Car Camping 101

Our family has always enjoyed camping. In fact, we used to own an RV when our boys were smaller and the four of us needed a little more room … and a lot more stuff.

However, Mike understandably grew tired of hauling that huge thing around, so a few years ago we transitioned to car camping. It’s a great option for those of us who want something smaller than a giant RV but bigger than a tiny tent sleeping on the ground.

We recently shared our car camping tips and tricks on The Daily Refresh (WTVC-TV, ABC television) and wanted to provide additional information as well as links to our favorite gear. Watch the segment now, then read on for more details!

The first step to successful car camping is finding a site. While you could, in theory, camp anywhere you can park your car, it’s not always legal. We use websites and apps like Allstays, Harvest Hosts, and Hipcamp to find campsites when we aren’t in national or state parks. On road trips where we simply need a place to crash for a few hours at night, we’ve also begun “boondocking” — with permission — at chains like Love’s Travel Stops as well as Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, and Cracker Barrel locations that allow overnight stops in their parking lots as long as you’ve received the go-ahead from the on-site manager.

When you’re in an actual park, a well-stocked car means you don’t need to pay for a premium campsite with services like water and power hookups that you might need for an RV. However, if we’re staying at a busy campsite, we’ll often pay for an RV site anyway since it’s bigger and quieter than tent camping spots. After all, many RV-ers spend most of their time inside their RVs, so you’re less likely to encounter noisy neighbors.

Whichever campground or campsite you choose, just be sure your car camping spot is level. And it’s also nice if it’s shaded, too, when the weather is warm.

Once you’ve found a spot, your bedding is your number one priority. One of the things that makes car camping more comfortable than tent camping is that you’re not sleeping on the ground!

We use a four-inch memory foam mattress in the back of our SUV, which offers plenty of sleeping space once the back seats are folded down. We top the mattress with a down duvet for extra padding, then we use our regular sheets and blankets from our bed at home — and our regular pillows. The good pillows are the best part!

Our car camping setup at Theodore Roosevelt National Park during a January visit

Depending on the season, we can slip mesh covers over the car windows and roll them down to get a nice breeze. When the weather warms up. we use USB-powered fans to keep things cool at night.

The window screens have the added benefit of making it a bit darker inside the car, too, and we also have one that covers the sunroof. We use a windshield sun reflector in the front to control light and give us privacy when we’re sleeping. Ear plugs and eye masks help block out unwanted sound and light.

Most of the campsites we use have bathrooms and showers, but we have portable versions of both that we can use when we’re camping somewhere really off the beaten path. And our pop-up shower tent provides privacy for bathing and for changing clothes.

When it comes to cooking, we have a cooler that keeps things cold for up to four days, and we always secure our food in the car when we’re out hiking or sleeping at night. We also travel with a portable propane camp stove in case we’re staying somewhere that doesn’t allow open fires.

A collapsible trunk organizer keeps our cooking and campfire supplies handy, and we bring a small solar-powered generator that can charge electronic devices and works as an emergency light. Add a couple of camp chairs, a duffle bag for toiletries and towels, a first aid kit, and some bug spray and sunscreen, and we’re good to go!

Our camping process is still evolving, and it will continue to do so as we find things we need but don’t have. And some of the things we used to take with us, we no longer need. We always start by researching our destinations to learn more about weather, wildlife, regulations, and safety so we’re prepared for that specific situation.

If you’re a car camper, we’d love to know your favorite tools and techniques for enjoying the great outdoors! Drop us a comment with your favorite suggestions.

And if you’re looking for some new campfire cooking options, check out our recipe for Grilled Pork in a Jar, which we love cooking on our Lodge Cook-It-All cast iron grill/griddle/wok/oven/miracle cooker.

One of Mike’s campfire secrets is his retractable blow poke