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people camping in a van

The Geartrade Guide to Car Camping

Welcome to the beautiful world of car camping. It’s plush. It’s deluxe. It’s good times around the fire. And, of course, you can pack more stuff than you can when backpacking. However, that doesn’t mean you should cram everything you own into your Subie and explode a gear pile onto the campground--or the living room floor. If you’re a bit thoughtful about what you need and what you want, you can bring all the right stuff for a great time without overcomplicating your packing or unpacking. 

Where to camp: have a plan. 

Let’s chat about the basics first. If there’s a developed campground at your destination, fabulous. These exist on both National Forest land and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands too. For a small fee, you can have a site with nice little amenities like bathrooms, water spigots, fire rings, and trash cans. Most developed campgrounds let you reserve a camp spot, which is always a good idea if you can. A quick Google search will direct you to the right reservation webpage, and if all the spots are taken for your chosen timeframe, they may still allow a certain number of walk-up reservations that are available first-come-first-served. In that case, try arriving as early in the day as possible so you can snag a spot. 

If you don’t snag a campground spot or there isn’t a campground at your destination, no sweat. That’s what dispersed camping is for. This means it’s free, done on open land (within certain rules), and doesn’t come with the amenities (trash cans, water spigots, etc.) that developed campgrounds do. 

Examine a map to see if you’ll be on BLM land or in a National Forest. Both have basic rules about where you can and can’t camp, and how to do it without leaving any trace of impact on the land—or worse, letting a campfire get out of control. Read about BLM camping rules here or do a quick online search for the guidelines for the National Forest land you’re heading to. Now you’re informed!

Gear up: what to bring.

As we noted, of course, you can bring more gear car-camping than backpacking, but it helps to keep your gear well organized and as compact as possible to minimize trips to and from your car, both at home and at the campsite. When you store your gear at home, keep your car camping stuff together if possible so it’s easy to grab and pack. Tupperware bins in the ol’ gear room or garage are perfect. 

Pretty much everything listed here is available UnNew on Geartrade, so you won’t need to break the budget rounding out your kit.

  • Tent: This is perhaps the most obvious item, but certainly not one to forget! If you’re tent-shopping, keep in mind that the sizes (two-man, three-man, etc.) are usually a bit ambitious and will feel cramped if you pack that many people in. Buy a little bigger than you’ll need if you want any breathing room, and look for a tent that’s simple to set up and doesn’t have too many components. We have a nice buyer’s guide here.

  • Sleeping bag, pad, and pillow: Check the usual weather for your destination and choose a sleeping bag that’s rated accordingly. Since you’re car camping, you can bring a cushy sleeping pad, but keep in mind that the super-bulky oversized ones are awful to pack. If you can opt for an inflatable one that’s easy to stow in the car. You can read our entire sleeping bag buying guide here!

  • If a fire is permitted, firewood and starter: Make certain fires are allowed where you’re going, and if they are, make sure you use an established fire pit and completely put it out before you leave it unattended. (That means not one spark is left!) Now that we’ve gotten that PSA out of the way, pack firewood, matches, and fire starter (or newspaper or cardboard scraps) to make it easy to light. In most areas, you’re allowed to gather dead wood from the ground to burn in your fire, but you’re never supposed to cut live branches off a tree. So just plan ahead.

  • Camp kitchen: This can be over-the-top elaborate or very simple depending on your style. Camp cooking tables, cooksets, dishes, stoves, and dishwashing stations are all available in varying degrees of fanciness. You can always simplify by setting your stove on a (stable!) rock, eating out of burnable paper plates, preparing a super-simple recipe, and doing dishes in the pot you cooked in. Be sure to use biodegradable soap that won’t hurt the environment.

  • Easy food: Plan your breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks to be filling and simple. Cooking in camp is much easier if you did prep work ahead of time, portioning out ingredients and pre-chopping everything. Meals can be exceptionally simple (instant oatmeal, frozen burritos warmed up on the fire coals, pasta with canned sauce, etc.) or as complex as you like. Just keep in mind that if you’re being active all day, hiking or whatnot, you’ll probably want more calories than you usually do. If you’re going to be out for several days without access to additional ice for your cooler, plan accordingly—bring fewer perishables and fill your cooler with more ice than usual at the outset. And don’t forget a trash bag and paper towels.

  • Camp chairs: Many developed campgrounds have picnic tables, but if you want any fireside seating, a camp chair per person is always a great call. Long evenings hanging out sipping beers, playing card games, or passing the guitar around are much more comfortable if everyone has a place to sit.

  • Lighting: On the simplest end of the spectrum, use headlamps. Or, if you’re feeling snazzy, throw down for a couple of good lanterns, which are available battery-powered or solar-powered. (If you’re feeling old-school, you can pick up a propane-powered Coleman, but we dig the solar-powered lights for their sustainability.)

  • Bathroom essentials: If you’re in a developed campground with a bathroom, this may not be an issue. (Although many of these bathrooms are simple pit toilets without sinks, so hand sanitizer is a good idea.) However, if you’ll be off in the woods on BLM or Forest land, bring a small hand trowel to bury your #2 business. It’s not only bad manners to poo on the forest floor (you’re no moose) but it’s also awful for water quality.

  • First aid kit: Scratches, cuts, bug bites, and burns do happen, so be sure to pack your first aid kit. We have a thorough guide here.

After you’ve packed all those essentials, you can kick back and think about the fun nice-to-have stuff: good books, yummy beers, solar fairy lights, a Bluetooth speaker, camp slippers, solar chargers for your devices, camp showers, board games, cornhole sets, and more. The beauty of car camping is that you can bring everything that really matters for you to have a wonderful time, whether you build an over-the-top Taj Mahal of campsites or you keep things basic and simple. Do it your way. And be sure to tell us how it goes.

Beth LopezBeth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.