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Home, sweet car: How to rock at camping out in your car

The dos and don'ts of becoming a wizard at car camping

Photo: Shutterstock

The idea of sleeping in your car sounds great in theory (if you’ve ever set up a tent in the dark, you know exactly what I’m talking about!). But, there are some things to consider logistically, especially if you’re looking for maximum comfort and convenience. Armed with a little bit of advance planning and some knowledge, anyone can become a wizard at car camping!

For our purposes, we’re going to consider “car camping” as literally sleeping in your car. Some people define it more broadly as camping in a place where you can drive your car right up to the site and park next to your tent, but in our version, you don’t need to bring or set up a tent. Or reserve a campsite, honestly.

Put it in park

Obviously, campgrounds work for car camping. You can reserve a site, spread out a bit, and enjoy amenities like fire pits, picnic tables, and bathrooms. But, if you’re looking to just call it a night wherever, you might have to do a bit of planning.

Many public lands allow free “dispersed” or “backcountry” camping (which means you can just put it in park wherever on the land and be set). Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and Forest Service lands, for the most part, allow dispersed camping for up to 14 days—you can even pull off a Forest Service road and stay there for the night.

Driving through the forest. | Photo: Famartin

Wildlife Management Areas also often allow it, but check and make sure that you don’t need a permit and that there are no restrictions. Remember to keep an eye out for “no camping signs,” too. National parks are often too crowded to allow dispersed camping, but some (like Congaree National Park) allow it. Check the BLM and Forest Service websites to find sites and figure out whether or not you need a free permit. And here’s a map of some of our favorite spots to get you started!

And if you’ve heard that you can sleep in your car in the parking lot of certain big-box retail marts or particular country kitchen chain restaurants, remember to do some research before you plan on that. While the corporate policy might allow it, certain state or city laws might actually mean that you can’t park overnight in some spots. If you aren’t sure, call the store to ask. It might be useful to let them know that you’ll be posting up in their lot for the night anyway, so they don’t accidentally call the cops on you.

Things to consider

The benefit of car camping is that it can be done with little gear and effort. That’s also the downfall. If you’re not at a campsite, you won’t have showers or bathrooms. But that’s a pretty easy thing to work around! Bring a portable shower if you’re feeling motivated, or wet wipes if you’re okay with roughing it a bit. You probably won’t even have trash cans, so bring along trash bags to pack your garbage out. And don’t plan on being able to start a fire, either. You might want to bring a portable stove setup if you want to cook for yourself (remember, use it outside the car only!).

Bed set up in the back of a car. | Photo: Mitch Barrie

You can also get yourself a mattress. Yes, even if you aren’t in a converted van or an RV with a bed. We are madly in love with these car mattresses. Simply inflate and pop into your backseat for a much, much better night’s sleep. Or, if you’re able to fold all of the seats in your car down, and you have the room to pack it, a futon mattress is even comfier than an inflatable one. And, pro tip, sleeping with your head toward the front of the car should give you more room.

You also need to consider the temperature, since you can’t leave your car on with the AC or heat blasting all night. Keep overnight temperatures in mind when planning routes and picking campsites; planning to travel in the north in the summer and the south in the winter can do wonders if you have the flexibility. You can also look for small fans, heavy-duty blankets, and sleeping bags that can keep your temperature in a comfy range.

Girl resting in the back of car. | Photo: Dean Bertoncelj

Other tips and tricks

Sleeping in your car all night will inevitably fog up the windows, simply from breathing. Since a damp car is no bueno, you’ll want to invest in some Damprid to put under the seats and some cheap mesh. Crack or open your windows (yes, even in the winter) before you go to sleep and stuff the cracks with the mesh to keep bugs out. Some people like to use magnets to hold mesh over open windows as well, or you can drape mosquito nets over the car.

Tarps are useful for keeping rain out if you want to leave doors or windows open. Or, if you want to take some things out of your car to make more room for sleeping, wrap those items in a tarp and stash them under the car. Just remember to grab and pack them before leaving!

A nature view from the back of a car. | Photo: Samuel Hakkinen

If your windows aren’t tinted and you’re worried about privacy, bungee cords, cloth, and clothespins can be hacked into cheap curtains. Or binder-clip sheets (or even clothes) to the upholstery on your car’s roof.

If you’re in bear country, bear-proof canisters or bags are imperative. Just because you’re in the car doesn’t mean you won’t potentially attract a hungry mama bear looking for a snack.

Keep flashlights, lamps or lanterns, and batteries around; it gets dark at night, and you won’t want to turn your car on every time you need to dig something up in the dark. And, speaking of batteries, it might help to have a solar panel on the dashboard to keep your devices charged.

Car with roof tent on a campground. | Photo: Samuel Hakkinen

And if you find yourself really loving the car camping life, or you want the convenience of car camping without the claustrophobic, sleeping-in-the-car bit, consider investing in a roof tent or car expansion tent. They really are the best of both worlds!