Car Camping: The Ultimate List of Things You Don't Want to Forget
Eventually we want to be able to go traveling in a camper van that we custom build to suit our needs, with space for our pets, and a pull-out tabletop for eating our meals. However, because of the current pandemic going on and the fact that I quit my day job to pursue working from home as a full-time blogger, the budget had to tighten a bit. Though we put our #vanlife dreams on pause for the moment, that hasn’t stopped us from trying to get more of the great outdoors on the weekends. I’m not going to lie and say car camping is “easy” because it’s definitely not at first - it takes a lot of preparation, but once we built our ultimate list it got a lot easier and I’m here to share that list so you can go from "car camping newbie" to "I've got this!"
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After a little DIY camping bed put together by Eric, we converted our little Mitsubishi Outlander into a functioning car camper and (as I so cleverly nicknamed her) “Blue” has already been through so many fun weekend trips camping and even to the beach. There's nothing quite like the feeling of finally getting on the road after spending a lot of time getting everything together, which leads me to the next portion: the preparation!
Hopefully before the weather gets too chilly (I'm feeling another long Pennsylvania winter coming on) we can show you guys what the bed insert looks like, but for now we'll just talk about what you'll need to camp comfortably in your car. Before we get into the list, I want to point out that not everything listed will be necessary for car camping, it's just our personal preference of what we like to use. I'll let you know as we break it down which items are essential and things you might want, but don't necessarily need.
At the top of the list simply because of price, we invested in an SUV Tailgate Tent. For some this won't be totally necessary - if your SUV has enough leg room for you to sleep with the hatch closed, I would recommend saving some extra money and doing that instead. We didn't really have that option, because although Blue is plenty roomy, she's a little too short for car camping purposes. With that being said, I don't regret buying the car tent because having the extra foot room is great and it has a layered mesh window that can be unzipped at night to let a little fresh air in - during the fall, it's not really an issue but with the summer heat there isn't a lot of air flow, which makes sleeping a little less comfortable.
Next up on the list, our sleeping essentials:
Comfortable blankets and pillows
Having a thick mattress pad is a must - we tried sleeping with an egg crate mattress topper the first night, but it provided little to no cushion so we bought a second one and combined them. I'm also a blanket fiend (seriously, I have way too many blankets) so we gathered up two comforters (one to lay on, one to sleep with) and an extra-wide fuzzy blanket for colder nights. We decided to take our normal pillows, because they're super comfy and we're already used to them. When not in use, we just roll the whole bed up and put the cooler in front to hold it in place.
Now for the most important part - food! Or at least food related items...either way, my favorite thing about camping is cooking food over a fire and we accomplish that one of two ways. We either build a campfire and roast hot dogs, or we set up our adorable propane camping stove and make tacos! Okay, we don't always have tacos, but my point is the possibilities are endless when you have a little stove and a mini cookware set. These are the things we use to make meal time a little more doable:
Propane camping stove (optional)
Non-stick camping cookware set (optional)
Mini folding table (optional)
Lighter or matches
Obviously, for any fire you'll need to have a lighter or matches (you'd be surprised how often people forget to pack them) and if you're going the campfire route then some type of fire starter, like cardboard/paper/etc. You'll also need a good quality hatchet for cutting up nearby pieces of wood for your fire or splitting logs you bought locally. We both prefer the good old fashioned campfire, so we usually have one going (at a safe distance) even when we use the propane stove to cook - it just provides the perfect camping ambience. For the most part we use the cast iron pan for cooking our basic meals, but for more complicated recipes we use the non-stick cookware set which I love because all the pieces fit together for compact storage. We also don't go anywhere without our cooler, because where else could we store the food and drinks? The mini folding table was Eric's idea and I'm jealous I didn't think of it first - it's great to have an "off the ground" surface to put things that you'd rather not share with the ants (we also use the cooler for this purpose). It's also great to put the propane stove on when the ground is a little too rocky.
At some point, you'll definitely want to rest your feet and take in your surroundings - so this next part is dedicated to sitting down:
Expandable stool (optional)
Ah camping chairs - the most versatile chair there ever was, perfect for tailgating, camping, going to the beach, or just hanging out in the backyard. The incredibly versatile chair has been around since the 1800s! You can get them almost anywhere, so definitely don't forget. We also purchased an expandable stool that looks ridiculous, but supports a surprisingly good amount of weight and folds up nicely. When one of us isn't sitting on it, we're using it as an extra table when cooking so it's dually useful.
When dinner is finished, we like to clean up right away so that we can enjoy the fire and watch the sunset. These items are totally optional - you could feasibly store all of your dirty dishes in a container if you're only camping for a night. We generally camp all weekend, so I like to make sure everything is clean for breakfast the next day:
Having the pop-up sink is a great because it's slim enough when folded down that we can just slide it under the seat and it usually holds all of our dirty dishes after a meal. Just add a little water, a little soap, wash everything up with a washcloth and it's finally time to sit back and relax. Also having a gallon of water on-hand is always a good idea, because it can be used for a variety of things (am I trying to sell you on the idea of water??).
Now that we've covered all the basics, I'm just going to list a bunch of items that are again, totally optional, but can make the camping experience a little better:
Towels (in case you find a waterfall)
Plastic bins for storing cookware or clothes
Tea kettle for making tea or coffee
When we go car camping, we always look for places to hike nearby - anywhere that has water is an instant sell for me. I think I was actually born a mermaid and my mom has been keeping it from me all these years (I'm almost 25 now mom, I think it's time!). Anyway, we always keep towels in our hiking backpack just in case we come across a body of water and feel like cooling off. I love having a backpack, just because it makes it a lot easier to carry all of the miscellaneous items you know you'll eventually need - like flashlights, bug spray, sunscreen, biodegradable wipes (for when nature calls), water bottles, towels, etc. There are lots of little things you need when hiking, but this list is for car camping so moving on.
We have 3 plastic bins that we take with us for camping, one for housing all of our cookware (pots and pans), one for storing dinnerware (plates and utensils), and one for keeping our clothes safe and dry. We tried a couple different options for packing clothes, but a duffel bag is too bulky and it was a pain to unpack the backpack every time we needed something, so eventually we settled on a flat plastic storage container and it works pretty well. Another small thing we couldn't live without is our little expandable solar lantern. There have been a couple of times where we got to our campsite after dark and this thing was a real lifesaver, because starting a fire in the dark is harder than it sounds.
Finally, my favorite thing on the list - my whistling stovetop tea kettle. I'm a self-proclaimed coffee and tea addict, so this was definitely a "most wanted" for me. There is nothing better than waking up on a chilly morning, climbing out of the car, and making a fresh cup of hot tea which is then poured into my favorite matching travel mugs (I know right, totally #couplegoals). It definitely sets the mood for the day, which is surely full of adventure.
Before this summer, I was a total car camping newbie and I was a little nervous to try it but it has been totally worth it! I'm a much happier human being when I get to spend time in nature and enjoy all that she has to offer. Hopefully this ultimate list of car camping essentials has inspired you to take an adventure of your own a little more confidently. Have you tried car camping yet? What are some of your favorite camping must haves? Comment below, we'd love to hear from you!