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Car Camping for Beginners
When planning a road trip, one of the most important questions is “Where do I stay on a road trip?”
As you know, the options are almost endless. The beauty of road trips is that you don’t have to choose just one. Some of our favorite trips have been some combination of camping, backpacking, glamping, and Airbnb.
When it comes to accommodations, you have a virtual smorgasbord of options. In this series, we will cover each one in depth. Then, choose which one or combination suits you best.
Let’s start with road trip car camping.
The Difference Between Car Camping and RV Camping
#vanlife is a growing trend across social media. It seems a new generation has discovered the old freedom once known only to a small community of retirees.
However, you don’t need to own a special vehicle to sleep under the open sky. And you may find that you don’t have to wait until your 401k matures to answer the call of the open road.
While much of this article will apply equally to RV travel, the focus is on car and tent camping in its various forms. Look for a rundown on RVing and Overlanding in a future post.
And don’t worry if you aren’t the rugged outdoorsy type. You may be surprised at all of the options where you can find yourself sleeping comfortably under the stars.
Some of these options may not appeal to you now. But hopefully this post will help you to appreciate the reason why someone else would choose this kind of accommodation.
If pitching a tent and cooking for yourself are too big of a leap, keep reading for advice on transitional camping. (Check out glamping and tentalows for example)
Glossary of Terms
- Car Camping: Sleeping in, on, or near your vehicle.
- In your car – includes everything from a quick nap in a parking lot to turning your SUV into something of a cabin.
- On your car – includes tents that go on top of your car, truck, or SUV
- Near your car – includes traditional camp grounds where you pitch a tent within a short distance from your car
- Glamping: A luxury form of camping. Generally a tent is set up with normal household furnishings and ranges in amenities from a traditional Bed and Breakfast to an all-inclusive experience.
- Tentalow: Very similar to Glamping. The word is a mix of tent and bungalow. It generally describes the structure of a large canvas tent. At times these are on a raised platform, attached to a solid structure, and some have electricity and even plumbing.
Believe it or not, camping can be even more luxurious than some of the most posh spas you have ever seen. But I digress. We will get to that soon enough.
Distinguishing Road Trip Car Camping From Backpacking
Similarly, there is a lot of cross-over between car camping and backpacking. And certainly, the two can combine into an amazing trip.
However, by starting off with car camping we can induct the uninitiated to the world of camping without the overwhelm of specialty equipment. Car camping is generally a good introduction to camping. Plus it transitions nicely into back country camping.
As mentioned before, the best road trips include several options in accommodations. Car camping is a great way to explore the outdoors while saving some money. In later posts we will show you where you can spend the extra savings if you should choose to splurge.
Later on we will deep dive into both RV travel and backpacking.
For now, let’s get started on the everything you need to know about car camping.
Camping for Beginners – The Essentials
I decided to start with car camping as this is probably the most accessible to the majority. Most already have a car, or at least they plan on renting one.
And this tends to have a lower entry point from the financial standpoint. Backpacking takes specialty equipment that sacrifices size, weight, or creature comforts depending on your ambition level.
Car camping is the middle ground between roughing it in the backcountry and the plentitude of comforts from an RV. As mentioned, we will discuss the pros and cons of each in future articles.
Using your car as a basecamp and sherpa can also be a gateway to taking the adventure to the next level. Whether that is backpacking or opting for more amenities.
Tip! Buy a backpacking tent if:
- You think you may like to backpack in the future
- You may find this is the only tent you need. Or you may decide that you want more space on car camping trips. In that case, you can upgrade later to a larger tent and use the backpacking tent for the backcountry.
- You want to camp in other countries
- With baggage restrictions you will find that having a backpack rig ready to go will be the cheapest means of flying with all of your camping gear. And often you are renting a car with an incredibly small trunk. Or boot as the case may be.
So, once you have settled on a destination, it’s time to pick out a place to pitch your tent. Whether you are looking for a campground as your destination or one just for a night or two on your way there, you will want to find a place to stay.
Tip! Start local.
If you have not camped before or you want to try out new equipment, find a local campground to test everything out. Or camp out in the backyard.
Doing so will help you to test your setup. It’s much easier to assess what you may or may not actually need for camping on a road trip.
You may even discover one of your favorite campsites.
We used to live about 3.5 miles away from a reservoir. It became one of our top choices because it was so accessible. In 30 minutes we could be from our driveway to a fully set up site. That’s less time than watching one episode of The Office.
Car Camping in Campgrounds – A Beginner’s Guide
One of the most satisfying sounds in the world is the crunch of pea gravel beneath your hiking boots.
Especially after a long day behind the wheel. The hum of the highway and the whistling of the wind are the welcome consonance of the road.
But when you pull off of the highway and into the campground, all of that is drowned by the gentle quiet of the woods.
And then you finally step out of the car, and stretch the miles off. One of the first sounds to welcome you to tranquility is made by your own foot.
With the satisfying grind of gravel beneath your hiking boots, each step becomes the percussion of an unwinding soundtrack. As you scurry off to the bathroom.
The only question remains is, Where do you want to camp?
Of course, there are names synonymous with campgrounds. Each may have a different appeal.
From arcades to waterparks, they try to bridge a gap by exposing a new generation to some good old fun.
Others are designed more for RV’s that offer amenities like utility hookups.
The drawback for both of these is that they tend to get crowded. And loud.
“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”Yogi Berra
If that’s not your gig, no problem. There are plenty of other places you can camp. Below are some links to more information on where to camp, where to get permits, and other helpful information.
If you would like an aggregated list of all of these, see our list of recommended apps that simplifies the search process.
The National Parks main page has an interactive map that will take you to the individual Park’s website. There you can narrow down your search and find other useful information such as camping and entrance fees, facilities available and highlights of each park.
National forests (It takes a little navigating compared to Dyrt app)(choose state > choose park > choose camping > choose type of camping)
You will find options for:
- Cabin Rentals
- Campground Camping
- Dispersed Camping
- Group Camping
- RV Camping
For the other federal lands camping including on
- National Park Service
- U.S. Forest Service
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Bureau of Land Management
- Bureau of Reclamation
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
A note on camping at national and state parks: Camping fees generally do not include park entry fees. Find more information on the individual park’s website.
There are a variety of styles of car camping. At most of the national and state parks you can choose between designated camping sites that you can drive or walk to. Or you can discover dispersed camping where you can pitch your tent in the great wide open, usually for free.
So, whatever your style of camping, there is something for everyone. But as you can see, there are a ton of resources to comb through.
Fortunately, there’s an app for that.
The following apps have been designed to curate a lot of this information for you. From gas prices, traffic, to camp sites, these are the best ones to help you plan and execute your trip successfully.
Or to see what is around you in case you want to be spontaneous.
Helpful camping apps
What we love about this app:
- It covers an expansive variety of camping. A one stop shop for all of the styles of camping we list in this post.
- It is a community based app. Post, rate and review each campsite you have been to. This helps other campers in the future.
- It is constantly improving with each passing year. And they incentivize the users with some sweet contests for some (I would assume) sponsored prizes.
- Customer relations. While the reviews are largely positive, I think reading some of the lower ratings can give a little insight. I love that they respond to every comment and address any technical issues.
- The pro version has even more features that allow you to plan out your route and download to Google maps. Pretty cool!
What we love about this app:
- Find unique places to stay on private land. Think Airbnb for camping
- It also covers tent camping, RV sites, glamping, (more on that in a minute), cabins and even treehouses!
- Real time availability and last minute booking. This is important to keeping a road trip flexible and spontaneous.
What we love about this app:
- A dedicated app for camping, RV, and other activities on federal lands.
- Can sign up for lottery campsites.
- Book campsites ahead of time, or choose your camp site and pay through a QR code for first come first serve sites.
- Real-time availability – keeping your road trip adaptable.
There are other camping apps available, but with mixed reviews. Later we will have a roundup with a comparison of the most popular ones.
However, I wanted to include these apps as part of the overall road trip experience. Honestly, besides the obvious usefulness as a trip planner, these apps make excellent inspiration boards.
But where they really shine is for finding last minute places to stay. The value of which can’t
Other Helpful Apps:
Why we like this app:
- Again, another community based app. Find the cheapest gas prices along your route. See it cheaper? Report it to help other drivers out.
- You can Pay with GasBuddy. Not only that, but it applies a discount of a few cents per gallon and is accepted at most gas stations.
Why we like this app:
- Waze tends to be more up-to-date than Google Maps. Since it is crowdsourced, it is constantly updated.
- It’s great at avoiding traffic
An ideal app would integrate the best of all three of these (Waze, Dyrt, and GasBuddy). I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comes up with something like that soon.
Why we like this app:
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of available apps. However, based on reviews and personal experience we feel comfortable recommending these.
A word of warning about apps when camping:
Your device is a useful tool for getting you to your campground. The whole point of getting away is to unplug and look around at something to look around at. That something being nature. And wow! Is it something to look at.
So do yourself and everyone else a favor. Put your phone down and look up. Recharge your own batteries.
Unplug to unwind. Disconnect to be connected.
4 Options For Road Trip Car Camping
The best way to describe car camping is to break it down into 4 different types:
- In your car – exactly what is sounds like
- Tent camping – not including RV
- Near your car – aka basecamp
- On your car – …you’ll see
1. Camping In Your Car
First off, let’s differentiate sleeping in your car from camping in your car. One is a great way to enhance your road trip and be one of the memories you hold onto forever.
The other is at times a necessary evil that you will not quickly forget either.
Sleeping in your car is defined as simply pulling over and laying the seat back for a quick rest.
If you hate a good night’s sleep and have always wanted to know what it will feel like to wake up every morning when you are 80+ years old, try sleeping in your car for a night.
Seriously, I have rolled a car and slept in a car. I felt roughly the same afterward.
Generally, this is only a good idea if you need to catch some z’s for a few hours. It is a much better idea than driving tired. Or avoiding some shady characters at a city park that may or may not allow camping anyway. (Remind me to tell you about that time in Maui.) But a worse idea than most anything else.
However, if you must sleep in your car there are limitless options.
Parking lots, truck stops, and rest areas all come to mind. However, some are better than others.
Of all of the places that we have slept in the car, we have reluctantly settled on Walmart parking lots as the choice with the least drawbacks.
First of all, the culture. Walmart at night is a side of Americana rarely glimpsed anywhere else.
Just like a rest area, you have 24 hour bathrooms and snacks. But the security cameras in the Wally World parking lots deter most of the serial killers you encounter at rest stops.
However, there is a better alternative. While pulling off for a few hours technically isn’t camping, there are accessories for actually extending the use of your car into a tent.
Camping in your car is defined as adding an accessory to turn your car into a temporary RV.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this, depending on the model of vehicle that you have and your ambition.
For example, sleeping in the bed of a truck can be as simple as putting a sleeping mat down. Or, you can add a camper shell and build a full kitchen inside.
The same goes for an SUV. The bigger ones can be slept in by folding down some seats. Or some custom modifications can expand the use of your cargo space into a comfortable fort.
Then there is the cargo tent. These tents attach to a truck or SUV to extend the living space of your vehicle.
The pros of camping in your car:
- You have access to all of the amenities of your car. Plug-ins, air conditioning, heat, and lights.
- You can sleep off of the ground. This is especially beneficial in cooler camping conditions.
- You gain extra space. By combining, your living space is bigger than both your tent or your vehicle.
The cons of camping in your car:
- You can easily run down the battery if you are depending on your car’s accessories.
- Your car becomes immobile until you dismantle the whole thing.
If you are looking for portable power, check out these portable generators by Jackery. They have a variety of sizes and even solar panels.
And in case you do run your battery down, Antigravity makes a portable jump starter. I have used this one and can’t believe how powerful this tiny thing is.
Not only can you jump start your car, it has usb charging ports for all of your devices as well. Here is a Cnet comparison report.
3. Camping Near Your Car
Camping near your car can be as simple as traditional camping. It’s what your parents learned from your grandparents:
Drive to a campsite. Pull out the tent and all of the camping equipment. Set up your tent. Light a campfire.
Tip! If you only buy one tent buy this one:
REI Halfdome 2 Plus
I have no affiliation with them. I don’t get paid to say this. This is an honest conclusion after owning both the original Halfdome 2 and now the Halfdome 2 Plus. There is always a trade-off of weight for features and, for us anyway, this nails it.
For less than the cost of a night or two at an average hotel, we bought the original REI Halfdome 2. For the next 15 years we had a tent with 2 entries with extra large vestibules. It is one of the easiest tents to put up. You simply cross two poles and clip the body to it. In about 2 minutes you can be moving in.
We camped everywhere between Mauii and Iceland. Including backpacking and car camping. We have even camped on jobsites when working long days.
The only gripe with it was that it got very hot in the summer since the bottom didn’t allow a lot of air movement. And while comfortable and easy enough to carry, we could always use a little more space.
Somehow REI managed to address both of those issues when they came out with the Halfdome 2 Plus. Not only does it have proper ventilation, but they made it wider and longer. We can, and have actually, fit a queen size tri fold memory foam mattress topper inside. It is shamefully glorious.
The only downside is it takes an extra minute or two to set up. But well worth the trade-off IMO.
The pros of camping near your car are:
- You can still use your car without dismantling your tent.
- You can bring more creature comforts than sleeping in your car or backpacking.
- More easily accessible than backpacking.
- You don’t need anything fancy. Even the cheapest tent from Target will do the trick.
The cons of camping near your car are:
- You lack the accessories like heat and power from your car.
- Generally you are sleeping on the ground as opposed to camping in your car.
- You can’t explore nearly as far as backpacking.
Box: Essential tips for setting up camp
- Choosing the site
- Look for a flat, smooth spot. Remove any rocks or sticks that might be under your tent. If you can find a spot covered with pine needles, that is a bonus! Pine needles are the tatami mats of the outdoors.
- Find the highest spot. Whenever you set up your tent, there is rarely a perfectly level site. That’s ok. Just make sure your head is higher than your feet. Sleeping upside down will give you the worst headache. Unless you are a bat.
- In dispersed campsites, avoid setting up your campsite in dry creek beds. Dry creek beds quickly turn into wet creek beds just before becoming plain old creek beds. And your tent is not a boat.
- Watch out for the wind. Stake down your tent and guy lines well. Find some trees to act as a windbreak. And yes, breaking wind is not only acceptable when camping. It’s encouraged.
- Now watch out for the guy lines. Especially going to or from the bathroom in the middle of the night. I don’t know why I included this. It’s completely unpreventable. Forget I said anything.
Alternatively, camping near your car can blow away almost everything you know about camping.
Glamping – Luxury camping near your car
There are more ways of camping near your car than packing your own tent. The following is a primer on glamping and tentalows.
We cover them here since they fall under the category “car camping.”
Glamping is the Airbnb of camping. The word glamping is a tragic portmanteau of the word “glamorous” and “camping”. Which makes sense since it is a more luxurious way to camp.
The experience is a mash-up of camping and a bed-and-breakfast. The sky’s the limit on just how posh it can be.
Glamping combines all of the comforts of home with the tranquility of sleeping outside. With a descriptive word that appeals to nobody. Glamping?
There are a wide variety of glamping sites.
A rare type of glamping is another terrible assemblage of two words: tentalows. Tentalows may be a combination of the words “tent” and “bungalow”.
“Yeah, the back of the roadhouse they got some tentalows…”Jim Morrison
Maybe not. More likely it is a succinct version of “the intention was to come up with better word than tentalow.”
Tentalow – an unfortunate name for a fortunate experience
But don’t let the name put you off from trying this out. We have stayed in tentalows in both Hawaii and on safari in Masai Mara.
Our first tentalow experience was when staying in Molokai, HI for a night on the beach.
Most of our nights in Hawaii were spent in our own tent on the island of Maui. But we spent one night in the now defunct Molokai Ranch.
The tentalows were these outdoor living spaces walled in by a privacy fence.
When you walk up to them, you are taken down the beach and to a path that leads to your own private retreat.
Inside was a deck with a separate open roof bathroom with endless solar hot water. And a large, well apportioned tent served as the bedroom.
We enjoyed an amazing dinner on the beach as part of the all-inclusive experience.
Our second tentalow was on the serengeti in Kenya. That one was a complex of safari tents attached to stone bathrooms.
Again, the tent was set up as luxuriant as any high end place we have stayed. They each had electricity and running water.
And frankly, the comfort of being surrounded by other people feels a little more comfortable when surrounded by lions.
Other Glamping Resources
There are many other ways to “glamp”. When we were in Volcano Huts in Iceland, we opted for camping in our own tents.
But they also offer glamping and the eponymous huts for those traveling without a tent.
Either way, you have access to the facilities and some of the most beautiful hikes in your life. Look for a review and guide coming soon.
(If you want to know when the latest blog comes out, sign up for our newsletter. I don’t know how to spam, but I know they are annoying. So I can promise not to fill your inbox with useless stuff.)
The pros of glamping are:
- If you have not reached the comfort level of camping, yet you love the idea of sleeping outside. Glamping offers a taste of both camping and luxury.
- On a long camping trip, it is nice to splurge on a little pampering.
The cons of glamping are:
- The cost is quite a bit more than a campsite. At times even more than an entire campground.
- You have to say the word “glamping”.
Camping On Your Car
Rooftop camping is one of those things that you may immediately dismiss as a gimmick. But just as quickly realize the genius of it: A treehouse for your car!
On the surface, this seems like a transition from tent camping to RV camping. But I’m not sure that either accepts them as equals. It’s like the odd older brother of car camping and the annoying little sister of RV travel.
Likewise, I’m not sure which end of a campsite these would fit in. Maybe that’s why most of the advertisements show these rooftop tents all by themselves in desolate locations.
The pros of sleeping on your car, truck, or SUV:
- Space – You can pack out your trunk, or cargo space without giving up valuable real estate for sleeping.
- When camping on rocky ground, you will have a flat surface to sleep on.
- A way to bring your car into the “camping with vehicle” conversation.
In reality, it’s the hermit crab of the RV world. I can imagine a mixer with a bunch of sea creatures. The other crabs think that hermits are just trying to get attention. But the snails recognize it as pretentiousness.
The cons of sleeping on your car, truck, or SUV:
- The set up and tear down is usually a little more work than a standard tent.
- As with other tents attached to vehicles, your car is stationary until you break down the tent.
- You become the target of lightening, mountain goats, and other camper’s jokes.
When camping in mountains or deserts, it can get surprisingly cold at night. Make sure you pack accordingly. These are the 2 things we always take camping with us:
We discovered this the hard way during an April camping trip through Utah.
- Always pack a sleeping pad. Appropriately named because you will not be able to sleep without it. We both have this one which works for backpacking too.
- Wool or fleece hat and socks
You lose 90% of your body heat through your head. A ski cap can make all the difference in a good night’s sleep. And if you can keep your feet warm, all the better.
Ready to hit the road?
So there you have it. A brief primer on road trip car camping.
As you can imagine, we have only touched briefly on each of these forms of road trip car camping. There are dozens of ways that we could cover this subject, but hopefully this gets you started on planning your own road trip.
If you’re ready to gear up, you’ll need something to keep the food cool. Check out our guide to budget coolers, where you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars for a decent camping cooler.
Or splurge on a camping fridge. Here is our complete overview of the best camping fridges for all styles of camping. We don’t just pick the best camping fridge, we explain the difference to help you choose for yourself.
And of course, you can’t camp without coffee. Here are all of the ways to make coffee while camping – a full baker’s dozen to make camp coffee.
If car camping doesn’t appeal to you, look for future articles in this series. Coming soon:
- Vacation Rentals
In the meantime, check out our post on the 7 Best Road Trips in America (When We Get Back To Traveling) for a little inspiration.
I hope you find some useful information from this article. The intention is to make planning your own camping trip as seamless as possible.
But if there are any questions we left unanswered, please let us know. You can leave a comment or feel free to send an email.
Speaking of questions, have you seen the 5 Frequently Asked Questions To Consider When Planning a Road Trip?
Where is your favorite place to stay on a road trip?
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The road begins where the driveway ends. We’ll see you on it!