Car camping literally means you’re camping in your car! When the weather drops and you don’t want to sleep in a tent, or you’re traveling solo and just don’t feel like putting up a tent, or you’re trying to save money on hotels, car camping is a great option!
Put in a mattress in your car or use your backpacking sleeping pad, add in pillows and blankets, and it’s just as comfortable as being at home.
You don’t even need to have the typical 4×4 outdoorsy vehicle to do so! I have a Mazda3 and car camp in my car. So even if have a Honda Civic, a Subaru Outback, or a Jeep Wrangler, you can car camp!
In this blog post, I’m going to go over car camping essentials and some key tips to keep in mind!
Setting Up Your Car
There are so many different ways to set up your car for camping. I’ve seen full build-outs to the basics.
Personally, I just put my back seats down, blow up my sleeping pad, toss blankets or my sleeping bag with a pillow on top and that’s my setup. If you’re planning on flying and car camping in your rental vehicle, then this is what you’re going to want to do.
You’re probably wondering where all of your gear goes. If I’m solo, my gear just gets moved to the space next to me. If I’m with someone else, the gear gets moved to the front passenger seat and under the seat. This is why I recommend packing light! It might be tempting to bring everything and the kitchen sink with you. You’re camping right there in your car after all, right?! But the more stuff you have with you, the more things you’ll have to not only shuffle around but also find space for in the car when you’re ready for bed.
If you have a bigger car, like an SUV, you can choose to build a platform out of wood so you can put a mattress on the top and gear below it. You’ll primarily use this for road trips since you can’t easily fly with the mattress or platform.
Whether you have a compact car or an SUV, you can also add a roof rack to your car. This way, you can put the bulk of your gear on the roof (without worrying it will get stolen) and have more space inside your vehicle.
Choose which will be most practical for your needs!
Car Camping Safety
Car camping is safe!
I’ve solo car camped across multiple states and have never run into an issue. The biggest thing here is to trust your gut. If an area gives you creeps and you don’t feel safe stopping there, keep driving.
Always lock your doors, even when you’re inside the car, and keep your keys close to you. I sleep with my keys easily accessible from my sleeping bag, just in case. If you feel safer, you can also carry a weapon like pepper spray, bear spray, a taser, or a knife. Remember if you’re flying and plan on car camping at your destination, you might not always be able to fly with some of these.
You should also try and keep the driver’s seat empty, so if you need to leave in a hurry, it’s not hard to hop over from the back and drive away. Another reason to pack light for car camping!
Make sure to always store all electronics (laptops, cameras, etc.) out of sight, even when sleeping in your vehicle.
Finding Places to Car Camp
Finding places to car camp can be one of the more stressful parts of car camping. Thankfully there are a lot of options, and the more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be with this.
Car camping on BML land is one of the more popular options for car camping. BML stands for Bureau of Land Management, it’s a sector run by the US Department of the Interior.
There is BML land all over the US, especially in the Western states. Once you know what to look for, it’s easy to find. Most of the time when I car camp, I stay in BML land and disperse camp. I’m usually driving at night, and just pull off, drive on some dirt roads and pick a place to stay.
You can disperse camp for free or stay in established campgrounds with basic facilities. Go through the BML website for more information.
Here are a couple more popular places to car camp on BML land:
Alabama Hills in California
Canyon Rims Recreation Area in Utah
Cottonwood Recreation Site in California
Wild and Scenic Rogue River in Oregon
When staying in an established campground, you can choose to sleep in your car instead of in a tent. If I’m camping solo, I usually do this. Personally, it’s not so much for safety, but rather the laziness of having to put up a tent and take it down if it’s just me. You can usually book campgrounds on recreation.gov.
Campgrounds usually have some basic facilities like water and bathrooms. Some also have showers, electrical hookups, laundry services, etc. If you’re on a long road trip and car camping and camping the whole time, these types of campgrounds can be very helpful to freshen up.
Business Parking Lots
Casinos are one of the more popular options among car campers and vanlifers. Casinos are open 24/7, there are bathrooms inside, and the parking lots are well lit (safety), which makes them more popular. If I’m in a pinch and planning to stay in a business parking lot, I usually try and look for a casino. They’re not everywhere though, so another popular option is Walmart!
Costco, Sams Club, Home Depot, Lowes, Cabelas, Cracker Barrel, Kmart, and rest stops are additional options if you want to stay in a business parking lot.
Staying in a business parking lot is not my personal favorite, but if you’re driving late into the night and planning to leave early in the morning, it’s a great option! They are easily accessible, not hard to find, and quick! Plus you can usually get bathrooms to freshen up and some breakfast in the morning. This is not a good option though if you plan on spending some time in camp.
This is usually one of my more favorite options for car camping (after BML land). This one usually does require some extra searching and being more careful. You don’t accidentally want to park in a permitted area and be towed.
As you’re planning your road trip and where to camp, if you’re going to go with this option, read up on local regulations. Some states and cities do have restrictions that make it illegal, while others do not. Then make sure the neighborhood you want to stay in doesn’t have any rules about having a permit to park.
Once you’ve figured out if you can safely park there, find a street that you feel safe on, that’s quite and out of people’s way. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself, be respectful of the neighborhood and the people who live there and get out of there quickly in the morning. If you’re not looking for a full camping experience, this is a great option if you just need somewhere to sleep.