A picture of an orange tent with a fire in the foregroun.

10 Must-Have Car Camping Essentials for Your Outdoor Adventure

Imagine the trees rustling. Breathe in the fresh ocean breeze. Think about waking up to glorious mountain views. This is the power and joy of pitching a tent and embracing the outdoors. Camping season is here, and it’s time to gear up on the must-have car camping essentials for your next trip.

The best things to bring camping span the spectrum, but the following are 10 of my favorite things to take camping.

Why you can trust me: You can trust that this blog is authentic and real because I actually use these items to camp, and I recommend it to everyone. I try to use my blog like I’d talk to my friends, and these car camping essentials are ones you’ll be stoked about!

Car Camping Essentials for Your Next Trip

car camping essentials

What are some good tips for beginner car campers?

  • Go with an established campground to start. This means your water, table, and site is taken care of. It’ll also decrease any anxiety about dirt roads or where to camp.
  • While listing car camping essentials is helpful, this isn’t an exclusive list. Bring what you believe you’ll need. And if you don’t use it, then you’ll for next time to leave it at home.
  • The best things to bring camping are sometimes what makes it feel like home. So bring your comfy pillow and blanket. Pack a small mirror for makeup. Whatever you want to bring, bring it.
  • Bring a 5-10 gallon jug of water to have at the campsite and as you travel.

Get my free Car Camping Essentials Checklist below!

What do I really need for car camping? 10 Must-have car camping essentials

Below we dive into some of the best car camping essentials, why you need them, and how they can benefit you.

Four-Person Tent

This is the size of tent I’ve found that can hold a queen-sized air mattress and still allows you to put your bags inside the tent. Considering you’re car camping and weight isn’t a factor, get a tent that suits your needs and doesn’t break the bank.

I’d also recommend getting two doors (usually standard on these size tents), but it makes it easy for couples to exit from your side without crawling over someone else. Wapping up, what makes this one of the best things to bring camping is it provides you with space and comfort that a smaller tent doesn’t allow. Remember, weight and size aren’t an issue when you’re car camping, so splurge!

Two-Burner Stove

Maybe not as important as a tent, but still one of the most critical pieces of your car camping essentials and one you’ll use at least twice a day, if not more. You do not want to skimp on this, as a camping stove could last a decade. For me, my CampChef is going on five years with no signs of letting up.

You’ll also need propane. To me, a refillable propane canister is one of the best things to bring camping.

camping santa cruz channel islands things to take camping

Comfortable Air Mattress

Camping doesn’t have to be miserable. First, find a comfy air mattress that fits inside your tent. I suggest getting a GoalZero or Jackery and using it to inflate it inside the tent. Trying to get it through the tent opening can be a headache if you are going to blow it up via your car’s AC adapter. Definitely one of the car camping essentials you need.

Cozy Camping Chairs

Trust me; I’ve done the budget camping chairs that fall apart after a while. Get the good ones with armrests, and don’t look back. The sturdier the frame, the better the material, and the more you’ll enjoy your time in your camping chairs. I’m not advocating spending a few hundred dollars here, but getting more than just the generic, low-quality basic camping gear will make your trip better.

Another option is to get a dual chair and make it a date night.

Warm down blanket

This is one of my favorite car camping essentials because it’s not just one of the car camping essentials but also suitable for backpacking and having in the backyard for a night outside. They fold/wrap to a little bigger than a Nalgene water bottle, making it an easy travel companion. In addition, Rumpl has unique designs to keep you warm on chillier nights.

best things to bring camping

30-degree or lower sleeping bag

This is one of the best things to bring camping, as it’ll keep you warm in nearly all three-season camping situations. As I’ve mentioned above, weight is no concern, so you don’t have to spend a ton of money on the most ultra-light sleeping bag. Instead, find one that’s cozy and affordable. Plus, you can always add a blanket to keep you warm.

Cast Iron Skillet plus Cooking Set

There’s nothing more ‘wild’ than using a cast iron skillet over an open flame. Now, most of ya’ll won’t be doing that. However, having a skillet is a car camping essential as it allows you to cook a lot of different food varieties. (If you do cook over an open flame, I found the outside of my skillet transferred black soot everywhere.

So, keep an eye on that.) Next up, keeping with the cooking focus is a good cooking set. Find one that is stainless steel, or else the non-stick bottom could chip away. This happened on my first grill, and it made its way into the food. Not ideal.

Insulated Cooler

Possibly the most important of the car camping essentials is a cooler that can hold ice for an extended period. I went far too long with a pathetic cooler that could hardly hold ice longer than a day. You’ll be so thankful if you invest in a good, hard-shelled cooler that can hold ice for the entire weekend off the grid.

Multi-use power station

While being disconnected from the world is nice, it’s not always applicable. If you’re working remotely, a photographer/content creator, or need some juice to power things throughout the day, having a power station critical.

As I listed above, Jackery and GoalZero are the leading brands, but others have good gear. For those who need a charge, I strongly recommend these things to take camping.

Versatile Lantern

One of the basic car camping gear items on this list. You don’t have to get too fancy here. Just get one that provides enough light for your area and call it done!

car camping essentials basic camping gear

Bonus: Camp Table (only if your campground doesn’t have one)

You likely don’t need a table if you plan to cook and camp strictly in a designated campground. However, if you’re going to do dispersed camping (in a non-designated spot) or plan to do meals in random places (say, from a parking lot after a hike), having a collapsable camp table is paramount.

I own the one linked below, and it’s one of the best car camping essentials. It can hold a stove, and there’s still enough room for preparing meals.

What other car camping essentials might I need?

FAQs on basic car camping essentials for camp cooking

What food can you cook when camping?

Treat your camp meals like any other meal at home, but dial it back 15 percent. The making of the food is never the issue. It’s clean up. After dinner, once the sun has set, every camper loses the motivation to clean. So, plan ahead and cook food with only a small amount of cleanup.

Adding onto this, meals with less than five components are the best. Example: Pasta, sauce, meat, and a veggie. Simple, it hits your food groups and doesn’t have a ton of cleanup (though pasta sauce is a nuisance).

Read my article on easy camping meals here.

What do I need for camp cooking?

At a minimum, the things to take camping are a skillet and a pot to boil water. Add some dishes, silverware, a spatula, and a ladle, and you’re on your way to a pretty good setup. These can be brought from home or purchased, as I linked above. Finally, don’t forget to bring things to clean up with. A sponge, soap, and a couple of towels are all the basic camping gear you need to clean.

Furthermore, don’t forget some spices and sugar to season your food or sweet coffee with. I’d also suggest bringing some Tupperware for leftovers.

How do you cook safely when camping?

The most pressing issue is never to start a forest fire. This is less of a concern if you’re using a propane stove. If you are, make sure your propane is hooked up correctly. Once it is, start cooking! Keep an eye on the wind and the fire level. You don’t want a free accident that could start a fire.

basic camping gear coffee wildland

FAQs about Car Camping Essentials

Common Questions people ask about the best things to bring camping plus more:

Is Car Camping Cheap?

Car camping is much more affordable than staying in a hotel. If you get these car camping essentials and view them as an investment, over time, camping will greatly reduce the amount of money you spend on trips.

Should you crack a window when sleeping in your car?

There’s no need if you don’t want to. Your car has enough airflow that you won’t suffocate overnight. But if it’s going to be warmer, cracking a window will help with regulating temperatures.

Are there any safety tips or precautions I should take while car camping?

Do your due diligence to see who is camping around you – whether in a campground or on public lands. While I haven’t had many issues, there was one time we camped near a less-than-ideal group, which was uncomfortable.

In the end, it is all about being careful and identifying risks. 99% of the time, your car camping trip will be delightful, and you won’t think about anything bad happening.

How can I find car camping sites and make reservations in the United States?

Using a website like TheDyrt or googling “campgrounds near xxx” is a great way to find places to go camping. Additionally, looking over maps and identifying public lands will help you locate dispersed camping destinations.

What should I do about drinking coffee while camping?

There are a few avenues you can take. First, you can go with instant coffee, which isn’t great. (Though I guess you can load it up with creamer.) Next is using real grounds and using AeroPress. This is better, though you use a lot of grounds for a single cup.

Or you could have less cleanup and go with Wildland Coffee. (I love them.)

Is it okay to sleep in your car at a campsite?

Yeah! There are no requirements for setting up a tent in a campground. However, many people use a designated campground for utilities and convenience and then sleep in their van, trailer, or car. Make sure to have car camping essentials that allow you to sleep comfy in the back of your car.

What kind of vehicle is best for car camping in the United States?

Honestly, any car is good to camp in an established campground. If you can lay down your seats, you should have plenty of room to put in all your car camping essentials. Plus, it should be no issue if you’re good at packing and arranging things.

If you want to do dispersed camping away from crowds, you may want an SUV that can handle dirt roads. Saying this, though, I’ve owned a Prius for the last few years, and it has gotten me to many great spots!

What are the rules and regulations for car camping in the national parks of the United States?

To car camp in the National Parks, you must reserve a site in advance or when you arrive. Depending on the location, these usually cost $20-$40 per night. Most of these places have a site host who manages the facilities and enforces the rules (quiet hours for the most part).

You should bring your basic camping gear but can leave the camping table as all National Park locations have tables.

best things to bring camping car camping essentials

Car Camping Essentials – Wrapping up

Camping is a beautiful way to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and immerse yourself in nature. Therefore, it’s essential to plan and research your camping location.

Before you leave, check the weather forecast, familiarize yourself with the local terrain and wildlife, and pack appropriate clothing and gear for the environment. Practicing Leave No Trace principles and leaving the campsite better than you found is crucial to minimizing environmental impact.

Camping is an opportunity to disconnect from technology, slow down, and appreciate the beauty of the natural world. With the proper preparation and mindset, you can have an unforgettable camping experience that leaves you feeling recharged and rejuvenated.

So pack up your car camping essentials, hit the road, and enjoy the great outdoors.

Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.

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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside