Car camping is one of the easiest ways to get started camping whether it’s by yourself, with a group of friends or your family. Having your car parked at your campsite gives you an easy base to work from and it allows you to bring a few extra ‘comforts’ of home to make your trip a bit easier and more enjoyable. Hike-in camping is easily as enjoyable but you’ll be limited to what you can carry on your person and as you can imagine, it’s not that much, not that you really need that much to survive and have a great time! When planning your first car camping trip, you don’t necessarily need to overthink it, but it helps to be prepared.
Here is our list of 10 things to consider when planning for your first car camping trip or your hundredth.
1. Determine the best time to travel
It pays to plan a camping trip in advance if you want to secure that great site at that popular campground. Campgrounds typically open up reservations for campsites 6 months in advance and they get snatched up pretty quickly. So if you want to camp in June, get on it in December!
You’ll have to coordinate work schedules with school schedules and look for the best time to plan your camping trip. Camping during different seasons of the year offers different experiences. If you go in the summer, be prepared for busier campgrounds and warmer temperatures. If you go in the winter, be sure to have the appropriate gear to deal with the elements, but also be prepared to have the campground to yourself! Driving conditions will also be affected by weather so be sure you and your vehicle are ready for whatever the road may throw at you.
The distance you’ll likely be willing to travel will be determined by the duration of your trip. Do you have a long weekend? Pick somewhere 2-3 hours away to ensure you maximize your time at the campsite. Have a week? Drive a bit farther and go somewhere different, maybe 4-6 hours away. Just keep arrival time in mind so you’re not setting up in the dark.
2. Determine where you want to camp
There are two basic ways to car camp, reserve a site in advance or head out to a first-come, first-served campground. See our tips for securing a first-come, first served campsite in this article. As long as you’re flexible and willing to camp at your second or third choice campground, you can head out without a reservation and still have a great time! If you know where you want to go in advance, make a reservation as soon as possible.
There are so many options for camping around you. Regional, state and national parks all offer excellent opportunities for car camping. Be sure you are looking at sites that allow you to park your car at the campsite. There are often rules regarding how many cars can be parked at one campsite which is typically 2 cars. If you have more cars and more people (usually 8 people max.) than one campsite allows, you’ll likely need to reserve multiple sites. If you are camping as a large group, look for group campsites which offer significantly more parking and space for your whole crew. These almost always require a reservation so book early if you can.
Check the activities offered by the campground or general area. If you need to keep yourself or your kids busy during the day, you’ll appreciate a campground that has relatively easy access to hiking, boating, swimming, junior ranger programs and more.
There are also private versus public campgrounds to consider when planning your trip. Unfortunately, we can’t really help you pick your actual campground, but we can offer a few links that might help you identify options that fit your requirements. The sites that we’ve used to research camping reservations are:
This part is a bit tricky when planning your first car camping trip. You haven’t discovered yet how much gear you can fit in your car and we can tell you from experience, it’s less than you think! In fact, each time we pack for a camping trip, we wonder why we can’t fit what we brought with us on our last trip! It helps to start with a camping checklist, like the one that we’ve put together for you here in our Essential Camping Checklist article. We also have a handy, FREE camping checklist PDF that you can download and print out just for joining our mailing list.
The checklist is a starting point. You’ll need to determine what you believe is necessary and what is a luxury. It helps to mark things on the checklist as a ‘must-have’ or a ‘nice-to-have’. This way, when you run out of space, you know where you can start when deciding what to leave at home. The nice thing is that after several camping trips, you’ll begin to learn what you’re not using and what you’ve left off the list. Use this information to develop your own custom packing list for future trips.
If this is your first trip or you just haven’t been able to acquire all the gear you need, you have the option to buy, rent or borrow what you don’t have. Everyone has those friends that are out camping all the time. They usually have an extra tent laying around (like us!). Make these people your best friends and see what they’re willing to loan you. If you’re looking for entry level gear just to get started, you can look at buying lower-cost gear from solid companies like Coleman or Core on Amazon or at a retailer near you. If you’re looking to rent or buy higher quality gear, REI is a great place to start. The staff here are very knowledgeable about all sorts of outdoor gear and can help you pick anything from a tent and sleeping bag to a camp stove and cookware.
Speaking of cookware, you have most of what you need at home in your kitchen already. The first few times you go out camping, use what you already have before you invest in expensive equipment. What you learn from your camping experiences will tell you quite a bit about what’s important to you when you finally invest in good gear.
4. Plan your meals in advance
It really pays to plan your meals in advance, especially if you want to pack your car as lightly as possible and when you’re camping somewhere remote that doesn’t have easy access to a grocery store. You don’t want to forget the salt! For a good head start on what to bring, see our Essential Camping Checklist article.
Plan what you’re going to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Determine what you can make in advance and what needs to be prepared at the campsite. For instance, we’ll make homemade pasta sauce in advance and pack it in a ziploc bag for the cooler but always boil the pasta noodles at meal time. The taste and texture is so much better and it won’t take up valuable space in the cooler. You can even freeze the sauce and let it slowly thaw in the cooler, it’ll act like ice and keep everything else colder in the meantime.
There are many ways to pack a cooler but there is one thing that we’ve always observed. No matter how big you thought your cooler was, it’s not big enough. Some people like to pack the food they’re eating early in their car camping trip at the top cooler. As you get deeper into the cooler, those are your meals for later in the trip. Regardless, you need to have enough ice to keep items like meat and dairy fresh between ice replenishing trips. If you have a general store near the campground, great! You can buy ice daily if needed which may be necessary if the weather is hot or your cooler isn’t a super-insulated model.
5. Packing your car
This process is trial and error the first few times. It’s worth it to start test packing your car a few days in advance. We’ve packed the same night we’re heading out on a long drive and end up spending more time than expected just because things didn’t fit the way we remembered they did on the last trip. It’s a puzzle game for sure, you need to use every available inch to your benefit. We always do our best to keep stuff out of the car cabin so that we’re all comfortable during our drive. We’ll have activities for the kids in the back seat with them but don’t want any gear in there, it just makes the drive that much more pleasant.
We’ve invested in a rooftop storage box from Thule to add more storage space since we have a small SUV. This was a purchase that we’re very glad we made. Many cars come with rooftop bars to mount this type of rooftop cargo box. If yours doesn’t, go to your local car dealer or to a retailer like REI to learn more about what you need to get setup with one.
Also, if you plan to bring bikes on your car camping trip, a bike rack helps you store those without taking up internal cargo space. If you have a rooftop cargo box, a rear, hitch-mounted bike rack might be worth looking into.
6. Setting up camp
It’s best to arrive at the campground during daylight hours, preferably two or more hours before sunset. This will ensure that you have time to setup your tent and have some daylight for cooking dinner if needed. If you’re staying in bear country, you’ll have to put your coolers, food and other scented items in the bear locker provided. The bear lockers are fairly large but not huge, take this into consideration. See our article about finding the best spot to setup your tent before you get out there.
Having your car on the campsite is so convenient. You’ll probably go back and forth to grab items that you’re storing in the car. Be a good neighbor and avoid setting off your car alarm. Also, please minimize to the extent possible, all the beeping sounds associated with locking/unlocking doors as well. It disrupts a peaceful environment where everyone is trying to relax and get away from the sounds of the city.
7. Be a good neighbor
Building on the thoughts in the previous paragraph, see our article on Campground Etiquette for some tips on being a good neighbor. It’ll ensure you and everyone else has an amazing time.
8. Plan for longer than usual meal times
Everything seems to take longer on the campsite. Utensils and equipment aren’t always within easy reach. You don’t have much prep space or you’re cooking on a camp stove that you’re not quite comfortable with yet. Give yourself a bit more time until you develop a flow and understand what time you need to prepare a meal and how long it takes to clean up afterwards. We invested in a small, portable side table which gives us more space when cooking, a very worthwhile purchase. One other thing to expect, everything ends up in the dirt at some point! You’ll have to determine on your own how to apply the 5-second rule at the campsite!
9. Have a plan for keeping yourself or the kids entertained
Some of the best days camping are spent chilling at the campsite, doing absolutely nothing! But if you’re like us and have kids to keep occupied or you just can’t sit still, it’s good to have some options for activities. When you select a campground, you’ll see a list of available recreational opportunities in the area which can affect your choice so read carefully. Having the car with you extends your range, you can access places that require a couple hours of driving and easily get back to the campsite for dinner. For our children we’ll bring board or card games, drawing supplies, sports gear and the like. We leave their digital devices at home now, it makes the experience richer for everyone, but that’s your call!
Most campgrounds allow bicycles but not all allow scooters. Make a note of this when researching potential sites. Bikes and scooters can keep kids entertained and allow them to explore the campground.
Parkseekers tip: Keep your car gassed up. You never know where the next gas station will be and you don’t want to run out of gas in the middle of a National Park or some other remote area!
10. Leave no trace
When your car camping trip sadly comes to an end, allow enough time to pack up, clean up and head out. Most campgrounds require that you checkout by 11am or 12pm so get started early enough to make a light breakfast and tear down. You’ll probably have less food than you arrived with but the rest of your gear may not seem to pack as compactly as it originally did. Allow enough time for the puzzle-like repacking game once again!
More importantly, leave your campsite cleaner than you found it. We like to give the kids a glove and a bag and we walk around with them to pick up bottle caps, random plastic and paper pieces, etc. It goes a long way in keeping our parks beautiful for the next family or group enjoying their car camping trip!
If you have any tips that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you! And please, join our email list while you’re at it so we can keep up to date on new content and you can download our FREE camping checklist!.
We're a typical family of four that enjoys being outdoors and exploring all the amazing natural places that surround us. When life allows, we road trip, we camp, we hike. We're helping other families get outdoors by sharing our experiences because if we can do it, so can you! As we develop our blog this year, we'll be moving more into advocacy and generating support for the parks we love. We hope you'll join us and lend a hand.
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