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So You Want to Car Camp? Check out These 10 Insider Tips

Camping in your car is like traveling with your bedroom on wheels. It’s fun, exciting, and you’re able to drive off to your next destination at any time. Car camping is way more comfortable than just tent camping and is often a better choice, especially in the U.S., for getting from one picturesque national park to another.

If you’re new to car camping, you’re probably wondering what to pack and how it all works. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned traveler, these car camping tips will help you have a smooth ride wherever you’re heading

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1. Pack in storage bins and cloth bags

Any car camper will tell you it can be hard to stay organized with all the different types of gear you need for car camping. Especially if you’re new to car camping, packing can be a challenge. Categorize the things you need into hard-sided plastic storage bins or cloth bags so it’s easy to access them. For example, put all your cooking items into one storage bin so you always know where they are. It’s also handy to keep your food in a sealed storage bin to protect it from small animals and bugs. 

2. Plan your Wi-Fi and camp spot(s) before it gets dark

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It’s much harder to find a rural campsite when it’s pitch black, plus your service may drop before you make it to your chosen spot for a night’s rest. Download your map beforehand and read all the notes on the description if you’re using a free campsite. If you will be working remotely, research where the best places for Wi-Fi access are in advance. Otherwise, you’ll have to drive back to service to figure that out. You definitely don’t want to be hunting down cell service in the middle of the night. 

3. Find a gym, find a shower

Taking showers can make car camping 10x more comfortable, so find your next shower spot before you move locations. Many campsites don’t have free showers, especially in the western U.S. If you stay at a free campsite, they often have limited facilities.

There are more places to find showers than you think, though. The easiest option is a gym, so consider buying a nationwide gym membership to places like LA Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, Anytime Fitness, or Planet Fitness.

Some churches have showers available for use on certain days of the week. You can also visit a recreation center with a pool or take a dip in a nearby river. Rec centers are another great option, as they often have cheap day passes. If you don’t have a gym membership with a big chain, local gyms may offer just a shower pass for $10 or less.

4. Bring a camp chair

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When you have limited seats and space, it’s nice to have a place to relax outside of the car. Splurge on a nice foldable camp chair like the Flexlite camp chair from REI. Even a cheap foldable chair, though, will give you a comfortable place to sit down while you’re hanging with other campers or making dinner. 

Pro tip: Bring two chairs and you’ll always have a friend.

5. Get a solar light for nighttime

When it’s dark, it gets really dark when you’re out in nature. Invest in some cheap solar lights either from Amazon or an outdoor store. Solar fairy lights draped in the inside of your car is a cheap way to have soft, even light compared to a head lamp or lantern. However, be sure to still pack a headlamp, as there’s nothing worse than not being able to find something at the bottom of your bag in the middle of the night.

Turn off the automatic lights inside your car to preserve your car battery, and go with the solar lights instead.

6. Splurge on your bed

Image by Oliver Rossi

Sleeping in a car can be extremely uncomfortable or extremely comfortable. Don’t waste your beautiful days out by being groggy, sore, and a mess from an awkward sleeping situation. Throw those blow-up mattresses to the side and get serious. Buy cheap foam from a foam store or a cheap single mattress online and use a real pillow and blanket.

You can use a piece of wood to create a flat platform in the part of your car that you plan to sleep in. If you have a small car, like a Honda Fit, you can create a single bed on one side. Measure the space you have to plan out your bed and go to the foam store, cut a mattress topper, or order a single foam mattress online to get a cheap bed that will be way more comfortable than a blow-up mattress.

A good night’s sleep can make or break your experience. Don’t bring just a sleeping bag; bring real blankets and pillows, and you’ll feel right at home.

7. Pack out your waste

One of the biggest mistakes new campers make is not packing out their waste. Don’t contribute to the mounds of toilet paper and poop left near popular trails and car campsites. Practice Leave No Trace by packing out all your garbage—and yes, that includes poop. If you’re in a place with access to waste bins, be sure to throw out your garbage. Use toilets when possible, but if there aren’t any available, like in a free campsite, you can use WAG bags or follow Bear Grylls’s tips for making an outdoor toilet.

8. Invest in a good cooler or fridge

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Consider a bear-safe cooler like the YETI Tundra 45, and be sure to check the description of any cooler you purchase. You want the cooler to stay cold for more than two days if you choose not to purchase an electric cooler like the Igloo Versatemp. Bear in mind, though, you’ll need to use a 12V outlet to charge an electric cooler. 

There are a variety of coolers to choose from, so consider things like how much space you have when selecting the right fit for your car.

9. Bring lots of extra water  

Water isn’t just for drinking. You’re going to need water for washing dishes, cleaning, brushing your teeth at night, and more. Pack multiple full water bottles, and bring more water than you expect to need. Around 4 liters per person per day is a good minimum, but you may need even more than that if washing up after a big meal. You can get free water in many town centers, gas stations, visitor centers, and public restrooms. If you’re camping in a rural spot, you can also pack a water filtration system, just in case.

10. Get window covers

Image by BeeKeepx

Window covers are necessary for preventing sun from coming in and blinding you in the early morning—and also for privacy and protection. You don’t want to worry about other campers looking into your car. You can buy window covers, make curtains, or buy a roll of Reflectix material to make your own window covers. To do this, cut out Reflectix into the shape of your windows and back it with cardboard to make them stay in place.

When it’s hot and buggy outside, it’s also incredibly useful to have bug window covers that allow air in but keep bugs out. 

Ready to Car Camp?

Whether you’re prepping for your first car camping experience or simply planning for your next one, these essentials will help you have the best trip possible. Get a deliciously comfortable bed, light your car properly, have a nice place to sit, cover your windows, and you’re on your way to an incredible trip.

Have you gone car camping? What tips would you add?

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