The Ultimate Car Camping Packing Checklist

July 13, 2021

Want to try camping? Before you set out on an overnight backcountry hike, get your feet wet with car camping. The best type of camping for beginners, car camping allows you to carry the gear you need in your car, including all the essentials and even some creature comforts. All you have to do is book a campsite at a local campground, which often already has restroom facilities, hot showers and sometimes even a canteen store to grab last-minute (or forgotten) items.

eady for an easy camping trip with family or friends? Here’s a car camping packing list of everything you could possibly need to make the experience more enjoyable. So pack your most rugged travel case and backpacks — it’s time to go car camping!

Tents and Other Shelters

When car camping, you typically book a campsite at a campground where you’ll be able to pop up a tent or, if you like, even sleep directly in your vehicle. If you are not ready to invest in a tent, you can always unroll a sleeping pad along the backseat. However, most choose to get a tent that creates a more homey environment and offers a bit more space. Storing some of your gear in a rooftop cargo carrier will leave you with even more room if you decide to sleep in your car.

Choose a tent that is designed for the number of people you’ll be camping alongside. If it’s just you, a bivy, single-person tent or hammock will do just fine. Have a larger family? Consider getting the kids their own tent. Also, unless you plan to test your winter survival skills, stick to a three-season tent and enjoy car camping in the spring, summer or fall.

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Not crazy about sleeping on the ground? Consider a rooftop tent or even a pop-up camper. As you can see, there are many types of shelters to choose from. Ultimately, it all comes down to your personal comfort level and how luxurious you want to take it.

General Camp Gear

Aside from a shelter or place to sleep, you’ll also need to stock up on a few pieces of general camp gear. However, before you do, you need to decide how invested you are in camping as a whole. There are many camp gear items you can substitute with already-owned household goods. (For example, if the weather is warm enough, you can use a bed comforter instead of sleeping in a sleeping bag.) But if you enjoy the idea of getting out in nature more often and escaping the campground crowds with a little backcountry camping, you’ll need the proper lightweight equipment. Still, if you just want to embrace car camping for now, here’s some general camp gear you need:

Sleeping Bag and Pillow

As mentioned, you can be thrifty by using a quilt or comforter from home. However, a camp sleep bag offers benefits you may need during certain seasons. Sleeping bags are designed to keep you warm throughout the night. If you have never camped before, you’ll be surprised how low the temps can drop in the middle of the night, so a 20- to 30-degree Fahrenheit rated sleeping bag is essential. To rest your head, just bring a basic pillow from home.

Sleeping Pad

You never know what kind of grounds you might encounter at the site, from gravel to roots, so if you want a more plush and comfortable sleeping surface, a pad is a must-have. Sleeping pads are rated on an “R” scale. For instance, you can find a pad with a R-Value of two to four, which should offer plenty of warmth for spring, summer and fall seasons. Backpackers need to think about a more lightweight, compact pad. But this is car camping, so all you truly need is an inflatable pad or an air mattress.

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Cooking and Kitchen Packing List

The advantage of car camping is that you can make gourmet meals instead of eating out of a dehydrated food pouch. While there's a lot of cooking and kitchen supplies you can bring from home, you can’t bring certain appliances like the stove or fridge, which is where it can get tricky. Here’s a list of car camping items you might use if you plan on cooking at your site:

Stove/Fuel — A two-burner camp stove should be sufficient enough to prepare most camp meals. Gas is easy to replenish and quite affordable, able to be found at an outdoor recreation store or even a gas station near the campground. Plus, you can build a fire with some firewood, lighters and fire starters.
Cooler — Replace your fridge with a hard cooler built to keep ice for days and preserve foods like eggs, milk or anything else you need to whip up delicious camp meals. Coolers are also good for chilling some wine or beer to enjoy after a long summer day or hike.
Water Container — Be sure to stay hydrated and fill up a water container. Campsites should have a spigot where you can fill your container with potable water — but if not, be sure to carry enough bottled water for everyone.
Prep Station or Table — While many sites come with a picnic table, an extra table can come in handy as a prep station or just a place to keep drinks and camp gear off the ground.
Cookware — Be sure to bring a few pots and pans. A cast iron piece like a skillet or Dutch oven are quintessential camp cookware and lend a nice smoky flavor to your chili, bacon and eggs or whatever you decide to cook. Pack the cooking oil and spray, too, as well as any condiments and spices to complete the dish.
Knives and Cooking Utensils — Be sure to bring a cutting knife from home, wrapping it up safely in a towel, along with a cutting board. Don’t forget other larger utensils, too, such as tongs or extendable forks that can roast some marshmallows later in the evening.
Serverware — Along with pots and pans, be sure to bring serverware like plates, bowls and utensils. Coffee mugs can also double for soup and chili bowls. While this is an item you could bring from home, stick to plastic melamine plates, paper plates or an unbreakable variety. Also, leave the fancy napkins at home and bring paper towels.

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Coffee Maker/Thermos — It’s not easy to bring an entire coffee maker camping, but there’s lots of options to get the caffeine boost you need each morning. Instead, bring along a pour-over style coffee making kit, resting it on top of a thermos where inside it can stay warm all morning.

Cleanup Items

After you eat, you’ll need to clean up your campsite. This isn’t just to keep a tidy site free of ants and bugs, but to also prevent attracting wildlife — like raccoons or even bears. Here’s what you will need:

Kitchen Sink — Occasionally, you will find campgrounds with a communal utility sink attached to the outside of the restrooms. However, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan if not, bringing a collapsible bin that acts as a kitchen sink where you can wash your dishes.
Soap and Scrub — Bring a travel size container of dish soap (preferably something organic and biodegradable) that is less harmful. Also, carry a sponge for more delicate surfaces like plastic plates and cups, as well as a scrub for cookware and cast iron.

Must-Have Camp Tools and Safety Essentials

Camping is relatively safe, but it’s always good to be prepared. Here are some must-have camp tools and safety essentials to add to your car camping packing list — from the Ten Essentials to other smart items.

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Headlamp — A headlamp is critical for getting around at night. While a flashlight can work, a headlamp offers a hands-free experience that’s safer. Plus, headlamps typically come with several brightness settings.
Duct Tape/Patch Kit — Pick up a patch kit to repair things like leaky tents or sleeping pads. Duct tape also comes in quite handy, too.
Multi-Tool — Bring along a multi-tool that has a set of pliers, a screwdriver, scissors, switchblade, bottle opener and the like. You never know when you might need it.
First Aid Kit — A critical piece of equipment when camping, bring along a DIY bag or pick up a pre-made kit from a local outdoor rec store. It should have everything you need to care for insect bites, dehydration and more. Be sure to keep it in a protective case to prevent moisture from getting inside.
Water Filter — Carry a water filter bottle or a water filtration system to campgrounds without potable water sources, especially if you plan to camp for longer than a weekend. A filtration system can help you create clean water from a natural water source effortlessly, without exposing you and other campers to bacteria.
Bear Spray — If you are in bear country, be sure to bring bear spray (and know how to use it!). Of course, if you are indeed in bear country, your campsite will often have a bear proof bin or bear box where you can store food and other scented items (like sunscreen) that can attract them.

Other Car Camping Items

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When you’re car camping, you have the extra room and freedom to bring along almost anything, including fun outdoor games and activities for the kids, as well as comfortable seating for everyone to enjoy around the campfire. While these additional car camping items are not necessarily needed, they can bring tons of enjoyment and offer an extra luxurious touch to the site.

Lanterns — You can ignite a classic Coleman oil lantern or turn on the switch of a more modern, solar-powered version. Either way, a lantern or two, or even some solar-powered string lights, can add a touch of ambiance to your campsite.
Hammock — Yes, you can go hammock camping, using it to sleep in lieu of a tent. But if you prefer a tent to get good shut-eye at night, a hammock is still a fantastic item to bring along anyway. Not sure you’re ready for hammock camping? Hang it between two trees or on a stand to take a cat nap. You can even enjoy it at night, watching the stars on a clear night.
Games — Kids and adults alike appreciate having camping games around to keep occupied, especially if the weather turns bad and everyone is stuck in a tent. As you stay dry or cool in the shade, break out a board game or cards. You could even bring some cornhole boards.
Camp Chairs — Whether you bring a few chairs from your patio set or go out and buy folding camp chairs, the choice is yours! Bring along a few cozy throws, too. Just make sure to sit some distance away from the fire, as smoke and embers can be dangerous.

Clothes and Toiletries for Car Camping

Before you head out on your car camping trip, check the weather forecast. Overall, use common sense and bring umbrellas and a rain jacket if there's a call for rain and be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat for exceptionally hot summer days. With that in mind, consider the following articles of clothing and toiletries and pack accordingly:

  • Hiking Boots and Sandals
  • Socks and Underwear
  • Sleepwear/Long Johns
  • Moisture-Wicking Clothes
  • Toothbrush/Toothpaste
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect Repellent
  • SPF-rated Lip Balm

The best campers come prepared-- follow this list to gather your necessities and set yourself up for a successful car camping trip.

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