Have you always wanted to own an RV, but the insanely high price tag that somehow keeps getting higher has made it out of reach? If so, have you ever considered car camping instead? If that's a new term for you, you might be wondering what car camping is and why you should do it.
Car camping is camping in remote locations via car the same way someone might in a travel trailer or RV. You needn’t sleep in your car if you don’t want to. You can always camp out in a tent or a lodge or cabin.
That's just the tip of the vehicle camping iceberg, and you probably have a lot of questions about it, which is just fine, since we’ve got answers. This ultimate guide will explore the whats, whys, hows, and whens of car camping so you have the full picture of what this form of camping entails and if you should try it!
Check out Kenver's extensive selection of camping gear:
Kenver's Camping Collection
What Is Car Camping?
First, let’s expand on the definition of car camping from the intro. Now, the name car camping on its own can be a little misleading. From that name, you might assume that car camping is literally camping in your car.
While it can be, car camping merely means traveling to and from campsites in your car.
Think of how you would camp in an RV or a travel trailer. You’d pack up all your gear and supplies, round up your passengers, hop in the vehicle, and go, right?
Car camping is no different except that you do all that in a car. One of the biggest advantages of car camping is that it saves money. A new travel trailer–at least one of considerable size–costs $11,000 to $35,000 and sometimes more. RVs retail for up to $300,000 and can be costlier still. The prices are expensive.
With car camping, you don’t have to buy a new vehicle (unless you don't currently own one.) You’re just making the most of the one you already have. Now, let’s address the biggest question when it comes to car camping. Where do you sleep?
You have options, so let’s go over them now.
- In your car: Although it’s maybe not be the most luxurious, you can sleep in your car. You’ll have to adjust the seats, pushing them way back, so that means this option is only viable if you have up to two other passengers max (unless you have a roomy van or SUV). Be sure to lock your doors overnight. Consider blocking the windows as well to prevent others from looking into your car and to stop the morning sun from prematurely streaming in.
- In a tent: Camping is supposed to be about spending time outdoors, so it doesn’t feel fair to lock yourself in your car all night. You can experience the true wonders of camping by pitching a tent on the campsite near your vehicle and sleeping in there.
- In a cabin or lodge: If the campground offers it, you can always enjoy more of the creature comforts of home by renting a lodge or cabin for your stay. The lodge will have all the amenities you crave, such as warm running water, electricity, a fridge and freezer, beds, and perhaps even Wi-Fi.
Why Go Car Camping?
Car camping is only growing in popularity, and it’s easy to see why. Here are some very convincing reasons that you too may give it a try.
You Can Do It Tomorrow
If you’re interested in camping in a travel trailer or RV, there’s a significant barrier to entry.
First, you have to own the appropriate vehicle. We already talked about how costly it is to purchase a new travel trailer or RV.
Even shopping for an old vehicle doesn’t slash the prices by a significant margin. You’ll still pay at least five figures, maybe high four figures. Any used trailer or RV you come across that’s cheaper still is either very old or in bad condition. Either way, it’s not suitable for camping.
Even once you have the travel trailer or RV, then you have to learn how it works. There is a myriad of hookups you’ll have to understand to get electricity and fresh water to your vehicle.
You’ll have dumping tanks where bathroom and kitchen sink waste go (depending on the size of your RV and how sophisticated).
You’ll have to learn when these tanks are full, how to dump them, and where (hint: it’s only at available dumping stations.)
Beyond those things, you’ll also have to figure out how the air conditioning and heat work, how the kitchen operates, how any convertible beds and tables function, etc. If yours is a travel trailer, you’ll need a hitch, but there’s far from one type. You’ll have to master the various types of hitches, select the right one for your rig, and then learn how to hitch it up.
Driving in an RV or with a travel trailer around the back is also a challenge. It’s like learning to drive all over again since you have to stop very early and turn with a wide radius.
The barriers to entry, as you can see, go on and on.
It’s enough to dissuade some people from ever camping in an RV or travel trailer unless it belongs to a friend or family member. Car camping, by comparison, removes those barriers to entry.
Assuming you already have a car, then you're good with the vehicle situation. You know how to drive it, so that too is easy. Your car doesn’t have any of the aforementioned hookups and hitches, so you can hit the road today or tomorrow if you wanted to!
It’s a Great Way to Experience Nature
Did you know that the average person spends nearly 87% of their life indoors?
That’s according to a 2021 publication of the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology in conjunction with the EPA.
Another 6% is spent in vehicles, leaving us with only seven percent of our life spent outdoors.
This is a wildly missed opportunity, and depressing at that, considering that time outdoors can improve your mood, among several other benefits.
The vitamin D that our bodies convert from sunlight can lessen cortisol, the hormone that makes us stressed, and alleviate depression. Time outdoors can also lower one’s blood pressure and even bolster immunity!
If you feel like your life is lacking outdoor time, it probably is, so don't let the name "car camping" fool you and hit the road - it might be just what you need.
You Can Access More Parks and Campgrounds
Once you get into the camping life, you’ll realize that restriction are placed on parks and campgrounds across the country. Vehicles of certain sizes are barred entry, which can limit your traveling options if you own an RV or a lumbering travel trailer.
Only small trailers and cars can get into parks like these. Whether you want to visit the most popular parks and campsites in the United States or you want to find rarer gems, you shouldn’t face any issues with accessibility when car camping.
You’ll Bond with Your Friends or Family
How much meaningful time do you spend with your friends and family? By meaningful time, this means real face time - the kind without phones or other screens serving as a distraction. In that case, probably not much as you like.
Phones have just become such an integral part of our everyday lives that people naturally feel drawn to refresh their email or social media feeds even when with their favorite people.
In the wilderness, when electricity and Wi-Fi are precious commodities, you’ll have to put the phone down and even turn it off. This gives you and your family or friends a chance to bond like the pre-phone days (if you can remember those!).
Sure, it may be a little awkward at first, but once you begin engaging in outdoor adventures sans phone, no one will miss mindlessly scrolling through social media. This is one of the simple joys of car camping.
How to Pack for Car Camping – Everything You Need
Are you inspired to try a short car camping jaunt? Just as you wouldn’t leave without packing for traditional camping or in an RV, the same logic applies when car camping. You'll need to get fully prepared for the occasion - here’s a comprehensive list of everything you’ll need for a successful outing.
While some RVs and travel trailers include showers and toilets, your car lacks both. That means you may go quite a bit without showering, after being active all day, then sharing a confined space with others. This can create some less-than-desirable odors, especially when camping for several days.
Thus, you need toiletries! Here are some that you won’t want to go without:
- Deodorant: Even when living outdoors, basic hygiene will be appreciated by your fellow campers. Bring enough deodorant for several days or weeks depending on how long you’ll be gone.
- Hand sanitizer: Your access to a sink with warm water and soap can be rather limited when camping, so hand sanitizer is a good alternative.
- Bug repellant: You’re in the insects’ domain when you’re outdoors, and they might bite you more just because you’re available. Use a bug repellant, be that a wearable bracelet or a spray that you apply before you go adventuring.
- Sunscreen: Even on cloudy days, UV rays still permeate through. Apply sunscreen to any exposed skin and reapply about every two hours. If you get wet or very sweaty, reapply more often.
- Toothbrush and toothpaste: Start and end your day with clean teeth! Use a toothbrush holder or cap so the bristles don’t get funky.
- Toilet paper: You can’t guarantee that any of your lodging options will have toilet paper. Bring at least one full pack if you’ll only camp for a few days and several more packs for longer adventures.
- Shampoo, conditioner, and body wash: Your shower essentials need to come with you for when you find an opportunity to bathe. Keep these items in a toiletry bag so they don’t tilt and spill.
Most people will save car camping for the warmer months, but others won’t mind the autumn chill. (We’ll talk more about when to go car camping momentarily). What kind of clothing you’ll pack will vary by the season, but here are some general requirements.
- Hiking boots: For warmer weather, a lightweight pair of hiking boots more than suffices. You can even get away with a lightweight pair of boots into the autumn. For snowy conditions, you need winter hiking boots.
- Rain jacket or coat: It won’t all be sunny days during your car camping trip. To keep you warm and dry in rainy weather, you must have a rain jacket or coat.
- Layers: In colder weather, you need to wear layers. The base layer can include long underwear. This goes the closest to your body. The second layer is a midweight layer and the third layer is a coat. All layers should be made of moisture-wicking materials. This is a nearly identical process to what you would wear skiing or snowboarding.
- Socks: Wool socks are breathable and warm for cooler outdoor exploration, especially merino wool. For warmer weather, we’d still recommend a material like merino wool thanks to its thermoregulating properties.
- Extra clothes: Be sure to pack more clothes than you think you’ll need. Having at least a spare outfit or two can help if your clothes get muddy or soaked unexpectedly.
Your car doesn’t have a kitchen like a trailer or RV might, but you still have to eat. Most of your meals might be around a campfire, or you could even enjoy a few sit-down meals in a cabin or lodge.
To make cooking easy and efficient, bring this equipment.
- Portable oven: A portable oven makes it possible to cook food in a more nuanced way than over a burning flame. Some portable ovens plug into an outlet, but others are battery-powered when an outlet isn’t available.
- Trash bags: The policy at any park or campground is to leave no trace. From food waste to wrappers, you want to clean up everything you use and put it in a trash bag.
- Portable snacks: Prewrapped, prepackaged snacks with generous expiration dates are very car-friendly. Think granola bars and foods in that vein.
- Mugs or cups: If you don’t want to risk your favorite ceramic mugs shattering when on the road, then you can always bring plastic cups.
- Can opener: This is one of those kitchen tools that really comes in handy at times. Don’t leave yours at home!
- Dish soap and sponge: If you do bring any of your dishwares, then you’ll have to clean it somehow. A dishwasher won’t be an option, so you’ll have to handwash everything using a sponge and dish soap.
- Aluminum foil: Wrapping up food to protect it from local wildlife, preserve its heat, or merely save it for later means you must have aluminum foil.
- Cooler and ice: It’s hard to keep food cool without a fridge, but a cooler is the next best thing. Pack the cooler with ice so it stays frosty.
- Coffee gear: You might give up a lot of creature comforts when camping, but coffee does not have to be one of them. Pack a portable kettle and some coffee grounds and you can enjoy coffee anywhere.
- Pots and pans: Metal pots and pans are quite durable, so you can pack yours without worrying about damage.
- Water bottles: Water may be all around you when camping, but whether it’s potable is a whole different story. You’ll need plenty of potable water for your travels, at least enough for everyone to drink two liters per day.
- Utensils: At the very least, a plastic set of utensils will get the job done. You can also pull from your cutlery drawer at home.
You can’t forget the safety gear, which is among the most important pieces of equipment you’ll bring. These items could very well save your life!
- Water filter: If you run out of water, you need the option to make non-potable water safe to drink. A potable water filter can do just that.
- Paracord: Paracord comes in handy in a variety of situations. It’s usable for fishing, starting a fire, making a survival bow, and slicing through zip ties.
- Firewood: You cannot start a fire without firewood, so have an ample supply ready to go.
- Gloves and axe: To source local firewood (provided you’re allowed to), gloves and an axe will make chopping down trees a lot easier.
- Multitool: Another very valuable item in your kit is a multitool. A multitool can unthread screws, slice through materials, and even open tough food wrappers.
- Knife or scissors: If not a multitool, then at least carry a knife or scissors in your gear bag.
- First-aid kit: You cannot say for sure that injuries or illness won’t strike your party. Be prepared by stocking a full first-aid kit that contains bandages, dressings, antiseptic, blankets, a thermometer, and other integral medical gear.
- Lighter: Flashlights run out of batteries and your phone screen can dim out when it dies, but a lighter is always reliable. Bring several!
- Duct tape: To hold something together in a pinch, be that torn tent fabric or a small hole in a boat, duct tape is a lifesaver.
- Lantern: To help you navigate at night, a lantern can guide you. You’ll also feel safer in its glow.
Comfort is a top priority when camping, so make sure you bring the following shelter items.
- Camp chairs: Camp chairs are a comfy place to rest your bones. Many can compact when not in use so they take up minimal room in your car trunk.
- Tent with tent footprint: Unless you know for certain that your campsite has a lodge or cabin and that the cabin has availabilities, then you should pack a tent, stakes, and a tent footprint or floor.
- Pillows: A sleeping bag is plush and comfy, but nothing beats a pillow for getting a good night’s rest.
- Sleeping bag: Roll up cozy and tight at night and drift off to sleep in a warm sleeping bag.
- Sleep cot or pad: If you have room in your tent, you can also sleep more similarly to how you do at home in an elevated sleep cot. An air mattress is a good alternative.
You’ve got all the essentials packed, but don’t forget these extra items that will make your car camping trip more memorable.
- Portable DVD player and movies: Watching Netflix is hard when camping, as you don’t want to drain your phone battery. You’ll have to go old-school with a portable DVD player.
- Board games or card games: By candlelight or firelight, you and your group can stay entertained by playing games such as board games or card games.
- Camera: Rather than snap photos of everything on your smartphone, bring a real camera so you don’t have to strain your phone’s battery.
When to Go Car Camping
When is the best time of year for car camping? The bulk of car camping will likely take place in the spring and summer when the days are longer and the weather is more temperate. You can still go car camping into the autumn, but keep in mind that many national parks and campsites begin shutting down around mid-to-late November.
In most parts of the country, the weather this time of year is too cold for camping to be sustainable for all but the most hardcore enthusiasts. If you’re interested in car camping in the winter, parks in the southern part of the country should still be open since winters are far milder there.
Some parks in cold-weather regions might allow access but always check ahead before you go.
Car Camping - The Simpler Alternative to RVing
Car camping can be a tremendous way to explore the outdoors with your friends and family. This form of camping has no barrier to entry, as you can use the car, SUV, or van you already own versus purchasing a new or used RV or travel trailer.
More campgrounds will be open to you because of the smaller size of your vehicle, and you never have to worry about being limited on bridges or overpasses because of your load’s weight or size.
Sleeping in the car might seem ideal at first, but if conditions are too cramped, it’s simply not viable. Be sure to pack a tent or rent lodging at a cabin for your stay so you can fuel up for days of adventure.
Check out Kenver's extensive selection of camping gear:
Kenver's Camping Collection