What Is Car Camping?

By Beverly Bird; Updated June 08, 2017

The ins and outs of car camping in the great outdoors

What Is Car Camping?

To the uninitiated, car camping sounds like it means bunking down for the night in the backseat of a vehicle. Of course, nothing says that car campers can’t do that if they want to, but the term technically applies to driving right up to the campsite and setting up a tent there. Car camping is the antithesis of backpacking.

The advantage is obvious: Car campers can pretty much take along anything they might need – or at least as much as their vehicles can hold.

Book ahead

Most state parks and many local parks are set up for car camping. There are private car-camping grounds out there as well. Some are more primitive than others, but that’s OK, because the car can be packed with all essentials and even a few near-essentials. This makes it a great way for new campers to get the hang of it before setting out with just a backpack.

Start with an idea of where you want to go. Mountains or seashore? Nearby to home or distant? Begin looking for car-camping grounds in the area once you’ve narrowed it down. Reserve a campsite. Don’t leave it to chance that one will be available the day you arrive, particularly in warmer months.

Some vehicles are more suitable than others

The larger the vehicle, the more it can hold, obviously, and this is a decided advantage for campers planning to stay more than a night or two. Two-seat sports cars are far less than ideal. They can’t carry much and tend to ride low to the ground, running the risk of losing integral pieces of their undercarriages on even semi-rough terrain. If you already own an SUV or a pickup, great. Even the family sedan should work fine. But a Corvette? Not so much. Four-wheel drives are best in the event of inclement weather on unpaved roadways leading to the campsite.

Food, water and other necessities

Not all campsites offer potable – drinkable – water, so it’s a good idea to bring it from home. Bring as much as you think you’ll need in case there's no water available at the campsite, then double that amount to be on the safe side. Also bring some extra water for cooking and washing, particularly if the campsite doesn’t offer showers.

Car campers obviously have a lot more menu options than someone who’s backpacking. With a proper camp stove and all necessary ingredients, a camper can cook away to his heart’s content. But don’t neglect easy snacks and meals as well. Not everyone feels like cooking after a day of exploring the great outdoors.

A first-aid kit is essential even if you’re not hoofing it through the wilderness to get to a campsite, but prepare for everything you might encounter as if you were hiking. Some important take-alongs include sunscreen, insect repellent, painkillers and bandages. Don’t overlook basic tools, lanterns, flashlights and extra batteries.

Sleeping in the great outdoors

When it comes to accommodations, car camping is no different from other types of camping – the tent is an important consideration. Yes, a car camper can duck into the car in the event of a rainstorm, but unless his tent is waterproof, he might find himself spending several nights in the car as the tent dries out. Tents should be large enough to accommodate at least one additional person beyond the number expected to be sleeping in it. Sleeping bags should be suitable for the climate – typically designed to keep campers warm in temperatures matched to the season and the anticipated weather conditions. A sleeping pad placed under the sleeping bag offers a buffer against the cold, hard ground.

Make sure that whatever food you take along is safely out of reach of critters when you bed down for the night. Bears have been known to break car windows to get to good stuff inside, so a vehicle is not an ideal storage space. Bees or hornets can get into virtually airtight spaces when there’s something sweet and enticing inside. Food should be hung in trees, at least 10 feet off the ground and on a limb that extends at least 10 feet from the trunk. If you hear frustrated growling, stay in your tent – without those extra munchies you packed. Food stashed inside a tent is never a good idea.

Be neighborly

Sound travels incredibly well in open spaces, particularly near bodies of water like lakes. Car campers should resist the urge to set the car stereo to their favorite rock or country music stations at full volume. Not only will it annoy other campers who may not share the same taste in music, but it will keep wildlife away as well – the kind you want to encounter, but not the bear who might try to climb the tree later. Voices should be reasonably low key, too. Avoid shouting and raucous laughter.

About the Author

Beverly Bird