The ultimate guide to car camping

This car camping checklist will help you enjoy a pleasant experience on your first car camping trip. Using your car for spontaneous trips is one of the best things to do with your car. It does not matter what kind of a car you have, how polished it is and so on. What matters is creating memories and enjoying places where you go in your car.

Car camping trips are cheap, fun and quick to organize. No expensive hotel bookings, check-in and check-out times and so on. Preparing for your trip and building up your camping setup is fun as well. Here is a camping checklist to help you stay out of trouble and discomfort.

Prepare your car

The most annoying thing that can happen is your car breaking down. Make sure the car is properly serviced and maintained. Especially if you plan on going to remote places.

  • Check all the fluids (oil, braking fluid, coolant)
  • Have your battery checked. If the battery dashboard alarm light turns on during your daily use, your battery might die during car camping. It happened to me, because of the increased use of the lights while the car was turned off.
  • Check tire pressures and try to detect any air leaks.
  • Check all the lights and signals.
  • Make sure you have functional emergency equipment and preferably a spare tire.
  • Prevent any damage to your car. You are going to be taking stuff in and out of your car all the time. Even big and rough things like chairs and tables. One good thing is to protect your rear bumper, trunk plastics with clear foil so you don’t scratch it up. Chances are you are going to get dirty. Cover your fancy car seats with an old bed sheet and you are good to go.
  • Watch where you are driving. If your car is low, avoid rough terrain to prevent any serious damage to the engine or drive train.

One thing I always carry with me is a car battery booster and jump start cables. Even with a good battery, I needed a boost a few times during cold weather. Check other vital parts of your car with our guide.

dacia car camping

Where can you camp in USA?

It is legal to sleep in your car, just not anywhere you please. There are a lot of places where you can go car camping. The first would be private campgrounds. These are usually crowded with big RVs that need electricity, water lines, and everything. If you want to feel safe and have toilets and other facilities this is for you. Other places include:

  • USFS/BLM land. These lands have fewer restrictions and you can usually find a nice spot by the road where nobody will bother you over the night.
  • BLM/USFS Campgrounds. These campgrounds are usually smaller and out of the way. You do however find many of them located near trailheads which allows you to go straight from the camp onto the trail.
  • National parks, State campgrounds or monuments. These places tend to be crowded so try avoiding them during peak season. You can camp here, but do not expect intimacy or scenic campgrounds.

Where can you camp in Europe?

Camping culture in Europe is massive. Especially near national parks, lakes, and sea. Campgrounds are mostly private and highly maintained with all the facilities you can imagine. Camping is considered cheap in Europe which is a big plus. Many of the campsites are located in scenic locations. There is plenty of beach camps and so on. Wild camping is allowed in countries like Norway, however not all European countries tolerate it. Croatia is an example of a country where wild camping is highly prohibited and fined. Croatia, however, has many truly amazing campgrounds at low prices. For other European countries check here.

Essential car camping trip gear list

Your camping gear should differentiate depending on the type of camping you will be doing and when. Most of the things listed below are essential at any time.

  • Extra food. You never know where you will get in a situation where having some extra food is worth a million bucks. Do not rely on buying the food as you go because there might not be any food stores or they might be closed. So pack some extra food from home and stay worry-free.
  • Extra water. Hydration is key, especially during the summer. If you plan on camping in remote places, having a sufficient amount of water with you is crucial.
  • Extra clothes. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Camping and outdoor activities can be unpredictable and you do not want to get cold or stay in dirty clothes for a long time. Pack extra warm clothes during winter!
  • Navigation. Having a map might seem funny in 2019, but relying solely on electronics can sometimes be a bad idea. Your phone might die, your GPS can have issues… the map always works.
  • Lighting. Buy a quality headlamp and some extra batteries. Using your cars interior lights might drain your battery sooner than you think. Using a headlamp is much more convenient and smarter.
  • First aid kit and insect repellent. If you plan on hiking make sure to carry an additional smaller pack of first aid kit. If you are hiking in bear county consider buying a bear repellent spray which can save your life.
  • A quality knife. A good quality knife is a life saver, you can use it for cooking, doing repairs or anything else you use a knife for. Buy a good one once and keep it for a long time.
  • Fire. Always keep a firestarter or a set of matches on you. If you are planning on camping in an organized campsite then open fire will most likely be restricted. Carry a small gas stove if an open fire isn’t allowed or you just do not like it.

Car camping gear checklist – bedroom

Your gear will vary depending on the type of camping you are going to be doing and the type of car you have. It also depends on how much comfort and things you need on a camping trip. Below are things we see as necessary.

  • A tent (if you need one). If your car is too small to sleep in, then your only option is a good tent. Cheap tents are fun, and by fun, we mean a miserable experience you will gladly share with your friends. It is only fun the first time though. Invest in a good tent if needed! If your car is big enough to sleep in, then a tent is optional. Car tents are good if you want to have a dry place at the back of your trunk where you can eat, cook and chill on a rainy day. Rooftop tents are also highly popular but expensive.
  • A quality bed. Nothing is worse than getting bad sleep and feeling tired the whole day. If you plan on sleeping in your car buy a proper foam mattress. In a tent, your best option is to get a camping bed or a quality air mattress. If you are packing light, then consider buying a foldable camping bed/pad which comes in sizes as small as a beer can. Don’t forget pillows!
  • Sleeping bag or blankets. Remember to stay warm and cozy. This is especially crucial when camping during the winter or spring/autumn when nights still get cold. Depending on your surroundings and time of the year, make sure to get a proper sleeping bag. Pay attention to temperature ratings, shape and insulation material when buying a sleeping bag.
    Ventilation. No matter where you are sleeping, in a car or a tent, always make sure to have fresh air flow. If you are in a car open a window or a two for a few inches to have fresh air flowing in. In a tent, open the windows. Even when it is cold, fresh air is important. Make sure you don’t have the wind blowing into your face when it is cold to avoid getting a cold or a headache.

Camping gear checklist – kitchen

Having a proper camping kitchen will enable you to prepare awesome simple camping recipes. Avoid eating out and sandwiches all the time by bringing some basic kitchen items that will elevate your cooking to another level. Good, simple food prepared with love is one of the best things about camping.

  • Car camping slide-out kitchen. If you have a big wagon or a minivan then a proper pullout car camping kitchen is a must-have. It is a simple DIY project that makes a big difference. What you essentially do is create a double bottom in the trunk with two or three slide-out drawers. One of the drawers serves as a kitchen counter where you cut and cook and others serve as storage. Once you are done, slide the drawer in and the kitchen is gone. Genius. Check the picture below too better understand what I’m saying.
  • Kitchenware and supplies. Don’t forget the essentials like plates, cups, forks, knives, and spoons. Grab an insulated mug as well to keep your drinks cold or hot. Buy a quality camping stove with wind protection and widely available gas cartridges. Get practical camping pots and pans. These take up less space and come in practical sizes and small handles. Do not forget a wash basin, dish soap, and towels. With a limited amount of pots and pans, you will need to clean up regularly.
  • A good cooler. If you don’t own a camper van, you probably won’t have a refrigerator. Buying a good cooler enables you to keep your food fresh and cold for an extended period of time. You can also restock the cooler with ice every time you stop at a gas station.

Car camping gear checklist – energy

Yeah, spending time outside and enjoying the surroundings is nice, but it gets old or cold and rainy. Bring enough power supplies to charge your laptop and phone so you can enjoy a movie night inside the back of your car or tent. Camping in an organized campground will provide you with electricity, camping in the wild won’t. Here is how to prepare.

  • Power sources. Getting AC (wall outlet) power in the campsite is the best option. Another no-cost option is to charge your devices in your car while driving. If you are out and not driving around your only option is a solar charger. You can choose between panels only or panels with integrated/separate power storage. Having some kind of power storage is a must have, so buy solar chargers with some sort of power storage.
  • Power storage. Good and high capacity battery bank might just be the only thing you need for a weekend trip. They are not as expensive anymore but are necessary when doing any kind of camping. If you are doing longer trips the best option is a battery pack, preferably combined with solar panels. This is a lot more expensive but well worth the money if you are a regular camper.
  • Other factors. Take in to account the duration of your trip, the type of camping you normally do and the places you plan on visiting. There is no point in buying huge battery packs if you normally spend a day or two out of the reach of a wall outlet. If you always camp inside organized campgrounds, you might only need a cord extender and you are set. If you spend a lot of time in woods with little sunlight, then a solar charger might not be the best option for you. Really think through your situation and plan accordingly.

Camping gear checklist – chairs, shade, and lounging

There are no essentials in this category. Some people enjoy camping with just a blanket on the floor, others want their living room in the middle of the woods. The minimum for me is a nice foldable camping table and chairs. One thing I would definitely recommend is a shade awning, especially if you sleep in your car or van. Having a dry place in front of your car or some shade is well worth the investment. You can buy an awning or make one from a cheap tarp and some plastic pipes. There is plenty of DIY plans for making an awning.

If you are camping in the woods, there is nothing more comfortable than a good hammock. You will love and so will your kids. I try to find chairs and other accessories based on the best comfort/size ratio, so it doesn’t take up to much space.

van as first car
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk from Pexels

Car camping gear checklist – hygiene

Staying clean is important if you do not want to hate the entire camping experience. And staying clean while camping is not that hard. You do not need all the products you have at home, but only the essentials will keep you clean and feeling good.

  • Basic products. Toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet supplies, towels, sunblock, soap, shampoo, and feminine products for ladies.
  • Daily wash. Guess what, nobody died from not showering every day. It is recommended if you are doing some heavy physical activities, but other than that, just wash with some water and wet wipes.
  • Hand sanitizer. Always useful, especially when camping. Use it after taking the number 2 or working with raw meats.
  • Fresh clothing. The most important thing. Having enough fresh clothes will keep you feeling good and ready to go. If you are camping for a longer period, figure out a way to wash your clothes on the go. The easiest way is to spend a few days in organized campsites where you have running water or even laundry machines.

We hope you find this guide useful and feel free to ask more questions in the comments below! We will update this and add new articles about car camping.