These are the car camping essentials you need to take on your next camping trip.
We love exploring the outdoors, especially to shoot the milky way in the summer. When it comes to camping, we will backpack if we have to (see backpacking essentials here), but we prefer the most comfortable route.
The nice thing about car camping is that you can bring as much as you want (as long as it fits in your car). Most of the time you can pull up right next to your campsite. We used to have a spacious tent set up for car camping, but since getting our Subaru, we’ve worked on having a solid set up to sleep in the car.
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Last Updated: January 5, 2023
21 Car Camping Essentials for Your Next Trip
Regardless of your set up, car camping allows for more comfort and luxuries, and since you’re not looking for the lightest, most compact gear, it’s usually more affordable too.
We’ve broken up our essentials into different categories and cover both, what we used for tent camping and what we currently use for camping in the car.
Sleeping in Your Car Camping Essentials
We bought really warm and light sleeping bags for backpacking. The ones we currently have are no longer sold, but here’s the updated version of ours. If you never intend to backpack, since weight won’t be a big issue, check out these sleeping bags for ones that much more reasonably priced.
Another option, and our current preference, is picking up a few blankets to use if temperatures aren’t too extreme. When it’s really cold, we’ll still bring our sleeping bags so we can either use them as a blanket or zip up if we’re getting too cold.
An air mattress makes for a comfy night’s rest. This is the air mattress we use when we’re in a tent. If it’s cold, you’ll want to avoid a mattress. The air inside will be so cold that you might as well be sleeping on the ground, we learned that the hard way.
If you plan on sleeping in colder weather, look for a sleeping pad with a higher R rating. Our favorites are REI and Exped sleeping pads.
In our car, we have a foam mattress that folds up so it’s easy to store. It didn’t fit perfectly, but it was easy to unzip and cut down two of the three panels to fit into our Ascent. We also picked up a carry case to store it when we’re not using it.
Pro Tip: For the air mattress, don’t forget to bring an extension cable and power adapter, so you can fill it up with your car.
We got a couple of Therma-Rest Compressible pillows for camping and they are awesome! They’ve changed the design since we picked them up, but now there are so many more designs and sizes to choose from.
If we’re traveling in a group and don’t have space for our car set up, or go to a location that doesn’t allow you sleep in a car, we bring our tent with us.
As much as we love our backpacking tent, it’s far from ideal for car camping. We can’t even bring our backpacks in with us since the tent is so small. For car camping, we picked up this cheaper 4-person tent so that we could fit our inflatable queen mattress! If you prefer to get a tent you can use for car camping and backpacking, check out the Highlander 2 Person Backpacking Tent from UST.
Pro Tip: Get a tent that’s a size or two larger to get plenty of space. Our 4-person tent fits our queen inflatable mattress, our two backpacks, and then some.
One of the reasons I much prefer sleeping in a car is that I hate bugs. I get stressed out about the idea of having to pee at night in the dark.
I discovered this Disposable Urinal a few years ago and always have some on hand now. I can pee without leaving the car and it comes in handy on long road trips with no bathroom stops too.
We carry our toothbrush, a mini tube of toothpaste, and some toilet paper in our 3-1-1 toiletry bag. We used to put them in ziplock bags but we carry our toiletry bag everywhere since it creates much less waste. For all our other liquids (shampoo, body wash, conditioner), we use our GoToobs, which we’ve used for years. They’ve been super reliable.
Also, don’t forget your sunblock (see our recent post about great natural and non-toxic sunblock alternatives) and bug repellent (wipes are handy to have too)!
Pro Tip: To save space, take out the cardboard portion of the toilet paper and flatten it. You can even just roll up a portion of the toilet paper if you don’t need the whole roll.
When we go camping, we have various lights that we bring with us for different purposes.
- Headlamps: Since I don’t like bugs, I don’t like using a lantern (MOTHS EVERYWHERE!). We typically stick with the campfire light and these headlamps to get around at night.
- Lantern: We do keep a lantern in the car so we can see when we’re changing or washing up. If you’re looking into getting one, you can get one that is solar charged and also charges your phone and other USB devices.
- Flashlight: Jacob has also been looking for a powerful flashlight, so we recently picked up this tiny one. It’s super bright, small, and rechargeable.
- String Lights (pictured below): We’ve been looking for some nice string lights to hang in our car and awning, so when we discovered the Mpowerd Solar String Lights we knew they would be the perfect fit. I love that they neatly store within themselves and they even released a colored version if you want a little pop in your photos. They’re really strong too.
One of my favorite things about camping is the smell of a campfire. To light a fire, you need matches or a flint. We’ve used both, but matches are definitely easier out of the two.
On our last trip, we had some of these Fire Starter’s packed in our car and they made starting a fire really easy.
A camping chair is essential for sitting around the campsite. We recently just got this Kickback Rocker which is so comfortable! I love that I can sit at our campsite and enjoy the smooth rocking motion.
We also have these stand-alone pop-up hammocks that we absolutely love. We’ll even put them up on our patio when the weather is nice.
You don’t really need a large backpack for car camping, but it’s nice to have a small one if you go out for a hike. We love using our REI Flash 18 Pack for day hikes and short excursions.
Pro Tip: We also recently picked up the Wandrd Veer so we can carry our camera gear too! It has an inflatable camera cube with easy access to the camera.
There are a few tools that are handy to have at a campsite. A knife is extremely helpful around the campsite. We recently just added this leatherman to our arsenal.
A shovel or trowel is also handy. You’ll need it to dig a whole if there are no bathrooms around, and they’re helpful when putting out a fire.
We also just picked up this machete with a sawtooth edge to use to cut wood and other items we need at the campsite.
An awning is a game changer when it comes to desert camping. Since shade can sometimes be hard to find, have the option to pop open our rooftop awning to escape the heat has completely changed the camping experience. We can’t wait to use it more!
If you’re going camping, you can still bring all your favorite foods and snacks with a New Air Electric Cooler. They come in three different sizes. We went with the 80 qt design so we have plenty of space.
You can control the temps in both zones so you can use one as a fridge and the other as a freezer, or have it all work one way or the other. Plus the LG Compressor ensures that you don’t have worry about running it on your car battery.
We use this Jetboil to make our Mountain House meals and instant noodles, since it boils water quickly! If you plan on cooking more, you’ll need different cookware. We’ve also gone camping with friends who have brought their full stoves, which makes it nicer when you’re cooking for bigger groups.
When we go car camping, if we’re not eating out at a local restaurant, we usually do a hearty eggs and bacon breakfast and eat our favorite Lasagna Mountain House or Shin cup ramen (we also recently discovered this plant-based protein ramen) for dinners. We also bring our fave road trip snacks and s’mores.
We have two types of water bottles we use. We have these insulated bottles to keep our drinks cool/warm longer. We also have these softbottles which are great for light weight travel. They roll up once you’re done with them. For longer trips, get a water storage tank that you use to refill your water bottles.
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to go looking for sticks in nature, don’t forget to bring reusable smores sticks.
Miscellaneous Car Camping Essentials
You never know what’s going to happen while you’re outdoors, so be sure to bring along a first-aid kit. We recently got this very complete first aid kit to have for any emergencies. We’ll leave it in our car for any time we need it.
The only addition we made to the kit is the Bug Bite Thing. We know some people who swear by it and can’t wait to have it handy for our next bug bites.
Pro Tip: After buying a kit, just refill what you use rather than buying a new one again.
To give us more space in the car, and also to allow us to leave our bed set up without having to take it down, we use a Yakima Skybox to store additional items like camping chairs. It gives us that extra space needed so it doesn’t feel cluttered inside. We also use this Think Tank Carryall Duffel to organize all our stuff and move it around easily.
Getting away is definitely about unplugging, but as photographers, we have a bunch of devices we need to keep charged so we added this Jackery Power Station + two solar panels to our car camping essentials kit. That means we can keep charged and have access to power at all times.
On top of that, we’re going to be using this at home as an emergency backup power!
NOTE: They are launching a new product that we can’t wait to check out. Here’s a teaser to the official launch.
Even though the weather may say it will be clear and sunny, it never hurts to be prepared. We really like our Arctery’x Rain Shells since they are light and pack away easily. We use them when we travel as well since they don’t take up much space.
These handy sunshades help keep the car cool during the day but also keeps critters out at night if you want to sleep with the windows open.
Flat tires, a dead battery, getting stuck, are all very possible scenarios when out in nature. Having a car emergency kit is important to have!
Car Camping Essentials - First Timer Tips
- If you plan on visiting multiple National Parks, pick up an annual pass.
- You don’t need everything to have a good time camping. If you’re new to it, buy a few things that are important to you and go with some experienced campers so you can share some of their tools.
- Do research on where you plan on camping. Some sites are first-come first-served, others are reservation only. For first-come first-served sites, it’s good to have a couple back up options in case they are all full.
- Fire safety is very important. Know the rules where you’ll be going. Some places don’t allow fires or require you to get an additional permit.
- Test and familiarize yourself with your gear before heading out. It’s much easier to figure things out in the comfort of your own home and with the internet easily available.
- Have plenty of wet wipes and hand sanitizer handy since there might not be a bathroom. We like to wipe down each day.
- You most likely won’t have phone service wherever you’re going, be sure to either download any maps you need or have a road atlas handy.
- Depending on how crowded the area is, if you plan on sleeping in the car, figure out a way to set up some privacy. We use a mix of sunshades and cardboard cut to fit the windows.
- Have a full tank. Gas can be sparse in outdoor areas, so fill up when you have a chance.
- Bring more water than you think you need. It’s better to have extra than to run out.
- Pack it out. Please keep our outdoor spaces clean and pack out any and all trash that you create or find.
Some of Our Favorite National Parks for Car Camping
Any car camping essentials we’re missing? What do you bring with you when you car camp?
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Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in Las Vegas.