When it comes to preparing for a car camping trip, there’s a lot to consider. Car camping can be a cheaper means of travel than alternatives (especially RV rental or purchase), but it also takes proper planning and caution.
Travelers need to map their routes and determine where they’ll be sleeping each night, whether that’s at a designated campsite or not. It’s also essential to prepare ahead of time for daily needs while car camping. Storing (and preparing) food can be a challenge, and so can getting comfortable.
There’s also the small matter of whether it’s actually legal to sleep in a car overnight in any given state or locality. The bottom line? Tons of prep work goes into getting ready for a car camping trip, but these tips can help!
Where Can You (Legally) Camp In Your Car?
Technically, it’s not illegal to sleep in a car while camping in a campground or other designated area. However, each state has its own rules, and they vary widely.
When it comes to camping in a car while road tripping or otherwise without campground reservations, drivers should be careful to follow the local law and only park to sleep where it’s legal.
Most states do allow people to sleep in their cars for at least some amount of time at designated rest stops, but guidelines vary from three-hour limits to eight-hour limits to daytime only and even nighttime inclusive.
Though states vary on how they handle car camping, most travelers find that Walmarts in the US are amenable to travelers sleeping in their vehicles overnight. Walmart generally offers free overnight parking for motorhomes, so car travelers will need to check with their intended destination on the specifics.
For example, in California, drivers can sleep in their vehicles for up to eight hours at rest stops, but car camping (with a tent) in those locations is not permissible. Nighttime napping is also a no-no; those eight hours of shut-eye need to happen during daylight hours.
In contrast, states like Iowa allow cars to park in rest areas for a 24-hour period, but sleeping at Walmart seems to be strictly banned.
Of course, before heading to Iowa, or any other state, drivers should consider what they’ll need to make sleeping in their vehicles manageable and, hopefully, even enjoyable.
What To Pack For A Comfortable Car Camping Trip
When it comes to car camping, most travelers choose this method for the cost savings and the fact that no additional gear is required. However, that doesn’t mean a car camping trip will come cheap.
Travelers will need some essentials; at minimum, a means of heating food (a single-burner electric stovetop or camp stove works well), a backup power source so as not to drain the car battery (solar-rechargeable battery packs are ideal for this), flashlights, and plenty of water and nonperishable food.
Food-wise, think small, lightweight, and no-prep; fresh fruit, granola or protein bars, peanut butter (or another shelf-stable protein like nuts), and one-pot meals (canned or dry-pack chilis, soups, and stews) for cooking on the go.
To make traveling more enjoyable, also consider supplies like baby wipes, hand sanitizer, paper towels, string lights (for an ambient glow throughout the vehicle), and a portable heater or fan, depending on the season and climate.
Sunscreen, insect repellent, hygiene items, a first aid kit, and towels are all necessities, of course. Beyond the basics, some other considerations are required, including figuring out where and how to sleep in the car.
What’s The Best Way To Sleep While Car Camping?
The solutions to bedding down will vary based on the type of vehicle (it’s far easier to stretch out in the back of a minivan versus a Prius), but there are essentially two options.
One, travelers can plan to sleep in their reclined vehicle seats. Add some pillows and blankets, and it may not be too bad. Two, opt for some type of inflatable mattress or foam pad to lay out across the back seats or on the floor of the vehicle (for SUVs and vans).
Both options have their respective benefits, and sleeping in the vehicle seat itself can save time while getting ready for bed. Not to mention, it can also save space for camping gear in the backseat.
Tips For Your Next Car Camping Adventure
Preparing for a car camping trip is a bit more complicated than gearing up for camping in an RV or even with a tent.
All of the same supplies are required — food, water, bedding, personal hygiene items, a means of cooking/heating food, lighting, and entertainment — but all that gear can’t take up the actual sleeping space in the vehicle.
To make the most of the interior vehicle space, and keep things organized, prep with totes and containers to separate items.
If space is at a premium, consider large plastic totes to hold smaller, soft-sided bags and containers. That way, it’s easy to move them to the front seat (or elsewhere) while the back of the vehicle is used for sleeping.
Other essentials that may not seem so essential? Zero-waste solutions like traditional camping dishes and cutlery; less trash means less clutter in the car, and washing dishes is friendly for the environment, too.
And although the campsite itself (the vehicle) offers up a power source, be careful not to drain the battery powering electronics. After all, sitting in the dark is far preferable to be stranded on the side of the road!