The ultimate car camping checklist

And how to get started

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Christopher Murray

Christopher Murray is a professional personal finance and sustainability writer with six years of experience. He writes about everything from budgeti…

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

Camping is a great way to connect with the great outdoors. Turning your car into a camper allows you to still enjoy your time in nature, but also take advantage of a few creature comforts. 

Plus, there’s an option for any budget. As long as you can fold your seats down, you can turn your whole car into a mini camper. Or, you can go all-in and do a full remodel. 

This guide will show you everything you need to know to turn your vehicle into a camper, and there’s a helpful checklist at the end so you don’t forget anything before you hit the open road.

1. Decide on a camping method

roof tent

Car camping comes in many different forms, ranging from reclining the seats to popping up rooftop tents. Depending on how often you wish to camp out in your car, how much money you have to spend and your craftiness, your options will vary. Let’s take a quick look at a few of the most popular options:

  • Reclining seats/lying down in the back seat - If you’re looking for the dirt-cheap option, reclining your seats and throwing a blanket down is about as easy as it gets. This isn’t ideal for long-time camping but will work for the camper that goes every once in a great while. 
  • Backseat air mattresses - Adding an air mattress to your backseat can make it a lot more comfortable. This won’t be great for people with dogs who could pop it, but for one or two people who are weekend warriors, buying an air mattress is a cheap and somewhat comfortable way to camp. Plus, you can find options for under $100
  • Truckbed mattress - If you have a truck, making the bed into living quarters can be fairly simple and affordable. Many air mattresses are just over $100. You’ll just have to remember that unless you have a cap on the back of your truck, you’ll be sleeping under the stars.
  • Rooftop tents - You can find rooftop tents for most offroading vehicles (think Jeeps, Subarus, and Fords). These won’t be your cheapest option, with many models hitting the low thousands, but they do provide more comfort and a larger storage area inside your car. For frequent campers who are looking for a little more comfort than a regular tent provides, this can be a somewhat affordable option. 
  • Turning your car into a DIY camper - There are varying levels of converting your car. If you have a larger vehicle like a van, you can go all in and turn the entire thing into a small camper. Some people are even converting old school buses, known as skoolies. This often requires quite a bit of money and a willingness to put in some hard work. 

2. Make sure your vehicle (and its insurance) is ready

You don’t want to get started on a week-long road trip just to have your car break down a couple of hours into your trip. While some vehicles are more recommended for camping due to their features, every car will need to be maintained properly in order to have a successful trip. Here are a few tips to live by before venturing out on your first car camping trip:

  • Take it in for a tune-up - If you’re planning on going on a longer trip, take your car to the mechanic just to make sure everything is running okay. 
  • Make sure it is properly insured for the adventure you’re going on - When you’re camping in your car, you want to protect all of your belongings and the car itself. You’ll need comprehensive coverage, which will protect items from theft. If you have especially expensive things in your car (i.e. your laptop or a tv), you may want to get personal property coverage as well. Talk with your insurance agent before you take off and ask what they suggest and what your policy already covers. 
  • Consider changing out parts that are likely to need to be replaced - If you have an older vehicle, be prepared to keep your car updated if you want to camp in it frequently. When you’re camping, your car is acting as your home, so make sure you’re taking care of it. 
  • Learn how to take care of your vehicle - If you’re planning to use your vehicle for more than just a daily commuter, you should get to know it a little bit better. There are many maintenance tasks you can do on your own, which can save you a ton of time and money when you’re on the road. Learn how to change a tire, change the oil, change a headlight, etc. Any of the basic fixes, learn before taking a trip. If something should happen, you’ll be thankful you took the time to understand your vehicle.  

3. Decide where you want to camp

Once you’ve decided how you’ll set up your car shelter, it’s time to figure out where you want to go! You have a few options here. The one that’s right for you will largely depend on how much you want to spend and the accommodations you’re looking for. There are a few choices to consider, including:

  • Campgrounds - This is where you’ll find the most amenities, so, for the most part, this will be the most expensive choice. Depending on the campground, you could pay anywhere from $20 to over a hundred per night for a site. Simply Google campsites near the area you’re looking to go and make your reservations ahead of time. Camping is a popular activity and campgrounds are often fully booked. 
  • Public/free campsites - There are free campground options, typically these will be wooded areas and all you’re going to get is a piece of land to stay on. You often won’t get electricity or running water or a public restroom. With van living taking off, the internet has exploded with free camping resources. Campendium is a popular one. They offer a whole guide on finding free camping and show popular free campsites verified by other users. 
  • Parking lots/public places - There are a growing number of retailers that allow campers to stay for free overnight in their parking lots. Walmart is the most famous one to allow this. Companies like Cracker Barrel, Cabelas and Planet Fitness. Have also followed suit. This is definitely the least glamorous option, but hey, it’s free. Just make sure you know how to stay safe
  • Airbnbs - There are plenty of camping sites available on Airbnb. Often, hosts own a portion of land and some even have tents already set up. You can find fairly cheap sites, often on-par with some campgrounds.

4. Get the right permits

Before you decide on a campsite, you’ll need to make sure that you have all the necessary permits needed to be there. If you don’t, you could face fines for trespassing. Here are some examples of permits that you could need: 

  • Backcountry permits-These permits are typically issued in national parks and allow you to camp in certain parts of the park, as established in each park's guidelines. Whether or not this permit is needed is up to the individual park and its policies.
  • Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) permit - These permits allow you to operate a vehicle off-road and are commonly needed in national parks. Depending on your campsite, you may need one.

5. Plan your meals (and snacks, too!)

camp food

The food that you pack will need to fit in your car. To make sure that you have plenty of room for it, consider doing the following:

Pack a cooler

You’ll need a cooler to keep your food and drinks cold. If you only camp for a short amount of time, get a smaller, compact cooler that can hold a meal or two, some drinks and water. Even longer-term campers can find smaller coolers they can refill a couple times during their travels. 

Decide on a cooking method

If you plan to cook your own meals (which is the much cheaper option), you will need to decide on a cooking method. Some of your options include:

  • A good ‘ole campfire - Cooking over a fire is one of the tastiest ways to eat when you’re camping. You can often find wood bundles for sale on the side of the road near campgrounds. These will typically be a couple of dollars per bundle. 
  • Propane camp stove - A propane stove, which typically consists of two burners, operates just like your stove at home, it’s just powered by a can of propane. You can control temperatures a little more with this method, and cooking times are faster than a fire. You can find propane stoves online for under $100
  • Hot plate - Hot plates are electric, so you’ll need a source of electricity to use them. They’re essentially an electric version of a camp stove. They tend to be a touch more affordable than propane stoves and you won’t need to figure out how to dispose of any propane tanks.
  • Griddle - Griddles are similar to hot plates, but they usually provide a larger cooking surface. This is the most affordable option you’ll find, but you’ll also need to have a source of electricity.

Note: Be careful with all manner of outdoor cooking and make sure to extinguish all flames, especially if you are in a wildfire-prone area

Plan trips to restaurants ahead of time

When you go camping, especially in a new location, you shouldn’t assume that you’re going to have easy access to your cell phone service. You’ll want to research the location you’re camping in ahead of time, save directions to restaurants or grocery stores from your campsite, and note the hours that they’re open. If you happen to lose cell service in a remote location, you will be thankful for this information.

6. Pack your car

Packing correctly is something every car camper must learn. I was lucky enough to camp frequently when I was a kid, so I learned the ritual from my mother who became a pro at packing everything so it was easy to get to. After all, Here are a few key tips I’ve learned over the years:

  • Pack your car so that things are easily accessible - If you camp in your car frequently, have a platform that your bed rests on and bins below it organized by what you use most. Pull out plastic drawers are even better. 
  • Make sure to keep safety equipment on hand -  Make sure you have a first aid kit, extra blankets, emergency cones and a set of jump starting cables. When you’re on the road more frequently, the chances of you breaking down go up. Having these items can help immensely during an emergency. 
  • Utilize roof and trunk organizers - If you’re not using a rooftop tent, consider getting a roof organizer. Or, they make ones that sit on a trailer hitch on the back of your car. This will allow you to store things out of the car, allowing for more sleeping space inside. Just make sure you don’t leave food items out in these storage racks, especially when you’re in the woods. That’s a surefire way to attract wildlife.

7. Stay safe

Camping in your vehicle in public places like parking lots and public campsites, can come with risks, especially if you’re a solo camper. This is why you’ll want to always keep your safety at the front of mind. To do so, consider: 

  • Parking in well-lit areas
  • Keeping your phone charged and within reach.
  • Keeping your vehicle locked whether you’re inside it or not. 
  • Making sure all of your valuables are tucked away and not in plain sight.
  • Ventilating your vehicle properly. 
  • Installing an alarm system if you plan to camp full-time.

8. Consider creature comforts

Car camping won’t be the most comfortable option for everyone, but there’s no reason it should be completely miserable. Yes, take the time to enjoy the outdoors, but don’t be afraid to indulge in some creature comforts as well. 

Depending on the time of year you go, you might want to bring a fan that is battery or solar powered or extra blankets to keep you warm or add padding. Additionally, bringing a set of solar or battery operated string lights can be a huge relief when you’re in the pitch-black wilderness.

A checklist of everything you’ll need (or want) while camping in your car

Here’s every item you may want to bring with you. Some of these items are dependent on how you camp, but pick and choose the ones you need:

Car camping checklist