Essential Guide to Car Camping: 8 Things to Consider

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Table of Contents


1. Sleeping

2. Storage

3. Electricity

4. Planning Where to Go

5. Where to Stay While Car Camping

6. Keeping Clean

7. Clothing

8. Food and Cooking

 

Car camping is a wonderful way to see the country. When Liza and I have been on the road living out of our car, we enjoy freedom. And that’s the key point – we do not live in our car. We only sleep in it, travel in it, and it holds all our belongings. The outside is where we get to live, and we have the freedom to go anywhere our car can take us.

The best thing about car camping is that you are sheltered from most weather and get to travel inexpensively, but you still must do some trip planning. Here are the top things you need to consider while planning a road trip.

Sleeping

When you think of car camping, comfortable sleeping should be a high priority. Do your back seats lay flat, making a continuous, long foundation? Can you purchase a blow-up mattress or twin mattress? Or will you need to build a platform bed?

Since we have lived out of our car full time, we took out our rear seats and built a platform. We then put containers underneath to hold our essentials. If you are considering building a platform as part of your trip planning and need some guidance, follow us on Instagram @onthemovewithlizaandstephen and send us a direct message.


Click here for more details on getting a good night sleep while car camping.


Storage

In addition to the storage underneath our platform, we also have a hard case rooftop carrier. The other main option is to do a roof bag. Having this extra storage for us was necessary, but it's dependent upon how much stuff you need, so make sure to really consider your must-haves for daily use and any creature comforts that would be nice to take along. Another reason for a roof top storage unit is to organize your things. Being able to place less used items or large things on top keeps us organized.

Camping chairs in front of mountain

An essential piece of equipment for us is foldable chairs so we can relax by the fire – we make room for them on our roof within the hard case rooftop carrier.


Electricity

When it comes to electricity, our phones and computers come with us when we are car camping. While we charge as many things as possible when driving, when we are stationary, we relied on a power station called Jackery. For us, having this portable power station was mandatory and an essential piece of hardware.


Jackery Portable Power Station is a rechargeable battery-powered generator. Equipped with AC outlet, DC carport and USB charging ports, they keep all our gear charged. To charge the Jackery, plug it into a wall outlet, car outlet, or solar panels (separate purchase or as a bundle).


While some campsites have electricity for an additional price, with the Jackery, we didn’t need it and could charge from solar panels. The nice thing is the Jackery portable solar panels can be folded and strapped for easy carry and use. We held ours in our rooftop cargo storage unit. When we are home, we use it as a solar generator system for backup power and off-grid power.


The Jackery comes in different sizes and configurations and a bundle deal includes solar panels. For us, we purchased the Explorer 1000 with Solar Panels because we wanted a device that could power our 3qt Instant Pot and Mini-Fridge.


The other piece of important equipment is an external battery to carry around and use. When you’re living outside your car, you need to make sure your electronics are charged. For us, the easy choice with external batteries is NiteCore. We found that they had the best options for lightweight external power. We purchased a 20,000 mAh Waterproof Power bank to take with us on multiple day/night hiking trips to charge our equipment.


The other ‘must-have’ purchase is a headlamp. A headlamp is critical especially when we have to set up our bed at night, do middle of the night bathroom breaks, going out stargazing, or hiking. Holding a flashlight while hiking might not seem like a big deal, but it is especially if you don’t know the terrain. We purchased the NiteCore NU25 USB rechargeable headlamp with Red & White light.

Planning Where to Go

Road atlas and map of united states

Planning a road trip is exciting and fun. One of the first things we purchased was a U.S. Road map so we can get a bird’s eye view of the highways, towns along the way, and the state and national parks.

Depending how long you will be out traveling, purchasing an annual pass from the National Parks Service (NPS) NPS.gov Homepage (U.S. National Park Service) will give you a significant discount if you use it. NPS also created a new app where you can find parks, view events, check out interactive maps, and a lot more.

Where to Stay While Car Camping

With our national road map in front of us, we start plotting the path to take. Deciding on the number of hours per day to drive will help you decide the waypoints. Our maximum driving time is four or five hours per day, so we plan where to stay based on that and how long we want to stay at each place.

When you’re planning a road trip, you’ll obviously need to stop overnight to at least sleep – bonus points if you can stop for a day or two to explore the area while en route to your destination. When planning a trip for camping out of your car, you have a few options.

Campgrounds

Car parked in national campground

We usually stay at campsites. Typically, we make a reservation in advance to reduce the risk of not having a place. Depending on your specific needs, check to see if they have electric, potable water, a fire ring, flat ground, flushable toilets, and showers. For example, we don’t have to shower every day, so if there is a nice campground without a shower, we will plan for it and then pick a place with a shower next. Some remote campsites are considered “dry” campsites and will only have pit or vault toilets and no shower facilities.

Dispersed Camping

Camping on places like Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land can be a great experience, especially since they are typically low-cost or free. Since they are not designated campsites, you may need to take safety measures against wild animals. Each state has its own set of rules, so do your research first. Consider using an app called TheDyrt for more information.

Stealth Camping

Stealth camping is sleeping in your car without anyone knowing. To do this, you will need to black out all your windows. We try to get set up and complete everything, including getting into our PJs, before we find a spot for the night so as not to be obvious about what we are doing. If you sleep in a neighborhood, arrive late, and leave early. You can also try truck stops and parking lots (e.g., Walmarts) as well, but they may be time limited. Aside from finding a safe place, another risk is being woken up in the middle of the night by a tap on your window. This is startling and may include a fine.

Keeping Clean

Making sure you can keep your body clean is an important part of planning a road trip. If the place has a shower and flushable toilets, you are good to go. However, one piece of equipment that we never leave home without is a travel bidet. That extra bit of shine goes a long way. If there are no showers, we each have a dedicated mini-towel or pack of baby wipes. This is a great strategy after a long day of hiking, especially when you need to bring those smelly feet inside a closed car!

Clothing

We try to buy clothing with merino wool or performance fabric so that it stays fresh longer. We also pick clothing pieces that match each other and can be layered. Moreover, we have a separate set of clothes that we keep on our rooftop specifically for campfires – exposed clothes will smell like smoke no matter what you do. When we need to do laundry, we will go into town and find a laundromat. Another option is to stay at a hotel with laundry facilities. We build hotel stays into our road trip itinerary to clean everything from our clothes, our bodies, cooking equipment and our car.


Having comfortable shoes to drive, walk around in, and lounge in makes the world a happier place. We have hiking shoes, day shoes, and trail sandals. For us, Xero shoes has the best trail sandals. The trail sandals by Xero are lightweight, comfortable, have a natural fit, natural feel and natural motion. We use them to go hiking, to change into to give our feet some fresh air, when we are crossing water streams, using public showers and every day use. Specially, the trail sandals we both wear are the Xero Z-Trail because of the lightweight, trail ready traction, flexibility in movement and they fit in our backpacks perfectly.

Food and Cooking

You need to decide how you are going to keep your food fresh. Since we have been on the road for extended periods, we purchased a 12-volt fridge that we plug into our car when driving. Overnight, we use our portable power station to keep it running. Having a cooler that you fill with ice will work as well, but it is time- and temperature-dependent. If you are not going on the road for a long time, consider cooking beforehand to make meals easier and reduce any cross-contamination risk.

For cooking, we use a cast iron pan because we wanted the option to cook over a fire or a camp stove without bringing extra pans. Cast iron pans can take time to get used to, but once you do, they are good forever. I would recommend that you learn how to use and clean them before hitting the road (Hint: you don't need use soap. We use steam from the hot pain and water). I also suggest purchasing a fire glove to manage the pan and firewood.

Instant pot

We also have a 3qt Instant Pot. I know this does not sound like camping, but because we are long-term on the road, we use it for so many things: rice, quinoa, spaghetti, to name a few.

We also have a five-gallon water container with a spigot. Do not underestimate how much water you will need to drink, cook, and clean. Typically, campsites have potable water faucets to refill your containers. A five-gallon water container will typically last us 3 days without refilling.


Consider reading A Beginners Guide to Car Camping Cooking: 4 Thing to Consider When Cooking Outside for more information.


When you live out of your car, it will take time to get a rhythm, but with proper trip planning and the right gear, it's incredibly fun. We often smile as we go hiking or on an adventure and lovingly sigh as we look at the night sky at a new place. Hopefully, this will get you started with your journey, and you’ll be planning a road trip soon!

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