Nowhere is it written that you’ve got to hike in and out of your camping site to be considered a camper. Driving up to a campsite is just as much of a camping trip as any other type of camping.
In fact, car camping is a great introduction to living in the great outdoors. If you’re just dipping your toes in the world of camping with a quick trip to an accessible campsite, you might be overwhelmed trying to figure out what to bring with you.
Worry no more! We’ve created the ultimate car camping checklist. When you’re done reading this, you’ll feel more prepared and excited about your upcoming adventure.
Tips on How to Pack Your Car Like a Pro
A car camping checklist isn’t enough if you don’t know how to pack everything properly. Here are some tips and tricks for packing your car for your next camping trip.
- Keep all camping documents (copy of reservation confirmation, fishing/hunting license, etc.) in an envelope and readily available in your glove compartment or center console.
- Pack all of the essential items last into your car so that they’re the first to come out! This may include things like tents, fire-making equipment, and kitchenware.
- Utilize every bit of space—store utensils inside a pot. Roll up undies and socks and stuff them into sneakers or boots.
- Use your vertical space. If your car has roof racks, use them to bring bikes, kayaks/canoes, or extra storage containers.
- Pack like-items in heavy-duty storage bins to keep things contained and organized.
- Use seatback and door pockets to store smaller items like maps, sunglasses, or bug spray.
Now let’s dive into what you’ve been waiting for– the ULTIMATE car camping checklist!
Shelter and Comfort
This includes everything you need to keep you and any other campers out of the elements and as comfortable as you desire to be on your camping trip.
If you’re not planning to sleep inside the car you’ve worked hard to pack, you’ve got to have a tent!
A tent footprint will extend the life of your tent, keep you warmer on frozen ground, and make packing your tent up simpler since it will be drier.
If your tent doesn’t already have one, you probably don’t want to skip out on a rain fly to keep your tent nice and dry.
If you’re unsure which one is right for you, check out our post on choosing the right sleeping bag.
A sleeping pad can improve your sleep quality on your next camping trip!
While you could certainly bring your pillow straight from your bed, investing in a camping pillow is a good idea because of space and dirt.
Camping chairs are another item you don’t want to leave off your car camping checklist so you can enjoy time in the great outdoors.
You must have a light source when you go camping, but the type you bring is up to you.
Lanterns provide a lot of light at once. They’re great before people go to bed, but may be frustrating if their shine wakes campers up.
Headlamps are great to have around for focused light when you need to be hands-free.
A trusty flashlight is always good to have around!
Optional Shelter and Comfort Items
Most campsites have picnic tables. A fitted tablecloth provides a clean, splinter-free surface on which to eat or play games.
A camping rug will keep the space where you sleep relatively dirt-and-debris-free.
If your site doesn’t have many shade trees, a portable shade tent is a smart idea to enjoy your time outside during the day.
“Kitchen” covers everything to keep your tummies full on your trip– equipment, food, storage, etc.
Non-perishables are ideal– pasta with jarred sauce, soup, canned veggies, etc.
Camping stoves can be extravagant or simple but are essential for keeping campers fed.
You’ve got to stay hydrated. Some water bottles can even filter the water for you!
A camping cookware set is worth investing in because it is lightweight and compact.
Knives, cutting boards, can openers, spoons, spatulas, and more can be found in camping utensil sets. Plus, most come with a convenient storage case, making it even easier to pack!
Don’t forget cooking oil on your car camping checklist, or you may end up with sticky cooking pans.
Heavy-duty aluminum foil can be used to keep pans clean, clean off cast iron, and even as their own cooking vessels.
Trash bags are essential because the biggest rule of camping is leaving things better than you found them.
A mess kit for each camper will save you money in the long run if you plan to camp often. It also saves space since you don’t have to pack paperware or plastic cutlery.
A good cooler will expand your food and drink options beyond shelf-stable items.
Unless you’ve been practicing to be on the next season of Survivor, you’ll want a lighter or waterproof matches on your car camping checklist to start a fire.
Optional Kitchen Items
Could you use sticks found on the ground? Sure. But bringing your own roasting sticks will make the process cleaner and safe for little hands.
Use a foldable table as an extra work surface when preparing snacks and meals.
Hygiene and Toiletries
Camping doesn’t mean you can’t stay clean. Make sure to pack everything necessary to take care of your body.
Nature is full of bacteria and dirt. Use a squirt of hand sanitizer for a quick clean before eating.
A single multi-purpose bar of soap on your car camping checklist will save space in your car and keep your whole body squeaky clean.
Some campers may not love a campground shower. In that case, baby wipes can do the job in a pinch for a short camping trip.
Grab a pack of Brushees for your next car camping trip. A few of those will get the job done on a short trip and save you from having to get a new toothbrush every trip.
A water-resistant sunscreen is a must-pack on any car camping trip. It’ll stand up to sweat and keep your skin safe from harmful rays.
Bring a bug spray you can use on everything—clothes, tents, gear, and more!
Camping towels are lightweight, compact, and very quick to dry.
Different trips will require different kinds of clothing and shoes. Make sure to take the weather and environment you’ll be camping in when making your car camping checklist.
All types of clothing—undergarments, shirts, pants, etc.— can be found in moisture-wicking fabric. These will keep you cooler, comfortable, and dry.
Even in the middle of summer, nights can get chilly while camping. Make sure to add a thin, warm layer to your car camping checklist.
Keep your toes safe in a pair of sneakers or boots. Campgrounds are full of sharp or rough objects you won’t want around your bare feet.
Even if rain isn’t in the forecast, it’s smart to have a rain jacket for everyone so the fun can keep going in a rain shower.
Optional Clothing Items
Warm Weather Clothes
If camping in the summer, bring your bathing suit, sandals, and hat for fun in the sun!
Cold Weather Clothes
Having a simple tool kit on your car camping trip is important. Things will break, and you should be prepared for whatever may be thrown at you.
If you add no other tools to your car camping checklist, add duct tape. It can fix broken gear, cover blistered feet, seal up food, and more.
A simple first aid kit will take care of minor bumps, cuts, and bruises, so your camping fun doesn’t have to stop.
A single multi-tool can act as a hammer, saw, knife, bottle opener, and more! Keep it nearby while camping to help with any problems that arise.
If you bring anything that’s battery-powered, add extra batteries to your car camping checklist as backups. Put them in a storage case to stay organized, and you can be ready for anything.
Bungee cords are another multi-purpose tool that’s always smart to have around. They can create a wash line to dry clothes, make firewood easier to carry, and attach extra items to your car for the drive to or from the campsite.
These items aren’t critical to add to a car camping checklist, but certainly consider adding them to upgrade your camping trip!
Many campgrounds are known for certain types of wildlife. Bring along a pair of binoculars to explore the area beyond what your eyes can see so you can grab a peek at them, too.
It’s great to unplug while camping, but it’s also smart to have a way to communicate in case of an emergency. A solar-powered charging station will keep your phone usable for the entire trip.
A weekend camping trip is the perfect excuse to finally crack open that book that’s been in your “to be read” pile for the last few months!
Even if you’re not backpacking, having a backpack on your car camping trip is nice to bring along on adventures like kayaking and hikes.
A local field guide will help you open your eyes to all the wildlife and vegetation surrounding you on your car camping trip. Grab a book for deep dives or a pocket guide with a checklist to make a game of it. See how many you can cross off each time you camp!
Sleeping at a campground in a tent can be challenging. Bring ear plugs and an eye mask to help dull your sense to new things that could keep you awake at night.
If you’re camping in an area with bears, especially grizzlies, this is less optional and more of a strong suggestion. While you hope not to need it, a can of bear spray is easy to carry and will give you peace of mind.
A waterproof blue-tooth speaker means you can set the mood with music or have a twilight dance party next to your campfire. Just be considerate of your neighbors!
Why Have a Car Camping Checklist?
Having one place to reference when packing your car for a camping trip is critical to ensure you don’t forget anything.
Unlike a trip to a hotel, with amenities included, if you forget something camping… you just go without.
We want you to be prepared for whatever your trip may throw at you, including a lot of fun!
Factors to Consider When Creating a Car Camping Checklist
To confidently mark items off or add things to your car camping checklist, there are a few factors to consider.
Type of Camping
Just because you’re driving to a campsite doesn’t mean all camping is created equally.
- Are you planning a relaxing weekend for yourself and a loved one?
- Is this going to be an adventure-packed trip for a large group?
- Will any kids be with you?
- Where are you planning on sleeping?
The answers to these questions will lead to very different camping needs. Packing for a couple of adults will be much lighter than for an entire family. An adventurous weekend of activities may mean you need special equipment with you.
When you’re finalizing your packing checklist, ensure you’ve got everything you need for your type of camping.
Size of Car
Your car’s size will ultimately dictate what you can pack.
The car camping checklist of a two-door sedan will look different than that of an SUV or truck.
If you’re going camping in a smaller car, look for collapsible, foldable, lightweight options of the items on our list. Smart buying and smart packing mean you can go on a great camping trip no matter what.
Individual Needs of Campers
Consider the people with whom you’re camping.
Pack extra toys, games, and activities for children. Additional kitchen gear should be added for any foodies. Extra comfort items can be brought for a camper in their golden years.
Craft the car camping checklist for your party’s needs for a lifetime trip.
Wrapping Up Your Car Camping Checklist
The only thing standing between you and a great car camping trip is a little planning and packing. Take your car camping checklist, load everything up, and get to adventuring!
Looking for some location inspiration? Check out our guides to the Best Camping Destinations in your state!
- About the Author
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Stephanie Lamberth is a writer who enjoys exploring new places and helping others feel prepared to make incredible memories.
While not a seasoned wilderness expert, Stephanie has enjoyed and learned a ton on the camping trips she’s taken and has a unique perspective as the child of full-time RVers. With firsthand exposure to the RV lifestyle, Stephanie has insight into the comforts and challenges it can bring.
Stephanie can help bridge the gap between rookie samper and seasoned outdoorsman to help you make the most of your own camping adventures!
She currently lives in Tennessee with her husband and three children.
Stephanie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org