By the time Friday rolls around, it can be hard to plan an epic backcountry weekend. You love getting out there, but between planning and packing, a backpacking trip might not be in the cards. But just because you’re not carrying your tent on your back doesn’t mean you can’t sleep under the stars. After waking up well-rested on your 4-inch air mattress and enjoying a gourmet breakfast on your two-burner stove, the possibilities are just about endless. Explore granite faces, log long miles on your trail runners, or catch the sun’s last rays from a rocky summit before returning to your little camp paradise. Car camping is not just for beginners or Sprinter-equipped hardos. Use these 14 car camping tips for an epic weekend of the four-wheeled variety.
Pre-Arrival Car Camping Tips
1. Fill ‘er Up
It may sound obvious, but it’s important to start your weekend with a full tank of gas. There’s nothing worse than getting out on the Forest Service roads and watching the ominous gas light turn on.
2. Bring Lots of Water
Start your weekend with as many full water bottles and bladders as possible. Weight isn’t an issue since you won’t be lugging it around on your back, and having lots of water gives you peace of mind. Use every gas station, visitor center and restroom as an opportunity to top off.
3. Be Luxurious
Bring a thick air mattress, a two-burner stove, and your pillow. Since you’re not backpacking, capitalize on the lack of weight or space constraints. Have a stuffed animal or favorite bedtime novel? Bring it.
Tips for Picking a Car Camping Site
4. Don’t Limit Yourself to Paid Campgrounds
One of the beauties of public land is that you can camp for free, right near your car. Follow these guidelines to choose a site, and be sure to call the local land management agency for specific regulations.
5. Get a Fire Permit
If you think you’ll want to make a fire, get a permit in advance from your local land management agency. Just because the campsite has a fire pit doesn’t necessarily mean fires are allowed. Smokey Bear really did say it best: only you can prevent forest fires.
Car Camping Tips for Arrival
6. Turn the Lights Off Insight Your Car
You’ll probably be opening the doors frequently, so save your battery by keeping the indoor lights in the “permanently off” position, and carry jumper cables in case of a dead battery.
7. Use Your Car as a Staging Area
No need to unpack every last item: leave some things, like your daypack, extra food, and extra clothes, in the car. This helps you stay organized and ensures you have some reserve supplies in the rare event that your campsite gets deluged.
Car Camping Tips for Set-Up
8. Pick a Safe Spot for Your Tent
Scan the site for dead or overhanging branches and trees. Set up your tent in a flat, well-drained area.
9. Build Your Dream Kitchen
Find a flat, sheltered spot 150 feet from your tent to pitch a tarp (if you’re expecting rain) and set up your stove. Use a cooler as a kitchen table, chill your wine in the stream (check alcohol restrictions for the land management agency), and get ready for a gourmet dinner.
Car Camping Tips
10. Throw Out Your Garbage
It’s important to practice Leave No Trace (LNT) by packing out all garbage. If you’re in a place with access to waste bins, like trailheads or visitor centers, take the opportunity to throw out your garbage. This will keep your car from smelling rancid. If the stink won’t go away, drive around with the windows down and pretend it’s because it’s a nice day.
11. Store Food in the Car
Storing food and cooking equipment in the car prevents hungry critters from setting up shop on your site. Bring a cooler and sealed containers for opened foods: this keeps them fresh and lowers the stink factor.
12. Stay Organized
Develop a mental map of where everything is in your car. You don’t need meticulously organized bins– distinct heaps will do, as long as you stick to the system. This allows you to spend more time enjoying the outdoors and less time rummaging around for that spork that you swear is under the driver’s seat, but come to think of it, it might be in the glove compartment…
Car Camping Tips for Departure
13. Leave it Squeaky Clean
Pick up all trash left behind by previous hooligans (especially in the fire pit). A good rule of thumb is to leave the site better than you found it.
14. Say Thanks
On your way out, stop by the visitor center or ranger station to tell the staff how much you enjoyed your visit and to thank them for all the work they do to keep these areas open and accessible.
- How to Camp in Your Car Successfully
- How to Build Your Car Camping Sleep System
- The Access Fund’s Guide to Car Camping like a Pro
Updated. Originally Published May 8, 2018.