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Camping, one of the best and most accessible ways to connect with nature, has numerous forms. It can be ultra-luxurious when glamping in a $200,000 Airstream, or it could be raw and spartan when backpacking through a forest and sleeping in a hammock. A good middle ground is car camping.
Car camping gets you outside while still offering the option of lockable dry shelter and climate control. And while #VanLife has inundated the camping space and is modeled as an ideal adventure machine, in reality, the vehicle you already have is perfect for getting out and creating memories.
But for those that haven’t braved the wilderness in their cars before, The Drive’s crack informational team is here to help you pack for your first trip by laying out these car camping essentials.
Our Top 10 Car Camping Essentials
1. Low-Temperature-Rated Sleeping Bag and Pillow
The optimal sleep setup would include a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad or air mattress, and an extra blanket, but there isn’t always room for that much stuff. For the less posh crowd, a sleeping bag can do the jobs of all three.
Fully unzip the bag, and it can be used as a camp or beach blanket. Keep it zipped up, and it can be used as a scant sleeping pad for extra cushion, if the warmth is not needed. Or, if you are comfortable in the car but too hot for sleeping in the bag, it can be used as a blanket.
If you will be camping in a variety of locales and temperatures, we recommend buying an extremely warm bag rated for at least 0 degrees. There are always ways to get cooler, but there isn’t always a way to get warmer without turning the car on and wasting gas.
2. Camping Stove
The vehicle and amount of available space will determine which type of camping stove you should buy. Because this is car camping, we’d recommend a two-burner folding gas stove or a single-burner backpacking “stove” that directly attaches to the top of a fuel canister.
When cooking, be sure to clean up all scraps, and if you’re in bear country, do not store the food where you sleep.
3. Fire Starter
Camping without a fire is a tragedy, and in the cases of its uses for cooking and warmth, the whole trip could be ruined. Thus, it’s important to have a water-proof fire-starting tool that creates spark rather than flame. Before setting off, make sure you know how to start a fire with these bare-minimum tools. It’s easy to keep a five-pack of lighters on hand for starting a campfire, but they will inevitably run out of fuel or the stock.
4. Large Water Jug
Water is as essential as it gets, and consumption is not its sole purpose. Depending on how remote your camping will be, it will be used for cooking and washing, as well. As a safety precaution, it doesn’t hurt to also keep a portable water filter such as a LifeStraw on hand as an emergency backup.
5. LED Headlamp
Yes, it does make you look like you’re about to mine some coal. No, that doesn’t matter when you’re camping. Whether you’re setting up camp in the dark or trying to make dinner, a bright hands-free headlamp will quickly become one of the most useful and crucial items you pack. Lamps just aren’t the same.
6. Tool Set
It’s reasonable to keep a small mechanic’s tool set in your car at all times, but if you don’t, add it to your gear when you head out for a camping trip. For less than $100, you can find a loaded kit with the basic necessities such as a hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, ratchets, and a tape measure. You will occasionally need this at the campsite, but it’s also a safety net for the car. For extra peace of mind, include a tire repair kit and/or a 2-volt portable air compressor.
7. First Aid Kit
Preparation begets control, but only to an extent. Camping is unpredictable, and there are infinite ways people could be injured. Minor cuts, bumps, bruises, stings, aches, and pains can typically be quelled with the contents of a cheap first aid kit. This is particularly crucial to prevent small open wounds from getting infected. Like the tool kit, it’s not a bad idea to keep a car emergency kit in your car at all times.
8. Appropriate Clothes
Dress to compress. Space is limited, so it’s paramount to thoughtfully plan every outfit and piece of clothing. When possible, wear items such as tactical pants, shorts, or hoodies multiple days and restrict doubling up, if possible. The most pertinent step of packing clothes is checking the forecast and packing accordingly.
9. Biodegradable Hygiene Wipes
Showering at a campsite means bringing soaps, towels, sandals, and other extras that take up precious cargo space. If the goal is a lean pack with only the essentials, and the trip isn’t too long, hygiene wipes will suffice. Just know what that means for interacting with other people and sleeping in a confined space.
Could you survive on trail mix, granola, and peanut butter and jellies? Yes, you could, but with some planning and preparation, it doesn’t have to be like that. Eggs and bacon for breakfast, pasta salad for lunch, and steak skewers for dinner are all within relative ease and reason, as long as you have one thing: a cooler.
Depending on the size, the car cooler can chill dairy, meats, produce, and beverages.
Be aware that you’ll need to take special precautions if you are camping in bear country. Do not keep your food and cooler in your car while you sleep. Place them in a separate area away from the car or in a bear-specific container. The same goes for garbage.
Non-Essentials to Bring Car Camping
The above essentials are the minimum requirements you should bring to go car camping, but there are plenty of other items that can make the experience more comfortable, more convenient, and overall more enjoyable. Add these items to the checklist, if you have spare room in the car.
- Waterproof bags for electronics: You can’t put your electronics in the car when you’re out on a hike.
- Cargo roof rack: This will greatly increase your ride’s storage capability, and it opens the possibility for a rooftop tent.
- Gas can or jerry can: Some of the best campsites are tens of miles from the nearest gas station. Don’t get embarrassed by running out of fuel.
- Tent or car tent: Two-person tents pack small enough to include in every camping trip, so sleeping in the vehicle isn’t always necessary.
- Sleeping pad: Insulated backpacking sleeping pads can be compacted to the size of a football. Your back will thank you for packing one.
- Camping chair: Although campsite picnic tables, boulders, and logs are perfectly acceptable places to sit, a camp chair will elevate the campfire experience with comfort and a drink holder.
- Camping hatchet: Use a hatchet to cut firewood into kindling. Do not use it to cut down wood around the campsite.
Car Camping Pro Tips
Now that you’re all packed, you’re ready to hit the road. Here are a few tips for when you get to your site and set up camp.
- Be sure to ventilate the car while you’re sleeping.
- Clothes can be used as extra sleep padding or as a pillow. For a more structured pillow, use the sleeping bag case.
- For two-person sleeping, get bags that can zip together to create one large bag. Body heat makes a big difference.
- Bring your own garbage bags.