Car camping sometimes gets confused with glamping, yet the essence of car camping is convenience, not luxury. What is car camping without the spontaneity of throwing a sleeping bag, tent, a few gallons of water, and some snacks into your hatchback? Of all kinds of camping; from backpacking, to multi-day trips, to well-planned glamp-a-thons, car camping is the easiest and most accessible. It may also be the best way to camp with kids— since you can toss the whole family and all your supplies into one vehicle and immediately hit the road in your daily driver.

What is Car Camping? Exploring One of the Easiest Ways to Get Outside

Car camping

People who’ve never camped sometimes find themselves in a situation where they are accidentally car camping. These are also the people who are the first to ask, what is car camping if not being accidentally stranded on a road trip? Let’s say you want to spend a night outdoors but you don’t have interest or experience hiking to a campsite. Or maybe you want to try out camping but don’t immediately want to invest in all the necessary gear. An easy solution for these folks is to try camping beside—or even inside—your car.

Car camping means throwing everything into your vehicle so you can enjoy all those little extra comforts. For example, the small luxury of camping with your own bed pillow, or food options that aren’t limited to freeze-dried meals, or bringing your laptop so you can Netflix and chill wherever you are.

The first step is finding a spot that you can drive directly into. This ensures you can park your fully-loaded car right next to your destination; no hiking and no hauling your gear required. Wilderness trail parking lots are a great place to start, or you can drive down a dirt road with public access and camp alongside the road. Campgrounds work too, although nearly all of them will charge you a nightly fee. If you are close to a true wilderness area, such as a National Forest, you can camp out of your car for free, for up to 14 days.

What To Bring on Your Next Car Camping Trip

What is car camping

To car camp without pain and discomfort, be sure to bring a decent kitchen set up. You can eat out of cans or take your cooler, but either way, bring plenty of food since you will have a pantry on wheels. Bring a flat surface, such as a folding table, to set up your stove and/or prep station. You will not be sorry if you invest in a portable gas stove and a simple dish washing and drying system. 

Besides grub and plenty of water, you will need sleeping arrangements. Whether you plan on sleeping in your car, or on the ground in a tent, you’ll want to bring a sleeping pad or (if there’s room in your car) an air mattress. And of course, you’ll want a sleeping bag and a real pillow for maximum car camping comfort. Why sleep poorly when it only takes a minute or two to pack your car full of comfortable gear from your home?

Car camping trips don’t require much planning if you are willing to stuff your car with gear, but a few items should always go with you:
  • Several large and small plastic garbage bags
  • Bug repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Extra dish towels
  • Foldable chairs
  • A can opener
  • Two extra sources of light (EX: headlamp, flashlight, lantern)
With only a dozen or so basic camping items packed into your car, you’ll be ready to gas up and hit the road in search of that cozy piece of wilderness to call your own for the night.