Outbound Collective logo

The Rise of Car Camping: What You Should Know

Don't let your busy schedule and lack of gear get in the way of you and the outdoors. Pack up your car and get under the stars!

By: Hunter Berge + Save to a List

With our fast pace and time sensitive lives, planning a weekend backpacking trip can often slip our schedule. However, more and more people are realizing that you do not need expensive backpacking gear to enjoy the outdoors. All you need is a car.

I have always been an outdoorsy type of guy - packing my backpack and heading up to the mountains for a few days is something I try to do as much as possible. However, I found that I only had the time to make it out a few times a year. Well, a few months ago, my girlfriend purchased a Honda Element, a decently sized SUV. At this time, we were both trying to find time to make it to the mountains more often. So we decided to turn Charlie (Samantha's Honda Element), into a mini camper - allowing us to make spur-of-the-moment mini trips to the mountains without the need for loads of gear and fresh energy. To say the least, it has been amazing!

Here are a few things we have learned:

1. You do not need a VW Westfalia.

Although the epitome of car camping and road tripping seems to take place in a conveniently sized van with benches, stoves, and loads of space, you certainly do not need a van to car camp. In fact, you do not even need an SUV. I have camped in my small Hyundai Sonata comfortably. I would recommend playing with the seating configuration and see what seats fold flat, and how you could comfortably spread out in your car. Although, it is possible to camp in a sedan, I would recommend using an SUV as it is going to make things a lot more comfortable. 

2. Let the roads be your hotel. 

When exploring the outdoors in your car, it is extremely easy to find a place to pull off and set up camp. Of course, do not pull off on private property or on a busy thoroughfare. However if you are in National Forest or BLM land, you can pull off essentially anywhere - making car camping a breeze. Please be aware of any 'no-parking' or 'tow-away zone' signs; a 3am knock on the window from a figure of authority is not the best way to interrupt your trip.

3. Organization is key.

If you have ever been on a road trip, you know that things can get disorganized pretty quickly. We have found that bringing baskets and bins can ease the mess pretty quickly. Plan out how you are going to organize all of your luggage before you go on the trip. 

4. Bring a surplus of water. 

Water is an essential. We usually try to pack at least 3 gallons of water per night. When you are in the car, you will be surprise how quickly you go through your water. Drinking, cooking, and washing will drain your water supply faster than you know. So head to the store and pick up a jug to keep filled at all times. 

5. Food storage (this one is important).

Although you may think you are completely safe in a big steal box on the side of the road, you are mistaken. Bears and other wildlife can smell even the smallest amount of food from up to 5 miles away. So just as you would if you were backpacking, make sure you hang your food up at least 30 feet away from the car, high in a tree so bears and other wildlife cannot get to it. Bears are known to claw at cars and even break windows if they smell even the slightest bits of food. 

(I do not own this photo - Photo (and creativity) credits to the Idaho Park Rangers - well done)

6. Be prepared for injury. 

Always pack a first aid kit. No matter what you are doing, it is always wise to bring medical supplies in case of an emergency. 

7. Leave no trace.

Like always, respect the place that you are in. The leave-no-trace policy still applies even if you are not far off the road. Bring a trash bag so you can pick up your mess and leave the location exactly how you found it. We all need to be playing our part in keeping our national forests, roads, and the earth we live in, as cleans as possible. 

Although backpacking is incredible, and I recommend everyone make it out as much as possible, sometimes our busy schedules can get in the way. That should not stop you from enjoying the outdoors. So pack up your car, and get out! You won't regret it. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Do you love the outdoors?

Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.


10 Things you need to do in Baja

wyld honeys

Journey to Wyoming’s premier snowmobiling destination: Togwotee Mountain Lodge

Samuel Brockway

Hiking in comfort: a review of Danner Mountain 600 Evo boots

Meghan White

A peek through God's window

Heather Arnold