Car Camping For Beginners (12 Helpful Tips & Tricks)

When you think of camping, wet tents and cold nights often spring to mind. But it doesn’t have to be this way! As #vanlife has exploded the world over, car camping has also grown in popularity. It offers more comfort than a night in the wild but still gives you easy access to the great outdoors.

12 car camping tips for beginners are:

  1. Download a camping app
  2. Bring a trash bin
  3. Consider purchasing a rooftop tent
  4. Store food in the car
  5. Carry cash
  6. Use frozen bottles to keep food cool
  7. Don’t forget the entertainment
  8. Keep your electronics charged
  9. Prepare your meals at home
  10. Invest in a portable camping shower
  11. Turn the lights off in your car
  12. Know what permits you need

Although it may be tempting to pack all of your luxuries and hit the open road, you’ll be amazed at just how quickly this will fill up your car! Our car camping tips for beginners will help you utilize your space wisely, providing maximum comfort so that you can get the most out of your trip.

12 Car Camping Tips For Beginners

1. Download A Camping App

These days, the internet is your best friend when it comes to planning any kind of travel. Rather than just limiting yourself to the designated campgrounds in your area, download a camping app for more options. There are hundreds of these on the market, all tailored to different destinations.

Organized Campgrounds

If you are looking to scope out your options in a particular national park or just want to see what amenities each campsite on your journey has, opt for an app like The Dyrt or Campspace. Although the former only serves camping trips in the US, both apps allow you to reserve pitches in-app, meaning you won’t have to worry about your campsite of choice being full upon your arrival.

Finding Wild Camp Spots

Unsupported campgrounds can be found all over and often, what they lack in amenities, they make up for in price and scenery. The iOverlander and Park4Night apps are great options to find wild camp spots for both vans and cars alike. They both work all over the world and users can even submit and rate their wild camping spots to help other travelers. Hiking apps are another useful idea.

2. Bring A Trash Bin

When you know you’ll be traveling with your home comforts, it is easy to forget about the basics of camping. After all, you’ll have everything you need in your car, won’t you? Even though that is true, you also need to consider what you are going to do with your trash.

Leave No Trace

Although campsites will usually have trash cans so you can dispose of your rubbish, this is very unlikely to be the case if you are wild camping. All good campers will already know about the importance of leaving no trace, so make sure you do your bit by bringing along a trash bin.

Storing Trash

When it comes to storing your rubbish, it is advisable to keep it in your car so that you don’t unwittingly attract any of the local wildlife. It is a minor inconvenience if a few flies keep buzzing about, but it’s a different ballgame when a bear shows up outside your car!

Lined Cereal Container

Your trash can doesn’t have to be the one that sits under your kitchen sink either. You can get creative to find something that better fits your car. Consider using a cereal container and lining it with a bin bag. These can be sealed to keep the bad smells out of your car which will also avoid attracting unwanted insects. This is especially useful if you plan to sleep with the windows cracked.

3. Consider Purchasing A Rooftop Tent

Depending on what model of car you own and how big your party is, you could be pretty strapped for space when it comes to car camping. If this applies to you, consider investing in a rooftop tent to literally buy yourself some extra space.

Rooftop Tent vs Ground Tent

We hear what you’re thinking. Why do you need a rooftop tent when you can just sleep in a normal tent? This is a fair question. However, a huge plus of a rooftop tent is that it is safer. You’ll be away from any pesky ground-dwelling creepy crawlies.

Perhaps the most obvious pro is that you free up room inside your car with a rooftop tent. Whether you’ve got the kids sharing the backseat or just have a shedload of gear that you wanted to bring on your trip, you suddenly have a lot more space to do with as you wish!

In addition, the ground is less of a dealbreaker. If nobody in your party is using a ground tent, you’ll have way more options when looking for places to stay the night. Many of these rooftop tents also fit a wide range of vehicles, so no matter your ride, you’ll find something to suit.

Quite Expensive

The main downside of a rooftop tent is that they are expensive. They are probably best avoided if you are on a very tight budget, but it is worth remembering that it is still cheaper than staying in a hotel or buying an RV! Think of it as an investment for future trips.

4. Store Food In The Car

For many campers, their biggest anxieties on the road revolve around food. Whether it is eating it, cooking it, or storing it, all of these things can prove to be more difficult when you are camping. While some campsites may insist on food being stored in lockers overnight, most will allow you to do your own thing when it comes to your snacks.

Don’t Attract The Wildlife

In the great outdoors, smells can travel a long way and attract a whole manner of unwanted visitors, from raccoons to bears. To keep out the local wildlife, make sure that food is kept out of sight at all times.

Odor-Proof Containers And Bags

If the area you are camping in is home to bears, you’ll want to invest in bear-safe containers. While one of these containers is unlikely to do much if a bear has succeeded in breaking into your car, it can help to suppress the smell of food, making it less likely that wildlife will be attracted to the scent in the first place.

Even if you’re not in bear country, it is still worth making sure that food smells are kept to a minimum, as this will make it harder for smaller critters to sniff out your snacks!

5. Carry Cash

Although our world is becoming steadily more digital, cash really is king once you get off the beaten track. Some campgrounds will still only accept payment in cash, so make sure you keep some on your person when car camping.

Smaller Denominations

In some first-come first-served campsites, you’ll be able to put your payment in cash into an envelope and drop it into a postbox for collection in the morning. It is especially worth bringing smaller denominations of cash as you won’t need to run around looking for change from your fellow campers.

6. Use Frozen Bottles To Keep Food Cool

When it comes to camping of any kind, plenty of people are under the illusion that you need to drop a load of cash in order to get the best gear. While durable kit certainly can help to make your life easier, it is by no means an absolute must!

Very Practical

If you’re on a budget, consider freezing water bottles to act as ice packs for your food. This works much better than filling your cooler with bagged ice as, once it melts, you don’t need to drain the water. Not only is this a pain, but it can also lead to your food getting waterlogged. Not ideal to say the least!

Cheap And Space Saving

Freezing water bottles not only gives a second life to single-use plastic but is also cheaper than buying bags of ice from the supermarket. Put the water bottles in your cool container first and then pack your foodstuffs around them. This is a hugely practical way to keep your food cool and you can drink from the bottles once the water has melted, limiting the amount that you need to pack.

7. Don’t Forget The Entertainment

When it comes to car camping, it is especially important to keep everybody entertained. Depending on where you’ve pitched up, there may be less opportunity to engage in those traditional camping activities, so you may need to get creative.

Bring Fun Camping Games

If you’re traveling with all the family, a few camping games will be your savior! A pack of cards is always a worthy addition to any car camping trip as you can play a range of games using them and they take up to next to no room.

If you’re looking for more active games to tire everybody out, you could spend the afternoon Geocaching or send everyone off on a scavenger hunt. These activities are fun for all ages and are sure to ignite a sense of adventure.

Download Your Favorite Show

No matter whether you’re on a solo adventure and are dying to catch up with Grey’s Anatomy or just want to make sure you have plenty of Peppa Pig in reserve if the kids start playing up, a bit of pre-planning goes a long way when it comes to car camping!

Pack Your E-Reader

If your idea of camping heaven is curling up in your car with a blanket and a good book, you’ll need to remember to pack one! Although the smell of a new book can’t be beaten, physical books are not the most practical option for campers as they will require a reading light after dark. Much better options are e-readers as these are often backlit, and they take up very little space.

8. Keep Your Electronics Charged

While all of this entertainment is great, you won’t stay occupied for very long without being able to charge your electronics! If you’re on a lengthy road trip, this may not be too much of an issue as you’ll be able to recharge while you drive. However, if you’re planning on spending a few days in one place, you’ll need to think of alternative solutions.

Solar Powered Chargers

Perhaps the best and most environmentally friendly way to make sure you stay connected is by bringing along a portable solar-powered charger. These can be kept on the dashboard of your car for maximum exposure to sunlight. They’ll keep your e-reader, phone, tablet, and camera topped up, ready for when you need them.

9. Prepare Your Meals At Home

Don’t get us wrong, we understand better than most the appeal of cooking over an open fire. However, this isn’t always practical. When you are camping, you have to prepare for all types of weather, even when camping in your car!

Cold Snack Foods

Cold snack foods such as sandwiches or pasta salads can be easily prepared before you leave home. You’ll only want to bring a set of simple essentials with you, not the kitchen sink, so by having stuff prepared, you’ll definitely be able to save car space.

These types of already prepared foods can also really help you out if the weather turns too. There is nothing worse than try to appease hungry bellies when it’s stormy and your fire won’t stay lit. 

Make Ahead Of Time

Even if you’re wanting to cook, there are just some things that are more practical to do at home. Treat everybody to pancakes first thing in the morning by bringing along some already prepared pancake mix. Trust us when we say that nobody will want to pass on breakfast pancakes!

Cracking your eggs into a portable container ahead of time is also a great tip. This way you won’t have to worry about breaking any en route, which is especially useful for those long car journeys to your campsite!

10. Invest In A Portable Camping Shower

While there will be some that love the wild aspect of camping, most of us wish it was all a little cleaner and a little less smelly! Although most organized campsites will come with showers and toilets, that doesn’t really answer the question of how you can stay fresh when you’re in the middle of nowhere with no facilities nearby.

Although portable camping showers were once a little primitive — think hanging a bag of water in a tree and waiting for it to warm up — we’re pleased to report that portable showers have come a very long way in recent years!

Colapz Rechargeable Camping Shower

Perhaps the best portable shower on the market right now is the Colapz Rechargeable Camping Shower. This budget-friendly option uses a pump and is recharged via USB. It comes complete with a showerhead, jet nozzle, and thumb trigger spray attachment, making it very versatile. Whether it is you who is in need of a rinse, or if the dog needs a hose down, the Colapz shower will stand up to the job!

11. Turn The Lights Off In Your Car

On the surface, this car camping tip seems like a no-brainer. However, you would actually be amazed at how easy it is to end up with a flat battery when you are sleeping in your car.

Bring Jump Cables

You’ll be opening your doors a lot so make sure your internal lights are set to permanently off. In case the worst happens, make sure you’ve packed jump cables so that you can get your car started even if you have accidentally killed the battery.

Bring Portable Lights

Now that you’re no longer using your inside lights, you’ll need to consider alternatives. Fairy lights are a good option that’s always a hit with kiddy campers. For a low-cost practical option, simply place a head torch around a bottle of water, with the light shining inwards. This will provide a bright light, ideal for car camping.

12. Know What Permits You Need

Some campsites may be open to permit holders only, so make sure you have obtained any relevant permissions in advance. It is possible that you may need to display some kind of official documentation in your vehicle, so it is wise to check this before you set off, in case you need to print anything.

Fire Permits

In some areas, you may also be requested to apply in advance for a fire permit from the local land management authority. This is especially important in areas that are prone to forest fires. Always remember that just because there is a fire pit in your campsite, that is no guarantee that campfires are actually allowed.

Final Thoughts

Although car camping might seem easy when compared to backcountry camping, the temptation to use every available piece of extra space can actually make it more difficult than it needs to be. Luckily, after reading these car camping tips and tricks, you’ll be more than prepared for your next trip!

The key to car camping is to prepare in advance. Check out campsites online and only bring along items that will make you more comfortable, keep you entertained, and save space. While you can pack a lot of gear into a car, don’t forget that you will have to fit the rest of the family somewhere too!