The Ultimate Guide to Car Camping

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If you like to travel more than your average person, like I do, you start figuring out unusual ways to save money. First it started with camping instead of staying at hotels or AirBNBs. But man, do those cheap campsites add up! $25 a night may seem like nothing, but if you’re camping for a long weekend, that’s $75! Why would I do that when I have a perfectly good and safe portable bed to sleep in?

I think the first time I camped in my Honda CR-V, Camilla, was on a solo road trip to Northern California about a year ago. At that time, I was definitely not prepared. I kind of just decided to go, very last minute. I was going to be gone for 4 days, and figured I could manage sleeping in my car. It went fine, really. But after doing it a few more times over the last year, I learned a few tricks.


1. Sleeping Arrangements

You’d think that sleeping in the back seat is more comfortable than the front seat, right? WRONG. The back seat offers the false impression of safety, maybe you can fall asleep, fully stretched even, if you’re short like me – but don’t you DARE try to turn a little bit to either side; you can’t! You’ll fall over into a giant abyss, aka the space between the front and back seats. On top of that, there those little pesky seatbelt thingies that stick you in the back or the butt any time you move. If you’re taller than maybe 5’2″, sleeping in the back seat wouldn’t have been an option anyway, so you dodged a bullet there.

If you don’t have any sort of equipment, your best bet is the passenger front seat. You can move it all the way back, giving you plenty of room for your legs to be stretched. You can also prop your legs up on the dashboard and sleep pretty damn comfortably that way.

If you’re willing to invest a little to make your car camping trips a lot more comfortable, I’d suggest dropping $30 on one of these inflatable backseat beds. Mine came with a pump that plugs right into the car and fills the bed up under 10 minutes. Once the bed is set up, you basically have a twin size bed in your backseat, even allowing for somewhat diagonal sleeping for you taller folks. Unfortunately, I would only recommend this bed for solo sleeping. It is way too small for two people to sleep comfortably. There are other options that require you to put your backseats down and make a bed out of that entire space, including the trunk. However, that takes up precious storage space, and when you’re on the road for a few days, you need your storage.

2. Weather

If you’re camping somewhere cold it’s easy. I seriously did not believe in sleeping bags until I went car camping in Oregon in the winter. I thought there was noooo way they could keep you warm. But they do! Whodathunk? You can get them for all different weather conditions. The hubby and I were warm and cozy in our rental car in 28 degree weather (I honestly even got a little hot at some points and had to unzip the damn thing)! If you’re not willing to invest in a sleeping bag you can always pack a few heavy blankets. That may work fine if you are driving your own car, but if you are traveling somewhere by plane and then renting a car, the blankets could take up a lot of luggage space, as most of these modern sleeping bags pack up really compact.

Now, in hot weather things get more difficult. I have the HARDEST time sleeping when it is hot, so even the tricks below don’t work super well for me, but they do make things better. Always make sue you park somewhere shady so when the sun starts to rise you’re not burning up. You’re instinctively going to want to leave your windows down to let in some possibly cool breeze – however, this could be a terrible idea. If you’re somewhere in nature, at the very least you have mosquitoes and other bugs to worry about, at worst – a bear or giant flying spider (or maybe something worse if you’re in Australia). If you’re in a more populated area, you have humans to worry about (scary!). One solution is these privacy mesh coverings for your car windows. They block keep the car cool by blocking sunlight, give you privacy, and protect you from bugs and other animals (including humans). These allow you to roll your windows up and down without having to remove the mesh covering, which is super convenient.

In hot weather, make sure to have plenty of water in the car at all times. You can also invest in fun gadgets like this cool battery operated mini-fan, or a giant bag of ice to snuggle. I’ve actually done that. I told you, I’m sensitive to heat.

3. Location

At a lot of these National Parks, there are plenty of spots you can park and stay the night. I usually pick a campground parking lot or a road off of a main road. I like the campground parking lots because usually there is a bathroom and there are people around, so I feel safer when I am camping solo. Just make sure you never park on the side of the main roads in these parks. There is little to no lights, and if you shut your car and lights off it may be really hard for other drivers to see it at night. Make sure you park in one of the smaller roads off the main road to avoid being hit while you sleep.

If you’re in a populated area it gets trickier. 24-hour Walmarts are always an option. They allow you to park and stay in their lots , and it’s convenient to be able to get some snacks, too. Casinos are another option. They usually have huge parking lots and are open 24-hours. I don’t know if you’re technically allowed to sleep there, but I haven’t gotten in trouble yet. A few times, I had to resort to searching for hotels in the area and parking somewhere in the very back of their parking lots. I usually try to find a Marriott, because I have Elite status and if I get caught I feel like I could just be like “Do you know who I am?” I’ll update you on how well this works, if it ever happens.

My least favorite option is parking on the street. I’ve had to do it a few times, so I made sure to find the richest neighborhood in the area, and parked there. I think maybe the residents in such neighborhoods would call the cops if they saw me, but that’s part of the reason why it felt safer. Who knows what kind of weirdos sleep in their cars?! If you chose to go this route, make sure you set up your bed and get completely ready before parking in the spot you want to stay, you don’t want to be moving around in/around your car and having lights on, etc. This will draw a lot of attention. So, set everything up down the street, drive up to your spot, shut the car off, hop in your car bed, and sleep. That’s it!

4. Equipment

Everything I’ve mentioned so far covers the basics. But if you want to have a really great 5-star car camping experience, make sure to bring some or all of these items with you.

  • Solar Powered Light – For reading, or just seeing in general. Much easier than a flashlight. Just remember to charge it during the day.
  • Pillow and Blankets
  • Car Kettle – If you can’t live without coffee or tea, this is a must. You can heat up water in the car, and then make tea, instant coffee, or REALLY good espresso with one of these which are compatible with Nespresso capsules and super easy and portable.
  • Snacks
  • Baby wipes (you know why!)
  • Trash bags. Don’t litter!
4. Hygiene

My best suggestion here is to stop at a coffee shop or Walmart/Target every morning and wash up, brush your teeth, etc. I like Starbucks bathrooms because they are private ones, so I can literally have a full sink shower in there. I feel like I’ve spent enough money on Starbucks in my life to be allowed a few bathroom sink showers.

If you are in nature, looks for one of those campsites with bathrooms. Sometimes they will have them at viewing points for specific sights as well. Death Valley has them at almost every parking lot. Alternatively, you can always use a bottle of water to brush your teeth out in nature somewhere. You can also easily shower this way if you have a bathing suit with you (I don’t recommend going au naturale in a National or State Park).

Read below if you want TMI:

Here’s an important note on going to the bathroom while car camping: Get used to going to the bathroom at EVERY stop, even if you feel like you don’t have to. Get used to peeing outside – sorry, gotta do it. What I usually do is open the front and back door on one side of my car, and then I go right in between the two. If it helps, get one of those Go Girl things. I didn’t like peeing standing up, but if it helps it helps. And here’s a worst case scenario, mildly embarrassing option: pee in an empty soda/coffee cup. Ever filled up a Starbucks Grande cup before? I have.

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