A complete guide to car camping on the cheap

Car camping means different things to different people. To the more established among us, car camping is hopping out of the car and into the air-conditioned camper.

To others, it means climbing into the backseat and passing out with an old towel for a blanket.

car camping

How to go car camping on the cheap. Photo: Johnie Gall

To everyone else, it’s setting up camp near the comfort and carrying capacity of your automobile.

That is, when you go camping in the backcountry, you have to bring just the necessities. When you car camp, you’re able to bring along extra comforts like lawn chairs, ice buckets and extra-large pillows.

Find a campsite

Car camping is easily done in most state and local parks around the U.S.

Select a campsite that fits your needs — most parks offer everything from RV sites with electric hookups and water to “primitive” sites that have little more than a fire ring and a picnic table. You’ll pay the least for one of these, and this is pretty much your only expense.

Decide on sleeping arrangements

Once you’ve found your campsite, set up a tent, or, if you’re lucky enough to have a spacious truck bed or SUV, pump up the air mattresses and roll out the sleeping bags. If the weather is nice and the area isn’t buggy, sleep under the stars.

Fill up water bottles

Instead of buying water at a convenience store, refill bottles at the campground’s water fountains. For hiking, plan on drinking double the amount of water you typically need.

Stack your roof

Throw any extra luggage bags, surfboards, hiking boots and boxes on the roof of your car, cover with a cheap tarp, and bungee cord everything down. This saves room in the event you need to sleep inside of the car and keeps bad smells out of the vehicle.

Locate the showers

car camping

Car camping often involves locating outdoor showers. Photo: Johnie Gall

If you’ve been road tripping, now is the time to take advantage of any running water that might be available at the camping grounds. Take showers, wash dishes, rinse surfboards and give smelly shoes a bath.

A good rule of thumb? If there’s water, get to washing.

Plan for rain

Chances are you’ll encounter inclement weather at some point, so plan ahead. A simple tarp can keep tents dry in light rain, while a backup plan (like sleeping arrangements in the back of the car) might be needed for huge storms.

Hang your food up at night

Bears, raccoons and squirrels are always looking for inexperienced campers, or at least that’s who they’ll end up stealing some snacks from.

You may think your food is safe in your car, but bears have been known to break windows if they catch a whiff of food, perfume and even lip balm.

Make sure you know the campground’s requirements for food storage — you may need to buy or rent a durable bear can or lock food up in a bear box. Never leave food sitting out around your tent.

Bring camp essentials

Since you have extra room in the car to pack some luxuries, bring them: a clean pair of flip-flops for the shower, slip-on shoes to walk around camp and give hiking boots a rest, a headlamp so you can walk to the bathrooms in the dark, bug spray, a pot set, camp food, ear plugs, wood for the fire pit, air mattresses, and, of course, beer is optional.