Beginner’s Guide: What is Car Camping? 9 Best Tips for a Memorable Adventure

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Beginner’s Guide: What is Car Camping? 9 Best Tips for a Memorable Adventure

I recently took a road trip that allowed me to try my first car camping trip. When I mentioned that I would try this fun, new adventure, I was surprised at how many people first asked, “But what is car camping?” and thought I had lost my mind when I explained it! But I liked the experience! So, let’s talk about why it worked so well for me, and I’ll give you some of my best tips so you’re ready when you want to try it yourself!

What is Car Camping?

So, what is car camping? Car camping is the practice of camping or sleeping inside your vehicle, providing a low-cost, convenient, and cozy way to enjoy travel.

Some travelers love that car camping is a way to enjoy the great outdoors without the complexities of more rugged forms of traditional camping. For me, car camping is a way to save time and money on long trips between destinations where I’d otherwise be staying in hotels. Either way, car camping is the perfect way to dip your toes into the world of camping as an alternative to hotel stays or RV rentals.

Why You Should Try Car Camping

If you’re wondering what the benefit of car camping is, consider this:  Car camping saves you the time and hassle of finding hotels or accommodations along your route—no need to worry about booking rooms in advance or checking into a hotel late at night. With your gear conveniently packed in your vehicle, you can pull into a safe parking area, set up camp quickly, and have a comfortable space to call your own and settle in for the night. All your gear is right at your fingertips, so there is no need to spend time lugging bags in and out of a hotel room and putting yourself on display for other travelers.

I consider sleeping in my car my own private, safe space. Tucked away between other car campers, I felt like I was in a club of like-minded adventurers. This blend of security and convenience not only makes solo travel more accessible but also allows for spontaneous adventures and a deeper connection with the places you visit.

Best Car Camping Tips for a Memorable Adventure

Consider Your Car

Before you say you can’t car camp because your car is too small, know that you can camp in a vehicle of almost any size, although it is true that the size of your vehicle plays a crucial role in car camping. The space in your car or truck determines the space and comfort you’ll have, but don’t let a small car stop you from enjoying the fun.

Larger vehicles like SUVs, vans, or trucks provide more room to stretch out and store camping gear. You can also create a cozy sleeping area by folding the back seats or laying down a mattress in these vehicles.

You can still use smaller vehicles like sedans or hatchbacks for car camping, but you need to be more strategic in packing and organization. Utilize the trunk space for storage and consider investing in one of several kinds of inflatable or foldable camping mattresses to maximize comfort. Search Amazon for a backseat mattress that fits your vehicle to give you the most comfortable sleeping setup.

No matter the size of your vehicle, car camping lets you tailor it to suit your needs, offering a cozy and enjoyable camping experience right inside your car. I car-camped in my 2006 Chevy Trailblazer, an older and smaller SUV. It was definitely cozy!

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Have a Potty Plan

Having a way to take care of your bathroom needs while sleeping in your car is crucial for a seamless car camping experience. Whether you use a child’s potty lined with a bag, a portable camping toilet, or some other setup, taking care of this critical business makes sleeping in the car more convenient and comfortable. Having a potty in your vehicle eliminates the need to search for restrooms in the middle of the night or brave the elements outside.

Here’s what I did, and it worked well for me. I purchased this child’s potty to carry in my car (and in case you’re wondering, it held my weight like a champ). I like that it folds down small when I’m not traveling, and it has a removable bowl in the center, making it easy to line and empty. I used these bags to line the bowl and placed this absorbent gel powder in the bottom of the potty to help control the mess.

I left the rear passenger seat up in my Trailblazer. I could easily get in and out of the car through that door. When I needed to use the potty, I would sit in that seat, lift my bum, and slide the potty under my bottom. When I finished my business, I would place the potty on the floor and move over to the mattress I had already put on the driver’s side.

The lemon smell of the absorbent gel is overpowering, and when my supply is gone, I will likely switch to using a child’s diaper or an absorbent pad at the bottom of the potty instead. Alternatively, a potty with a lid would help contain the smell.

Plan to Power Up

Consider what you need to power during your trip. You may need a CPAP machine, a phone, a heated blanket, or a fan. Remember, your car cannot charge items while not running, so plan accordingly to avoid draining the battery.

I used a 500W portable power station, which worked perfectly for running my CPAP machine and allowed a power supply for my phone and iPad. I kept my cell phone well-charged as I drove during the day, so the most important thing was to have my CPAP powered up for a good night’s sleep.

These portable power stations come in many different brands and power levels, so you’ll need to research to decide how much you want to invest in this equipment. Of course, you’ll need more power if you plan to cook and use an electric burner or heat water in an electric kettle for your morning cup of coffee. Many car camping enthusiasts recommend Jackery or Bluetti brands as reliable, high-quality power options.

You will want to charge up your power station at home before you travel. Alternatively, you can use a solar panel to recharge while you travel and during the day. Know that these solar panels also come in many styles and prices, so be sure you research before making a quick purchase.

Block Light and Preserve Privacy

Don’t underestimate the importance of window blocking. Blocking your windows when sleeping in your car is crucial for several reasons. First, it provides privacy and creates a sense of security, which is especially important if you’re parked in a public area or a campground. Second, blocking the windows helps to regulate the temperature inside your vehicle by keeping out excessive sunlight during the day and retaining warmth during cooler nights. It also helps block out ambient light, creating a dark sleeping environment. It can also help insulate you from excess noise, which suddenly becomes essential when sleeping near a highway or another high-traffic area.

I created my own window blocks by tracing my windows and cutting window shapes from inexpensive tagboards purchased at the dollar store. Did it work? Sort of. But I was determined to spend as little as possible on this adventure, especially until I knew if I would do it again. I will be investing in some premade window covers for my next venture.

My cardboard window covers didn’t fit my windows perfectly, and because the tagboard I started with was too small for some of them, I duct-taped some pieces together. It turns out duct tape didn’t hold up well in the damp conditions of the thunderstorm on my first night out, and the cardboard itself didn’t hold up when I dropped one piece into the rain puddle outside my car door the following day.

Do a quick online search for window covers, and you will find many options. I like car curtains that can open to peek out and a windshield sun shade that closes like an umbrella because it will fold down to a small size. Keep in mind that whatever you use to block your windows will need to ride along with you, and if you’re in a smaller vehicle like mine, space is at a premium.

Finally, opt for window coverings that you can quickly put in place from inside your vehicle. This way, if the weather turns sour, you won’t find yourself outside struggling with covers. Additionally, it’s best to avoid drawing attention to yourself by fiddling around the exterior of your car. Quietly park and cover your windows as inconspicuously as possible for safety and discretion.

Create a Sleeping Sanctuary

Your sleeping surface may be one of the most essential parts of the car camping experience. After all, if you don’t sleep well, you won’t be able to function at 100% during the day.

I tested an air mattress when I initially set my car up for car camping. I am an over-50, plus-sized woman. The air mattress was uncomfortable, and I wasn’t confident it would stay inflated while I crawled around trying to get comfortable. So, I changed my plans. I used a queen-sized memory foam mattress topper, folded in half and trimmed a bit to fit lengthwise into the back of my vehicle with one seat folded down.

I wrapped a sheet around the mattress and used a sleeping bag on top, but I made the mistake of using a slippery sleeping bag, which didn’t stay put, so I recommend a sleeping bag with a less slippery shell. Additionally, consider packing an electric blanket if traveling in cooler temperatures. Your power source can easily handle an electric blanket and is much safer than a small heater in an enclosed, tightly packed vehicle.

Pack a small fan in warmer temperatures to keep air moving in the vehicle while you sleep.

Strategic Stops

One of the first questions people ask me about car camping is, “Where did you stay?” Before leaving home, I researched my options and was tickled to find that Cracker Barrel and Walmart welcome overnight guests in their parking lots. I chose Cracker Barrel for each of my nights. When I felt myself winding down for the day’s drive, I took a few moments during daylight to map out the Cracker Barrels within driving range along my route. I chose two options, knowing that if the first one didn’t look safe when I arrived, I could move on to the next, a plan I haven’t had to enact yet.

Other options are an established campground in one of the many state parks across America, public land, or private campgrounds. These locations offer various amenities, from picnic tables to a fire ring, and provide a great way to experience the outdoors with easy access to creature comforts like grocery stores for food storage.

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You can even park in more remote areas like national parks or national forests. However, do your research before selecting this option to ensure that you choose a safe place and are prepared not to have the creature comforts offered in a more populated area. Also, know some remote campsite locations are in Bear Country, so be prepared!

Safety First

Is car camping safe? I would argue that it is just as safe as tent camping, maybe even a bit safer. Of course, you can take steps to ensure that you’re practicing safe car camping, just as you would any time you travel.

First, one of the most important things you can do is always let someone know where you plan to be and your live location. My husband can always follow my travels with the iPhone Find Me app. I also called or texted him each evening to let him know the address of where I was staying and again in the morning to let him know that I made it through the night. Keeping in touch like this helped ease our minds and made sense for safety.

On-site safety precautions are also crucial. Pack a first aid kit and be mindful of local regulations regarding camping in places like cities or near national monuments. I chose to park under a light in the Cracker Barrel parking lot, knowing that the light would help deter someone from lurking near my vehicle.

Finally, I pulled in, stealthily covered my windows, and locked my vehicle doors. I slept with pepper spray and my key fob under my pillow to trigger the car alarm if necessary. Many car campers keep bee spray handy as an alternative to pepper spray because it is easy to use and has a very long reach when sprayed. Imagine getting hit in the eyes with bee spray – I would hope that would stop a predator in its tracks!

Creature Comforts

Let’s discuss some small details that will make your car camping experience more enjoyable. LED solar lights are a good idea, making my setup super cozy. They charged during the day and were freshly powered each night. This little string of bulbs provided just enough light to have a snack, watch a little TV on my iPad and catch up with a few emails as I traveled. 

After my first night, I realized the importance of having a dedicated place for essentials like water bottles and hot drinks. Since my space was limited, I settled on using what I had with me and repurposed my Baby Bogg Bag as a makeshift “nightstand” of sorts. As I settled in for the night, I tossed my hearing aids, jewelry, phone, and glasses into the bag so they wouldn’t get lost between seats or under my mattress. Use a tiny table or stackable bins to hold your bedtime essentials if you have space.

I also designated the pocket on the back of my passenger seat to hold potty bags, toilet paper, and water wipes. Attention to detail and small touches can make a big difference in creating a comfortable retreat on wheels. If your space is minimal, know that a rooftop tent or camper van can also be an excellent option for additional storage of items you don’t need at your fingertips.

Car Camping & Cooking

I chose not to participate in cooking while car camping, but many experienced car campers love to cook along their journey. Even though I didn’t cook, I brought food and beverages. I used a small cooler for the things I wanted to keep cool, like chocolates, a few Diet Cokes, and some cheese sticks and protein bars. I knew I’d be stopping for fuel and planned to add a bit of ice to the cooler as needed on these stops. Many car campers invest in a 12V car-powered refrigerator that stays cold while the car is running, and as long as you don’t open and close it all night, it will keep items cool all through the night when unplugged.

I used a small plastic tote to hold pantry-style snacks. Because I wanted easy access to food and drinks while driving, I kept the cooler and the tote up front in the passenger seat and took out whatever evening snacks I wanted before piling into the back of my vehicle for bedtime.

If you plan to cook, consider making space in the back of your vehicle for small plastic drawers to hold your cooking tools, including an electric pan, burner, or maybe a compact camp stove or small propane stove (do not use a propane stove inside your vehicle). Many car campers use an electric kettle to heat water for a quick cleanup or a cup of hot coffee or cocoa. With the right items, you can quickly and easily set up a camp kitchen that will allow you to create a simple meal in or just outside of your car.

Wrapping it all Up

After my car camping experience, I know I will do it again! The small space was reasonably comfortable, and sleeping in my car saved me so much time and money while traveling. Remember that after you try it once, you will most likely adjust how you set up your vehicle and learn what works for you.

I hope you will give it a try, too! Embarking on a car camping adventure opens up possibilities for outdoor enthusiasts, midlife adventurers, and families! From setting up a cozy sleep system in the back of your vehicle to enjoying the fresh air and stunning views of great places across the country, car camping offers the flexibility to explore in a new and different way.

Whether planning a long drive to a perfect camping place or opting for free camping in urban areas, having the right car camping essentials is critical. So start dreaming of your next trip, making your packing list, and asking others what works for them! As you plan, consider weather conditions, pack plenty of water, or plan to stop where you can access potable water and learn about local resources such as state campgrounds, or truck stops so you are well-prepared for the adventure!

Whether it’s your first time out or planning your next adventure, car camping provides unlimited access to nature’s beauty and the chance to create unforgettable memories. So, grab your vehicle and get ready for fun and adventure!

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