Everything You Need to Know About Car Camping

Everything You Need to Know About Car Camping

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Car camping is a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Whether you are looking for some time away to relax or just need a break from your busy schedule, car camping can be an excellent option. If you’re interested in getting started with car camping, this article will provide all the information you need!

Car Camping Definition

Let me give you a little quick lesson on recent events. Camping was up over 800% last year as families were looking for a safe, yet fun way to temporarily escape Covid quarantine. Getting out in the great outdoors seemed like a natural and safe fit for them! They bought tents, campers, and even RVs then hit the campsites that they could get a booking at.

This year will be a little different- while there will still be record numbers of campers out there, they are all going to be looking for the same thing – equipment that isn’t available.

Everything you need to know about Car Camping

Manufacturing in 2020 was pulled for medical supplies like respirators and PPA – add that to the fact that people were getting sick, factories temporarily shut down, and the list goes on … places like Elkhart in Indiana are having not only a hard time getting the raw supplies to build their campers, but may have lost workforce to other companies.

Simply put – it will be harder to find that pop-up or RV for a little while. If you are in the market and see them on your local Facebook groups – the prices are at least $1,000 higher than pre-COVID days and they get snapped up FAST. Even if they need a lot of work. (sigh)

THIS is why Car Camping will be the new trend – at least until the “COVID CAMPERS” decide that they don’t really like camping and flood the market with their now-unwanted purchases.

What Does Car Camping Mean – Car Camping Definition

It means literally sleeping in your car. While some people refer to it as being able to drive your car right up to your tent – Car Camping means you don’t even need that tent. Honestly, you don’t really need to reserve a campsite – unless you want to be on a specific property.

Some feel that Car Camping is not turning your vehicle into a rolling motel, but rather packing up your camping gear and heading out to the campsite of your choice. Once you have arrived at your destination unpack the equipment, set up camp, and enjoy!

Whether that equipment includes a tent or not is up to you.

Let me be clear about one thing right off the top: NEVER sleep in your car while the engine is running. You are aiming to enjoy yourself, not poison yourself with carbon monoxide.

Let me be clear – this is NOT an RV or motorhome. You have your CAR. There is no bathroom or full kitchen at your disposal. This is truly the budget-friendly version of getting out in nature.

The Benefits Of Car Camping

  • You can do this with very little gear or effort. Seriously, you are only taking what fits inside your vehicle.
  • If you choose to take a tent with you and pitch outdoors – you still have the car to fall back on if the weather is bad or your are worried about bears.
  • It is safe from bears – you have a safe space to store food (and yourself) so bears can’t get at it.
  • You are off the ground, and dry – and your car is a lot more insulated than a tent.
  • You are easily mobile if you need to pick something up at a local store, etc

Is car camping legal?

This is a HUGE question to know in the United States as it is, in fact, illegal in many states – Wisconsin is one of them.

You won’t find a nationwide law banning people from sleeping in their cars. However, you must follow the state’s and city’s parking laws and any specific laws against sleeping in your car. In general, it’s best to find designated overnight parking areas ahead of time.

I could write more about this but they did a fantastic job:

Is it illegal to sleep in your car

That all being said, it is legal at a campground, if they abide by it. It pays to know before you go – so always phone first. So yes, I guess Car Camping in Wisconsin is OK after all.


Car Camping and Walmart

Yes, people actually search out for this information! I’m sure you have seen semis parked at your local Walmart. It doesn’t matter if you are in an RV, Semi, or even your car – Walmart Stores that allow overnight RV parking also allow overnight car parking.

First of all, NOT ALL WALMARTS will allow this – you need to phone first and ask the policy of the store you are considering.

Those that DO allow it, want you to offer a quick stop for the weary traveler on their way to the next destination. Yes, it is a safe place, well-lit, with recorded video, to pull over when you are too tired to keep driving. And it is FREE.

Get more ideas on where to park here: Safe Car Camping Locations: Your Guide to Finding the Perfect Spot

Keep in mind that you are not allowed to pitch a tent – it is strictly for sleeping in your vehicle.

What are the best cars for car camping?

This is a tough one to answer as it really depends on who you have with you. Is it just you? Did you bring your dog? Are you a couple sneaking out for a romantic weekend? Is it a newly married couple with their baby? Is it the entire family?

You can google this very thing and have lists from the last 10 years pop up with every make and model you can think of. The most popular choices seem to be:

  • Honda Element
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Jeep wranglers
  • Jeep renegade
  • Jeep compass
  • Jeep Patriot
  • Jetta
  • Kia Sorrento

Whew! I have a Kia Sorrento!

Seriously, you have to know where you want to go, who is going with you, and what you need to take to see if your current vehicle will meet the needs for this. Maybe you WILL have to take a tent with you because everyone simply won’t fit in your car when they are horizontal.

Before you head out – no matter which kind of car you have – make sure that your vehicle is in good operating condition. Be sure to check the tire pressure, water, engine hoses, and make sure that the spare tire is in good working order.

The ONLY time I have needed a spare tire was when we were camping (sigh).

Car Camping with Baby

Car Camping with Babies is something that you CAN do – if you are prepared! Here’s what I have found to be useful for car camping with my two little ones. A carrier or sling (if the baby will tolerate one) and/or a stroller like the Joovy Caboose Ultralight should be useful for getting around the campsite and to places like lakes, trails, or bathrooms.

Car Camping with Toddler

Car Camping with Toddlers is a little challenging as they are so active, but doable. Pack a few of your toddler’s favorite snacks, like fruit or crackers.
Pack some quick and easy meals for the adults to eat and serve them on paper plates – this way you can just toss all the dishes in the trash at once!
Consider bringing along something that will keep your little one entertained, in case they get bored.

Car Camping with Your Dog

We love to take FIDO with us on all of our car camping adventures! Make sure to bring plenty of fresh water for your dog and you’ll want to keep his/her old water source away from where campers are sitting around the fire and cooking food. If possible, bring along appropriate gear for your dog. If you’re car camping in the colder months, make sure to have gear that will keep him/her warm and dry on a chilly night! Plan ahead with FIDO when it comes to food too – you’ll want to bring along grain free kibble or canned food so that he’s not eating off of your table scraps.

Car Camping with Your Cat

I honestly can’t imagine camping with one of my cats, but make sure you bring along a litter box with cat litter to keep it clean. There are disposable litter boxes you can pack. If you’re bringing your cat, it’s important that you put her in something like a carrier so she doesn’t run away while camping! Bring along plenty of water for them too – either bottled water or a just of tap water from home. It’s also a good idea to bring along food for your cat that is sealed in an airtight container. If you’re bringing canned food, make sure it doesn’t have any dents or punctures and is packed tightly because cats can be surprisingly strong at paws! Lastly, remember to always keep her on the leash if she is allowed to roam around.

Car Camping with Bike

Taking your bike along for the ride is a great way to add some extra adventure and excitement to your car camping trip! You’ll want to make sure that your bike has a quick lookover before your adventure like double-checking the tire pressure.

Is there a Car Camping App?

With apps like AllStays and Hipcamp, you can figure out where you can stay legally and not be bothered.

What do you need for car camping?

Ahhh, packing. The best thing about car camping is that you won’t need to bring a lot so there isn’t much to pack. Since camping is an opportunity to relax, refocus, and enjoy the outdoors, I highly suggest keeping it simple.

It is highly suggested that packed items include the basics of life such as food, clothing, and camping gear, and that’s it. Bringing along a computer, television, portable DVD player and other electronic equipment can be counterproductive. Give yourself a chance to really enjoy your surroundings.

Car camping essentials for beginners:

Back up keys. If you accidentally lock your keys into your car, you might want to be able to get into your vehicle. Onstar isn’t always an option for that remote satellite to open your car.

If your door HAS a key entry opening, a hide-a-key kind of thing may work – but most new cars need a key-fob to access the vehicle.

  • Car Camping Air Mattress – some kind of bed will make the back of your vehicle more comfortable and an inflatable is the simplest choice. It takes very little space for transport, is a relatively quick setup, and is fairly lightweight. Foam mattresses are also an option but they take up more space when not in use and aren’t usually as comfortable.
  • Car Camping Blankets / Quilt/ Sleeping Bag – You need to cover yourself with something when the temperature dips a bit at night – it depends on which you prefer.
  • Car Camping Pillow – This could simply be your bed pillow from home, or again – an inflatable.
  • Car Camping Cooler – We will talk more about food in a little bit, but you will want a good quality cooler to help keep your food fresh.  
  • Car Camping Cooking Gear – From pans to cookstoves, you need to remember that in most car camping locations you can NOT have a campfire.
  • Car Camping Food Storage – Not everything has to be in the cooler so you will want a bin or tote to keep it all together.
  • Car Camping Lights – It can be tempting to use your car light to illuminate the area at night – don’t do this it will wear your battery right out. As for that real propane lantern – not inside a closed-up car. The fire hazard, as well as off-gassing, are both bad in a small space. Get those headlamps, Dollar Store solar lights, and even flashlights instead. And, speaking of batteries, it might help to have a solar panel on the dashboard to keep your devices charged.
  • Car Camping Table – This will be the handiest thing! A table that folds up nicely but opens up to give you a little counter space when whipping up that portable camp kitchen!
  • Car Camping Tarp – Tarps are useful for keeping the rain out if you want to leave doors or windows open. Or, if you want to take some things out of your car to make more room for sleeping, wrap those items in a tarp and stash them under the car. Just remember to grab and pack them before leaving!
  • Car Camping Water Storage – water is ALWAYS needed and you should bring more than you think you will need, especially if you are out enjoying nature with hikes and kayaking, etc.
  • General Camping Must-Have List
    • toilet paper
    • sunscreen
    • insect repellant
    • first aid kit.

A Car Camping tent or canopy is optional – but will give you added shelter if you are not near any trees when you stop. There are tents available that extend off the back of your vehicle or even set on top of it, but those will be pricey and kind of defeat the purpose of this budget-friendly activity.

That is really about it for Car Camping Gear – of course, you can add anything you feel you need, depending on who you have with you. Car camping looks different when you have a toddler with you, are a Senior, brought your dog, etc. The Car Camping Gear lists will all look dramatically different.

Car Camping and Bears: Bear Safety

You don’t have to be car camping in bear country for this to be an issue – bears are often in the woods and can be drawn to the campsite with the tempting aroma of food that hasn’t been properly stored.

I remember reading once those bears have the best sense of smell of all the outdoor camping/encounterable animals. They have a sense of smell over 2,000 times better than a human – and when paired with their intelligence? It is a horrible idea to leave food in your car as bears CAN break into locked cars.

Can you imagine being inside it when they do?


Follow normal camping bear protocol – have food in tightly sealed coolers and / or hang food in the trees. You can read more about bears in my article here.

Car Camping Eating – Plan A Menu

Pack only the quantity of the food products needed to prepare the menu items for everyone in your group. Include extra food for unexpected snacks between meals.

You usually don’t have the legal ability to build a campfire so a portable camp stove is a great idea. Think of things that are just heated and eat or don’t need any cooking at all.

Snacks. Pack snacks – they can be your saving grace between meals, when it is too bad to cook, and when you find yourself hungrier than you thought you might be.

Another perk to car camping? You could just drive to a restaurant. It can be fun to find restaurants in areas you haven’t previously discovered. After all – you are saving a lot of money on your camping experience – you could use that cash to eat out.

Car Camping Privacy

If your windows aren’t tinted and you’re worried about privacy, bungee cords, cloth, and clothespins can be hacked into cheap curtains. Or binder-clip sheets (or even clothes) to the upholstery on your car’s roof. Temporary suction cups or Command hooks work well too – with an inexpensive tension rod-type bar.

  • Car Camping window covers can be an option

There are so many different options – do you want magnetic? Elastic? Suction Cups? Bug screen? You need to figure out what you want but we found a log of car camping window cover ideas on Amazon

Good read: Car Camping Alone as a Woman: Tips and Safety Precautions

Car Camping Shower

Well -most cars don’t come with a fully equipped bathroom and if you aren’t in a location where you have access to a full bathroom? You need to work on your backpacking hygiene skills. Think baby wipes, etc. You could also get a portable camp shower, but then you might want a pop-up privacy shelter – which could double as a porta-potty place for you to when you have to use that Luggable Loo.

The portable showers usually hold about five gallons of water, some are solar-heatable, and they run between $15 and $20. I found this one at ten bucks. That pop-up privacy shelter is what you really pay for – most run about $75. – Keep in mind you want an OPEN bottom, a few pockets inside, and also easy to anchor down.

Car Camping Toilet

Luggable Loo is a great option – you can get JUST a seat if you have a 5-gallon pickle bucket handy. Watch the Amazon prices as they can range from $20-40.  but it is about $10-15. Read more HERE: Car Camping Bathroom: Tips for Staying Clean and Comfortable on the Road

Car Camping During Winter: how to stay warm

Well, after you consider all the things I mentioned to pack, you need to look at how to stay warm in the cooler weather. First of all, you are in a metal and glass box, in the cold. You will lose the most heat from the windows – so insulating them is key.

A windshield sunshade is what you are looking for – your car will protect you from snow and ice, but this will help turn your car into a sort of “solar over”. A reflective, insulating material that’s sold to fit your windows is perfect and we like Reflecltix.

Not only does it block the sun, but it also insulates from the cold. You can buy sheets of Reflectix and cut them to the size of your windows for all-around protection from the sun and the cold, creating a darker and warmer refuge for winter car camping.

Keep your bed cozy – we have talked about camping blankets before – and if you are a sleeping bag person, you will look for a winter / cold weather-rated one. If you take your boots off to sleep – make sure your socks and boot liners are in the blankets with you.

Dress in layers – a lot of lighter layers not only keep you warm but also make it easy to take a few things off if you are getting overheated.

Crack a window – the condensation from your breath is coming – and will ice up on your sleeping bag, etc. You may have a little to scrape your windows a little in the morning, but a heck of a lot less if you crack a window. If you don’t want that dampness in your car, throw a container of Damprid under a seat.

Car camping essentials – car camping checklist.

So – of course, we whipped up a Car Camping Checklist for you – and you can download the FREE Printable here:

With these car camping tips of ours, you should be able to escape to commune with nature without too much muss or fuss, and on a fairly tight budget.

Are you an experienced car camper? Can you think of anything I missed?

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