Van life is a growing trend, but not everyone can afford to buy a converted van, convert one themselves and take off on a multi-year road trip while working remotely or building their own online business. While it may be a dream for many people, car camping is a whole lot more affordable and practical.
With car camping, you don’t have to buy a new vehicle and hit the road for months at a time. You can just convert your car for weekend trips, learn how to utilize rental cars for those epic getaways and maintain comfort while you’re adventuring down the open road.
I was first introduced to car camping during an 11-day trip exploring parts of Colorado and Utah I had always longed to visit. While my car camping ideas started in a rental car, it’s continuing in my own car for six months when everyone’s allowed to travel again. But that just goes to show that nearly any car can be converted into a car camping paradise!
From what is car camping to where you can legally sleep and how to camp in your car, this is the ultimate car camping 101 guide to make your journey a seamless experience!
Table of Contents
What Is Car Camping?
Car camping doesn’t mean you have to sleep in your car. Car camping can either mean loading up all your camping materials into your car and sleeping in your car or pulling your vehicle into a campsite, setting up your tent and sleeping in the tent.
Although many car campers prefer to convert their vehicle into a makeshift room, equipping it with a sleeping pad, pillow and sleeping bag, car camping can also mean you’re tent camping next to your car. As long as your car is in sight and you’re not camping in a converted van or camper, that’s considered car camping 101.
How to Camp in Your Car
While falling asleep in your car is easy to do after a long day of hiking and exploring, staying asleep is much more difficult. How to camp in your car depends on what kind of car you have and how many people are with you.
If you’re car camping in a four-door car, you’ll probably be more comfortable reclining the passenger seat back to catch some ZZZs. But if you have an SUV, laying the seats down and calling that your resting place is going to be much more comfortable!
If you have a hatchback car, you can lay the seats back and sleep with your feet in the trunk for more space. If you have two people sleeping in your car, things may get a little tight, but you’ll have to figure out the most comfortable way to get a good night’s rest.
The moral of the story is that, although some vehicles are more comfortable than others, you can car camp in any car if you want to! But here are some car camping ideas for how to sleep in a car that’ll help you get the most rest each night.
1. Buy a Weather-Specific Sleeping Bag
While this sounds like common sense, it’s the most important tip for car camping. If you plan to car camp in 20-degree weather, you’d better have a 0-degree to 20-degree sleeping bag that keeps you warm. If not, you may have to sleep with a jacket and a lot of extra clothes on.
On the flip side, that 20-degree sleeping bag is going to feel like a sauna if you’re camping mid-summer in 60-degree weather. For those warmer days, you’ll need to get a sleeping bag that matches the temperature outside.
2. Get Earplugs and an Eye Mask
Nature is beautiful. But it’s also loud. Unlike your roommate accidentally slamming a door, blaring the music or making coffee too loud, you can’t ask the birds to chirp softly, the wind to howl less fiercely, the river to run with quieter rapids or the sun to rise an hour later.
One of the beauties of nature is that it does its own thing. It thrives without people present and doesn’t halt to them. Trust me, the sounds of nature are a whole lot more soothing than speeding highway traffic and rush-hour horns honking.
But to get a good night’s rest on your terms, I suggest getting earplugs to silence the noise and an eye mask to filter the light. It may sound silly now, but they will help tremendously. Just trust me on this one.
3. Consider Cracking the Windows
While one person can sleep with the windows up for more than eight hours at a time while still getting enough oxygen, cracking the windows allows carbon dioxide to filter out and oxygen to circulate in your car. But if it’s too cold outside, it’s OK to sleep with the windows up.
If you’re going to crack the windows, you may want to put a mesh divider or a towel between the door and the window so bugs won’t continuously fly in and out all night.
4. Elevate Your Head
There’s a scientific reason pillows are designed to keep your head elevated through the night. They help you sleep better and help the blood circulate to other parts of your body more efficiently. While your bed at home is flat, I can almost guarantee you won’t find a free camping spot that’s completely flat.
When you’re car camping, one side of your car is almost always higher than another. Park your car where your head is higher than your feet, and you’ll undoubtedly get a much better night’s sleep. Also, refrain from car camping on steep hills. It’s unlikely that your car’s brakes go out in the middle of the night, but rolling down a hill as you wake up is probably the worst wake-up call of all time.
5. Use a Pillow or Bundle of Clothes
You never realize how uncomfortable sleeping without a pillow is until you do so car camping. I’d highly recommend bringing a pillow with you or buying a cheap one at the store if you had to fly out and rent a car. If you can’t stretch for the pillow, or forgot to bring one, gather a pile of clothes and use them as a makeshift pillow. It’s a whole lot better than nothing.
6. Don’t Forget Your Entertainment
Whether you’re a movie person or a book reader, it’s important to have some entertainment options to pass the time and unwind after a long day of travel, hiking or any other activity. If you plan to watch a movie, download a few options before you leave on your trip. Wifi will likely be spotty and you may not be able to stream a movie while car camping. Bringing a book or two is also a great way to pass the time and unwind for a good night’s sleep.
Where Can I Sleep in My Car Legally?
Sleeping in your car is as much comfort as it is finding a safe place to camp out for the night. You’ll need to find a safe place to sleep where you’re legally allowed to sleep in your car. If you’re car camping like me, you’re probably trying to save some money, too. From backcountry camping spots to urban places, these are where you can legally sleep in your car.
1. Public Land
Public land, such as the land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Army Corps of Engineers is a great way to camp for free! And if you’re traveling to the Western part of the United States, you’ll rest easy knowing there’s a boatload of public land for free camping.
The easiest way to find free camping on BLM land is by downloading a few apps. My favorites are Campendium, U.S. Public Lands and The Dyrt. I use these apps every time I’m looking for a place to camp! Since it’s free and you’ll likely be with other car campers, public land is one of the best places to sleep in your car!
2. National Forests
Many people have no idea that camping inside the U.S. National Forests is completely free and legal as long as you do so more than 1 mile away from a designated campsite. You can simply park your car on the side of the road, take a dirt road to the middle of nowhere or camp near the ranger station and it’s free.
There are some National Forests and certain stipulations that require you to get a permit, so make sure you research if one is needed where you’re going. Also, if you’re car camping on the side of the road, make sure you’re not blocking any traffic and are far enough to the side of the road that you won’t get hit by another vehicle. Many of these roads have no lights, so it’ll be tough to see you.
3. Parking Lots
Many car campers, van lifers and boondockers regularly stop off at parking lots for the night instead of pushing through to get to the next campsite. It keeps you from driving while tired and can be an excellent place to tap into free wifi.
The most popular parking lots where car camping is allowed are Walmarts and many other grocery stores, highway rest stops, small businesses and churches. If you’re staying the night at a small business or church, you may want to ask them if you can first.
4. Designated Campgrounds
Designated campgrounds are great places to camp because they likely have running water, bathrooms and showers, which you won’t find at many free car camping spots. But while designated campgrounds are great spots, they’ll cost you $10 to $30 per night, which can add up if you’re on a week-long car camping trip.
Can You Sleep in Your Car on Neighborhood Streets?
Yes and no. While it’s technically illegal to sleep in your car on many neighborhood streets, some people do it every night. If you’ve got sun shades on every window of your car and nobody can see inside, it’ll be tougher to determine if someone’s sleeping inside. I wouldn’t recommend sleeping in your car on neighborhood streets, but if you have to do so because there’s nowhere else to go or you’re too tired to drive, it can be a safe alternative.
Can I Sleep in a Car With Windows Rolled Up?
Yes, you can sleep in a car with the windows rolled up as long as you don’t keep the car on all night. Even though the interior of the car may be full of your exhaled carbon dioxide, cars aren’t completely sealed shut when the doors are closed and windows are up, so there’s always going to be new oxygen circulating in the air.
What are the Best Cars to Sleep in for Camping?
SUVs, vans, trucks and hatchbacks are the best cars to sleep in for camping because they have the most space. SUVs and vans usually offer second and third-row seating that can be laid flat, which makes a nice spot to car camp. Trucks are ideal if you’ve got a raised bed cover on the back that allows you to sit upright, while hatchbacks provide a convenient place to fully lay out.