21 Car Camping Essentials You Can’t Live Without

Last Updated on September 27, 2022 by foxintheforest

Car camping has to be one of my favorite past times. Who doesn’t like fresh air and open skies? There are plenty of camping necessities you need before you hit the road. You don’t want to leave home without all of the car camping essentials.

Take the guesswork out of packing with this list of camping essentials you’ll need for every camping weekend.

As an expert in the outdoors, I spend virtually every weekend camping. Sometimes I just flop my sleeping bag on the ground, and other times I hook up my teardrop camper for a luxury experience.

From camping in your car to going at it cowboy camping style, this car camping camping checklist has you covered.

One of the coolest parts of my job is testing outdoor gear. This means I’m the guru when it comes to car camping essentials.

From the best tents to your favorite camping chair, I’ve tried countless products to bring you the best selection in car camping gear.

So skip the pain of forgetting that must-have item and stay organized with this list of car camping essentials.

camping necessities

About This Guide to Car Camping Essentials

If you’re looking for expert gear advice, you’ve come to the right place. From camping in the Colorado Rockies to the jungles of Colombia, I’ve spent plenty of nights under the stars.

This ultimate list of car camping essentials covers:

  • A complete list of camping necessities for any kind of camping trip
  • Top gear recommendations from professional gear writers
  • Budget-friendly options so you can get out and explore no matter what your wallet says
  • Additional camping resources

21 Essentials for Car Camping

Here you’ll find the absolute best camping packing list out there. I’ve done the leg work for you (as always) with a killer lineup of what you need to camp and my personal, thoroughly-tested recommendations.

Start by learning the basics of camping. Next, get outside this summer with these top camping essentials for a cozy night out in nature!

1. Tent

Unless you’re actually planning to sleep in your car, the number one thing on your car camping checklist should be a tent. A two-person tent is ideal for one or two people, but if you have the whole family (or a furry friend), it’s worth upsizing to a 4-person tent.

Pro Tip: Don’t forget to get the tent footprint, too!

My Pick: Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 Tent (opt for the three-person version if you have a dog)

Budget Pick: REI Groundbreaker 2, or the REI Grand Hut for 4 people

car camping essentials

2. Sleeping Bag

Of course, a tent isn’t enough to keep you cozy – you’ll need a sleeping bag for a comfortable night outside.

A synthetic bag will work great for car camping and is way cheaper than down. Make sure you get one that will fit your frame, especially if you’re tall or small.

Know the difference between a down and synthetic sleeping bag. Determine what best suits your camping style.

Pro Tip: If you get a sleeping bag for mild temperatures but end up wanting to go out on colder nights, you can add a sleeping bag liner to make your bag significantly warmer.

My Pick: Sea to Summit Altitude 15

Budget Pick: REI Zypher 30 Sleeping Bag

3. Sleeping Pad

You’ll also need a sleeping pad to protect and insulate you from the hard ground. Sleeping pad options range from super cushy air-filled to self-inflating to barebones foam, so the choice is up to your budget and comfort level.

Pro Tip: Pay attention to the pad’s R-value. This represents how much the pad will lose heat to the ground – higher values will be warmer.

My Pick: Exped MegaMat or the MegaMat Duo (2 person), fits in most lay-flat backseats and truck beds too!

Budget Pick: Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout

4. Pillow

When you’re car camping, you can easily bring a pillow from home, since you don’t need to worry about the space it takes up. If you plan to backpack though, you might decide to get a camping-specific pillow that you can take on any kind of camping trip.

Psst. One of my favorite car camping gifts is a nice camping pillow. It’s a simple gift that keeps on giving a good night’s rest!

Pro Tip: If you forget your pillow or just don’t want to bring it along, you can stuff your clothes in a small pack and use that to rest your head.

My Pick: Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow

Budget Pick: Your pillow from home

5. Stove

You’re going to want a hot dinner outside, and a stove is the quick & easy way to cook. For car camping, you can go with a JetBoil if you just want hot water, or bring a two-burner stove if you’re a more gourmet camp cook.

Pro Tip: Make sure you get the right type of fuel for your specific stove – and don’t forget to pack it!

My Pick: Primus Duo Campground Stove

Budget Pick: Eureka SPRK+ Butane Stove

car camping essentials

6. Cookset & Camping Dishes

If you’re going with a burner stove, you’ll need pots and pans to cook with. You can totally get away with those you have at home, but they are bulky, heavy, and can be hard to clean.

A camp cookset and dishes are a good investment if you camp a lot. Plus, you can leave them in your camp kitchen box, so it’s easier to pack when you’re ready to camp.

Pro Tip: Dr. Bronner’s Soap is the go-to camping soap for everything from keeping your dishes clean to washing your body, so be sure to bring some along.

My Pick: GSI Bugaboo Camper Cookset

Budget Pick: Stanley Adventure Base Camp Cookset

car camping checklist

7. Eating Utensils

Again, you can certainly bring utensils from home, but sporks are cheap, light, and easy to clean. You can also find more specialized utensils like long spoons to eat out of dehydrated meal bags.

Pro Tip: A multi-tool is super useful around the campsite, especially when you need a knife and plastic just won’t cut it (literally).

My Pick: To-Go Ware Classic Bamboo Utensil Set

Budget Pick: Bring from home or the Humangear GoBites Uno Spork

8. Cooler

If you want to crack open a cold one grill over a campfire, you’ll need a cooler as part of your camp kitchen. T

he ability to keep things cold definitely expands your menu options, but you don’t necessarily need a top-of-the-line cooler.

A basic one will be just fine for most car-camping needs, just make sure you get one that’s big enough.

Pro Tip: One of my favorite camping hacks is to prop a sleeping pad (or bouldering pad) in front of a cooler for an in-promptu camp couch! LUXURY friends!

My Pick: Grizzly 40L Cooler

Budget Pick: Coleman 52-Quart Cooler

car camping packing list

9. Coffee

If you’re a caffeine fiend, don’t forget to add coffee to your car camping packing list. If you’re fancy you can bring a French press or a pourover. 

They make camping specific versions that take up less space, but you could just bring these from home if you have them. Or you can keep it super simple and just bring instant packets!

Pro Tip: If you like your coffee with milk, throw a small container of it in your camp cooler.

My Pick: GSI Java Press

Budget Pick: A plastic pour-over or french press from home

10. Trash Bags

Be sure to add trash bags to your car camping checklist. They are simple and crucial, and also so easy to forget! But in order to Leave No Trace, you need trash bags to pack out all of your waste.

You can easily bring these from home – but bring at least two, one for trash and one for recycling. And makes sure to take them with you and throw them at home, to avoid adding an extra burden to the small communities you are recreating in.

Pro Tip: Hang them from the antennae of your vehicle when you set up camp (just put them inside the vehicle at night to keep critters out).

11. First Aid Kit

Don’t let minor injuries ruin your car camping trip by always bringing a first aid kit. For the basics, you’ll want badges, tape, gauze, blister treatment, antibiotic ointment, and pain relievers. You’ll also need a few tools, including tweezers, scissors, and a knife (which you might already have with you).

Pro Tip: You don’t need to buy a pre-made first aid kit. You can make your own in a waterproof bag or container, and customize it to your needs.

My Pick: Adventure Medical Kits

12. Headlamp

Let there be light! A headlamp or other source of light, such as a lantern or a flashlight, is definitely a car camping essential. 

A headlamp is convenient, since each person can control their own light, and you don’t need to carry it. But a lantern can be nice to add a glow to the campsite for a bigger group.

Or you could be that dork who tapes a cell phone to their head (done it in a pinch). Take it from me – just invest in a headlamp.

Pro Tip: Get a headlamp with a red light setting so you can avoid blinding your campmates.

My Pick: Petzl Tactikka Headlamp

Budget Pick: Petzl Tikkina Headlamp

13. Camp Chair

Depending on where you camp, you can always improvise with rocks or logs, but a camp chair is so much better. It’s the one camping necessity you never thought you needed.

A basic foldable chair that you might use in your backyard can easily work when you’re car camping, and they are generally pretty cheap and fall apart fast. 

Pro Tip: Look for a chair with a cupholder. It’s especially handy in the dark, when it’s easy to accidentally trip over a drink set on the ground.

My Pick: Big Agnes Big Six Camp Chair

Budget Pick: REI Flexlite Camp Chair

best car camping gear

14. Warm Layers

As the sun goes down on your campsite, so does the temperature. Even if you can have a campfire, it can still get cold, so you’ll want to be sure to have some warm layers to put on.

A fleece sweatshirt and a puffy make great layers, and bring some warm pants or long underwear, too. Get all the good gear reccos with this guide to the warmest winter hiking clothing.

Pro Tip: Don’t forget a beanie, gloves, and wool socks!

15. Camp Sandals

Trust me, you want comfortable shoes at camp, especially if you’re adventuring all day. Camp sandals can be as simple as cheap flip-flops or more rugged like Chacos.

You can even go with Crocs, and your feet will thank you. Camp slippers like the Teva Ember Moc are also a great choice.

Pro Tip: If it’s cold out, don’t be too cool to rock the socks & sandals look!

My Pick: Chacos or Tevas

Budget Pick: Flip flops from home

16. Blanket

Another key to keeping cozy at camp is a blanket. If you don’t mind a little dirt, you can bring an old blanket from home. Or you can get an insulated camp blanket that’s more durable and packs down smaller.

Keep your camp blanket in your car for unforeseen emergencies, a stop at a local park, and to be adventure-ready.

Pro Tip: Use your blanket with your sleeping bag if you get cold overnight.

My Pick: Rumpl

Budget Pick: A fleece blanket from home

camping necessities

17. Water Jug

If you’re car camping at a dispersed site or a campground without water, you’ll need to supply your own.

While you could just buy some gallon bottles from the grocery store, it’s much better for the environment (and much more convenient) to get a large jug that you can refill each time you camp.

Plus, these usually come with a spigot to easily get water without spilling it.

Pro Tip: Be sure to bring enough water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning for everyone in your group.

My Pick: Sea to Summit Watercell X 10 or 20L

18. Toilet Paper & Toilet Kit

Even if you’re camping at an established campground with a bathroom or pit toilet, it’s never a bad idea to bring your own toilet paper. 

If the campground is crowded, the toilet paper can easily run out. If you’re dispersed camping, you’ll want to bring a toilet kit with a trowel to dig a cathole, bags for paper waster, and baby wipes.

Pro Tip: The Kula Cloth is an antimicrobial pee cloth that is a great alternative to toilet paper or drip-drying for people who squat when they pee.

19. Axe

You’ll want both a chopping ax and a small hatchet for cutting wood. Bring them from home or pick them up at any hardware store (Husky is a good, reliable product).

Don’t ever cut live trees. It’s not only harmful for the environment, but you’ll just get a smelly, smoky fire.

20. Fire Starter

Any old lighter will do. Waterproof matches are handy, but not required. I like to bring at least 2 lighters in case something happens.

Pro Tip: Dryer lint makes for a great fire-starter. Put it under your pre-built wood pile (with small sticks on top) to start a fire quickly.

21. Tarp

Any utility tarp and some accessory chord can create shade or shelter quickly. It’s not a required item, but while camping in the desert it’s definitely one of the top car camping essentials. 

Any size tarp will do, but I find one that’s at least 8 feet wide works best. Tie a taut line hitch for easy adjustments.

With this list of car camping essentials you’re ready to totally ball out on your next camping trip. You don’t need to “rough it” while camping. In fact, you can live pretty large with the right camping packing list. 

More Camping Resources

Wanna spend more nights outside? Here’s how:


Planning your first car camping adventure? Whether you've gone car camping before or doing it for the first time, here are 21 car camping essentials that will make your car camping adventure so much easier!
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Meg Atteberry

Meg is a long-time Colorado local and outdoor industry professional. She's spent the last 15 years hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and canyoneering all over Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada in search of the best views. She's written for Outside Magazine, REI, Backpacker Magazine, and appeared on the Weather Channel.

Hi There!

Meg Atteberry standing on a mountain sticking her tongue out

Meg aka Fox is a 30-something who's born to explore. Toddler mom, queer, and neuro-spicy her favorite things to do are climb in the alpine and camp in the desert. Her mission is to get you out on your greatest adventure.