Car Camping Guide For Aspiring Adventurers

If you haven't heard already, camping in a car is pretty sweet. Are you just dipping your toes into the outdoors? Looking for a family-friendly camp experience? Need a little escape from the city for a night? Your schedule won't permit a long backpacking adventure?

No problem. Try car camping.

How to go car camping

It's sort of self-explanatory, really. Round up some friends or fellow campers, toss your gear in the back of the vehicle, gather some food and set out to a forest road, vista, canyon, river or other landmark to sleep for the night.

car camping trip

What kind of car do I need?

The only acceptable vehicle for car camping is a brand new Toyota Tacoma with all the bells and whistles. FALSE.

I've been car camping in a 1980s Honda Civic, an early-2000s Mazda with a bike rack, a 2WD Nissan Frontier, a fully loaded Jeep Wrangler, my current VW Golf, and most recently a modified school bus. Point being, if you're smart about where you plan to camp, how you intend to get there, and what you choose to bring, nearly any car will work.

That said, there are obvious benefits to having a pickup bed, camper shell or hatch back with plenty of space to sprawl out or stow gear but that shouldn't deter you from trying in whatever vehicle you can access. A friend of mine recently discovered his Toyota Prius works wonderfully. Still, know your limits and don't try to rock crawl with your Smart Car.

The perks of car camping

The main benefit of using a car is having a mobile basecamp. Traditional backpacking is very weight conscious and limits what and how much of each item you pack. Having a car in the equation opens up a world of possibilities. Furthermore, a car provides a sense of safety and connection with the modern world if you're still earning your wilderness chops.

Cars offer:

  • A place to escape the elements
  • A way to recharge electronic devices
  • Ease of transportation to and from the destination
  • Exponentially more room to store food, gear and other amenities

Car Camping Gear and Packing Essentials

After countless trips, I've developed a running list of products, resources and other gear that come in clutch. I highly recommend:

Best places to go car camping

In my opinion, location can make or break a car camping trip. There are a few key considerations that can help ensure you find a great spot.

1) Is it crowded? Public campsites may be a great place to start, but I much prefer forest roads, BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and other dispersed campsites that create a sense of exclusivity, peace and quiet. The more crowded, the more difficult it may be to lock down an ideal place to set up shop.

2) Is it hard to get to? Are you comfortable with the drive, the time it takes to get there and how far you'll be from the city? Can you get to the site with plenty of sunlight to set up and cook before night? Is the drive mostly paved or all washboard? And can any shift in weather jeopardize your route to or from the spot?

3) Is there water? I much prefer a location with a body of water or a running river or stream. Not only does it add to the overall vibe, but a quality water source opens up the possibility of swimming, fishing, pumping drink water, increasing the likelihood of seeing local wildlife and more.

4) Is there shade? How does the sun shine on the campsite and will you be able to park/set up camp out of the harsh sun if necessary? 

5) Is it free? Do your homework and be sure you aren't risking a ticket or fine wherever you park. And never camp on private land unless you've got permission. Sure, you could probably try your luck but it's dishonest and will give all of us other car campers a bad wrap. And depending on your budget, a $12-$20ish camp spot in a designated area may be totally reasonable. 

6) Can you have a campfire? Make sure you're in the loop with any fire restrictions or restraints before you set out. Camp stoves and self-contained burners are efficient, but a campfire makes the trip feel like the real deal.

The rest is really up to personal preference and whatever your group desires to do throughout the trip. It might make sense to find a space near hiking trails, cliff jumping, a great sunset viewpoint or a forest for instance. 

Go Car Camping Already

Car camping is a wonderful way to make new memories, strengthen friendships, clear your mind or introduce kids to the outdoors. I encourage you to try it for yourself. I'm willing to bet you'll get the bug.

Thanks for reading and keep an eye in the coming weeks for posts on the Best Places to Car Camp in Arizona, Car Camping Etiquette and Easy Car Camping Meals!

If you've got hacks or tips for a great adventure, share in the comments!