New to Car Camping? These are the basics (and the gear you need now)

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Car Camping guide

Is there anything like camping under the night sky? The amenities at a 4-star hotel can’t compete with the view of a hundred million actual stars. And then there’s the fresh air, the sound of nature, the… well, we digress. The point is that camping is amazing, and these days you don’t even need a tent when you can turn your car into a cozy place to sleep.

And while your Subaru might not have four stars on Yelp, car camping can be a lot nicer than you might think.

The benefits of camping in your car include:

  • Ease. No more pitching a tent
  • Comfort. You can close up and keep the cold out
  • Versatility. No more searching for a tent-friendly site; any parking lot will do

But before you can enjoy the spectacular experience of outdoor camping in your car, you need the right gear. Otherwise you’ll end up with a craned neck, trying to find a state of REM from the passenger seat like a real amateur. Camping in your car the right way begins with stowing your cargo on the best car roof rack and ends with you falling asleep on a comfy sleeping pad.

Read on for some tips about the best car camping gear and finding the right roof racks and accessories for hauling your gear to the site. We also have a few car recommendations if you’re ready to change your entire lifestyle to spend more time in the great outdoors.

Car Camping Essentials: 5 Things You Shouldn’t Go Without

Are you new to the idea of camping in your car? First, consider staying within a few hundred miles of home instead of trekking out into the great unknown. Second, make sure you can stay dry, warm, and fed. If you can cover those basics, you’re bound to have a good trip. When in doubt, pack some extra water and protein bars.

Here are five essentials that will all but ensure an awesome car camping experience.

1. A Quality Roof Rack (to Haul Your Stuff)

Lifted Audi Allroad with spacer lift kit: Expedition Allroad

Roof rack storage is key to bringing all the right stuff on your trip. When you only have limited trunk space, you may find yourself running out of room for the essentials. Nobody wants that. When you suddenly realize you left your sleeping bag or fire starter behind… you’re going to be in the dog house with your fellow campers.

Roof racks make everything easier. They’re often made for your vehicle’s exact make and model, and you can tie stuff on in almost any arrangement. Plus, you have the option of storing stuff in a cargo box or bag to keep your belongings even more secure in transit.

2. Sleeping Pad (for Getting Good ZZZ’s)

A good sleeping pad and warm sleeping bag are key

If a sleeping pad isn’t on your car camping checklist, check it again. The back of your hatchback is full of lumps and bumps. A quality car-friendly sleeping pad, such as a memory foam surface, will have you feeling like you slept at a resort. You don’t need to worry about packing it into a small backpack or taking up space. Roll it up, put it in a dry pack and toss it on the roof rack!

That means you can wake up and go hiking or fishing — not spend the morning stretching and grumbling about how you’re “getting too old for this.” The best sleeping pads can be rolled up for storage, so you don’t have to tie a full-size mattress to your roof like an 80’s vacation movie.

3. LED Headlamp (for Seeing, of Course)

Man wearing head lamp

What if you need to get something down from your car roof rack after dark? You can rely on your carefully balanced smartphone flashlight — or you can wear a headlamp. Your trusty headlamp can also get you safely between your car and campfire, or be with you on a midnight bathroom break. 

You may also want to consider solar lanterns, ones that will charge during the day and don’t need any batteries. Solar lanterns can even be left on all night long if sleeping in pitch darkness gives you the creeps, or to discourage animals from lurking near your car while you snooze.

4. Clear Bins (for Organizing Stuff)

Clear plastic binsAlright. It’s time to go to bed and you need to find your extra warm socks. Where did you pack those again? Using clear bins for smaller items makes it faster and easier to find stuff when the time strikes.

You can’t miss your giant sleeping bag — it’s big enough to spot in a pile. But that folded up poncho? That should be in clear sight so you can grab it in a hurry when the rain starts.

5. A Two-Burner Stove (for Eatin’ Foods)

Two burner camping stove

Sleeping in your car keeps you dry, your sleeping pad and blankets keep you warm, and what was the last thing we suggested? Oh, yeah. Staying fed.

A two-burner stove is a simple way to cook meals all weekend long. Bring a pot and a skillet, and you’re good to go. Some stoves may need a power source, but many camping stoves can be operated with either solar power or battery power so you can easily cook with them in remote areas. It may need some fuel, and no, you can’t use your car’s gas.

How to Get There: 3 of the Best Cars for Car Camping

Some cars are better than others for installing a car roof rack, though most modern vehicles either have a roof rack already or are compatible with aftermarket add-ons. And then you have to consider the space. While we’re sure someone could have a great time camping in their Prius all weekend, if you want some room to stretch your legs, we have some other suggestions.

If you want the ultimate car camping vehicle, try one of these models. They’re all known for being great for outdoor adventures, including car camping overnight with your partner — human or otherwise.

Subaru Impreza

Subaru Impreza

This car isn’t so huge that you can’t find a parking spot or fit in your own garage, but it feels pretty dang spacious inside. For outdoor camping, you’ll want to stick with the 5-door model. You can leave the rear hatchback open at night and sleep with the night air. This car has fold-down rear seats, offers 20.8 cubic feet of space with the seats partially folded, and can haul up to 55.3 cubic feet when the back seats are folded down all the way. The rear gate is super wide, too, so you don’t have to make yourself small to crawl in and out of the vehicle/your temporary home.

Oh, and the Subaru roof rack can more than handle your overpacking habit.

Chevy Blazer

2020 Chevy Blazer

The Blazer is a bit bigger than the Impreza, so you’ll have more room to move around and you can bring an extra pillow (or three, if you’re trying to turn this into glamping). It’s usually less expensive, too. The Blazer also has some cool features like a hands-free liftgate, and some models have a skylight that makes stargazing super easy. Once you fold down the rear row, there is plenty of room to lay down and go to sleep — even if you’re really tall. Just add a roof rack, and you’re good to go on an epic camping trip.

Jeep Grand Cherokee 

Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

If you’re going to be off-roading or overlanding, Jeeps are a solid option. Not only can they support bike racks and car roof racks galore, they sport a 60/40 seat split. That last part means you can fold down part of the back seat and still have room for two passengers. If you fold down the entire rear row, you have 68.3 cubic-feet of open space to play with. Plus some Jeeps have removable tops and doors. Pretty great for a camping vehicle, if you ask us.

Let’s Talk Storage: 5 Best Roof Rack Accessories for Car Camping

Now to the part where we help you pick just the right roof rack. There are no shortage of options, from cargo baskets to surfboard mounts, and everything in between. 

Here are some of the best roof racks and accessories for camping that we think you’ll love. They free up space in your vehicle and allow you to bring as much stuff as you want on your wilderness adventure. 

1. Rhino-Rack Backbone Pioneer Platform Roof Rack

Price: Starts at $356.40

Rhino Rack Backbone Roof Rack

This rack is super aerodynamic, so it won’t mess with your MPG when it’s empty. And when it comes time to load it up, the grid design makes it easy to tie stuff to it. You can tie skis, bikes, cargo boxes, and more to the top. In fact, this rack can handle a whopping 250 pounds of camping gear. It will look like you’re moving to the mountains. And maybe you are. 

This rack is made from non-corrosive materials to avoid rusting or fading, and it’s also made to be very quiet — so you can listen to your podcasts in peace while you’re driving on the highway.

2. Surco Safari Roof Rack

Surco Safari Roof Rack

Price: Starts at $374.98

This rack is cool because it serves as a giant basket. The perimeter walls help keep your stuff right where it’s supposed to be – not somehwere along the highway. There’s even a mounting kit included that doesn’t require any cutting or drilling.

The Surco Safari rack is made to carry luggage, tools, bags, and tons of other camping gear. You can even use it to haul a spare tire. Heavy-duty aluminum construction holds up against strong wind and almost any weather conditions, so your new rack will last for a long time. Longer than your camping bucket list, even. And that’s a long time.

3. INNO Aero Base Rack System

Inno Aero Base Roof Rack

Price: Starts at $409.97

If your car doesn’t have mounting rails to begin with, this base rack system is just what you need. Consisting of two very sturdy bars and custom feet, this car rack is ideal for tying down larger items including kayaks and furniture by itself, or add some accessories like bike racks and boxes to get the most from it.

It’s a simple install with no tools required on most vehicles, and the INNO system is custom fit for your car’s specific make and model.

4. ROLA Vortex Roof Mounted Cargo Basket

Rola Vortex Cargo Basket on Audi Allroad

Price: $199.95

A petite basket rack could be just the thing you need to make your camping excursion easier, and this is one that fits on most cars. Measuring in at just over 12 square feet, the basket can still haul about 130 pounds of stuff. So, yeah, your extra pillows and your sleeping pad will fit just fine.

The two-piece steel frame is easy to assemble, and it’s only 38 pounds despite its large hauling capacity. This basket has universal mounting hardware and will affix to almost any car rack crossbars. If you need a quick and affordable option for your next car camping trip into the woods, this could be a lifesaver.

5. ProZ Roof Cargo Box

ProZ Cargo Box

Price: $299.99

This is the one thing all car campers should consider adding to their roof. The ProZ Roof Cargo Box can hold 18 cubic feet of stuff, from your clothes and shoes to your extra blankets and first aid kit, all sealed away from the weather for far less than those outdoor adventure brands would charge you.

The box is built to be UV-resistant, so it can stand up to hot and cold temperatures and won’t fade or crack under the sun. It’s compatible with most factory and aftermarket crossbars, so it pairs well with almost any of the bar systems you’ll find including #3 above. Plus, this little box packs a lot of security. A lock and key mean bears and other campers can’t rifle through your stuff as long as the cargo box is secured. Wouldn’t want your cereal spilled all over the forest, after all.

Ready to take your car camping to the next level?

You might need a few upgrades to your vehicle to get it ready to handle the great outdoors. Lucky for you, you’re already in the right place. On top of car roof racks and accessories, AutoAnything sells everything you need to retrofit your ride for car camping. From bike racks to truck tents, we can hook you up with the best gear for making Mother Nature your second home (at least for the long weekend).

Want to hear something even better? At AutoAnything, your purchase is always protected by our Price Match Guarantee. That means if you find your car roof rack or other purchase for cheaper within a year, we’ll beat it by $1. That’s more money for s’mores, kindling, and flannel coats. So, what are you waiting for? You’ve got a world to explore!

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I am a writer and adventure travel blogger. I enjoy slow travel and going where there aren't roads - be it overlanding with my 1986 Ford Econoline campervan or my Surly Disc Trucker touring bike. Heck, sometimes, I'll even grab a backpack and hike. I'm more of a DIY person and spend way too many hours YouTubing videos about campervan renovations.

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