Your Most Epic Car Camping Guide

Now that more and more people are ditching conventional lifestyles for #vanlife, the internet has been exploding with those sharing their new setups. Oh, the inspiration!

But if you aren’t quite ready to totally commit to van life for a longer period of time and want to try your hand at car camping instead, we’ve got you covered.

Here’s your most epic car camping guide, complete with safety tips and how to create your home away from home in your own vehicle:

Privacy Is Key

For me, having privacy is the key to being able to relax while camping. I find it hard to concentrate on anything else if I feel like I have nowhere to go to be alone in peace. Anybody else?

Here are a couple tips for making your car camping setup a bit more private:

  • Make a privacy shade: If you’re planning to sleep in your car, consider making a DIY window shade (or several) for privacy. All you need is some mesh material and suction cups. Cut the material to the size of your window(s) and secure the suction cups at each corner. Then, you can put up your shade whenever you want some privacy.
  • Use a wind tarp: If you are tent camping, you can set up a wind tarp a few feet outside the door of your tent to create an extra barrier between your door and passersby. A shade tarp also works great if you can set it up directly in front of your door.

Your Bed, Your Sanctuary

valley of the gods
Out in the middle of nowhere Utah – Not a bad camping spot!

If you’re used to backpacking, car camping feels luxurious, since the sky’s the limit when it comes to making your sleeping area more comfortable. Having all that extra room that a car affords means you can bring your biggest, nicest tent and your cushiest air mattress. Having all the fixins to get really comfy at night is the best part.

Car Sleeping

  • Make sure your car is well equipped: If you are committed to sleeping inside your vehicle, I’m guessing you have thought through how to do so. That said, make sure your sleeping surface is well suited to your car. A super thick air mattress, for example, might put you so close to the ceiling that you can’t sit up. Test out different arrangements before you head out, to make sure you’ll be comfortable.
  • Choose your location wisely: Make sure to choose a place to sleep where you won’t be disturbed. A popular app that many travelers use is The Dyrt, which helps locate the best camping spots in your area.
  • Sleep with your head elevated: If you end up parking somewhere that isn’t flat, make sure to arrange yourself so that your head is at the highest part of the vehicle. This not only is more comfortable in general but also helps keep you from getting sick.

Tent Sleeping

  • Bring more blankets than you need: Take advantage of all the space that your car offers you by bringing extra blankets and pillows. If it ends up being warmer than you expected at night, just use them underneath your sleeping surface for some added cushion.
  • Test your air mattress: If you’re bringing an air mattress or blow-up sleeping pad, check it before your trip to make sure it doesn’t have any holes. It’s annoying to have to blow it up each night only to end up on the ground in the morning regardless.

Staying Safe

Safety first, always

Especially if you are camping alone, it is important to have a solid safety plan. I don’t normally focus on all the things that could go wrong while I’m traveling, but it’s always helpful to be prepared for anything:

  • Download offline maps: Make sure you download a map of the area you’re camping in to your phone beforehand. Maps.me is a great app for that; these maps work great when you don’t have cell signal.
  • Bring a paper map: Having an offline map is great, but have a backup paper map as extra protection against getting lost in the wilderness.
  • Share your live location with loved ones: If you are going somewhere where you’ll have phone signal, share your live location with one or two people you trust, so that someone always knows where you are, especially if you’re traveling solo. If you are going somewhere even more remote, make sure you know exactly where you plan to be so you can give someone that info. Tell your circle when you’re planning on being back, so they know to check in on you or if you’re overdue.
  • Keep your phone charged: Even if you know you won’t have a signal, always have a plan (and a backup plan) for how you will keep your phone charged while you’re camping. Bring a power bank with you, and make sure it’s all charged up before you leave.
  • Bring an extra set of car keys: Trust me, you do not want to get locked out of your vehicle while you’re in the great outdoors enjoying your camping trip. To avoid this, make a copy of your car keys and keep them in a safe place, separate from the original set. This can be in a pocket of your tent, in the wheel well of your car, or just in a separate bag.

The Nitty-Gritty of Keeping Clean

iceland packing list

For many people, being dirty and grubby while traveling can easily put them in a bad mood. After all, isn’t it kind of hard to concentrate on anything else if your own BO is distracting you? All jokes aside, though, personal hygiene is one of the biggest concerns of people who want to get out into nature. Here are a few tips:

  • Baby-wipe showers: If you’re planning on being far removed from modern amenities, you might be wondering how you’ll be able to shower. The easy answer is that you won’t. If you have a stream or spring nearby that you can take a dip in, though, great! Just avoid bringing soap and whatnot into the water, as they can pollute it. Instead opt for some baby wipes, or bring zero-waste cloth wipes.
  • See if nearby campsites will lend you a shower: If you don’t want to stay at a campsite but want to be able to shower, see if any campsites near you will allow you to buy a shower. Some will charge a small fee to let non-campers use their facilities, so make sure to check into this option ahead of time.
  • Bring a small shovel and plenty of TP: In case you find yourself in the wilderness with no bathroom nearby, pack a small shovel so you can dig a hole big enough to do your business in. Make sure to bring plenty of toilet paper — but don’t toss it wherever you use the bathroom. Instead, bring a designated “used TP” bag to dispose of it later.
  • Period preparation: Try using a menstrual cup or period-proof underwear like Thinx instead of traditional period products. Not only are they both low-waste options but I find they are more comfortable overall.

Finding a Place to Park

Location is perhaps one of the most important aspects of car camping. There are many factors to consider when finding that perfect spot to park for the night:

  • Consider how far you want to be: There are plenty of places in the US on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and even in national parks where you can get very far away from civilization, campsites, and park ranger posts as you are comfortable. This might not be for everyone, but if you do decide to go out into the wilderness, make sure you prepare yourself…
  • Know if you can get there: On some BLM lands, there aren’t always paved roads to where you want to camp, so make sure to investigate beforehand whether your vehicle will be able to make it there or not. You don’t want to risk your car getting stuck somewhere in the wilderness with no cell signal to call for help.
  • Do your research: Make sure to check if you need any special permits to camp where you’re headed, as some places require them. Also check to see if there are any fire bans in effect, as some areas occasionally put these in place to reduce the risk of forest fires.
  • Check in with the rangers: It is completely legal to camp on BLM land, but it’s always best to check in at the local ranger station to ask for advice on where to camp.
  • Arrive during the day: Whenever possible, try to arrive in the daytime, so you can easily see where you are going and avoid pitching your tent in the dark.

Cooking Like a Pro

Backpacker’s food: only slightly disappointing sometimes

Especially if you’re planning on camping in a remote location, having adequate food and the means to prepare it is key. If not, you’re doomed to be hangry and potentially dehydrated your entire trip. Here are a couple of ways to make sure you won’t go hungry:

  • Bring nonperishables: It’s most likely that you won’t have access to refrigeration while camping, and your fully stocked cooler will only stay cold for so long without a source of fresh ice. Make sure to have plenty of dried, freeze-dried, canned, or vacuum-sealed foods on hand. You can even find powdered foods, like potatoes, which just need water to rehydrate them. REI has a great selection of camping foods that don’t require refrigeration.
  • Try your food first: Imagine getting to your campsite, cracking open one of the meals that you just bought, and discovering that it tastes horrible. Test out a couple different brands before your trip, or give your recipes a try at home before you head out. If you need some guidance, check out our camping food ranking to see which meals we recommend.
  • Plan your meals: If you do bring a cooler and some perishable items, plan on eating those first. A cooler is great to have at the beginning of your trip for storing fruits and veggies, or even meat and dairy. Just make sure to go for those foods first, before your nonperishables, which will last longer.
  • Know how you’re going to cook your meals: Check your campsite ahead of time to see if you’ll be able to have a fire to cook on. Even if you’re planning to cook over an open flame, you should still bring a camping stove and backup fuel with you, just in case it rains or you can’t cook over a fire like you planned to.
  • Water! Having your vehicle with you means you should have plenty of room to bring more than enough water. This is one of the most important things, not only for cooking but also safety!

Packing

We have a great car camping packing list with everything you might need to bring with you. Here are a couple extra tidbits to help you level up your packing:

  • Light source: Bring a Luci lantern or string lights that are either USB or solar powered. This makes a big difference at night, when the last thing you want to do is fumble around in the dark using your phone’s flashlight. I also recommend having a headlamp for nighttime trips to the bathroom.
  • Power source: Maybe you have an adapter to charge your phone in your car, but do you really want to be starting your car every time you need to charge up? Consider investing in a solar charger that you can easily prop up on the roof of your vehicle during the day. At night, you’ll be able to charge your phone or bluetooth speaker much more easily.
  • Suitable clothing: Not only should you keep the weather in mind while packing but also the types of activities you will be doing. Nobody wants to get to a gorgeous lakeside campsite and realize they left their swimsuit at home. Bring plenty of light layers that you can take on and off as the temperature changes. Don’t forget to bring a rain jacket and waterproof shoes as well, in case it’s wet.

Leave No Trace

backpacking tips

For me, the best part of enjoying the outdoors on a camping trip is finding a spot that looks totally untouched. No trash left behind, no fire pits still smoking, and no random turf-claiming graffiti. Camping without leaving a trace is totally possible with these expert tips:

  • Avoid making trash in the first place: Before getting into how to avoid leaving trash behind, first consider how to avoid making any. There are plenty of reusable options for straws, cutlery, storage bags, you name it. Now that #zerowaste has really taken off, companies are starting to catch on and create reusable alternatives to single-use items. Stock up on these before you head out.
  • Separate your organic and inorganic waste: If you already compost at home, you know what I mean by this. You should separate fruit and veggie scraps from any plastics, paper, or other inorganic waste. Collect your compost in a separate container and dispose of it somewhere where it is appropriate to do so. You can even bury it under at least 8 inches of dirt, just like you would if you were going #2. Just make sure it’s far from your campsite.
  • Pack it in, pack it out: This is a common phrase that is quite simple to understand. Whatever you bring with you, you take when you leave. This includes trash: keep it in a bag or a bin and take it with you until you can find an appropriate place to dispose of it. Check and double-check your campsite for stray stakes or anything else you might have accidentally left behind.

Car camping allows for more freedom and the ability to bring along much more than you could if you were backpacking. Let us know what your expert tips are for making the best car camping setup!

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