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50+ Car Camping & Road Trip Essentials

While our family of seven loves to road trip in our RV, we often just pack up the car or truck or load up our backpacks and fly to amazing destinations to go car camping.

We’ve gone car camping in Norway, Ireland, Germany, Hawaii, Bali, New Zealand and all over the USA. Knowing what to pack makes the experience easy, fun, and stress-free.

Besides traveling light, car camping also allows you to travel on a much smaller budget. Here is what to pack for your next car camping vacation. These are also a lot of the essentials we keep in our RV for travel too!

what to pack for car camping, pack list

Part 1: Things To Pack For Sleeping Comfortably While Car Camping

The most important, in my opinion, for a fun car camping trip is a comfortable place to sleep.

Want to the checklist? Click here and download the 50 road trip essential pack list to make sure you don’t forget anything!

Road Trip Pack List download

Sleeping in a Tent While Car Camping

We’ve tried a variety of tents over the years. If we are trying to bring our tents as carry-on luggage, then we bring two REI half-dome tents. I like that the REI half domes are quick to assemble, however, they aren’t comfortable to “hang out” in.

We’ve also used this Alps Mountaineering tent on many of our car camping trips abroad. It is very durable and has a little more headroom for moving around inside.

Also, I recommend treating tents with tent sealant before you travel because one of ours leaked badly when we were camping in Hawaii but the sealant helped a lot once we found some. (Watch that video here on YouTube)

Sleep Pads For Car Camping

A comfortable sleep pad can make all the difference. Unless I’m backpacking, I always bring my REI’s camp bed for car camping.

Related Blog: Best Sleep Pad for Each Type of Adventure

Comfort While Car Camping

  • Blankets/Sleeping Bags – Make sure everyone has something to stay warm like a sleeping bag or comforter. The options are endless for blankets and a lot of it depends on your road trip style.

Shop bestselling NEMO sleeping bags on REI

  • Pillow – While not essential, it’s nice to have your pillow while you road trip. You can go for a regular pillow if you have the room or if you’re crunched for space you can use a packable backpacking/travel pillow.

Clothes to Pack For Car Camping

  • Rain Jacket – If you will be doing a lot of sightseeing in cities, an umbrella will make it so that the weather doesn’t interfere with your travel plans. If you will be doing a lot of hiking, then a packable rain jacket is a great idea. A good rain jacket packs down and keeps you dry.

Shop REI’s Xero-Dry Rain Jackets

Things to do Badlands South Dakota
Rockin the Patagonia Down Jackets in Badlands, SD
  • Packable Warm Jacket – Depending on where you are traveling to will decide what type of jacket you will need for warmth. Our go-to jackets are our Patagonia Down Sweaters & Nano Puff Jackets. It’s pretty crazy that these are the only jackets we’ve needed for 7+ years of adventure travel.

I love that they are easy to pack down to take on hikes and still keep us very warm. They’re also super durable. Unfortunately, the kid’s version of these jackets isn’t packable so we use compression bags with them.

Shop the Women’s Down Sweater at Patagonia & shop the men’s Down Sweater at Patagonia

  • Base Layer– If you are going to be car camping in colder destinations, you want to have base layers to sleep in.
  • Sunglasses– Whether you are adventuring in nature or checking out the city a nice pair of shades is awesome. For us, they need to be light, stay on your face when you are playing, and they should also look great.

Shop for Maui Jim Sunglasses at REI

  • Socks – What feels better than having some cozy socks for when you’re chilling in your tent/hotel/RV/car after your latest adventure? One of the best ways to enjoy your outdoor experience is to invest in a high-quality pair of socks. We love our Stance socks! They are comfortable, wick sweat away, and look great. Don’t forget a pair of wool socks too.

Buy Stance Socks at REI

  • Sandals – Nothing stinks more than having to put on your hiking shoes and tie up your laces at 1 am to go to the bathroom because you forgot your sandals.

A nice pair of sandals gives you an option to get out of your hiking boots and give you something you can wear at a restaurant. These Olukai sandals are super comfortable and look great.

Shop Olukai

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These Kuhl pants are the ultimate pants for outdoor adventure.  Scrape-proof for rock climbing, warm for hiking, and flexible for spontaneous yoga poses.
  • Versatile Pants/Shorts – What you pack is slightly dependent on the season, but we always pack a pair of climbing pants, leggings, and shorts.
Defy the Norm Winter Collection
  • Hoodie/Shirts – Nothing says you are living life on your terms like some of our merchandise. We always have our “Defy The Norm” hoodies, tanks, and tees packed to represent.

Shop for all our “Defy the Norm” store

Clothes For Car Camping Checklist

  • Patagonia Nano Puff or Down Sweater 
  • Packable rain jacket 
  • Kuhl hiking pants or cargo shorts
  • Lulu lemon running shorts & Hylete leggings for the girls
  • Socks plus a pair of Wool Socks
  • Defy the Norm T-shirts, Tank Tops, or Hoodies
  • Base Layer to sleep in or when it’s really cold
  • Essentials like underwear, bras, and sports bras
  • Hiking Shoes + Flip Flops
  • Hats & Sunglasses
  • Swimming Suits and Board Shorts

Parts 2: Vehicle Essentials For Car Camping

  • Spare Tire + Jack– We’ve blown enough flats to know you always carry a spare and a jack. You might also want to know how to access the spare. Once it took us over an hour to figure out how to lower the spare under our fifth-wheel trailer!
  • Jumper Cables – The last thing you want is to be stuck on the side of the road because you forgot to turn your lights off on your car while you were heading out on your next 6-hour hike. Having a good set of jumper cables is great but these have batteries so you are always ready to give yourself a “jump”.
  • Car Manual + Registration + Insurance– These things are so small to pack and in the right situation can make things a lot easier.
  • (Optional) Snow Chains – If you are planning a trip anywhere close to wintertime, make sure you pack chains!
Buss ride Denali National Park, Hiking and Camping, Alaska
Jiraiya was completely intrigued with looking for wildlife for the entire 3-hour bus ride along Parks Road in Denali

Part 3: Tech + Entertainment for Car Camping

  • Cards + Board Game – Our favorite card game for plane travel is Monopoly Deal and our 3 favorite family board games are Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Codenames. We love app games too like Psych, Head’s Up, and Wordraw with generate to play Pictionary with that paper and pencil you brought along.
  • Books + Magazines – If you plan on having a lot of free time on your road trip bring plenty of entertainment and a nice variety. If you are driving a lot bring books on CD, audible books, or download our podcasts ahead of time.

Related: 25 Books That Will Change Your Life

  • Pens + Pencils + Paper – You never know when you’ll need a pen or paper. Maybe you felt like doodling something or you need to write down directions. Paper, tape, and scissors provide hours of entertainment for our youngest, Tatiana. You can also pass the magazines down to the kids for arts and crafts after you’ve read them. I also save all the recyclables and boxes from Trader Joe’s or Costco for toys for her to play with when we are at campgrounds.
  • Phone/Kindle Chargers + Car adapter – Make sure you have the chargers for all devices including cameras, GoPro, and computers. Most new cars come with USB chargers built into them but if your car isn’t brand new you’re going to need a car adapter. It’s nice having a car adapter for multiple USB’s.
  • Aux Cord/Bluetooth – Music is a MUST on a road trip. It makes it SO much more enjoyable and it’s very entertaining for the entire group in the car to sing along to whatever music is playing in the car. Most cars nowadays have Bluetooth but if not, beside to pack an aux cord.
  • Speaker– It’s also nice to have a Bluetooth speaker while we are hanging out in the campground or cooking food while car camping. We have a few of these, but our Altec Lansing Life Jacket seems to have the best sound and battery.
  • Extra portable power bank battery – While you are driving, charge up an extra battery pack so you can charge your phone while you are out exploring the outdoors or cities. We like these Goal Zero Portable Battery Packs because of their great battery life and how lightweight they are.

If you’re going to be camping (or even hiking), we prefer carrying an MPOWERd Luci Lantern with a USB port. The Luci is lightweight, can be charged via USB or its built-in solar panel, and it’s also an inflatable lantern.

  • Protective Phone Case – The last thing you want is to take a photo of a scenic overlook, drop your phone on the concrete, and shatter your phone screen, or worse, break your phone entirely. Please get a protective phone case so you won’t have to deal with buying a new one or getting it repaired while you’re trying to have a relaxing, epic road trip. After making this mistake about a dozen times, I finally caved and bought a Lifeproof case. I’m very impressed with it and so far it’s been LifeProof through all my adventures.
  • Headlamps – We love the BioLite headlamps because they have multiple settings, are super bright, and have a long battery life. I also love that they are rechargeable and I can plug them into a USB port while we are driving.

Click here to check out BioLite systems.

Part 4: Essential Apps

  • Google Maps – Navigation is essential on a road trip of course. The most important part of a navigation app is downloading Offline Maps. If you’re doing it right, your road trip will take you through scenic drives and off-the-beaten-path places where cell service can be limited. Google Maps makes getting offline navigation super simple. If you don’t know how to download offline maps, read our blog How To Use Your Phone As A GPS.

Related Blog: How to Find Free Camping in the USA

  • Gas Buddy – Who hates it when they are driving and they stop for expensive gas fearing there won’t be any other stops for a while only to see there was gas WAY cheaper up ahead? With Gas Buddy, you won’t have to worry. It will tell you exactly where you will find the cheapest gas prices. Get the app now.
  • AllStays – AllStays has been a lifesaver for us on many occasions especially considering how often we boondocks. This app will tell you where all the campgrounds, rest areas, truckstops, and BLMs are. AllStays is one of our top methods on How to Find Free Camping. There’s even an AllStays rooms app to find hotels. Get the app now.

Part 5: Toiletries To Pack For Car Camping

  • Quick Dry towels – Quick dry towels are AWESOME to have on a road trip! while not necessary if you’re headed to a hotel, quick towels are a must if you’re car, tent, or RV camping. Perfect for showering, a dip in an alpine lake, or for cooking. I like keeping an extra one to clean our feet before going to bed and they make great kitchen towels if you are cooking outdoors (but don’t mix them up). I like the Matador quick dry towels because they pack so small but these Ranleaf ones are much cheaper and almost as high of quality.
  • Hair Brush/Hair Ties – For some reason this is one thing that’s so easily forgotten. Whether you are a girl or a man bun dude, it sucks to have knotty hair all in your face. 
  • Toothbrush + Toothpaste – Obviously
  • Chap Stick & Lotion – So necessary if you are heading somewhere hot or dry.  We love AllGood skin products. They’re all natural and feel so good for your skin.
  • Deodorant + Essential Oils – You don’t want to be prancing around the city for a nice dinner all smelly. Pack some all-natural deodorant along with some nice-smelling essential oils.
  • Nail clippers – It’s kind of unnecessary unless you rock climb, but it’s a nice thing to have on the road to clean up your nails.
  • Shampoo/Conditioner – On top of bringing a brush and hair ties, bring shampoo and conditioner so you can wash your hair too (WHAT! What is washing hair??)
  • Baby Wipes/Facial wipes – Wipes are a nice little luxury while you’re on the road. Not only are they good for cleaning up your hands after cooking or wiping off food that the kids spilled on the seats, but they’re also really great just to keep your skin feeling fresh. Also good for camping and you need a baby wipe shower.
  • First Aid Kit – Just a basic first aid kit with bandaids, ibuprofen or Tylenol, Benadryl, Neosporin, and hydrocortisone is essential to have your road trip for common, minor injuries.
  • Tissues – Whether you have allergies or catch a cold, it’s nice to plan and pack some tissues so you don’t have to stop at a restroom every half hour to blow your nose.
  • Melatonin – If you are worried about not being able to sleep it’s a good idea to pack some melatonin to help you relax if you’re new to tent camping, drown out the noises, or lack thereof, or to help adjust to the time change.
  • Razor + shaving cream – A personal preference for men and women

Part 6: What To Pack For Car Camping With Kids

Tips for Car Camping with Kids

When we first started doing this, our youngest was 5 years old and the oldest was 14. I was worried about keeping my kids safe, comfortable, and entertained. It’s one thing to be single and “wing it” but to sit in a car for long drives, smooshed with so many people and so much stuff you have to sit on your bags (true story in Norway) it’s a different story. So here are a few things I’ve learned from doing this type of travel so often.

  • Bring them their device. I resisted this because I wanted them to take in the sights and not be staring down at a screen, but there were many times we had to spend driving long hours, sitting in airports, or killing time. After all, when you are long-term traveling, you’re usually pretty time-rich, and having some downtime from your kids is vital to your sanity.
  • Include them in the planning. I think a lot of people worry or feel bad about pulling their kids away from their friends, sports, and activities, but honestly, you shouldn’t. Travel is the best gift you can give your kids and they are capable of way more than you think. Include them in the research and the decision-making every step of the way.

I always ask each kid, what they want to see and what they feel is too much for them. We try to align our travels with compromise and understanding with each person’s desires and comfort zone in mind.

  • Remind them to practice gratitude. Sometimes long drives can be hard. I try to engage my kids as much as possible and have healthy snacks but often, kids are just tired and cranky from sitting still so long.

Practicing mindfulness will help them endure a little hardship and make them appreciate the fun destinations you stay at while car camping.

  • DVD player (+DVDs) or Tablet – I know…who even owns DVDs anymore? I always rather my kids watch movies on their DVD player rather than use my laptop while on a long drive because if it breaks it’s much cheaper and I usually need my computer to work off. Remember. to download apps ahead of time and don’t forget headphones.

Or maybe go tech-free on this road trip and instead sing, talk, and play games while you drive.

And if you feel brave, we travel with a Ukulele for the kids to play when we are car camping. It’s so fun by the campfire!

  • Books – If you are going tech-free, maybe pack some fun workbooks like these. or other books, magazines, or arts and crafts to keep them entertained.
  • Treats – While I recommend keeping healthy foods accessible so you don’t have to deal with hangry kids (or adults), having a few special treats handy is great for desperate times when you just need something to keep you hyped up before your next destination. Treats can also be nice purely for the sake of road trip fun!

Related Blog: Healthy Hiking Snacks that are also great for car camping road trips

  • Baby supplies – If you have really little kids, you will need a whole other list to pack for them. And since it’s been a while since I had to pack for babies, ill leave this list for another blog.
roadside picnic, Road Trip essential pack list

Part 7: What To Pack For Your Car Camping Kitchen

  • Kuju Coffee Pocket Pourover + Jetboil – Not even kidding, this an essential for us. It may seem like a lot of hassle for some coffee but I can’t stand gas station coffee.
  • Travel Mug – After brewing a cup of Joe on the side of the road, I like having a travel mug so I can hit the road again right away.
  • Camp cooking system – While not necessary for the Air Bnbers or RV travelers, car and tent campers will need a good camp cooking setup. We love traveling with the lightweight packable Bugaboo System (pictured above) along with MSR pocket rocket burners. They come in a variety of size assortments. Big pots for big groups or small pots for solo travelers.
roadside cooking, Road Trip essential pack list
  • Emergen-C Packets – I LOVE these vitamin C drink packets. It’s to let yourself get dehydrated on the road and these yummy, single-serving packets of Vitamin C include a healthy dose of electrolytes and keep you energized. I also bring these along on any active adventures I’ll be doing on my trip. You can buy these in bulk at Costco or online at Amazon.
  • Baggies/food wrap – I try to support zero-waste as much as possible by using wax food wraps but every once in a while, baggies are so much more useful. Whether you are willing to use plastic or not, either of these are great for leftovers or diving-up snack foods to the people sitting in the back row.
  • Trash Bag – You will be much more comfortable driving if your car is clean. Put a trash bag in the car so you don’t have trash everywhere from previous snacks
  • Napkins, Paper Towels, or Baby Wipes – I like to keep some in the car at all times. You never know when someone will spill their drink on the road. This is the one thing we always overlook and regret not having.
  • Multiple Purpose Knife – I never leave the house on a road trip without a pocket knife. They’re great for use around a campsite but also for chopping up food for a picnic or splitting a pastry in the car.
  • Wine/Bottle Opener – There’s good wine everywhere you go. Make sure you bring one on your trip so you are always ready to pop open a bottle 😉
  • Paper Bowls + Plates – It sucks to have to prepare food in the car with no bowls or plates. Stop by the store on the way out so you have the option to make food in the car.
  • Water Bottle – Remember to pack your water bottles! As mentioned before, it’s easy to get dehydrated on the road. Plus, if you have a water bottle that you can refill you won’t have to purchase single used plastic water bottles.
  • Cooler – Unless you’re traveling in an RV, having a cooler is a necessity for your road trip. It makes it much easier to eat healthy on the road because you can cook whole foods ahead of time like salads instead of snacking on junk food all day.

Listen, Car Camping is not for everyone, so find out what works best for you with our Travel Quiz

Part 8: Bonus Items For An Even More Amazing Car Camping Experience!

  • Hammock – You never know when you will come across a perfect tree for a hammock and hammocks are THE BEST.
  • Picnic Blanket – Sometimes the best part of road trips is the spontaneous picnics at scenic stops. Grab yourself a comfy blanket like the super packable Matador Pocket Blanket or a big, beautiful Ecuadane blanket.

  • Outdoor Rug/Tarp – An outdoor rug makes camping in dirt MUCH more enjoyable. Unlike a picnic blanket, a tarp just needs to cover the maximum amount of space possible so you can set up an outdoor kitchen, walk around barefoot, or take a seat on the floor.
  • Clothesline – Always be prepared if there will be no laundromats. Pack a clothesline and maybe some basic bar soap so you can hand wash and dry your clothes if you get desperate.
  • Folding chairs – Again, you might come across somewhere amazing to take in the views and you didn’t pack anywhere to sit down to enjoy them
  • Folding Table – Same as the reason above if you want to have lunch somewhere stop to play a board game
  • Firewood/hatchet/fire starter – Campfires make any trip better. Coffee Wick is awesome for this and has some super efficient and Eco-Friendly fire starters.
  • Gear – Last of all, don’t forget your gear and toys! Surfboards, skis, climbing gear, bikes, or more.
gear, Road Trip essential pack list
Don’t forget to pack the toys. We never travel without climbing gear, mountain bikes, or surfboards.

I hope this helps you know what to pack for an amazing road trip. If you have any questions or if we missed anything, please let us know in the comments section below! Happy travels!

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