If the thought of roughing it in the outdoors makes your toes curl, then car camping is really going to push all the wrong buttons for you. This activity is as far away from glamping as you can get: Sleeping with a steering wheel sticking in your ribs is not going to receive a five-star rating. But that’s not proper car camping.
Camping in your car is actually budget-friendly, back-to-nature, surprisingly cozy fun. Try something new on your next trip away and give car camping a go. The need for a durable all-season camping tent is not there, which may sound a little bit daunting at first. But be rest assured, we’ve got you covered in this article.
Car Camping 101
Some people define car camping as being able to drive their car up to the campsite and park it next to the place where they’ll be pitching their tent. This isn’t car camping in the strictest sense of the word. True car camping doesn’t involve a tent or a campsite, to be honest.
Sleeping inside your car is the literal meaning of this new kind of activity, and it’s rapidly gaining popularity with Gen Z and Millennial generations across the world. No old school tent pitching and campsite reservation required.
Car Camping in Campsites
Although the general rule is not to use campsites when sleeping in your car, there’s nothing stopping you from doing this. Sites have their own attractions, especially if amenities like showers, restrooms, fire pits, and picnic tables are something you enjoy. You will have to book ahead during busy holiday seasons and drive to the right location when the gates are still open.
However, if you prefer to just call it a night and go to sleep in a more spontaneous way, there is also a bit of homework and planning to do before a random car camping setup can be done. Also, don’t forget to immerse yourself in neat car camping tricks that might spice things up.
Car Camping Rules
Public land permits free camping when it’s spontaneous. When the mood for having a nap or full night’s sleep grabs hold of you, certain Forest Service and BLM land allows this kind of car camping for up to a generous 14 days. You will need to check that you don’t require a permit when car camping on restricted Wildlife Management areas.
Of course, there is often a clear indication that no camping is allowed if you keep an eye out for the relevant signage. When National Parks become too crowded to allow the kind of dispersed camping arrangements done in cars, they post signs. You can check out their websites on your device to see if where you plan on car camping allows it.
Best Cars for Car Camping
Ergonomically designed vehicles have seats now that can contort and bend to fit in luggage, shopping, and even help you move house. So, if you have a sedan car, make sure it’s a recent make and model that has these features know your car seat. If you own an SUV, hatchback, station wagon/estate car, or truck with a canopy, then you’ll be even more comfortable.
If you plan on making car camping a regular thing in your life, you might even want to invest in a vehicle with roof expansion capabilities, or a purpose-built roof tent space.
Car Camping Urban Myths
The two elephants in the room related to camping in your car are, firstly, if you can do it anywhere and, secondly, if it’s true that people have gone missing when doing it. Let’s address the former urban myth first.
- Parking Lot Car Camping
You may have heard that you are allowed to park and sleep in some hypermarket or shopping mall parking lots. There have even been reports about people parking in front of hotels and sleeping there. This might be possible in some places, but there are many state and city laws that prevent it. If car camping is your chosen outdoor pursuit, you are hardly likely to want to setup in an urban area anyway.
It doesn’t matter if the corporate policy is cool with people using their parking lot if it means you are going to be woken up with the police or a security guard knocking on your windscreen. The main reason why there are laws that prohibit this is because that they want the parking lots to remain available for temporary users only. There may also be policies in place that regulate the use of inside restroom facilities to mall shoppers only.
- Is Car Camping Safe?
Car camping is super-safe when done as a responsible adult or a couple in a trustworthy area. It’s actually safer than a tent because you can lock the doors. Part of the excitement of trying something new is heading out into the great outdoors with minimal gear and zero tedious preparation. The further away from civilization you get, the safer you are from unwanted visitors (except bears).
Restroom Breaks and Shower Facilities
If you plan on setting up camp next to a convenient water source, you can pack a compact, portable shower to use when wet wipes won’t suffice. There are even easy-pitch shower/restroom tents for that additional bit of privacy. If that all sounds like too much gear to pack, there are some collapsible, lightweight shovels for those visits to the woods, and also portable loos.
Things You Should Remember to Pack Before Car Camping
- Trash bags
- Portable stove setup for use outside the vehicle (no fires allowed outside designated areas)
- Window mesh
You will need to put your trash into containers inside your car. You can always dump it out when you reach your next urban destination. Camping means cooking your food outside, and because you won’t have access to a fire pit or campsite grill area, don’t forget to pack a portable stove setup of some kind. Remember to check that the model you buy is transportable and specifically for camping.
If you are car camping without an RV or similar converted van, you must get a proper car mattress. There’s nothing that will make you turn around and head back home more than trying to sleep in an ordinary car without a mattress. If you have a futon-style mattress at home, you can fold that up and use it instead of buying one.
Too Hot or Too Cold?
Everyone can remember the first season of Breaking Bad when Jesse leaves the keys in the van ignition and they both end up stranded in the desert with a dead battery. This happens in real life if you sleep in the car with the AC running or the heater blowing warm air. The best way to avoid this is by checking what the weather is like where you will be traveling.
If it’s going to be hot, use the window mesh for the air to pass through while keeping the bugs out. There’s also a portable fan to help keep the car’s internal temp bearable as well. If this is too much prep, just throw a mosquito net over the entire vehicle (king size mosquito nets can be bought from most home goods stores).
If it’s going to be cold, you need heavy-duty blankets, all-season sleeping bags, and maybe a onesie or two. Even in cold weather, it’s not a good idea to sleep with all the windows closed. When there’s the possibility of rain coming in the window crack, you can cover that side with the tarp. The tarp can also be used to cover the stuff you put outside; it will protect your boxes and bags from rain, and also make more room for you when you sleep.
Car Camping Tips
If you plan on cooking and eating near your car in bear country, you must setup bear proofing canisters before going to sleep and move your foodstuffs to another location. The one thing you don’t need is for a bear to be acting like Cujo around your car in the middle of the night.
Keep a flashlight handy, especially if this is your first car camping expedition. Not many first-time campers realize how dark it gets when you are away from all the light pollution of a big city. If you like camping tech gadgets, you might want to think about installing a solar panel charger on your dashboard. It can keep your flashlight, camping lanterns, and devices fully charged.
What is the Best Country to Go Car Camping?
When seasoned car campers are asked what is the best country for this particular outdoor pursuit, most people agree that it’s New Zealand, and here’s why:
- You are allowed to park and camp anywhere.
- You can drive into the nearest town, use the facilities like computers and restrooms at the local library, and then drive onto your next location.
- You can drink alcohol and sleep (not drive) in your car (many countries forbid this).
- It is permissible to park close to beaches and forests and car camp.
- No snakes, bears, or other predators.
- Zero crime.
- Just an all-round good place.
Now you know car camping basics, you can hit the road!