Car Camping Checklist: Beginner’s Guide to Fun Car Camping

Car Camping Checklist
Sean Nelson
Written by Sean Nelson

When the warm weather comes rolling in, people start getting excited that camping season is just around the corner. Fishing at the lake, late night laughs by the fire, and, of course, S’mores, who wouldn’t be excited to go camping? Depending on where you live, you can so far out from the city, there’s no else around you for miles, it’s just you and the wilderness.

Of course, there are some people that go camping without preparing. They just throw some underwear and a box of granola bars in a backpack and they’re off. This isn’t a bad way to go camping, however, if you’re interested in camping with more comfort, try car camping. Many of us love being in nature but like the comfort of their homes in the city. In addition, if you have children, you’ll need to be prepared with their toys, clothing and safety kits.

Car Camping Essentials

If this is your first time car camping, you may not be sure about what you need to bring with you as car camping is slightly different. This is completely understandable as it takes a couple tries to figure out what you need and don’t need to bring along with you.

But, you don’t need to experience a couple failed car camping trips to get the hang of things. Instead, in this article, we’re going to show you the car camping checklist. That way, you’re fully prepared and can enjoy the car camping experience knowing you have everything you need.

Why Make a Checklist?

Though a car camping checklist isn’t required before you go camping, it’s definitely a great thing to spend some time on before your trip. When we’re caught up in the moment of getting everything together, it’s easy to forget something small, like a sponge for washing dishes. When you’re at your camping spot, you’ll be upset that you didn’t bring it. Plus, if you have children, you know how important it is to stay on top of things.

Car Camping Checklist

In addition, if you’re car camping in the wilderness, it’s not so easy to go out to the store and pick up what you forgot. Of course, you can drive but usually, you’re far away from any store. This is why we recommend that you plan ahead of time. Yes, we know that planning takes a lot of time and can be frustrating, however, you want your camping experience to have the least amount of stress.

See also: Hiking with Kids: How to Make the Most of Trailblazing with Tots

Lastly, if you have children, making a car camping checklist beforehand is absolutely necessary. On top of raising your children, having to remember what you need to pack off the top of your head is no easy task. Why your baby’s crying or screaming, trying to remember what you need to pack can be a challenge in itself.

Now that you know why you need a car camping checklist, we’re going to talk about the importance of location when car camping.

The importance of location

If this is your first time camping, it’s important to research where you’re going to be going whet pick someplace off the or you’re going to choose a campsite. Location is important, for example, most national parks will require you to reserve ahead of time. In addition, if you choose to stay off the beaten path, you’ll need to make sure that where you’re staying is legal.


Finding a campsite where you can reserve a spot via phone or online is a great idea. Sure, you can take a leap of faith and go without a reservation, however, during campaign season everything will most likely be booked. Thus, by reserving your spot, you won’t be looking for one at the last minutes. So, take a couple minutes and reserve your spot at least a couple months in advance. We’re not joking about camping season, people take it seriously.

Camping At The Campsite

First come, first serve? Well, if you’re someone who likes to do things spontaneously, there are some campsites that are based on a first-come, first serve basis. So, if you’re not on a strict schedule, then you can try out some of these campsites for fun.

Though, you’ll be camping from your car, you’ll want to make sure the campsite has some features which may be helpful to you. Some campsites have utilities such as running water, showers, toilets and even playgrounds for kids. So, do your research when looking for a campsite and pick one that suits your needs. Do note, that smaller campsites will most likely have fewer amenities, but it depends on what you prefer.

Off the beaten path

If you choose to car camp the traditional way, which is to park your car wherever you want, this is also a great idea. This will definitely give you a more private and authentic experience in comparison to car camping at a campsite. Though, you do want to make sure that where you park your car is legal.

Camping Off The Path

You can use apps such as Hipcamp or AllStays to check where you can legally park your car. You can opt for free or paid locations that allow you to set up camp for the night. Now that you know the options you have when it comes to location, it’s time we gave you a couple valuable tips for car camping. We want your experience to be memorable and of course, positive.

Tips for Car Camping

Before you go ahead and create a checklist, it’s important to read up on some of these tips that can help you out when it comes to deciding on what you need to bring with you on your holiday.

Mattress or sleeping pads

You may not think you need one, however, if you suffer from back problems, you’ll thank us. These are generally easy to pack and extremely lightweight. If you’re worried about them taking up too much space, think again. Check out our article on how to choose the best ultralight sleeping bag for more choices.

Sleeping pad and pillow

They’re designed to be as compact as possible, they’re simply here to provide you with some cushion and comfort from floor of your car. Before you go car camping, make sure you test out your mattress and see if it comfortably fits in your car.

Don’t forget to stay charged

When you’re car camping, you’ll want to stay connected to friends and family. Of course, during the day, you’re able to charge your devices in your phone, however, at night, you won’t be able to.

Thus, you’ll want to keep a rechargeable battery ready to use for your device. It’ll be able to fully charge your device while you sleep so it’s ready for the morning. For the best solar backpack, check out our earlier article on this topic.

Car activities for children

Depending on the age of your children, you’ll want to make sure that you have enough activities to entertain them with if the weather decides to go south on you.

Camping In a Car

Of course, your children will love exploring the woods and go swimming in the lake, however, once the rain comes, they’re not going to be doing any of that.

See also: Cool Camping Ideas: 20 Hacks to Make Camping More Fun

You tell me what child likes being stuck inside their car without anything to do? Exactly. So, just in case, bring activities such as coloring books, movies or comic books along in case of poor weather. Your sanity will thank you.

Keep it simple

When you’re preparing for your camping trip, you’re going to think you’ll need all these extra gadgets and equipment for your trip. You don’t need them. People tend to get carried away specifically when it comes to cooking equipment.

Simple Car Camping

The most important thing in regards to this is to keep it simple. Bring the essentials such as a cutting board, knife, utensils, washing, one skillet, one pot tub, and tongs. Of course, your equipment will depend on your the meal plan you made, however, these are general and simple items.

Don’t forget the bed

Yeah, you’re sleeping in a car but that doesn’t mean you’re going to stay warm. The car will act as a great source of protection, however, you cannot leave your car running with the heat on all night. So, bring everything you need for a comfy bed.

Car Bed

At the end of it, it’s still camping so you’ll need a solid sleeping bag and pillow. Remember, a car can become just as cold as a tent.

Don’t overheat in your car

You remember opening your car on a hot summer’s day and feeling a huge gust of hot air hit your face? That’s not what you want to happen while you’re camping in your car. When you’re sleeping in your car, the vehicle can quickly fog up and collect moisture – what you don’t want.

So, ventilation is very important. Make sure some of the windows are cracked open and if you have a sunroof, open it up and place a layer of mesh over it to prevent insects from entering the car. Then, you’ll have a constant flow of air.

Man Sleeping in a Car

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Nature is wild

We tend to forget this when we go car camping. We’re so used to the city life that we forget that wild animals live in around us. With that being said, you’ll have to take extra precaution when going car camping.

If you have children, don’t let them venture off too far away from your area and always make sure your food is put in your car when you leave your campsite or when sleeping night. Having a black bear rummaging through your food in the middle of the night is the last thing you want to happen.

Bear Near Car

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If you don’t have enough room in your car at night, hang your food up in a tree or seal it tightly in your cooler. Though nature is beautiful, nature is still wild. For tips on how to scare a bear, check out our article for more information.

Car Camping Essentials

Now that you know why you should make a car camping checklist, it’s time we actually helped you set up your car camping checklist. Car camping is relatively easy to prepare for and you don’t need a large budget to do so. Here’s what you’ll need to bring with you on your camping trip:


If you’re going to be driving into areas which are isolated, then you want to make sure you, at the very least, have a navigation system such as a GPS. In addition, also have a physical map and compass with you.

Map And Compass

We know that you’re probably thinking that you have your phone which is has a compass and map on it, but don’t rely on technology. Always make sure you have a physical map tucked in your dashboard.

Sleeping material

Like we said before, just because you’re sleeping in a car doesn’t mean it won’t get cold. Cars can become really cold at night to sleep in, so you’ll want to make sure that you’re well supplied with blankets.


In addition, sleeping on the cold car floor isn’t our idea of a good night. So make sure you bring along a mattress or foam pad, it’ll lift your body off the car floor and give you extra sleeping support.

First aid kit

We know that you’re probably very agile and careful, however, when you’re car camping in the wilderness, literally anything can happen. Never go car camping without a first aid kit.

First Aid Kit

In addition, you’ll also want to prepare a safety kit which will contain extra water bottles, flashlight, lantern, batteries and purifying water tablets. Though you probably won’t need these items, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Clothes, toiletries, and personal items

You’re car camping, so what will probably happen is that you’ll end up wearing the same outfit for three days. Don’t pack heavy when it comes to clothing. Depending on the season, of course, you want to bring light and easily dryable pants, cotton t-shirts, a fleece sweater, bathing suit and a rain jacket.

We recommend that you do bring along with you more than enough socks and a thermal pair of underwear, just in case.

Personal Items

For toiletries, you want to bring with you a washcloth, your personal hygiene items and don’t forget a roll or two of toilet paper. If you’re going to be car camping in an area known for wildlife, always keep all these items in your car.


It doesn’t have to be a giant one, but you want to bring with you a small toolbox with some of the essentials such as a hammer, ax, and screwdriver. If you need to chop wood, you’ll be happy you brought the ax.

These tools aren’t necessary but they definitely make things easier. In addition, make sure you have all the necessary tools for your car in the trunk, just in case you get a flat tire or need to make some minor fixes.

Food and drinks

Food and drinks are a huge part of camping. We recommend that you do a general meal plan prior to your camping trip. This way, you know exactly what you need to buy and put into your cooler. So, lay out the week and go through each meal of the day.

Car Camping Cooler

This way, you won’t be wasting any food. Keep the meals simple, it’s camping, so you can relax. Hotdogs, chili, corn on the cob and meat are great for camping.

Because there’s no refrigeration while car camping, you’re going to have to make sure your food is kept cold which is really important when camping. The last thing you need is food poisoning when you’re out in the wilderness. So, there are a couple different ways to protect your food.

  • Car cooler: You can have a car cooler which is usually used for quick snacks and small lunches. This is great for when you’re on the road to your campsite.
  • Meat cooler: This is the cooler that you’re going to be filling up with a lot of ice. It’s really important to make sure your meat products are kept in a cool environment. You’ll be able to store your hamburger meat or hotdogs without having to worry. If your cooler is too cold, simply take out your meat a couple hours before your meal to allow it to defrost.
  • A second cooler: You’ll want to have another cooler for everything else. If you only wish to have one cooler, that’s fine, however, make sure that you wrap your meat up very well to prevent cross contamination with your fruits and veggies. So, in the case that you have a second cooler, you’ll be able to fill it up with everything else. Place your vegetables, fruits, dairy products, condiments and drinks in this cooler. Make sure you have enough ice in it to keep your dairy products at an optimal temperature.
  • Dry goods box: You’ll also be bringing along with you dried goods such as oatmeal, pancake mix, tea, cooking oil and spices. They need to be stored somewhere, so grab a cardboard or plastic container and place everything in there. If you’re placing oil and vinegar in this box, make sure you double wrap it to prevent leakage.

Cooking Equipment

Don’t get carried away and bring with you your backyard BBQ, you need to keep it simple. Here’s what you should be packing with you on your trip.

  • Utensils – you’ll want to bring with your forks, knives and spoons, wooden spoon, a heatproof spatula, tongs and a kitchen cloth for drying. We recommend that you also bring a plastic tub which you can use to store these items and double as a washing tub.
  • Fuel – you’re going to have to create heat if you want to eat. Bring matches, some newspaper and a lighter to help you start a fire. If you have a camping stove, then you’ll need propane, so make sure you bring enough.
  • Prep equipment – these are tools to help you make your meals. So, bring at least one sharp knife, a couple small knives, a cutting board, aluminum foil (bring a lot, you’re going to be using it to keep your dishes warm), paper towels, serving bowls and of course, plates and cups. If you have all of these items, you will not struggle when preparing your meal. It’ll be like when you’re cooking at home.
  • Cooking equipment – well, you’re going to need some cooking gear in order to actually cook your food. Yes, you have a camping stove, but what are you going put on it? Exactly. You’ll want to bring one large pan, a small skillet for breakfast foods, at least one lidded saucepan for boiling, metal skewers for marshmallows or hotdogs and if you’re a coffee and tea drinker, you’ll want to bring a teapot and a stove-top coffee maker.

Doing Dishes

Don’t forget, you’re going to have to clean all these dishes after using them, so bring a dish scrubber and dish detergent. Once you have everything on this checklist ticked off, you’re completely ready to go on your camping trip!

Wrap Up

Going camping is always a great bonding experience for family and friends. You step out of the hectic city life and finally get some time to enjoy the people and wilderness around you. Car camping gives you the opportunity to connect with nature and yourself. Plus, who doesn’t love S’mores on an open fire?

Car Camping Cooking

Of course, with that being said, you also want to make sure you’re properly prepared. Car camping is a fun and exciting experience, however, it can quickly turn sour if you’re not properly prepared. Make sure that you do take the time to plan ahead to ensure you have everything you need.

We hope this checklist gives you the structure and support for what you need on your car camping trip. You don’t need many things, however, you do need the essentials.

So, before your trip go through our list and make you have everything you need. Have you used a car camping checklist before? Is there something you always bring on your trip that we’re missing from the list? Let us know in the comment section below!


Sean Nelson

Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.