Essential Car Camping Gear: Save and Splurge

A night in the great outdoors is just a short drive away with the right car camping gear essentials! From budget-friendly car camping supplies to splurges on a big ticket item, this blog contains your complete car camping checklist. 

I wanted to find the quickest and easiest way to maximize my weekends outside and the best way to do that was to leave work and drive right to my campsite on Friday afternoons. 

Car Camping is defined as any type of camping that can be done by driving up to your site, but it has more recently been accepted to mean sleeping in your car as well. 

Here is a list of everything you would need to add to your camping gear to get started car camping! Including some splurge items and save items to maximize your space and budget.

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Read The Camping Gear Essentials for a complete list of everything you need for a successful camping trip without a car!

The Complete Car Camping Essentials Checklist

There are plenty of car camping essentials on a budget, but you should be considerate of your comfort, especially if your trip is going to be longer than an overnight. I’ve included the best options for all budgets!

Car Camping Essentials: Sleeping

Here is everything you’ll need to be comfy and cozy during car camping!


Setting up your car for car camping can be as easy as lying your car’s back seats down and throwing what you have down in the back to make it as comfortable as possible, but here are some options for a comfortable sleeping experience. 


Luno Mattress

This is what I currently use and love it! I was looking for something more comfortable that I could keep in my car and could withstand the roughness of car camping. After researching different brands of car camping mattresses for the back of my vehicle (Toyota RAV4), I found the Luno Mattress would fit my needs the best. 

Air mattresses do not have the best lifespan but with the durability of the fabric that Luno uses and their generous warranty, I was happy to pay the price for my mattress. Additionally, the mattress fits perfectly in my vehicle whereas other car camping mattresses had a general fit. 

The mattress is amazing. You can blow up one side and keep all your gear on the other side of your car if you’re camping solo or blow up both if you’re car camping with another person. 

It is extremely easy to pack away and put back into its sleeve.

If you’re looking to save on your car camping setup, I would suggest using something you might already have or could use in the future. 

A backpacking sleeping pad might be something you already use camping and could easily be used in your car camping set up. 

If it’s not something you already have, there are lots of options available to you that range in price. As someone who is constantly trying to find the perfect backpacking sleep system, I can tell you that I am always finding sleeping pads in the REI Re/Supply to try out. 

REI also has all of their available sleeping pads out as floor samples for you to test out.

Always be prepared for chilly nights! You’ll be surprised how cold it can get in your vehicle at night so it’s better to be overly cautious. My favorite blanket is the Rumpl Blanket, because it also converts into a great hands-free camp blanket with the cape feature!

On those extra cold nights, I suggest layering an insulated blanket with a wool blanket for excellent heat retention

When car camping, you can bring as many blankets and pillows as you’d like, but I try to keep my camping pillow separate from my everyday pillow. 

For car camping I use the Sea to Summit Foam Core Deluxe pillow

I carry the regular size when backpacking and love it. So when I saw they offered a deluxe size, I knew I needed to purchase it to keep in my car camping gear kit. However, any pillow you prefer will suit your needs.

Car Camping Essentials: Kitchen

For the full list of Kitchen Essentials for Camping, check out the Camping Essentials Post!


Car Camping Gear Water Reservoir

Even if it is just a quick overnight, it is always important to have more water available to you than you anticipate needing. If you’re short on space like me and don’t have room for a hardshell water reservoir, HydraPak has some great options for collapsible reservoirs that I use for car camping and camping.

If you do have the space for a hardshell water reservoir a hardshell reservoir is an amazing addition to your gear!


Keeping your food cool, especially perishables on your trip is imperative to a good trip. I used a Trader Joes cooler bag for the longest time before investing in a hard sided cooler.

I purchased this cooler because of the rave reviews and declarations that it was not only just as good but better than the Yeti equivalent for less than half the price. It has lived up to all of my expectations. 

The thoughtful design of having a removable ice pack divider and basket make organizing the cooler easy for packing. 

I can add ice to this cooler and it’ll stay cold for five days minimum which makes it easy to stay in the backcountry longer.

Any soft shell cooler will do so long as you’re thoughtful about your ice situation. 

This could mean freezing some of your items before the trip so they stay colder longer or simply replenishing your ice more regularly. 

Insulated tote bags, like the Trader Joe’s bag I used for years or this one from RTIC, work well! This is an easy place to save money. Coolers are also something you could potentially borrow from a friend.

Car Camping Safety Necessities

Some of the safety necessities are items I keep in my car at all times. It is important to the correct tools in case of an emergency. Especially since the chances of having service for help might be limited. 

  1. Medical Kit – This is the medical kit I keep in my car at all times in case of an emergency.
  2. Fire Starter – Adding a fire starter to your safety kit will ensure you will have a consistent heat source in an emergency. 
  3. Tire Pump
  4. Tire Chains or Traction Device 
  5. Shovel 

Car Camping Storage

When you’re sleeping in the back of your car, space to store your gear becomes limited. There are a number of options for keeping your gear organized with various price points. 

Here are some more permanent storage solutions for gear. Since these options are more permanent, they are a little more expensive.


Rooftop Box

These are an investment to be sure, but this is an investment that has paid off for me this past summer. I purchased mine from the REI Garage Sale for $200, which was a deal I could not pass up. 

The sturdy box has withstood the elements, keeping my gear clean and dry while freeing up space in my vehicle. 

Rooftop boxes offer various size options so do some research for what fits your needs best.

A rooftop bag is a cheaper option that still serves the same purpose of removing gear from the inside of your car and strapping your gear to the top of your car. 

While a less sturdy option than the cargo box, this option still offers plenty of options to meet your needs. 

Some options are made of canvas, while others have a rubbery exterior to better protect your gear from rain. 

This option still requires you to purchase bins and bags to store your gear in, but the option makes your gear more accessible than storing your gear on the top of your car. 

You do, however, need to be aware that you have something sticking out of the back of your car when you’re backing up!

The save options are standard ways to store your gear while car camping. These simple ways require some planning and can be a little chaotic!


Front Seat Storage

When I first started car camping, all of my gear was chaotic-ly thrown in the front seats of my car. This kept my gear safe from rain and snow but also animals! 

The problem with this option, however, is that if you’re driving every day on your trip, you will need to move your gear every day.

Buying some cheap storage bins that you can keep outside of your car while you’re sleeping will still keep your gear organized and safe from elements, but you’ll need to be aware of any animals that you may encounter. 

My favorite storage binis the REI Pack Away Bin!

If you’re in a bear prone area, anything with food will need to be stored in proper bear storage or in your car.

Car Camping Creature Comforts

The following items would not be considered car camping necessities, but they are all things that I enjoy bringing when I go. I also keep most of these things in my car at all times with my car camping mattress. 

Exploren Borgen Creature Comfort Car Camping Essential

When car camping, you’re not going to spend all of your time in your car! If you’re camping at an established campsite you might be provided with a table and therefore opt out of packing chairs and a table in order to pack light, but these are my favorite tables and chairs.

I have had the camp chair in the above phot for four years! The REI Roll Table is the BEST!

The REI Camp Flex Lite Chairs are the perfect size for sitting and storing.

Window screens are great for getting a nice breeze in your car and keeping air flow while keeping bugs out of your car. They slide over your door and you get to choose how much of your window is cracked. In the summer months these can become a necessity when evening temperatures are not as cool as you’d like them to be.

Add some extra flare to your camp by adding some string lights! An unnecessary detail that can add some light to your camp along with some style.

This is something I did not have in my car camping gear until this past fall. I always had small power banks for my phone when backpacking, but when I was car camping I always felt I had an endless supply of power to charge my phone when driving between destinations. That was until my car battery died.

A number of large power banks and generators have the capacity now to jump your car and when I am traveling to remote destinations, a dead car battery is the last thing I want. 

There are a number of portable power stations to choose from within various price ranges. Identifying what exactly you will need it for and for how long will help you determine what exactly you will need on your adventures. 

Where to car camp?

The best part about car camping is that there are SO many options available to you! Depending on your comfort level, you have endless possibilities for spending a night outdoors. Just do your research and be prepared. 

Here is a list of my favorite places to car camp: 

  1. State Parks 
  2. National Parks 
  3. Forest Service Roads

Car Camping in State Parks

Experience the ultimate outdoor adventure with car camping in state parks!

Discover the beauty of nature while enjoying the comfort of your vehicle. From serene forests to breathtaking lakeside vistas, state parks offer diverse landscapes for your perfect getaway. 

Car Camping in State Parks is a great start to car camping, because you can camp at one you’re familiar with and they can be pretty secluded.

Car Camping in National Parks

Camp fire with car camper in the background

Elevate your outdoor escapade with car camping in national parks

Wake up to the calls of wildlife and embark on unforgettable hikes right from your campsite. Experience the magic of starry nights and create cherished memories with loved ones. When car camping in national park it is important to remember you will have to make a reservation well in advanced. 

You can make reservations for camping in National Parks at


Car Camping on Forest Service Roads

Dog sleeping in a car for car camping

Embrace the thrill of off-the-beaten-path adventure with car camping on forest service roads!

Whether you seek solitude, breathtaking vistas, or unbeatable stargazing spots, forest service roads offer a gateway to it all. Pack your sense of exploration and embark on a journey where every twist and turn reveals a new enchanting campsite. Unleash your wanderlust and create unforgettable memories while car camping on forest service roads.

Always check Forest Service regulations to determine which forest service roads are good options for dispersed car camping.

Essential Car Camping Gear

And there you have it, everything you need to turn your car into camper. Remember, it doesn’t have to be expensive to start car camping! You can use what you have and with a little creativity, you’re bound to having a comfortable car camping set-up. 

If you have questions on gear or car camping spots, comment below and I’d be happy to help!

Car Camping Essential Pin #2
Car Camping Essentials Pin #1

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