I live for adventure and travel, but unless I’m saving up for a foreign expedition, I’m probably thinking about my next road trip. Over the past year, I have utilized car camping fairly regularly and am excited to share 5 Basic Car Camping Tips that will set any newfound car camper or van dweller up for success. In fact, I am writing this article while beginning a three-week road trip with my partner, who has agreed to join me in a car camping adventure (and who has created an even more comfortable setup in his Tacoma than the one in my trusty yet small Jeep Patriot). Honestly though, luxurious Tacoma aside, you can truly camp in any car that you can comfortably lay down.
I have found car camping to be incredibly budget-friendly and often more convenient than tent camping, especially for those one-night stops. I should also mention that I opted to live in my car for a month over the summer, which is honestly not something I would ever strive to do again (unless I am truly road-tripping), but the experience taught me a lot and should I ever become displaced again, I know how to make it work. Whether you want to be a modern-day nomad or just travel on the cheap, these basic car camping tips will set you up for success.
Bedding made #1 because I have tried it all and have only found one truly comfortable solution. Comfort matters, especially after a long day on the road. First, fold your back seat down to create a platform for your bed (or if you have a truck with a topper, jump in the back). Keep in mind I have tried everything from blow-up mattresses, self-inflating mattress pads, stacking blankets for a soft base, even going minimal with just one sleeping bag. All of these doable if you are the type that can sleep anywhere regardless of comfort. However, I highly recommend purchasing a 3inch foam mattress. You can, of course, get a thicker mattress, but 3 inches is the perfect density for both comfort and space – it can be folded in half after each use to create more room in your car. We always leave a soft/washable mattress cover on as well as one blanket, our sleeping bags, two pillows and we fold up the bed every morning just like this. When you are ready to pull over to sleep, simply unfold the bed and ta-da! Your bed is ready and already made.
Does the thought of someone watching you sleep creep you out? Me too. So unless you have super tinted windows, or are in a completely remote place where you haven’t seen another human for hours/miles, you’re going to want to block your windows for privacy. I recommend car curtains (aka material that you can cut to match the length o your windows) and at least one windshield cover (although I use an extra one to block my rear window). There are a couple of different ways to hang car curtains. If you happen to have an interior material that responds well to Velcro, you can buy Velcro sticky tabs to hold up your curtains. Otherwise, take two long pieces of rope and tie tightly along the inner length of your car and use binder clips to hang your material. I’m not going to lie, keeping the rope tight can be a challenge and if it’s not taught, your curtains will droop and be less effective. Bungee cords with hooks can be helpful if you have adequate places to hook them or duct tape could also possibly work, but I definitely recommend testing out your curtain set up before leaving for an adventure. You don’t want to arrive at a destination and realize you can’t adequately hang your car curtains. Of course, this has happened to me. I piled up as many bags as possible to block one window and used a makeshift bungee cord to hang a sweater over on the other side and slept in a very awkward position that night trying to hide. It was less than awesome.
While I’ve never personally experienced any intentional peeping toms, there are other situations where someone may come knocking on your window and wouldn’t it be nice to have a moment to orient yourself without feeling completely vulnerable? For instance, it’s not uncommon for a camp host to come by and return change or leave your bill on your car. Or if you park on the side of the road, there’s a chance a cop or another Good Samaritan might come by to make sure you are OK and not stranded. These are best-case scenarios. See #4 for safety tips should your knocker not be one of the good guys.
3. Hygiene Essentials
Baby wipes. On days that you can’t easily shower, consider an environmentally friendly brand of baby wipes. It’s not as effective as a shower, but it’s a gentle and perhaps second-best way to clean your body when you can’t lather and rinse soap.
Cornstarch. Along those same lines, when you can’t wash your hair, try an organic brand of Cornstarch. Cornstarch will absorb the oils in your hair, just be sure to apply at the roots and brush through to avoid white powder spots.
Eco-friendly toothbrushes and toothpaste. With a bit of water, you can easily brush your teeth outside of your car, but if you’re going to be spitting toothpaste into the earth, please choose an earth-friendly brand. Also, be sure to do this as far away from water sources (rivers/streams/lakes) as possible to avoid damaging ecosystems and contributing to run-off.
Lock your doors and keep your keys close to you. I strongly emphasize keeping your keys close to you just in case a situation arises in which you need to leave your mobile location quickly. You do not want to be fumbling around in the dark looking for ten minutes if there is an emergency. If you are in the woods, consider keeping bear spray nearby (but remember that should you need to spray it, you are likely to get some backlash in close quarters).
In terms of additional protection, do what feels right for you. I personally sleep near a knife, but I have had several people inform me that I am way more likely to have my weapon used on me and that I hold a knife improperly. However, in my mind, I’m basically a superhero with a crazy side that would cut a b*tch if someone tried to attack.
5. Where to sleep
It’s always a good idea to do some preliminary research as laws vary in different areas. For instance, Montana is a relatively easy place to car camp due to the number of dirt roads, campgrounds and overall laid back attitude. Boulder, CO, on the other hand, doesn’t allow sleeping in your car within city limits and the surrounding campgrounds often require a special pass that should be acquired before you drive in and crash there. (Side note we are currently navigating Boulder, so if anyone has any tips for next time, please feel free to leave in the comments below). In general, campgrounds are usually a safe bet for car camping but be prepared to pay in most areas from May-October. Otherwise, look up the laws in the place you end up and make the most of a free sleep somewhere you feel comfortable.