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How to Car Camp Like a Pro

How to car camp like a pro header

By Laura Newcomer on September 10, 2021 in Travel

Much like birding and bread baking, camping is booming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the U.S., 48.2 million households camped at least once in 2020 — and a whopping 10.1 million of them went camping for the first time. Camping has proven itself a relatively pandemic-safe activity that gets people into nature, promotes exploration, and enriches people’s lives.

Despite camping’s growing popularity, not everyone is keen on the idea of sleeping in a tent on the ground. That’s okay because there are plenty of other ways to camp. Even if you’re not eager to lay out under the stars, you can enjoy the perks of camping so long as you have access to a car.

Depending on the campground in question and the gear you’re able to invest in, your car can serve as a safe, dry, and comfortable camping place. Let’s look at how to turn your car into a full-fledged campsite so you can enjoy sleeping in the great outdoors (without rocks poking into your back).

Five Different Options for Car Camping

Car camping is a versatile term that’s used to describe several different types of camping. Here's a quick overview of the most common ways to car camp.

  • Just your car

The simplest definition of car camping is very straightforward: Simply sleep in the car! There are different ways to configure a car's interior to sleep more comfortably. Many people fold down the seats and sleep in the trunk (assuming the trunk is open to the rest of the car), while other people prefer to use the front seats in a reclined position or sleep across the back seats. We'll detail more tips for this type of car camping in the next section.

  • A tent at a drive-in site

Some people use car camping to mean camping anywhere you can set up your tent right beside your car. This includes drive-in sites at campgrounds as well as backcountry sites you can access by car. In this definition of car camping, you do not attach the tent to the vehicle, but rather set it up nearby. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the other styles of car camping.

  • A car expansion tent

A car expansion tent — also called an SUV tent or hatchback tent — attaches to the rear end of a vehicle (typically an SUV, minivan, or hatchback), effectively expanding the trunk space and giving you access to the car's interior from inside the tent. This gives you the option to sleep in the trunk or on the ground; in both cases, the tent will help protect you from the elements while adding space.

  • Roof rack tent

As its name implies, a roof rack tent (aka a roof-top tent) attaches to the top of a vehicle. This style of tent has long been popular in Australia and has more recently gained traction in the U.S. Roof-top tents come in soft-shell and hard-shell options. In both cases, you attach the roof-top tent before embarking on your trip, so when you arrive at your campsite you just pop open the tent and set up the ladder and poles.

These tents are typically made from sturdy materials to withstand the elements above ground. (Not surprisingly, hard-shell tents are likely to be more durable than soft-shell options.) Sleeping above the dirt can also be more comfortable, since you won’t have to worry about roots digging into your back or rainwater seeping into your tent. Additionally, most roof rack tents come with a foam mattress.

  • Truck bed tent

A truck bed tent attaches to (you guessed it!) the bed of a truck. This allows car campers to sleep off the ground with a protective covering overhead. Some truck bed tents come with sewn-in flooring, while others count on the bed of the truck to serve as the floor.

As with roof-top tents, truck bed tents appeal to folks who don’t want to sleep on the ground. They can protect you from roots, rocks, water, and creepy crawlies, and many people add an air or foam mattress to the truck bed for extra comfort.

Our Top Car Camping Tips

Ready to give car camping a try? Before you hit the road, prepare yourself for a stellar trip with these essential car camping tips.

  • Determine whether you need a permit before you arrive at the site.

Every campsite is different, and some require a reservation and/or permit. Generally, campgrounds operate via reservation systems, while some Wildlife Management Areas and other dispersed or backcountry camping options on public lands require a permit. Figure out who’s in charge of the land where you intend to camp — e.g., the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, or a National Park — and reach out ahead of time to determine whether you need a permit for camping and/or campfires.

  • Once you arrive, triple-check that your car is in park.

This might seem obvious, but the safety of any car camper relies on parking the car properly. If you’re sleeping in the car or using a tent that attaches to the car, the car’s stability is paramount. Consider using the emergency brake for extra security even if you’re not parked on a slope.

  • Be mindful of overnight temperatures and pack bedding accordingly.

Make sure to research the weather at your destination before you strike out on any car camping trip. In many places, temperatures can swing wildly between day and night. Extreme heat or cold isn’t just uncomfortable; these temps can also be dangerous.

Prepare for cold weather by packing extra blankets and layers and a sleeping bag that’s rated for colder temperatures. If you’re expecting extra-hot temps, bring a portable fan and load some ice packs and plenty of water into your cooler.

  • Hang curtains to keep the sun out.

There’s an easy way to keep the car cooler in hot temps: Hang curtains or install window screens. Not only will window coverings offer some shade, but they can also double as privacy screens. Just make sure to keep them open while the car is in motion so the driver has a clear line of sight.

  • If you're sleeping in the car, keep the windows slightly open.

You will likely crack the car’s windows in hotter temps, but it’s equally important to keep the windows slightly ajar even when it’s chilly. This safety precaution ensures proper ventilation, so your breath doesn’t condense and create moisture in areas of the car where it’s not welcome. That said, make sure you don’t open the windows wide enough for an animal or person to climb in. If you’re worried about insects, consider stuffing some mesh fabric (e.g., a mosquito net) into the open space.

  • Invest in a car mattress.

These days, many brands sell car mattresses for the express purpose of sleeping in the car. Even if you don’t want to invest in a dedicated car mattress, it’s a good idea to pack a ground pad, inflatable mattress, or foam mattress topper so you have somewhere comfortable to sleep at night. Make sure that whatever mattress you choose fits in your intended sleeping space before you embark on your trip. Don’t forget a pillow! Bring along a compact camping pillow or pack a regular-sized one for extra comfort.

  • Sleep with your head above your feet.

Ideally, you’ll locate a flat area to park your vehicle, since this will make it easier to enjoy a comfortable night’s sleep. However, when you’re parking on dirt in rustic spots, that’s not always feasible. If you need to park on an angle, make sure to sleep with your head above your feet. This helps prevent too much blood from rushing to your head during the night. In general, it’s a good idea to park the front of the car on higher ground; this way you can sleep with your head toward the front of the car, which typically allows for the most elbow room.

  • Attach a car awning for a more luxurious stay.

Take along a portable car awning and set it up once you reach your destination to enjoy some extra space with built-in rain and sun protection. You can purchase a quick-assemble awning or simply stretch a waterproof tarp from the back of your car to a nearby tree and gently tie it in place with some rope.

Conclusion

Car camping can take several forms, including using a hatchback or roof-top tent or simply sleeping inside your car. Use the tips above to effectively pack and prepare for a car camping trip so you can create a secure, comfortable, and legitimately fun experience.

Wherever you go, be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles. Take your trash with you, make sure campfires are completely out before you drive away, and leave the place better than you found it. This way, your car camping adventure respects the well-being of wildlife, the local ecosystem, and future visitors.

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Laura Newcomer is a consultant for Say Insurance. She is a writer, editor, and educator with multiple years of experience working in the environmental and personal wellness space. Formerly Senior Editor at the health site Greatist, Laura now lives and works in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published on Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others. An avid outdoorswoman, she can often be found hiking, kayaking, backpacking, and tending to her garden.

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