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Best Car Camping Gear List (18 Essential Must Haves)

Car camping is a popular and convenient way to camp. But although driving to the campsite lets you bring more gear than if you were hiking there, it’s still important to pack wisely for the best experience. Some items need to stay at home, while others are must-haves on your trip car camping trip.

18 essential pieces of car camping gear are:

  1. Tent
  2. Sleeping bag
  3. Sleep pad
  4. Trunk organizer
  5. Tool kit
  6. First aid kit
  7. Camp stove
  8. Cookware
  9. Cutlery
  10. Wet wipes
  11. Shower
  12. Cargo rack
  13. Awning
  14. Camping lanterns
  15. LED headlamp
  16. Portable speaker
  17. Power station
  18. Day pack

Of course, it’s likely that you won’t be able to fit all of this into the car. However, you will be able to pick and choose from this list of essentials depending on your trip. Below, we go through these car camping essentials in more detail, to prepare you for your next trip.

What Is Car Camping?

Car camping is when you use your vehicle to get to the campground and have access to it during your stay. You don’t haveto sleep in the vehicle, though some people choose to. The most important thing is that the car acts as transportation and an accessible storage space for all your gear.

There are many different ways to car camp, each one catering to different types of campers. From serene national parks to rest stops along the highway, you can car camp almost anywhere. Most people choose a destination campsite to drive to, but others simply find one along the way.

Car camping can be a great budget-friendly alternative to staying in a hotel, or simply the result of a spontaneous stop at a beautiful location.

What Do You Need For Car Camping?

No matter your reasons for camping out in the car, you’ll need some basic necessities. Luckily, these won’t be too difficult to find. Camping enthusiasts probably already have the bare minimum at home, and the rest can be found easily enough in your local sporting goods store or online.

Shelter

Some campers use the car itself for shelter, but you want to have a backup plan just in case. Cars can be notoriously uncomfortable if you don’t have a specialized mattress and equipment. Stretching out in a larger tent will help your back stay happy and provide you with a bit more room to roll around in.

You can bring a car tent or a rooftop tent to save space at the campsite. You should also make sure to take along some tarps with you in case of rain, and a ground cover to keep moisture at bay. But you don’t have to stop there – why not make your shelter a bit nicer?

You have your car, so bringing an air mattress or inflatable sleeping pad is totally doable. Plush sleeping bags and pillows will keep you nice and comfy overnight, while extras like hammocks, tables, and camping chairs will feel downright luxurious during the day.

Food

When you’re camping with a car, you can have a lot more fun with your food and kitchen supplies. Instead of a tiny backpacking stove, you can bring along a double-burner camping stove and extra cooking gas to cook three hot meals per day.

You can plan for campfire cooking with heavy-duty steel cookware or even a cast-iron Dutch oven. You’ll have room for charcoal and lighter fluid, extra ice, cutting boards, and everything else you need to cook any kind of meal you could desire.

You’ll have more freedom with food storage, so you can bring a bigger cooler to fit more food and stock up on larger items. Big bags of chips and popcorn are a no-go when hiking into your campsite, but when you arrive by car you can bring it all. Likewise, heavy cans and jugs are also easy to bring by vehicle.

Equipment

If you’re driving out to a campsite for a few days, you can take all sorts of fun equipment along with you. Of course, you need to bring the basics to set up your campsite, but extras you would normally leave at home like mood lighting and speakers can be tossed in along with the rest.

You also get to think about heavy-duty kitchenware, comfortable clothes, and rechargeable devices like phones and laptops to use for entertainment. Car camping gives you wiggle room to take along the battery packs or camping generator necessary to charge up your equipment, so you can bring as many electronics as your power source can handle.

It’s a good idea to think about the amenities at your camping facility before you pick up your equipment, so you can fill in the gaps where you know you’ll be lacking some comfort. For example, things like a camping shower could be helpful if your campsite doesn’t have one. And if you’re going out in the wild without water, you’ll need water jugs to fill it.

18 Essential Pieces Of Car Camping Gear

1. Tent

Roomy | High Ceiling | Large Vestibule

Having a car gives you a lot of leeway to bring along a good tent. Since carrying it won’t be an issue, focus on comfort instead of weight. Go for a big tent you can set up quickly. A shelter that offers lots of storage room and space to relax in will be much better than a compact or lightweight tent.

Even if you plan on sleeping inside your car, it’s still a good idea to bring a tent. You can relax in it during the day and use it to store your things in case of rain. You could opt for a standalone tent or you could get a car tent that attaches to the trunk of a hatchback or the bed of a truck.

There are also rooftop tents that attach to the roof of your vehicle. These are good for when you’re in a tight spot and don’t have room to spread your camp out, but they shouldn’t be your go-to. You’ll have the best experience with an oversized tent you can move around in.

2. Sleeping Bag

Plush | Square Shape | Temperature-Appropriate

Your sleeping bag will keep you warm at night, so don’t leave it at home. Choose your bag based first on the season. How cold will it get at night? Winter car campers will want a bag with a lower temperature rating to stay warmer, while summer campers can go with something lighter to avoid getting too hot. Once you’ve figured out the temperature, focus on luxury.

Sleeping bags are good to lay on top of on a lazy afternoon, and you want to be comfy on this trip. Two square sleeping bags can zip together easily if you want to cozy up with your camping buddy during the night. Even if you’re going solo, it’s better to get a square-shaped bag rather than a cocoon one so your legs have more room.

While it may be tempting, don’t exchange your sleeping bag for a regular blanket. Even when you’re camping in your car, a sleeping bag is still a better option than a comforter or quilt. They compress down for easy storage in the trunk, and they stay cleaner because of the material they’re made out of.

3. Sleep Pad

Self-Inflating | Open-Cell | High R-Value

When you’re planning to sleep on the ground, you need a solid sleeping pad. Even if you’ll be inside a hatchback or truck bed, your mattress pad will protect you from hard seats and cold temperatures. For the best sleep possible, opt for a bulkier, heavier pad that cushions and insulates.

Self-inflating, open cell sleeping pads are widely recognized as the best for car camping. These marry all the comfortable qualities of an air mattress with the utility of a backpacking pad. They generally need only a few breaths to fully inflate and rely on an open-cell structural design to provide cushioning and comfort.

Lastly, make sure to check the R-Value of your sleeping pad. This is basically a temperature rating for the pad, and the value system runs 1-6. The higher the R-Value, the warmer you’ll be on the pad. Not every brand subscribes to the R-Value system, and those that don’t will have their own way of rating it. As long as you double-check, you’ll be able to figure it out pretty intuitively.  

4. Trunk Organizer

Mesh | Multiple Compartments | With Lid

A trunk organizer can make your life so much easier when car camping. Rather than tossing all your necessities into the back of the car willy-nilly, you can use a trunk organizer for storage. Make sure to get a big organizer with multiple compartments so you can sort and separate your items before stowing them away neatly.

When you need your things, you’ll know exactly where they are. Fortunately, if you’re prone to forgetting where you left your possessions, most trunk organizers have mesh components. You’ll be able to see right through a mesh organizer, easily locating everything you want. Items like toiletries, kitchen gear, and other things will all be clearly visible.

The trunk organizer can also streamline your sleep setup if you’re sleeping inside the car. Rather than removing every single item from the trunk by hand and putting it on the ground, just take out the whole organizer. The lid will keep all your items safe from rain and any camp critters who might come knocking.

5. Tool Kit

Tire Repair | Mechanic Set | Air Compressor

A tool kit is something you need both for your car and while camping. If you don’t have one already, this is the perfect time to pick one up! Carrying a mechanic set with drivers, sockets, and wrenches will really help you out if a screw comes loose in your caror in your camping gear.

Having the power to fix it yourself by pulling out your handy tool kit will give you peace of mind knowing you’re embarking on a truly independent journey. If you really want to be self-sufficient, you should also have a tire patching kit. That way, you don’t have to rely on outside assistance if you get a flat.  

Keeping a small air compressor along with the tire repair kit will really seal the deal. You can use the compressor for airing up a flat tire if you have one, but you can also use it to inflate an air mattress or beach ball for fun and games.

6. First Aid Kit

Medicine | Bandages | Antibiotic Cream

Don’t skimp on the first aid kit. Just like a mechanic’s tool kit can repair your car and gear, a first aid kit can repair you – arguably a much more vital endeavor. The good news is, first aid kits are extremely common and fairly inexpensive.

You can pick one up at any outdoor shop as you buy your supplies, or you can just grab one from the local pharmacy whenever you stop in. Many gas stations carry first aid kits, so there’s really no excuse not to have one. Even if you don’t end up needing it, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

You can even make your own first aid kit with household supplies. The big ones to include are bandages and antibiotic ointment, as these can prevent infection from setting in when you get scraped or burned. It’s also a good idea to carry along some over-the-counter pain meds like aspirin and have an antiseptic wash to clean out any wounds.

7. Camp Stove

Double-Burner | Propane | Integrated Ignition

The stove is an integral part of your kitchen. Since you have the freedom to bring along all sorts of food, it makes sense to choose a stove that’s quick and easy to cook on. For that reason, go with a larger model. A double-burner stove rather than a standard single will let you fry up all sorts of goodies on your trip. Eggs in one pan, pancakes in the other – you catch the drift.

When choosing your stove, make sure it has adequate space between the burners. This is especially important for bigger groups or true gourmets, as some smaller stoves don’t have enough space between the burners to accommodate larger skillets and pots. You don’t want to be stuck with a double-burner stove you can only use to cook one thing at a time.

You should also consider your fuel source. Propane is easily accessible, inexpensive, and efficient, so choosing a propane-powered stove is the best move. Get one with an automatic ignition so you don’t have to relight it manually if it gets blown out, and choose extras like a windscreen so you don’t have to worry about the elements messing up your perfect pot of stew.

8. Cookware

Stainless Steel | Non-Coated | Heat-Resistant

You don’t have to buy a separate set of cookware for car camping, but it is recommended. Your pots and pans will get used hard. They won’t be cleaned as well as they would at home, and they could be subjected to scrapes, dents, and open flames. With all that in mind, get durable cookware. Most prefer cast iron because it imparts a nice flavor and stands up to heat quite well.

However, if you’re not already accustomed to using cast iron, go for stainless steel or aluminum. Steel or aluminum cookware is also durable, but it’s cheaper and easier to care for than cast iron. You can pick some up at your local thrift store for a few dollars, and that way you won’t be too gutted when it inevitably gets damaged.

Ultimately, your cookware is a personal choice. You need to choose pieces based on what you’ll be cooking and how many people you need to feed. Be careful not to overdo it on the cookware. Taking a ten-gallon soup pot for a party of one is overkill. Bring along everything you want, but there’s no need to invest money in an all-inclusive set for a weekend camping trip.

9. Cutlery

Titanium | Individual Pieces | Stowable

Don’t forget to bring the cutlery. It deserves its own special section, because so many people do it the wrong way. You don’t want to splurge on a combination knife-spork multitool to eat your dinner unless you absolutely have too. Trying to cut your steak with a serrated spoon gets old very quickly.

Invest in a camping cutlery set which has a dedicated knife, fork, and spoon. It’s smart to buy one with a case or storage compartment, as cutlery is easy to lose and you want to keep it all together. If you’re on a budget, you can bring cutlery from home in a Ziplock baggie.

The best material for weight and durability is titanium, with stainless steel coming in a strong second. If you’re planning on serving meals at the campsite, don’t forget serving utensils and dishes. These are ultimately less important, but larger parties don’t want to get stuck without them.  

10. Wet Wipes

Biodegradable | Unscented | Alcohol-Free

Wet wipes are a must-have when car camping. Instead of wasting your water supply, you can remove dirt, dust, makeup, and other debris with a refreshing wipe rather than messy toilet paper. If you’re going somewhere cold and you don’t want to get wet, these wipes can double as an instant shower in no time flat.

Once you start using wet wipes in the wild, they’ll become an instant necessity on any trip. But you don’t want to go with just any wipes. To avoid this being swarmed by insects, go with unscented wet wipes. Alcohol-free wipes will prevent itching, burning, and stinging from harsh chemicals, and biodegradable wet wipes will mitigate trash and litter in case you happen to leave one behind.

11. Shower

Solar | Pressure Pump | 2+ Gallon

Heading out for longer than a day or two? You’ll probably get pretty grubby as you roam around outside, and your campsite may not have a shower available. If you bring along your own portable camping shower, you can wash off easily and stay clean and fresh the whole time. You can also use the shower to wash dishes and do laundry.

You want a durable shower with at least a 2-gallon water reservoir. This will generally provide you with a five-minute shower, which should be more than adequate for rinsing off. Some camping showers have a heating element that requires electricity, and some rely on the sun to heat the water bladder.

We would recommend opting for a solar shower. If it’s very cold at the site you won’t want to shower outside anyway, so having scorching-hot water isn’t so important. The water pressure on a camping shower will be pretty bad, so make sure to get one that has a foot pump for adding extra pressure to the bag.

12. Cargo Rack

Universal | Roof-Mount | Steel

Running out of room for all your necessities? You need a cargo rack. This handy attachment allows you to strap suitcases, trunks, and other equipment to the roof of your car. It’s especially essential for those bringing along bikes, kayaks, or other adventure gear, but regular campers can also reap the benefits.

Even if you don’t think you need one, having rooftop storage will free up so much car space you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. But you don’t want to pick the wrong rack and get stuck with a dud that’s more trouble than it’s worth. To avoid this issue, go for a universal-style steel cargo rack.

You can use it on any vehicle, and the steel guarantees it won’t warp under pressure from wind and rain. As long as you can attach items to your cargo rack with a strap, you can bring them. If you know you aren’t bringing along any special equipment, you can get a cargo box instead of a rack. These are lockable and provide a bit more security, but you’ll be limited by their shape and size.

13. Awning

UV-Blocking | Freestanding | Water-Resistant

When the going gets tough, the tough get under the awning. Having this protection from the rain and sun can help you stay comfortable in any weather. Since you’ll be using it for shade, you want a UV-blocking awning that won’t become brittle and crack when exposed to sunlight. Coated polyester or nylon will function much better than cotton or canvas.

A water-resistant awning will give you a break from the rain without confining you to your tent. You’ll be able to set up your camp table and chairs, play a game of cards, or cook a fine meal no matter the weather. There are various types of awnings, so pick one that works best for you.

Some campers prefer to use a retractable awning that attaches to their car roof or cargo rack, but most find that a freestanding awning is more convenient. You don’t have to install a cargo rack to use it, and you can easily take it with you even if you’re going in someone else’s vehicle. For best results, make sure your awning has a lightweight aluminum frame and attaches securely to the ground with stakes.

14. Camping Lanterns

Rechargeable | Hanging | Adjustable Brightness

You don’t want the day to end at sunset. Getting some lanterns will illuminate your campsite and allow you to cook, play games, or just hang out at night. You should get several lanterns and hang them strategically throughout the site, or just set them on the table if need be.

How many you’ll need depends on the size of your party and how big the area is, but having at least one per person will provide more than enough light. Get some rechargeable lanterns to eliminate the need for extra batteries. They save you money in the long run and are easier on the environment.

To set the sort of mood you want, it’s nice to get lanterns you can adjust the brightness on. They can have all sorts of features like solar chargers, LED bulbs, and more. Whichever lanterns you choose, just make sure you don’t use old-school kerosene or butane. These pose a pretty big fire hazard and aren’t worth the risk.  

15. LED Headlamp

Lightweight | 150+ Lumens | Red Light Mode

If you’re cutting up vegetables for soup, heading off to the woods in search of a bathroom, or rummaging through your bag looking for a tool, you need concentrated light. Lanterns and string lighting are great for general illumination, but they won’t provide much individual clarity.

A headlamp beats a flashlight 100 times over when you’re camping. It doesn’t require you to hold it, freeing up your hands to keep you safe, secure, and able to do everything you would normally do during the day. The best choice is a lightweight headlamp you can put on and adjust easily. It should have around 150 lumens of output, but you could probably get away with less if you need to.

LED bulbs are best because they last longer. You can take them on multiple camping trips before you have to change the batteries out. For best results, choose a headlamp with redlight mode. Red lighting is good because it preserves your night vision. You’ll be able to wake up, answer the call of nature, and go back to sleep without disturbing your eyes too much.

16. Portable Speaker

Waterproof | Dustproof | Bluetooth Integration

Music makes everything better. This holds especially true while camping, so leaving home without your speaker is a big no-no. But should you be loading a whole audio system in your car? No way. A portable Bluetooth speaker is more than sufficient to power your party in the great outdoors.

Since you will be outside, get a waterproof and dustproof speaker that can stand up to wind, rain, and dirt. Make sure it’s durable enough to survive hard falls on the ground, too. Many portable speakers nowadays come with all the features you need for car camping, so the one you buy will depend largely on your budget.

Just make sure your speaker of choice is powerful enough for your needs and durable enough to be left outside for a few days. It’s a good idea to get a bigger speaker that holds its charge for longer. Many of the smaller, less expensive models hold a charge for only a few hours, while the bigger ones can provide seamless sound for days on end without needing a recharge. 

17. Power Station

Plug-In Variety | Dual-Charge Options | High Capacity

When you’re camping out in a car, it can be pretty tempting to use your vehicle as a charging station. But unless you want to end up with a dead battery out in the boonies, it’s better to buy a portable power station for all your charging needs. So, what should you be looking for?

Your unit should have both USB ports and A/C outlets to charge everything you want. If you’re toting your laptop, minifridge, and other devices along with you, it’s good to get a high-capacity unit that provides a lot of power. Check the capacity on the unit you buy to make sure it’s sufficient. You may also want to consider a camping generator.

But in case you do run out, getting a solar-powered dual-charge station is a good idea. Dual-charge stations let you power up the battery at your house through a cord that plugs in to your wall, and again at the campsite through solar panels. This lets you turn free energy from the sun into a charge on your digital camera, and it’s a win-win for you and the environment.

18. Day Pack

Weather-Resistant | Water Reservoir | Lightweight

You’ll likely want to leave your car at some point. You want the freedom to hike, bike, and explore nature on your trip. But you also don’t want to leave behind all your food, water, and other supplies. What if you get thirsty or need a snack?

Bring along a day pack. Much smaller than a traditional hiker’s backpack, this type of bag is designed for day trips and smaller sojourns out into the wilderness. You can get a camel-style bag with a water reservoir, space for snacks, and a few pockets to hold essentials like your camera and phone. Ideally, your day pack should have a waist strap to help with weight distribution as well.

Make sure your day pack is lightweight so you can carry it easily and has a weatherproof coating on it just in case of rain, snow, or harsh sunlight. This will protect all the gear you stow inside it and prevent the bag itself from getting damaged. Budget-minded campers don’t have to feel left out – you can also just grab a school backpack and toss a garbage bag over it for a similar effect.

3 Things You Shouldn’t Bring Car Camping

1. Glassware

Don’t bring glass with you to any campsite. When glass breaks, it can cut your feet and damage the feet of any campers that come there in the future. Animals are also at risk, whether they’re your pets or they live full-time at the campground.

Even if you are in the habit of always wearing shoes, you can easily ruin your gear by setting it in broken glass. The tent bottom is especially vulnerable to broken glass. Luckily, you can mitigate this issue easily enough. Choose cans instead of bottles and plastic cups instead of glass ones.

2. Scented Products

Scented soaps, deodorants, candles, perfumes, and lotions should all be left at home. These can attract insects like flies and mosquitoes, and there’s nothing worse than getting bitten while you’re trying to relax. If you want to bring candles, go for unscented ones. Better yet, choose citronella for a natural insect repellant.

Scented products can also attract larger animals like raccoons, possums, and even bears. While animals aren’t usually a danger, you definitely don’t want to interact with them, as this can harm the local ecosystem. Instead, let yourself smell a bit wild for a few days. You might find you never go back to deodorant!

3. Expensive Items

Always use your best judgment to decide what to bring on your camping trip. Generally, it’s a bad idea to bring anything really expensive into the wilderness with you. High-priced things like your cell phone and the power station are essentials, but things like expensive watches and sunglasses usually aren’t necessary – they can get lost, stolen, or damaged all too easily.

Leave cash, jewelry, and superfluous electronics at home. High-fashion clothes are also a no-no, as they can get ruined by rain and sunlight. If you leave anything of value in your car while you go out hiking or swimming, make sure to lock it. Especially if the campground is crowded, there could be thieves to contend with.

Final Thoughts

Car camping gives you the opportunity to bring far more equipment with you than if you were hiking out to the campsite. The most important things you’ll need are shelter, food, and some extra amenities. Make sure your equipment is all durable enough to survive a few bumps and scratches, and you’ll be sure to have a pain-free car camping experience!