The last vestiges of city traffic disperse, and only open road lies ahead. I roll down the windows, dangle my arm into the moving air, and raise my left foot up beside the steering wheel. Assume weekend driving position. Four hours behind the wheel lie ahead, but the air becomes cooler with each mile, and the views more scenic. It’s Friday evening—the weekend at last—and I’m headed to Mt. Slesse in the North Cascades of British Columbia. I’ll cross the border and drive into the night, meeting my Canadian friends at the trailhead for a quick hug before bed. We’ll sleep for five short hours and wake early for a full day in the alpine.

friends packed to go car camping

Tent camping certainly has its time and place: a relaxing evening with friends, whiskey around the campfire, eggs and bacon and a slow morning of fishing or preparing for a day of cragging. However, a nighttime arrival at the trailhead with plans to wake at dawn and start hiking is not the time nor place for tent camping. Enter: your car. No matter whether you drive a Honda Fit or a Subaru Outback, a Mini Cooper or a Toyota Tacoma; if it can get you to your adventure, your car can provide a night of comfort, a morning of efficiency and weekends of stealth camping.

Move over Sprinter vans, there’s a new gang in town.

6 Steps to Camp in Your Car Successfully

packed gear

1. Maximize Sleeping Space

Chances are, you’re tall and your car is short, making it not quite ideal for stretching out. However, if you push your front seats as far forward as possible and then fill in the space behind them, your head and feet will have more than enough room, even with the trunk closed. Bins and backpacks stack well in these holes, and when covered with a foam pad, sleeping pad, and pillow, the set-up is seamless.

sleeping pad, blankets and bug screens

2. Bug Screens

would you rather for the day: Would you rather be kept awake all night by sweaty limbs and stuffy air or by incessant buzzing in your ears? Luckily, you may be able to answer neither this time. If you’re spending weekends of hot summer nights sleeping in your car in the wilderness, investing in bug nets for your windows is a good idea. If you’re on a budget, mosquito netting can be bought in large swaths, cut to fit, and attached and removed easily with magnets. Pre-made car window bug nets are also available through many different retailers. Oh, and while we’re at it: would you rather have a voice like Kermit the Frog, or look like Miss Piggy?

sleeping in car while camping

3. Make Your Bed

Probably the most essential item to having a good night’s rest in your car: a comfortable mattress and pillow. If you’re in this for the long haul, I recommend buying a piece of foam to lay down as a foundation, and placing one of Therm-a-Rest’s made for pure comfort (read: not light and fast) mattresses, like the MondoKing or the LuxuryMap on top. If you’re just ad-libbing for a few nights, your regular mattress will do, but make sure you don’t forget a nice, plush pillow.

tent shelter with car

4. Movable Storage

Bins, bins, and more bins! Not only do bins help with organization, but they also make it simple to move gear away from the trunk each night. Put ‘em on the front seats or in that space between the front and collapsed back seats, unfold your bed, and voilà!  Setting up camp takes less than three minutes, and you might not even have to get out of your car!

cooking on a stove in a van

5. LED lighting

The day was a long one, a combined 12,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, through bushwacking and mosquitos to high alpine meadows and ridge lines. Your legs are scratched and sore, your feet in need of release from their damp, dirty confines, and your heart is full. It’s a shame that when you arrive back to your car, ready for hamburgers and shakes at the small-town diner nearby, the engine won’t start. Battery failure, and you know your use of the interior lights the night before is the culprit. Oops. LED lanterns or twinkly lights are a must-have for car dwellers. They’re super battery efficient (or USB rechargeable!) and provide much better ambiance than your car’s interior lights.

on car camping trip with dog

6. Find a Flat Spot

The parking lot is dark and empty, the car’s headlights illuminating only the narrow path ahead. You’re exhausted from driving, anticipating a 4 a.m. wake-up call, and just want to be sleeping. However, essential to a restful night in your car is a flat bed. It’s better to find that flat spot when you’re parking and not at 2 a.m. when you still can’t sleep comfortably. While eye-balling a level spot is possible, a more reliable measure comes from something that all of us carry with us: a water bottle. Place a half-full (not half empty!) water bottle in the rear of your car (this is important, as often cars are designed with the front tilted downhill from the rear); a flat water line means a flat bed.

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Updated. Originally Published June 17, 2018.