Car Camping Essentials: Packing Checklist (with Printable PDF)

Use my car camping checklist to get organized, pack quickly, and avoid forgetting the essentials!

A woman sits on top of an RTIC cooler outside of a MSR Habitude Tent while car camping

Camping outside can be just as comfortable as being at home – except you get the added bonus of enjoying the great outdoors! However, I know how easy it can be to forget little items that make a big difference on your camping trip. Forgetting a can opener, bug spray, or a warm jacket can be a huge bummer if you are already set up at your campsite and far away from a store.

To help you (and myself) stay organized, I created this car camping packing checklist. It is helpful whether you are a beginners who is learning how to car camp or if you’ve been camping for years and just need a checklist to help you pack efficiently and stay organized. This includes all my car camping must-haves (both essential items and some comfort pieces I never camp without).

I keep a printable version of this checklist on my phone so I can keep tabs while I pack and never forget anything. In this post, I’m excited to share all the details of what I bring car camping, including sleeping essentials, kitchen items, camping furniture, clothing, food, and other gear.

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    Sleeping Gear

    I recommend bringing the gear listed below to help you get a good night’s rest. Read my post about how to sleep comfortably in a tent for more tips.

    • Tent: For car camping, get a spacious tent with enough room to sleep comfortably and change clothes in. Even if there will only be one or two people sleeping in it, a three or four-person tent is nice to have. I have the REI Base Camp 4. It’s spacious, has 5’3″ of headroom, lots of pockets, and excellent ventilation. For more details, see my REI Base Camp 4 Review.
    • Sleeping pad: Sleeping pads are rated on an R-scale between 0 – 6. The higher the R-rating, the warmer the sleeping pad will be. For car camping during the summer and shoulder season months, an R-rating between 2-4 should be perfect. Check out my review on the NEMO Roamer Sleeping Pad which comes in one and two-person versions.
    • Sleeping bag: The two main considerations you want to think about when choosing a sleeping bag are temperature rating and shape. A temperate rating of 20-40° is usually adequate for summer car camping depending on when and where you plan on camping. The shape is more of a personal preference. Rectangular bags will allow you to move around more while a mummy bag will be warmer and more lightweight if you also plan to use it backpacking. If you need recommendations, head to my roundup of the best women’s sleeping bags for backpacking or the best 2-person sleeping bags if you’re camping with a partner.
    • Pillow: I usually just like to bring my pillow from home. But if you’re short on space, you can pack a compact camping pillow.
    Two people sitting in high-backed camp chairs in front of tent at campsite in Yosemite National Park
    For car camping, get a tent that is spacious so you have room to stand up, move around, and change

    Camp Kitchen

    I recommend starting an outdoor cooking bin to make it easy to grab when it’s time to hit the road. Of course, you can bring whatever cookware you have in your home kitchen, but if you want a dedicated camp cooking setup, this is what I recommend:

    • Camp stove: I use the Eureka Ignite Plus stove when I go car camping. It’s efficient with propane, gets very hot and has great simmer control
    • Cooler: The RTIC 45 QT Hard Cooler is my car camping cooler of choice. It’s the perfect size for comfortably keeping a weekend’s worth of food and drinks cold.
    • Cookset: You’ll need something to cook out of, including a pot (for boiling pasta or making chili), a frying pan, and some cooking utensils. The Stanley Even-Heat Camp Pro Cookset comes with everything you need and nests together for easy packing and storing.
    • Dinnerware: Pack plates and bowls so you have something to eat out of. For 2 people, I recommend a set of 4 so you have a couple extra plates and bowls which are helpful when you are prepping food. I recently upgraded my plastic camping dinnerware to this Snowpeak Stainless Steel Tableware Set. It is lightweight, stacks efficiently and cleans up easily.
    • Cooking utensils and cutlery: In your bin of camp cooking supplies, you’ll want some durable, easy-to-use, easy-to-clean cooking utensils. The GSI Outdoors Destination Kitchen Set comes with 24 utensils including a spatula, a large spoon, a knife, cutlery for 4, a small cutting board, a bottle for cooking oil and dish soap, and more.
    • Dish bucket: Bring a collapsible bucket or two to make doing dishes easy. I like to bring one for wash water and one for rinse water.
    • Insulated mug: Keep beverages warm when you’re camping in cool weather or cold when camping in the heat of summer with an insulated mug.
    • Coffee maker: Although I don’t drink coffee anymore, my favorite method for making it when I did was the AeroPress Go. Read more about it in my review of the Aeropress Go and how to use it.
    • Clean-up towels: I have a few hand-sized quick-dry towels in my van for drying dishes and wiping off surfaces. Cotton towels don’t work well on the road because they dry slowly and get heavy and smelly when wet. Quick-dry towels are great for cleaning up after camp meals.
    • Tablecloth: Campground tables can be a little dirty so it’s nice to have a picnic table cover to put on top, both for cleanliness and ambiance.
    • Reusable water bottle: A reusable insulated water bottle is key for staying hydrated, keeping your water cold, and eliminating single-use plastics when camping.
    • Water jug: Even if the campground has potable water, you’ll want a water jug so you don’t have to make countless trips back and forth to the spigot. I use mine to refill water bottles, wash my hands, and do dishes at camp.
    • Fuel: Depending on how you plan to cook, you’ll need propane for a gas stove or charcoal if you are grilling.
    • System for washing dishes: for doing dishes, you’ll need biodegradable dish soap, a dish brush, and two buckets. Put soapy water and the dirty dishes in the first bucket and rinse the dishes in the
    • Miscellaneous items: can opener, lighter, paper towels, trash bags, and tupperware for leftovers
    Stanley water jug
    Having a large water jug makes it a lot easier to cook and do dishes without having to run to the spigot

    Camp Furniture

    Below are a few of my favorite car camping gear essentials to make relaxing at camp an enjoyable experience.

    • Hammock: If you’re like me, you like to set up a comfortable hammock at camp to take a nap in, read a book, or listen to a podcast. The ENO SingleNest Hammock is one of my car camping essentials because it packs down small, it’s easy to set up, and it’s super comfortable.
    • Car camping chairs: Whether you’re sitting around the fire or watching the sunset from your campsite, collapsable chairs are a car camping must. Check out my roundup of the best camping chairs.
    • Camp table: A camp table can help keep gear organized and speed up dish duty at the end of the day. I love whipping up delicious camp meals, so a sturdy and reliable camp kitchen table is a must. These are the best camping tables I’ve found.
    A woman's feet in hiking boots laying in a green hammock at a campsite while man cooks meal on camp stove
    Camp furniture like a hammock makes my campsite feel so much more cozy

    Electronics

    • Headlamp: A headlamp is essential for car camping. I like to keep mine in the side pocket of my tent and use it if I need to wake up and pee in the middle of the night. Check out my favorite headlamps for hiking and camping.
    • String lights: I love using string lights ambient lighting, plus they make your campsite look cozy and festive.
    • Lantern: A lantern can provide ample light for cooking, playing cards, or organizing gear in the dark.
    • Portable power bank: I use a portable power bank like the EcoFlow RIVER Portable Power Station to keep my devices charged, especially when I’m camped in one place for a few days and don’t want to run my car.
    • Speaker: If you’re a music-lover and want to listen to some tunes around the campsite, this JBL Flip 5 Eco Portable Waterproof Speaker is small, compact, and puts out great sound. Just be sure to practice good campsite etiquette by respecting quiet hours and neighbors camping around you by keeping the volume low.
    These are some of the electronics I have with me in my tent when I’m car camping – a power bank, a headlamp, and string lights

    Clothing

    What clothing you decide to bring on your car camping trip depends on where you’re going, the weather, and what outdoor activities you’ll be doing.

    • Quick-dry tees: I prefer quick-dry tees because they don’t hold onto odors so they can be worn multiple times, dry quickly, and don’t cling to me when I get sweaty on the trail.
    • Long-sleeve base layer: Even if the forecast predicts fair weather and warm temps, I always pack a long-sleeve base layer.
    • Fleece: Nights can get chilly while car camping, so a warm fleece is definitely a car camping essential for me.
    • Insulated puffy: For cold nights, I bring a warm insulated jacket (see my review of the Patagonia Nano Puff). Just be sure to stay far enough away from the fire to avoid flying embers from burning small holes in your jacket!
    • Rain jacket: A rain jacket is another item I always pack “just in case” – you never know what the weather might do – plus a rain jacket can double as a windbreaker!
    • Leggings: I love leggings because they are comfy on those long drives to the campsite and serve as functional athletic wear on the trail. I even wear them to bed!
    • Quick-dry underwear: Moisture-wicking undies are a must for car camping trips, especially if you’ll be hiking. Here are the best underwear that stay put and wick sweat.
    • Sports bra: In my opinion, sports bras are more comfortable and practical for car camping than normal bras because you can also wear them while hiking or doing other outdoor activities.
    • Hiking boots or shoes: If you plan on hitting the trails while you camp, check out the best hiking and trail shoes.
    • Camp shoes: I recommend a camp shoe that is supportive, yet comfortable and will allow your feet to breathe and relax while you’re driving and hanging out in the evenings. In my review of the Teva Universal Trail Sandals, I explain why they are my go-to camp shoes.
    • Beanie: I like to wear a beanie at night to keep me warm in my tent and around the campfire.
    • Sun hat: I wear a sun hat during the day while camping to protect my scalp from the sun.
    Woman's feet in hiking boots propped on a rock around a campfire with two dogs behind it
    I always pack warm layers to throw on at night time while camping

    Toiletries

    While the point of many car camping trips is to get outside and enjoy nature without worrying about what you look like, it’s also nice to feel somewhat clean while camping. Here are my tips for staying fresh and clean on the road, along with my favorite toiletries below.

    • First aid kit: It’s always a good idea to have a first-aid kit in your car, especially on a car camping trip. It’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared! If you don’t have one, here’s my guide on how to build your own hiking first aid kit.
    • Biodegradable soap: I always pack biodegradable soap and make sure I’m at least 200 feet away from lakes and water sources before using it.
    • Sunscreen: I use sunscreen along with other sun protection for hiking and camping to protect my skin from sun damage.
    • Wet wipes: Wet wipes are super handy for quickly cleaning your body or face after a sweaty hike or dusty drive.
    • Travel-size toiletries: Full-size toiletries like toothpaste and lotion take up a lot of unnecessary room, so I stock up on travel-size toiletries for camping.
    • Bug spray: I always bring items like bug spray to repel mosquitos while hiking, backpacking, and camping.
    • Toiletry bag: To keep all of my toiletries organized and contained, I stash them in a lightweight toiletry bag and hang it from the roof of my tent or a tree branch.
    • Poop kit: If you’re camping somewhere where there are no bathroom facilities, you should know how to poop outside and leave no trace and bring a poop kit with a trowel, toilet paper, and plastic bag to pack out TP.
    • Quick-dry towel: Normal towels aren’t great for car camping because they take a long time to dry and often get smelly after a few uses. I use quick-dry towels because they dry fast, plus they’re light and packable.
    Group of women sitting in a circle in camp chairs at campsite with tents set up behind them
    When camping with a group, you all get to be dirty together!

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Is it okay to sleep in your car while camping?

    If you’d rather sleep in your car than a tent, that is definitely okay to do. I typically sleep in my van when camping. It ultimately depends on the weather conditions and personal preference. Depending on your vehicle, it can also be hard to fit all of your car camping essentials inside and have enough room to sleep comfortably. That means you’ll have to be shuffling your stuff from the back to the front or even storing some of your stuff outside at night. If you do that, make sure to store your food inside your vehicle.

    What do you need for car camping?

    This checklist is a great starting point for bringing what you need car camping. A few items you’ll definitely need to bring include food, water, shelter, warm layers, toiletries, and sleeping necessities like a sleeping bag. Depending on how much space you have, you may need to narrow down this camping checklist and bring the bare minimum.

    How to stay warm when car camping?

    To keep warm while car camping, make sure you bring an insulated sleeping pad with a high R-Value, a sleeping bag with the appropriate temperature rating, and warm layers including a beanie, gloves, and thick socks. I’ve found that having a campfire and eating a small snack before bed also helps me stay warm while car camping. Another trick is to boil water, pour it into a Nalgene water bottle, and keep it in the bottom of your sleeping bag to warm your feet.

    How do I organize my car camping gear?

    I prefer to have different tubs or bags with categories of camping items. For example, I have a tub dedicated to my camping kitchen supplies. If you organize your items into different bags ahead of time, you can quickly find what you’re looking for instead of wasting time rummaging.

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    Do you have favorite car camping essentials not listed above? What’s on your car camping packing list? Share in the comments below!

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    7 Comments

    1. Great list! I always throw in a handful of snap glow sticks. Great for the potty trail if you have to get up at night.
      Also, please leave the speaker at home. We’ve had many nights out ruined by the party next door. Ear buds, please.

      1. Hi Mandy — we try to stick away from single-use plastic items, which is why we recommend a lantern or headlamp, but I think a colorful string light could be a fun way to add some glow and assist for nighttime bathroom breaks. I agree with you on loud music while camping. It’s kept us up at night too, and hopefully people will heed the “be respectful and keep it low” disclaimer.

    2. Never bring ANY music or electronic devices that play musics when camping. It’s noise pollution and comparable to littering all over a campsite. You don’t need cell phones camping, particularly to play “music.”

      1. Hi Michael, we agree that you don’t need music to camp, but the reality is that some people enjoy it & we can’t change how people choose to camp. Instead, we try to offer a solution by including the note about being respectful of neighbors and quiet hours.

    3. We always pack two small rugs —one for outside the tent and one for inside to keep shoes on. That way dirt doesn’t get tracked around the tent so much. Also have a solar light to hang on the top loop inside the tent to give just enough light to undress by.