Things to Bring When Car Camping

So you want to go car camping, eh? Well, as a relatively seasoned car camper, I can honestly say that there are some things you need to know and preparations you need to make before camping in your unconverted vehicle. This article focuses on things you’ll need in order to live comfortably in your car, from short weekend getaways to a week long adventure.

In this article, I will link you to a LOT of products that I recommend you have if you are planning on being a regular car camper. If you are thinking about trying out car camping once, you probably don’t need everything on my list and can get away with the bare bones of a compact cooler, a gallon or two of water, a sleeping bag, and some Clif Bars and sandwiches.

DISCLAIMER: I have affiliate links in this article that, if you click on them and make a purchase, I will get a percentage of commission at no cost to you.

A computer in the back of a minivan
My boyfriend doing computer work out of the back of the van

How to store more things

1) Roof Boxes

You’ll probably want to take with you food, blankets, hiking shoes, a change of clothes, and a lot of water. So you’ll need a good place to store all your junk. And I don’t recommend putting it all in the back because that’s where you’ll be sleeping.

Get yourself one of those roof boxes, and if you can, get a Thule or Yakima box, because those have great reputations and are the highest quality, ranging from $450-$1,600.

If you’re a budget traveler like me, you might want to take a look at this listing of something called a RoofPax rooftop cargo carrier- it’s basically a waterproof, lightweight (11.5lbs), and durable cargo carrier that can be mounted on top of the car WITH OR WITHOUT racks.

The way it works is it comes with hooks that slide under the weather stripping in the car door if no roof racks are available. The straps on the actual cargo carrier then wind through the hooks and tighten the buckle. This listing has a 4.6/5 rating from almost 3,000 people on Amazon and goes for only $154.

DISCLAIMER: If you don’t have roof racks and are nervous about using hooks on your car door, this might not be for you.

If you don’t have roof racks, there is always the option of mounting them yourself. However, it will cost a pretty penny. The listing price of a single Thule flush mount roof rack on Amazon goes for about $279, and that doesn’t even include installation services!

2) Hitch mount cargo carriers

Another option for a car without a rack is a hitch mount cargo carrier or storage tray. This is a relatively cheap option, where most listings range from $150-$250, and the actual carrier bag that goes into it can be as cheap as $70.

Here is a listing of both the cargo carrier and carrier bag sold by Mockins on Amazon for $190 (down from $250 when this was originally written). It has a solid 4.5/5 rating and the carrier has a limit of a whopping 500lbs! The carrier bag has a carrying capacity of 15.5 cubit feet and comes with rainproof ratchet straps and free hitch stabilizer for good measure.

3) Trunk and backseat organizers

If you are only going car camping for one or two days and aren’t planning on packing much, look no further than simple backseat and trunk organizers. These heavy mesh bags will keep most of your belongings assembled in a compact way that is easy to organize.

This listing of two backseat organizers goes for $9.29 on Amazon and has over 2,500 reviews averaging 4.4 stars. It’s a good solution for packing lighter and smaller objects such as bear spray, shoes, water bottles, and a compact kitchen set.

Minivan parked by the Teton range
Our van parked by the Teton Range

how to store food and what food to take

1) Food storage

Let’s talk about food and how you’re going to manage all that on your adventures. One thing I haven’t done yet and am deeply considering is getting an Yeti cooler, or one of those cheaper Igloo ones from Walmart.

If you want to be really cheap, check out this insulated bag on Amazon- it’s durable, water proof, and, well, insulated. Just throw in a couple ice packs and you should be good to go for a day or two. If you are going on more than a weekend-long trip, I don’t suggest this option.

2) Food to bring

Now, let’s talk about the type of food you should take with you. Obviously, you can’t just take a steak and potatoes with you and hope to cook that… well, you could, but you’d need a lot of utilities. The best thing you can take with you is compact, easy o make, and easy to clean. My personal favorite camp food is…. drum roll… ramen. You could have probably guessed that. But really, ramen is so easy because it doesn’t require a cooler, and only needs hot water to be delicious. Other noteworthy foods are oatmeal, canned soups, and canned chili.

DISCLAIMER: If you are car camping in bear territory, keep your windows closed and use a bear box if possible, or tie your food to a tree 100 yards (300 feet) away. Bears are said to smell things as far as five miles away and have noses more powerful than that of a bloodhound.

3) Food Preparation and cookware

Now, let’s talk about how to actually prepare the food. When my boyfriend and I went car camping, we bought this Coleman propane camping stove, a cheap pot for the ramen, and a set of camping utensils. We also brought along a can of propane. If you are planning on only using one burner, there’s also a Coleman portable bottle-top gas stove for only $37.

If you are unsure of what camping stove to get, check out this article on best camping stoves for 2021- it talks in depth about what camping stove is best for what occasion, and covers a wide range of prices.

Here’s a link to a set of basic camping cookware- it has three bowls but only has one cutlery set, so you might want to take extra forks and spoons. It’s pretty similar to what my boyfriend and I used.

4) cleanup

After you gorge yourself on dehydrated mashed potatoes, you’ll want to clean up your cookware and store it away. This is easier said than done because when in natural spaces, you aren’t supposed to leave a trace behind you, which means dumping out remaining food becomes difficult. If you are off the beaten path with no trash can in sight, you’re going to want to bring some kind of storage meant for disposables.

I remember trying to clean my pots and pans with some water splashes from a bottle- it wasn’t fun. You’re going to want to get yourself one of those collapsible washing tubs on Amazon, going for $20. Remember, leave no trace.

If you are going to be washing dishes in the woods, do so with eco-friendly soap that is preferably scent free and won’t leave a chemical residue when you dump it out. Here’s a link to an unscented and biodegradable all-purpose wash that won’t break the bank.

My tip for washing dishes in backcountry is grabbing a couple of wet wipes and wiping down any cookware you used and disposing of the wet wipes in a bearproof trash can. If no such trash can is available, store those wipes somewhere far away (as far away as the food) because they will attract bears. After wiping the cookware down, use preferably filtered water to finish cleaning the dishes.

Coleman stovetop
Our ramen cooking on a Coleman stove

How to store and filter water

1) Water storage

Other than food, you will of course want to bring a lot of water with you. If you plan on being out in nature for a couple days, this collapsible water container is a good choice, able to store 5.3 gallons of water. According to the listing, this container has no BPA, PVC, or DEHP. It is also collapsible and leak proof.

One question you might be asking yourself is “how much water to take?” Well, it largely depends on the length of the trip, and your drinking habits. The average person drinks about 1/2-1 gallons of water a day, so if you are going on a two day camping trip with your boo, a 5 gallon container of water should just barely cover it, if you’re including water for washing hands and dishes.

But what if you are going for longer than that? What if you also brought along your two kids? In that case, a water filtering system is a better option, since it reduces the pressure to conserve water and pretty much gives you an infinite limit of how much water youcan consume.

2) Filtering water

If you plan on being next to a water source, then a compact water filter could be a good choice. Lifestraws are incredibly cool because you can drink straight from a fresh water source and it filters out 99.9999% of bacteria, parasites, and even microplastics. Yes, there are microplastics in our fresh waters now. Lifestraw can filter over 4,000 liters of water. Sold at just over $17, this is definitely a good bang for your buck and a budget option.

The Survivor Filter Pro also has similar claims to how clean it makes the water, and it also claims to be able to filter up to 100,000 liters of water! That’s just insane. It claims to be able to filter down to 0.1 micron which is also quite remarkable. This filter is a little more on the pricey side, with a list price of $70, but it’s an investment for sure.

If you are planning on bringing some kind of water filtering system, still bring at least a gallon of filtered water for emergency and washing use.

Van parked in Bridger-Teton national forest
Our minivan parked in Bridger-Teton National Forest

How to sleep in a car

1) Air and foam mattresses

Okay, hear me out: sleeping on top of folded car seats, or on the floor of your car is NOT comfortable. I’ve tried. Whether or not you choose to take the seats out is your choice- I am an avid supporter of taking out the seats because it gives you so much more leg and head room.

You might think that sleeping on the car floor won’t be too bad, but it’s pretty bad, and the reason for that is that there are those metal bars that are installed in the floor so your seats can hook onto them. Those bars digging into your tailbone all night won’t make you a happy camper, I’m just saying.

So what is a fellow to do? Well, I invested in a mattress topper (here’s a link to the specific one) and I’ve never looked back. Well, actually, the first time I bought the topper in twin size, which was rather inconvenient for me and my boyfriend, so a year later, I bought the same product, but in full size, and boy, did that make a difference. It fits perfectly into both a Chevy Venture and Toyota Prius, hugging the walls slightly. It’s a very good option because it bends and buckles, so you don’t have to struggle putting it in, and it has all the coverage of an actual mattress- without the giant price tag.

It’s a little pricey, coming in at $250 for a full size, but if you sign up for Bed Bath and Beyond, they will send you a welcome coupon that will take 20% (or a whopping $50) off your order. The mattress topper really is a mattress itself with how thick it is, and the memory foam really adds to the experience. Do yourself a favor and get one, too, and splurge on a full size. You won’t regret it.

Here’s a link to a significantly cheaper alternative that is two-inches thick and has a 4.6/5 rating.

An air mattress is a good idea only if you find the right size- that is, most full-size air mattresses will not fit in the back of any regular sized car once they are blown up. If you are camping alone, a twin air mattress should definitely work.

2) Staying warm

Now, you may be wondering how hot or cold a car gets at night, and the answer is- it can get ugly. If you are car camping in any month but July or August, and in any environment other than temperate, there’s a good chance that your car will get extremely cold during the night, especially if you have the windows cracked open, which you should for ventilation.

The first time I went car camping in the Tetons, I was shivering the entire night, and that was with an Ugg blanket. You really want to make sure that you have a good couple of blankets with you before you settle in for the night.

If you think regular blankets won’t be enough, then consider buying a warming blanket like this one on Amazon for $85 with a 4.3/5 rating. It comes with a five year warranty, is easy to wash, and has over 20 heating levels, which means you can be comfortable in 45 degree weather, or 10 degree weather. There’s a lot of electric blankets on the market, but of course, they tend to be a little more expensive, for good measure.

If you want to hit two birds with one stone, you can get a sleeping bag that you can use when traditional camping, too. I’ve done probably five hours’ worth of research on what bag to get that won’t break the bank but still has quality, and I landed on this Teton Sports Celcuis Regular 0 Degree bag.

It is $65 and is very warm, and, bonus points, can be connected to another sleeping bag just like it to fit two people. That means if you are buying two bags, buy one with a left zipper, and one with a right zipper. The bag has a lot of padding and unfortunately is a little too big for strapping on to your backpack, but is ideal for car camping or tent camping at a site.

3) Staying cool

Staying cool is also a factor if you are camping somewhere humid and hot. First, you’re going to want to bring a cooling gel pillow with you, and this is because your head is what’s most important when regulating temperature. Here’s a listing for a set of two cooling pillows for fifty bucks- with over 160,000 positive (4.4 average) reviews.

Another thing that can help stay cool at night is having silk sheets, because silk is a naturally heat wicking material and feels cool to the touch. Also consider investing in a silk robe or pajamas if silk sheets are not in the budget.

Lastly, if you need a more serious method of cooling, any miniature fan will work. This rather funny looking listing I found is just perfect for car camping, because it is battery and USB charged, and can be mounted onto the back of a seat, or even into a cup holder, because of its nifty bendy legs.

4) Keeping bugs out

Bugs. No one likes them. That’s why I made sure to put some research into bug screens for your windows, because they are paramount for having a great camping experience.

If you are anywhere with insects (the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, the West, the Southwest, anywhere with foliage or water), you’ll want to check out this listing for these $16 stretchy window covers that fit nearly every type of car window- the listing comes with two of them, and they have a 4.2 star rating- most negative reviews say that the bug screen obstructs blind spots and makes noise while driving.

Van parked under a starry sky
Our minivan parked on Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone

Final Thoughts on car camping

Of course you’ll also want to bring a change of clothes and some snacks, but other than that I think we more than covered the basics. Like I mentioned earlier, you don’t need everything in this article to successfully car camp (gosh knows I didn’t have a lot of this stuff) but it’s good to be prepared. For me, the mattress topper, blankets, a gallon of water, the Coleman stovetop and propane, and food are a must-have and everything else is extra.

While car camping can be an investment, it is very rewarding and fun to do. Be careful when and where you car camp, because a lot of places don’t allow it and the sheriff will ticket you. Here is an article my boyfriend wrote on free car camping in Yellowstone- check it out!

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post, and until next time, keep hobbling!

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