I’m not much of a planner. Though I love spending time in nature, it’s not in my style to always carefully plot out the trip ahead of time. Venturing out into the wilderness does require some degree of decision making—there are a considerable amount of safety considerations to be made as you get more technical with how you choose to play outside. But while there’s space to grow and hone those skills, I’m here to celebrate the opposite. Some of us are just loose units with a dexterity for the uncomfortable. Some of us find our stillness by not slowing down and making it all up as we go along.

Car camping lets you pack a lot with a high degree of self-determination as you adventure. For those stream-of-consciousness planners like me, car camping is a world of opportunity. I’ve picked up some hacks through my own mishaps and rounded up the car camping essentials for every kind of activity-based trip. So, read on to avoid headaches and make sure the goods are gotten that much easier.

packing car for car camping trip

Mountain Biking & Car Camping

In the pacific northwest, when you head towards the hills for some quality time with your dirt pony, there’s some things you need to keep in mind. You’ll be getting either super dusty or super muddy—there’s just no way to avoid it. The further north you go, the trails are better but the towns become fewer and far between. We spent a few days last summer in the Mars-like landscape of the Chilcotin range of northern BC. Each day driving was gamble of whether or not we’d make it to the next gas station between deserted ghost towns.

Mountain biking in mountain ranges like this often means spending big days pedaling and burning big calories. Food is always on the list of car camping essentials no matter where you go. But when your daily aerobic output is intense, it becomes especially important.  Bring a range of prepped meals that are easily cooked on a burner in the back of your car or near it. One of my favorite meals is a pre-made omelet in a glass jar. Pour it in a pan when you’re ready to eat, and you’re off and cooking. Definitely one of my personal mountain bike car camping essentials.

The world is your oyster and the beauty of car camping while mountain biking is you can often park super close to the start of the trails. Nothing beats a canopy of stars when you’re the perfect amount of pooched from your ride and drifting off to sleep.

Car Camping Essentials:

  • Towels for wiping dust and mud off of your bike and body.
  • Trusty sleeping bags for a warm and comfortable sleep, like the Parsec™ 20F/-6C Sleeping Bag. It’s always a good idea to be prepared for the weather to change on a dime. Having a camp quilt like the Corus™ 32F/0C will allow you to cool off at night if it warms up or layer on warmth if it cools down.
  • Comfy sleeping pads that let your hips and knees really relax after the long pedal. I use the BaseCamp™ Sleeping Pad because it’s simple, comfortable and reliable.  At 2-inches thick, it supports my hips even when side sleeping. I definitely recommend a pad that prioritizes comfort features at the expense of weight and packability.
  • An Aeropress with loads of coffee for the big climbs.
  • First Aid Kit, just in case.

changing by van while surfing

Surfing & Car Camping

Where I live, the nearest waves are a 2-hour drive and a ferry ride away, but that hasn’t stopped me and my friends from making the pilgrimage at least 6 times a summer to a little town on the west coast called Tofino. The journey is just as important as the time spent there as it usually ends up taking a whole day. On trips like this, I find it enriching to take time to stop and enjoy the scenery and actually explore. Whether it’s eating local food or visiting a small business, there’s a lot to enjoy by actually visiting all the small towns you pass through on the way.

While the word surfing conjures warm, sun-drenched imagery, those who have traveled to the west coast know it by its pseudonym, the ‘Wetcoast.’ The moisture is hard to escape and takes over the nooks and crannies of your space, but there are some nifty tricks to deal with it. With drive-up beaches scattered along the rugged pacific coast, car camping is also the best way to surf some of the best waves. It allows you to pivot at a moment’s notice and go to where it’s firing as soon as you check the forecast in the morning.

Surf towns are known for their unique culture. Most have at least one really eccentric coffee shop that hits the spot. When I’m camping by the ocean one of my favorite things to do is run down to the local fishing docks and pick up some fresh caught crab. All you need is a big tub of boiling water, some butter and some salt and BAM, dinner’s done.

Car Camping Essentials:

  • My Honcho Poncho™ comes with me on every trip. It’s especially a hit for surf camping as it makes for easy and warm privacy as I change in and out of my wetsuit.
  • A patch Z Lite SOL™ is the perfect thing to stand on while you change in and out of a wetsuit. If you cut it in half, it’s more conveniently sized and you can give the other half to your friend.
  • Silica packets! Save them from packages you order and spread them around your car to fend off the damp.
  • A big plastic tote, bin or a roof rack bin to store the wet wetsuits that you may or may not have peed in.
  • Big reusable mug for hot coffee and tea at the local surf town coffee shops.
  • Surfing means bringing all your essentials and then some. Surfboards take up so much space so you want your car camping set up to take up as little as possible. I love the Questar™ 0F/-18C Sleeping Bag because it packs as small as a bottle and keeps you warm while staying roomy and breathable.
car camping in the snow

Skiing & Car Camping

Not for the faint of heart, ski car camping usually means being the first one up the hill. Up north on Vancouver Island there’s a tiny ski resort open only on Saturday & Sunday. This place accumulates snow through the week making for weekends of deep snow riding in an old-growth forest. With only two rope tows to access in-resort riding and off-resort touring, it really is a place out of time. People come from all over to park their cars at the base. For the two-day weekend, the road lights up with campfires and music in little splotches between trucks and campers.

Forgetting gear when you go camping is natural, but don’t miss out on packing all the layers. These are the most essential of the skiing and car camping essentials. Car camping means more space to bring all your warm and toasties and not feel bad about it. If you’re avoiding the resort and trying to go ski-touring or sled-skiing make sure your safety gear is prepped and charged ahead of time. For even the most spontaneous of travelers, taking a gamble on your safety is never worth it.

The latest and greatest hack I’ve learned is asking a lodge—while it’s closing up for the night—if it’ll let you hang and dry your wet ski clothes & frozen ski boots inside. They may decline but there’s absolutely no better feeling than waking up and knowing your boots aren’t frozen stiff.

Still struggling to keep warm? Boil a pot of snow before going to bed and put it in your Nalgene. Tuck that bad boy into your sleeping bag and you have a foot warmer for the night and drinking water for the next day.

And the best part of car camping below a resort? When you’re enjoying your après-ski drinks, you don’t have to worry about how you’re getting home. You’re already there!

Car Camping Essentials:

  • Packable chair to hang around the campfire with your friends. I like to put a Z Seat™ on top of mine to keep my butt extra dry and toasty! (That half Z Lite SOL that you stood on to change your wetsuit will work as well.)
  • Keeping with the layers theme I like to make sure no cold air is getting near me as I sleep and put two sleeping pads on top of one another. The bottom layer is always the Z Lite SOL. Next is my NeoAir® XLite NXT™. Layering two pads adds their R-Value together, which is a nifty strategy for building a sleep system for any trip.
  • Hand warmers, just in case.
  • Roof Rack for skis so they’re not piled up next to you in bed.
  • Compressible Pillows for the best sleep ever before big days.
  • Merino wool clothing layers for everything down to the underwear. You can wear it for days without showing signs of sweat or stink.
car camping with family

Hiking & Car Camping

Hiking is a perfect activity to pair up with car camping because hiking trails are often clustered within a wilderness area. To maximize your adventure, giving yourself multiple days for multiple trails just makes sense.

A few summers ago, a few close friends of mine were frothing over the North Cascades in Washington. We planned to take a few days to explore them deeper. When we mapped out our ideal trail it included some days camping in tents and some days in the car on the in-between days. We filled up the car, and brought all our car camping essentials except for groceries.  We figured we could purchase them closer to our destination. Regrettably, we came to find that there were no grocery stores and only a family-owned convenience store within the radius in which we were hoping to spend time.

We stocked up as best we could and settled into the car for the night before embarking on a 23 km trek the next day. Being that there were three of us, & one little SUV, two aimed to sleep in the car and I set up my hammock between a big fir and the car.

Hiking for the next four days after that went off without a hitch. We were able to bag all of our peaks and return to the heated seats of the car at the end of it all. Like any trip, I learn from my mishaps and successes. Here are my gear tips.

Car Camping Essentials

  • Instant Field Repair Kit. Your gear won’t often fail you but sometimes one can make the very human mistake of throwing an open pocket knife into the back of the car and popping your air mat. This has absolutely never happened to me. I absolutely did not aim to repair it with a Band-Aid® because I had nothing else on hand.
  • A re-usable jug of water. Sometimes you’re not sure if potable water will be available to you. Rather than buying plastic water bottles at the gas station having a refillable jug in the car will make you feel good.
  • Twinkly lights. When the dark and stormies roll in, sometimes it’s reassuring to have your own little bit of light and magic with you.
  • Consider hammocks. Sometimes you just want to stretch out. Hammocks provide all the comfort of a car bed, but give you just a little more length than some of the shorter cars. What’s more, hammocks can be strapped between vehicles if you’re trying to accommodate more people in a pinch.
  • Map. Don’t get stuck in the backcountry without a plan after driving all the way out there. National parks often offer maps so you can plan out where the kosher spot to car camp is that offers you the best access to the hikes you’re trying to tackle.

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Updated. Originally Published July 27, 2021.