The Basics of Car Camping for Photographers (and Others!) (2024)

Done right, car camping can give you incredible flexibility when you travel. Imagine waking up to see the sunrise over a beautiful lake in the middle of nowhere, while having full amenities like power, hot meals, and your choice of camera gear. You can travel hundreds of miles in a day affordably, without worrying about booking hotels or campsite reservations – or even having concrete plans at all. For a landscape photographer like me, it can be a dream come true.

I’ve always liked car camping, but for the past several months, I’ve been doing it more than ever. My biggest goal running Photography Life this year is to average one lens review per week during 2024. This demands a lot of time spent in the field. Not just that – I need to have the flexibility to travel to a variety of locations, quickly change plans if needed, and make the most of limited time. My budget is also a big concern, and car camping is a great solution to all those challenges.

What is car camping? It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re sleeping in your car. You might be pitching a tent or setting up a hammock nearby, but it will all be within view of your car, and you’ll be using your car as a base of operations. Generally, I think of car camping as a separate thing from staying for long periods of time at campgrounds or RV parks, and it’s certainly distinct from true backcountry camping where you carry everything on your back. But it has some elements of both.

In this article, I’ll cover my biggest tips for car camping based on my experiences as a landscape photographer. I should note that this article is based mainly on my time traveling throughout the United States. In other countries, regulations will be different and may make car camping easier or more difficult.

Table of Contents

What to Bring

Rule one of car camping is preparedness. If you want to experience the biggest benefits of car camping – the flexibility and the option of staying in truly remote locations – you need to be well-organized and well-prepared. This list isn’t going to be complete for every car camping expedition, but it covers the basics of what you should bring with you on the trip:

  • Phone charging cord
  • Printed map of the area
  • Large portable power source
  • Trash bag
  • Toilet paper and waste management system
  • Lots of water
  • Snacks
  • Meals (more on that in a minute)
  • Cooler
  • Camp stove, pots, and extra fuel
  • Foldable table and chair
  • Forks and utensils
  • Knife
  • Dish soap
  • Hand soap
  • Cleaning wipes
  • Tissue box
  • Paper towels
  • Full-size towel
  • Extra clothes
  • Bag for used clothes
  • Extra bag (initially empty) for organization throughout the trip
  • Warm hat and gloves no matter the temperature
  • Sunglasses + an extra pair
  • Sunscreen
  • Toiletries and personal hygiene products
  • Camp shoes/sandals
  • Extra pair of glasses or contacts if you use them
  • Headlamp and flashlight
  • Lantern
  • Bug spray (or long clothes and face net)
  • Window screens if sleeping in car
  • Ground pad
  • Pillow
  • Warm sleeping bag (and an extra)
  • Blankets
  • Hammock or tent (with footprint and rain fly)
  • Spare tire
  • Jump-start kit
  • Car manual
  • Emergency contact method
  • Well-stocked first aid kit
  • Small repairs kit (glue, tape, sewing needle, thread, etc.)
  • Camera equipment
    • Extra batteries and charger
    • Enough memory cards
    • Laptop + charger that are compatible with your portable power source
    • Rugged external hard drives, if any
    • Well-padded bag (especially if driving bumpy roads)
    • Extra camera for backup
    • Sensor cleaning kit

Although this list is long, I consider all of this gear to be important for comfortable, flexible car camping. Depending on the needs of the trip, car campers may want to take extra gear like fuel containers, solar panels, a portable shower, a firearm, a bike, hiking gear, tire repair kit, and any number of other things. When in doubt, it’s better to over-prepare than the alternative.

Organizing Your Things

All of this equipment can quickly become a mess if you aren’t organized properly. Part of car camping is that you will quickly need access to almost all of this gear at least once a day (except hopefully the emergency equipment!) and you can waste hours if you don’t know where everything is.

This is one case where practice makes perfect. The more often that you car camp, the easier it is to remember where you keep all your gear. But my main recommendation both to newbies and to experienced car campers is to keep each item in its set location. When you take it out, put it back in the same spot. Moreover, group your things by shared purpose. For example, I always keep my food, utensils, camp stove, pots, cooler, dish soap, and paper towels in the same area of my car.

Organization is also where one of the items in the list above is very helpful: an extra bag that starts empty at the beginning of the trip. It’s meant to act, essentially, as a junk drawer. Throughout any roadtrip, I always find little things here and there that don’t fit in any particular bag – maybe a charging cord that I don’t need after the first day, a pair of sunglasses that broke, or an extra tripod plate. Rather than throwing these items haphazardly in your car, consolidate the mess into one bag. It’s a huge help.

The photo below only shows the main portions of my setup. Some of my essentials aren’t visible in this photo because they’re either in the front seat or blocked by other gear – that includes things like my power station, trash bag, extra water, and emergency equipment. But it still gives you a good sense of how you can organize your things for car camping if you’re planning to sleep in the car:

Sleep in Your Car or a Tent?

You can see from the photo above that I’m a fan of sleeping in the car. It has some nice benefits compared to sleeping in a tent. First off, you don’t have to spend extra time setting up and packing away your tent if you’re changing locations frequently. Personally, I also like that if I start to feel drowsy when I’m driving, I can very easily park somewhere and take a comfortable nap in my car. This next point is a bit more controversial, but I tend to sleep better in my car compared to a tent, especially on windy nights. And for security purposes, while I have no real issue with a tent, sometimes it’s nice to be in a locked car that I can drive away at a moment’s notice.

Sleeping in a car does have some issues, though. First, no matter how tempting it may be, you should never leave the car running while you’re asleep. Not only is it a good way to waste gas, but more importantly, carbon monoxide poisoning is no joke. Even if you’re in the great outdoors on a breezy night, it still isn’t something I would be willing to risk.

Another issue is that sleeping in your car takes up a lot more space than tent camping. My favorite part about sleeping in a tent is that I practically double the amount of usable space I have – a great benefit any time that I bring my videography or large format film photography bag with me on a trip. And of course, if you’re traveling with your family or anyone else, it will be very hard to fit everyone unless you go with a tent!

Not all cars are suited to sleeping comfortably, either. If the seats can lay flat, that helps a lot. Personally, I wouldn’t sleep in a car if I didn’t have a way to lie completely flat – tent camping would be much more comfortable at that point.

One of the biggest things to remember is thatyou must crack your windows or sunroof when sleeping in your car overnight. Trust me, I’ve made this mistake before, and it is highly unpleasant to sleep in a car overnight with the windows closed. The car will get gross and humid throughout the night due to water that you exhale, and it makes for a terrible night of sleep. No matter how tempted you are or how cold it is, don’t sleep with all the windows closed. (If it’s raining heavily, the best of your bad options is to sleep in a tent and keep the car interior dry. However, if there’s lightning, it’s safer to sleep in your car – windows up or not on a case-by-case basis.)

As for temperature, it’s a little deceiving, but tents and cars both get about equally cold at night. The trouble is, on a cold night, cars tend to cool down to the outside temperature more slowly. It sucks to fall asleep comfortably only for the car’s temperature to plummet in a few hours, leaving you waking up at 2AM shivering. Tents aren’t significantly warmer in my experience, but at least they get cold right away! In a tent, you can use your warmest sleeping bag all night without overheating for the first couple of hours. Actually, when sleeping in my car, I try to help it cool down more quickly by leaving all the doors open when I’m getting ready for bed – though only if I’m in an area without a lot of bugs.

Speaking of bugs, you might think that a car is much better in that regard, but it’s actually not so clear. Since you’ll be keeping the windows cracked, bugs can find their way into a car overnight, while a tent can stop them more easily. That said, if you prepare ahead of time, a car window screen can prevent this while still allowing ventilation at night.

Between sleeping in your car or in a tent, perhaps the best choice is actually a combination – getting a pop-up tent, trailer, or camper integrated into your car. These add weight and expense, but they’re worth it for frequent car campers. Although personally, I haven’t found myself willing to spend the money on one yet, since regular car camping is still plenty comfortable.

Selecting a Campsite

The best car camping sites have a few things in common. For me, they are quiet and secluded, with no nearby highway traffic to wake me up in the night. The ground is flat, allowing for a much more comfortable night of sleep – and if staying in a tent, the ground isn’t too rocky, either. Unless I’m trying to totally disconnect (which, as an aside, can do wonders for one’s mental state), cell coverage is useful. I can even publish articles from the road by using my phone as a mobile hotspot. And, of course, I always make safety the top priority and will avoid any place that gives me a bad impression for whatever reason.

Then there’s the question of where you’re allowed to camp. I’m not above camping in places where the regulations are unclear and there’s no one around for miles and miles. But some areas are simply off-limits. For example, in most National Parks in the US, pulling over on the side of the road to camp is a surefire way to wake up to a knock on your window from a none-too-pleased Park Ranger. And it’s a really bad idea to park on private property unless you have permission to stay there.

Thankfully, it’s not too hard to find good campsites even with these limitations. If you’re traveling somewhere new, you can usually find good places to car camp just by doing a little research beforehand. Two websites that I use all the time to find free car campsites (and I have no relationship with either) are called freecampsites.net and Campendium. Another option if you’re visiting public land is to talk to a Park Ranger. They usually know more than anyone else about the dispersed camping options and other campsites nearby, both free and paid.

When in doubt, most states in the US (though not all) allow you to sleep overnight at highway rest stops for free. These can be nice for other reasons, too – they usually have vending machines and surprisingly clean bathrooms, in my experience. But most of them also have bright streetlights on all night and a noisy highway nearby. If you’re a light sleeper or don’t want to stay somewhere with other people around, they would be a bad choice. And it should go without saying, but rest stops are only an option if you’re sleeping in your car rather than a tent.

Paid campsites usually have the benefits of decent restrooms and showers. The better ones may have other amenities like washing machines or a restaurant on-site. It’s far from roughing it, but if I’m on a long roadtrip, I will try to spend at least a night or two at one of these campsites (or at a hotel) just to shower, shave, and recover a little. But they definitely don’t have the flexibility of go-anywhere car camping that is so appealing to me in the first place.

Finally, within the US, car camping regulations can vary wildly by jurisdiction. If you’re on BLM land (mainly in western states), you can usually car camp almost anywhere with no problems. On the other hand, some states have aggressive requirements on where you can camp overnight. Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina are especially heavy-handed. It’s not that you can’t car camp in those states, but the places in which you can do so are more limited, and you can’t stay overnight at their highway rest stops.

Food and Water

One of the joys of car camping is that you don’t need to spend every night in a town. You can go into the backcountry for a week, disconnect, and hopefully take some great photos along the way. But this also means that food becomes an issue, especially if you want healthy and fresh-tasting meals. I like granola bars and potato chips as much as the next guy, but you can only eat so much snack food before you go insane.

Before I get into my recommendation for meals, let me first talk about water.You can never have too much water with you when you’re car camping. If you’re planning to do a lot of hiking or biking, especially in hot areas, you should have at least a gallon of drinkable water per person per day. Doing dishes, washing your hands, and “showering” means that you should carry more like 1.5-2 gallons per person per day if you want to ensure a comfortable trip. Although you can potentially restock at towns or gas stations along the way, it’s best not to rely on that. Speaking from experience, you’ll feel pretty stupid if you need to make a 1-2 hour detour just to grab some more gallons of water.

As for meals, in the past, I never quite knew how to eat comfortably during a car camping trip. I would rely on some foods that become really unappetizing after eating them five days in a row, like PB&J sandwiches, canned tuna, crackers, apples, carrots, and so on. None of it is bad on its own, but do you really want to eat that every meal for your whole trip? Occasionally I’d throw a freeze-dried meal or MRE into the bunch for some variety, but those aren’t exactly known for their appetizing flavors.

I settled on a different – and dare I say, rather brilliant – plan that has worked great for me more recently. Instead of relying on non-perishable (or slowly-perishable) foods, I go the frozen/refrigerated route instead. Get a cooler, fill it with ice on the first day of the trip, and pack in some already frozen meals. They will slowly un-freeze over the course of the trip, but if your cooler is good and the weather isn’t exceptionally hot, they can easily stay at refrigeration temperature for a week.

To make this system work, all you need to do is cook some tasty meals before your trip and freeze them at home. Or, to save time, you can pick some frozen food from your grocery store of choice. (If you do that, just make sure that the frozen meal in question can be re-heated on a stovetop easily.) To heat your meal back up, use a camp stove along with some pots or pans. Double check that your camp stove has adjustable temperatures and isn’t just a water boiler, which gets too hot for normal cooking.

I find that reheating a meal in this fashion doesn’t take any longer than cooking something at home. The cleanup isn’t hard, either. But this is why I definitely recommend bringing dish soap, paper towels, and extra water when you’re car camping.

There’s something special about eating delicious chicken tikka masala or cacio e pepe in the middle of nowhere, looking up at the stars and living in the moment. You owe it to yourself to try this method instead of relying on basic and unappetizing meals while car camping.

Emergency Preparedness

As a final note, I want to talk just a little more about the importance of preparing for emergencies and problems that may arise when car camping. Especially if you’re solo camping, you need to be aware of what can go wrong and how to fix it. Car camping is not a micromanaged guided tour where nothing can go wrong and civilization is always nearby. If you aren’t comfortable with that, start by car camping in popular areas and gradually build the skills necessary to travel to remote, off-the-grid places.

My first recommendation is to have some basic equipment to fix your car if it gets stuck or has an issue. I recommend a jump-start kit and a spare tire at the absolute minimum. If you’re going on some tough roads, there is no limit to the amount of recovery gear that you might find helpful – traction mats, air compressor/tire seals, winches, etc. – but this will depend on the road. Overlanding forums have a lot of good information on the more advanced requirements of certain roads.

An overlooked but highly useful thing to have when car camping is a membership with AAA. It’s useful to know that you can get your car towed or fixed regardless of where you run into an issue. I’ve only had to use it once myself, but that one time paid for the membership and then some. (I got locked out of my car at midnight in the middle of nowhere, and this let me avoid breaking a window to get back in.)

Perhaps the biggest part of emergency preparedness is to make sure that you retain some link with the outside world, even when you go pretty far off the grid. One option is to make sure that someone reliable knows exactly what route you’re taking and when you plan to be back in contact – and when enough time has passed that it’s time to call for help.

However, I personally don’t always know my exact schedule or route ahead of time. I like being flexible and don’t want my family to call emergency services just because I decided to spend another sunrise at a beautiful location. My preferred approach is to use a satellite messaging beacon / SOS device with a plan that allows me to send a few dozen text messages each month. Some of these devices only work with pre-set messages, some allow you to type unique messages, and others are full satellite phones. Any would be good to have if you’re traveling to deserted areas.

Then there’s a simpler alternative, which is a personal locator beacon that doesn’t have any messaging – just a single button to call for emergency help. Some smartphones have emergency satellite messaging as well, which serves the same purpose. These options make for useful backups, but if you want any flexibility in the messages you can send, they won’t do the job. I prefer to carry something that can send short messages like “delayed by a day but doing great” so that my family and friends have peace of mind if I’m not back at the time I had told them.

Finally, make sure to bring a well-stocked first aid kit. In particular, stock it with bandages and gauze that can stop the bleeding if you have a more severe injury. Include anti-diarrheal medicine and, of course, any personalized medicine like an EpiPen and enough of your prescriptions to last an extra two or three days. You could be hours away from the nearest hospital if you’re car camping, so take any available precautions in order to make your trip smooth and worry-free.

Conclusion

Car camping isn’t for everyone, but if you’re up for the challenge, it is an incredibly rewarding way to travel. I’ve taken some of my favorite landscape photos while car camping, many of which I couldn’t have reached any other way. It’s also one of the fastest ways to get around and explore an area if you’re working with limited time. More than anything else, the flexibility of car camping is simply amazing.

I hope the tips in this article gave you a good idea of where to start with car camping. If you have any questions, or if there’s something I missed that you want to add, please let me know in the comments section below! I’ll do my best to answer.

The Basics of Car Camping for Photographers (and Others!) (2024)

FAQs

What is the description of car camping? ›

When you car camp, you load up all of your gear for the trip in your car, pull into your campsite, and set up your tent in a designated area. Some also refer to car camping as "base camping" or “tent camping”. The beauty of car camping is the accessibility of your tent site.

What do I need to go car camping? ›

These are important items for your camping essentials checklist:
  1. Tent (and footprint, stakes)
  2. Sleeping bags.
  3. Sleeping pads.
  4. Camping pillow.
  5. Headlamps or flashlights (and extra batteries)
  6. Camp chairs.
  7. Camp table (if no picnic table)
  8. Lantern (and mantles and fuel/batteries if needed)
Oct 17, 2017

Is car camping a good idea? ›

Whether you're a first-time camper or a seasoned pro, car camping is a great way to get outside and have an adventure. Car camping provides easy access to the outdoors and allows more room for error than backcountry camping.

What states is car camping legal? ›

California: It is legal to sleep in your car at rest stops for up to eight hours. Cities and counties have varying laws, but most don't allow sleeping in cars overnight. Florida: It is legal to sleep in your car in rest areas and truck stops.

Is car camping legal in USA? ›

Not exactly. Laws against sleeping in your vehicle vary state to state and apply under certain conditions. And while getting some shut-eye inside your car isn't necessarily illegal, it's where you are parked while you sleep that can get you in trouble.

What is stealth car camping? ›

Stealth camping refers to camping in a remote or otherwise undetected location. Essentially, it's camping anywhere not explicitly designated for overnight camping. Stealth camping in the US can be a bit complicated, depending on where you are and the laws of the area.

Does car camping mean sleeping in your car? ›

Some people consider “car camping” to mean sleeping in a tent at a campground with your car close by—as opposed to backpacking where you venture far from your vehicle. But for the sake of this article, we are defining “car camping” as sleeping inside your vehicle rather than a tent.

Which type of tent is used for car camping? ›

Tunnel tents provide lots of headroom and livable space for larger groups and families, and when pitched smartly, they can withstand bad weather. However, they are quite heavy and bulky when packed making them unsuitable for carrying on foot. They would be more suited for car camping.

Is car camping considered glamping? ›

Unlike glamping where you have to stay put, car camping with a Roofnest is mobile and crazy convenient. You can pack up camp in minutes and sleep somewhere new every night — it's basically like mobile glamping.

What is the difference between car camping and preferred car camping? ›

Preferred Car Camping is an upgraded version of your normal car camping pass. Preferred Car Camping allows you to park in a reserved space near the venue's entrance, nearby the Ferris Wheel. Coachella attendees can arrive at their own pace, since these spots are reserved.

Is car camping the same as tent camping? ›

While car camping allows for sleeping inside your vehicle, having a tent or shelter provides additional space and protection from the elements. Choose a tent that's spacious enough to accommodate your group comfortably and suits the weather conditions you'll encounter.

What is car camping called? ›

Car camping, caravanning, RV camping... it goes by many names, and the experience varies widely, but the use of motor vehicles to get to a camp site is popular in many parts of the world.

Do you have to crack a window when sleeping in your car? ›

Fresh air circulation is crucial for a peaceful night's sleep, so crack a window or two to keep the air in your car circulating, or pop the sunroof open if you have one. Create cross-ventilation by positioning the car so that there is airflow when windows are open.

Do you need a tent for car camping? ›

It's simple—you sleep in your car instead of a tent. Car camping is a low-barrier and comfortable way to enjoy the outdoors without investing in expensive camping gear. But even when car camping, you can still choose to pull up to a campground and set up a tent.

Is it safe to sleep in a car with the engine off? ›

You can sleep in a car with the engine off and windows closed. It may be feasible at night, but can you do this during midday or afternoon with extremely hot ambient temperatures? The temperature inside the car can become hotter than outside, leading to dehydration!

What is camping out of your car called? ›

Car camping is, quite simply, just that: camping via your car. People use the term to differentiate between camping with your car, backpacking, backcountry camping or RVing. Unlike RVing, car camping typically involves a tent.

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