Clean out the SUV and wipe down the coolers, because now is the best time of year to load your family and gear into the old “adventuremobile” for a weekend of care-free car camping.
Unlike traditional camping where you have to lug your gear sometimes miles to a campsite, car camping allows you to bring some of your favorite comforts from the “real world” into the wildness of the great outdoors.
The best car camping gear these days include such niceties as power stations and camping showers, as well as staples such as folding tables and rechargeable lanterns.
But what good are these things if you forget to put them in the dang car?
For your organizational pleasure, we present you with 2021’s car camping checklist. Here’s how we’re going to break it down:
Shelter & Warmth
Let’s start with the basics. Whether you are camping deep in the woods or in an established camp ground, the first thing on your mind should be how you’re going to keep warm.
Sleeping Bag / Blankets / Sleeping Pad
Even if you’re going to be sleeping inside of your car, you’re going to need something basic (or advanced, depending on the temperature) to keep you warm through the night. One of the benefits of car camping is that you have more space for these items, so you don’t have to work about getting an ultralight sleeping bag or a highly-compressed camping quilt.
Personally, I like to splurge a bit by just bringing all my down blankets and pillows from home. You’d be surprised how comforting it is to sleep on your own pillows while camping. It’s one of those little touches of home that just makes you that much more comfortable.
Tent or Hammock
Shelter is pretty important when it comes to spending any amount of time in the wilderness, and since the SUV is most likely loaded with gear and snacks, you may have to find other accommodations for the night. Car camping allows you to bring bigger and heavier tents than would otherwise be comfortable, so our advice is to go big.
For instance, when your car camping, it is not at all excessive for a 3 person group to use an 8 person tent. You’ve got the space, so we say go for it.
Safety & Emergency
No matter how long you are planning on being out, it is always absolutely necessary to have a good survival & emergency kit on hand. This does mean a first aid kit, but the best survival kits include so much more. Here’s what we’re talking about:
Basic Camping First Aid Kit
This one is a no brainer. According to the American Red Cross, here’s what a good first aid kit looks like:
- Absorbent dressings
- Adhesive bandages
- Medical tape
- Antibiotic ointment
- Antiseptic wipes
- Breathing barrier
- Instant cold compress
- 2x pairs of non-latex gloves
- Hydrocortisone packets
- Gauze roll
- Sterile gauze pads
- Triangular bandages
- Emergency first aid guide
Road Emergency Kit
Seeing as how you won’t be doing much car camping if the car breaks down, it’s a good idea to have a solid road emergency kit in your car at all times. It might seem like an unnecessary use of space, but the hassle it will save you in the long run is considerable. Here’s what you should include:
- Jumper cables
- Flares or triangle reflectors
- Engine coolant
- Flashlight w/ batteries
- Tire pressure gauge
- Tool kit w/ screwdrivers, a wrench, & pliers
- Tire patch kit
- Pen & paper
- Extra water
Can’t go anywhere without your trusty pocket knife!
Now that you’ve got your basic safety needs covered, it’s time to setup the campsite.
With car camping, the campsite can become way more luxurious, functional, and fun, all because you don’t have to carry all this stuff out there yourself. Here’s what you need to build a basic (but baller) car camping campsite.
We can’t overestimate how helpful it is to have a good folding table or two. Whether it’s for organizing your food or setting up an entire mobile camp kitchen, tables keep us from having to do all our little tasks on the ground.
If you want to have a look at the incredible new camp tables that have hit the market lately, click on over to our sister guide, Top Folding Tables for Camping.
Folding Camp Chairs
There’s nothing like a good sit out in the woods. Folding camp chairs have only gotten more and more comfortable, too, so the outlook is good for a super-comfortable weekend in the woods. When shopping for a folding camping chair, be sure to look at things like how low it is to the ground, as it can greatly affect the overall comfort.
Tarp, Sunshade, or Easy-Up
Depending on where you are setting up, it’s going to be quite helpful to have some additional protection from the sun and rain. A pop-up shelter goes up in a minute or two and can protect your food and gear from the elements (and your drink cooler from the sun, mind you).
There are dozens of good uses for a long piece of rope, more than we could list here without exceeding our bandwidth. But the one of the most important uses is to store your food up in a tree when you are in bear country. Because believe you me, bears will break into your car to get at the food.
If you are interested in learning how to make a bear hang, check out
Rechargeable Camping Lantern
One way or another, it’s going to get dark out there. A rechargeable camping lantern can be plugged into your car or power bank’s 12V line, and some even come with their own solar panels for all-day trickle charging.
Here’s a bright idea: click on over to our review guide, Best Rechargeable Camping Lanterns to find out what we’re talking about.
Portable Power Station / Power Bank
Here’s something that we sure didn’t have growing up, but is quickly becoming a stable for anyone on the road for more than a few days at a time. A good portable power station is essentially a battery that you charge at home before you leave. Then you have access to power for the whole trip, whether it’s to charge a phone or laptop or to power a string of lights for your late-night campground party.
RELATED ARTICLE: Top 8 Portable Power Stations
Food & H20
This is the one thing that almost nobody forgets, and quite frankly, what people tend to spend the most time planning, organizing, & packing. Car camping is incredibly fun when you have all your favorite foods on hand, not to mention a few extra kitchen things to get it all cooked up in style. We’re not going to bother telling you what kind of food to bring on your car camping trip, we’ll leave that to you. But we do have a few suggestions regarding your car camping kitchen:
Car Camp Kitchen:
- Frying pan
- Soup pot
- Salt & pepper
- Sponges / scubbers
- Natural, biodegradable soap
- Coffee kettle
- Metal skewers
- Durable camping cups
- Plastic reusable plates
- Trash bags
- Paper towels
- Your favorite spices
Comfort & Cleanliness
Car camping not only means that you can stay more comfortable, but also more clean. Here are a few things to elevate your car camping experience
Here’s something that you should pay attention to. The best camping showers these days offer more pressure, higher temperatures, and bigger reservoirs than ever before, and most of them can even be powered directly from your power bank. Some camping showers even have their own power bank on-board, giving you yet another way to make more room in the back of the car for the bikes and toys.
Even if you aren’t bring your own portable camping shower, you can never really say when an impromptu dip in the river is going to occur. A towel is one of the handiest things to have on you in any kind of camping situation, but car camping in particular makes it easy. Towels are also great for cleaning off gear like bikes and boats before you put them back on the car rack.
Remember, it’s a dangerous cosmos out there, you don’t want to forget your towel.
Utilize some of that trunk space for some extra clothes, would ya? Nothing makes you feel fresher quicker than a change of clothes. Things like underwear and socks are particularly helpful, but even a fresh t-shirt can be handy in warm weather.
Frequently Asked Questions
The best way to pack your camping gear for a weekend of car camping is going to depend greatly on what the layout of your car is like. However, there are a few tips we can give to make the whole thing a bit easier.
- 1. Make sure you have quick access to the stuff that you might need in a hurry, like rain gear, food, your wallet, and emergency kits.
- 2. If possible, try to keep visibility open to the driver can see through the rear window. Utilizing a rooftop carrier is always a great way to add more storage space and keep visibility up.
- 3. Stuff sacks and compression sacks are a great way to minimize the space your things are taking up while keeping everything nice and organized
You are going to want to stay comfortable, but more importantly, you are going to want to be prepared for unexpected weather and circumstances. For this reason, make sure you have lots of layers that you can add / subtract as conditions change over the course of the day. Also, be sure to keep a good set of rain gear in your car.
There is a lot of room for you to make this decision on your own, but you’ve got to keep in mind your cooler & ice situation. Perishable foods won’t last long even in a cooler, so if you’re going to be out for an extended few days, you want to make sure you’re eating that stuff before the ice melts. In addition, you can look at dried foods like beans, rice, noodles, & freeze-dried backpacking meals for quick & long-lasting meal ideas that you can keep in your car at all times.
Generally, any kind of overnight camping whether it be car-assisted or not will require the same basic set of equipment. First you need to take care of Shelter & Warmth, then Safety& Emergency, and finally Food & H20. Everything past that is just a matter of personal preference.
Water is the most important thing to us human beings, so we are going to go ahead and make that our number one recommendation for what you should always have with you when camping. Of course a tent and sleeping bag are going to be right behind it, as exposure to the elements can be incredibly dangerous even when the temperatures aren’t all that extreme. A well-stocked first aid kit is always a great idea as well.