Car camping is easy, quick, and usually doesn’t require any expensive gear. What’s not to love!?
If we’re being honest here (which I hope we always are), car camping is hands down my favorite way to camp out.
As someone who chose her car (Subaru Outback) based on the sleepability (I totally made that word up just now), I’ve nailed it down to a science. And I’ve put this list of car camping essentials together so you too can enjoy the freedom of sleeping in your car.
Aight, let’s get to it!
1. Stainless Steel Tableware
If you’re camping by yourself, you only need one set of dishes and silverware. Yep! One.
I used to use a cheap plastic set but have since upgraded to this set. It’s stainless steel, eco-friendly, and made to last.
It includes everything you need for a successful car camping meal + stacks nicely so it doesn’t take up too much space. This set includes:
- 8.5″ dinner plate
- 6″ bowl
- 10 oz cup
- 7″ spoon, fork, and knife
- Mesh bag for storage
I would suggest adding a few extra stainless steel plates just in case someone else tags along. Or you get lazy (no shame) and forget to wash your nice ones. However, try to avoid plastic as much as possible.
It’s awful for the environment and isn’t made to last like their stainless steel counterparts.
Car Camping Essentials — Top Tableware Recommendations
2. Cast Iron Skillet
If you’re gonna do any cooking, a cast-iron skillet is a must. They’re made to withstand the outdoors and are insanely heavy duty. If you already have one, you can certainly use that. Although I like to keep my kitchen and camping gear separate.
I personally use this convertible skillet & griddle. It’s perfect for nearly anything you want to cook from steak & eggs to burgers.
This set is incredibly versatile and can easily function as a:
- Deep skillet
- Shallow skillet
- Dutch oven
- Or a fryer
That multi-functionality is essential for car camping because… space is worth more than gold. And it’s an easy way to simplify your outdoor cooking setup. No more digging through tote after tote looking for the perfect pan.
With all that said, this set is very heavy (at 13 lbs) so I don’t recommend it if you’re backpacking.
And if you’re looking for something even simpler, I recommend this cast-iron skillet by itself. It’s less than half the price of the combo set yet still functions well in the outdoors, cooks up virtually anything you’re craving, and takes up very little space.
Note: You don’t need both. Pick the one that fits your cooking style and roll with it.
Car Camping Essentials — Top Cast-Iron Recommendations
3. Propane Stove/Grill
Depending on where you’re camping, you might not be able to start a fire (i.e. a Walmart parking lot or if there’s a fire ban). So, having a reliable heat source is a muuuuust.
As an all-around fantastic option, I use and recommend this Triton camping stove.
Quick backstory: I’m a former mechanical engineer and I spent a little over a year working at Coleman. I wasn’t a designer but my job revolved around reducing costs while improving product quality.
And the Triton Stove went through countless iterations of improvements during my time there.
Furthermore, I personally use this for SO many things. Car camping. Regular camping. Softball games. Sand volleyball cookouts. Tailgating. All pre-COVID, of course.
But if you’re looking for something a bit smaller/more lightweight, I suggest this single burner propane stove. It’s only big enough for an 8” pan. So make sure you have a small pan on hand, ready to go if you go this route.
Car Camping Essentials — Top Stove Recommendations
- Features a push-button for matchless lighting
- Each burner is adjustable for ultimate temperature control
- Wind-blocking panels for cooking outdoors
- Chrome-plated grate and rust-resistant cooktop
- Pressure control for consistent heat all around
4. H2O Hydration, Yo
I always bring 2 more gallons than I think I’ll need. I almost always end up using more than I expect and it’s better to be prepared than to be underprepared. Especially when it comes to the good ol’ H2O.
You need water to:
- Cook food and rinse your dishes
- Clean your hands before/after you eat
- Hydrate yo’self (and your pet if ya have one)
- Scrub the dirt off ya
Oh, and don’t buy small, single-use water bottles. These are horrendous on the environment and more expensive. Buy big containers (gallons or even bigger if you can – these require less plastic) and fill up your personal refillable bottle as needed.
f you don’t have access to a sink, it’s important that your dish soap is biodegradable and environmentally safe. I use Campsuds by Sierra Dawn, but there are plenty of affordable options out there to choose from.
You also want to make sure you’re not cleaning your dishes within 200 ft of any sources of clean water as in accordance with The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.
Always make sure you scrape excess food into your trash bag before cleaning your dishes and do your best to strain your wastewater before dumping it. This ensures the ground and nearby water sources stay as clean as possible.
6. A beanie for your noggin’
Once the sun drops, the temps are usually quick to follow. Unless you live in a hot region (like I do) where it’s 90+ all night. Then… you probably won’t need a beanie. But they’re perfect for early spring, late fall, or winter camping.
And although it’s a myth that you lose most of your body heat through your head, it’s still nice to keep it cozy and warm. Especially while you’re sleeping.
AND I hope you left your hair straightener/products at home. Ya don’t need ’em while you’re camping. A beanie is the perfect quick-fix solution to messy hair. No styling (or mirrors) required.
7. A Sleeping Pad
Unless the hatch or bed of your car is perfectly flat (most aren’t), you’ll want a sleeping pad. I prefer pads over air mattresses because they’re much less bulky, usually more comfortable, and don’t have the hassle of going flat at 3 am. Plus, you don’t need any loud pumps or run the risk of having dead batteries.
This sleeping pad is backed by a lifetime warranty and lifetime replacement program. They take pride in their durable and incredibly lightweight pads. It takes about 20 breaths to inflate and you’re good to go!
If you’re looking for a heavy-duty alternative that’s a bit more comfortable, the Teton XXL sleep pad is an excellent choice. It’s durable, thick, and easy to pack up thanks to the compression straps included.
Plus, you can use it with a cot, on the ground, or in the back of your car.
Car Camping Essentials — Top Sleeping Pad Recommendations
8. Sleeping Bag
Before anything, check the weather of where you’re staying. If it’s going to be cold, you want to prepare with a cold-weather sleeping bag. For temps below freezing, the Marmot Trestles 15 Mummy is fantastic. It’s a bit expensive but a high-quality bag is crucial when it’s below freezing.
And for temps between freezing and 50 F, the Coleman Brazos is cozy and affordable as well.
However, if it’s above 50 F, the Coleman Duck Harbor sleeping bag is an excellent, light-weight summer option to keep ya comfy during those cool late spring, summer, and early fall evenings.
I worked on the Brazos and Duck Harbor bags during my time at Coleman. And I’ve used countless Coleman sleeping bags but these two are my top choices.
I also like to bring extra blankets just in case my sleeping bag isn’t cutting it or it gets colder than I expected. As always, it’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared and freezing cold all night.
Plus, blankets can pack up small so they don’t take up too much space.
Car Camping Essentials — Top Sleeping Bag Recommendations
- Rated for 15-degree weather (F)
- Mummy-style with SpiraFill high-loft insulation
- Men's and women's versions for a better fit
- Anatomically shaped foot box for extra comfort
- Extra insulation in key areas for added warmth where you need it
- Rated for 20-degree weather and above
- Hollow polyester insulation for warmth without the bulk
- Quick-cord for easy storage when not in use
- Added plush material around your face for added comfort
- A zipper guide for snag and hassle-free zipping
- Rated for 40-degree conditions and above
- Tall enough for most people under 6'
- Same zipper guidance system for hassle-free zipping
- Machine washable for easy cleaning and care
- Breathable and comfortable in warmer temps
9. Pillow or 12
When I’m packing for car camping, I always make sure to snag the pillow from my bed and put a fresh cover on it before heading out. If you’re anything like me, your pillow makes or breaks a good night’s sleep which is why I recommend using the same one you normally use if you don’t mind it being in your car for a few days.
Nothin’ fancy here.
10. Bug Spray
Any ol’ bug spray will do. This is mostly for while you’re out exploring. Don’t forget to rinse off as soon as possible so you’re not prolonging your skin’s contact with potentially harmful chemicals.
I don’t recommend using it before bed, but there are some other helpful bug prevention methods for your car camping adventures below.
11. Jumper Cables
When you car camp, your car itself is your main source of electricity. So, you use it to charge your phone, batteries, etc. And doing so drains the battery. Furthermore, leaving the hatch/doors open can drain the battery too, even if your internal lights aren’t on.
I found out my Subaru Outback does this… the hard way. The first day I bought her, we went out on a little adventure together.
It was perfect out so I slept with the hatch wide open. The next morning, Betty (my car) was dead. Like… completely dead.
And I didn’t have jumper cables, either. I waited for what felt like years. Someone finally came around and was kind enough to give me a jump. But you may not be so lucky.
The last thing you want to do is rely on strangers to have a set of cables. So it’s always a good idea to have them with you at all times. Especially if you’re out alone and camping in your car.
Furthermore, I recommend disconnecting your battery as a precaution (as long as you don’t mind losing your radio presets).
12. Trash Bags
I’m sure I don’t need to explain this one, but it’s something often overlooked.
Don’t be that girl (or guy) who leaves crap behind hoping someone else will pick it up. Just don’t. Even if you don’t have trash bags, use grocery bags or toss the trash in your car until you find a trash can to use.
Pack it in, pack it out applies even when you’re not backpacking through some gnarly alpine trails. *wink
13. Good ol’ TP
Mmmmmmm… this one’s self-explanatory. And when ya gotta go, ya gotta go.
14. A Tarp
A tarp is like the multi-tool (ya know, the one with scissors, a tiny knife, and some other weird doo-dad) of car camping.
Wanna pitch a tent? Put your tarp down first as an extra barrier between you and the ground. Wanna sleep with the hatch open but it’s raining? Cover it when a tarp. Need some privacy to change your clothes? Hang up the tarp.
Cover your windshield. Make a rain fly for your hammock. Sit your bum on it.
So many things. I mean, what can’t you do with a tarp, am I right? Plus, combined with a trusty zip tie or 12, you can manage almost anything.
15. A Large Bug Net for Your Hatch
If you live anywhere in the Midwest… you KNOW mosquitoes are assholes. They don’t care if you’re trying to sleep. Those little shits will come and buzz… RIGHT in your ear. All night. /end rant.
Don’t worry! There’s a simple & affordable solution.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. All you need something large enough to cover the entire opening plus 10 – 15 heavy-duty magnets to hold it in place while you sleep.
16. 4 Small Bug Nets for Your Windows
If you decide not to sleep with the hatch open (or don’t have one to open in the first place), you’ll want to crack one window on each side of your car. Or completely open them if it’s beautiful outside.
But again. Those pesky assoholic mosquitoes, man.
As with the large net, you’ll need four small ones large enough to cover your windows with a handful of heavy-duty magnets to hold each one in place.
It looks silly… but it’s effective. And cheap.
17. Headlamp + Flashlight
If your car battery is disconnected, you’ll need another source of light to navigate the teensy space inside your car. Or maybe you need to stumble off into the dark to do your business.
Enter… a trusty (and fully charged) headlamp (and/or a flashlight).
I personally use the Revolt Headlamp by Black Diamond. It’s rechargeable via USB, lets you know when it’s about to die, & is waterproof. It took me a bit to figure out all the different functions but it’s fairly simple to use and reliable as hell! I love it.
And as for a flashlight, anything you have is fine. But I keep one of these (it’s a cheap set of two) in my camping tote so I don’t have to remember to grab one before I head out.
Car Camping Essentials — Top Light Source Recommendations
- Fully-sealed waterproof and dustproof
- Up to 400 lumens of bright light for nighttime adventures
- Easy mode selection with a new secondary switch
- Three different colored night vision modes
- Brightness memory so you can turn on/off without losing your settings
I’m sure you won’t want to spend the entire day cooped up in your car (but if you do, power to ya).
Having a hammock is always a great idea if you want a comfy place to lounge or sleep if the weather’s glorious. Since you have your car, you’ll only need one tree & you’re set.
Parking your car the perfect distance away from the tree is quite a feat. And… I can’t help ya there. Sorry, bud! But I believe in you!
I prefer Fox Outfitters hammocks, although most of them are pretty much the same. I always have a double and a single with me. Just in case I need more room or there’s someone else with me who doesn’t have one.
Car Camping Essentials — Top Hammock Recommendations
19. First Aid Kit
Shit happens. And the best thing you can do is be prepared. Think of it more as a matter of when… than if. Especially if you’re accident-prone and/or have no depth perception, like me!
There are tons of fancy schmancy looking first aid kits out there. However, I grabbed a small container and made my own. You should include at least:
- A pain reliever
- Hand sanitizer
- Pepto or equivalent
- Athletic tape
- Allergy meds
- An Epi-Pen (if necessary)
Obviously, this isn’t a complete list and will vary on a number of things. But it’ll help get you started.
This also may seem like a no brainer but it’s often left behind. Your health is important and it’s important to take it seriously.
Lather up & protect yo’self before you wreck yo’self.
21. Small Toolkit
You never know when you’re going to need a screwdriver or a hammer while you’re car camping. It sounds ridiculous but I’ve used both many times and I’m SO glad I had them.
I was gifted this tool set when I graduated from college and it’s perfect. It’s small, lightweight, and has all of the essential tools.
I’ve also used it around my tiny apartment more times than I can count. However, it’s not heavy-duty or anything like that. With tools, you get what you pay for. But this does just fine for car camping and small projects around the house.
Plus… it’s super cute and affordable.
22. Large Plastic Tote
If you’re interested in car camping a lot, I highly recommend you stay organized. In case you haven’t noticed, your car is a pretty small space. Especially knowing you’re sleeping in it AND need space + access for all of your things.
I have almost everything on this list permanently packed in a large plastic tote to keep it organized and always together. It usually never even leaves my car.
It’s perfect for last-minute car camping shenanigans and it makes it easy to set in the front seat when you arrive and set up “camp”.
23. Solar Charger
Honestly, I’m astounded at how far solar power has come in the last ten years.
A buddy gave me this solar charger as a gift and it’s a game-changer. You can charge it via USB before you go and then set it in the sun throughout the day to let it charge up.
Plug your phone in overnight and you’ll be ready to go. What a time to be alive!
24. NEW — An Extra Car Battery + An Area Map
Remember that hootinany with the dead car battery? It’s actually a good idea to bring an extra car battery with you if there’s any possibility of draining your battery. Especially if you’re camping far away from other people.
And don’t forget a map of the area you’re camping in. It’s easy to get lost when you’re out of your element and adventuring somewhere new. A map can save your butt (as long as you know how to use it).
Shout out to Jedder from the comment section for these rad recommendations.
25. NEW — Wasp Spray
Wasp spray is a multi-purpose car camping essential. You can use it to obviously ward off wasps or other unwelcome guests (as long as ya leave the bees alone). But you can also use it if a person tries to mess with you or steal your stuff.
It shoots a long distance, so you don’t have to be too close to be effective, which is perfect when dealing with both painful bugs and painful humans.
Thanks to Sheryl Cortright for this recommendation!
WAS THIS ARTICLE FANTASTIC? THE WORST? SO-SO? IF YOU CAN ANSWER YES TO ANY OF THOSE QUESTIONS, TAKE A MOMENT AND SHARE IT WITH YOUR FRIENDS. WE APPRECIATE YOU!
AAAAND I think that’s everything. I probably forgot at least 17 things so if you think of one or five of them, be sure to let me know in the comments below. Let’s keep this list growing, ya’ll!
Happy car camping, my friend!
Until next time,