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Guide to car camping

Hit the open road and stay in a tent overnight.

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Guy fixes breakfast at campsite

Car camping can be a fun and affordable way to get out and explore, especially for families. Just remember to budget for expenses like the nightly campsite fee, park entrance fees and bundles of firewood.

What is car camping?

Car camping involves packing a tent in your trunk, parking at a campsite and sleeping in the tent overnight. Car camping can also mean literally sleeping in your car.

Car camping with a tent is a good option for families and those who want a vacation immersed in nature, but aren’t interested in roughing it. Because in addition to your tent, there’s room for a cooler in that trunk, which means snacks, drinks, extra blankets and other creature comforts. It can also be convenient for people who don’t own specialized camping gear since it’s easier to tote along items you already have. For example, you can bring blankets and a pillow from your bed if you don’t have a sleeping bag.

Car camping during COVID-19

Car camping is generally a good option for travel during the coronavirus pandemic because you have your own space to eat, sleep and live. And there should be plenty of socially distanced activities nearby, like hiking, fishing and mountain biking.

However, not all campsites are open, so you’ll need to check for restrictions before planning your trip. Also, be sure to bring along essentials like masks, reusable water bottles and hand sanitizer.

Can I sleep in my car?

Yes, you can sleep in your car at a campsite. But if you’re not at a campground, make sure sleeping in your car is legal since laws vary by state.

Best rentals for car camping

The best cars for sleeping are SUVs, wagons and vans, because you’ll have the most space to lie down. Though with large cars, the tradeoff is poor gas mileage.

A few top picks for car camping include:

  • Chevrolet Equinox
  • Chevrolet Suburban
  • Ford Explorer
  • Nissan Rogue
  • Subaru Outback
  • Toyota RAV4
  • Volkswagon Golf Wagon
  • Volvo CX90

Before confirming your rental, double check that the seats fold down.

Car camping sites

While mountains may immediately come to mind when you think about car camping, there are also campsites near beaches, swamps, deserts and oceans. Here’s where you’ll find a plethora of car camping sites:

  • National parks. You’ll usually need to pay a $35 entry fee, and campsites range from $15 to $30 nightly at National Parks — our nation has 62 in total.
  • State parks. There are over 10,000 state parks across the US. While not all of them have campsites with running water, you can usually expect to pay between $15 to $30 nightly, plus an entrance fee.
  • Private campgrounds. Smaller, locally owned campgrounds can be a unique way to experience a new place. These are usually comparable in price to what you’d pay at a State or National Park.
  • Private property. You can’t camp on private land without permission. But you could use a site like Tentrr to stay on someone’s property for the right price — some Tentrr campsites even come fully equipped with a tent and other gear.
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Free car camping

You don’t technically need to pay for a campsite. It’s free to camp on National Forest Land and Bureau Management Land — there’s over 190 million acres of this across the US. That said, you won’t be near running water, electricity or bathrooms, so it could be a bit extreme for people who prefer to be more comfortable.

Free camping in national forests is also called dispersed camping. In general, set up your campsite 100 to 200 feet away from any nearby water sources, trails or roads.

The US Forest Service has a plethora of maps available, including an interactive one so you can navigate your way to free camping.

  • Amy’s expert tip

When you’re choosing a campsite, look for information about how far apart you’ll be from the next site over — even if that just means squinting at pictures. It may sound insignificant, but this can have a huge effect on your experience. I once booked a campsite on Tybee Island in Georgia that ended up being a tiny, roped-off square in the middle of what was essentially a sandbox. The next camper was literally right next to us, and it ruined the whole “escape to nature” mission. A little extra research on the front end can make or break your car camping trip.

How much does car camping cost?

Car camping is cheapest for people who don’t need to buy any gear. So if you’re tight on cash, consider checking in with friends and family to see if they’ve got a tent you can borrow. Or debate the merits of sleeping in your car.

Here’s how much car camping costs for a single person and a family of four:

Cost of car camping per person

1 night5 nights
National Park entry$35$35
Campsite$20$100
Tent$50$50
Firewood2 bundles — $1210 bundles — $60
Total$130 if you need to buy a tent

$80 if you already own a tent

$295 if you need to buy a tent

$245 if you already own a tent

Cost of car camping for a family of four

1 night5 nights
National park entry$35$35
Campsite$20$100
Tent$250$250
Firewood2 bundles — $1210 bundles — $60
Total$340 if you need to buy a tent

$95 if you already own a tent

$570

$320 if you already own a tent

Keep in mind that you’ll also need to pay for gas to get to the campground. And don’t forget to work food costs into your budget. This could vary widely depending on your appetite and eating preferences — for instance, the USDA suggests that a family of four could spend about $20 to $25 daily on a thrifty budget, though you could easily spend over $50 daily to feed the clan while car camping. Pro tip? Ground beef can go a long way, and since most campsite fire pits come with a grill grate, it’s easy to cook over an open fire.

Car camping essentials

When it comes to car camping, convenience is key. Keeping your items stored in plastic bins makes it easy to store, pack and unpack for your camping trips. While you don’t technically need to worry about over packing, make sure you bring these essentials along before loading up on snacks and beer:

  1. Air mattress or sleeping pad. A key difference between backpacking and car camping? You’re allowed to be comfortable. The experience is most enjoyable when you get a good night’s sleep.
  2. Sleeping bag. Unroll, slide in, sleep, roll up — done. Just make sure the bag you bring along is appropriate for the temperature of your location.
  3. Tent. The bigger, the better when it comes to tents for car camping. Even if you’re going solo, you won’t regret having extra room to move around.
  4. Rain gear. Bring along a tarp and rain coats in case you get caught in a downpour.
  5. Matches and fire starter. Having a fire starter saves you time and energy to spend on other things, like setting up the tent or relaxing.
  6. Camping chairs. While most car camping sites come with picnic tables, camping chairs are cozy and let you sit nice and close to the fire, circling up with your other campers for ghost stories late into the night.
  7. Lantern and flashlights. These help you find your way to the bathroom, tent and car in the middle of the night. Lanterns and flashlights also add great ambiance, and are necessary if you plan on partaking in evening games.
  8. Cooler. For car camping, we recommend a hard cooler. It can double as a prep station or extra seat, though soft coolers are better for carrying over your shoulder. Investing in a sturdy cooler will come in handy for years to come.
  9. Pocket knife. Because there’s nothing worse than needing to cut open a package or bundle of firewood and being surrounded by only dull objects.
  10. Cards and board games. Bring things to do that don’t require electricity or battery power. A deck of cards can keep kids and adults entertained for hours.

A cook stove can make it easier to whip up meals and brew coffee in the mornings. If you’re planning on cooking meals at the campsite, then pack the necessary pots and pans. A skillet and saucepan, tongs and a wooden spoon for stirring should do the trick.

  • If you’re staying at a campsite with showers, bring a pair of waterproof sandals to protect your feet.
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Bottom line

Car camping is an adventure in and of itself. Regardless of where you go, the memory of bunking it in a tent lasts for life. Browse more guides for travel within the US to find your next budget-friendly getaway.

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