Car Camping for Beginners: First-Time Car Camping Tips

Camping always turns out to be the most memorable outdoor experience, but add that with a car, and you get a car camping experience. Car camping is probably one of the easiest and most flexible ways of camping: you don’t need to set up a tent and worry about the conditions of being in a tent. You can also use car camping as an alternative instead of staying a night at a hotel or Airbnb.

If you are lucky enough to have a bigger-sized car like a van, SUV, or midsize SUV and have the option to put down all the seats, you can definitely make car camping possible. It was my first time car camping when I went to go camping with my church recently in Parks, Arizona, and I learned a few things and want to share the information of how to prepare for your own car camping experience.

Meadows in Arizona
In the meadows of Parks, Arizona

Of course it felt easier and at ease for me to car camp because I was surrounded by other vehicles and tents from people in my church, so I encourage you to be with other friends or family if it will be your first time trying out car camping.

So, why would you try car camping out? As I mentioned, it saves you time from setting up and packing away a tent, it has a chance of being more protective during weather conditions, and there are more options of where you can just sleep in your car. It also really gives you that feeling of what it’s like to be a free-spirited nomad on the road.

Checklist of things you need for car camping

Car camping

Knowing what items to bring for car camping isn’t much different from camping, especially if your intent is to do more than sleep in your car and explore near your campground. With item recommendations below this list, here are the things you need:

  • Sleeping pad or air mattress (or even an actual bed mattress) – I would recommend measuring the size of your car to determine the size of the mattress or sleeping pad. I used a twin-sized Intex air mattress that I usually use for tent camping and that fit in my Hyundai Santa Fe.
  • Multiple blankets – Especially if the weather is colder, you should bring multiple different types of blankets. I love bringing the thickest for cold weather like my Mexican blanket and a fleece blanket. You can also consider a weighted blanket, a down blanket, wool, or sherpa blankets.
  • Sleeping bag – I would add this to your list, especially if the weather is a lot colder. Without a sleeping bag, I would’ve felt less warm, but it’s just as useful for your car camping.
  • Pillow – You can either use a regular bed pillow or a camping pillow, but I find it better to have a bed pillow as it is bigger.
  • Headlamp – Since you can’t use your lights in your car, I definitely recommend a headlamp so it is easier to look through your car. A flashlight is okay too but it’s easier to not hold a flashlight.
  • Portable charger – Pretty useful if you want to charge your devices, especially your phone since you can’t have your car turned on at all. You can also opt for a solar-powered one.
  • Electric pump for air mattress – I only recommend bringing this if you end up choosing an air mattress.
  • Bug nets for car windows – Consider hanging these to keep bugs out of your car because they can be annoying and scary!
  • Camping chair – A camping chair gives you an option to sit outside. I would recommend having it as foldable so it can fit in the car as your sleep situation will take up most of the space there.
  • The right clothes for the right season (and towels) – Depending on the season, you need to pack and wear the right clothes. Cotton keeps you cool, but you may want to avoid cotton too if it’s cold and instead opt for moisture-wicking, odor-resistant, and Merino wool or polyester or nylon.
  • Toiletries – Pretty self-explanatory, and I’d pack these in a backpack or tote bag where they can fit on any open space you have left next to your sleeping pad or mattress or in the front seats. You also want to store your toiletries in bear bags so animals can’t be attracted to its scent.
  • Disinfectant wipes – Always useful to have when it comes to cleaning things around your car, especially if you bring your dirtied-up shoes to your car.
  • Bear-resistant cooler for beverages and food – Always important to keep your food stocked away in a cooler so animals aren’t able to smell the scent as well as to preserve the food longer. You can also store them in bear bags or bear canisters.
  • Stove griddle or JetBoil cooking system – These are great options to cook your food with.
  • Cast iron pans, utensils, cutting board, plates, and reusable bottles/mugs – Reusable bottles or mugs make it a lot less wasteful to use and you can always refill them.
  • Firestarting materials – A lighter can help start campfires if allowed in the campground.
  • Optional: Hammock

Things to always check before car camping

Find a BLM land or established campgrounds to camp in

Bureau of Land Management (also known as BLM) manages acres of public lands which makes it possible for people to access to find a campsite, along with access to outdoor activities. Some of these campsites, especially on the private campgrounds, do come with fees, but those fees can be very worth it as you can also have access to more facilities such as electrical hookups, showers, bathrooms, WiFi, dog parks, or laundry facilities.

Fire regulations in campsites

Before you can set up any campfires, ALWAYS check for fire regulations where you are camping.

Putting food away in bear bags and having bear canister

When camping, we want to avoid any bears or wildlife from being a danger or disruptive of your camping experience, which applies to car camping too. You may then want to consider putting food away in bear-resistant coolers or bags or bear canisters for protection.

Camping in Parks, Arizona
Walking around during nighttime in Parks, Arizona

Safety things to keep in mind

Aside from the dangers of wildlife from sensing your food and aroma-filled items, people can serve as a danger too as well as any misfortunate freak accidents can always become a possibility, so we need to eliminate those possibilities as much as possible with these tips below:

Lock your doors and keep your keys by you

Never forget to lock your car doors and make it a habit to. I would always keep your car keys beside you where it’s easy to access, in case you need them or if you do something by accident like I did when my feet accidentally kicked the trunk door while I was sleeping and it made my car alarm go off and woke me up instantly, or the time when I couldn’t find my keys for a second (it fell into one of my bags) when I really had to go use the bathroom. I learned from these mistakes so you don’t have to.

Never keep your engine running

You want to keep your car off at all times when you are hanging out there and when you’re sleeping, as this can prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. If you really need air, I would just roll down the windows and crack it open for a bit to get fresh air, which is really hard to get when it’s a hot day.

Keep your lights off at all times

You want to keep your car lights off to prevent your car battery from draining or dying and to also not attract anything obvious. As I mentioned on my list of items to bring, you can just use a headlamp as your source of light.

Share your location to your friends and family of where you are camping and at all times

I feel that this safety tip is always something to do wherever you are going outdoors and it’s a good idea to share your location indefinitely with someone you truly trust from your iPhone or whatever phone you have that allows this, even certain apps can help like Find My Friends and Life360.

Never share that you are alone or what you’re doing to a stranger

You might meet some strangers on some trails you meet, at stores you visit, or just end up talking to some people randomly like at a gas station. You should NEVER tell strangers what you are doing exactly (like car camping) and where you are staying.

Keep your valuables hidden in sight and take them when you leave the car

You may decide to bring your laptop, camera, or other valuable items with you and it’s best to keep these hidden in sight when you’re in your car such as glove boxes, compartments, or underneath seats, and it’s even safer to just take them as you leave from your car.

Park in private and quiet places and consider curtains or sunshades

Unless you’re in a designated campground that is meant for car camping and you expect many others to be there, I would lean towards parking in a private and quiet place. For extra privacy, which I recommend, consider having sunshades to completely block out anyone or the sun from peeking through. Some cars may not even have completely dark tinted windows so that alternative would help.

Have you ever gone car camping and if not, would you consider camping in your vehicle?

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