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 it doesn’t require a tent. You can easily turn your car into a cozy, convenient, and affordable place to sleep.
Car camping has a few big upsides:
- Ease. No messing around around with tent poles
- Comfort. Keeps out wind, cold, rain and critters
- Versatility. No searching for a tent-friendly site—any parking lot will do
But doing it right—without crunching your back or neck, or perma-numbing an arm—does require some gear. You’re going to be a much happier camper with a roof rack that holds your stuff, a sleeping pad to stretch out on, and more.
Read on for the best car-camping gear and tips on finding the right roof racks and accessories. We also have a few car recommendations if you’re really ready to spend time in the great outdoors.
Car Camping Essentials: 5 Things You Shouldn’t Go Without
If you’re new to car camping, start out close to home—choose a spot within a couple hours’ drive. And make sure you have everything you need to 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 experience.
1. A Quality Roof Rack (to Haul Your Stuff)
You want to sleep in your car—not sleep on top of all your gear in the car. A roof rack frees up space in your vehicle, and ensures that you have room for everything from your sleeping bags to your fire-starter.
Roof racks are often made for your vehicle’s exact make and model, and you can tie stuff on in almost any arrangement. If you’re worried about keeping your gear secure, you can add on a cargo box or bag.
2. Sleeping Pad (for Getting Good ZZZ’s)
The back of your hatchback is full of lumps and bumps. A high-quality, car-friendly sleeping pad—like one made from memory foam—can make the most uneven surface feel like a plush bed. Think of all the time you’ll save in the morning, not having to complain about how you’re “getting too old for this.”
The best sleeping pads can be rolled up and tossed on a roof rack, so you don’t have to tie a full-size mattress to your roof like you’re in an ’80s vacation movie.
3. LED Headlamp (for Seeing, Obvs)
What if you need to get something down from your car roof rack after dark? You can use your smartphone—and try not to drop it on a rock—but a headlamp is so much easier. It leaves both hands free for carrying food or firewood, or taking a midnight bathroom break.
You may also want to consider solar lanterns, which can charge up during the day. If sleeping in the pitch-dark gives you the creeps, you can leave them on all night.
4. Clear Bins (for Organizing Stuff)
It’s hard to lose track of a sleeping bag. Not so much your spare socks or your contact-lens case.
Pack your smaller items in a few plastic bins. They make it easy to store and find smaller items, so gear like your rain poncho, bug spray or first-aid kit are on hand when you need them.
5. A Two-Burner Stove (for Eatin’ Foods)
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 need fuel, but but many camping stoves can run on solar or battery power so you can easily cook with them in remote areas.
How to Get There: 3 of the Best Cars for Car Camping
Some cars make better sleeping quarters than others. 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.
This car isn’t so big it feels like it’s filling your garage or bigfooting the grocery-store parking lot. But it feels pretty dang spacious inside. For outdoor camping, you’ll want to stick with the 5-door model. It 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,, so you don’t have to make yourself small to crawl in and out of the vehicle/your temporary home. And the Subaru roof rack can more than handle your over-packing habit.
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, for the glampers). It’s usually less expensive, too. The Blazer also has some cool features like a hands-free liftgate; 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 tall. Just add a roof rack and you’re good to go.
Jeep Grand Cherokee
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.
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. They free up space in your vehicle and allow you to bring as much stuff as you want on your wilderness adventure.
Price: Starts at $356
This rack is super aerodynamic, so it won’t mess with your MPG when it’s empty. The grid design makes it easy to tie stuff on, whether you’re hauling skis, bikes, or cargo boxes. 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.
The rack is made from non-corrosive materials to avoid rusting or fading, and it’s also made to be very quiet—no need to blast your podcasts down the highway.
Price: Starts at $375
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 somewhere along the highway. The mounting kit 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 almost any weather conditions, so your new rack will last for a long time. Longer than your camping bucket list, even.
Price: Starts at $410
If your car doesn’t already have mounting rails to begin with, this base rack system is just what you need. Consisting of two sturdy bars and custom feet, INNO’s base car rack is ideal for tying down larger items like kayaks and furniture. To get more out of the system, you can add on accessories like bike racks and boxes. The rack is custom fit to your car’s make and model; it can be installed on most vehicles without tools.
A petite basket rack could be just the thing you need to make your camping excursion easier, and this one 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 weighs 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.
This is the one thing all car campers should consider adding to their roof. The ProZ Roof Cargo Box can contain 18 cubic feet of stuff, from your clothes and shoes to your extra blankets and food, all sealed away from the weather for far less than many outdoor adventure brands would charge you.
The box is built to be UV-resistant so it won’t fade or crack under the sun, and it can withstand extreme hot and cold temperatures. 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 key lock will keep out bears and unscrupulous campers alike. 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!