Car Camping 101

Car Camping 101

By: Mecca R. Dennehy

Car camping: it’s like a road trip and camping rolled into one. And, what’s great about car camping is that you can go year-round! So it’s the perfect winter adventure. Want to try car camping but not sure what you need? We have all the tips and tricks to make your car camping adventure one for the books!

Snowshoes stuck in the snow.

How To Plan

Alright, so you have the weekend set aside for your first car camping adventure. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you plan:

Some campgrounds will be closed in the off-season, but some offer free camping year-round. Research what each site has to offer and check out a camp map. BLM also offers a ton of public land that is available for dispersed camping. You can find these locations by a quick Google search or you can check out The Dyrt App to find free camping spots!

Two TETON Sports sleeping bags open in the back of a covered truck bed.

Next, know what type of weather you’re going to experience. Are you headed to the snow? Be sure to check the roads for closures, pack your tire chains if needed, and pack your warmest gear! Will there be rain? If so, (or even just in case!) pack a towel or two for wet feet or muddy paws. Is there water nearby? If so, great, you can simply pack some water purification tablets or bring along a Lifestraw. If not, be sure to pack a few gallons of water!

Always bring a map with you or download maps so you can access them offline. And, of course, always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back!

What (And How) To Pack

One of the reasons why we love car camping is the ability to pack all the essentials and then some, since you have a good amount of space in your car! We love utilizing roof boxes or any sort of exterior storage so you have more room in your trunk and backseat area (which is where you’ll be sleeping!) A good rule of thumb, since you still want to try and conserve as much space as possible, is to pack a backpack like you’re going backpacking. That way, you have all your clothes, toiletries, and gear packed into one bag. Then, utilize all parts of your car: pack some blankets, extra water, or any other large items behind the front seats on the floor. That way, when you lay your back seats down to set up your bed, you don’t have to shuffle everything around. Using elastic cargo nets for overhead storage is another great way to add storage areas that are easily accessible. Use your roof storage or cargo carrier for things like coolers, tire chains, your stove kit, firewood, and chairs. If you’re going in the winter, don’t forget snowshoes or a sled!

A closeup of a TETON Sports sleeping bag in red.

Another thing to pack for car camping is lighting for your bed area. We love hanging battery powered LED string lights around the inside of the car and curling up with a good book!

In terms of bedding for car camping, there are multiple ways to create a cozy area for a good night’s sleep. If your car’s back seats fold down so the cushion is up, great, all you really need is a sleeping bag and a pillow! If, on the other hand, your car’s back seats fold forward so the hard backside is facing up, we suggest using a sleeping pad like this one so you have some cushioning! Check out our other sleeping pads here.

Even inside your cozy car, nights can get cold, so be sure to pack warm clothes and extra blankets for your overnight adventure!

Food Tips

Yes, you can be a camp chef when you car camp! The ability to pack a cooler and a full stove set makes your meal possibilities (almost) endless. Whip up some delicious scrambled eggs and sausages in the morning, or roast some veggies and a fresh-caught fish over the fire. One of our favorite things to do for car camping is to prepare a lot of tasty meals beforehand, store them in the cooler, and then reheat them over the stove or fire! It’s such a treat to be able to have a cooler on-hand. A cooler is great for having cold beer on-hand, too!

A pair of hands making a charcuterie board at a campsite by a campfire.

Why We Love It

One thing we love about car camping is the ability to move around quickly. If you want to stay one night in the snow and then one night along the river, just pack up and hit the road. If you want to visit three nearby waterfalls in one day, you can. You get the convenience of a car and still get the solitude of camping. It’s a win-win!

We also love the way car camping can be done during the off-season, so you don’t have to feel like you’re stuck inside over a gloomy weekend. Plus, you get to experience a place that may look completely different in the winter time! Imagine exploring a lake and you don’t see a single soul along the shoreline. Or walking through a misty forest and hearing only the pitter patter of little raindrops. Plus, we all know winter nights by a warm fire and a hot drink in-hand just hit different. Getting excited now? We are too. Happy car camping!

About the Author: Mecca R. Dennehy

Mecca is an adventure writer and photographer based in Oregon and loves everything the rainy PNW has to offer. You can find her hiking to alpine lakes or camping with her husband and her two rescue pups, Finn and Ruby. She is also an adventure wedding and elopement photographer and loves to capture couples as they start the most epic adventure of all together.