Everything You Need for Your Next Car Camping Trip

Car camping evokes images of crackling bonfires, toasted s’mores, and nights spent gazing at the stars. The right car camping gear can take your outdoor adventures to the next level. It can be a great way to connect with friends and loved ones as you enjoy the natural world and discover new places. 

For camping beginners, car camping is when you drive your vehicle to a campsite instead of walking in and it can take two forms. You either pitch a tent at the campground or you sleep in your vehicle. The former is the most traditional form of camping, but the latter is gaining popularity with couples and solo travels as a more simple form of camping. 

Dana Cama, a professional wildlife photographer, is a fan of sleeping in her vehicle because “you can roll right up to a campsite and not have to set up a tent, so if you’re driving all day or hiking all day, your bed is already set up in the back,” she explains to SELF. “You can travel to a lot of different places on longer trips without getting as tired.” However, while tent camping requires a more extensive setup, it is much more comfortable for most people. The best camping tents allow you space to spread out, stand up, and relax after a long day.

But camping isn’t all about sleeping, so you’ll also want to purchase gear so you can eat, play, and stay safe while you’re outdoors. We’ve rounded up some of the best camping gear items from top brands like Yeti, REI Co-Op, and Therm-a-Rest that you can buy from retailers like Amazon and Backcountry. Read on for our picks of sleeping gear, cooking gear, and other car camping essentials.

Sleep System 

Whether you’re sleeping in your car or pitching a tent, a complete sleep system will help you get some much-needed ZZZs while you’re camping. If you’re sleeping in your car, your sleep system should include a sleeping pad (or air mattress) and an outdoor blanket or sleeping bag. If you’re tent camping, you’ll need to add a tent into that mix.

Because car camping allows you to bring heavier gear than backpacking, I—and many of our experts—like to bring blankets and pillows, rather than sleeping bags, for a cozy camp setup. Most of the gear below can be used in both a vehicle or tent and is designed for outdoor use so you don’t have to worry about it getting dirty or wet while you’re camping. 

Navy blue Thermarest Ramble Down Blanket on white background

Thermarest

Thermarest Ramble Down Blanket

When you’re car camping, a blanket can be more comfortable than a sleeping bag because it provides a similar experience to your bed at home. This down quilt from Therm-a-Rest is lofty, warm, and provides queen-sized coverage. 

Blue Sea to Summit Comfort Deluxe Self-Inflating Foam Double Sleeping Pad on white background

Amazon

Sea to Summit Comfort Deluxe Self-Inflating Foam Double Sleeping Pad

This cushy inflatable sleeping pad won our 2022 Outdoor Gear Awards for best all-around sleeping pad because it’s more portable than an air mattress but as comfortable as a bed. However, this double version is ideal for car camping because you can use it for two in a tent or vehicle. 

Dark green Voited Cloudtouch Indoor/Outdoor Camping Blanket on white background

Voited

Voited Cloudtouch Indoor/Outdoor Camping Blanket

Lauren Grijalava of The Wanderpreneurs, uses the water-resistant Voited camping blanket because it is “warm and cozy and can snap up to become a sleeping bag!” It provides enough warmth for nights that get as cold as 46 degrees Fahrenheit, but we recommend it for warmer climates when the low is closer to 60 degrees. 

Green REI Co-op Wonderland 6 Tent on white background

REI

REI Co-op Wonderland 6 Tent

This three-season tent won best tent for families in our 2022 SELf Outdoor Awards because it is roomy enough for six with tall walls that most campers could stand inside. It also has dividers so you can have a bit of privacy in separate “rooms,” a feature that Asia Bradford, the founder of Black Girls Camp, highly recommends. 

Kitchen

Food is essential, and with the right gear, cooking at camp can be an enjoyable way to spend time. Whether you choose to cook over a camping stove or a bonfire, you’ll want to stock up on outdoor gear like a cooler, coffee maker, cookware, and cooking utensils. 

Cama spends quite a bit of time cooking while on a road trip and recommends you “keep your kitchen gear streamlined by investing in multi-purpose items because it can take up so much space.” These camp kitchen products below fit the bill.

Green and grey Coleman Cascade 3-in-1 Camping Stove on white background

Cabela’s

Coleman Cascade 3-in-1 Camping Stove

Coleman stoves are a popular choice because they’re known for their durability. Cassie Likens, a multi-day tour guide for WeVentures, recommends the two-burner camping stove, as does Cama.  “I use a Coleman stove that was passed down to me,” Cama explained. “I feel like those things just last forever.” 

Two black Bruntmor Pre-Seasoned 2-In-1 Cast Iron Multi-Cooker skillets on white background

Amazon

Bruntmor Pre-Seasoned 2-In-1 Cast Iron Multi-Cooker

“We used this for everything because it’s so versatile,” said Cama. “You can use it as a pot, fry things on the lid, and use it as an oven. You can also use it on a camp stove or over an open flame.” 

Aeropress coffee and espresso maker placed on top of clear mug filled with coffee on white background

Amazon

Aeropress Coffee and Espresso Maker

The Aeropress is a go-to coffee maker for many car campers. “It’s small and portable and an easy way to make coffee,” explained Cama. “You can make coffee a few different ways. It even passes my partner’s coffee snobbery.” 

Justuze Portable Coffee Maker, coffee pods and bag on white background

Amazon

Justuze Portable Coffee Maker

“This portable coffee maker has given me consistent results while camping,” said Shawn Richards, Expedition Coordinator at Ultimate Kilimanjaro. “It is made of plastic and has no glass or small components, so it’s lightweight and you can wash it anywhere on the go without worrying about losing parts.” 

Orange Hydro Flask Mug on white background

Amazon

Hydro Flask Mug

This mug fits perfectly in your hands, is comfortable to hold, and keeps your coffee hot (or cold) for hours on end. It’s my go-to camping mug, but I use it all the time at home, too. 

White YETI Tundra 45 Cooler on white background

Rei

YETI Tundra 45 Cooler

We’ve already sung praises for the Yeti Tundra series, and it’s one of the best car camping coolers you can buy. It has excellent ice retention and is safe to use in bear country. “A bear-resistant cooler is crucial,” explains Cama. “We would keep it away from the car because bears can break into vehicles.”

Grey Hydro Flask Cut And Serve Platter on white background

Rei

Hydro Flask Cut And Serve Platter

The aspiring camp chef and charcuterie-board lovers will appreciate this do-it-all platter from Hydro Flask. The 2-in-1 system comes with both a durable cutting board and a stainless steel serving platter. 

Blue and red Reliance Aqua-Tainer on white background

Rei

Reliance Aqua-Tainer

Some campsites don’t provide water services, so it’s good practice to always carry extra water. This 7-gallon container is big enough for an extended weekend and has a spigot so you can easily fill your water bottles or wash your hands. 

Outlery Stainless Steel Travel Cutlery Set with travel case on white background

Amazon

Outlery Stainless Steel Travel Cutlery Set

Claire Ramsdell, an outdoor blogger and adventure consultant for the Wildland Trekking Company, uses this packable cutlery set to save on space when she’s car camping. It comes with a fork, knife, and spoon and collapses to fit in a tiny tin container. 

Comfort 

Camping isn’t all about eating and sleeping—you’ll want to have fun, too, when you’re out in the woods or on the beach. Outdoor brands have created gear like camp chairs, hammocks, and portable showers to make your base camp more luxurious and enjoyable. Here are a few of our favorites:

BioLite FirePit+ on white background

Amazon

BioLite FirePit+

This portable firepit is equally at home among your kitchen gear, as it doubles as a grill, but it’s great to gather around as you wind down your day. It’s perfect for car campers who like to escape the crowded campgrounds and stay at more primitive sites without firepits. Plus, it will help you stay fire aware and responsible during bad fire seasons.

Turquoise and silver Decathlon Camping Folding Table with four stools on white background

Decathlon

Decathlon Camping Folding Table

Just because you’re camping doesn’t mean you need to rough it out by sitting on the ground. When your campsite doesn’t have a picnic table, this compact table and stool set is perfect for a family or group of four. It packs down small so it doesn’t take up too much space in the car. 

Green Eureka Tagalong Highback Chair on white background

Backcountry

Eureka Tagalong Highback Chair

Perhaps my favorite camp chair of all time, this highback reclined chair from Eureka is made of a soft suede material but has breathable mesh panels on the sides. It also has armrests (for added comfort!), a cup holder, and a pocket to stash a book or snacks. Just break it down and store it in the compact carrying case for easy transport. 

Blue, turquoise and brown ENO DoubleNest Hammock on white background

REI

Eno DoubleNest Hammock

If you love the idea of camping but also like to stay clean, portable showers can elevate your camp experience. “This portable shower has strong water pressure,” raves Ramsdell. “I use it to wash dishes and to clean off my dirty feet after hiking.” 

Green Eureka Tagalong Shelter on white background

Rei

Eureka Tagalong Shelter

Set up a hammock at your next campsite for ultimate relaxation. This pick from ENO tops our list of best hammocks because it’s roomy enough for two and made of soft, breathable materials. 

Vehicle Accessories 

When you’re car camping, it’s easy to spend a lot of time setting up and breaking down camp. So, it helps to have your gear organized so you can streamline this process and spend more time enjoying yourself. “If your car is unorganized, you can waste an entire morning looking for a lighter to start your camp stove,” says Cama. “If you have a good system and know where everything is, you don’t waste as much time.” With these vehicle accessories, you can spend more time doing what matters: experiencing the great outdoors.

Black Pro Series 63155 Rambler Hitch Cargo Carrier on white background

Amazon

Pro Series 63155 Rambler Hitch Cargo Carrier

“My partner and I went on an extended car camping trip out of a Subaru Outback, and I don’t think we would have been able to do that trip without this cargo carrier,” explains Cama. “We slept in the back of the car, so this functioned as our trunk.” They loaded it up with waterproof bins to store all their kitchen gear, clothes, and everyday essentials.

Blue and white patterned Cozybiub Premium Car Side Window Sun Shade on car door

Amazon

Cozybiub Premium Car Side Window Sun Shade

These are designed for shade so they’re perfect for keeping the kids or pups cool in the backseat. But they have numerous uses. “These are one of the best investments we made because we could sleep with the windows open without mosquitos coming in,” Cama raves, “We would’ve been dying in the car without them.”  

Two Black Reserwa Car Backseat Organizers on the back of white car seats

Amazon

Reserwa Car Backseat Organizer

This backseat organizer is crucial when you’re spending time on the road. Cama uses it to “quickly access everyday items like toothbrush, face wash, and toilet paper.” She explains that everything she needed to access twice a day, she could “easily grab instead of digging through bags to get to.”

Black and orange Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 240 battery on white background

Amazon

Jackery Portable Power Station Explorer 240

Two of our experts, Ramsdell and Grijalva, use the Jackery power bank. Ramsdell works remotely from her vehicle and swears by it to provide all-day power. “I tried other products for a while, but ultimately nothing worked well enough for the demands of my job (I need to be able to work on my laptop eight hours a day).” 

Safety

Safety gear, like a first aid kit and headlamp, may not be fun to think about but should absolutely be in your car camping kit. Lights can be life-saving in an emergency but also provide convenience for getting around camp after dark, while you’ll use gear like first-aid kits and multi-tools regularly to solve minor problems. Here are some items you shouldn’t go without.

Black Black Diamond Cosmo 350-R Headlamp on white background

Rei

Black Diamond Cosmo 350-R Headlamp

Alison Watta, a backpacking guide, creator, and editor of Exploration Solo, recommends the Cosmos 350 headlamp as one of the best camping lights because it is an affordable option that “offers plenty of light to safely navigate, while also giving you some control over the brightness.” 

Black My Medic MyFAK Large Basic First Aid Kit on white background

Backcountry

My Medic MyFAK Large Basic First Aid Kit

This hefty first aid kit is well stocked with essentials for both minor injuries and bigger emergencies. You’ll most often reach for it when you need bandages and medications, but it’s reassuring to know the rest of the supplies are available if you ever need them. 

Turquoise and black Leatherman Signal Colors Multi-Tool on white background

Rei

Leatherman Signal Colors Multi-Tool

Miriah Royal, the Midwest regional leader at Outdoor Afro, loves her leatherman multi-tool for camping and backpacking. This model includes the basics like a knife and pliers, as well as ​​a fire starter and an emergency whistle. 

Blue and red Clore Automotive Jump-N-Carry JNC660 1700 Peak Amp on white background

Amazon

Clore Automotive Jump-N-Carry JNC660 1700 Peak Amp

When you’re driving on backroads, it’s helpful to have a plan if things go wrong. And one of the most common car issues while camping is a dead battery. This rechargeable, portable battery pack will let you jump-start your car even if you’re in the middle of nowhere. 

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