There is no one way to camp. In fact, there are as many different ways to camp as there are campers—from luxury “glamping” to rugged overlanding to really roughing it with just a backpack and a sleeping bag. The beauty is that you can personalize your experience to suit how you want to experience the outdoors. But in our biased opinion, the best (or maybe just the easiest) way to camp is to sleep in the back of an SUV. Car camping took off during the early days of the pandemic, when people were itching to get outside and it’s only gotten more popular lately. According to Beyond the Tent, it’s now the most popular type of camping in America. And it’s no surprise why.
Camping out in your car is a low-barrier and comfortable way to enjoy the outdoors without investing in expensive outdoor gear. You don’t need a tent—this is a use-what-you-have way to get out there, which means it’s ideal for beginner campers. Master camper and founder of Beyond the Tent Ryan Cunningham says that the biggest benefit is that it allows you to pack in more gear and heavier gear than you would if you were backpacking or canoe camping. “Since you don’t have to carry all that gear, car camping allows you to bring luxuries that you wouldn’t otherwise consider bringing such as generators, grills, large tents or chairs and coolers,” he says. “You’re able to drive your car right up to the campsite, park and set up camp.”
Another bonus is that when you’re car camping, you don’t necessarily have to unload all of that gear. You can keep it neatly organized in your car and only get to it when you need it. Of course, it’s not perfect. Cunningham warns that it’s not always the most private way to camp. “This can be considered a pro or con depending on your personality,” he says. “Some campgrounds can tend to feel like a parking lot. They give you a small strip to set up camp right in between other campers.”
However, if you want a more private option, all you have to do is a little research. You might be interested in “dispersed” camping, which is overnighting on public land outside a designated campground. That’s possible. Just check out Recreation.gov for everything you need to know about passes, permits and where you can and can’t spend the night. Another great resource: the website for the parks department in whatever state you’re visiting.
But don’t forget those permits. You need them filed and in order before you camp in a car. If you skip the permit and permission process, you run the risk of being fined or asked to leave. And being woken up in the middle of the night by an irritated park service employee knocking on your window really kills the relaxing vibe of your weekend in the outdoors.
After you take care of your permits (but before you head out), make sure you’ve got a backup plan. Because wherever you are, no matter the season, things can (and often do) go wrong. Sometimes that means just a slight deviation from the original plan. The temperature can drop lower (or go higher) than forecasted, making car camping a whole lot less pleasant. Or inclement weather can make your planned campsite less idyllic and more dangerous than you had initially anticipated.
Just be sure you identify an alternate place to sleep nearby (it could be another campsite, park or even a hotel) that you can fall back on if needed—even if that’s in the middle of the night. And before you turn in for the night, confirm that your phone is fully charged and that the battery will last until morning.
Aside from the campground, your sleep system is crucial. There are several ways to approach how you want to set up your car for sleeping. Do you want a system that easily folds up for day use? Are you traveling solo or with a partner? Will you be climbing into the backseat or stretching out in the back of an SUV? A lot of campers these days will invest in a specialty car air mattress that helps transform the back of nearly any car into a bed. But photographer Forrest Mankins—who put 40,000 miles on a vintage Land Cruiser car camping from Oklahoma to Alaska—suggests skipping the fancy air mattress and getting a ZPad for less than 50 bucks and topping it with folded blankets. He says it’s just as comfortable, takes less time to set up and won’t deflate on you in the middle of the night. Plus, it frees up a few hundred bucks to put towards fuel and food.
The rest of your gear really comes down to your personal needs and preferences. If light wakes you up, consider window and windshield screens to help block the sun. A small battery-powered fan ensures comfortable air circulation, even as the weather turns cold. If you want some shade (and protection from precipitation), they have a range of oversized awnings that attach to the back of your vehicle. After all, you don’t want to spend the entire time inside the car, right?
* An Underrated Essential: The one item Mankins says every car camper should bring (but few do)? An ax. He says it’s the most useful tool because it’s so adaptable. It can be a hammer, it will split wood for fires, can double as a shovel to help get you unstuck and even serve as self-defense in a worst case scenario.