Car camping is one of the easiest ways to get outside while still having access to the creature comforts of your home. With a few exceptions, if it can fit in the car, you can bring it. We are Kristen, an outdoor adventure blogger at Bearfoot Theory, and Kat, an adventure lifestyle photographer, and both of us are living near full-time on the road. We recently spent a couple of days exploring Southern Utah’s Escalante National Monument together. Kat in her tricked-out Suburban, and Kristen in her converted Sprinter. With all the nights we’ve spent car camping, we want to share our favorite tips for how to plan a car camping trip so you get out and enjoy an awesome weekend under the stars.

We’ve broken this blog post about how to plan a car camping trip into 8 simple steps. Follow them and you’ll be out adventuring as soon as next weekend.

1) Pick a spot

How to Plan a Car Camping Trip - 1

First things first. Figure out where you want to go. There’s a number of apps and websites we use to find cool campsites all around the country. Some of our favorites are All Stays Camp and RV or FreeCampsites.net. The Benchmark Road Atlas is also a great option, and they make them for each individual state. They detail the different types of public land and where camping is available. Calling the ranger station that represents the general area you are interested in can also be super helpful, as the rangers have the inside scoop and are often willing to share lesser known spots.

Car camping is one of the easiest ways to get outside

BLM land, like that in Escalante, is one of our favorite places to camp. BLM land is usually free, and you’ll find a lot of options away from other people. Forest Service and State and National Parks also have camping, usually at a small fee. National Parks fill up quickly though, so check to see if you can make a reservation. Also make sure to check road conditions. Some of the more remote camping areas require high clearance or 4wd.

2) Find out if you need a permit and if there are any other restrictions

If you are camping on public land, you may need permit. In Escalante where we recently camped, a free permit was required for all car camping. We didn’t need a reservation, we just needed to swing by the Rangers Station in town before heading out to find our site. On the other hand, had we been camping in one of Southern Utah’s National Parks, in all cases we would need some sort of permit or reservation. That’s why it’s important to check before finalizing plans.

You’ll also want to check on any fire restrictions. Certain areas of Escalante are off-limits to fires. Where we camped off of Hole in the Rock Road, however, fires are allowed as long as they are contained in an existing fire ring.

3) Get your gear

There’s a few major things you need for car camping. What you sleep in is the most important. That can either be your car, a tent, a tarp, or a bivy. Which you choose doesn’t really matter as long as it will protect you in the case if the weather turns south. If you end up on a clear starry night, you can always sleep under the stars, but you’ll want a backup plan just in case.

Tents come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and prices, but for car camping, something like a simple Coleman Tent from Costco will do. If you are ready to make an investment in a tent that you can also use for backpacking, you’ll want something lighter and more compact. Either way, don’t forget to bring stakes.

Don’t forget the stakes

Next, you’ll need a mattress or sleeping pad and something to keep you warm. This can be a queen sized air mattress paired with your sheets and comforter from home, or it can be a backpacking pad and lightweight sleeping bag. Generally we think that the best car camping gear is what you already have. There’s no need to go spending a ton of cash on technical gear for your first car camping trip when you can make due with what’s in your garage.

For more information on gear, check out this post.

4) Pack your clothes & toiletries

With camping, less is more. Bring layers that you can wear more than once, and don’t worry what your outfit looks like. The most important thing is that you are prepared for the climate and that you are comfortable. We like leggings, down puffys, beanies, and wool socks for sitting around the fire. If you have anything that’s quick dry, pack that for daytime activities.

Pack your bags!

For toiletries, the only things you really need are a toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, and any personal medications. You should also bring some toilet paper, which you’ll need to pack out, and some baby wipes are also nice for freshening up.

5) Plan your menu

Depending on what cookware you have, you can eat just as well car camping as you can at home. At the same time, your menu shouldn’t cause you stress and be a barrier to getting away on the weekends. The key is making it as easy as possible and working with what stove, food, and cooking utensils you have.

We love shopping at Trader Joe’s when we go camping. On our trip to Escalante, on our first night we had Trader Joe’s butternut squash ravioli with chicken sausage, veggies, and a creamy tomato sauce. Night 2 we had grilled cheese and tomato soup. Breakfasts consisted of an egg and veggie scramble with fruit, and lunch was turkey and cheese wraps. Everything we ate came from Trader Joe’s and required very little preparation, ingredients, or dishes. Trader Joe’s also has awesome snacks, like trail mix, dried fruit, jerky, and other non-perishables that are perfect for bringing on the trail. If you are camping somewhere with a grill, bbqing is a great option that requires little cleanup.

Car camping menu
Keep it fresh

Another tip is to bring a nice little treat. Whether that’s s’mores fixings, a bottle of wine, or your favorite chips and dip, pack something that you can indulge in a little.

Don’t forget in addition to your food, you will need to pack water, depending on where you are camping. At most BLM campsites, for example, there is no water available. So plan ahead. For a weekend trip with 2 people, a 6 gallon jug should be enough. You’ll also want garbage bags to pack out your trash and paper towels for easy cleanup.

6) Plan your day-time activities 

Camping is more than just sitting around the fire. It’s an opportunity to get out, relax, and enjoy nature. Think about how you want to spend your day. It’s totally cool if all you want to do is hang out around camp and enjoy the views. In that case, you might bring a hammock, a book, or a pair of binoculars to check out the birds. You might also bring some camp games, like bocce ball, or a musical instrument to strum while you’re hanging out with friends.

Camping is more than just sitting around the fire

If you want to go for a hike or a bike ride, make sure you bring a map and that you are familiar with the trails near your campsite before you leave on your trip. Remember you may not have cell phone service, so you’ll want to plan in advance.

Camping is more than just sitting around the fire.

Camping is also a great opportunity to dabble in photography, especially night photography, since a lot of camping areas are blissfully free of light pollution, which you need for awesome star shots.

7) Pack the car

Packing can be a daunting task. A way to avoid that is to keep your car camping gear organized in between trips in designated bins. Store your tent, sleeping bag, pad or other essentials in some Tupperware in your garage or a closet so you can grab and go. We also like to keep some non-perishable food on hand – like oatmeal, instant coffee, a few backpacker meals – so if you want to plan a last minute trip, you have some basic things to eat ready to go.

To make the drive more enjoyable, load up your phone with a couple episodes of your favorite podcasts or new playlists to keep you entertained.

How to plan a car camping trip continuedFinally, try to carpool. The fewer cars you have at your campsite, the better, as some campground have restrictions on the number of cars per site. If you exceed that, you’ll have to pay extra.

8) Leave No Trace

You’ve arrived at your campsite. Awesome. Have a blast. Just make sure that you follow Leave No Trace, which is a set of guidelines that teaches you how to be a good camper and preserve the area for others. Some of the basics include:

  • Camp only at existing campsites and avoid fragile surfaces
  • Pack out ALL of your waste, including food scraps
  • Only have campfires in existing campfire rings
  • Store your food properly and don’t feed wildlife

Kristen has published an entire post about Leave No Trace on her website which you can check out for more information.

Also, please pack out your toilet paper. Yes it’s gross. But it’s even grosser finding someone else’s used TP at your pristine campsite. We suggest that each person bring their own small ziplock that they can use to dispose of TP.

Night photography while car campingWe hope these car camping tips show you that planning a fun weekend outside is simple and doesn’t require any special gear or equipment that you probably don’t have in your garage. Make sure to check out our full car camping gear guide, where we talk about some of our favorite stuff that we rely on for our adventures.