Car camping is an excellent way to enjoy the great outdoors without compromising on your comfort. But, what exactly is car camping, you might ask?
In this article, we’ll introduce you to the world of car camping and clue you into its many benefits. Plus, we’ll even offer you some tips for making your car camping trip an adventure to remember.
What is car camping?
Car camping is any type of camping that takes place in close proximity to your car. You can car camp either in a tent or in an RV/campervan, but the key point here is that you’re never far from a road when you’re car camping.
Generally speaking, people car camp in two types of places :
- Designated campgrounds. Many modern campgrounds are designed so that you can pull your vehicle right into a campsite and pitch your tent just a few paces away from your car.
- Dispersed car camping sites. In some places, particularly in national forests or on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, you can often pull over on the side of a quiet road, find a flat spot, and pitch your tent right next to your car.
However, it’s important to note that some people use the phrase car camping to refer to actually sleeping in your car.
While this is certainly a literal use of the term car camping, it’s generally not what most people mean when they talk about their upcoming car camping trip.
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Why you should car camp?
Car camping is one of the most popular ways to get outside. That’s because it offers some fantastic benefits that campers everywhere can enjoy.
Here are 4 great reasons why you should car camp on your next outdoor trip :
- Extra comfort. Perhaps the biggest advantage of car camping over other forms of camping is that it allows you to be as comfortable as possible while you’re outside. Since your campsite is near your car, you can pack bigger, heavier items that provide the creature comforts we all crave but that isn’t exactly practical while backpacking.
- Added convenience. Camping near your car is incredibly convenient because it means that you always have an efficient mode of transportation nearby. Forgot firewood or need some extra camping meals for your trip? You can get in your car and zip down to the campground store or a shop in a nearby town.
- Opportunities for other activities. Many great car camping locations are situated close to trails, lakes, rivers, and climbing areas, making it easy for you to access a wide range of different activities while you camp. That way, you can make the most of your time outside by bringing bikes, kayaks, and other equipment that allows you to explore the great outdoors from a variety of different perspectives.
- Plenty of campsites to choose from. There are dedicated car camping destinations all across the United States, so there’s never a shortage of great campsites to choose from. While you may have to make reservations ahead of time to secure your spot, you can find an excellent car camping location in nearly every area of public land in the United States.
Where can I car camp?
Whether it’s a national forest or a town park, there’s a good chance that you’ll find a car camping location nearby.
In the United States, the three most popular areas of public land where you can go car camping are BLM land or in national forests and national parks.
Car camping on BLM land is fairly straightforward, as you can generally choose to stay in designated campgrounds or in dispersed campsites. If you’re staying at a designated campground, you’ll generally have to pay a modest fee.
On the other hand, dispersed car camping is free and legal on BLM land for up to 14 days at a time, unless the local rangers state otherwise.
If you’re looking to car camp in national forests, then designated campgrounds are usually your best bet. Although dispersed car camping is sometimes allowed in national forests, good spots can be hard to come by.
US national parks are known for their car camping opportunities, but you’ll almost always have to stay in a designated campground. Dispersed car camping is usually prohibited in US national parks, though you can sometimes find good free car campsites nearby on BLM lands.
If you’re looking for a good national park to visit on your next car camping adventure, here are some of our favorite options to consider :
- Yosemite National Park. Whether you want to stay in Yosemite Valley, Wawona, or Tuolumne Meadows, car camping in Yosemite is some of the best in the world.
- Acadia National Park. Acadia National Park is known for its car camping opportunities and you can find a great selection of private and park-run campgrounds near all of the region’s best trails.
- Zion National Park. Car camping in Zion Canyon or just outside the national park allows you to access all of Zion’s amazing destinations and stunning landscapes.
- Shenandoah National Park. With 5 park-run roadside campgrounds to choose from, Shenandoah is a car camper’s paradise.
How to pick the ideal car camping site?
With tens of thousands of car camping sites to choose from in the United States alone, deciding which one is best for your trip isn’t easy. So, here are some important things to keep in mind as you search for your next campsite :
- Choose a specific destination. Your first task when searching for a car camping site is to decide on a specific destination, whether that’s a national park, forest, or some other major outdoor attraction. Once you have a general location in mind, you can start to narrow down your campground and dispersed car camping options.
- Compare campground amenities. Every campground offers different amenities, so it’s important that you read through the list of features that you can find at a given location before you book your trip. In particular, look to see if a campground has amenities like water, hookups, flush toilets, a camp store, a pool, or lakeside access before you make your decision.
- Select your campsite wisely. Campgrounds can have anywhere from 4 to 200 individual campsites, so it’s important that you find 1 that’s appropriate for your needs. This means ensuring that your chosen site has a large enough capacity to accommodate your group and that it’s within a reasonable walking distance of the toilets, potable water, and any nearby trails.
- Make reservations early. Since car camping is so popular, many campgrounds now take reservations to help you ensure that you’ll have a place to stay during your trip. However, the most popular campgrounds – especially those in national parks – tend to fill up months ahead of time. Therefore, it’s absolutely essential that you make your campsite reservations as soon as possible to avoid disappointment. If you’re planning a last-minute car camping trip and can’t find a place to stay, try to find a nearby forest service or BLM land where you can disperse camp without the need for a reservation.
What to bring for car camping?
Car camping is all about being comfortable while you’re outside, so you’ll need to come prepared with the right gear for your adventures. When planning your trip, don’t forget to pack these essential items :
- Tent. Unless you’re planning on sleeping in an RV or campervan, you’ll definitely need a tent for your trip. You can choose any size of tent you’d like, though a glamping tent is a sure bet for car camping.
- Camping chairs. Even if your campsite provides a picnic table, having a set of camping chairs ready to go is perfect for lounging and relaxation while you’re outside.
- Stove. Eating well is one of the most important parts of car camping, so be sure to bring a quality stove for your adventures.
- Coolers. Unlike backpacking, where bringing perishable foods isn’t ideal, car camping allows you to store food in coolers, greatly expanding the types of meals you can prepare during your trip.
- Air mattresses. If you’re going to car camp, you might as well be comfortable. That means opting for a cozy air mattress for snoozing at night.
- Sleeping bags. A quality summer sleeping bag keeps you warm at night, making it a must for any car camping trip.
- Camping table. Most car camping sites have a picnic table, but these tables usually don’t provide enough space for food prep and eating. So, bringing a camping table can make your trip much more enjoyable.
- Showers. If your campground doesn’t have showers available, then bringing your own shower is a must. That way, you can stay clean and hygienic while you’re outside.
- Portable generators allow you to charge and power all your devices while you’re camping, making it possible for you to stay connected on your adventures.
Tips for an enjoyable car camping experience
Your car camping adventure is sure to be a great time. But, before you head outside, here are some of our top tips to help you make the most of your experience :
- Know the rules. Every campground has its own rules, especially when it comes to quiet hours and whether or not you can bring your pet. Knowing the rules of your car camping destination is vital if you want to have a fun, casual, low-stress trip that’s free of conflict with your fellow campers.
- Consider a fire permit. Campfires are a mainstay of many car camping trips. However, some land managers require that you have a fire permit to have a campfire at a campground. Getting a permit is usually a simple and fairly straightforward process. But, you’ll usually need an internet connection to apply, so be sure to get this done before you leave home.
- Keep a clean campsite. Messy campsites can actually attract animals and other pests, especially if food is left out in your kitchen. To avoid any unwanted encounters with the local wildlife, keep your campsite clean and tidy each night by properly disposing of your waste and storing your food in your car (if allowed) or in the provided animal-proof containers.
- Always fill up your car’s gas tank. Many popular car camping destinations are located in remote parts of national parks and forests where gas stations can be hard to come by. Therefore, you should always start your trip with a full tank of gas. Also, don’t forget to fill up your tank before leaving the highway and heading down a scenic byway or a forest service road.
- Think glam. If you’re car camping, you’re not as limited in the amount of gear that you can bring on your adventures as you might be if you were backpacking. That means that you can go big on comfort-focused items, like lanterns, coffee makers, fire pits, games, and more. Basically, if you can think of a piece of gear that could make your camping trip more comfortable or more enjoyable, be sure to pack it for your adventures!
Gaby is a professional mountain guide with a master’s degree in outdoor education. She works primarily in the polar regions as an expedition guide, though she can be found hiking, climbing, skiing, sailing, or paddling in some of the world’s most amazing places when not at work.