These days everyone is venturing into the outdoors, looking to get away from the crowds. From hiking to camping, there are a multitude of options to experience nature. Here we share our top car camping essentials for families (and even those without kids!) to get you going this spring and summer. In addition to this list, I also have a family camping packing list that is printable here if you want that to help packing for all of our car camper friends!
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What is Car Camping?
Car camping is one of the best ways to get into the outdoors without too much hassle. Historically car camping was termed as a place that you drive up and set up camp. Think most campgrounds where you reserve a spot, park your car, pitch a tent in your small space and enjoy! This is often what people do at national parks or family reunion type trips. These days the way to do this has opened up quite a bit, but the end result is that it’s easy, typically has bathroom facilities and is easily accessible.
Car camping these days can be anything from actually sleeping in your car to sleeping in a tent above your car or the more traditional way of sleeping in a tent just steps away from your car. We share some resources on each of these options to get you and your family outdoors!
Every camper will give you a different list of what the essentials are, but overall these car camping essentials fall into a few categories: Sleep & Shelter, Cooking, relaxing by the campfire and extras to glamp up your site. Below we share our favorite items in each of these categories.
Sleep & Shelter Essentials for Car Camping
One of the most important parts of camping is figuring out your sleep and shelter situation. This tends to also be the most expensive part of your camping set up. Honestly this is also the part of the camping equation that can either set you on a path of loving the outdoor experience or hating every minute of it.
There is not a one size fits all in this regard either. Some people prefer simple pop up tents, some like to sleep in the car. This is a personal preference and one you might have to try out a few times to figure out what is best for you. I have tried everything from sleeping on cots, air mattresses to a cushion mat.
For most folks new to camping, tent camping is where they begin. It is easy to set up, easy to find gear, tents offer privacy and help keep you out of the elements whether it is rain or wind or sun.
Sleeping in a tent comes with a ton of options and choices. You can buy a traditional on the ground tent that is easy (pop up tents), one that lives on the top of your car (CVT) and quickly pops up no matter where you are or even a tent that connects to the back of your vehicle allowing you to sleep inside your car, but also have the openness of your tent to change clothes, store your belonging and more. Below we share more information on the different types of tents to consider.
Choosing a Tent for Car Camping
When you are considering what type of tent to buy you will need to consider what type of camping you plan to do more often. If you are looking to backpack, you will want a lightweight tent. If you plan to car camp only, then weight won’t matter. In car camping you can choose from pop up tents that are super easy to set up to more traditional tents. The biggest factor to remember when looking at tents to buy is how many people do you need to fit in your tent. In general we always suggest to size up. If you plan for 4 people in a tent, consider a 6 person tent to provide space to move around and store your bags.
We have several tents and like them all for different reasons. If you are a Costco Member, every spring they always have the newest Coleman tent for sale for a very good price. This is what I recommend for most new campers. The price is good, the tents are usually pretty easy to set up and are perfect for car camping.
If you are looking for other options, here are some other favorites of ours.
- Triangle 3 person Tent: An adorable traditional looking tent with modern conveniences of two doors, mesh roof for stargazing and more.
- Lightweight Backpacking Tent: Lightweight backpacking tent that is easy to set up and take down.
- Easy Throw Pop Up Tent: Pop up tent that is extremely easy to set up and easy to put down (once you get the hang of it!)
- Instant Set Up Tents: Instant set up tents – heavy, but easy to set up with plenty of ground space and head space.
Once you have your tent sorted, the next step is figuring out your sleeping situation inside the tent!
Want to Glamp up your site? Consider these colored rope lights to spice up your campsite and add much needed light.
What Will You Sleep On?
One of the biggest issues in camping for most people is where you are going to sleep. There are so many amazing ways to camp that you can usually find something that works for everyone – including comfort and ease!
Some great options for sleeping inside your tent include – sleeping mats, cots and air mattresses. We have tried them all and have finally found what works for us – individual sleeping mats!
- This is by far the best sleeping pad I have found. It is cushiony, adjustable and doesn’t feel like a pool floaty.
- My son prefers this type of sleeping mat, which is also great for backpack camping as well.
- Many people prefer air mattresses like this for their first few times camping.
- Above ground cots are also popular for those who love car camping.
The final item necessary for your tent camping sleep system is your sleeping bag. For new campers, many people just load up all their quilts and duvets from home and recreate their bed in the outdoors. While this is totally acceptable, getting a good quality sleeping bag will make your adventures much more enjoyable.
After years of trying out various types of sleeping bags, I have finally settled on a traditional square bag for myself while my son still loves his mummy bag. Both of our bags are down, which I highly recommend as they are great in a variety of temperatures.
- This is the bag I have and LOVE. While not light enough for backpacking, it is perfect for car camping.
- My son loves his mummy bag. This bag has kept him warm in 27 degree mountain camping as well as cool in the desert.
- For families who want to sleep in the same bag, consider a two person bag with an added blanket on top for colder nights.
Other Shelter Options for Car Camping
If you aren’t interested in the traditional way of car camping with a tent on the ground, below we provide some other great options for car camping for you to consider.
Car Mattress for Car Camping
For those of you not interested in sleeping on the ground, you can check out an awesome product that fits an air mattress in the back of your car (assuming your seats fold down flat). Lumo Life is one of the coolest options out there for sleeping inside your car. This comfy air mattress is flexible for a solo sleeper or for a family with small kids. If I had a car that worked for the Lumo Life, I would ditch my tent and make this my new camping standard. No more worries about rain leaking in or wind blowing over my tent! Check out their site for more information on what type of cars this works the best with.
Top of the Car Tent
Another new addition to the scene of car camping is a tent that lives on the top of your car allowing you to camp just about anywhere you can drive to! This is the go to method for folks who really love to boondock camp or camp off the beaten path. Cascadia Vehicle Tents (CVT) are one of the most well known options out there. The tent lives on the top of your car and all you have to do is unhook things and open it up. Add in your sleep system and you are good to go.
For those who are a bit more experienced and want to try out something different, you can try your hand at sleeping in a hammock. Like I said above, camping is different for everyone and how you sleep is very dependent on personal preference. I cannot ever imagine sleeping in a hammock, but for so many people this is their preferred way to sleep. Some believe this feels like being swaddled and rocked to sleep like a baby!
The biggest negative for this type of camping is that you must know you will be able to find trees to set up your camp or you bring along the necessary supplies to set up your own hammock stand! There are a variety of sleep systems available to check out. Our favorite system is Kammok. They offer amazing hammocks sets for sleeping as well as a portable stand that you could easily take with you whether you want to sleep in your hammock or just lounge around in it during the day!
Car Camping Essentials for Cooking
Camp cooking is often a stressful thought for new campers, but really it can be just like cooking at home, just with less space and cleanliness! For the most part, our camping cooking looks very similar to what we eat at home. We don’t do the hot dog on a stick type of meals except in rare circumstances.
To make camping cooking much easier, here is a list of what we include in our camp kitchen bin. (To find out more about how to pack your camping gear to have it ready to go, check out our camping packing list post)
Camp Stove: We have this basic Coleman 2 burner stove, but there are more expensive ones with igniters.
- Cooking Table: This is an essential for car camping when you don’t have a ton of space.
Plates/Cutlery: We have this traditional camping plate and cutlery set and have used it for years!
- Cooking Set: After forgetting important cooking items over and over, I bought this cooking set. It is perfect and has space to add everything you will need while cooking. If I could get a new one, however I would probably try this one.
- Collapsible S’more Sticks: We use both these collapsible sticks as well as wooden skewer sticks depending on how many people we are camping with.
- Oven mitts: If you have old oven mitts, throw them into your camping box. They come in handy all the time!
- Charcoal Starter: If you are moving into the world of dutch oven cooking this charcoal starter chimney comes in super handy to start your coals.
- Plastic Tablecloth: A plastic reusable tablecloth is great to provide a clean surface and space to clean easily even with picnic tables.
Once you have completed your cooking, you will need to clean everything up. We often camp in places without water, which changes things a bit, but overall the following are useful both with and without a supply of running water.
Wash Basin: We have tried a few camp sink options, but overall, we prefer this collapsible dish bin
- Dish Soap: For the safety of the environment, use something environmentally friendly like campsuds
- Egg Storage: We have tried a few, and this one from REI is our favorite.
- Cooler: We have tried many different types of coolers and use them all for different purposes. Overall most people recommend a Yeti cooler, but those are super pricey. For a less pricey option, we like the Coleman cooler with wheels. For a 3 night campout it’s worked well.
- Pop Up Trash: This trash is a recent addition to our camping set and it’s been amazing! Don’t forget trash bags.
- Water Storage: We have both the hard sided water container and the foldable one. I prefer the foldable one for space, but it does flop around a bit which can be annoying!.
- Cold Water: We always bring a 2 gallon container filled with ice and a bit of water for cold drinking water. This is great in hot places like Death Valley and Joshua Tree.
Car Camping Essentials for Relaxing Around the Fire
Besides sleeping and eating, the most important parts of any car camping trip is sitting around the fire relaxing. We have you covered here as well with our car camping essentials like chairs, and other accessories to make the most out of your camping experience.
- Camping chairs: These are essential to a good fire experience. We have everything from basic Coleman chairs to light weight Kelty chairs. Honesty, this is one area you can invest in if you plan to use them a lot. We keep ours in our car year round for beach play to camping.
- Fireside Table: It’s nice to have a little more table space close to the fire, so we like to bring our collapsible table for drinks, plates, s’mores, etc.
- Fire Starters & Fun: We love these basic fire starters to help start our fires and these fun packets that help turn your fire into a rainbow. A fun added surprise for families.
- Other things to consider bringing and which are included on our packing checklist include: deck of cards, first aid kit, any bear proofing you might need, water bottles and a tent repair kit with extra ropes.
Looking for more camping posts or outdoor adventures?
- 50+ Amazing Spots for Camping in Southern California
- JUCY: Campervan for Non-Campers
- Camping at Malibu Creek State Park
- Guide to Camping in Mojave
- Tips on Camping with Kids
- Idyllwild Camping & Glamping Options
- 15 Epic Spots for Backpack Camping in California
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