A Beginner’s Guide to Car-Camping

Earlier this week, I received an e-mail from a reader who had some questions about camping in a car. I’m not talking decked-out Sprinter van camping; I’m talking about the nitty gritty, sleeping in your sedan car-camping. For most of us van-dwellers and seasoned road-trippers, car-camping is how it all began.

A shot of the Jeep from my 2010 road trip adventure.My first big adventure was a nearly month-long journey in the summer of 2010 – traveling from Florida to Utah in a cramped two-door Jeep with three of my male climbing buddies. To call it an adventure would be an understatement. It was one of the dirtiest, haphazard, ill-planned journeys I have ever embarked on – and it also sparked a lifetime of road travel (and began the adventure-driven purpose of this blog).

Here are my top four car-camping tips learned from that trip:

  1. Less is more. Whether you’re traveling alone, or with friends, you’ll quickly discover that less is more. When packing for any road trip adventure, try to minimize from the get-go. After my first car-camping road trip, I came home and realized that I hadn’t worn half of the clothes I brought, or even touched most of the gear and food I packed. Downsize, downsize, downsize. Trust me, you’ll savor those extra few inches of space.
  2. Do some pre-trip planning. During this inaugural road trip, I basically just jumped in the car and let the boys take the lead – another mistake. We spent almost an entire month on the road, yet climbed for less than five days total. Why? Because we didn’t plan ahead. We traveled out to Arkansas to climb at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, but didn’t realize that the summertime renders this crag a nightmare of overgrown vegetation and intolerable swarms of insects. We were totally unprepared, and it took a big toll on our trip’s overall success.
  3. You can (usually) sleep in National Forests for free! The majority of our nights were spent sleeping in National Forests, which we learned are for the taking for overnight stays. For bonus karma points, explore the area around you when you wake up, and do some litter pick-up to show some appreciation for your free nights stay.
  4. Beware the wind in Kansas. Seriously, beware the wind. We had a giant canvas storage container strapped to the top of the Jeep, and during a stretch of particularly nasty gusts, the wind tore the canvas apart – and we lost nearly everything that was inside. I escaped the situation missing only my sleeping pad, but our buddy Jeff lost all of his clothes and camping gear. Major bummer. (You can read more about it in this post.)

The second road trip I embarked on was a five-week coast-to-coast excursion in the summer of 2011 with Niko – a post-graduation celebration spent exploring climbing areas, meeting new lifelong friends, and living out of my parent’s Honda Pilot (which they claim still has a faint residual odor of dirtbag, oops).

Niko sets up a makeshift kitchen atop a rock during our 2011 car-camping adventure.

Here’s what I learned during that life-changing trip:

  1. Wal-Marts are a lifesaver for late-night pit stops. If you haven’t already, check out my guide to car-camping at Wal-Mart. ‘Nuff said.
  2. Organization is key. Living out of a small space requires diligent organization to maintain your sanity. I am a huge fan of plastic tub containers, in varying sizes. I have two smaller containers for gear/random stuff, and one of those standard large ones where I keep all my cooking supplies/food. I prefer the clear containers so you can always see where things are inside without having to dig around.
  3. Crack a window. While sleeping in your car, you may feel slightly uneasy about the idea of leaving your window open – but trust me, you need some fresh air. Otherwise, you’ll fog up your interior and wake up in a pool of humid, sweaty misery. I’m paranoid, and always make sure my windows are closed enough that a wrist wouldn’t be able to fit inside.
  4. Crash pads make excellent beds. If you’re a climber, this should be a no-brainer. Crash pads aren’t just for bouldering – they make fantastic beds. My Stonelick pad fits perfectly into the hatchback of my old Scion tC, and it created the ultimate little nest. Otherwise, sleeping pads or other mats will add some comfort to sleeping in your car.
  5. Always keep extra plastic bags handy. Frequent trips to Wal-Marts during trips inevitably leaves you with a supply of seemingly useless plastic bags – but don’t toss those horrible pollutants into the trash just yet!  They make fantastic mini-trash bags, serve as makeshift gloves for scooping leftover mash potatoes out of your pot (and, you know, picking up poop and the like).

Perhaps my most powerful car-camping experience was the seven-week solo trip I took in autumn of 2011. I learned a lifetime’s worth of car-camping techniques and wisdom, and had nothing but positive interactions with fellow travelers and adventurers during my one-woman trek from Florida to North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado, and the south.

Here’s what I discovered during my 6,657 mile solo trip:

  1. Always keep your keys within reach while sleeping in your car. Let’s face it, sleeping in your car leaves you slightly exposed, and there’s no way around that. No matter where you are, or how safe you feel, it’s always a good idea to keep your keys within reach. Don’t ever leave them in the ignition, and it’s smart if you can keep them tucked somewhere out of sight from anyone who might be peeking in your windows.
  2. Similarly, when rearranging your gear to make room in your car for sleeping, always try to keep the driver’s area clear in case you need to make a quick getaway. Especially when traveling in a smaller car, you may find that you need to rearrange your supplies to make proper room for a sleeping area. My rule of thumb is to always keep the driver’s area clear in the event that I need to jump into action and drive away quickly.
  3. Hoarding napkins is always a good idea. This goes hand-in-hand with the plastic bag idea. Inevitable visits to fast food restaurants will leave you with a mound of un-used napkins, and tucking them into that cubby on the side of your door will arm you with an arsenal of clean-up supplies. Blowing your nose, cleaning up spills, wiping down cookware, you name it.
  4. Rest stops are not as scary as you think. This is one stigma that I quickly overcame while road tripping. Do not fear pulling off at an interstate rest stop to snag a few hours of sleep – everyone else there is doing the same thing as you. Major gas stations like Loves and Flying J’s also welcome weary travelers to spend the night in their parking lots, and I’ve never had a bad experience snoozing at any of those places. Be confident, be aware, and you’ll be a-okay.

One of the most joyous occasions of my life, finally seeing the mountains as I passed through the flatlands for one last time before settling in Denver.Additional advice includes concepts like spending one hour a week to clean out and re-organize your car, make sure all your registration and tags are always up to date, keep a real map handy for those times when your GPS fails you, and always follow your urges to pull off at random places along your adventure.

Once I depart on a yearlong adventure of living out of a car, I’m sure I’ll collect a novel’s worth of advice for car-camping, but until then, heed this advice and feel free to add your own tips and tricks in the comments section – and if you have any additional questions about car-camping, feel free to leave comments or shoot me an e-mail directly at katieboue (at) gmail (dot) com!

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40 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Car-Camping

  1. Beth (@3UpAdventures) says:

    If you’re doing a long car camping stint it can be a life saver to buy some of the “smokers shades” for your vehicle. They’re usually not too expensive and will let you roll down your window in the rain and make it hard for anyone outside to SEE that your windows are down an inch or so.

    We bought some for our jeep for our 2010 trip and the van just so happened to come with them. 🙂

  2. winehiker says:

    All are great tips, Katie. To my mind, a purposeful organization of the gear you bring certainly is the big key to an enjoyable car-camping adventure. Before setting out on a big trip, I recommend a shakedown weekend at a local campground just to learn what you need, what you don’t, and where it’s best kept in the car. Load distribution is also important, especially if you’re carrying heavy items such as spare fuel cans, a water can, etc. I also recommend using sun shades behind the windshield. They not only can keep the car cooler when you’re parked, but can serve as a privacy shield while sleeping and changing clothes. Happy camping!

  3. Rebecca Tracey (@rebecca_tracey) says:

    After spending 7 months in my van this year, I can attest to the brilliance of the walmart parking lot sleeping scheme. Go into the store, brush your teeth, wach your face, rent a movie from Redbox to watch on your laptop, and wake up in the morning to a clean toilet and groceries for breakfast.

    I’d also add to the list curtains! Having proper curtains to cover your windows is key. Easy to make, velcro on and off, keep the creepers from peering in at you!

    I’d ever do a long trip again in a tent – sleeping you vehicle is absolutely the way to go!

    • Katie Boué says:

      Seriously, Walmart is amazing. I love that place, even though the corporation kind of sucks on a multitude of moral levels, haha!

      Great advice about the curtains, I think a few other comments mentioned that as well. I can’t wait to get some for the Sprinter!

  4. Rebecca says:

    Awesome! I don’t do months-long road trips but I take off almost every weekend and vacation in either my husband’s pickup or my Outback. We keep plastic bins ready-to-go with kitchen and camp supplies so that they can just be thrown in without worrying about packing lists. If I’m getting close to running out of something on one trip (fuel, paper towels, etc) I’ll just make sure to restock it before the next weekend.

    Like you said, organization is key. Every time I load up a vehicle (i.e. every week) it gets loaded the same way. I know exactly where things are because they always go in the same spot.

    I 100% agree about crash pads. The Metolius Colossus fits in the bed of our Tundra and sleeps the two of us as comfy as our queen mattress at home! It doesn’t fit in the back of my Outback (for sleeping) but we can always just throw it out on the ground.

    Even if you are planning on sleeping in your car, sometimes it’s nice to have a tent along as a backup. Sometimes we’ll find a national forest or BLM place after dark and it’s just hard to find a flat spot to park the vehicle but there will be enough space for a tent. Or, if it’s really rainy sometimes I prefer the tent over the bed of the pickup.

    By the way, if you’re planning a road trip and want to find public lands on which you can pull off and find a place to sleep, this map is priceless:

    http://www.geocommunicator.gov/blmMap/Map.jsp?MAP=SiteMapper

    (And turn on Surface Management Agencies layer)

  5. s throne says:

    I am a woman turning 65 in July. I want to go on some road trips during the summer months and live out of my p/u. I have read a lot of good information off these sort of sites. I was under the impression you could go to a campground and sleep but, now realize all campgrounds (or most) have to be reserved and paid for. Most of you don’t mention truckstops. Are these unsafe?

    • Katie Boué says:

      Hey there! I sleep in rest stops and ‘trucker’ gas station stops all the time – and I’ve never had a problem or felt even the least bit uncomfortable. I actually just spent the night in my van at a rest stop along I-75 in Florida two nights ago.

      You should also look into National Forests – most can be slept in for free.

      Good luck with your journey, and keep us in touch!

  6. Jane Kavenish says:

    Dear Katie- do you ever feel threatened as a woman driving & sleeping alone- it’s my first time driving cross country and I’m a bet nervous- about sleeping alone in a car- but you seem to have got it all down! It’s so great to hear this..

    • Katie Boué says:

      Jane, I rarely feel uncomfortable as a woman when driving and sleeping alone. I’m young, I’m small, and I’d totally be an easy target – but the roads are full of good people, and you’ll quickly find yourself comforted by the freedom of your travels and the kindness of strangers. I’ve been road tripping for years, and have never once felt unsafe. Get out there and enjoy your trip!

  7. Mary Melvin says:

    I’m getting ready to make a US trip next year. Taking my dog with me. Planning on staying either with friends and the occasional reserved spot, but otherwise I’m going to plan on sleeping in the SUV that I’m renting. Can you tell me where I might look to find National Forests where I can sleep for free? I’m not sure what to google or look for. Thanks!

    • Katie Boué says:

      I usually just use my Google Maps app on my iPhone, and zoom around until I find a big green area labeled as a National Forest. You can also use any paper map. Find a forest service road, drive down it a ways, and wham-bam, you’ve got a place to sleep! Googling “free camping near ______” is also usually very helpful. Good luck with your adventures!

      • Mary Melvin says:

        Awesome! Thanks, Kate! I’m really looking forward to it! This is going to be a trip of a lifetime. And thank you also for your blog. I’ve found very helpful things in it.

  8. joelc says:

    America’s Best Value motel parking lots are a good spot to car camp. They cater to truckers and many of them truck camp for the night without trouble.

  9. joelc says:

    Be aware that National Parks will not tolerate long time stays of over 10 days. In other words, keep moving after a night or two. I car camped in a state park in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin one night after not being able to find an available motel room. The police were busy trying to rouse me from my slumber that morning but eventually left me alone, probably because my out of state tags and my packed car. One was parked next to me when I awoke, but he let me leave without incident. Municipalities are not particularly accepting of car campers. As stated in this article, Walmart’s and truck stops are probably the best places to stop for the night.

    • KC says:

      The trouble you may have had is you were staying at a state park…those usually require you to make a reservation or at least pay the fee. National Parks and Forests, on the other hand, are typically fair game. This land is your land, this land is my land, etc.

  10. Carlos Armstrong says:

    Hi Katie,
    You mentionen on your blog that your stonelik pad fits perfectly in your scion TC (first gen) for sleeping purposes. Could you tell me which model of the pad so that i can check it out. Also any other type of bedding or matts that you know of that woulf fit the scion tc that you can recoment would be welcomed. Thanks,

    Carlos

  11. Lauren says:

    When my daughter was about 8 months old and I was about 7 months pregnant my husband and I decided to drive around the entire edge of the state of Florida, from Jacksonville to Key West and up to Panama City, the long way. We pulled the 3rd row out of our minivan, tossed in a thick memory foam mattress and just packed in front of the 2nd row. We had a great trip and slept entirely in rest stops without a single problem. Looking back I’d say July probably isn’t the best time to circumnavigate Florida 😉 but it was a great trip even though everyone thought we were insane.

    • Mae says:

      I am a 83 yr old female. I am going to start camping in my kia soul. For a week at a time. Ihave 2 older cats for company. Info here helpful.

      • Ali says:

        That’s fantastic, Mae! I am 61, and this site has inspired me to camp in my Toyota. I have done several overnighters, will do a week in June. Good luck to us.

        • Marie says:

          I’m 63 and have a toyota camry. i will be going alone from phx to portland in a couple weeks. i hope the walmart lots are still good to sleep in. truck stops are generally noisy due to the truckers keep their trucks on. it’s kinda scary to go alone, but if i don’t, then i won’t go anywhere.
          so sleeping, will have to be in the front seat, because if I have to leave quickly, I won’t be able to get out of the car to get in the driver seat. i’m hoping I can make it comfortable.

          How did you other older gals get on?

  12. Carodr01 says:

    I’m beginning to plan my first ever solo (humanwise, my siberian husky is coming too!) road trip in my SUV. Any tips for road trips/SUV camping with dogs? Also…where do you shower??
    Thanks!

  13. Joe says:

    How can I have a companion? I’m a foreigner and I got very few friends spread across the states and they’re all busy at work and it happened for me to be out of work for few weeks. Any advice? I’ve already tried some websites but eek! Nothing interesting, nada.

  14. Leo says:

    thanks for the tips! I’m just getting started car living, organization is certainly key. I live around Anchorage, AK and climb a lot. Niko works at our gym and he’s talked looots about the trips he’s done, making car living sounds like the shit. I bet he was refering in part to some of the trips he’s done with you! small freakin’ world 😀
    Cheers from AK

  15. Holly Hayes says:

    I am a breast cancer survivor/grandmother with two cattle dogs that don’t like other dogs or cats and I have found myself basically homeless due to a fracking site literally shaking me out of my home. The rental market in Fort Collins Colorado is crazy competitive and living in my daughters basement makes me feel like a real free loader. Years ago I loved solo road trips to the Grand Canyon and many of Colorado’s peaks. Now, I am uncertain of myself and the thought of a road trip with my dog-a-phobic canine buddies terrifies me. All I can think about is what if I break down in the middle of nowhere and I have two miserable dogs strapped to the end of a leash? I hate to admit it but I’m scared. My daughter thinks I should talk to someone because I am grieving. You sound like an authority on car camping so you qualify as someone to talk to, right? What do you think? Should this granny rent a room at the local motel, play it safe in the basement or camp Roosevelt National forest like I did in the good old days? In six weeks I have the perfect, dog safe rental, but frustrated until then. Help me Obi-Won Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

  16. Karen C says:

    I’m taking a future car camping trip and buying a membership to Planet Fitness. They have over 1,300 locations so I can pop in for a hot shower…worth the $20/month. There are several other gyms that have multiple locations across the US.

    Some truck stops also offer a shower area for $2-$3.

  17. Jess says:

    Hi! Great article, really enjoyed it. Where is the location of the 2nd photo? My husband and I are oh so new to camping and are looking for some great spots to check our this weekend. Thanks!

  18. DNagle says:

    My friend and I are planning to try car camping this summer. We’ve been planning to stay at state park campgrounds (California) and instead of sleeping in a tent we’d sleep in the back of my Forester. I didn’t think there would be any problem with this until I saw a video on youtube about a guy who’s been living in a camper that he built onto the back of his pickup. He said he was sleeping in a campground (sorry, I don’t know where. I’m not sure he mentioned it.) when a ranger rousted him and said he wasn’t allowed to sleep in his vehicle. (Apparently its not obvious that his vehicle is a camper.) this got me thinking about whether California State Parks have regulations against sleeping in your vehicle. this may seem a ridiculous question–I wouldn’t have even felt the need to ask if I hadn’t seen that video, but now I feel the need to be reassured that we will in fact be allowed to sleep in our car at a CA State campground. Does anyone know what their rules are for these parks? Has anyone done this before?

  19. Sarah says:

    I know you wrote this like five years ago, but I’m oh so glad you did. Next summer I’m taking a month long trip to the coast, and it will be my first car camping trip. I’m armed with my little Camry, surfboards on the top and bikes on the back, plus everything one could need inside. Question though, how does one go about showering? I’m sure the beaches have public bathrooms, some of which might have showers, but if not… what then? Obviously the ocean will keep my hair from being super disgusting, but still.

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