Car Camping 101: How to Camp With Your Car Successfully

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Your guide on car camping

Contrary to what you might see on Instagram, you don’t actually need a massive Jeep Gladiator loaded up with 3 rooftop tents, 1,300lbs of skidplates and armor, and 29 lightbars to go overlanding. No need to cash in that 401k, you can go out camping in just about anything you drive with the right planning.

Whether you’re doing any serious amount of offroading or just sticking to dirt roads and campgrounds, you can camp out of most any wagon, SUV, hatchback, or truck. Bonus points if your seats fold down with enough room to sleep, but there are of course solutions available to you if not.

So let’s get into everything you need to camp out of your car:

Where To Camp (AKA The Difference Between a Camper and a Squatter)

Finding where to camp

Of course, everyone knows you can just go find a campground somewhere and reserve a spot, but sometimes getting off the beaten path is more of the adventure people are looking for — or might even be a necessity depending on the area. The question comes up, then, can you just camp… anywhere? The answer is kinda.

In national, state, or local parks, most camping is done by reservation in specific areas. Many parks will also have first-come-first-serve campgrounds with few or no amenities. Any tribal lands will have their own rules, so it’s best to check with them first online. Camping on private lands usually entails reserving space at a campground, we don’t really recommend knocking on someone’s door unless it really is an emergency.

That leaves national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land as the last bastions of free camping. These two make up roughly 20-25% of the landmass of the United States, so while these lands aren’t the majority, you’ll be able to find those areas pretty easily. Here you can camp just about anywhere that isn’t too close to a road, government facility, or in some otherwise restricted area.

NOTE: If you want everyone who comes after you to enjoy the same camping privileges that you do, always pick up after yourself and even others within reason. Leave No Trace.

What You Need to Bring

This really depends on how far out of the way you’re going and for how long. You’ll obviously need enough food to sustain you, but water is the most important one to have on hand. The general recommendation is to bring two gallons per person per day to cover drinking, cooking, washing, etc. Pack the right clothes for the weather and make sure your sleeping bags are appropriate for the weather as well.

It’s also very important to have the right hand tools along for the ride to be able to change out a tire or a belt if needed. We recommend keeping a tire sealing kit, portable air compressor, a battery jump box, and a few flashlights and/or headlamps. It’s also a good idea to keep an emergency phone charged and turned off in your glove box just in case.

If you’re heading offroad, it’s always a good idea to have recovery straps if not a winch. Those with big tires are going to want to make sure you have a full-sized spare in case the worst happens.

How to Set Up Camp For Optimal Comfort

A popup and fold out style RTT

Just because you’re camping doesn’t mean you need to wake up with a sore back and half your leg bitten off by mosquitos. Camping in your SUV or truck bed? Brands like AirBedz make blow-up mattresses that are shaped to fit your vehicle type. Pair one of those with a camper shell or a truck bed tent, and you’re set.

Not that camping should ever be a “luxurious” experience, but if you want the equivalent of a penthouse suite, you need to enter the realm of rooftop tents. These aren’t cheap, but for people doing long trips with a lot of stops to camp, a rooftop tent makes a lot of sense. One it gets you up off the cold, wet, uneven, and rocky ground, and two it turns just about anywhere you can reasonably park into a campground.

The downside with rooftop and truck bed tents of course is that both of them need to be packed up and stowed away before you’re able to drive anywhere. If you’re at a spot where you plan on camping for days at a time, that could be an unneeded hassle.


Have any tips for camping out of your car? Anything you think I missed? Drop a comment below!

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