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How to Set Up Your Vehicle for Epic Car Camping Trips

How to Set Up Your Vehicle for Epic Car Camping Trips

If you are willing to make a few simple modifications, many cars can serve as a great way to camp comfortably without much expense. Even though we travel in a motorhome, we got our start with epic camping trips in our Subaru Forester and loved it.

To properly enjoy a car camping adventure, it’s crucial to know that how you set up your vehicle can make or break your epic adventure. Today, we’re sharing everything you need to know about setting up and optimizing your vehicle for epic camping trips.

Let’s dive in!

What Is Car Camping?

Car camping is when campers sleep in their vehicle instead of a tent or another more traditional camping structure. Many participants modify their cars to enhance the experience and maximize comfort during their trip.

This form of camping transforms ordinary vehicles into spaces for storing camping gear and getting some rest at the end of the day. While this may be a non-traditional type of camping, it’s becoming incredibly trendy.

Watching sunset while car camping
We have spent many a night sleeping out of our forester or 4runner.

Rules and regulations for sleeping in a vehicle vary considerably by location. Over the last several years, we’ve seen an increase in cities, towns, and urban areas, creating policies against car camping. Some homeless people choose to live in a car full-time in one location and it has caused some municipalities to crack down. It would be best to research the rules and regulations where you want to camp.

Unfortunately, failure to follow the rules can result in severe consequences. Some of the most strict areas will issue fines to those violating the regulations. Repeat offenders likely won’t receive as much grace from law enforcement.

Is Camping in Your Car Safer Than in a Tent?

Car camping can be safe, depending on where you park your vehicle. Cars typically offer increased protection from the weather and include locks that tents often do not have. However, not every location is safe for parking.

You could put yourself in a dangerous situation by parking in an unsafe location. Take the time to do your research and familiarize yourself with the area before getting too comfortable. A site may seem safe during the day but can radically change once it gets dark.

One safety concern for car campers is whether to crack a window when sleeping. Thankfully, vehicles aren’t air-tight, and you won’t suffocate by sleeping in a car. Cracking a window can increase air circulation and prevent humidity inside the vehicle while sleeping. Keeping air circulation is particularly important if using any type of combustion heater. In general, we never recommend using a fuel-based heater inside a closed vehicle because of carbon monoxide and oxygen consumption risks.

Pro Tip: Fly under the radar while car camping by using this guide on How to Turn Your Vehicle Into a Stealth Camper.

Laying inside car while car camping
Many states prohibit car camping, so choose your destination wisely.

How to Set Up Your Vehicle for Success While Car Camping

If you want to have an epic car camping trip, how you set up your vehicle is crucial. Let’s look at a few ways to help you have a successful car camping trip.

Choose the Right Vehicle

One of the essential things for a successful car camping trip is your vehicle. You want a vehicle with plenty of space for yourself, your camping companions, and your gear. The more area you have for storage, the more things you can bring for the journey.

When choosing the right vehicle, consider where you’ll camp. If you plan to stealth camp on the side of the street or in parking lots, almost any car will do. However, you’ll need a more capable vehicle to enjoy off-roading adventures in remote locations.

So what’s the best vehicle for car camping? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all vehicle for this camping style. However, the Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Xterra, and Honda Element all get rave reviews. Minivans are not as popular because of their stigma but make great camping options with lots of space and side sliding doors. Some also choose a truck as the truck bed can make a great camping space. Truck bed camping, however, requires you to exit the vehicle to get to your camping space, so is not great for stealth camping.

Adding Ventilation And Insulation

While some electric cars can be left on all night in camping mode, which keeps the climate comfortable, most cars should not idle all night. Because of this, adding window air deflectors is a huge benefit. These allow you to leave windows cracked even if it rains. Cracking the windows is essential otherwise, you will build up lots of humidity and build up excessive Co2 in the car. Some even choose to add powered fans to help ventilate the space.

Even with adequate ventilation sun beaming in can make any car hot and uncomfortable. We highly recommend getting some reflective insulation you can cut to size for your windows. This not only can black out the light, but also keep you cool or warm. Cars are not insulated like a house or RV and gain or loose a lot of heat quickly. While there is not much you can do about the body, the windows are the biggest loss or gain of heat and simple insulation helps immensely.

car window air deflector

Clean and Organize

Your vehicle may not be clean and organized at the end of each trip, but you want it to start that way. Have a storage place for everything you plan to bring with you. This will help you maximize how you use your space and know where to look when you need gear.

If there are any items that you’re not using, remove them from your vehicle or dispose of them. You’re wasting space by hauling around unnecessary items on your adventures. You want as much room as possible during your car camping journey.

Plan and Create Your Sleeping Area

One of the most significant needs when car camping is a sleeping space. Many car campers spend most of the day exploring the area rather than inside their vehicle. Once you have your car, you need a plan for creating a comfortable sleeping area.

Unfortunately, many vehicles with fold-down seats don’t lay completely flat. While the incline may not be much, it can be uncomfortable. We recommend fabricating a frame to create an altogether level sleeping space. How you do this will significantly depend on your vehicle.

Creating this space can give you a more comfortable area to sleep in and increase available storage space. When you’re dealing with limited amounts of storage, you’ll take every bit you can get!

Pro Tip: Have more space to camp while traveling in your car by discovering Can a Prius Pull a Camper?

Sleeping bags in car
Setting up your car well is essential to a successful car camping trip.

Have a Plan for Meals

You’ll need to eat during your adventures, so you’ll need a meal plan. However, you’ll likely not have access to the same cooking resources at home. If you plan to cook over a fire or other heat source, plan accordingly.

You’ll need the means to create a fire or fuel your heat source and cooking materials. Don’t forget plates, silverware, and cooking utensils. It may seem like a no-brainer, but water is essential, too.

Don’t Forget Lights

You can’t leave your interior lights on during your adventure to avoid a dead car battery. As a result, you’ll need a plan for lighting the inside of your car at night. Thankfully, you can find plenty of great options for battery-powered lights that can last for a considerable amount of time.

Depending on where you’re camping, there are plenty of solar-powered lighting options that you can use. These are excellent if you’re camping in an area that experiences a tremendous amount of sun during the day and has limited lighting needs.

Pack Wisely

What you’ll need to pack will depend on the length of your trip and where you’re camping. However, you’ll need to take a handful of essentials with you. If not, you may be setting yourself up for a miserable trip.

Some of the most common items are your sleeping bag, pillows, and mattress or pad. Getting a rough night’s sleep may cause you to consider cutting your trip short. Do yourself a favor and have everything you need for a solid night of sleep.

In addition, check the weather to ensure you dress appropriately during your trip. You may need multiple layers or rain gear to help you stay comfortable. Even the best car camping trips can go south once you’re cold or wet.

Packaging a first aid kit, navigational equipment, and personal hygiene items for the trip is also wise. Food and drinking water are non-negotiables, no matter how long your adventure is. In addition, battery-operated fans and other devices can help you to stay comfortable as possible during your trip.

Car camping at night
Epic car camping experiences require lots of planning ahead of time.

Where Can You Go Car Camping?

Thankfully, there are plenty of places for you to go car camping. Some of the most accessible sites are campgrounds, including state and national parks. However, it’s best to check for restrictions, as some campgrounds may not allow guests to sleep in their vehicles.

In addition, the Bureau of Land Management manages millions of acres, mostly out west. Many areas offer free camping opportunities, but some may require more capable vehicles. Campendium and iOverlander are terrific resources for finding and researching these spots.

Another option for car camping is overnight parking spots at retail stores like Walmart and Cracker Barrel. These locations are typically very accommodating of overnight guests, especially RVers. However, they can be hit or miss for car campers. Because some allow car camping and some don’t, it’s crucial to check with each location.

Pro Tip: If you want to spend the night in a Walmart parking lot, make sure you know The Dos and Don’ts of Walmart RV Parking.

10 Car Camping Products I Love!

Have an Amazing Car Camping Experience

Epic car camping experiences don’t just happen. They can require a tremendous amount of effort and research to set up your vehicle and ensure you have the proper gear for the trip. Your needs will likely change the more you car camp, but that’s part of the adventure. Adapting to your surroundings and making the most of what you have are essential for this camping style. 

Where would you want to travel to while car camping? Tell us your top spot in the comments!

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of The RVers, producers of “Go North” on Amazon Prime, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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Marilyn Harrison

Friday 24th of March 2023

A well-written and thorough article. I liked the reminders on what to bring. It's those little things that can make or break a trip! I'd be heading straight for the mountains of Glacier National Park, And I'd also like to visit the Northeast coast as an adult. I was a child when first visiting and don't remember much.