Car Camping Essentials for Beginners

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car camping essentials for beginners

There are different genres of camping and today we’re going to be focusing on Car Camping. To car camp is to “camp at a location where you can drive your car”. If you’re like me, you thought car camping was sleeping in your car, but it’s actually way more rustic and adventurous than that. At the same time, it’s very accessible and great for beginners! If you’ve been wanting to camp for a long time but have just been too nervous to get out there, aren’t sure what you should bring, or just haven’t worked up the motivation yet, no worries! I got you. This is my guide to car camping for beginners.

Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.

Where To Stay Car Camping

car camping essentials for beginners

Of course, the first step to car camping is to select a destination and book a campsite. National and State Parks and Forests are great places to car camp because they are easily accessible and have nice amenities. Visit the National Park Service’s website or your state’s park website to see what camping is available near you. Once you’ve selected a destination, book your car camping spot and prepare for the roadtrip.

Be sure your car is in good condition! Even though you won’t be sleeping in it, it still has to get you there, so be sure to check the oil, tire pressure, and do a general inspection before hitting the road.

Some campsites have better cell service than others so be sure to research your destination and plan accordingly. Google Maps is a great resource to use since you can download maps for later use offline and without service. Other navigation apps include Waze, MapQuest, and Apple Maps.

Now that you’re ready for the roadtrip, it’s time to think about the actual car camping that will be taking place. It’s best to plan your packing list ahead of time to ensure you have a good trip! So let’s get into some specific car camping recommendations.

Make The Campsite A Home

Depending on the person, “setting up camp” can mean a million different things. Some people like to do the bare minimum for survival, some people like to decorate and go the extra mile, others are serial overpackers, and occasionally people underpack. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, I will provide a guide to make sure you have what you need!

Kitchen Essentials For Car Camping

car camping essentials for beginners

Stoves

There are several different ways to cook your food. The most rustic way is cooking over a campfire, which I personally love to do. However, it is time consuming and high maintenance, so sometimes it’s better to have other options available. An easy way to cook is by using a propane stove, and there are different versions and styles of those stoves as well. So here is a list of different possible stoves you can purchase that will work for you:

Cast Iron Cooking

As someone who used to cook (and struggle) with using basic cheap pans while camping, I can tell you that it is absolutely worth it to invest in a cast iron skillet. They heat up quicker, stay hot longer, and disperse heat more evenly than basic frying pans, and I cannot recommend them enough. There are many types of cast iron cooking pots and pans, and there is no specific brand that is better than others, so here are just a few options:

Utensils

Having the proper cutlery definitely makes the cooking and eating process smoother. Luckily, these items are pretty standard, and it’s possible to choose cheaper options with few downsides. Things like reusable plates, bowls, cups, spoons, knives, forks, spatulas, and sharp knives can be bought at any Walmart or Target for relatively cheap, but bringing what you already have at home is even better. I recommend metal silverware over single-use plastics.

Coolers

There are many different brands of coolers of varying quality and price, so here are a few options:

Campsite Feng Shui

car camping essentials for beginners

Every good home needs some furnishing! Even if it’s out in nature. The vibes have to be right. So here are some of the things I use:

Your Humble Abode:

car camping essentials for beginners

The foundation of a good car camping experience is your shelter, lodging, home, haven, whatever you want to call it – it’s a tent! Those four walls of nylon or polyester are what you will be living in during your trip, so you want to make sure you pick one that’s right for you. A lot of variables go into that decision, so I’ve provided several options. Here are my tent recommendations:

Tent

  • My Tent: The North Face Wawona 6 Tent
    • This tent works perfectly for me! It sleeps 6 people, so there’s plenty of space for me, my husband, Sancho, and friends. It is easy to set up and incredibly spacious.
  • My Dual Purpose Tent (for camping & backpacking): REI Co-op Half Dome SL 2+ Tent with Footprint
    • If you’re a more experienced camper and plan to – or already – do some backpacking, this tent is perfect! Lightweight, packs down small, and sleeps 2 people.
  • Budget Option: Coleman Sundome Camping Tent
    • This tent is beginner and budget friendly. It sleeps 2 people and is incredibly easy to set up.
  • Winter Option: OneTigris Iron Wall Tent
    • If you’re brave enough to camp during the winter, you might as well go the extra mile and get a tent you can add a heater to. This tent can accommodate a tent stove that will keep you warm through the night. Obviously, it’s a little more effort to gather firewood and get the coals hot, but it’s definitely worth it! This tent is also lightweight, packs down small, and sleeps 2 people.

Sleep in Style Car Camping

Sleep is what I hold most valuable. It’s very important to get rest while camping so you have the energy to explore during the day. Don’t underestimate the positive impact a great sleeping setup will have on your camping trip – and don’t be afraid to splurge to stay comfortable. Here are my sleeping gear recommendations:

Sleeping Pads

  • Budget Option: Ozark Trail Air Mattress Twin
    • When in doubt, a simple air mattress will do! If your tent dimensions permit it, this is an easy solution to your sleeping woes. It is not lightweight and doesn’t pack down small, and a pump must be purchased separately, but these are small prices to pay for easy comfort.
  • Second Budget Option: Coleman Self-Inflating Camping Pad with Pillow 
    • This simple sleeping pad is easily inflated and ready to go. It is about an inch thick and provides decent cushioning.
  • Thickest Option: NEMO Roamer Sleeping Pad
    • At 4 inches thick, this sleeping pad is top of the line. It is spacious, comfortable, lightweight, packs down small, and provides a great night’s sleep.
  • Best Value Option: ZOOOBELIVES Extra Thickness Inflatable Sleeping Pad 
    • This easily inflatable sleeping pad provides the best bang for your buck. It fits easily within a 2-person tent, holds air throughout the night, is durable, and provides a comfortable night’s sleep. The downsides are it doesn’t pack down small, isn’t lightweight, and is manually inflated, but those aren’t huge issues when car camping.
car camping essentials for beginners

Sleeping Bags

Whether you want some extra padding, to stay nice and toasty during the cool nights, or want to stay cool during the summer, there is a sleeping bag for you! Here are my recommendations:

  • My Sleeping Bag: NEMO Disco 15 Sleeping Bag 
    • This sleeping bag works great for me! It keeps me warm in 17 degree weather, is very soft and comfortable, and packs down for easy transport.
  • Budget Option: Coleman Sun Ridge Sleeping Bag  
    • This basic sleeping bag will keep you comfortable in mild weather and is a great option for beginners who don’t want to spend too much.
  • Budget Winter Option: Coleman Kompact 20 Rectangle Sleeping Bag
    • If you’re venturing outdoors during the fall or winter, you will definitely need a warmer sleeping bag. This option will keep you warm down to 20 degrees and is a great value for the price.
  • Winter Option: NEMO Sonic -20 Sleeping Bag 
    • If you’re a hardened adventurer and are willing to spend the money, this sleeping bag will keep you warm in the coldest of conditions.
  • Two Person Option: NEMO Jazz 30 Double Sleeping Bag
    • If you and a partner are going camping together, might as well cuddle up in the same sleeping bag and stay toasty all night!

Extra Sleeping Things

Weather Appropriate Clothing For Car Camping

car camping essentials for beginners

It’s important to have the right wardrobe when camping. You don’t want to be caught in the outdoors on a 30 degree night with nothing but some leggings and a short sleeved shirt. So here are my recommendations on what clothing to bring camping:

  • Quick dry shirt or Moisture wicking
  • Baselayer
  • Fleece
  • Puffy jacket
  • Rain jacket
  • Leggings
  • Sports bra – I don’t like wearing a bra, so I wear crop tops that have a built in bra
  • Hiking shoes or boots
  • Camp shoes, Sandals or slippers, I wear Tevas or rubber Birkenstocks
  • Wool socks
  • Beanie
  • Hat
  • Sunglass

Additional Things To Bring:

car camping essentials for beginners
  • Dish bucket
  • Soap
  • Sponge
  • Water jug
  • Trash bags
  • Table cloth
  • Dish towel
  • Aluminum foil,
  • Matches
  • Lighter fluid
  • Headlamp
  • Lantern
  • First aid kit
  • Powerbank
  • Toiletry bag
  • Sunscreen
  • Wet wipes
  • Facial wipes
  • Soap
  • Bug spray
  • Poop kit
  • Quick dry towel

Car camping is such a great way to dip your toes into the world of outdoor adventuring. It is very high reward for low effort, but it’s also easy to get stuck out there with improper gear. This guide should set you up for success whenever you decide to take the plunge and start adventuring!

Meet Sunshine
and Sancho

I’m so glad you’re here (and so is Sancho). I’m Sunshine! A Virginia-based travel enthusiast on the hunt for cozy stays, great views, unique experiences, and dog-friendly adventures. Sancho and I have spent the past 3 years exploring Virginia (and beyond) in order to share our favorite places and uncover hidden gems.

Join us on a journey to get out of our comfort zone, take the road less traveled, and explore alongside our furry family members.

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