How to Camp Out of Your Car
***Bonus packing list included at the bottom!
You don’t need to drive a sprinter van or have four wheel drive to travel around; you don’t even need a cool looking Land Cruiser or a money guzzling Land Rover. Whatever you have in your driveway will do just fine because I don’t think anyone wakes up one day and says “I want to live in my van in the middle of the city”. It’s not about the van, it’s about how accessible the rest of the world becomes.
So the first thing you need to know when traveling or living out of your car is that you aren’t there to be comfortable, you’re there to see new places.
How to Sleep Out of Your Car
There are a few different ways to sleep out of your car. You can build a platform, lay your seats down and sleep in your car, you can tent camp, or you can invest in a rooftop tent. They all have their ups and downs though, and I’ve done them all!
The most convenient is just sleeping in your car. If you have front seats that lay down, or back seats you can take out, you can build a platform. You just throw down a sleeping pad or grab some foam from your local hardware store and you’re all set. If you need a platform built, reach out because my partner builds them for a reasonable price! If you roll a towel up in your window at night it can help with condensation build up on the inside of your car in colder months, and sleeping in your car is usually just all around more convenient, but it does take away from space because now you need room to fit yourself among your things!
Because I sold my Land Rover, I now do most of my car camping in a tent or outside. If you’re worried about finding places to camp, just google free campsites or do some research on BLM and National Forest land in the area you’re visiting. Also most National Parks, and State Parks have fee campgrounds. A few years ago I wrote a blog post on how to save money on the road which discusses this more in depth but I use the app US Free Campgrounds to find places to camp, a lot of times there will be reviews about the road conditions too incase you drive a car with -5 inch clearance like me. Tents are a great way to go, the only downside being you are more exposed to weather and you have to set up/take down a tent. If you’re worried about bugs while camping, be mindful of how often you are in and out of the tent with the light on. Bugs are attracted to lights so if its dark outside and you turn a light on inside your tent, then leave the tent door open, you’re going to come back to a lot of bugs.
If none of the above work for you and you want to be really bougie, you can get a rooftop tent. Just make sure your car roof can handle the weight because my Hyundai cannot, but I’ve seen rooftop tents on other four door sedans so some can make it work! The downside is they are a real $#^@ to set up and take down depending on what one you get, and they are expensive. Also obviously you can’t drive with it open so you have to break down camp before you go anywhere which can be a pain if you drive somewhere for sunrise a lot like me! But boy is it comfortable. I love that it keeps me off of the ground so if it’s windy there isn’t sand blowing in, and condensation doesn’t build up on rainy nights.
How to Eat on the Road
I’m just about the cheapest person ever so this is one of my favorite things to talk about. You will come to find that any food tastes 130593 times better on the road. Even ramen.
Some of my must-have items for car camping is my two burner Coleman stove. I like that it has two burners so I can cook two things at once, and don’t have to worry about the pot falling off unlike a lot of lightweight backpacking stoves.
For refrigeration, if you have a cooler, that is obviously the best. I don’t think you need to buy an expensive hard sided cooler unless you spend a lot of time in bear country, otherwise a soft sided cooler works just fine. Soft sided is also nice if you are limited on space because you can crush it down when its not in use. Whatever cooler you have though you still have to get ice, which lets be honest, is the real pain. If you want other options for keeping food cold and you have the room, you can look into Dometic. My partner may or may not have one in his truck and I honestly love that we don’t have to worry about getting ice, or water getting into the food and ruining it.
It’s also really easy to be on the road without a cooler though. I buy a lot of dry food, like rice, beans, pasta, potatoes, and veggies. I’m also not afraid of eating leftovers the next day too because the less trips I have to make into town for groceries, the better. For breakfast I always have oatmeal because if you just tear the top off you can pour the water directly into the packet for easy cleanup. And then peanut butter and jelly or wraps for lunch are another go to because its fast, easy, and packable for hikes.
And then there’s the staple, coffee. I still haven’t found a good way to make coffee outdoors so please enlighten me. I’ve tried everything. French press, percolator, instant coffee, coffee bags, prepackaged coffee, the GSI java press. Instant coffee is the easiest but its incredibly expensive so I’m still on the hunt for a more cost effective way.
How to Stay Dry
I think the important thing to mention here is that camping in the rain sucks, and I still find myself splurging on hotel rooms just to avoid it. With that being said, you do have a few options.
A tarp, canopy, or awning.
A company called Kelty that is based out of Boulder, Colorado sells a good variety of different tarps and canopies.
Yakima makes car awnings for rain and sun shade that fit on just about any car, big or small.
You can pick up a tarp just about anywhere and hang it sloped over your car using tent poles, bungie cords, or just about any other thrown together way.
Some other things to note, synthetic sleeping bags are usually better in the winter/wet season because they will still insulate you even if they are wet. This is super important if, like me, you pull the sleeping bag up over your head in the winter because your breath = moisture = wet sleeping bag.
How to Stay Warm
I’m a big fan of camping in the winter, no matter how much I hate it. Most places are less crowded (hello Moab in the off-season!) and the days are usually warm enough to do some type of activity. I’ve written a blog post about how to stay warm but what I’ve learned over the years is that I’m not there to be warm and I can only hope to be “comfortably cold”. Here is a list of things I’ve done through the years to help achieve that.
Hot Hands Hand and feet warmers, battery powered hands warmers, or insulated shoe soles. I just swap my shoe soles out depending on what shoes I’m wearing!
These down booties from Teva, are quick slide on/slide off shoes perfect for having to get out of the tent in the middle of the night without have to put my feet into cold boots.
A high R-Value sleeping pad to insulate you while you sleep, as well as a low degree sleeping back (I prefer a 0 degree bag in the winter) and a sleeping bag liner.
Tons of firewood and good food to fill you up and give you energy to burn through the night!
Base layer or liner socks, and wool socks. Also, I always change my socks when I get into the tent!
One time my partner and I bought an electric blanket and plugged it into the Goal Zero (a portable power bank) and warmed up the sleeping bag before we got in it. Probably not safe at all but IT WAS AMAZING. We’ve also had friends warm up our tents beforehand with their Mr. Buddy propane heaters (also not safe) and that was equally amazing.
How to Stay Cool
If you live in the desert like I do, you probably run into this a lot. The above mentioned canopies do a lot in keeping the sun off of you, but also keep in mind how to keep the sun off of you when you’re out hiking around. I wear long sleeve moisture wicking shirts, wet bandanas or buffs, and I wear a hat if I know I’m going to be on an exposed hike.
Use a tent with a lot of mesh (not a four season!), disassemble your tent to keep the sun from baking it during the day, or if the weather is clear, remove the rainfly.
Invest in a solar shower! I can’t tell you how amazing it is to shower after a long hot day of hiking.
Find a lake or ocean to swim in! Just please be pro-active of understanding what sunscreen you are wearing if you are around coral reefs and how damaging it can be!
Don’t use a sleeping bag, instead just bring a small sheet or blanket for nighttime.
Wake up before the sun because nothing is worse than waking up sweaty at 7am and being baked in your tent.
Choose hikes or activities that are shaded! This is the perfect time for canyoneering, or hiking through slot canyons!
DRINK PLENTY OF WATER! Be smart and alert about how you feel, how much water you are drinking and how much sun you are getting in order to avoid dehydration and heatstroke!
Camping Packing List
Here is my camping packing list that I use for all of my trips! Some of my items are more specific but you get the idea!
- Shoes (sandals, hiking shoes, waterproof shoes)
-Bandanas or Buffs
-Empty bag for dirty clothes
-Ground blankets or chairs
-Water bottle (well insulated for sun)
-Coffee/camp cup or mug
-Dr. Bronners Soap for cleaning dishes and washing hands
-Trash bag (dry bag work great)
-French press (or someway to make coffee if not instant)
-10L Dromedary Bag (or something to store large amounts of water)
-Shampoo + Conditioner + Soap
-Toilet Paper and Trowel
-Backpack + Bladder
-Female Urination Device (I recommend the Sani-Fem Freshette!)
-Camera + Lens + Charger + SD cards
-Journal + Pen
-Laptop + Charger
-Adaptor for Mac USB-C port
-Cable for transferring photos to laptop
-Cash for campgrounds
-Goal Zero or some other portable battery charger
-Proven Insect Repellent travel size lotion + spray
-Hatchet or some way to split large firewood
If you’ve been on the fence about going camping but aren’t sure what you need, I hope this guide helps! Yes having a van or large vehicle to camp out of is nice, but small cars are just as capable of getting you places, and you save on gas money, so who’s the real winner here.