REVISED JUNE, 2020 – Car Camping Tips

Camping became a very popular pandemic activity in 2020. It’s a great way to get outdoors, which is a safer alternative than breathing other people’s exhaled air indoors, it’s a great way to practice social distancing, and a great way to enjoy nature and all of that jazz!

A vast majority of “campers” do so using a travel trailer, motor home or pop-up camper. But there are still “tent campers” out there who enjoy not having to deal with all of the complications – and costliness – of RV ownership. Who wants to have to deal with dumping a tank with your own feces in it? Or the excessive gas costs of pulling your own house with you down the freeway? Or have to worry about propane lines, pulling backwards into the site without hitting anyone or the multitude of other technical things that can go wrong at any given time?

Car camping – as opposed to RV camping –  DOES have its challenges! You don’t get to bring as much crap as you would if you brought a Freightliner semi-truck, a Pontiac Aztek or a Mercury Mountaineer. And not all of us have hatchback “crossover” cars, either. Shoving all of your crap (and extraneous humans) in a car does make you really think about what’s important to bring – and what’s not!


Shove, finagle, wiggle, then shove again! Pack the flat stuff on the bottom.

I’ve been going on car/tent camping trips as an adult since 1993, when my boyfriend (whom I would later marry) and I packed up his 1985 Chrysler New Yorker for a trip “Up North” in Michigan. I was on a quest to show him some of the most beautiful scenery in Michigan, and our first stop was to be Petoskey State Park in Petoskey, MI – which is in the northwest portion of Michigan’s “mitten.” On that same trip, we would also stay at Fisherman’s Island State Park in nearby Charlevoix, MI. See our camping set up below:


So I’m fairly confident in saying I’ve become a bit of an “expert” at planning and executing tent camping trips when you have to shove all of your gear into a regular old car (not a truck, family truckster, SUV, minivan, van…just a plain old sedan). So if you’ve decided you want to go camping with one other person, read on for some helpful tips!

If it’s “family camping” you’re planning to do, well – I can’t really offer any advice other than get a bigger tent, get a bigger vehicle, bring games for the kiddos to play with, yada yada. Bring a tether ball? Bring bikes? Kids do seem to like riding around on their bikes in campgrounds cluelessly, but I digress!  What you will find is my tips/tricks can basically be applied to any kind of camping trip and any kind of vehicle with a trunk. So read on if you want to learn more! These tips are intended for people who have been camping already and have already “geared up” with most of the things they need (tent, sleeping bags/pads, cookware, etc.).

Tips for packing the car and hitting the road: 

  • Prepare ice for your food cooler beforehand. Freeze water in sturdy water bottles (such as Nalgenes) and place in your food cooler. When the ice melts, you have potable water you can drink – or you can refill the bottle with ice cubes. You can also make chunks of ice by freezing water in sturdy plastic storage containers. Flimsy plastic containers will crack if you freeze water in them.
  • Fully charge anything that needs to be charged (phones, mobile devices, lights, etc). Be sure to pack the cords when you’re done charging if you’re camping where electricity is available.
  • If you’ve made a camping reservation, double check the dates, site number, etc. Take photos of the info or write it down just in case you don’t have cell service/WiFi when you are checking in.
  • Get a virtual lay of the land. Check out the area in which you’ll be camping to see where you can buy supplies. “Dollar” stores are great for picking up little things you might have forgotten, and many also sell ice. Use Google maps to see where you can find liquor stores, dollar stores, grocery stores, etc. Pay special attention to where you can purchase firewood. Also call the campground to find out if any items you might need will be sold on premises (some campgrounds will sell wood and ice or may even have a camp store).
  • Fill some water containers ahead of time. You don’t want a search for water to be the first thing you have to do. Keep some water or other cold drinks chilling in a cooler with your food.
  • Pack bulky/fluffy/loose things like pillows, jackets, etc. last. Place them in the front seats of the car until you’ve packed the back seat – then put them on top of the back seat stuff (be sure to leave room for the driver to see behind him/her).
  • Make sure maps and things you’ll need on the road (such as snacks/munchies) are in an accessible place so you can grab them without having to get out of the car or contort your body in strange ways to reach them while the vehicle is in motion. Don’t put the road maps/ gazetteer underneath things in the back seat! Ditto for whatever cooler you have your drinks in. Phones are great for looking at maps, but not when you’re driving in places without cell service (which is why paper maps are great as a backup).
  • Have cups (preferably covered travel mugs) of cold drinks (iced down if you can) ready to go when you leave.
  • Go over your gear list and check it twice…three times if needed.
  • Have your first night’s supply of booze ready and chilling on ice (if you’re a drinker). There is nothing like cracking open a nice cold one after you’ve set up camp, had dinner and ogled the sunset over a lake. Pick up a bag or two of ice on the way or buy the day before.
  • Use EVERY available space in the car for gear –  shoes and small bags fit nicely behind the seats, cubbies in the trunk, even the back window of the car (as long as views are not obstructed). The back window of the car is a great place for bags of chips, loaves of bread/buns, etc. (keeps them from getting crushed and the sun keeps them from getting mushy). During a car camping trip, the back window of the car is also a great place to dry out swimming gear, towels, etc.
  • Keep meal plans casual the first night. Pick up some food on the way in a drive-thru, or keep the first night’s meal simple (boiled hot dogs, snacks, etc).
  • Other than all of these things? Have fun!

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