. For those who will be tenting it up at night, it’s still easy but you’ll need to be a bit more considerate.

First and foremost, if you have a sleeping pad, cot or air mattress, as well as a sleeping bag, you’re already set and you don’t need to read this section!

No matter which option you are going with, it’s probably safe to say you will be laying on some pretty unforgiving surfaces. If you are sleeping in your car, since it will be slightly warmer than the tent, I’d recommend trying out layering thick blankets until it starts to feel like something you could sleep on. If you’re doing it up tent style, you could probably still sleep on a whole bunch of blankets but remember, the ground is cold at night, so try to be smart about what type of barrier you build between yourself and the ground.

After that, find yourself a sleeping bag. Sleeping bags will trap your body heat better than the old blanket on your couch, which could easily make or break your entire night of camping. Especially if you know it’s going to be cold at night and you are tent camping!


If you’re trying to be serious about this and make this a long term hobby, consider buying a sleeping bag and pad. Both items you could find at any store that sells basic camping gear or outdoors equipment, in a variety of styles and prices. Do a bit of research, find something in your budget and for your body type, and get a better nights sleep in the great outdoors!

(The sleeping bag I use is no longer for sale, but the maker is a company called Kelty, and the sleeping pad I use is an old model of this sleeping pad, both of which I’ve had for years and never had any issues!)

Other Important Shit to Bring

stuff and junk.jpg

Don’t freak out! The above photo is almost all of the things I brought with me on my month long solo road trip around the country. I’m also a control freak and wanted to be over prepared. However, there are a few items which you may see here that you will need and shouldn’t come as a surprise…

Food and Food Stuffs:

Packing food and cooking can go in a variety of directions. It really depends on whether you will be cooking or not, how many nights you plan on spending and how close/far you are from any resource that sells food. All of these factors will determine what kinds of food and how much of it you should bring.

Easily and obviously, pack snacks. Again, having the car permits you to pack as much food as you want. Snacks don’t need to be cooked and most likely won’t perish overnight.

If you are not cooking and don’t own any sort of stove or grill, think non-perishable and pre-made. My favorite thing to do on overnight trips is to stop somewhere that sells pre-prepared sandwiches (hot or cold) and eat them for dinner. In terms of breakfast, think bagels, peanut butter, hard boiled eggs, fruit that travels well (apples, oranges, bananas) trail mix, store bought cold brew coffee, etc.

If you are cooking, whether over a fire or with a camping stove, start to think of things that require a few ingredients. Foods that are easy and cheap to make on camping trips could be pancakes, boxed rice, soup, stir fry, bacon (BLT!), pasta, etc. Basically, if you have a cooler and some ice, a stove or a fire to cook over, a pan or two and a spatula, you can cook anything. Go crazy.

Again, depending on where you will be spending the night, note the resources nearby. If you can drive out of camp to get food, maybe you can get a meal while you’re out. The same can be said about getting breakfast or coffee in the morning.

(The cooking “system” I take everywhere with me, which I highly recommend is this Jetboil. The camping stove I purchased for my long trip was this stove from Camp Chef.)


Clothing & Extra Layers:

If you’re being smart, you know what type of weather to expect where you will be camping for the night. I truly cannot say it enough; having a car with you will permit you pack extra! So, pack an extra pair of warm pants, warm socks, a winter hat and a heavy top layer. You don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night freezing your butt off, wishing you packed extra warm clothes… trust me, you will not get a full night sleep. Also, mornings usually carry out the cold weather until the sun fully rises. The worst is getting out of your warm little cocoon and not having another warm layer to put on. Bring a jacket!

Other (Needed) Camping Goodies:

Here is just a list of other things you will absolutely need to bring with you if you go car camping:

  • gallons of water (check if where you are staying has potable water, which means it is safe for drinking)
  • flashlights, headlamps, lanterns, etc.
  • First Aid stuff
  • matches & other fire materials (check if your campground sells firewood/permits fires!)
  • toilet paper/poop shovel (Check if your campground has flushing toilets. Some “designated camping” areas don’t have toilets at all! Hence the poop shovel)
  • Random hygienic products (toothbrush, toothpaste, baby wipes, etc.)
  • TRASH BAGS! (Often forgotten but very important!)
  • Be Bear Aware! (Depending on where you are going, you may need to prepare yourself for the presence of bears! Park Rangers will advise you to not keep food or scented products in your car, as some bears are smart enough to open car doors. If you will be in bear country, consider buying bear spray, a bear canister or a food bag and some rope.)

Some Shit You Won’t Need But Still Could Bring:

As follows is a list of fun extra things I usually bring with me on camping trips, depending on where I am going and if I’m alone or not…

  • chairs (for sitting)
  • a book (for reading)
  • a camera (for funsies)
  • drawing stuff (for silent time)

I was expecting that list to be a lot longer but I realize I don’t often bring extra shit, because the point is to be out and away from all of my junk.

Get Out There!

20160808_063549At this point, you should have everything you need. You’ve got something to sleep on and in, something to eat, water to drink, clothes to keep you warm, plus some extra good stuff and hopefully somewhere to go! If you live near a state park or a state forest, or even better a national park/forest, do a quick bit of research on some campgrounds nearby. Also, ask around; lots of times people discover little gems in areas that are less popular travel destinations, but that doesn’t make them less enjoyable.

No matter your level of experience or how many times you’ve been camping, it’s always helpful to call a Ranger Station. If there is any pertinent information they need prospective campers to know, that is a good way for you to find out. They also will be able to give you advice on road conditions, closed campgrounds, bear sightings, camping permits and more.

Hopefully this information shed some light on how easy it is to go car camping! It definitely seems like a lot, and if you’re in the market to buy, the prices can be a little scary. However once you start your own personal collection of camping gear, that stuff should last you years and withstand lots of adventures.

So, what are you waiting for?! Adventure awaits, the mountains are calling and you must go, not all those who wander are lost or whatever. Time is a’wasting! And remember, kids! Always tell someone where you are going and when, because if you haven’t seen the movie 127 Hours yet then you should!

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