January 28, 2021 6 min read

If you’re looking for an easy way to get out and enjoy nature without breaking the bank, car camping can be a great option. Rather than investing in a full on van conversion you can utilize the vehicle you already have to travel to any campsite you want and stay in the comfort of your car or SUV - setting up tents is completely optional. With a few key additions to your arsenal, you can create the perfect car camping setup to suit your own needs and turn your ride into a fully-stocked hotel room on wheels. 

Some may consider car camping to be a complete alternative to van life; an either/or situation, but many part-time van lifers or weekenders choose to leave the van parked at home and take a car instead for certain trips where having a van or RV isn’t as advantageous. For instance, California vloggers Weylie and Wah began their van life adventure in 2018 with the purchase of “Blue”, their 1990 Volkswagen Vanagon, which they then converted themselves (you can watch that video here). But nowadays, they spend more of their time car caravanning with friends (and dogs), and car camping in a vintage Land Rover because they also love off-roading to the absolute best campsites accessible on four wheels, which wouldn’t be advisable in the majority of vans out there.

A roof top tent on a white SUV

Roof Top Tents

For those able to set up a roof rack, you really can’t get any better than a roof top tent. With a solid bottom and outer shell, these car camping tents open like a clamshell to reveal a spacious sleeping area and a convenient ladder that also acts as support for the extended platform and built-in sleeping pad you’ll be laying on. They’re super easy to set up and break down due to their ingenious design. This Thule Explorer Kukenam 3 model by Tepui is a great option that’s highly regarded for its quality.

Staying in a roof top tent has its pluses and minuses though. Being elevated above ground level, you don’t have to worry about wet or muddy conditions as much, or critters crawling into your sleeping bag and, of course, the extra space is priceless. But the downsides are similar to those of camping with a traditional tent - you’re still outside in the elements. Most rooftop tents are not winter tents, so take into account that you’re not going to have much in the way of insulation. During cold weather, rain, or snow, this may be prohibitive for most people, so consider your needs and what kind of conditions you’ll likely encounter. There’s also the cost to consider. Roof top tents don’t come cheap and in addition to the cost commitment, you also have to commit to having it attached to the roof of your vehicle, even when you’re not using it, which is definitely not for everybody. 

Car Awnings and Sunshades

Whether you’re going all out with a rooftop tent or not, getting a car awning is a great way to extend the usability of your vehicle at the campsite. These typically attach to the side of your car, van, or SUV and are held up with posts and stakes similar to a tent, creating a shaded patio area for hanging out or cooking in the shade. Most awning models don’t require any permanent installation and can easily be taken down and put up.

Some models of car awnings, like the Cloud Dome Car Camping Awning from Van Life Style, can be set up behind the car, making it a perfect option for hatchbacks and SUVs. Just pop the hatchback open and step into a massive covered canopy with plenty of room for seating, coolers, camping stoves, and whatever else you need to keep the party going. 

PRO TIP: The Cloud Dome Awning is a great option for use as a Subaru tent, Honda Element tent, or even on down to a Mini Cooper tent. You can set it up at the back of the car or use it to fully or partially cover parts of the vehicle itself to protect from the elements.

View out of the back of a hatchback showing mountains in the distance.

Mattresses and Sleeping Pads

The best thing about car camping is that you don’t have to get nearly as fancy (or expensive) as a rooftop tent to have a great time out in nature - you could just literally be camping in your car! All you need is an inflatable car or SUV mattress to either lay across your folded down seats or fit snugly across your back seat to turn your car into a perfectly cozy, private little sleeping area. One of the major benefits of this approach is, of course, the cost. No massive, clunky items to install - actually, nothing to install at all. Just unpack your portable mattress from it’s carrying bag, inflate, enjoy, and then deflate once you’re ready to hit the road again. The average inflatable car mattress will run you $80-$140, depending on the style and features, with some in the higher range being billed as “self-inflating” for even easier set up.


Tesla Camping Tip

If you’re a Tesla owner, this is an especially appealing option, given the spacious design and expansive moon roofs of most Tesla models. For Tesla camping, all you need is an inflatable car mattress to enjoy the beauty of sleeping under the stars while also having the comfort of temperature control (and Netflix, if you just aren’t that into stargazing).

Cooking and Lounging

Camping chairs are an obvious essential for any camping trip. There’s nothing better than unfolding your chair and posting up next to a running stream to enjoy the sunshine. There are a ton of different models to choose from when shopping for a camping chair, but for car campers specifically, you’re going to want to take size and portability into account especially. You’re only going to have so much trunk space available and with everything else you’ll be bringing, it’s important that your chairs be as compact as possible to store. Collapsible camping chairs are some of the best options for both comfort and easy storage. If you’re looking for something with a bit more flair, you can’t get much better than a foldable camping loveseat.

One of our favorite parts about any camping trip is enjoying a delicious meal around a warm campfire. It doesn’t get much better, so naturally, you’re going to need a camping stove to prepare your gourmet fixings. When it comes to playing with fire, you definitely don’t want to cut corners or skimp - your life could depend on it. We go with the trusted quality of Coleman brand camp stoves, which attach conveniently to a mini propane tank for easy use, and pair it with a 10-piece complete camping cookware set that allows us to whip up just about anything you can think of, no matter where we are.

Speaking of campfires, of course we all envision a roaring fire set up in a dirt clearing, surrounded by protective rocks to keep the fire in place, but the reality of nature is that you’re not always going to be camping some place with an ideal spot to light a fire. There may be groundcover than you don’t want to damage, dried leaves covering the ground, or even a couple inches of snow preventing you from setting up a fire safely. That’s why it’s a great idea to keep a portable campfire pit with stand in your arsenal. These handy contraptions let you set your fire above the nearby ground, making it a much safer option that has the added benefit of making clean up as easy as can be.

Car Camping with Pets

While we’ve covered most of the car camping essentials, we can’t forget to mention our furry friends. Many people enjoy bringing their dogs along with them on camping trips, so why should car camping be any different? Let’s be real though, a rambunctious pup set free amongst the grass, water, dirt, and mud can really wreak havoc on your car interior. For those situations, you’ll want to make sure your upholstery is shielded by a back seat protector to prevent unnecessary messes or damage. Neglecting to do so can lead to a whole lot of cleaning and repair costs, so take it from us and don’t overlook this item.

Small dog asleep on a pile of pillows.

On any trip, your pooch is going to need something to eat and drink, especially when on a long hike or car trip, but it isn’t always convenient to have to pull over and stop every time they want to take a drink. The solution we’ve found to this problem is an ingenious one - just build the bowl into the water bottle itself! With this handy item, all you have to do is squeeze the bottle to fill the built-in bowl and let them drink away. So quick and easy, your pup will love you for it! This clever dog water bottle is a must-have for any dog owner. 

Now that you’ve read through our top picks for creating the ultimate car camping setup, we want to hear from you what essential items you bring on your trips. Did we miss anything important? Did we mention something you hadn’t considered. Comment below or send us a message to let us know. 

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