Car camping essentials – gear and tips (printable checklist)

Car camping essentials | Sleeping in car
man and a dog comfortable car camping

This is a post for people new to car camping, who would like to know what camping gear and car equipment to bring, how to pack. A car camping essentials printable checklist included.

We’ll cover:

  • what is car camping in short
  • best cars for car camping
  • car camping bed/mattress alternatives (and why)
  • car camping essential gear – split by use category
  • all this in a printable checklist to help you packing 🙂

So, you’re about to join the microcamper crowd? What’s that you ask? It’s, at it’s most basic, sleeping in your standard car (i.e. day to day car, not a campervan) and exploring the world. It’s an adventure and freedom to explore, then stop and rest wherever you find a good spot. It’s your small home that travels with you 🙂 Here’s a checklist that will get you started and make your first car camping trip even more enjoyable.

What is car camping – suv camping – “microcamper” all about?

For our purposes, it is literally camping and sleeping in your car. I don’t mean just driving in your car, pulling into a campsite and/or sleeping in a tent. It is taking your car – driving to a nice spot and sleeping in your car on that spot. As simple car camping definition as it gets 🙂 For a more thorough description, check our Best cars for car camping post.

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Car camping checklist

A good, spacious car to get comfy in

I know, it’s bloody obvious that you need a car. But not just any car will do, especially if you are on a longer trip and/or want to have more room to relax or for your gear. Albeit it’s possible to sleep in any car (we have explored Greece in a Fiat Punto), it’s always better to be able to sleep normally – i.e. stretch out on a bed. Sleeping in the front seat with the backrests lowered down is ok for a couple of nights, but it will leave you less rested for your adventure. Perhaps even worse than that, you will be sleeping in the front of your car which is harder to mask, so your sleepy morning face will be there for the whole world to see.

fiat punto car camping greece
Small enough to get you anywhere, but not the comfiest to sleep in… aah, good old Fiat Punto 🙂

Fear not, for I have put together a list of 30 cars best for car camping that are reliable, spacious and not expensive to buy wherever you live.

Where you park it it’s entirely up to you – views like this when you wake up are not uncommon if you look hard enough:

nimble camper car camping view

Photo by Krivec Ales from Pexels

Something comfy to sleep on – a car bed

Even the most spacious car isn’t the comfiest if you don’t have a car bed of some sort. People usually start looking at various car mattresses, but hold on! It’s not the best option and we have a better car mattress alternative for you in this post. And take your favourite pillow too – the car can take it and you’ll be grateful you did!

You want to look for something that will be durable for a longer trip and also allow you to store things underneath – as there’s not that much storage room in the microcamper world – aside from under the bed :). So if it’s not a festival you’re going to, it should be something like this:

Read all about how I created this VW Sharan camper conversion under $130 here

sleeping in vw sharan 5 seats car bed camping matress 1
Ta daaaa! 🙂 the finishing touches are up to you!

Once you’re resting comfortably, you will want something to cover yourself with. The good thing about car camping is that the car can carry more than you on your feet – so a duvet or a blanket is fine. But if you’re an outdoorsy person, you might want a good sleeping bag anyway – you’ll use it on other trips (without a car) too. Don’t forget a pillow (the car won’t mind the additional item and your back will thank you).

And pack some bed sheets for the bed – you don’t want to have to replace the mattress because it’s dirty. It’s much easier to just wash the sheets.

or enjoy this short story: (click left or right to scroll the images)

Car camping essential gear and accessories

Camping equipment

TOILETRIES / CLEANING
  • wet wipes + any other basic toiletries – sleeping in your car in the middle of nowhere means you either wash in any body of water you’ll find (no shampoo or soap in the water please, be responsible!), or you use wet wipes until you get to a shower somewhere
  • toilet paper!
  • towel (the camping ones – microfibre – dry faster)
  • a sponge + washing up liquid (natural, ecological as you’re going to be using it in nature)
  • thrash bags
KITCHEN
  • fire lighter / matches
  • enough water for at least 1 day of drinking, cooking and occasional washing – best is a 10-20l jerry can with a spigot
  • a portable – camping stove – a cup of warm tea or coffee does make a difference + it’s safer than making a fire (and most of the time you can’t make a fire anyway) + spare fuel
  • Some basic cutlery (a knife, fork, spoon, spork, whatever you want to eat with on the road) and a bunch of plates, a pan for boiling water
  • I find it always handy to have at least one bowl – if you want to make a salad or mix whatever cold food + some cups (camping steel ones are best)
  • A good multitool – you can’t go wrong with a Leatherman – but there are plenty of other options too
  • a chopping board
  • a cooling (insulated) bag or car cooler – if you’re travelling in a hotter climate. In colder climates, it’s also enough to keep your food in the lowest spot of the car (below seats on the floor) – it’s the coldest spot too.
  • LED headlight + a camping light (ambient / 360 degrees light, not just a spotlight). Don’t forget plenty of spare batteries!
    • I also like these hand-crank camping lights – no batteries needed, just some manual action
    • it’s also useful if the headlamp has red light – you don’t always want the blue bright light on, especially if you need to take a leak at night – red light is easier on your eyes and less visible from a distance too. You won’t advertise your presence to everyone that way.

Nice to have (non-essential but very useful):

  • car backseat organizer – additional pockets for all the little / medium size things and gadgets you want to have easily accessible (i.e. not underneath your bed)
  • hammock – not that essential, but makes for a much nicer adventure – nothing beats putting your feet up in a hammock, hanging in a lovely spot you just found.
  • a bunch of birthday candles – good to start a fire as they burn long enough even if you don’t have enough paper or other firestarter
  • magnets – so you can stick whatever you need to any steel part of your car
  • battery powered globe string led decorative lights – certainly not essential, but what mood do they make!
  • Earplugs and an eye mask – if you’re a light sleeper or sensitive to light, these will be a blessing
  • cheap flip flops to slip on when needed to quickly dash out of the car – last thing you want is to struggle to put those hiking boots on when nature calls in the middle of the night…
  • a car rear tent – especially if you’re somewhere hot, the shade will be much appreciated.
  • camping chairs

Car equipment

  • Window shades / curtains – these magnetic ones are very handy + good to use. You’ll enjoy the privacy, trust me.
  • window bug shield – some kind of mesh allowing you to let air in and moisture and bugs out. This simple solution will do the trick or check this one if you want something more sturdy. And if you’re into DIY, check this idea out.
  • First aid kit (if it’s not required in your car by law, it’s still good to have one with you)

Make sure you have some basic tools and spares should you run into trouble on the road. This also depends on where you are travelling and how old your car is. A new car doesn’t need that much maintenance (or it’s so hard you wouldn’t do it anyway), and travelling in a developed country means you can probably always find what you need even if you forget it – so only take the essentials for your specific trip. You might need more spare bulbs, petrol, tools or a spare tire if you’re going offroad away from civilisation.

Car camping essentials – printable checklist to download:

How to pack your essential camping gear

This isn’t a package holiday – so leave that suitcase at home. This isn’t backpacking either – leave that backpack at home too. The car is your storage, so it’s best to pack things into smaller bags/bins. This way it’s easier to store in your car (underneath the bed or other car storage) and see what’s where.

You will use these items daily, so no point packing them tightly all in one bag. It’s much neater to have them stored in specified places around the car – once you get used to where what is, it will feel much more like a home on the road.

Camp responsibly: respect the environment and your surroundings

Wherever you go and set your camp, respect the environment. Make sure you leave it as it was or better (take someone else’s rubbish to the trash). Be thankful that special spot was there for you – and ensure it will be there after you. Respect the animals that have lived there before you and will after you leave – it’s their nature more than it’s ours (we’ve already taken most of it from them anyway).

Don’t make a campfire if it’s very dry or you’re not sure whether it’s allowed in the area you’re in. A portable – camping stove is faster and safer.

The Center for outdoor ethics has put together seven Leave no trace principles – they are worth a read.

Did I forget anything? Let me know if the comments!

Featured image by Hoang M Nguyen on Unsplash

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