Your Car Camping Checklist

Gear up and get camping with these essential tips and gear.

Car camping is a quintessentially American pastime. Because you’re using a car to drive right up the campsite, it’s both low-effort and high-reward. And because it’s an overnight endeavor, it gives you the opportunity to completely disconnect, relax, and get a full mental reset while immersed in nature.

The other good news is that there’s no one right way to plan a car-camping trip. You can turn it into a family affair if you have little ones, or you can use your camping skills to secure low-cost lodging at a music festival or other outdoor event. You can hang out in camp all day, playing games and building campfires, or you can use your campsite as a launching pad for day-hikes and other outdoor adventures. 

Likewise, there’s no one right way to be a car-camper: You can go solo or with a group, and at pretty much any age or fitness level. All you need is a vehicle, some basic equipment, and a little camping know-how. Here’s how to get started. 

The Basics

The beauty of car camping is that you can bring most of the comforts of home with you. While you can find plenty of comprehensive packing lists online, these four items are the must-haves.


Your home away from home, a good car-camping tent is the cornerstone of your camping experience. While some campgrounds offer cabins or three-sided shelters for visitors, a tent will give you far more options when it comes to choosing a campsite. Ideally, look for a freestanding tent that’s roomy, easy to set up, and suitable for the weather you expect to encounter. (Alternatively, you can also sleep in a hammock, but you’ll need a tarp, underquilt, and other gear to protect you from the elements.) 

Sleeping pad

Many first-time campers underestimate just how critical a sleeping pad is. When you lie in your sleeping bag, all the insulation beneath you compresses flat. Unless you have a good pad, you’ll be left with nothing between you and the cold ground. Side-sleepers will probably want a cushy inflatable sleeping pad, while back sleepers can sometimes get away with less-expensive foam pads.

Sleeping bag

Sleeping comfortably starts with choosing the right sleeping bag. Make sure it’s the right size for you and that it’s rated to keep you warm in the coldest temperatures you expect to encounter. Note that women’s bags are often warmer for the stated temperature rating, so if you sleep cold, opt for a women’s bag. 


Cooking under the stars is one of the best parts of the camping experience. While skilled camp chefs can successfully cook over an open fire, most folks will find it faster, easier, and more fun to cook over a camp stove with a set of outdoor-specific pots and pans


Insulating jacket

The warmer your jacket, the longer you can stay out among the stars when temperatures start to drop. Down puffers offer better packability and longevity, while synthetic jackets tend to be less expensive (and more effective in wet weather). 

Rain gear

Rain will never ruin your trip if you’re properly equipped. Always pack rain gear (preferably both a jacket and rain pants), which will help you keep warm and dry while you hang out, cook, or play games in camp.

Base layers

Most seasoned campers wear base layers in their sleeping bags—both to protect the inside of the bag from skin oils and sunscreen and to maximize warmth. Wool or synthetic base layers are also a staple for hiking in cooler weather.    

Hiking shoes

You can use any comfortable sneaker or outdoor shoe for camping, but hiking shoes offer a good mix of comfort, durability, and versatility. If you expect temperatures to drop significantly overnight, opt for a boot with a leather upper and/or a little insulation. 

Safety Gear

First-aid kit

This is a must for any outdoor outing. You can buy a custom-made kit or assemble your own. Just make sure you know everything that’s in the kit and understand how to use it.  

Fire blanket

Every camping area has its own fire safety regulations. Some ask that you build fires on a fire pan to protect the ground from scorching. Some require you to bring your own wood, while others ban this practice since pest insects sometimes hide out in firewood. Check regulations before you go, and always have a big bucket of water and a fire blanket on hand in case the flames get out of hand. 

Communication device

If you’re camping in an area without cell service, consider packing a satellite communication device or personal locator beacon. That way you’ll be able to call for help in case of emergency. 

Friends sit at a campsite bench while they cook

Comfort Extras 

From camp lighting to foldable outdoor furniture, there are dozens of camp accessories that can add fun, comfort, and peace of mind to your next trip. A few key items stand out as the best overnight-enhancing goods to pack if you’ve got the room.  


Have a good headlamp ready when the sun goes down. It’s always easier having your hands-free when you need a little light at night, whether it’s assembling s’mores, finding tent zippers, or navigating to the bathroom.

Camp shoes

Pack a pair of comfy camp shoes to wear in the evenings. They’ll give your feet a chance to relax and air out at the end of the day. Most campers prefer sandals for warm weather and down booties for cold weather.

Insulated drinkware

Hot days are better with a cold beverage, and winter nights are better with hot tea or cocoa. Look for a stainless-steel, vacuum-insulated mug or thermos to keep in your camping bin. 

Sleeping bag liner

You can tweak your sleeping bag’s temperature rating by adding or subtracting a sleeping bag liner. Usually synthetic, silk, or merino wool, sleeping bag liners can add 10 to 15 degrees of warmth.  

Tent footprint

A tarp, Tyvek sheet, or purpose-made tent footprint can protect the floor of your tent from rocks, pinecones, and other sharp objects. (Having an extra tarp on hand also helps if you need one to keep key cooking or eating areas of your site dry from rain.)   


A good camping cooler is the secret to leveling up your camp cooking game. Hard-sided coolers tend to keep meat and veggies cold longer, but soft-sided coolers are more packable.

Packable chair

Camp chairs are a must for stargazing and shooting the breeze by the fire. Look for an option that’s comfy and easy to set up. 

Next Level 

Solid camping skills can open up a lot of doors. Here are three ways to take your overnight adventures to the next level.

If you want to camp all year-round…

Winter camping takes some serious outdoor experience and preparation to do properly. That said, it can be an amazing way to find camping away from the crowds and to enjoy quality time in gorgeous snowscapes. Make sure to bring a four-season tent, a superwarm sleeping bag, and tons of insulated layers

If you want to camp off of a trail…

Backpacking is an incredible way to combine a love for hiking with a love for camping. The biggest difference is that with backpacking, you’ll need to carry all your gear with you. Make sure you have a lightweight tent, a packable sleeping bag and pad, and a good backpacking pack. You’ll also need a few other essentials like a water filter and a shovel or wag bag

If you want to camp from your boat…

Already have some basic paddling skills? Consider packing up your camping gear and planning a multi-day canoe or kayaking trip. You’ll need some good dry bags or canoe packs, paddles, a life jacket, and a kayak or canoe in addition to your normal camping setup.

If you want to camp from your bike… 

Bikepacking is all the rage these days, and it’s way more accessible than you might think. You can make do with just about any bike you already have. Just add a bike rack and a pair of panniers, and make sure you have a solid repair kit and some navigational know-how

Things To Remember

If you’re new to an area, always seek instruction and advice on where to camp from local experts before you head out. If you find free camping near you, be sure to heed any posted signage. Treat the place as if you were a houseguest so that other campers won’t lose the privilege of staying there. Always tread lightly in wild landscapes and in desert campsites, and make sure to obey standard campsite etiquette wherever you go. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.