Car Camping 101: Beginner’s Tips for Finding Campsites, Gear, Cooking & More

Learn how to car camp like a pro with these Car Camping 101 tips with advice on finding free campsites, packing and gear, cooking and Leave No Trace.

New to car camping? Consider this your car camping 101 crash course! In this blog post, you’ll learn everything you need to know to get started with car camping – from what to pack, to car camping cooking tips and how to find free campsites.

Car camping is an easy and enjoyable way for any kind of outdoor enthusiast, beginner or not, to get outside and soak up the benefits of the great outdoors.

If you plan it right, a great beginner car camping trip will put you close to hiking trails and other outdoor adventures. It’s also one of the best introductions to sleeping under the stars for those who are interested in learning how to backpack. Plus, it also makes it easy to score scenic (and secluded) spots, travel locally on a budget, and do more in a shorter amount of time, which sounds pretty good right about now.

How to Plan a Car Camping Trip

Taking the time to prepare for your first car camping trip will allow you to make the most of your experience. Luckily, planning ahead doesn’t take up a whole lot of time and you’ll have a much better shot at snagging the best campsites on the dates that you actually want them. It might take a little bit of practice to get into the swing of things, but after your first few car camping trips, you’ll be a pro at navigating online reservations and scoring some prime real estate. Here’s a quick guide to planning your first car camping trip:

  • Pick a few dates that will work for your car camping trip. Consider your schedule, your companion’s schedule (unless you’re going solo!), and weather.
  • Determine how many nights you’d like to camp.
  • Look into the reservation process: Is it first-come, first-serve or are advance reservations required?
  • Make a reservation (if needed), then start planning your itinerary by researching the area
Camping tips for beginner car camping, including how to pick a campsite, what to bring, what to wear, and camp kitchen essentials.

How to Pick a Campsite

Picking the right campsite while car camping depends a lot on what kind of vehicle you have, the terrain you’re driving on, and where you are going. There are two kinds of campsites that you can choose: paid and dispersed campsites. It’s important to understand the difference between the two before you head out.

Paid campsites are established campsites that are managed by a public lands agency, the state, or a private owner. They require a fee that varies by location and the type of amenities they provide. At minimum, paid campsites usually have pit-toilets on site and picnic tables, while some have more features and services such as flush toilets and hot showers.

Dispersed Camping

Dispersed campsites are free campsites located on public lands. They are places people have camped at before, but they aren’t actively managed by a camp-host. You’ll have to come fully prepared with everything you need and be ready to pack out everything you’ve packed in according to Leave No Trace principles, including your used toilet paper — since you’ll have to dig a cat hole or otherwise pack out your poop.

There are a few apps I heavily rely on for finding dispersed campsites. These are iOverlander and Ultimate US Public Campgrounds.

Read more about my favorite tools and apps for finding dispersed camping in our Guide to Finding Free Campsites.

A free dispersed campsite in Colorado

How to Pack for a Car Camping Trip

Having your car camping packing list dialed will help you minimize stress beforehand, enjoy your time outside, and always be ready for spur-of-the-moment trips. You can bring more along on car camping trips since you don’t need to worry about keeping things lightweight and compact. This gives you the flexibility to customize your trip and your gear to where you’re going, the outdoor activities you’ll be doing, or simply whatever suits your mood.

Then, use these blog posts as a guide for finding the best gear for car camping:

Camp Cooking Essentials

It’s easy to become a good camp cook when you’ve got a fully-stocked camp kitchen on a car camping trip. Start by getting your cooking essentials organized with an outdoor cooking bin that is easy to stash in your car and easily accessible at the campsite. Add a few dynamite recipes that can feed a crowd and you’re golden.

Ready to get cooking? Check out some of my favorite camp cooking essentials.

Get all my best cooking tips for beginner car campers in these blog posts:

What to Wear Car Camping

While you can bring whatever and however much you like for a car camping trip, I recommend comfortable activewear. Go for breathable moisture-wicking layers that have a good amount of stretch. Remember to avoid cotton, as it retains moisture and won’t keep you cool, warm or dry if you get sweaty. Bring a warm pair of socks, a hat, gloves, and an insulating jacket if you know the temps will dip down after sunset. Be sure to check the forecast before heading out and pack plenty of layers in case of unexpected weather.

Check out our guide on what to wear hiking for some good camping apparel suggestions. 

Get more tips on what to wear for beginner car camping trip in these blog posts:

Learn how to car camp like a pro with these Car Camping 101 tips with advice on finding free campsites, packing and gear, cooking and Leave No Trace.

How to Leave No Trace

Get to know the seven principles of Leave No Trace. This will help you reduce your impact while enjoying the outdoors when you’re car camping. These guidelines help ensure the wild places we all love will stay that way for years to come. Also, take the time to familiarize yourself with the unspoken rules of the trail. Don’t worry, this isn’t inside information, but more like common courtesy and a basic understanding of how to keep the outdoors safe and enjoyable for all.

Learn how to car camp like a pro with these Car Camping 101 tips with advice on finding free campsites, packing and gear, cooking and Leave No Trace.

How to Find Things to Do While Car Camping

Going car camping is one of the best launchpads to more outdoor adventures, or to simply soak it all in and have a great time hanging outside. If you’re looking for some ideas or want to know what to do while car camping, we’ve got a few tips.

Learn how to car camp like a pro with these Car Camping 101 tips with advice on finding free campsites, packing and gear, cooking and Leave No Trace.

Got more questions about beginner car camping? Leave a comment below!

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

8 comments on “Car Camping 101: Beginner’s Tips for Finding Campsites, Gear, Cooking & More

  1. This is a great comprehensive guide. I’m a total city girl and just went car camping for the first time last month. It’s a total game changer. I feel like the outdoors is so much more accessible to me now!

  2. Thanks for reminding me to check with my companion’s schedule and consider the weather if we were to plan for our first camping trip. My friend mentioned that it is time for us to catch up and I suggested that we spend a weekend outdoors. Since she agreed, I’ll ask her when she would be available and see if it’s time to purchase a rooftop tent for my vehicle.

  3. Hi there Kristen

    Very impressed with this beginner’s guide.

    Do you have any suggestions , of how to convert a LandRover Defender 110 into a camping car?

    Looking forward ,


    1. Hi Rolf, thanks for reading! We dont have any direct experience with a conversion like that but I’m sure it’s doable and that you could find some helpful resources online by googling that. My husband and I converted a Lexus GX470 into a camping car by taking out the back seats, installing a platform for a bed with storage space underneath, and creating a table and kitchen setup out of the back. Best of luck!

  4. Good read and a good reminder to prepare. Planning is the key. It sounds easy and fun to jump in the car and go but there is actually a lot more to it.

  5. Thanks for sharing such a fantastic ideas. It will be a great source of information for the people who are looking for it.

    1. I totally agree with what you have said, I have taken down notes for our next camping adventures. I need to search more about LED tent lights thou for our tools at night.

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