The Complete Car Camping Checklist

Last Updated: April 2021

Car camping is possibly the easiest way to go camping. But you still need to make sure you remember to pack everything. 

To help you double-check that you’re packing everything that you’ll need for the trip, the Opt Outdoor team have put together this car camping checklist.

campsite car camping

Car Camping Checklist

1. Clothing

Bring everything you think you’ll need to wear on the trip.

Think through the activities you’re planning to do and take note of the clothing required for each activity.

You might be one of those campers who’s comfortable wearing the same outfit all day for every activity, no matter how gross it gets.

If so, packing for the trip will be pretty easy! If not, plan accordingly. 

Think through what you’ll need to wear based on the forecast. This includes bugs!

If you’re camping somewhere that is prone to mosquitoes or no-see-ums, make sure you pack a bug layer. 

Plan to bring: shorts, pants, long-sleeved shirts, T-shirts, jackets, underwear, socks, shoes, hat, and a bandana.

2. Sleeping system

Whether you’re bringing a tent, a hammock, or something else, make sure you’ve got everything you need for your sleeping system to function properly. 

Take into account the temperature, the weather, and the bugs. Getting rained on or getting eaten alive by mosquitoes could ruin your evening. 

Since you’re car camping, weight shouldn’t be much of an issue. Bring whatever sleeping system will be the most comfortable. You could also bring more than one system.

If you want to try hammock sleeping, but you’re not confident that you’ll like it, bring the hammock and the tent and set them both up. Live it up!

3. Sleeping Bag and Padding

Make sure you’ve got whatever will keep you warm at night.

Check the forecast for an estimate on the overnight lows, so you know what to expect.

Since you’re car camping, you should be able to bring plenty of blankets, sheets, or sleep bags to stay warm and snuggly overnight at any temperature. Check out our Guide to the Best Double Sleeping Bags for Couples

Remember to bring enough padding to sleep comfortably. If you already like sleeping on a firm surface, it doesn’t get much firmer than the ground.

If you need something with more cushion, bring whatever will work best for you. This could even include an inflatable air mattress - such as the Therm-a-Rest MondoKing 3D.

They don’t take up much room in the car, and the weight doesn’t matter. For more options, check out our guide to the Best Camping Mattresses & Pads

If you want something more comfortable, a Camping Cot could be the way to go.

Pack a pillow. You should be able to cram a pillow somewhere in your car even if it’s already loaded with gear.

You’ll sleep a lot better if you have a comfortable pillow than if you’re trying to make do without one. 

4. Food

Plan every meal. While you might be able to wing it with snacks, you don’t want to wing it with meals.

Decide how much effort you’re willing to put into cooking and cleaning up for each meal. 

Since you’re car camping, you could make some amazing Dutch oven meals, but you’ll need to decide that well before the trip. If you’ve planned your meals ahead of time, you have plenty of time to shop for the ingredients you’ll need.

See our article on Camping with Kids for food ideas to keep everyone happy.

Pack your food in a way that makes sense. If something needs to stay cool for the duration of the trip, keep it one of our recommended camping coolers

If it would be easily smashed (like eggs or bread), make sure that nothing will fall on them during the car ride. Getting a bunch of egg goo inside your car would not be a good start to the trip!

Plan for food storage. Hopefully, you can just store all of the food in your car overnight to keep any critters out of it. If that’s not the case, make sure you know how you will store your food. 

You likely won’t want to keep a bunch of trash in your car throughout the trip, so find out beforehand how your campsite wants you to dispose of trash. 

5. Cooking Equipment

Double-check that you’re bringing everything you need to cook, eat, and clean up for each meal. 

Some commonly missed items include:

  • Cups (strong enough to hold hot beverages if needed)
  • Plates
  • Bowls
  • Forks
  • Spoons
  • Knives (for food prep and eating)
  • Cutting board
  • Pots
  • Pans
  • Appropriate spatulas or spoons for the pots and pans
  • Can opener
  • Paper towels
  • Trash bags

If you’re just going to be out for one night, you might not have to worry about thoroughly washing your dishes. Just plan a way to pack them in your car and wash them when you get home.

If you’ll be out for a few nights, you’ll need to clean your dishes. Double-check what your campsite’s rules for cleaning are and plan around those rules. 

6. Water

Since you’re car camping, the campsite that you’re driving to will likely have running water.

If not, be sure to pack enough water for your whole trip. 

Plan on one to two gallons per person per day. That amount of water should be enough for both drinking and cooking. 

7. Weather Protection

Even if the forecast doesn’t call for rain, there’s no guarantee that you won’t get rain at some point during your trip.

Make sure you’ve planned for it. You might need to bring a tarp or an E-Z UP canopy for protection in camp.

8. Camp Furniture

If you’re planning to have a nice relaxing time sitting around the campfire, remember to bring something to sit on!

Make sure you’ve packed a camp chair that will be comfortable. Helinox have a great range of chairs, including our favorite the Helinox Sunset Collapsible Camping Chair.

Overnight, store the chair in your car so that it doesn’t get wet from rain or dew. It’s nice to have a dry chair to sit in when you get up in the morning. 

Most established campgrounds come with picnic tables that you can use at your campsite.

If you’re not going to be car camping at an established campsite, don’t expect a picnic table.

Plan to bring your own folding table to use at your campsite.  Check out our Camping Table Buying Guide to find the right one for you.

9. Fire making material

Research your campground’s rules about fires. Many established campgrounds will have a fire ring built into each campsite.

Some, however, require you to bring your own fire pit. Campground might also have a fire ban if the recent weather is conducive to forest fires. 

If you are allowed to build a fire, some campgrounds will let you scavenge for firewood on-site, but others require that you bring your own firewood.

Since you’re car camping, it shouldn’t be too tough to pack some firewood if needed. 

Double-check that you have packed functioning lighters and some fire-starting material (Ex: newspaper, lint, fire-starting sticks, etc.) to get the fire going. 

10. Toiletries

Depending on how long you will be at your campsite and what amenities the campground offers, you might need a variety of toiletries.

If it is a well-stocked campground, they should already have toilet paper and hand soap in the bathrooms. 

If you’re car camping, but there are no actual bathrooms on-site, you’ll need to have a plan for your bathroom needs.

Plan this beforehand!

You do not want to get stuck using leaves for toilet paper unless you’re already familiar with that method. 

Other toiletries that you don't want to leave behind are sunblock and bug spray.

11. Lighting

Most campgrounds don’t have lights that you can use at your campsite. Bring a lantern and a flashlight.

Lanterns are great to use around the campsite, and flashlights (especially headlamps) are useful in the tent. They’re also really helpful for finding your way to the bathroom at night.

12. First aid kit

Pack a first kit appropriate to your level of training and your location.

Remember that not all car camping sites are actually near a city. Your campsite might be challenging for an ambulance to get to if an emergency happened.

If that’s the case, make sure you’ve packed all of the medical supplies that are appropriate for your trip. Read our guide on How to Make your own First Aid Kit.

If you have any personal medications that you might need for the trip, double-check that you have those packed.

It’s also a good idea to make sure you’ve got them in a spot that’s either easily accessible (for inhalers, epinephrine, etc.) or that won’t get moved (for daily medications).  

13. Entertainment

If you’re going car camping, you’re probably looking to have a fun time away from the city.

Bring whatever items will help you relax and have fun on the trip. This could mean bringing a good book or a guitar.

You might prefer something more crafty, like your favorite knitting project or a sketch pad. Bring whatever will help you enjoy your camping experience the most. 

If you need to entertain kids, our guide to Stressfree Camping with Kids has some activity ideas.

Tent night sky couple

Car Camping Preparation

Car camping is great for all ages and experience-levels. You don’t need to worry about hiking or paddling your way to the campsite.

You just drive up!

Pack your car with everything you need for a night or a long weekend at the campsite and have at it.

A lot of car-friendly campsites will be within easy driving distance to stores, but that’s not always the case. Some of the prettiest campsites are still remote, even if you get to drive to them.

While car camping can be an easy way to get out of town and enjoy some time in nature, you’ll still need to plan appropriately. 

You might be tempted to just toss a bunch of your typical camping gear into your car and head out, but resist that temptation.

Happy Camping!

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