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11 Essentials for Car Camping: A Checklist to Prepare for Your Next Adventure

Everything You Need for a Quick and Easy Camping Trip

A woman lounges on a hammock by her tent and admires the view of red cliffs and sandy terrain near Moab, Utah

Car Camping in Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Abby Voce


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As leaves change and temperatures continue to drop across most of the country, it may seem that the prime time of the year for camping is coming to an end. However, fall is an underrated camping season - with cooler temperatures, fewer crowds, and almost no bugs, fall is a perfect time to get outside and camp.

After the longer trips of summer, a weekend car camping getaway can be the perfect escape into nature. With everything you need in the car, it can be a relatively easy getaway - as long as you have the essentials. No matter what type of campsite your destination is, making sure you have these basic necessities will ensure your trip is a success!

Redwoods tower over a blue and white tent with no rain fly in Boulder Creek, California, deep within the Santa Cruz Mountains

Tent Setup in Santa Cruz Mountains: Boulder Creek, CA - Photo Credit: Darryll DiPietro

A Tent (or car big enough to sleep in)

The most important part of a successful camping trip is a good sleeping setup. The first step to a good night’s sleep is an appropriate shelter.

When car camping, you can either sleep in your vehicle or in a tent close to your vehicle. If planning on sleeping in your car, make sure it has enough space for you to comfortably lay flat in it. Otherwise, a tent is a great option to sleep in while car camping.

Since you’re not out there backpacking for miles to get to your campsite, your tent for car camping does not need to be particularly lightweight - but there are still some requirements for a proper setup. A good tent must be:

  • The right size for the number of people intending to sleep in it

  • Equipped with a footprint for added insulation

  • Covered by a good rainfly in case there is inclement weather while you are camping

For most people, sizing up the tent will make for a more comfortable experience. For example, for two people, a three person tent would be recommended. By using a tent one size up, you can save your group (or just yourself!) from being cramped and sore.

Additionally, the last thing you want is to be cold and wet while camping! A good rainfly keeps the weather out, and also retains a lot of warmth within your tent!

The lights are on in this tent in Sedona Arizona, but is anyone home? It is late, and the stars and the trees loom overhead

Making Sleeping Arrangements in Sedona, AZ - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue

A Comfortable Sleeping Pad

The next part of a good sleeping setup is a comfortable sleeping pad. A good sleeping pad is important to add some cushion between you and the ground. This cushion provides some separation from any rocks, roots, or sticks under your tent which helps keep you comfortable at night. Additionally, a sleeping pad helps you insulate yourself from the cold ground which will ensure you stay warm.

Any type of sleeping pad works for car camping - just ensure there are no holes in it if it’s an inflatable pad. If you are using an inflatable pad, it is good practice to bring patches for it, just in case you do find any leaks while out camping.

A Sleeping Bag (or blankets)

Last but not least for a comfortable sleeping setup is good bedding. An easy and reliable option for this is a sleeping bag. Sleeping bags have a temperature rating, so make sure you have the right bag for the weather where you’re camping.

If you don’t have a sleeping bag, blankets and comforters can work as camp bedding as well. Just make sure they are warm enough!

Certified CampDog S'mores looks bedraggled and cold at a campsite in Bryce Canyon, Utah, where a cooking fire is set up among a crowded picnic table, camping chairs, and coolers

Chairs and Dogs at Bryce Canyon National Park, UT - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue

Camping Chairs

Another essential thing to bring on a car camping trip is some form of camping chairs! This is important to make sure everyone has a place to relax comfortably while enjoying being in nature.

Camp chairs are something that might be easy to forget, but are extremely beneficial for a properly relaxing camping trip.

Cooking Setup

Part of the fun of camping is getting to cook and enjoy simple meals outside. In order to ensure that no one goes hungry and you have everything you need, a good cooking setup while camping is imperative.

Helpful items for a good cooking setup while camping are:

  • a camping stove to cook on, or a campfire grill grate if you want to cook over the fire

  • the appropriate pots or pans for meals you have planned

  • enough dishware for everyone present

  • Aluminum foil!

A good option for dishware while camping is simple reusable plastic plates and an insulated cup that can be used for any drinks you may be having. Stirring and serving utensils are also very helpful for cooking while car camping. Aluminum foil is useful for just about anything - as a pan, as a plate, or for wrapping up leftovers to eat later!

It is also important to bring nature-safe soap to clean up after cooking.

A table with a camp stove is nestled between two tents on the shore of Loon Lake in California. Two dogs lounge and wait for breakfast - which may come via stove or via the cooking grate on the campfire pit

A Great Cooking Setup (and more dogs) at Loon Lake, CA - Photo Credit: Paul Engel

Warm Layers

In addition to the rest of the clothes you are packing, when camping in the fall it is important to have:

  • A warm base layer

  • A good puffy jacket

  • A fleece

  • A warm pair of socks

Having these items will keep you comfortable and warm while car camping. Being cold is a surefire way to put a serious damper a camping trip, so make sure to pack these warm layers to ensure that doesn’t happen.


Another essential thing to bring while car camping is plenty of potable water. A large jug of around five gallons that stays in the car is perfect to serve as a proper reserve of water.

This water can be used for:

  • Extra drinking water in case you run out

  • Personal hygiene

  • Cleaning dishes

  • Putting out your campfire

Full Cooler

A full cooler is another essential part of a positive car camping experience. A good cooler keeps all your food fresh and drinks cold!

A woman in purple sits by the fire in Bodega, California, waiting for the cooking grate to warm up to start cooking. She is surrounded by three empty red camping chairs, one sporting the glorious visage of Buc-ee Himself

Car Camping in Bodega, CA - Photo Credit: Mike Incillo

Fire Starting Materials

Next up on the list of essential car camping supplies is the right materials to start your campfire. It may not seem hard, but depending on the conditions starting a fire can be more challenging than you may think. To ensure you have the campfire of your dreams, make sure to have:

  • A bundle of dry firewood

  • Kindling

  • Newspaper / Brown Paper Bag / Fritos (yup, Fritos are flammable!)

  • A good lighter

  • (optional) Lighter Fluid

When bringing firewood to a campsite, it is important to source it near your campsite. Bringing in wood from a different area can bring in foreign insects/fungi that can be harmful to the native environment.

You can also bring a hatchet and/or saw to cut your own wood, but it is important to check and make sure the campsite permits this. Additionally, if cutting your own wood, only cut from felled trees and branches, never cut anything living.

A good campfire is an awesome part of a camping experience, and being prepared with fire starting materials can certainly help make sure it happens!

A car pulls up to a Car Camping Campsite, complete with table, fire pit, and bear box, in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in WEstern Colorado

Car Camping in Gunnison, CO - Photo Credit: Abby Voce

Headlamp / Lantern / Flashlight

Once the sun goes down when out in the woods, it gets very dark and a phone flashlight alone does not do much to cut through the darkness. To ensure you can see your friends and don’t stub your toe on the way to bed, a good headlamp, flashlight, and/or lantern is a must-have.

In particular, a headlamp is great because it frees your hands to accomplish tasks like cooking, cleaning, stoking the fire, and so much more.

Wildlife Protection

It is important to be familiar with the wildlife in the region you are planning on camping in and have the proper protection in case you come into contact with it.

This sign in Sedona, Arizona speaks truth - what doesn't kill you will make you stronger... except Bears. Bears will kill you.

When camping in bear territory, bear spray is essential to have for your safety while camping. Additionally proper food storage is important to help keep bears (and other wildlife!) out of your campsite. Some campsites have bear boxes provided, but if not a bear canister or bear sling are necessary to have. Worst case scenario, keep anything fragrant securely locked up in your car!

When camping in snake/scorpion climates, anti-venom is an important thing to bring on your camping getaway in case you come into contact with poisonous wildlife.

No matter where you are camping, do research on the region first and make sure you have the correct supplies to keep both you and the native wildlife safe while camping.

A beautiful fall landscape near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is a perfect (if a bit chilly) place for car camping in the Autumn

Camping in the Fall in Wyoming - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Optional Bonus Tip: Entertainment

Having some form of entertainment while camping can add to the overall experience. A good book or a deck of cards can be fun to have while enjoying the beauty of nature. If you’re musically inclined, bringing a guitar can add to the overall campfire experience.

Car camping is an amazing way to enjoy being in nature with relative ease. There are only a few simple but important steps to ensure your camping trip is a success. Simply find a campsite, do some research on the natural environment of the campsite, make sure you have these essentials and you’re ready for a quick getaway into nature!


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