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Camping is part of the lifeblood of the United States. There’s an instinctive allure of rugged individualism, sparking your own hand-built fire, trading ghost stories and s’mores, and breaking out a guitar and strumming a few bars of Orville Peck’s No Glory in the West.
But not everyone is ready to go full tent and sleeping bag on the cold, hard ground. After all, that’s where you’re susceptible to creepy crawlies and large mammalian predators with hand-sized canines. Car camping eliminates those issues and fears by blending the outdoor experience with the safety and security of your vehicle.
To get you ready for your first car camping experience, The Drive’s crack How To team has put together a car camping guide to help ensure your first trip into the wilderness, by Lamborghini or regular old pickup, is a positive one.
Bear mace ready? Just kidding! But not really.
Car Camping Basics
Aside from your camping essentials, which we’ll go over in a moment, there are a number of car camping basics you’ll need to consider when you’re planning your camping trip. Here are The Drive’s car camping basics.
Clothes, like shelter, are hugely important to your health and survival. Weather and season will determine your clothing options and how much you bring. Do some research, check forecasts, and narrow down the best time of year to go camping. Even though you’re camping inside your car, it’s not your home, and the car’s insulation only goes so far.
Sleeping In Your Car
Sleeping in your car can be a nightmare if you don’t plan ahead, whether that’s due to space limitations, what you’ve packed, or how many beans your partner ate before going to sleep. A good sleeping bag, air mattress or sleeping pad, and pillow are worth their weight in gold.
We’re a digital society, and having reliable access to the outside world, whether that’s for posting your latest #blessed selfie or calling in the calvary when a bear roams into your campgrounds, could potentially save your life. Make sure your electronics are charged. Pack a small portable solar charger so you’re not wasting your vehicle’s battery.
Before entering a state or national park, make sure you top up your fuel. There’s nothing worse than getting to your campgrounds, spending the night inside your car, and finding you don’t have enough gas to get out of the park. It is also helpful to bring a jerrycan for extra fuel if you’re going deep into the wilderness.
Campfires are lovely things. They bolster communal conversation, offer up perfect lighting for scary stories, and make for excellent cooking. But you’ll need to ensure your fire doesn’t spread to the rest of the forest or scrubland where you’re camping. If you’re not at a park with a specified fire ring, medium-sized rocks or wet timbers can be used to contain your campfire.
As for starting a fire, you’ll need a lighter, a fire striker, or a set of waterproof camp matches; some kindling found around your campsite; an armful of dry timbers or logs to keep the fire going. You can also bring your own firewood, but be sure to buy it locally and without bark, as some firewood can contain invasive species that could harm your camp location’s ecosystem.
And be sure to douse it thoroughly with water or another fire suppressant when you’re ready to leave. That warm half-full bottle of Bud Light ain’t gonna cut it.
Bathing is critical to your overall health, but when you’re camping, finding a shower or bathtub can be difficult. A handful of manufacturers offer camp showers meant to stow-and-go, and there multiple bathing products that can be applied without needing any water.
Rivers are also handy, but be careful. Currents can be strong and people routinely get caught off guard and drown. Use your commonsense, and also be aware the water could potentially be contaminated.
Something that’s often overlooked is what food you’re bringing and how you’re going to cook it. A heavy cast iron pan is a great utensil, as you can lay it directly onto your fire. A cooler is also essential to store your perishable items.
For coffee cultists and addicts, don’t forget a coffee maker. The easiest makers to bring camping are an Aeropress, an old-timey percolator, or a french press. And don’t forget the grounds.
Leave No Trace
Perhaps the most important principle of car camping, or really any and all camping, is the Leave No Trace Principle. Garbage, litter, and leftover items are not only harmful to the environment, but could start forest fires, injure local wildlife, and ruin the next camper’s day. Leave your campsite better than you found it, pristine and perfect.
Car Camping Essentials
We absolutely understand that you may be a novice when it comes to car camping. That’s ok! Admitting such sets you up for success. Without blindly believing you know what you’re doing, you can escape some of the pitfalls that could occur when car camping.
And since you’re new to venturing into the wild, The Drive has your back and compiled a 10 Car Camping Essentials here. Take a look.
Car Camping Car Guide
Surprise, surprise, not all car campers have the same rigs to brave the wild blue yonder. Some people have trucks, while others have compact SUVs. Some will throw caution to the wind, put on their best pith helmet, and take their $400,000 Rolls-Royce Cullinan into Yellowstone because they can. Each type of vehicle has advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a quick breakdown of the pros and cons of the most common choices.
- Pros: A sedan is easier to maneuver around obstacles, frugal on gas, and the partition between you and the trunk will keep your three-day-old underwear from stinking up the cabin.
- Cons: Cramped cabin with little room to unfurl a sleeping pad, not as versatile when it comes to light off-roading, and you’re eye-level with bears and bison.
- Pros: Like a sedan, a hatchback is easy to drive and sips gas. Unlike a sedan, the rear seats fold down and give you a fairly large sleeping area.
- Cons: It’s still cramped and you’ll have to move all your essentials to the front seats every time you want to sleep. You’re also still eye-level with bears, bison, and your smelly underpants.
- Pros: An SUV, whether full-size or compact, is a great car camping choice. They usually have large interiors, fold-down seats, rugged off-road capabilities, and somewhat pick you up from bear-level.
- Cons: They’re also gas hogs, don’t have any partition to separate you from stinky and dirty items, and you’ll have to move your essentials whenever you decide it’s bedtime.
- Pros: Probably the best vehicle for car camping is a pickup truck. The truck’s bed offers up the perfect spot for an air mattress, while the interior can keep all your essentials from the elements. Trucks are also rugged enough to camp anywhere.
- Cons: The only downside is that you and your gear are exposed to the elements, the bugs and critters, and, once again, bears.
- Pros: The pro here is that you’re camping with a supercar. You’re going to have sick shots of you camping with a supercar to remember when you’re old and frail. That’s it.
- Cons: Literally everything else.
We know, a motorcycle isn’t technically a “car,” but because we’ve already offered up a guide to motorcycle camping, we thought we’d include it for the rugged adventurers who demand total freedom from the confines of society. You can read our guide to motorcycle camping here.
Where Can You Go Car Camping?
The beauty of car camping are the options where to plant your flag are nearly endless. Wherever your four wheels can take you, apart from the seven seas, is where you can camp. National parks, dark and gloomy forests, right along the beach, high up into the mountains, or through the vast desert plains, the world is open to you.
That said, certain locales are better than others and some require permits to camp. You’ll have to do a little research before you head off into the great unknown to make sure you, your car, and all your belongings don’t get towed. Seriously, we aren’t paying off your impound fees.
Our go-to source for helping plan our trips into the wilderness is the U.S. National Park Service. The agency’s site is a great tool to find a place to go car camping and can even set you up with how to get permits for certain camping spots.
Car Camping Parking Permits
Most every state and national park have guidelines as to where and when you can park in certain areas. There are a number of great apps, as well as the above link to the U.S. National Park Service to give you a firm understanding of where you can park and camp for the night. You’ll also likely need a permit, which can be obtained from the park on the day you get there or online. Just make sure you have it ready or displayed when a ranger comes knockin’.
Car Camping Pro Tips
At The Drive, we’ve camped with everything from motorcycles to Lamborghinis to your average Volkswagen Tiguan, so we know a thing or two about car camping. We’ve compiled a short list of our car camping pro tips to impart the knowledge we’ve had to learn the hard way—don’t ask about the leech incident.
- Pack light and right. Clothes are essential, but you could save you some much-needed room in your car by reusing a shirt or pair of pants. Be mindful of where you’re going and what you’re planning on doing. If you’re swimming, you may want that extra pair of pants.
- Pay attention to the seasons. Weather can change rapidly, and you could get caught in thunderstorms, wildfires, tornadoes, and other squalls. An emergency AM/FM radio could be useful.
- Heed Smokey the Bear’s advice, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Use the US Forestry Service’s campfire rules at all times.
- Jerky, protein bars, trail mix, and other nonperishable items are great for car camping trips. They make lovely road trip snacks and keep fresh for long periods of time. They also take up less room when packing, leaving you ample space for grander meals like venison, steak, and turkey.
- If you want some music for your camping trip, and John Mayer isn’t there to strum the strings, bring a Bluetooth speaker. A variety of options sound great, offer dirt and waterproof protection, and last a long time without charging.