You’re can’t wait to hit the road and start your vacation. Make sure you pack these car camping essentials, including our bonus list of non-essential but nice-to-have gear.
If you’re a backpack camper, you’re used to traveling light.
If it doesn’t fit in or on the bag, you learn to live without it.
Car campers don’t have to be quite as strict.
Still, you don’t want to pack your whole home into your car when heading out for a long weekend at the campground.
So, what stuff truly falls under the category of car camping essentials and what stuff is merely nice to have?
What Is Car Camping?
First, let’s dispel a popular misconception:
Car camping is not the act of sleeping in your car instead of a tent while camping.
It simply means driving your car to a campsite versus backpacking or hiking there.
This means you can bring more stuff with you, not just what you can fit in your backpack.
Still, it doesn’t mean you can (or should) bring everything you can fit in you car!
Let’s review some car camping essentials.
Car Camping Essentials
1. Tents, sleeping bags & sleeping pads
Unless you actually are sleeping in your car, you’re going to need somewhere to sleep.
Some people like to sleep on a sleeping pad in the open air under the stars. Most prefer a tent to provide some cover overhead. There are various different types of tents (we put them into 8 categories), so find the one that’s right for you.
Note 1: If you’re planning on camping somewhere cold? Check out our complete guide to the 7 Best Cold Weather Sleeping Bags for Sub-Zero Survival.
Note 2: This category includes your bedding, so any blankets or pillows you need to be warm and comfortable.
2. Means of starting a fire
Make sure you have some way of starting a fire. Here are various ways.
- Fire starter tool
- Portable grill
- One these myriad ingenious ways
Or I suppose you could ask a neighbor, but it’s better to be self-sufficient!
The specific car camping cookware here depends on how you want to cook.
At its simplest you could just bring pots, pans, skewers, or a grill grate and roast over an open fire. For tradition I always wrap a few red bliss potatoes in tin foil and toss them directly in the fire. You could also stick cans directly in the fire, but you’ll need a can opener.
If you don’t want to cook directly over the fire, you’ll need some kind of grill.
Some campgrounds come with those charcoal grill stands, in which case you’ll need some charcoal. You may also want to bring your own camping stove, which will needs its own fuel.
Let’s recap the car camping cookware you may need:
- Pots and pans
- Grill grate
- Tin foil
- Can opener
- Cooking stove or grill
- Charcoal or other fuel
- Cooking utensils (e.g., tongs for the grill)
- Cutting board
- Silverware and plates
- Paper towels
- Dishwashing liquid
This is all about your preferences. Me? I always bring burgers, chicken, sausages, marinated vegetables, red bliss potatoes, potato chips, and various condiments. I live in Hawaii so no meal is complete without some macaroni salad!
Other foods you may want to bring?
- Cheese (I love campfire grilled cheese)
- Deli meat
- Tortilla chips and guacamole/salsa
- Granola bars
- Trail mix
- Pineapple (grilled sliced pineapple for the win!)
5. Cooler and ice
You’ll need some way of keeping any meats and cheeses cold.
(Plus, everyone likes an ice cold beer.)
A no-brainer, but the amount of water you bring depends on what you’ll be using it for.
- Is it for drinking only?
- Will you need it for cleaning dishes?
- What about personal hygiene?
Don’t forget to consider the weather — you’ll need more water if it gets hot.
Depending on the above, consider bringing 0.5-1.0 gallon per person per day. (Or be able to go to the store to buy more.)
I’ve never personally strung lights around my campsite, but I love the look (especially when there’s a large group of people).
At the very least you’ll need some flashlights or lanterns, either battery operated or kerosene.
Make sure to have extra batteries or fuel!
8. Bug spray
I have forgotten bug spray on so many occasions. Being eaten alive by bugs — even through your clothes! — is the absolute worst. Citronella candles work well, too.
9. First Aid kit
Accidents happen. You can’t always predict when, but you can be prepared regardless. A good First Aid kit should have the following at the bare minimum:
- Various bandages
- Gauze pads or rolls
- Antiseptic creams
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory
- Fingernail clippers
- Rubbing alcohol
- Hand sanitizer
- Contact lens solution (if necessary)
You should already have most of that stuff in your medicine cabinet.
Unless you’re going nude camping, you’re going to need some clothes.
Actually, even if you’re going nude camping you’ll probably need some clothes.
(Or at least a great pair of polarized sunglasses, because the beach sun can be intense!)
You know the basics you’ll need, but always prepare for big swings in temperature. A long sleeve shirt is must-have car camping gear. A hoodie is even better.
And remember: Mom was always right. Bring more socks and underwear than you think you’ll need.
Also prepare for rain. Whether that means a full rain jacket or just a poncho is up to you, but getting soaked and having to just sit in the car is no fun. Maybe I’m weird, but I sort of like sitting in the rain under a poncho while the water does its best to put out my hissing fire.
Oh, and don’t forget to bring a bathing suit!
11. Toiletries and personal items
Your needs here will vary depending on the campground where you’ll be staying. At the very least you’ll need the following:
- Body wash or bar soap
- Deodorant or anti-perspirant
- Any medications you’re on
- Hand sanitizer or hand soap
- Contact lens solution (if necessary)
- Contact lenses (bring extras)
- Toilet paper
Extra toilet paper is always a good idea. I also like to use DUDE Wipes.
12. Basic tools
A good knife or multi-tool is an absolute necessity. Beyond that you don’t need anything else. Sure, you’ll need to hammer in the stakes on your tent, but a rock will do just fine.
13. Coffee gear
Does coffee belong on the car camping essentials list or the nice-to-have list?
You be the judge.
For me, it’s an essential. I brew with an Aeropress at home, and it’s great on the road because it’s compact and indestructible. The downside is it only makes single servings of coffee. A French press is perfect for camping.
Also make sure you have a means of heating water, such as a pot over the fire.
I prefer to use whole bean coffee, which means I have a manual coffee grinder so I can grind before I brew. Pre-ground coffee, while not as fresh, is definitely easier.
For an deep dive into the world of coffee on the road, check out our Complete Guide to Camping Coffee.
14. Bottle opener
Most of the beer I drink is in pop-top bottles. While I can open those bottles via other methods, I prefer not to. The good news is most can openers double as bottle openers. If you want to bring wine, make sure you have a wine bottle opener.
15. Fun stuff!
Camping is supposed to be fun! While most of the fun is of the simple variety — the people, the scenery, and the food — you may want to bring small things like Frisbees, horseshoes, or playing cards.
Check out our 51 Awesomly Fun Things to Do While Camping for a long list of things you may want to do when camping!
Nice-to-Have Car Camping Gear
While not essentials for car camping, the following items are nice to have and make your car camping experience much easier.
16. Roof storage
Packing your whole family (and maybe your pet) into your car for a weekend away can be a tight fit. Do you have room for all of the car camping essentials detailed above?
If not, or if you want to bring some of the nice-to-have car camping gear in this section, consider a rooftop storage compartment.
Car camping storage solutions are rather limited, but a rooftop storage compartment could give you 15-20 cubic feet of storage space (or more) completely out of the way.
Unless you want to sit on your cooler or a log, you’ll probably need some chairs. Beach chairs will do, though I prefer to sit in those collapsible chairs with the soft armrests and cup holders. They tuck away pretty easily and don’t take up much space.
18. Extra blankets
Whether it’s for the cold or for comfort, there’s no doubt extra blankets will make your camping experience a little more luxurious.
Might I also suggest you consider one of those memory foam pads you’d put on your mattress. They do a fantastic job of contouring to the ground and give you a lot more comfort when sleeping over uneven ground or tree roots.
19. Cooking stove or grill
Depending on your campsite a cooking stove may be on the list of car camping essentials (as noted in bullet point 3 above) or it may be a nice-to-have feature. If you’re bringing a cooking stove or grill, make sure you have plenty of fuel!
20. Portable power supply
Camping is a great way to unplug from the stresses of life, but that doesn’t mean you can unplug entirely.
- Phone? I still use it.
- Stereo? No camping trip would be complete without one.
- Tablet? Let’s be honest, sometimes you just want to keep the kids occupied.
But all those devices use power, and power can be hard to come by in the middle of nature!
I think it’s a great idea to have one or multiple different portable power supplies with you.
It could be a rechargeable power pack that plugs into the wall and holds several charges of your device, or it could be a solar powered battery pack that recharges on the go!
Regardless, it’s advisable that you bring some sort of portable power supply.
21. Fishing gear
Between the rod, tackle box, and a few extras — like a good pair of fishing waders and the proper fishing line — fishing gear doesn’t take up that much space. And depending on your intentions — fishing for sport of for dinner — it may even supplement your food supply!
22. Portable shower
Many campsites come with showers you can use, but what if you’re camping somewhere without one?
Enter the portable shower.
Some are battery powered. Others are solar. All of them are better than going two or more days without a shower.
23. Portable camping fan
I am a sweater. Not like the thing you wear in the winter, but rather the type of person who drips profusely as soon as the air stops moving. For me, a camping fan is a huge comfort item. I like to hang it from the top of my tent to get some air circulation at night.
24. Extra socks
I like to say you can never have enough firewood. Likewise, you can never have enough extra pairs of socks (and underwear for that a matter).
25. Firewood or creosote logs
Usually if you’re camping in the woods you can find plenty of firewood. However, that isn’t always the case if it recently rained or if your campground doesn’t have much wood.
Case in point: I camp at a beach campground every once in awhile, and there’s almost no wood available. I have to cross my fingers that the ocean has brought in enough driftwood. Sometimes there’s a beach full of it. Sometimes there’s absolutely nothing. I always bring a couple creosote logs and keep them in the car just in case.
26. Radio or speaker
Music adds a great dimension to your camping trip, so charge up your stereo (or bring some batteries).
27. More fun stuff!
“Fun stuff!” already appeared on the car camping essentials list. “More fun stuff!” makes the nice-to-have list.
There are a ton of things you can do while camping, so if you have the room for Wiffle ball supplies, watersports gear, hiking gear, or other implements of mass enjoyment, bring them!
What’s on Your List of Car Camping Essentials?
What do you always make sure to pack on your camping trip. Did we leave some essential car camping gear out? Comment below to tell us!