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Car camping has a unique packing list that, on one hand, requires functional gear capable of keeping you safe from the elements and, on the other, amenities designed solely for leisure and comfort outdoors. The stakes are much lower on a car camping trip than on a backpacking adventure where having the right gear might be the difference between life and death (or, less dramatically, a good time and a very, very bad time). Still, a winning combination of technical performance and indoorsy delights will make up the perfect car camping checklist.
It doesn’t matter if you’re rolling into an established campground at a state park or seeking a more primitive outdoor adventure off the beaten path, the beauty of a car camping experience is to simply and earnestly enjoy being outside with the benefit of easy access. With that in mind, bringing along the best camping gear that has all the bells and whistles feels a bit less extra and more like balance. Right?
For the outdoorist who wants to have their morning pancakes and eat them too, this packing list is separated into three basic categories: sleep, cooking, and around camp to ensure you have all the essentials for a successful car camping trip and then some.
The Sleep System
NEMO’s ultra-spacious Wagontop Camping Tent is the epitome of car camping luxury. A lofty 80-inch frame creates a high ceiling for campers to walk and stand in, that, when coupled with the roomy vestibules and expandable garage, provides abundant living space. If the temps are sweltering or the scenery is primo, unzip the large windows for ventilation and panoramic views. Available as a 4-person, 6-person, or 8-person tent.
Price: Starts at $550
Lightweight enough for a multi-day backpacking trip, yet plush enough to best the comfort of a crappy big box air mattress, Big Agnes’ three-season sleeping pad has a plush quilted surface and an R-Value of 4.2 to trap heat on chilly nights. A tapered design fits the bed of a truck or floor of a two-person tent like a glove for cushioned comfort all night long.
Made with an ergonomic contoured memory foam that regulates your temperature, Hest’s camp pillow delivers loads of technical features in one tidy, packable pillow. An easily accessible zippered compartment lets you remove the fill to customize the amount of loft to your sleep preferences. When you’re not snoozing, the pillow packs into an integrated stowaway bag that’s dirt- and water-resistant so it stays fresh and clean for a good night’s sleep.
The Zen Bivy’s innovative two-piece design offers total freedom for restless sleepers who crave the room to toss and turn without a bulky construction. A cozy, convertible quilt is paired with a fitted sheet that wraps around the sleeping pad to finally end the constant war between the slippery surfaces of your sleeping bag and pad. Pound for pound, this feature-rich sleeping bag is as lightweight as a mummy bag for effortless packability on road trips and other outdoor activities that involve a night out.
Price: Starts at $219
The Camp Kitchen
This complete set has everything you need to enjoy breakfast, lunch, dinner, and happy hour at camp. It includes reusable stainless steel flatware, a 10-inch plate that’s heat-resistant, a large serving bowl with a cover, and a 12-ounce tumbler made to keep your beverages hot or cold. Perfect for recreating a fine dining experience at a campsite picnic table.
From fluffy pancakes on a crisp morning to a feast that feeds a crowd, Coleman’s classic camp stove proves that good design is simple, timeless, and in this case, delicious. Two adjustable matchless burners fit a 10 or 12-inch pan and simultaneously simmer over one flame and turn up the heat on another, with two wind flaps to shield your camp meals from the elements. It runs on propane and is easy to clean and carry, making it a camp kitchen staple for every al fresco chef.
No one is stopping you from hauling your perfectly-seasoned cast iron skillet and dutch oven with you to camp, but there’s certainly more portable, lightweight options on the market, like Snow Peak’s complete yet compact titanium cookset, that can use to fry, sauté or boil just as well. The Japanese outdoor goods brand also makes a stainless steel cookset with the same great quality but a considerably lower price tag.
Drink water in the wild without any fear of harmful bacteria, parasites, microplastics, or dirt contaminating your supply. This complete water filter kit comes with everything you need to safely and effectively collect water outdoors, including a gravity bag, membrane microfilter, leak-proof cap, carry strap and carabiner, and a backwash accessory. With every purchase, Lifestraw will provide a year’s worth of safe drinking water to a child in need, too.
GSI's Folding Water Cube is a collapsible water jug that lets you store up to 20 liters of water and squish it down flat when you’re done to save space, making transporting water to camp and refilling your water bottle a breeze (while avoiding all the single-use plastic waste involved with buying those gallon jugs). It has an ergonomic tap handle to manage the water flow and a sturdy construction that won’t rip or tear when it’s stuffed into the back of your car all for one seriously budget-friendly price.
Other Kitchen Gear to Bring Car Camping
Since you don't have to worry about carrying car camping gear miles up a trail, you can afford to bring lots of home cookware along. We recommend: a cutting board, paper towels, trash bags, cooking utensils like tongs and a spatula, dish soap, hand sanitizer, and firestarters if you have access to a fire pit (for roasting dessert s'mores of course).
A major perk of car camping is getting a free pass to bring creature comforts from home into the wild and not feel bad about it. Kelty’s camping-friendly cuddle couch is one such thing. Roomy enough to comfortably fit two bums with a mesh construction that ensures proper ventilation, it has a sturdy steel frame with the necessary beverage holders to keep the party going way past quiet hours. If this one doesn’t quite do it for you, there are a surprising number of camp couches on the market.
Cue the mood lighting with a rechargeable lantern featuring nine different settings ranging from a candle flicker to uber chill ambient lighting that mimics the sunset. On its highest setting, 500 lumens light up even the biggest group campsite and provide up to 200 hours worth of burn time on its lowest setting. Lightweight and water-resistant, the AlpenGlow 500 is worthy of backcountry and backyard adventures. (We also recommend bringing a headlamp, and BioLite makes great headlamps, too.)
Rumpl's NanoLoft technology is made of 100% post-consumer fibers that mimic the thermal properties of traditional down, so you can stay cozy sans feathers. A DWR finish makes the blanket stain and water-resistant, and a characteristic stuff sack keeps it protected while rolling around in the car. Plus, it's big enough to stretch the width of your queen-sized setup in the back.
For all the moments when a camp chair (or sofa) just doesn’t cut it, the camp hammock shines. ENO’s stretchy and breathable fabric creates the perfect spot to hang (sorry, we had to) whether you need to stretch your legs after a day hike in the national park or find total relaxation on a breezy summer day. Hammock-grade carabiners provide a quick and easy set up and effortless breakdown thanks to an integrated stuff sack that lets you pack your portable shelter down to the size of a grapefruit.
Other Camp Essentials to Bring Car Camping
Don't forget to pack chargers, a multi-tool and duct tape for field repairs, a beanie for cold weather evenings, a first aid kit, sunscreen, and toiletries like a toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper or wet wipes. If you're setting up base camp and sticking around for a while, consider a camping shower too, and don't forget the hiking boots and daypack!