Car Camping – The Ultimate How-To Guide

When Jimmy and I started throwing around the idea of a cross country USA road trip, our first concern was the cost of traveling for that long. When we travel, I love to eat well and explore the locations we end up in to the fullest, and sometimes the cost of the trip can become a barrier to traveling. So, when we really looked hard at what would be our biggest cost barriers to making this trip a reality we realized it was three simple things: the cost of gas, the cost of hotels, and the cost of millage on our own car. We did some research and decided that renting a mid-sized, new car to drive and using this car regularly as our camp site would allow us to save money in all three of these categories, making the rest of the cost of our trip doable! We thought we were really prepared for this trip, but as we traveled we learned SO much. So I am excited to share with you all that we learned so you can hit the road with ease! Happy (car) camping!

xx Chels

P.S. Another huge benefit to car camping is that it allowed us to bring along Brody, as finding dog-friendly camp sites is far more feasible and cost effective than finding dog-friendly hotels. I will be sure to write up a whole post on how to travel with pups and what worked and what didn’t on our trip with Brode!

The morning after our first night of car camping! Brody very much enjoyed the amount of snuggling he got in close quarters.

Car Details:

9 Lessons from Life on the Road

Truthfully, we learned SO much from this experience – and much of it was what NOT to do while car camping (LOL). Jimmy and I have camped plenty and both of us have done long road trips, but neither of us had done this specific kind of car-turned-camp-site experience before. We prepped as much as we could before hand, but honestly the experience of doing taught us so much. Here are all of what we learned (so that you don’t have to learn while doing) from car camping across the USA!

1. Compartmentalize your Items

We did a great job of setting up an organization system for the car before we left, but I had no idea how helpful this was going to be when we hit the road. Having an organizational system made transforming the car from “car” to “bedroom” so much easier. We used reusable bags to separate all of our items that we brought with us into categories. There was a bag for first aid (including bug spray, sunscreen, band-aids, etc.), a bag for our hygienic care items (tooth brush, mouth wash, baby wipes, face wipes, etc), a bag for games (cards, chess, etc.) a bag full of Brody’s needs (leash, toy, treats, etc) and so on. These separate bags were then placed in large plastic Tupperware containers that allowed us to move all of our stuff in bulk from the back where it was stored during driving, into the front seats where it was stored while we slept! Keeping our items organized meant that we could find things while driving, in the dark and in new locations for two weeks straight. Giving everything a spot in the car made it so much easier to live out of the car.

This is what the front of our car ended up looking like when the bed was set up in the back. We liked to keep the cooler accessible from the door so we could get to food and water easily!

2. Research Potential Sleeping Locations

So much of the fun and luxury of car camping is that you can sleep ANYWHERE – it’s a very flexible and spontaneous way to travel. We slept in state parks, national parks and on the side of the road at rest stops. Often, trying to make the most of each day, we would drive well into the darkness before stopping to sleep somewhere. Because of this strategy, we often didn’t have an exact location that we would be sleeping each night, so we had many researched upon our preferred driving path so that when we got close to each spot we could assess if we were ready to stop or if we wanted to continue on to the next identified sleeping location. This worked out super well for us and we always found awesome spots to sleep. In Kansas, we ended up at Eisenhower State Park and set up camp in the dark. We woke up to beautiful views on a lake and had a lovely walk around the park before departing. The only time this strategy didn’t work was at popular camp sites – so, for those locations that we knew we wanted to stay at, we did call ahead for a reservation.

3. Be Strategic about How You Sleep

The concept of how we positioned our bodies for sleep at night was our first big ah-ha moment. When we folded the seats back, they slanted down towards the back of the car. This prompted us to put our head up towards the front seats and and our feet down at the back of the car. For me, this wasn’t too much of an issue (I’m a cool 5 ft 3 in) , but for Jimmy who is 6 ft tall, it was a huge inconvenience. See, with our heads towards the front of the car, his legs were never really able to stretch out fully. This set us up for a night of tossing and turning and trying to get comfortable. The next night, we changed up our strategy with our heads towards the back of the vehicle and our feet shooting towards the front of the car we were SO much more comfortable. Jimmy’s legs were able to extent between the seats and he was able to stretch all the way out when he needed to. But, this did add another layer of logistics to building our camp sites: we had to park the car on an incline to counter the slope of the folded chairs. Once we figured this out, it was smooth sailing! And, for a bonus, we got to fall asleep looking out of the back window at the beautiful stars each night.

4. Be Aware of Your Surroundings

We slept in some pretty awesome places. And at each spot we had to be very aware of what was going on around us at all times. What plants were near by, what kinds of creatures lived in that part of the country, what was the weather and the chance for wildfires, and what were the other humans around you up to. Being extremely aware of our surroundings helped us to edit how we camped each night. When in locations with bear populations, we kept our windows rolled up so that they didn’t get enticed by the smell of food and get too curious with us. When in very hot locations (that didn’t have dangerous animals) we were able to leave the windows down with netting over the windows to allow for airflow while we slept. When we slept a night at a rest stop, we did the old-fashioned, front-seat-laid-back bed to keep the driver’s seat open and able to drive if need be. Each location called for a different approach – but because sleeping out of your car is extremely flexible, we were able to meet each location with unique solutions.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

5. Keep Your Food, Phone, Headlamp and Water Nearby at Night

This seems obvious, but when moving all of your things around (especially when you’re tired) sometimes your most important items get lost in the shuffle. I kept a small spot next to my pillow that was designated for my phone, flashlight or headlamp and water while I slept. And for the food, we tried to ensure that the cooler was always accessible from both inside the car and from the door when we had our car converted. Keeping your most important items accessible make life so much easier on the road.

6. Always Know Where Your Keys Are

On that same note, always know where your keys are. We had an unfortunate incident where Jimmy wanted some fresh air in the middle of the night in the center of a crowded camp site. He harmlessly opened up the door which accidentally set off our (very loud) car alarm as the car had been locked before we went to bed. Because it was 3 am and we had both just been asleep, we scrambled for a full minute (which felt like an hour) to find the keys to disarm the alarm. Our poor neighbors had to be so annoyed with us! We were mortified and felt soooo bad for waking everyone up! After this, we always kept the keys in the same spot while we slept so that we knew how to get to them with a moments notice!

7. Leave No Trace

This is a well followed philosophy by most campers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts – but we tried to take this to new heights on our trip. As you likely well know, the Leave No Trace philosophy is meant to encourage humans in nature to leave it the way they found it. Which means leaving no trash or other food items behind, not destroying any of the natural earth and not taking any of nature with you when you leave. We tried to expand this philosophy to our whole trip, not just the parts of the trip that we were inside of beautiful parks. This meant keeping any cans or recycling we had in our car until we came upon a recycling bin, using reusable coffee mugs for our drinks as often as possible, and ensuring that any of Brody’s food that was spilled, got cleaned up. Taking these principles off the trail and into the real world allowed us to be as eco-friendly as possible while admiring America’s natural beauty.

Socks and sandals for June in Wyoming as it could still get down into the 30s at night and early mornings!

8. Eye Masks, Eye Masks, Eye Masks!

Now, an eye mask may seem like something that calls to a more luxurious type of trip, but I learned that camping (especially car camping) is the perfect place to use an eye mask. When sleeping in nature, it is so hard to keep the 5 am sunshine out of our eyes (especially in a car full of windows). Utilizing an eye mask allowed my body to sleep through the early morning sun and get adequate sleep before the next day’s drive or hike. Give it a try, you wont be disappointed.

Brody was typically ready for bed before anyone else!

9. Have the Right Equipment

There is plenty of equipment that made this experience so much better. Some of it we already owned and some of it we purchased specifically for this experience. I will link the full list of must have’s below, but a few that I want to highlight are our battery fan/light, a safety dog light, an air mattress, and window bug covers. We utilized the fan every night we car camped as it kept the air moving in our car as well as made for some ambient noise while we slept (which I love). The fan was a last minute addition to our packing list and man are we glad we brought it along. Second, Brody always had a safety light on his harness or collar. Often the places we were sleeping were not well lit, having Brody’s little green light identify where he was at every moment made us feel better to let him hang out around the car as we were setting up camp. Next, the air mattress. Jimmy and I slept on a twin air mattress, except for that one night it popped and we had to sleep on the hard car floor (suuuch a bummer). I know there are mattresses that are built to go in the back of cars, but we just used the twin mattress we already had at home and it worked perfectly. Finally, we got bug net window covers for the car and they were a life saver for the hot nights in Nebraska. Highly recommended addition to a car camping trip.

The morning after we accidentally popped the air mattress in the door of the car (oops!) – be careful when closing doors after your camp is set up!

Our Must-Have Equipment List for Car Camping:

What do you wonder about car camping? Would you ever explore this way? Have you car camped before – what was your experience like? Do you have any tips to add? Leave a comment below or share a story here!

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One thought on “Car Camping – The Ultimate How-To Guide

  1. About to dive into this guide. LOVE THIS. I’m moving to Arizona next month and excited for all the comparing and exploration but am new at it. This will be so helpful as I plan some car snoozes before investing in tents etc.

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