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 setup to sleep in the car.
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Last Updated: September 20, 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.
Pro Tip: For you couples out there who like to cuddle, you could even pick up a double sleeper!
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.
4. Tent →
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.
Unless you own a Tesla, most cars don’t have the option to run the AC without the car being on all night. For hot nights in your car, RV, or even a tent, the EcoFlow WAVE 2 has you covered. It doesn’t require any installation, cools and heats quickly, and can run up to 8 hours (with the add-on battery). Plus it’s nice and quiet and can be charged four different ways. We can’t wait to use ours on the next camping trip!
BONUS: Portable Bathroom →
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.
6. Toiletries →
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.
On our last trip, we had some of these Fire Starter’s packed in our car and they made starting a fire really easy.
9. Camp Chair →
A camping chair is essential for sitting around the campsite. The DOD Sugoi Chair is our go-to. The cotton canvas is comfortable and the height and angle of the chair are adjustable. Can you tell that the one Jacob is sitting in is a different height than the one next to him?
We have a couple of other chairs as well including this Kickback Rocker when we want to enjoy the smooth rocking motion. These stand-alone pop-up hammocks are really unique too and great for stargazing!
BOnUS: Fat Tire E-Bike →
When it comes to getting around the campsite and surrounding area, there’s nothing better that a fat tire e-bike! We recently go the Ride1Up Rift and love it! We haven’t had a chance to take it out camping yet since it’s been so hot, but once the weather cools, it’ll be in our car camping kit.
The Rift can get up to 28mph with pedal assist or 20mpg with just the throttle and it has a range of 45-60 miles per charge. The fat tires allow you to cruise over rugged terrains. Plus they have great accessories like a passenger kit so someone can ride on the back. It’s so much fun to ride!
10. Folding Wagon →
A collapsible wagon is one of the best ways to move your items around at the campsite. The Uma Folding Wagon has large wheels to help you on different terrains and it can handle heavy loads like firewood or water. They even have a folding table top that gives your wagon even more functionality. This will come with us on RV adventures too!
We also leave the Ninjin Eco Carry Bag in our car that we use day-to-day and when camping. It has a carabiner on it so it’s easy to attach to your backpack and has a 5.5 gal bag inside. The carrot pouch can store additional loose items.
11. Knife & Shovel →
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.
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.
Pro Tip: If you have to have your morning coffee, an AeroPress pairs perfectly with the Jetboil.
16. Food & Water →
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 for dinners. For a protein-packed meal (that’s also gluten free and paleo), check out True Primal. We tried the Southwest-Style Chicken and it’s tasty! 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.
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.
A couple good additions to the kit are:
- Bug Bite Thing – We know some people who swear by it and can’t wait to have it handy for our next bug bites.
- Itch Fix – Using all-natural and organic ingredients, itch fix is amazing for bug bites, rashes, and more. The rollerball makes it easy to apply too!
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!
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.
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, one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found 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.