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What Is Car Camping? (12 Car Camping Tips For Beginners)

Car camping means different things to different people. It covers a multitude of meanings, from camping at state parks and developed campsites to overlanding across the lonesome backcountry. There are as many definitions for car camping as there are people who enjoy the hobby.

For some, car camping is converting a vehicle into a pseudo-recreational vehicle. For others, it’s loading up gear and trekking the countryside while sleeping in their car. For others still, it’s driving to a designated campsite and pitching a tent.

Many hobbyists consider it car camping as long as you have access to your car whenever you want. In the article below, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about car camping, plus we’ll give you some beginners’ tips to help if you’re thinking about trying it out.

What Does Car Camping Mean?

Car camping means any kind of camping where your vehicle is visible and present, whether you’re sleeping in it or by it. This is unlike backpacking or thru-hikes, where you’re constantly on the move traveling by foot. While it can mean sleeping in your vehicle, it doesn’t mean that you must. 

For many people, car camping is simply driving to a developed campsite and pitching a tent while much of your gear remains in your car or at the campsite near your car. Others consider car camping a less expensive alternative to RVs, which are modified cars, vans, or trucks converted into a type of recreational living quarters where you sleep.

Is Car Camping Better Than Tent Camping?

Determining whether car camping is better than tent camping is a matter of opinion. It depends on how you define car camping and where you want to go. Many articles on the internet, for example, will include places like Walmart parking lots and truck stops as places to car camp.

A primary factor in determining if car camping is better is how well your vehicle is converted. If merely sleeping in your car is considered car camping, then it’s not better than tent camping. However, if you’re vehicle has been converted with modern conveniences like kitchens and beds and toilets, then it could be better than tent camping. 

Alternatively, if you’re looking to explore the depths of uncharted wilderness in State or National parks, then car camping might provide you with a little more adventure and solitude than a designated campsite. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, then, again, car camping might be better for you than tent camping.

For some, car camping and tent camping are really the same thing, but car camping is simply seen as the opposite of backpacking or hiking. Camping in a tent at a designated campground with your vehicle parked nearby and within your line of sight is considered car camping by most campers. Thus, for most, sleeping in a tent is a much more comfortable option than trying to sleep in your car.

Is Car Camping Comfortable?

Car camping can be comfortable. If your car or truck has enough room to lay down in, then it could even be more comfortable than sleeping in a tent. Car camping also keeps you out of the elements and allows you to control the temperature inside for comfort.

The first thing to consider about the comfort of car camping is the size of the vehicle you will use. Not only will you need room for yourself, but you’ll need room for your gear as well. The more gear you bring, the less room your vehicle will have. Therefore, smaller vehicles will likely be more uncomfortable than larger ones.

If your vehicle isn’t modified to house a bed of sorts, then you might find your vehicle a little cramped, even if you camp by yourself. Cars also won’t allow you the opportunity to stand up, which can get annoying after any extended period. 

There aren’t too many automobiles that will be large enough for an entire family to sleep, either. If you plan on more than two people, you may have to reconsider. Even rooftop tents and truck tents would not be conducive for more than one or two people.

Other Considerations 

Sleeping in a vehicle can be more comfortable in colder temperatures, because a car retains heat better than a tent. A car would also be more comfortable in wetter climates because it would keep you drier. Other than that, unless you’re camping solo, you’re probably going to be more comfortable in a tent. 

You also need to consider your cooking and toiletry needs. If you are planning on adventuring into the likes of forest service roads or more isolated wilderness, then you need to ask yourself how comfortable you will be without running water and public bathrooms?

Is Car Camping Safe?

Car camping is just as safe as tent camping, and maybe even more so. Sleeping in a car will give you better protection from the weather and potentially dangerous animals that could bother you in a tent. Having your car nearby will also allow you to leave quickly in case of an emergency.

If you are in cougar or bear territory, the steel frame of a car will protect you better than a nylon or canvas tent. If you have a rooftop tent or a truck tent, then you are up off the ground and away from smaller wildlife that might be a nuisance in the middle of the night. 

In the event of hazardous weather, your vehicle will offer a great deal more protection than the standard tent. It’s much safer to be in a vehicle rather than a tent during a thunderstorm. And if the weather turns cold, you can always start the engine and turn on your heater. 

You should, however, do your due diligence to ensure you are camping in a safe area. Be aware if you are in areas that are prone to flash floods. Stay away from ledges and cliffs. Avoid camping under things that hang overhead. A little common sense usually goes a long way to maintaining a safe and enjoyable camping experience. 

Pros Of Car Camping

1. Faster Entrance And Exit

Set up and tear down is faster when car camping. Unless you purchase a rooftop tent or add-on tent, there’s no campsite to set up or tear down. You don’t have to worry about trying to set a tent up in the dark if you arrive at your destination after the sun goes down. Nor do you have to spend a great deal of time pulling up tent stakes and breaking down tent poles before you can head home.

2. Car Camping Can Be Cheaper

Car camping is simple and minimal. You don’t need to buy a whole lot of gear in order to enjoy the great outdoors. You don’t have to purchase tents, cots, or sleeping bags, because your car and a couple of good blankets can do the trick.

3. Cars Are Waterproof

Many tents are waterproof, but a waterproof tent doesn’t even come close to stopping moisture when compared to your car. You won’t have to worry about water creeping inside your vehicle at night. You’re up off the ground, and barring any abnormal damage, your vehicle is sealed up tight

4. Car Camping Is Safe

If you’re camping in the wilderness where wildlife is a threat, then a car will provide more safety than a tent. Plus, you can always just start your engine and drive away if the threat is that close. 

When you camp in a tent, you’re more accessible to nocturnal wildlife, both big and small. Even raccoons and opossums are a viable threat, and both can be quite frightening, especially when they’re trying to make their way inside your tent in the middle of the night. Sleeping in a car is much safer. Plus, you can always just start your engine and drive away if the threat is that close. 

5. You Have More options

Car camping affords you the opportunity to sleep just about anywhere. With tent camping, you’re typically restricted to designated camping grounds or hiking trails. Because vehicles are so much less restricted, however, you could technically car camp just about anywhere. 

If you have an adventurous spirit, exploring the wilderness by car camping allows you to delve the depths of forests and lands most people will never lay eyes on. If you are a lover of nature, wildlife, and the outdoors, it can be an exhilarating experience.

Cons Of Car Camping

1. Lack Of Room

If you forego a tent, you’re likely going to be cramped, especially if you have multiple people in your vehicle. Tents are much roomier for stretching out or changing your cloths. Of course, you do have options of purchasing rooftop tents or van and truck tents that attach directly to your vehicle, but these can be both pricey and smaller when compared to ordinary ground tents. 

2. Limited Capacity

You can only squeeze so many people into your vehicle, so anything upwards of more than two people is just not feasible in many cases. Car camping significantly limits the number of people that can go on your trip, unless multiple vehicles are involved, and therefore isn’t conducive for those that have large families. 

With tent camping, on the other hand, you can purchase your tent based on the number of people involved in your camping expeditions. If camping is a family pastime, you’ll be much better off in a tent, especially if younger children are involved.

3. First Come, First Served

Some campgrounds operate on a first come, first serve basis, which means your vehicle must be present at the campsite in order to reserveyour spot. In some instances, this keeps you from being able to leave your campsite to go exploring because if you do, you could lose your spot. Unlike tent camping, you can just pitch your tent and then leave to go explore wherever you would like to go. 

Where Can You Go Car Camping?

Some of the best places you can go car camping are National Forests. While they have designated campsites, they also offer dispersed camping, which lets you camp just about anywhere you want. They offer a wide array of choices in some of the most enchanting wilderness areas across the country

If you’re not utilizing the designated campsites, you won’t have amenities like picnic tables and fire pits, nor facilities like restrooms. But if your vehicle is set up well enough, this shouldn’t be a problem. 

State parks and private camping grounds are also great places to go car camping, with many primitive campsites available in secluded areas. Sometimes, Tribal Lands are available for camping, but management is often hit or miss, so it really depends on how much time and patience you have. 

First Experience

Suppose you’re looking for the best of both worlds and you’d like an opportunity to get an early start for tomorrow’s hike-thru. Car camping at trail heads is a great way to get a head start. You don’t have to worry about tearing down your site and packing up before heading out. You can just get up, put on your pack, and go. 

Another option is to search for more rugged campgrounds that are located off dirt roads that offer primitive sites. Besides backpacking and hiking trails, you can car camp pretty much anywhere you would normally pitch a tent, and anywhere else your vehicle might take you.

12 Tips To Start Car Camping For Beginners

1. Design Your Layout

Decide if you will modify your vehicle. If you have an SUV or van, you might consider removing any middle seats. You can also build a bed platform to overcome any unevenness in the flooring of your vehicle. You may want a roof-rack water storage system for showering and cooking. Consider how you will dispose of your wastes and garbage and how you will prepare your meals.

There are a ton of DIY designs on the internet for recreational vehicle conversions, and they can be done relatively cheap and without an abundance of skill. Give some serious thought as to how you can organize all your gear and still maintain enough room for sleeping comfortably.

2. Create Your Pack List

Develop your pack list and determine what items you will need to take. Think about how many days you’ll be gone and the activities you will perform on each day to help ensure that you have everything you need. 

For example, in many camping routines, people have coffee first thing in the morning. As they create their pack list, they mentally run through their routine and itemize all the things they will need to make coffee: pot, coffee, water, fire, drinking cup, spoon for measuring coffee, etc.

Then they consider all the things they need to clean up afterward, again itemizing each need on their pack list: cloth or sponge for cleaning dishes, water, biodegradable soap, etc. Think about the food you will eat, how you will store it, and how you will cook it. As you run through each scenario, write down the items that you will need to take to accomplish each task.

3. Know What Permits You Will Need

You’ll need to research the area where you plan on staying and acquire any permits you may need. Some parks require you to display parking passes or other permits so they are visible to any authorities that may pass your way. Some places will require you to have a camping permits or park passes.

4. Find A Flat, Open Spot

You’ll want to find a level spot so you’re not sleeping at an angle. Shade is also preferable to maintain a comfortable climate. You also want to find an open area that will make it easy to get in and out, plus enough room for any exterior items you will bring along like chairs, camp tables, stoves, tents, or hammocks.

5. Keep Your Electronics Charged

While you can always charge your electronics when your car is running, it’s a little more challenging when you’re stationary for extended periods of time. Consider purchasing solar chargers or portable powering devices to keep your electronics full of juice if you plan on using them while you’re car camping

6. Consider Your Menu

You will either need to plan a menu that doesn’t have perishable items or figure out a way to keep any perishable foods cold. You’ll likely need a cooler you can keep in your car for a variety of items. It’s a good idea to pre-cool the items as well as the cooler before packing whenever possible. 

You might want to invest in a car cooler that can be chilled through your vehicle’s cigarette lighter, or a generator. On hot, sunny days, you won’t have access to ice at your fingertips, so plan ahead. Ice can melt fast in the blazing sun.

Consider freezing a bunch of water bottles. Not only do they help keep food items cool, but they also provide cold drinking water as they thaw. Just make sure you pour out a little of the water before you freeze them. Otherwise, they can expand and burst during the freezing process. 

7. Crack A Window At Night

Slightly cracking a window when you go to bed at night will prevent condensation build-up on the inside of your vehicle. For this reason, you’ll also need some mesh or mosquito netting to cover the crack and keep the bugs out. If you open two windows, you can get a nice cross breeze while you sleep.

8. Use Window Coverings

Your vehicle allows more light inside than a tent does, so unless you want to get up at the crack of dawn, you’ll need some sort of window covering to keep the light out. Not only does this keep your interior darker, but it also provides a privacy barrier that prevents others from being able to see inside your vehicle.

9. Leave No Trace

Regardless of what kind of camping you do, it’s always a good idea to practice the Leave No Trace principles. As a camper, you’re entering something else’s biome as a visitor. Treat their home the same way you would want your home to be treated. Respect their environment and clean up after yourself. Have a plan for taking care of your garbage and waste.

10. Leave Space Between Your Food And Your Bed

It’s a good idea to keep at least 200 feet between where you cook and where you sleep. Many animals are nocturnal and it’s not uncommon for them to explore your campground at night. They will be attracted to any food smells, so this extra space keeps them away from where you’re sleeping. 

11. Campfire Safety

Camping and campfires go together like hands and gloves. You simply just can’t have one without the other. However, it’s important to be aware of any warnings or prohibitions in the area. Some places will also require you to have your own wood so as not to disturb the environment. It’s crucial you know how to properly maintain and extinguish campfires, especially before you leave your camp. 

12. Invest In A Camp Shower

Not only is hygiene good practice against disease and sickness, but it also just feels good at the end of the day. There’s nothing worse than going to bed sweaty and dirty. Whether it’s a do-it-yourself version or one that you buy, make sure your car camper can provide a way to wash up at the end of the day.

15 Essential Pieces Of Car Camping Gear

1. Bedding

Whether it’s a bedroll or a quilt, you’ll need to have some sort of bedding to hunker down in for the night. A sleeping bag, pad, and pillow are all typical bedding items. One set of bedding can feel completely different than another, so try a few out to find the one most comfortable for you.

2. Light Source

You’ll need a way to see in the dark, especially if mother nature calls. Whether it’s headlamps, flashlights, or lanterns, you’ll want something to help you see. Stringing the inside of your vehicle with LED string lights is a nice way to add soft light to your campsite. 

3. Chairs

You’ll want a comfortable place to sit outside, especially if you’re camping in an area that doesn’t offer picnic tables. Plan on having a way to relax around your campsite. Hammocks are a good idea, too, if there’s a way to string them up. It’s a good alternative for an afternoon nap or a way to stargaze at night. 

4. Table

You’ll want something to prepare your meals and stuff on. Folding camping tables work best because they’re nice and compact and don’t take up too much room. There is a wide variety of camping tables available in many sizes, so finding on that works for you shouldn’t be hard.

5. Camp Kitchen

You’ll need a camp kitchen for cooking. Besides your stove and fuel source, you’ll need something to cook in, something to eat on, utensils, and something to drink from. You’ll also need a washbasin, soap, cloth, and towels for cleaning up. Also consider any additional items you may need like aluminum foil, spices, and can openers.

6. Fire And Fuel Source

Depending on what kind of cooking you’ll be doing, you need a fuel source, whether it’s charcoal, propane, gas, or wood. You also need a way to start your fire. Pack both matches and lighters, because it’s always a good idea to have more than one source fire. If you’re using charcoal or wood, don’t forget to pack any fire starter you may need.

7. Water

Not only do you need water for drinking, but if you are primitive camping, you’ll also need enough water for cleaning yourself, your dishes, and your clothes. The rule of thumb is two gallons of water per person per day to fulfill your drinking, cooking, and washing needs.

8. Food

Plan your menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Don’t forget your drinks and snacks. You may need a cooler and ice to keep it all in. It also never hurts to have a little extra in the event of an emergency. As already mentioned, if you will be consuming perishable items, you also need to plan a way to keep them cold.

Ice eventually melts, and if you’re delving deep into the wilderness, you won’t have the opportunity to replenish it. If your adventure will last multiple days, plan your menu using perishable items at the beginning of your trip, and non-perishable items towards the end to compensate for the lack of ice.

9. Clothes

You’ll need enough clothing for your excursion. Ideally, you want moisture-wicking clothing. Dressing in layers is a great way to adjust for swings in temperature, so don’t forget your jacket. It’s also a good idea to have some sort of wet weather gear as well as a hat for sun protection. Plenty of socks are a must to keep your feet warm and dry.

10. Hygiene Kit

Think about what you use every day and pack it. You probably want hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, biodegradable soap, deodorant, fingernail clippers, and tweezers. You need a cloth or loofa and a towel for bathing. 

Don’t forget toilet paper and any feminine hygiene products. Wet wipes are always nice to have on hand for quick and easy cleanup. Many car campers pack their sunscreen, lip balm, and insect repellent with their hygiene products. This is also a good spot to keep any personal medications you might be taking. 

11. Sanitation

If there are no public restrooms, you’ll need a way to dispose of your waste. This could be a camp toilet or a poop tube, but you need to have a plan. You will also need to consider how you will store your waste until you leave your campsite. You’ll need to plan on packing out human waste and used toilet paper and hygiene products. Ziplock bags are great for storing used TP and hygiene products.

12. First-Aid Kit

It’s always a good idea to have a first-aid kit on hand. Preparedness is the key to successful car camping adventures, and you should have one in your car anyway for roadside emergencies. Some people also like to keep a sewing kit or repair kit for any gear or clothing that may need mending.

13. Navigational Items

Depending on how far out you’re camping, many campers like to have navigation tools such as maps, compasses, or GPS items. If you’re going to pack these items, first make sure you know how to use them, and make sure you have a way to keep them charged if they are electronic.

14. Toys

Depending on where you’ve planned your adventure, you may have bikes, kayaks, fishing gear, hiking gear, or other outdoor toys to bring along. Make sure you organize your space around any additional outdoor recreational items you plan on bringing along.

15. Trash Bags

Whatever you pack in, you’ll pack out. You’ll accumulate a lot of garbage from the first day from toilet waste to food to dirty laundry. Trash bags are a must-have to leave your campsite just as pristine as the way you found it. You are a guest in the wilderness, and you should leave it the way you found it. 

Final Thoughts

Car camping is when your car is the centerpiece of your campsite rather than a tent. Car camping can be a very exciting adventure. It allows you to explore places you may otherwise never see. However, proper planning is the key to ensuring your adventure is comfortable, safe, and fun.