When you’re car camping, there are two ways to go about it. You can drive into the serene sights of nature ill-prepared, spending your days exploring the wilderness and your nights sleeping uncomfortably. Or, the better option, you can prepare yourself with the car camping essentials in this article so you can car camp in comfort!
While the first option isn’t a bad idea, as long as you have a sleeping bag and pillow, it’ll get old very quickly if you’re a long-term car camper or someone who spends a handful of weekends on the road each year.
This car camping checklist of essential gear can make your adventure amazing, rewarding and comfortable. I’ve broken it up into a few different categories so we touch on those people who are weekend warriors, long-term car campers and those making a living and working remotely from the freedom of the road (like myself).
Car Camping Essentials for a Good Night’s Sleep
First thing’s first. Let’s start with the supplies every car camper can agree they’ll need, and those are supplies to get a good night’s sleep while you’re exploring National Parks, National Forest and other parts of the wilderness other people only dream of!
1. Sleeping Bag
A sleeping bag is the most crucial item on your car camping checklist because it’s the difference between getting good rest and staying up all night shivering. If you don’t have any other supplies on this car camping packing list, a sleeping bag will keep your vitals in check through the night.
But you need to get a sleeping bag for the right temperatures. If you’re camping in the desert in summer and the temperature is around 60 degrees at night, a 20-degree sleeping bag will feel like a sauna. On the other hand, if you’re in the Colorado mountains in October and the temp drops to 15 degrees at night, a 40-degree bag will leave you frozen and needing to layer up.
Before purchasing a new sleeping bag, evaluate what temperatures you’ll be camping in most often. If you’re a transient car camper like me, getting two sleeping bags that are each designed for drastically different temperatures is a great idea.
Yes, it sounds a bit weird to be recommending a tent in an article about car camping essentials. But car camping doesn’t necessarily mean you’re camping in your car. It just means you’re camping in sight of your car, which could include inside a tent. If you have a sedan or coupe, tenting it is going to be a lot more comfortable than sleeping in the passenger seat, too.
If you’re hopping from campsite to campsite, putting up and taking down a tent every night and morning can get old fast. I’ve been there and done that. I have an instant tent that pops up in one minute flat and goes back in its bag in about three minutes (I’m trying to do it quicker, but I’m afraid of breaking something).
If you’re a long-term tent camper, I suggest investing in an instant tent you can stand up and walk around in. I’ve got a six-person tent that’s 6-foot 2-inches tall so when the skies turn to a drizzle, I can take my laptop inside, zip up the windows and ride out the storm in comfort.
- Product Link: Amazon
3. Tent Cot
If you’re investing in a stand-up tent, you should also invest in a collapsible tent cot. They’re so much more comfortable than throwing down a sleeping pad and it takes about 20 seconds to set up. I especially like it because it keeps you off the ground, so it’s easier on the knees and back when you wake up in the morning. You can put a sleeping pad on top of it, but I don’t even do that because the one I have is almost as comfortable as my old mattress.
4. Sleeping Pad
If you’re car camping inside your car or in a ground-level tent, a sleeping pad can save your back and help you get much better, longer sleep at night. It’s by far the most underrated piece of car camping gear. You can also opt for an air mattress, but they get pretty annoying having to blow them up every night and deflate them every morning. Plus, I’ve popped two air mattresses on accident, so I stay far away from them.
5. Good Pillow
A good pillow can change lives. Seriously. Have you ever tried to sleep at home without a pillow? So why would you choose to do without one while you’re car camping? Unless you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip and need to conserve space, I suggest bringing the pillow you use every night. Your body’s already used to it. Plus, a great pillow leads to a great night’s sleep, which makes the next day’s activities way more fun!
While a hammock isn’t necessarily considered essential car camping gear, it does make the day more relaxing if you can find two trees next to one another. Hammocks are a great way to wind down after a long day on the trails and it keeps you outside instead of having to lay down in the tent or the front seat of the car.
Car Camping Essentials for the Campsite
While these car camping essentials can be used at any type of campsite, this batch of gear is essential for creating a tremendous campsite outside your car! If you’re staying at the same site for a few days, these items will make your stay a whole lot more comfortable.
7. Camp Chair
You’re going to be spending a lot of time at your campsite, especially at night, so getting a comfortable camp chair can make all the difference in the world! You can go the lightweight route with a bucket-type camp chair, a foldable chair, a zero-gravity chair or whatever else you like. I’ve packed my car so efficiently that I can bring both a zero-gravity chair and a foldable camp chair.
Lights are essential to car camping as oil changes are essential to your car. Without proper lights at the campsite, you’ll be relegated to stumbling around in the dark or using the flashlight feature on your phone until it runs out of batteries and really leaves you in the dark.
The most underrated camping light is the headlamp. It’s a hands-free light that switches from bright to mellow to infrared for those late-night reading sessions. Do yourself a favor and get an adjustable headlamp that moves up and down and has an infrared light. You’ll be able to do more stuff without worrying about tilting your head in an awkward direction all night.
A bright LED flashlight is a must at every campsite. They’ve been around for a long time unchanged, and there’s a great reason for that: it’s because they work. Getting a flashlight that runs for 200-plus hours on a single battery will make your car camping life so much better.
C. Solar-Powered Camp Light
Not too long ago, I was introduced to solar-powered camp lights and they’ve changed my life. I no longer have to worry about the battery running out as long as I let it get a bit of sunlight every few days. Plus, it doubles as a phone charger if my phone’s dying and my other solar charges are dead.
9. Bungee Cords
You never know when you’re going to need bungee cords. That’s why it’s good to have a can of bungee cords on standby for a moment’s notice. They can be used to so many different things, including a makeshift clothesline, a way to hang up a broken hammock and a way to strap down essentials during a windstorm.
Like bungee cords, rope is an essential camping and hiking supply that comes in handy many different ways. Plus, like bungee cords, you never know when you’ll need rope until you need it. But somehow, if you camp long enough, you always wind up needing rope.
From cutting open plastic to picking out splinters from the day’s firewood run, a camp knife can come in handy many different ways. You can opt for a Swiss Army knife or a regular pocket knife. I keep a regular pocket knife because it’s versatile enough to do many of the same things — plus they stay sharper for longer.
12. Duct Tape
Like rope, bungee cords and a sharp knife, duct tape is one of the most versatile pieces of car camping gear. It can be used for just about anything, so I’m not even going to begin listing all its uses. Just trust me on this one. Spend a few dollars for a nice roll of duct tape!
13. Pop-Up Canopy
The sun can beat down quite hot during the day and drizzle can interfere with your campfire sitting. But having an instant canopy that pops up in a few seconds can keep you dry during rain, keep you cool in direct sunlight and keep the glare off your computer screen when you’re working on the laptop.
14. First-Aid Kit
Every camper and hiker should have a first-aid kit at all times. Stock it with bandages, gauze, antibacterial ointment, alcohol cleaner and medical tape. Keep it in a safe spot, like inside your trunk or glove box, so you never have to worry about losing it or it getting wet.
15. Fire Starter
Whether you prefer to use matches, a lighter, flint or a magnesium fire starter equipped with a compass, whistle and paracord that I swear by, you’re going to need something to start a fire. I wouldn’t rely on twigs if I were you. If the winds are strong, matches and lighters will be suboptimal. So, again, I’d recommend investing in these amazing magnesium fire starters, which gives you more than 16,000 strikes at 5,500 degrees in any weather condition — for less than $15!
Ya, ya, nobody likes to talk about this topic, but I must do it to create the most extensive car camping checklist on the internet. You’ll need toilet paper, paper towels and antibacterial wipes if you’re car camping.
17. Hand Sanitizer
If you’re car camping, you’ll likely be staying at campsites without running water, so hand sanitizer comes in handy, especially pre- and post-dinner.
When you’re car camping, you’ll occasionally bite off more than you can chew, leaving you tired and in need of stopping for the night before you get to the campsite you wanted to go to. It’s better to get off the road than drive tired at night, especially on roads that likely have no lights illuminating the way. Many campsites operate on an honor system of cash only, so it’s important to have at least $30 in small bills that you can use to pay for a place to sleep.
There are so many items on this car camping packing list that it may be tough to organize everything in the trunk of your car. That’s why you need bins! Bins, bins, bins! They’re organizational phenomenons that allow you to keep everything in the same place at all times. Plus, if you’re a weekend car camper, having all your essentials packed away in bins makes for easy stow and go when you’re ready to hit the road!
20. Solar Camp Shower
Car camping typically doesn’t have the luxuries of nice bathrooms, showers or even running water. That’s because you’ll likely be car camping at free sites without amenities to save money while on the road. While you can shower at truck stops, local hotel pools and other areas if you sneak in or pay a couple of dollars, getting a solar camp shower allows you to take a hot shower at your campsite.
Solar camp showers work simply. They have solar cells embedded in one side of the 5-gallon bag that takes sunlight and converts it to heat the water inside the bag. It can get up to 110 degrees if you leave it in direct sunlight long enough and comes with a shower spout for easy use.
Car Camping Essentials for the Kitchen
If you don’t plan on eating out for every meal, you’ll have to become the iron chef of the outdoors, learning how to throw a bunch of random things together to make a great meal. Just the other day, I ate a bowl full of black beans, artichokes, avocado, tuna and croutons (sprinkled with garlic and red pepper flakes). While it doesn’t sound too enticing, it was a quick camp lunch you may want to get used to.
21. Cooler With Multi-Day Ice Retention
The most essential asset to your camp kitchen is a cooler with multi-day ice retention. Don’t cheap out on your cooler. You’ll regret it later. Getting an insulated cooler that holds ice for five to seven days will save you many unnecessary trips to the gas station, a few hundred dollars a year on extra ice and a whole lot of time that would’ve been spent dumping the cooler water and refilling it with new ice.
I love my RTIC 65 cooler, as it’s a fraction of the cost of Yeti and holds ice for the same length of time (seven days when properly cared for). It has become my most essential piece of car camping gear, but it also takes up the most space. I need the RTIC 65 because I’m in my car full time, but weekend car camping warriors may be able to get away with having the RTIC 45.
22. Coffee Maker
There are so many different ways to make coffee while camping, but you’ll need to come fully prepared to the campsite with your ideal method of coffee brewing. My favorite method is cold brew because it’s super simple, lasts multiple days and you don’t need a fire. That’s followed by a nice batch of French Press and then a shot (or two) of camper ready espresso.
23. Propane Stove (& Extra Fuel)
A propane stove takes campsite dinners to the next level, helping you become the next Bobby Flay or Martha Stewart in the camp kitchen. Charcoal grills are great, but they’re way too bulky for car camping. Campfire packs and other dinners taste tremendous, but you’re probably not gonna light a campfire every night.
A propane stove gives you all the convenience of an at-home stovetop, allowing you to control the temperature better and cook two dishes at the same time. They’re worth every penny! And don’t forget to buy extra fuel. The last thing you want is to be in the middle of cheffing it up, lose fuel and have to toss out half-cooked chicken because humans just can’t eat it medium-rare.
In addition to a portable propane stove, the JetBoil is a great addition to your car camping packing list. It can boil water in about 2.5 minutes and its jet fuel canister supposedly lasts up to 12 years. I’m still testing this method and have a long way to go! But at just 12 ounces, the JetBoil is super light and extremely compact!
Instead of burning extra propane fuel to boil water for coffee, breakfast and the mass amounts of rice and quinoa on the road, the JetBoil is a better, quicker alternative.
25. Non-Stick Pot and Pan
Not all non-stick pans are created equally. Without running water (and wanting to conserve as much water as possible), cleaning pots and pans at the campsite can be a hassle. That’s why I stand by the tremendous Copper non-stick pots and pans.
You can say goodbye to caked-on olive oil and charred pieces of vegetables with the Copper line. It’s as easy as throwing a bit of water in the pan after you cook and giving it a light scrub with a towel. Trust me, not having to use a ton of water or elbow grease cleaning pots and pans after a long day on the trails will make the next night’s dinner that much better.
- Product Link: Amazon
26. Flexible Cutting Boards
You never know how important cutting boards are until you’re trying to cut raw chicken on the same plate you planned to eat off of. Regular cutting boards are way too heavy and large to take car camping. But flexible cutting boards are a much better (and cheaper) option.
The flexible cutting boards I have are BPA-free, dishwasher safe and color-coordinated so I never cut raw chicken on the same cutting board as I use to chop vegetables. Goodbye, cross-contamination! Plus, you can get four cutting boards for under $10. That’s a steal!
27. Camp Table
Choosing the right camp table is important because you’ll use it to prepare meals, set up your propane stove, power up the laptop and so many other things. If you’re not wise in choosing a camp table, it could also wind up being the bulkiest thing in your car, needing to be moved every time you want something in the trunk.
Don’t let your camp table run your life. Roll-up camp tables are super sturdy, work perfectly for everything you need it for and rolls up into a bag half the size of a foldable chair.
28. Campfire Gloves
If you plan to have a campfire or are just a general clutz in the kitchen like me, getting campfire gloves can save your hands from some serious burns. (Remnants from an accidental burn on my index finger from grabbing a scorching fire pit rock in Utah just went away after five months.) These gloves protect your hands from heat up to 930 degrees Fahrenheit!
29. Insulated Coffee Mug
An insulated coffee mug that keeps drinks hot or cold for up to 24 hours means you’ll be able to make that batch of campsite French Press, put it in the thermos-style mug or container and take a piping-hot sip four hours later after your morning hike. It also means that your cold brew can stay in the hot car and still be ice cold when you come back for a drink a few hours later.
30. Collapsible Water Bottle
Even though you can buy a gallon jug of water at most gas stations and grocery stores for $1, that cost can certainly add up if you’re using water for drinking, making coffee, cooking and cleaning, especially if you’re a full-time car camper.
A collapsible 5-gallon jug with a spigot makes for easy distribution of your water needs and easier storage when it’s empty. You can fill it up at local gas stations, water fountains and anywhere else you can find free water, too. Plus, you’re cutting back on plastic consumption, which means you’re also doing your part to save the world as well!
31. Bear-Proof Container
While not every car camper needs a bear-proof container, those of you camping in bear territory should invest in a solid bear-proof container to keep your food, trash and anything else that may catch the attention of a curious bear nearby.
Bears roam from the woods of Central Florida to the pines of the Pacific Northwest and so many places in between. Unless you’re camping strictly in the desert or the lower midwest, there are likely bears nearby. A bear-proof container is a great way to keep yourself safe!
32. General Kitchen Items
Don’t forget your general kitchen items, including tongs, spatula, tin foil, can opener, reusable forks and spoons, herbs and spices, plates, bowls and all the other stuff you typically use at home need to come with you on the road.
A good rule of thumb is to jot down all the kitchen utensils you use within two weeks before you go camping. Chances are you probably won’t need a whisk or other one-off items, but you’ll probably need those items you used more than once in the past two weeks.
Car Camping Essentials for the Remote Work Life
If you’re a full-time car camper like myself who works a 9-to-5 job during the day and has an online business that’s worked on nights and weekends, you’re going to heavily rely on good internet and sustainable power sources that can keep your products powered and you productive (and prevent you from having to turn on your car for a few hours every night to power your laptop and phone).
33. Portable Power Station
My Jackery portable power station saves my life on many occasions and saves wear and tear on my car since I don’t have to rely on starting the engine to power up my laptop, phone and cameras. I’ve got the 240-watt lithium battery, which charges my laptop three to four times on a single charge.
Jackery is one of the most well-received brands for portable power stations, and I recommend them tenfold! They also have a 160-watt unit that provides one to two laptop charges, a 500-watt unit that provides seven laptop charges and a 1,000-watt unit that provides 12.5 laptop charges. If I could trade my 240-watt in, I’d definitely go for the 500-watt unit for the price and amount of charges. (When I pull 12-hour days, I need four laptop charges.)
34. Solar Charger for Portable Power Station
If you’re getting the Jackery portable power charger, which I highly recommend, you’ll need a solar charger for it as well. The power-station-solar-charger combo means you can relax at your campsite for multiple days without the need to go into town, turn on your car and stress about how you’re gonna charge your laptop.
The solar panel comes with a unique stand that allows it to absorb more sunlight than it would be laying flat. You may have to move around every few hours, but it can fully charge my 240-watt Jackery portable power station in about eight hours.
35. Solar-Powered Phone Charger
While I rely on my Jackery portable power station to charge my laptop, I rarely use it to charge my phone and camera batteries. For those, I use my 24000mAh solar power bank with three built-in solar panels and two USB connections. It charges my phone almost 10 times and quickly charges my camera batteries along with it.
The best things about it are its compact design that fits in your back pocket and its incredible solar charging power! Plus you can hang it on your backpack during a hike to keep the batteries charged. With three solar panels, it charges three times quicker than other solar chargers on the market, fully juicing up in about six hours of sunlight.
36. Portable Wifi Device
A portable wifi device is a necessity for all you car campers utilizing mass amounts of wifi hotspot data from your phone. While many phone plans come with 22 to 100 GB of phone data per month before the network throttles your speeds, plans typically only include 15 to 30 GB of personal hotspot data each month before throttling kicks in.
If you’re like me, 30 GB of hotspot data can be gone 1.5 weeks into the month. While I do frequent coffee shops for a nice cup, conversation and free wifi, I spend countless hours at night working on my laptop, which is when I use most of my hotspot data.
Portable wifi devices can be on monthly contracts or preloaded, so you may want to determine how much data you typically use each month before you splurge. It’s also worth noting that streaming movies uses quite a bit of data.
37. Wall Plug Converter for Car
Whether it’s driving from park to park, trail to trail or to and from your campsite, car camping means you’ll be in your car quite a bit. While your car is running, you may as well take advantage of all the charging time you can get. A wall plug converter for your car turns your vehicle’s cigarette lighter unit into a full-fledged three-prong wall charging station.
Using the wall plug converter to charge your laptop and camera batteries will save your Jackery portable power station some much-needed energy for those late-night work sessions in the tent or the backseat of your car.
- Product Link: Amazon
38. Pre-Downloaded Music and Podcasts
Whenever you can get free wifi on the road, utilize it wisely to download movies, music and any podcasts you want to listen to at the campsite and on the road. Doing this can save you tons of wireless and hotspot data! Plus it means you won’t be buffering a 1.5-hour movie on Netflix for about 2.5 hours while trying to enjoy your night.
Car Camping Essentials for Clothing
Choosing the right clothes for car camping is an important, often-overlooked part of building your gear list. You need to be ready for whatever the weather throws your way, including unexpected rain, dropping temperatures or short heatwaves.
39. Rain Jacket
Let’s face it. If you’re camping, there’s almost always a chance of rain at some point. While a tent, your car and a pop-up canopy can keep you completely dry when you’re staying in place, a rain jacket or poncho will keep you dry when you need to go out in the elements to pack your gear or use the restroom.
40. Merino Wool Clothes
I swear by merino wool. And that’s not just because I spent 1.5 years of my life writing product descriptions for one of the largest clothing producers in the United States and I had to sell products. During my time there, I had to do a ton of research on different materials and merino wool kept coming up as one of the most diverse, long-lasting natural fabrics on the market.
Merino wool comes from Merino sheep, which make their natural home in the mountains of New Zealand and diverse climates like England and Spain. Merino wool fabric is naturally temperature-regulating, which means it keeps you cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather, its fibers naturally wick sweat and inhibit the growth of bacteria, so you can wear the same item multiple times without the need to wash it.
All in all, merino wool is softer than traditional wool, has thinner fabrics so it’s not as heavy when you wear it resists odors, which is perfect for car campers! From my everyday shirts and socks to my hiking gear, beanie and base layers, I’ve switched all my clothing to merino wool. It is a bit more expensive than traditional clothes, but if you take care of it properly with wool detergent and hang drying, they last 5 to 10 times longer than regular cotton, wool or polyester clothes.
While merino wool shirts can be expensive, I did tons of research to find the best quality material at the best price! I have six shirts from Merino.tech, which are made from 100% organic New Zealand merino wool fibers. They’re super lightweight, odor-resistant, non-itching and keep wick sweat away from your body.
I’ve also converted all my socks to merino wool, going for Zealwood no-show ankle socks for my everyday activities, Fun Toes crew cut socks for hiking and Fun Toes knee-high thermal socks for those crisp spring, fall and winter days. I stand by all of these socks as they’re tremendous. It may be kind of disgusting to think about, but I can get five or six uses out of merino wool socks before they need to be washed (a little less if I tackle intense hikes).
C. Base Layers
For my base layers, I go with MeriWool for the simple fact that Merino.tech doesn’t make base layers. MeriWool has incredibly comfortable and high-performing base layers that make a huge difference in comfort at the campsite. I have the 250 base layer bottoms for cold days and nights, the 180 base layer long sleeve shirt for all those crispy days and four pairs of the 160 boxer briefs because they’re important year-round.
After a long day of hiking or exploring, you may want to kick back at the campsite and kick off your shoes. Going barefoot is a great idea if you want to track dirt, mud and other debris everywhere. Investing in a nice, comfortable pair of slip-on sandals (that are adjustable to allow your winter socks to fit) can make your campfire lounging so much better!