Packing Lists for Travel,  Road Trip Tips

10 Essentials You Need to Pack for Car Camping

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If you know me at all, you know that the majority of my desire to go camping includes being near my car so I don’t have to pack a bunch of gear, food, and water in and out. I’m just not a super Outdoorsy Person, so car camping is my jam. And over the years, I’ve slowly pulled together the items that should be on every car camping packing list.

Since I’m not big into the great outdoors, I normally wouldn’t write a post about car camping though… and then Covid-19 happened. In the face of a changing travel landscape, I’ve already shared my thoughts that road trips are the first way people will travel en masse – socially distanced, of course.

But some folks are uncertain about staying in hotels or Airbnbs yet, even though they want to go on a road trip. This is a perfect opportunity to try car camping for yourself! While I already have a road trip packing list, I thought I needed a second list of the gear you need if you’re planning to camp in or near your car while taking a road trip. Read on for the list of essentials you need to have on your car camping packing list.

Car Camping Packing List Basics

Pack for Car Camping - View out of Tent

Every car camping packing list has these basics – but I’m pretty sure you already know you need them. Here are my recommendations anyway:

  • Tent – Years ago, I invested in a tent because I dreamed of being a big Outdoorsy Person. I love my Tarptent, an ultralight tent that doesn’t require a ground cloth. It packs down small and can fit easily in the back of a car without taking up space.
  • Sleeping Pad – The sleeping pad can be one of the biggest things you pack… because they take up a lot of space. This basic self-inflating sleeping pad from REI is a good option that will roll down a little bit smaller than non-inflating options.
  • Sleeping Bag – Like my tent purchase, I did a ton of research about sleeping bags. While I love that bag, there’s a lot better sleeping bag tech available nowadays. That’s why when I bought Mr. V a sleeping bag a few years ago, I went with this one from The North Face. Lightweight, multi-season, packs small… perfect for car camping!
  • Cooler – Yeti has a real corner on the cooler market, don’t they! Instead of blowing your car camping road trip budget on a cooler, go with the tried and true. Coleman still makes coolers in all sizes at a reasonable price that will keep your food fresh and drinks cool.
  • Dishes, Food, Drinks & Stuff – Without diving too deeply here, don’t forget to bring dishes, food, and water. If you’re car camping along a road trip, you might only need to bring 1-2 meals a day instead of all 3 for traditional multi-day camping.

With these basics, you have enough to eat and sleep between days of adventure or driving. Like I said though, there are still some other items you may want to pack!

What to Pack for Car Camping

Those basics are great… but they’re basics, after all. Whenever I write a packing list, I like to cover the essentials, especially those ones you might forget to pack. In the rest of my car camping packing list, I’ll cover 10 of those items you might be on the fence about fitting in the car – and a few small items that will definitely fit and come in handy.

1. Car Pillow

Whether you’re hitting the road to drive to an epic camping spot or headed out on a multi-day road trip, having a pillow for the car and for sleeping is clutch.

This foam pillow from REI is a good option that won’t take up a ton of space or leave your neck wrecked in the morning.

2. Hammock

If you’re car camping, you have some sleep options. You can sleep in the back of the car or a tent… or a hammock, if you’re visiting somewhere with trees!

I have a lightweight stuffable hammock that I love because it turns any parking area or campsite into a relaxing getaway once you slip into the hammock.

3. Cooking Stove & Fuel

Similar to my tent and sleeping bag selections, this magically non-Outdoorsy Person somehow managed to choose a really good cooking stove when doing my camping gear purchases way back in the day.

I’m not sure what brand I have, but it is super similar to the MSR Pocket Rocket and screws onto fuel cans. While this isn’t as sophisticated as a full camping stove, it’ll do for cooking fun camping foods on the road.

4. Duct Tape

While road warriors probably keep a roll of duct tape in the car at all times, the rest of us will need to remember to bring some. It’s useful for patching holes, reattaching bumpers, and just generally sticking stuff together. It’s an essential that takes up basically no space and will be invaluable if you need it.

(Also: Call me picky, but I can’t go with these off-brand or Amazon generic duct tapes. There’s only one brand of Duck, I mean, Duct Tape!)

5. Rope Line

Like duct tape, having a rope handy is just one of those things you need if you’re doing any kind of camping – car or otherwise. You can use rope in many ways, from emergencies to creating a line for laundry.

It takes up zero space, too. Throw it in the back o’ the car!

6. Swiss Army Knife

I don’t need to expound why a Swiss Army Knife is an essential for any time you’re going outdoors. What I do need to expound on is how many different kinds of Swiss Army Knives there are.

This one is the Explorer Knife, has all the gadgets and goodies, and looks perfect for car campingg and road tripping.

7. Headlamp

I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure there’s no greater Outdoorsy Person noob move than bringing a flashlight that limits you to one hand for essential tasks (like using the toilet!). A headlamp per person is definitely essential if you’re car campnig along your road trip route.

I actually just bought this exact Petzl headlamp a few weeks ago and love it. I took it caving and will be using it a ton for stargazing as it also has a red light mode.

8. Camp Towel

Back in my day (early 90s, yo! ?), my mom would throw a whole roll of paper towels in the car every time we hit the road. Good for messy kids, bad for mother earth.

Nowadays, I’d recommend a couple of these camping towels instead. They’re absorbent, reusable, durable, can handle washing in a sink or creek, and won’t generate a ton of trash in the car or at your campsite.

9. Toilet Paper

After my trip to Central Asia last year, I pretty much never travel without toilet paper; you just never know when you won’t have some and need it!

Like paper towels, my mom used to throw a roll of TP in the car for all road trips (smart mom!) but it isn’t earth-friendly and you don’t want to have to pack it out…

That’s why this biodegradable toilet tissue from REI is small but super handy in the event nature calls while you’re out exploring it.

10. Chapstick

I’ll be honest: I don’t have this exact chapstick because I’m still working through almost 7 years of free chapstick I get at all the travel blogger conferences I’ve attended…

But it’s one of those tiny valuable things that’s easy to forget and I always regret it when I do. Travel, especially road trips where you sit in the car all day, can be weirdly dehydrating – having chapstick can help your lips, cuticles, everything else from getting too dried out and cracking.

With the basis plus these 10 essentials, you have a complete car camping packing list. Have other questions about my car camping packing list? Let me know in the comments!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.


  • Brie

    Great list but you forgot some coffee gadgets! A MiiR would be great for car camping coffee, as you could use any cup you have in the car with you! But maybe that’s just the freak in me, I think about coffee most hours of every day ?

  • kil

    I’m 40 years old and this life style is very appealing. I have a pickup with a 6ft bed and a self inflating camping mat. Have been thinking of buying a topper, installing a sleeping platform with storage. I have a couple of questions. What do you recommend for meals, food storage etc. showers, hygiene and toilet facilities.

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      Thanks for reading, Kil. I’m not a camping blog so not the best expert to recommend on the topics you’re asking about – but I recommend checking around for some camping blogs that can provide that (such as the original one you linked to…).

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