Your Ultimate Car Camping Checklist: Everything You Need (to Pack & Know) Before You Head Out
According to Afterpay, searches for camping vacation guides have increased by more than 300 percent since Covid-19 limited our travel options. But for those who are new to camping, the whole thing might feel a bit daunting. For starters, you have to bring your own hotel room (aka a tent).
As someone who has been enjoying camping, backpacking and hiking trips for most of my life, I’ve learned exactly what I need to bring along for the trip and what’s best left at home, whether I’m heading outdoors for one night only or a multi-day backpacking excursion. So I pulled together an ultimate guide of everything you need to know and pack for a successful car camping trip (the best type of camping for beginners, in my opinion), from cooking dinner for your crew to staying entertained after the sun goes down.
First of all, what exactly is car camping?
Car camping isn’t RV camping and doesn’t involve sleeping in your car. Instead, it means driving into a campground and parking nearby (sometimes right next to) a designated campsite where you’ll set up a tent for the night. The great thing about this type of camping adventure is that you can stuff your car full of anything and everything you might need without worrying about having to carry it all up a mountain, as you would if you were backpacking. If you’re unsure whether or not you’ll want something while out in the wilderness, we say why not toss it in the backseat provided there’s room?
How do you find car camping campgrounds?
You can always start with a simple Google search for “car campgrounds near [insert city here]” and take it from there. Also, every national park has a few campgrounds on site if you’re interested in visiting those. Unfortunately, you can’t just show up, pick a spot that looks nice and set up camp. You’ll need to make a reservation, just like you would for a hotel. Reserve America and the National Park Service run almost every campground in the U.S., so there’s a 99 percent chance you’ll be applying for a reservation through one of those two organizations. They’re also fantastic resources for finding a campground near you and nailing down the specifics of your particular spot. (The only exceptions would be if you’re hoping to camp on privately owned land. Those grounds will have their own permit processes.) The more popular campgrounds can fill up months in advance, especially for weekend dates, so the sooner you nail down where you’d like to go, the better.
The level of rusticity of these campgrounds can vary greatly. Some will have running water for showers, plugs to charge cellphones or possibly even a little general store to pick up things you may have forgotten to pack. Almost all will have standing bathrooms, although some may be more akin to a Port-a-Potty than your home facilities. Some allow for campfires over which marshmallows can be toasted and s’mores can be made, but that is not universally true. Be sure to read up on all the rules and expectations of the campsite you hope to visit before you start packing or planning. And if you have any questions, local ranger stations can help guide you.
Now, onto your comprehensive car camping checklist.
THE ABSOLUTE ESSENTIALS
You can stuff your car full of s’mores ingredients, games, guidebooks and binoculars for bird watching, but you’ll still have a pretty miserable time if you forget to bring a tent. Here are the important things to think about when planning your car camping adventure and the first things to stick in the trunk when packing.
As mentioned above, car camping does not mean you’re sleeping in your car, which means you’ll need another form of shelter. REI, Backcountry and Dick’s Sporting Goods all have excellent options ranging from tiny one-person backpacking tents to giant eight-person mansions that can fit the whole family and then some.
A few things to note: Tents intended for two, three or sometimes four people often run on the smaller side with little extra room to, for example, spread out and play a card game or fall asleep with your limbs spread wide like a starfish. This is because many of them were designed with backpackers in mind. Larger tents are more likely to have extra wiggle room built in, but it’s still important to double check the measurements to decide which setup will be most comfortable for everyone in your group. You’ll also want to ensure your tent will actually fit within your designated campsite. This really shouldn’t be an issue unless you want to bring along one of those mansion-sized tents, but it never hurts to double check.
Shop tents: Kelty Discovery 2-Person Camp Bundle ($250; $187); REI Co-op Grand Hut 4-Person Tent ($299; $209); Caddis Rapid 6-Person Tent ($300; $225); REI Co-op Kingdom 4-Person Tent ($429; $300); Big Agnes Dog House 6-Person Tent ($350); Eureka Assault Outfitter 4-Person Tent ($500; $375); The North Face Wawona 6-Person Tent ($399); REI Co-op Kingdom 8-Person Tent ($579; $405)
2. Sleeping Bags
Besides having someplace to sleep, you’re going to want to have something to sleep in. You can always opt to just toss a whole bunch of blankets and comforters into the backseat but using a sleeping bag is much more in line with the spirit of camping and is sometimes more comfortable, too. Double check what the nighttime temperatures have been like in the area where you’ll be camping and cross check that with the temperature range of your sleeping bag so you don’t end up either wishing you had an extra layer or, conversely, sweating in a bag built for winter excursions in the arctic.
Shop sleeping bags: The North Face Wasatch 40 Sleeping Bag ($69); NEMO Tempo 20 Sleeping Bag (starting at $150; $112); The North Face Gold Kazoo Down Sleeping Bag ($250; $168); REI Co-op Joule 21 Sleeping Bag ($339; $170); Marmot Hydrogen Sleeping Bag ($349; $247)
3. Sleeping Pads and Pillows
Seasoned backpackers or hard-core campers might tell you these things aren’t essential, but if you have the room in your trunk we say why not? They’ll make sleeping on the ground much more enjoyable, and you’ll wake up better rested with more energy to tackle a day filled with hiking, fishing, kayaking or other activities. You can even bring along an air mattress in place of a thinner sleeping pad for extra comfort, so long as you have a way to inflate it (remember, it’s not guaranteed you’ll have access to electricity while you’re out there).
Shop sleeping pads and pillows: REI Co-op Trekker Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad ($70; $49); NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad ($50); Kamp-Rite 4x4 Self-Inflating Pad (starting at $60); Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad (starting at $145); Backcountry x NEMO Verata Sleeping Pad ($190)
4. Lanterns, Flashlights and Headlamps
You might be able to find your way to the bathroom at 2 a.m. in total darkness in your own home, but we don’t recommend trying it in an unfamiliar campground where stray rocks, roots and even unsuspecting animals might turn your late-night bathroom break into an impossible obstacle course. Grab a few flashlights and some extra batteries so you won’t have to call it a day once the sun’s gone down. You can also try headlamps or a battery-operated lantern which have a little more of an outdoor adventure feel.
Shop lanterns, flashlights and headlamps: LuxPro LED Hanging Lantern ($10); Dorcy LED Flashlight 4-Pack ($13); Nebo Poppy 2-in-1 Lantern Spotlight ($20; $13); UCO Leschi Lantern ($13); Black Diamond Moji Lantern ($20); Petzl Tikkina Headlamp ($20); Black Diamond Astro 175 Headlamp ($20)
5. First Aid Kit
Safety is, obviously, super important. But this is especially true when you’re out in the woods. Your access to medical resources will be more limited so it’s good to arm yourself with the basics—Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, Ace bandages, gauze, pain killers, tweezers, safety pins, etc. as well as any medications individuals in your group might need like an EpiPen or inhaler. You can always buy a pre-packed kit, but if you’re interested in building your own REI has a pretty comprehensive list of supplies it recommends including.
Shop first aid kits: Advil Tablets, 100 count ($9); Neosporin First Aid Antibiotic/Pain Relieving Ointment ($10); Band-Aid Family Variety Pack ($10); Be Smart 180-Piece First Aid Kit ($12); Johnson & Johnson 140-Piece First Aid Kit ($12); Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Backpacker Medical Kit ($39)
6. Warm Clothing
Sure, it might be 80 degrees and sunny in the afternoon, but temperatures can drop significantly once the sun goes down and not every campsite will allow you to build a campfire for warmth. You don’t want to be stuck shivering in your tent rather than outside enjoying some stargazing or swapping ghost stories. Similarly, you might want to stow some extra day clothes in your car as well just in case your original set gets wet or dirty to the point of being uncomfortable.
7. Sunscreen and Bug Spray
It might be called the great outdoors, but there are still some elements that aren’t so great. Do your skin a favor and pack both extra SPF (at least 30 or higher) and bug repellant to avoid unwanted burns or bites. While you’re at it, include a bottle of after-sun aloe and bug-bite treatment just in case.
Shop sunscreen and after-sun care: Banana Boat Kids Sport Tear-Free Sunscreen Lotion ($9); Banana Boat Ultra Sport Sunscreen Spray, New Formula, SPF 100 ($9); Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 100 ($15); Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Weightless After Sun Gel Lotion ($7); Sun Bum Cool Down Aloe Vera Gel ($10)
Shop bug spray and bite treatment: Off! Skintastic Family Care Insect Repellent Spray ($9); OFF! Deep Woods Insect & Mosquito Repellent ($8 for a set of two); Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion ($9); Cortizone 10 Maximum Strength Ointment ($6); After Bite Pharmacist Preferred Insect Bite Treatment ($14); Farmaesthetics Bug Bite Balm ($18)
8. Toilet Paper
The facilities at your campsite might vary, but even the most advanced still run the risk of running out of TP. Stick some extra squares in a plastic bag or bring along an entire roll to guarantee you’ll never have to deal with a potentially sticky situation.
9. Hand Wipes and Hand Sanitizer
On a similar note, if running water isn’t available, you’ll want to bring along another way to clean your hands after bathroom runs, Sloppy Joe dinners or after sitting in the dirt.
10. Duct Tape
Tent pole not clicking together in quite right? Duct tape it. Tear your shoe climbing over a boulder? Duct tape it. Developing a blister on the back of your heel from new hiking boots? Put a bandage on it and then, you guessed it, duct tape it. This super-strong adhesive has come in handy on more occasions than I can count while out in the wilderness to the point that I now consider it absolutely essential.
11. Lots of Extra Bags
Ziploc bags of all shapes and sizes, tote bags, grocery bags, garbage bags—you might feel like you’re packing an excessive number of storage options but those extra bags will be incredibly helpful when it comes time to sort dirty clothes from clean, trash from snacks or in the morning when you don’t feel like packing up the car quite so neatly as you did on your way in. Just toss everything in its own designated bag and you’re good to go.
12. An Extra Cellphone or Cellphone Battery, Turned Off and Stowed in the Car and/or Emergency Plan
You can prepare all you want but sometimes emergencies happen, and if they do, you don’t want to be left cursing yourself for running your phone battery down posting sunset pics to Instagram. If possible, have an additional method of communication available to you in the form of an extra phone battery or even a cheap flip phone with prepaid minutes you can grab in an emergency. One thing to note if you’re really concerned: Almost every car campground will have a ranger station either on the premises or a short drive down the road. Park rangers are trained to handle any kind of crisis you might be dealing with and can/should be utilized if you’re feeling unsure.
Some campsites come equipped with charcoal grills guests are welcome to use, while others expect you to bring your own and yet others still prohibit the use of any open flames whether they be from a grill or a campfire. It’s imperative you check with the campsite before you show up expecting to cook up some burgers for dinner on an open flame.
13. A Camping Grill or Stove, Plus Fuel
Provided you’re not stopping for deli sandwiches or subsisting on snacks for the night, you’ll have to cook dinner at some point. Depending on what you want to cook, you can bring along a portable charcoal grill or maybe a propane stove for boiling water or heating a frying pan. Bring along extra fuel to account for any changes in altitude or unplanned missteps while cooking (hey, it happens to the best of us). An important reminder: Never utilize these tools inside a tent. I don’t care if it’s raining or windy or a smidge too cold for your taste, if you plan to use a grill or stove you must do so outside of your tent—and also outside of your car, but that should go without saying.
Shop camping grills and stoves: MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit ($100); Jetboil MiniMo Stove ($150; $112); Eureka! Ignite Camp Stove ($110); Coleman RoadTrip 285 Portable Stand-Up Propane Grill ($250)
14. Food (Duh)
Snacks and dinner and breakfast, oh my! Bring a bit more than you think you’ll need to account for the extra energy spent setting up camp and exploring the surrounding area (and also because you never know when the munchies will hit). be forewarned, lots of smaller animals that live near campgrounds are used to scavenging off campers and might come a-running once those cheese burgers hit the grill or after you’ve popped open the cole slaw. That said, it’s important to remember that Oreos are not a typical part of a chipmunk’s diet and you really shouldn’t dole out treats, no matter how cute these critters are. Think about waste and trash while you’re packing as well. As much as you love mac and cheese, cleaning a pot that’s been coated in Velveeta is going to take a whole lot more water and effort than wiping off a plate that once supported a hot dog or two. Jazzed up oatmeal works great for breakfast (all you need is hot water) while foil-pack recipes make for super easy dinners with little to no cleanup.
15. Plates, Bowls, Cups, Utensils and the Like
I recommend skipping paper products in favor of a reusable, packable dish set from an outdoor company (classic camping spork included), but in terms of cooking supplies you should feel free to use what you have on hand and are already comfortable working with, like your favorite small frying pan, paring knife or tongs for grilling. And of course, don’t forget the roasting forks for toasting marshmallows.
Shop camping dishware: Humangear GoBites Uno Spork ($3); TOAKS Titanium 3-Piece Cutlery Set ($20); Rolla Roaster Hot Dog Forks ($20); GSI Outdoors Santoku Knife Set ($35); L.L.Bean Stainless-Steel Percolator ($70); GSI Infinity Four-Person Deluxe Table Set ($70); Mountain Summit Gear Roll Top Kitchen ($100; $75); Stanley Base Camp Cook Set ($80)
16. Cleaning Supplies
If the campsite has running water you can go ahead and pack some dish soap and a sponge to clean out any pots, pans and dishes on-site, but if it doesn’t, pack an extra roll of paper towels or a stack of microfiber towels to simply wipe things down before giving them a proper wash once you’re back home.
17. Water Filter or Iodine Tablets
Almost every car campsite across the country has clean running water available for campers. But if you’re opting to visit someplace further off the beaten path, you’re going to want to bring along some method with which to purify water. Water pumps and filtration systems are very easy to use, or you can try chlorine or iodine tablets although some folks find these have a negative effect on the way their water tastes. You can also fill up all the reusable water bottles in your cabinet at home before you hit the road, but it helps to have a backup plan just in case you go through those bottles faster than you anticipated.
Shop water purifiers: Katadyn Micropur Purification Tablets ($15 for set of 30); Aquamira Water Treatment ($15); Sawyer Mini Water Filter ($22); Katadyn Hiker Microfilter ($70); Grayl GEOPRESS Water Purifier ($90)
GOOD TO HAVE ON HAND
The following aren’t considered completely necessary to bring along, but they’ll certainly make your outdoor stay all that much more comfortable.
18. Camp Chairs (and Maybe a Table)
A lot of campsites have placed logs or stumps in strategic locations for campers to sit and enjoy dinner or relax post-meal. As you might imagine, however, logs and stumps aren’t exactly what we’d call comfortable, so packing some extra seating is highly recommended. You might also want to tuck a small folding table (there are some camping-specific options available) in your car to make cooking, dining or playing games a bit easier.
Shop camp chairs and tables: Mountain Summit Gear Anytime Chair ($25); REI Co-op Camp Roll Table ($65; $45); REI Co-op Outward Low Lawn Chair ($60; $42); GCI Outdoor Pod Rocker Chair ($55); L.L.Bean Easy Comfort Camp Chair ($59); Compact Camp Table ($65); Mountain Summit Gear Heavy-Duty Roll-Top Table ($100; $75); L.L.Bean Base Camp Love Seat ($79)
Remember that bonus phone we mentioned earlier? Bringing along a camera that’s independent from your cell phone can help lessen the chance you’ll run out your phone battery before your trip is through.
20. In-Camp Sandals
You might think it’s smart to stay in your hiking boots, or at least full-coverage sneakers the whole time you’re out there. But switching into a pair of sandals or slides can feel a little easier and more comfortable if you plan to swim or if it’s particularly hot out. Because really, if there was ever a time to wear those trendy Tevas you bought last summer, it’s now.
21. Extra Rope or Cord
So you can string up your socks to dry, to add length to a hammock hanging between two trees, to strap supplies to the roof of your car—much like duct tape, extra rope can come in handy even if you think you’ll never find a use for it.
22. Bear Bag or Canister
Another thing you can use that rope for? To string your bear bag up a tree. What’s a bear bag, you ask? It’s a container intended to hold anything and everything you bring out into the wilderness that might attract bears in the night—food, garbage, toothpaste, sunscreen, cooking oils, basically anything with a scent. It essentially draws them away from your camp and prevents them from breaking into your tent...and possibly mistaking you for food. That said, it is highly unlikely that you will ever encounter a bear at a car campground. There’s just too much noise and activity going on. If your particular campground does want you to use a bear bag or canister, that information will be made crystal clear when making your reservation. Oh, and you can also stow your bear-proof container in the trunk of your car rather than up a tree.
OK, so now you know exactly what you need to bring in order to make it through the night in comfort. Now it’s time to talk about all the bonus items that are most fun to think about.
23. Telescope or Star Charts
If you’re coming from a city with lots of light pollution, it can be shocking and awesome to see just how many stars are visible once you escape the bright lights of home. Make a point to get up sometime after dark to admire the stunning night sky, possibly aided by a portable telescope or star chart in hand. Have a contest to see who can find Orion’s Belt first or even your zodiac constellation.
24. Outdoor Games
Time to break out the Kan-Jam, frisbee and bean bag toss! Or, if you’re more of a minimalist (or just have a smaller car) you can plan some equipment-free games like tag, capture the flag or a scavenger hunt to track down local items like a leaf bigger than your hand, a twig with at least five branches or something yellow. See who can summit the biggest rock on the campgrounds and award them naming rights for the rock in honor of their climbing prowess.
Shop outdoor games and activities: SunnyLife foam bat and ball set ($20); Sun Squad 4 Game Combo Set ($30); SunnyLife inflatable basketball set ($35); Outside Inside Freestyle Mini-Disk Golf ($35); Spikeball 3-Ball Combo Set ($60); Sun Squad 2' x 3' Wood Bean Bag Toss ($80)
25. Cards and Books
A simple deck of cards (or even a glow-in-the-dark deck) can provide endless entertainment while taking up very little room in your pack. Books, as well, can give kids something to do after the sun’s gone down and running around camp is no longer an option. Bring a few books to read aloud, like scary short stories or a classic adventure tale like Robinson Crusoe to keep the group fun going long into the night.
26. Field Guides
Whether you plan to hike around the area or not it can be great fun to learn exactly which plants and animals call this particular place home. It can even help you in planning what items to look for in that nature scavenger hunt we talked about earlier.
Who needs camp chairs when you can lay out in one of these supremely comfy swings? Opt for one that can be secured between trees rather than taking up precious trunk space with an independent hammock stand. Now sit back, relax and enjoy the glorious views.
Shop hammocks: Field & Stream Double Hammock With Straps ($30); ENO DoubleNest Hammock and Straps Set ($50); Grand Trunk TrunkTech Single Hammock ($60); Therm-a-Rest Slacker Double Hammock ($80; $68); Kammok Roo Single Hammock ($69); Eagles Nest Outfitters DoubleNest Hammock ($70)