Car camping is the practice of loading all of your gear into your car, driving to your campsite, and then unloading and setting up your tent. Car camping is differentiated from other types of camping by the use of your vehicle to haul and hold all of your belongings.
But what about camping in and out of your car? The hashtag “vanlife” brings up numerous examples of how to camp with only the use of your vehicle. Before you set off on your own adventure, read further to find out how to camp out of your car, where to camp out of your car, tips and tricks, and even a list of useful products.
If you have ever been forced to spend the night in your car unplanned, the resulting experience was probably one you would like to forget. However, with the right tools and tips, you can stay in your car in comfort and convenience. Don’t think you need a camper van either; nearly any size car will do!
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Where to Car Camp
Though you can park your car at a campsite, there are alternatives to staying in established campgrounds. Wherever you choose to park, be sure to abide by all laws and regulations. Some locations are preferable, while others should only be used as a last resort.
- Staying at a Campground
Campgrounds can be very convenient. Often they are very close to local attractions and amusements. Additionally, they provide water and electrical hookups, dumping stations, and facilities should you need them.
Campsites also give you a spot to set up a few chairs and stretch out outside of your car, which is perfect for those long road trips. In addition to being convenient and comfortable, campsites also provide a safe and secure location to park your car. At a campsite, you can be relatively sure that you won’t be bothered and aren’t breaking any laws.
The only downsides to campground car camping are cost and availability. Depending on the season, it can be difficult to pull into a campground and find an open spot. In many instances, you will need a reservation. This is certainly true for peak camping months during the summer.
On top of a reservation, you will need funds. Campgrounds offer sites at a wide range of prices but few if any are free. When it comes to staying in your car, you get what you pay for!
- Dispersed Camping
If you don’t want to pay for proximity to attractions and facilities, then consider dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is sometimes known as boondocking, or staying off the grid. This type of camping involves staying on public land that is not an established campground.
This means that there are no amenities, no hookups, and no established camping areas. However, there are beautiful views of your natural surroundings as well as seclusion.
When you are dispersed camping, there are usually no fees associated with where you choose to stay. Some federal lands may charge a minimal amount to enter the reserved land, but this cost will likely be a lot less than at a campground.
When you are boondocking, choose your area wisely. You want to find a spot that is secluded and secure. As you will be sleeping in your car, your objective is not to make yourself a target. Your first time dispersed camping overnight can be a little unnerving, but you will likely get more comfortable each time you boondock.
- National Forests and Bureau of Land Management
Two popular locales for dispersed camping are National Forests and Bureau of Land Management or BLM lands. National forests are nice because they are available in a searchable online registry and shown on Google maps. A simple search can return the National forests nearest to your desired location.
National Forests are owned and managed by the US Department of Agriculture. They are usually more welcoming to dispersed campers than National Parks, especially for overnight stays.
Nevertheless, before pulling in, read all the rules and regulations to be sure camping is permitted. A sure-fire way to assess this is by talking to rangers or law enforcement in the area.
National Parks generally do not allow camping or overnight stays due to their busy nature. However, some may allow camping in select areas but only with a reservation.
Bureau of Land Management lands is held and managed by the US Department of the Interior.
Again, an online search will locate the Bureau of Land Management held lands. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management publishes a book entitled “Adventures on America’s Public Lands”. Within it, you can find available locations and directions on how to find camping opportunities. Like National Forests, a stay on the Bureau of Land Management property will often be free.
When camping on the Bureau of Land Management land or National Forest Land, you may have to camp on the side road or find a pull off. There are no designated spots, little to no restrooms, and no hookups.
- Supermarkets and Businesses
Now we are getting into the locations that you will typically stay at out of necessity instead of desire. If you need a quick place to stay, especially instead of driving through the night, some businesses and religious buildings allow overnight parking in their lots.
It is important to note that this is not allowed at every single location, and you could receive a fine or penalty if you park where you are not supposed to.
Wal-mart parking lots are a popular option, as are other large and expansive lots at common retailers. Generally, these are safe spots to park overnight and are car-camper friendly. Be sure to park where you will not impede traffic or interrupt their regular business.
If you are unsure about the legality of parking somewhere, you can stop in during normal business hours. Then introduce yourself to the manager or owner and inquire about spending the night, including how long you plan to stay. If they say no, be sure to be kind and polite and move on to the next place.
Parking in neighborhoods, public parks, and other areas is generally not allowed. Parking in these spaces should be your absolute last resort, as in falling asleep at the wheel. Additionally, you should not be surprised if you receive a visit from the local authorities asking you to move on.
For this reason, it is recommended that you sleep in your clothes and not go all out with setting up your space. You should also be quiet and respectful and head out as soon as possible.
There are caveats to this, however. If you have a friend or family in the area, inquire if you can park in their driveway or on their land for the night. As always, be respectful and polite, and be sure to return the favor if it is ever asked of you!
The most important tip when determining where to park is rules and regulations. Some places may require you to have a permit or make a reservation. Others are free and open to the public. Still, some locations do not allow overnight parking under any circumstances. When in doubt, always ask.
What To Pack For Car Camping
In general, you will still want to pack most of the items that you would bring along for a traditional tent camping trip. However, you will have to be wise about how many things you bring and how you plan on storing them. If you have a van or larger vehicle, the packing will be easier; if you have a car, you will need to be very strategic.
- Cooking and Eating While Car Camping
If you plan to stay at a campground, then you can expect standard amenities. These include a fire ring and maybe even a charcoal grill. This makes cooking and preparing your meals much simpler.
However, if you are dispersed camping or staying at an alternative location, don’t plan on starting a fire. For this reason, you will need to have some sort of portable stove. Keep in mind; you never want to use your stove inside your vehicle due to safety reasons unless it is a campervan equipped for indoor cooking.
Also, you will need fuel and dishes and utensils, both for cooking and eating. Thankfully, you will be able to stop at grocery stores as you please. However, you likely will not have access to modern conveniences like a refrigerator when you are car camping.
Therefore, you will need to choose simple and low maintenance meals that require little cooling or heating. Clean up can also be tricky. You will want to have a washbasin and soap in which you can add heated water.
If you are not staying at an area with access to clean water, plan on using water bottles or purifying a safe, natural water source.
As long as you are careful about planning your meals and considering everything from preservation, to cooking, to cleanup eating while car camping should not be too difficult.
How to Handle Waste When Car Camping
We just discussed cleaning your dishes, but what do you do with food waste, garbage, and other sorts of waste?
Again, not staying at a campsite greatly limits your access to facilities and amenities. Due to this, you should plan on having to carry your trash with you until you can find a suitable receptacle. In order to minimize orders and leaks, you will want to invest in heavy-duty trash bags and possibly even a bin with a lid.
If there are no bathrooms where you are camping, you will need to use the cat hole method. Locate a spot that is away from your car or campsite and any water source you may need to rely on. If you can fin,d a sunny patch with loos,e soil it will be easier to dig, and the waste will decompose faster.
When you have found the perfect spot, dig a hole, and do your business. If you have biodegradable, eco-friendly toilet paper, you can bury it along with your waste.
However, depending on the area, you may be required to carry out your toilet paper and waste. For this, you will want a sealable hygienic bags.
Alternatively, you can pack a portable toilet. Or really just a container that you can sit on. They can have chemicals inside them to neutralize waste or use baggies. You will need to dispose of any waste inside the toilet when it is at capacity. Furthermore, consider having to transport said waste with you inside your car until you find a dumping station.
When car camping, selecting reusable items over disposable items is often better. The goal is to leave no trace behind where you stayed, but you don’t want to have to haul loads of trash along with you. Therefore, opt for items that can be cleaned, stored, and then re-used.
Essentials and Necessities For car Camping
Of course, you will need to bring along clothes, possibly outdoor gear, toiletries, and other essentials; but remember space is limited. Additionally, you likely will not have a way to wash your clothing items or maybe even yourself. Consider packing only what is necessary and items that could be easily washed in a river or stream if necessary.
If you have space, you could consider a camp shower. Generally, a camp shower is a hanging bag or pumped reservoir. Most camp showers can be hung from a tree or even the side of your vehicle. They then use gravity to shower you with water for 2-3 minutes. Don’t expect any water pressure or hot water from a bag shower.
More expensive camp showers have a pumped reservoir that can be pressurized to provide you with a jet stream. Also, some can heat their own water. However, consider the space these items will take up and your likely access to water to fill the bag or canister.
Baby wipes, shampoo caps, dry shampoo, and biodegradable soap are all alternatives for when water isn’t available or very scarce. If you are going on a short trip, you can likely get by with these items for a handful of days. After that time, you will want to head home for a shower or reserve a short stay at a campground with facilities.
As with any trip, a first aid kit and hand sanitizer are necessities. Hand sanitizer is especially important as you may not always have access to soap and water. You will want to always make sure your first aid kit is fully stocked and road-ready.
Sleeping in Your Car
Sleeping in your car is often unpleasant. You have to deal with bugs, lack of airflow, and no temperature control. The good news is, some tricks and tools can make car camping a lot more comfortable.
The first tip is to park on flat ground. You will want to locate a relatively level and shady area. This will make sleeping more enjoyable as you can lay flat. Additionally, the shade will somewhat protect you from the elements, especially the sun, which can quickly heat a car.
Try to position your head towards the front of the car. This will likely give you more space as it will help you avoid the wheel wells that can cramp the back of a vehicle. If you have to park on an incline, make sure the front of the vehicle is higher than the back.
When sleeping in your car, you want your head to remain elevated slightly above your lower half. If you are on a flat surface, a pillow should do the trick. If you are on an incline, position yourself, so your head is at the highest point.
Ventilation when sleeping in a car is key. You will have to crack a window as leaving your car running for the use of the heat, or A/C is ill-advised. However, cracking a window generally is an open invitation for bugs.
In order to avoid the pests, invest in some mesh or screens. There are products specifically produced to act as screens for car windows, but you can also make your own. Just cut the mesh a little wider than your opening and secure it with whatever you have handy.
Speaking of opening your windows, be sure not too open them too wide. You certainly don’t want any animal visitors during the night. Two to three inches is optimal for ventilation.
Temperature control and humidity can also be a problem when sleeping in your car. A product called “damp rid,” that works to absorb excess moisture can be placed under the seat of your car. Venting your windows should help to alleviate window fogging as well.
The only problem with cracking the windows is the lack of temperature control. Some car campers rely on portable fans to keep them cool when car camping in the warmer months. Alternatively, you can vent many windows; just be sure to cover each with the screen or mesh.
When it is cold, you don’t have a great many options. It is advised that you dress warmly and wear a hat. The use of a heater of any kind isn’t recommended inside your vehicle.
Your bedding can also help to keep your warm or cool, depending on the outdoor temperature. First, you will want to know the setup and space available for sleeping in your vehicle. Cars that have seats that fold flat are often preferable.
Then, you will want to invest in a good air mattress or thick sleeping pad. This will help provide some insulation and act as padding between you and your seats. Sleeping bags and/or blankets are also advised. Pillows can be used, but if you are tight on space, consider using a stuff sack full of your clothes or other soft belongings.
Light and noise from the outside can also be an issue. You can bring a sleeping mask, earplugs and DIY a few curtains. Cords and bungees can be used to create makeshift curtains inside your car; this will help block the light and give you some privacy.
If you are really serious about car camping and serious about sleep, consider a rooftop tent. These are tents specifically designed to go on the roof of a van or SUV or even in a truck bed. They typically feature a platform and tie-downs in addition to the standard tent offerings.
It may take some trial and error, but eventually, you will end up with a nighttime routine that makes sleeping in your car a breeze.
How to Pack Your Car
Packing strategically is the key to getting everything to fit, allowing for easy access, and even maintaining comfort. Bins and items that can perform double duty are recommended.
Bins and tubs are particularly useful because they can assist with sleeping. If your seats are not bench style, you can use bins to help fill the gaps before you lay down your mattress. Additionally, they are great for holding food and dry goods, containing trash, and for use as a washbasin.
Soft gear packs more easily and is more compact. Clothes, towels, and other compressible items can be packed in stuff sacks or go-bags. These can then double as pillows for lounging or sleeping.
You won’t have a great deal of room in your car, and bigger items, like portable stoves and coolers, take up a lot of space. Try to minimize what you need and pack your car with a plan.
Tips and Tricks For Car Camping
- Magnets can also be used to attach the mesh to the outside of your car when you crack your windows for ventilation
- If your car is small enough, mosquito nets can be draped over your entire vehicle
- Draping tarps over the top of your car will allow you to vent your windows yet still keep out wind and rain
- Tarps are also for storing gear underneath your car when parked, and the gear is wrapped in the tarp when you need extra space inside
- Don’t forget a headlamp and/or flashlight so you can see in the dark
- Animals will come searching for food that they can smell if you are in bear country be sure to use a bear canister
- Make your own table by fabricating a thin piece of wood that can elongate your trunk. When not in use it can be stored under the seats.
- Don’t forget about roof storage. Hard or soft weatherproof storage options can free up space inside your vehicle
- Consider investing in a solar-powered charger to charge your devices
Best Products for Car Camping
In order to set yourself up for success, there are some great products you can use to make car camping as comfortable and convenient as possible.
Coghlan’s Mosquito Netting – $4.99
Smittybilt Overlander Tent – $893.24
Rhino-Rack Batwing Tagalong Tent – $629.99
Mountain House Essential Bucket – $71.93
Car camping can be done in nearly any size vehicle, though larger vehicles may be more comfortable and convenient. Some trial and error may be necessary to figure out what to pack, how to pack it, and generally how to live life on the road.
However, staying in your car opens up a whole world of possibilities in terms of the destinations you can travel to and camp at.
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