couple camping

The Car Camping Essentials

Written by: Cameron Vigliotta 

Backpacking in the wilderness is a magical experience. However, the simplicity of car camping may be more magical and less stressful for most people.

Backpacking requires lightweight equipment, plenty of food, and reliable endurance. Car camping, on the other hand, demands only a car and some open land. Simply toss your gear in the trunk, roll down the windows, and head for the nearest state park.

Before you leave the driveway, take a moment to consider what you’re bringing along for the ride. Sleeping bags, fluids, and a camp stove are still necessities.

If you’re not entirely sure what you’ll need, read on. 

The Four Pillars of Car Camping

Deciding what equipment to bring along or stay can quickly become a tedious process.

To make packing easier, let’s break down car camping into four primary categories. These include sleep systems, shelter, kitchen supplies, and food and water storage.

Sleep Systems

Backpacking often limits what you can bring for a good night’s sleep. At best, a lightweight sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and if you're lucky, perhaps a compact pillow.

Meanwhile, car camping allows for a wider variety of sleeping equipment. This means you can focus less on weight and more on optimal comfort.

Things like throw blankets and bed pillows are some luxury items used in car camping. Even using thicker sleeping pads will make the experience feel more like home.


Depending on where you’re camping, options are endless as you craft your primary shelter. Be it a picnic table or canopy tent, your shelter will serve as a central location to cook, clean supplies, and relax.

A shelter becomes especially useful if you’re car camping with a larger group. But to find the best tent for you, check out our how-to guide: Best Tents Buying Guide.  

Kitchen Supplies

Backpacking will limit the amount of cooking equipment you can bring on the trail. Car camping will, instead, offer generous space to pack some incredible cooking supplies.  

Assorted kitchen supplies are sure to join you on the journey, from cast iron pans that forever remain a campfire staple to plates, cups, and bowls.  To learn more about camping cook sets, check out our buyer's guide: Best Backpacking Cook Sets.

Food and Water Storage

Storing food and water in a heavy-duty cooler isn’t an option when you’re miles from the trailhead. Yet tossing your favorite snacks and drinks of choice in a cooler is painless when car camping

If you intend to bring perishable items like meats or vegetables, be sure to pack ice. This will keep your food fresh for days to come.

Car Camping Essentials

Based on the four primary categories outlined above, here’s everything you need for your next car camping trip.

Nemo Wagontop 4P Tent

The Nemo Wagontop 4 is a modern tent for families and groups that like to car camping in style. It integrates a whole host of different luxury features for a more comfortable outdoor experience. The Wagontop uses a unique pole design that provides enough headroom for most adults to stand upright. 

This tent has a huge vestibule, which offers plenty of space for gear storage. You can even combine it with an optional “garage” that’s actually large enough to park a car inside if you want more storage space.

If you’re interested in traveling with a larger group, the Wagontop also comes in 6 and 8 person sizes. It also has plenty of little features, such as internal pockets and hooks to help you stay organized on the go.

For more tent ideas, check out Best Tents of 2020.

YETI Tundra Haul Portable Wheeled Cooler

Packing your food and drink in a cooler is the easiest way to ensure your goodies stay fresh and protected. 

Most high-end coolers have bulky dimensions for maximum storage capacity. This can make them difficult to move from one location to the next. 

Not so with the YETI Tundra Haul.  As for the first time, YETI has added never-flat wheels to one of their coolers. These make transportation a breeze.

Push or pull the cooler as it stays on the ground. This is much easier than attempting to lift a loaded cooler around the campsite. Also, the reinforced aluminum handle offers simplified towing. This eliminates the need to lift with your knees.

Finally, YETI ensures durability through utilizing a rotational molding (also known as rotomolded) process. Through using a high-temperature, low-pressure plastic forming process, rotational molding produces extremely durable one-piece parts. This means they are basically indestructible. 

Also Check Out: Coleman Steel-Belted Cooler.

YETI coolers are superior in their durability and insulation properties. Thus, they’re rather expensive.  So, if you’re shopping for a cooler on a budget, check out Coleman’s Steel-Belted model.

It offers the same storage capacity for a quarter of the price. Keep in mind you won't have wheels for optimal transportation. However, this cooler claims to offer 4-day ice retention in temperatures as high as 90 degrees

MSR Quick 2 System Cookset

You could bring pots, pans, plates, cups, and bowls straight from the kitchen on your car camping trip. However, to save yourself the headache and space, it’s easier to pick up a cook set that keeps everything in one place. 

MSR’s two-person cookset is primarily designed for backpacking. So the design is compact and well thought out. What we love about this set is that it weighs no more than 2 pounds. Also, it keeps everything organized as you gather other supplies. 

Inside the stowable design, you’ll find a 1.5L non-stick aluminum pot and a 2.5L aluminum pot. There is a strainer lid, two deep dish plates, two insulated mugs, and a pot handle. Best of all, the cooking components fit securely into one another.

The entire package is then stored in the 2.5L pot for simplified transport. Add or remove components as you adapt to the size of your group and the length of your trip. 

KingCamp Folding Bamboo Table

If you're in the woods, there might not be a picnic table available for use. Thus having a folding table is a must when preparing food or relaxing by the campfire.  

The KingCamp Folding Bamboo Table is water-resistant and has adjustable legs. You can adjust them to three different lengths. This means you can create a leveled surface in all terrains. Another highlight of this table is that it can collapse into a briefcase-size for easy transport. 

KingCamp’s lifetime warranty on their many tables provides peace of mind as well. 

Helinox Sunset Chair

Relaxing by the fire after a daylong hike is a rite of passage, but to do so, you’re going to need a camping chair.

Of the many chairs on the market, we love the Helinox Sunset Chair. This is due to its taller profile and greater ground clearance.

Rather than sitting close to the ground with your knees bent, the Sunset Chair lets you stretch out your legs.

The proprietary aluminum frame and connective bungee system make setup simple. The chair’s weight of 3.5 pounds means you won’t break your back, fumbling with a heavy seat as you look to unwind. 

Also Check Out: Stylish Camping Full Back Folding Director's Chair.

Camping chairs don’t have to break the mold of a chair. That’s why Stylish Camping’s simple folding chair wins us over with its no-frills design. A retractable side table and storage pockets give you a chance to clear your lap as you store supplies by the fire. 

Therm-a-Rest LuxuryMap Self-Inflating Foam Camping Mattress

To avoid any next morning back and neck aches, you’ll need a sleeping pad. They provide comfort and protection from the elements, whether you’re in a tent or the back of your car. The LuxuryMap sleeping pad offers the luxury of a bed away from home. 

Its compressible urethane foam core meaning it self-inflates when unpacked. A release valve lets you adjust the firmness with a few breaths. Also, the stretch-knit fabric adds another dimension of comfort as you settle in for the night.

It may be too bulky to bring into the backcountry, but it's great for car camping. Its three-inch-thick design delivers superior comfort and warmth, making it the perfect option for this type of trip.

Kelty Tuck 20 Degree Thermapro Sleeping Bag

If you’re using a sleeping pad, you’re going to need a sleeping bag as well.

Car camping allows you to pack more layers for added warmth. It’s best practice to have a sleeping bag that can handle frigid temperatures. This is on the off-chance things get chilly.

The Kelty Tuck 20 Degree Thermapro sleeping bag utilizes ultra-synthetic insulation.

It is engineered for superior warmth and versatility in temperatures as cold as 20 degrees. The mummy bag design keeps your head warm thanks to a quilted, padded liner that fits securely around your head.

Kelly's Tuck bag comes in two lengths. Thus taller campers can still enjoy this quality bag. 

Gerber Freescape Hatchet

A hatchet may seem excessive if you’re car camping. Yet, you’re going to need a tool that can chop wood, dig holes, and even possibly offer protection from animals. 

Gerber is a household name in technical gear. And their everyday campsite hatchet is an easy winner for countless reasons.

The Freescape hatchet uses forged steel frame that’s extremely durable. While the composite handle performs well to provide grip and shock absorption. It also comes with a slim sheath to ensure safe storage and transport. The Freescape comes in varying lengths from 9 to 36 inches. 

Lifeline AAA Premium Road Kit

Packing an emergency kit is often a “just in case” addition to the car camper’s checklist. You want to prepare for the worst-case scenario. 

Lifeline is the exclusive provider of AAA emergency roadside car kits. Their packs are the perfect balance between car repair tools and medical supplies.

The Premium Road Kit includes jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight, and batteries. Also, it includes Duct Tape, cable ties, a 2-in-1 screwdriver, and 24 pieces of first aid supplies. 

You may never need any of the items in this kit, but it’s best to have them around if you do. 

Rubbermaid ActionPacker 48-Gal Lockable Storage Bin

Now that you’ve got everything you need, it’s time to find a container that can store it all. 

Rubbermaid manufactures the Tupperware containers that you store leftovers in. And they also make industrial-grade storage bins designed to hold all your precious cargo - things like sleeping gear, toiletries, and other camping gear.

This Rubbermaid 48-gallon lockable bin is capable of withstanding temperatures from 0-100 degrees Fahrenheit. It can load up to 135 pounds of gear for safekeeping. And the grooved surface repels water and prevents pooling. This means everything inside stays dry no matter the conditions outside.  

Car Camping Gear List

We recommend the following items for a stress-free outing with the comforts of home.

Product Name


Nemo Wagontop 4 Tent

YETI Tundra Haul Portable Wheeled Cooler

 Coleman Steel-Belted Cooler

MSR Quick 2 System Cookset

KingCamp Folding Bamboo Table

Helinox Sunset Chair

Stylish Camping Full Back Folding Chair

Therm-a-Rest LuxuryMap Mattress

Kelty Tuck 20 Degree Thermapro Sleeping Bag

Gerber Freescape Hatchet

Lifeline AAA Premium Road Kit

Rubbermaid ActionPacker 48 Storage Bin

It’s Time to Get Camping

Start with this simple list if you are unsure of what to pack for your first car camping trip. 

Deciding what to bring along for the ride will come down to where you find yourself going. Plus, what you hope to do along the way.

Be sure to pack the necessities like food, water, and an emergency medical supply kit. From there, invest in the gear that you can afford and enjoy the many places the road will take you.

About the Writer

Cameron Vigliotta is a freelance journalist and copywriter whose work explores the people, activities, politics, art, and literature of the outdoors. His writing has been featured in by REI Co-op's Journal, Stay Wild Magazine, and Active Interest Media among others. A Massachusetts native, he enjoys running up steep hills until everything hurts, and he doesn’t own a TV.

This post may contain affiliate links. Read the full disclosure here.

You may also like: