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
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 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.
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:
- How to Choose a Tent
- How to Choose a Sleeping Bag
- How to Choose a Sleeping Pad
- See all of our Car Camping Gear posts here
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.
Get more tips on what to wear for beginner car camping trip in these blog posts:
- The Best Women’s Hiking Underwear
- Eco-Friendly Outdoor Apparel Brands
- The Best Lightweight Rain Jackets for Hiking
- The Best Women’s Hiking Boots
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.
- The Basic Guidelines of Leave No Trace
- How to Pick a Campsite and Leave No Trace
- How to Reduce Waste on Car Camping Trips
- Campfire Safety Tips
- Trail Etiquette 101: The Basic Rules of Hiking
- How to Poop Outdoors 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.
- Look up local hikes near your campsite – here are some of The Best Trailfinder Apps and Websites for Discovering Local Hikes
- Practice your photography – here are some photography tips from a pro photographer
- Listen to some of the Best Outdoor Podcasts
- Bring along something to keep you occupied at camp: Sketch pad and pencils, a hammock and a great book, a deck of cards, a ukulele or guitar — if you’re musically-inclined
- If you’re camping close town and go out to eat, sit at the bar and chat up the bartender to get some suggestions or local favorites
- Use the REI MTB Project or Trailforks to find local bike trails
- Download a constellation app, like Sky Map, for stargazing on a clear night
Got more questions about beginner car camping? Leave a comment below!