First, what car camping is NOT is sleeping in your car at a rest stop. Car seats make terrible beds and car interiors leave little room for doing anything but, well, driving. Trying to live even one night in your car is more like “car cramping.”
Car camping IS a type of camping with a tent . . . while your car is parked nearby. This is infinitely more enjoyable and comfortable than “car cramping”. Car camping means driving your car to a designated, developed campsite and parking near where you will be setting up your tent rather than a remote area.
As opposed to lugging all your gear on your back for miles to a dispersed camping area or wilderness, car camping provides the convenience of using your vehicle to store all your camping gear and supplies until you need them.
A car camping site is typically equipped with the following:
- A paved space to park one vehicle
- A leveled, packed “tent pad” free of debris on which to pitch your tent
- A picnic table
- A fire pit, fire ring, or charcoal grill
- A water spigot and electrical outlet (unless camping in a primitive site)
- Nearby toilet and showers (in a well-lit area)
- Nearby dumpster or trashcans
- Nearby Ranger Station (for advice or help if needed)
(While this is a typical list for most campgrounds, it is always recommended to visit the campground’s website or call ahead and confirm what amenities are provided so you can be prepared. Be aware that typical national forests will not provide many of these amenities.)
- Is it Safe to Car Camp?
- Car Camping Tips for Beginners
- Car Camping Essentials (1 or 2 night trip)
- Wrapping Up the Beginner's Guide to Car Camping
Is it Safe to Car Camp?
A car camping trip is one of the great options to get away from it all, but some people are hesitant to do it because they’re worried about their safety.
There are indeed some risks associated with car camping, but those risks are no greater than the risks you take when you’re driving or walking around town. Everyday common-sense safety practices will ensure everyone can car camp safely and have a great time!
The best way to stay safe while tent camping is to camp in a state or national park. These parks are patrolled by park rangers who are trained to deal with emergencies. Plus, the campsites in these local parks are well-maintained and often have security features like gates, fences, and a few well-lit areas.
If wild animals are a worry, consider this: wild animals, whether a bear or a squirrel, aren’t as interested in you as they are in your food. So the best way to avoid a bear or raccoon problem is how you handle food storage and keep a clean campsite (Refer to the park website for recommendations for storing food).
For example: if you don’t want a hungry raccoon trying to snuggle with you at 3 A.M., don’t keep that can of Pringles next to (or in) your sleeping bag!
Otherwise, wild animals rarely venture into human territory. In developed, maintained campgrounds such as state and national parks, the human element alone is enough to keep them outside campground perimeters.
If the other campers sharing the campground with you are a concern, here’s something to remember: car campers are usually some of the best neighbors you could ask for. Car camping attracts a unique community of people that are often characterized as polite, generous, helpful, and caring.
Ultimately, the first thing to do is a little research and review the campground’s website and check-in at the ranger station for safety protocols and tips for the area.
Reserve America is a fantastic resource for doing that research.
Car Camping Tips for Beginners
Camping can be a lot of fun for new campers, but it can also be a little intimidating if you’ve never done it before.
Just the thought of camping can make some people feel overwhelmed. It seems like there are so many things to remember and pack!
We’re here to help make your first car camping adventure an enjoyable experience. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about getting started as a beginner camper.
What You Need to Know About Car Camping
Car Camping Tip 1: Invite A Camping Veteran.
If you know an experienced camper, ask them to accompany you on your first trip. Whether you’re pitching a tent for the first time, learning to build a proper campfire, or familiarizing yourself with campground etiquette (trust me, you don’t want to be “that guy”), it is extremely helpful to have someone along who can show you the basics on your first car camping trip.
Simply choosing your first destination can be easier with someone familiar with the local campgrounds and parks.
Car Camping Tip 2: Select a Camping Destination Appropriate for Your Experience Level.
Nothing ruins a camping trip like getting in over your head. It is important to allow yourself to grow and learn how to camp in an ENJOYABLE way! If you rough it too much at first, you may never want to go camping again.
That being said, consider camping first in your own backyard. This is a great way to learn some basics, test out any new gear, and find what works for you and what doesn’t.
Once you’ve got your feet wet, take your next camping trip to a campground that is less than an hour’s drive from home. Search online for nearby State or National Parks.
Refer to the campground’s website for information on amenities. (Pro tip and trust me on this: if the wife is going to want a shower each night, don’t camp on public lands where the only water source is an icy mountain river . . . and make sure that a nearby bush isn’t the only option for relieving oneself.)
Car Camping Tip 3: Determine the Length of Your Trip.
Take it from a father who has been in over his head a few times: if you’ve never camped before, don’t plan a two-week road trip excursion or backcountry camping trip to a national park halfway across the continent. You’ll probably burn yourself out and your family may disown you.
Just like with other types of vacations, keep it SHORT and simple at first, say one or two nights. This will make it much easier to meet your daily campground needs and keep everyone cheerful, without feeling like you’re overwhelmed or overworked.
Car Camping Tip 4: Plan and Pack Realistically.
Always check the weather forecast! A little rain won’t ruin a camping trip so long as you’re prepared for it; but, a stalled thunderstorm makes for a soggy experience.
High winds can be another villain. Trying to pitch a tent with 30 mph wind gusts is enough to make one want to set fire to it (also a bad idea in the wind) and having a meal at the picnic table when the plates and napkins are taking flight can make eating an Olympic sport.
Consider the high and low temperatures for each day. 80 degrees doesn’t seem that warm until you’re out hiking in it. Alternatively, 55 degrees seems pleasantly cool until you’re sleeping in it without the right sleeping bag or blanket.
Additionally, pack clothing to match the weather, emphasizing comfort over fashion (a campground is no place for vain people in their fancy duds; however, they do provide a good laugh for the other campers!)
Be realistic about your potential experience. Most parks will refund your reservation money minus a small fee if cancelations are made 24 hours or more before your arrival date; so, if you feel that conditions may compromise your family’s chances of having a good time, don’t be afraid to cancel or reschedule.
Car Camping Essentials (1 or 2 night trip)
These days, available camping gear and gadgets are ENDLESS. It’s easy to go overboard and buy superfluous junk you won’t end up using. Ultimately, to go camping you don’t need much gear, you only need three things:
Everything else is, if you think about it, a luxury. And everything you add to your packing list adds more to keep up with, more to break, and more responsibility on your shoulders. Trust this mantra: LESS IS MORE!
The following checklist covers the bare necessities — like a starter kit. As you gain experience, you can modify and add to the list, eventually creating one of your own that suits your family’s needs perfectly.
Review our comprehensive camping gear list for more than the basics.
Camping Shelter & Accessories
- Sleeping Pad or Air Mattress
- Sleeping Bags
- Shade Canopy or Tarp with Cordage (because a tent can become a sauna in warm, sunny weather)
- A 5-Gallon Water Cooler or Jug (to be refilled as needed)
- Individual Tumblers or Bottles (for each person)
- Ice Chest Stocked with Ice (for warmer climates)
Propane stoves or camp stoves are great for cooking. But if you don’t want to purchase one yet, it is possible to eat well on a short car camping trip without actually cooking. Consider taking a second (large) ice chest and storage tub and stock them with the following:
- Cold Brewed Coffee (you know you’ll want it!)
- Milk and Cereal/Granola
- Bagels and Cream Cheese
- Sandwich Fixings
- Dried Sausage or Jerky with Cheese Sticks/Cubes
- Chicken Salad and Tortillas (prepare the chicken salad ahead of time)
- Hummus and Veggies
- Beef Jerky or Dried Sausage
- Trail Mixes
- Freeze-Dried Fruit
- Granola Bars
- BLT’s with pre-cooked bacon
- Pasta Salad (prepare before the trip)
- Wilderness Charcuterie (scrounge up all your favorite cured meats, cheeses, fruits, crackers, mustards, and spreads and go crazy!)
Eating Ware, Utensils, and Supplies
- Plates (or at least paper towels)
- Spoons and Forks
Personal Care Items
- Hand Sanitizer Gel or Wipes
- Shampoo and Soap
- Bath Towels
- Toothbrushes and Toothpaste
- Toilet Paper (it’s better to have it and not need it; but, to need it and not have it . . . unpleasant)
Other Camping Essentials
- Flashlights or Headlamps
- Camping Knife (Fixed or Folding Blade)
- First Aid Kit
- Bug Spray
- Cash (always a good idea on a trip)
- Camping Chairs
- Trash Bags
- Bungee Cords (can be used for lots of things)
You may already be thinking of things to add to the list to provide extra comfort and make things more enjoyable. Go for it! Again, this is just a recommended “starter kit.”
Just remember, the more you lug along, the more you have to be responsible for.
Wrapping Up the Beginner’s Guide to Car Camping
So, in the end, what is car camping?
Car camping is a way of overnight camping that provides a taste of “roughing it” and enjoying the great outdoors while enjoying some comforts, conveniences, and security.
It is also a great opportunity for families to spend time together exchanging, for a short time, their complicated, distracted schedules for a simpler one that allows them to focus on each other.
Remember, the secret to car camping is simplicity. LESS IS MORE! Especially if you’re just getting started car camping, give yourself the freedom to focus on mastering the essentials and enjoying the experience devoid of stress.
Also, consider leaving the electronics at home. State parks and national parks do not offer wi-fi and, oftentimes, your cell phone will not get reception anyway.
Now, get out there!