Car camping checklist: tents, sleeping pads, gear, accessories, and more.
Due to the pandemic, domestic travel dominated in 2020, with safety and seclusion driving travel plans. As a result, there was a rise in trends likes road trips and car camping. And while predictions for travel are shifting back to normal, even in a post-COVID-19 world, travelers will be much more cognizant of social distancing and designing itineraries that avoid crowded tourist hot spots.
That’s where car camping—as in, camping in or next to your car—comes in. It allows travelers to safely satisfy their desire to explore new places and see the great outdoors with family and friends. Not to mention, it’s very inexpensive and sometimes free, as compared to a hotel or rental stay. There are even websites dedicated to helping you find ultra-scenic camp spots. For example, Hipcamp has listings for parks, lakes, and beaches where you can park across the country.
All you have to do is set up shop. Maybe that entails making a cozy little nook in the back of your car, or perhaps you’re game to pop up a tent and brave the elements. Whatever the case, part of the appeal of car camping is that you need little gear to survive—even if it’s your first time camping. Of course, you will need the essentials, as well as some useful accessories, to make it a truly enjoyable experience. So, to help you get going, we’ve created a car camping checklist you can reference below.
The Ultimate Car Camping Checklist
Car Camping Tent
When it comes to car camping tents, you have two options: one you can set up near your car and one you can set up on top of your car. A good choice for the former: The Klymit Cross Canyon 2 ($144; amazon.com), which is double-walled for durability and features floor-to-ceiling mesh panels for better airflow and killer views. Plus, it weighs only 6 lbs, is easy to assemble, and simply rolls back up into its sack.
If you prefer to be off the ground, go for a rooftop tent. While you should expect to spend significantly more money, you’ll rest easy knowing there is space between you and whatever is crawling around below. The Front Runner Roof Top Tent ($1,264; amazon.com; pictured above) is a fan favorite, thanks to the fact that it is strong and sturdy, with an insulated, aluminum base and heavy-duty, weather-proof fabric, but weighs less than 100 lbs.
Car Camping Mattress or Sleeping Pad
There’s nothing better than sleeping under the stars, but an uncomfortable setup can really ruin the mood. If you’re in a tent, a compact blowout mattress, like Sleepingo’s Camping Sleeping Pad ($40; amazon.com), will provide some extra cushion between your back and the ground. Sleeping pads are also great for car camping as they’re made specifically to fit in the back of a vehicle. QDH’s SUV Thickened Back Seat Mattress ($53; amazon.com; pictured above) has two settings, a smaller one for the backseat and a full mattress to fill the trump; when no longer in use, it tucks away in a storage bag.
Road Trip App
You can go the old school route or you can download an app to help map out your trip. Roadtrippers (available on iOS and Android) is the most popular pick, and for good reason: It helps you build and follow your route via navigation, while offering cool stop suggestions along the way. We’re talking everything from national parks to unique roadside attractions and local eateries.
The best blanket for car camping is one that has multiple uses, and the Puffy Kachula Adventure Blanket ($109; coalatree.com) checks off all the boxes. You can use it as bedding to stay warm at night, spread it out on the ground for a picnic, or wear it like a poncho (with a hood!) while hanging around your campsite. It’s super soft and plush, but also more durable than a traditional blanket. Oh, and it’s water-resistant and easy to wipe clean, too!
Portable Heater for Car Camping
If you’re planning on camping year-round, you may also want to consider a portable car heater. KVW 12V 150W Portable 2-in-1 Car Heater ($27; amazon.com) is a safe way to stay warm in your vehicle. The compact device plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter and is capable of producing up to 150 watts, with three openings and 360-degree rotating support to disperse the heat. Bonus: With the flip of a switch, it turns into a cooling fan for those hot summer nights.
A non-negotiable on any car camping checklist, you should never hit the road without a first aid kit. Hopefully you won’t have to reach for it, but you’ll be grateful to have one handy in the event of an accident. The basics are really all you need: bandages, antibiotic and anti-itch ointments, wound prep pads, skin-friendly tape, and some OTC medications. We like the Welly Excursion Kit ($35; amazon.com), which offers a beefy supply of all the above stored in a sturdy, reusable tin.
Fact: It’s going to get real dark out there, and you will not want to be without a relaible light source. Headlamps are camping musts—nobody wants to venture out in the pitch-black night to pee without one or spend forever scrounging around in their bag simply by feel. Third Eye Headlamps ($48; amazon.com) are not only lightweight and comfortable to wear, but they have multiple light settings—low, medium, and high white light, red light, and strobe light—and extended battery power. They’re pretty darn cute, too.
Solar Panel Charging Station
You’ve got pictures to take, maps to access, and music to listen to, so you’ll want to keep your phone (and other devices fully charged). Grouphug’s Window Solar Charger ($149; grouphugtech.com) sticks to your window and soaks up the sun in order to power a built-in battery; a USB-A port allows you to charge your phone, and it also comes with an adapter for USB-C devices. FYI: You’ll need about 10 hours of direct sunlight to fully charge the battery, so plan ahead if you can.
While you don’t need to pack your entire beauty bag, a few essential toiletries will help you feel more comfortable on the road. Opt for travel a kit that comes with mini versions of your most used products. Inside the Convenience Kits International Women’s Deluxe 10 Piece Kit ($11; amazon.com) you’ll find shampoo, body lotion, deodorant, toothpaste, and more. Toss in some wet wipes and you’re good to go.
One item you don’t want to forget when car camping: toilet paper. Sure, you can pack the bulky stuff, but we recommend On The Go Products Co. TP Kits ($20; amazon.com). The single packs come with both 2-ply tissues and wet wipes and can be resealed if you don’t use it all at once. The best part: Everything is 100-percent biodegradable so you can leave the waste behind without harming the environment.
If you’re going to be car camping for more than a day, a quick rinse will help you feel refreshed. While many campsites offer running water, you won’t always be lucky enough to find warm water—and cold showers are dreadful, am I right? Solar showers, like the KIPIDA Solar Shower Bag ($20; amazon.com), can be filled with tap water and left out in the sun to heat up. Also nice: This one comes with a removable hose and shower head for a touch of normalcy even in the most remote places.
Super-absorbent microfiber towels serve multiple purposes, from drying off after showering to wiping away sweat on a hike to cleaning up campsite spills. They’re also eco-friendly, an added bonus when spending time in the great outdoors. 4Monster Camping Towels ($12; amazon.com) are more absorbent than regular towels, fast drying, and antimicrobial, so you won’t mind using one over and over. They come with a space-saving soft case, too.
You’re not going to want to spend all your time sitting in the car, so pick up a couple of collapsible chairs you can kick back in outside. The Coleman Camping Chair ($35; amazon.com) is simple yet comfortable, with a cushioned seat, high back support, and arm rests. We also like the GCI Outdoor Freestyle Rocker ($60; amazon.com; pictured above), which offers that relaxing, smooth rocking motion anywhere outdoors, even on rocky campsites.
Compact Table for Car Camping
You don’t realize how much you rely on surfaces until you’re without one in the outdoors. A compact table will come in handy for everything from meal prep to eating or simply playing a game of cards. A small, no-frills, fold-up tables like this Amazon bestseller ($30) gets the job done. Or, if you want something a little bigger for dining, consider the Benewin’s Wood Foldable Outdoor Picnic Table ($170; amazon.com; pictured above), which is easy to assemble, made of durable beech wood, and packs up compact.
Odor-Proof Food Storage
Speaking of food and the outdoors…you do not want your meals to attract animals to your campsite. Even if you are storing your food in the car, animals may still be able to catch the scent, so it’s best to store everything (including trash and scraps) in odor-proof bags or containers. Try OPSAK Re-Sealable Storage Bags ($12; amazon.com), which are made of a durable film and have a hermetic seal. To protect your groceries from bugs, try mesh a food tent, like this set of six from Comforer ($15; amazon.com).
There are a variety of tools that might come in useful when you’re outdoors, including knives, scissors, and bottle openers, so any car camping checklist wouldn’t be complete without a good pocketknife. Look for one with multiple options, such as the classic Swiss Army Knife ($55; amazon.com).
Plate and Silverware Set
You’re obviously not going to haul your good dishes and silverware to your campsite. Instead, have a designated set that you can easily throw in the car. (It’s also an eco-friendlier option compared to throwing away paper and plastic.) Stansport’s Deluxe 24-Piece Enamel Tableware Set ($40; amazon.com) is complete with everything you could possibly need, including steel plates, bowls, utensils, and mugs.
Though certainly not a car camping essential, games can help fill the hours when you aren’t hiking or exploring. We like Camp Talk ($9; amazon.com), especially for entertaining groups. The engaging card game comes with 50 questions to help start conversations and encourage storytelling. For example, “if you could write a campfire song, what would it be about?”