How to Make Your First Car Camping Trip a Success


This article was produced in partnership with Dometic

Escaping into the wild on a car camping odyssey is an easy idea to pitch from your couch. Dealing with all the logistics of pulling it off is another story. First, there’s mapping out a great place to go. Then there’s gathering all the gear and grub—or buying cool new stuff (more on that in a moment). Long before you begin packing up your vehicle, organization is key from the get-go.

Newbies to car camping may find the prospect of ditching the comforts of home for a few days of “roughing it” in the forest, mountains, or desert to be daunting enough for second thoughts. Even veteran campers can feel the inertia. Don’t let any of that stop you. These essential car camping tips and gear suggestions will (metaphorically) light the campfire and make your next adventure easier to both plan out beforehand and enjoy when you’re out there.

Finding the Perfect Spot

The most important part of making your first car or truck camping trip a resounding success is finding a great location to set up your site. Plenty of online resources can help you dial in a desirable outdoor adventure, starting with the National Park Service and your local state park services. These sites open a treasure trove of possible camping areas and provide important camping intel—ranging from reservations and regulations to campsite amenities. Reserve America is the hub reservation site that most federal, state, local, and private campgrounds use as their system to manage guests in the parks, and will most likely be your online go-to for locking down a spot.

The onX map app gives you lots of great backcountry info for finding camping spots.
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Another great resource for finding a camping spot—covering an even larger expanse of national, state, and public lands, including on the vast Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grid—is an app called onX. Not only does the subscription-based service (which works with Android and Apple devices) provide tons of maps and ideas for where to hike, camp, and enjoy the backcountry, it’s also equipped with extensive maps for off-roading driving, hunting, and snow sports.

Use Hipcamp to find tons of private camping spots around the country.
Photo by Aldeen Li on Unsplash

You’ll want to plan at least a month out when nailing down a great place to car camp. Popular spaces, especially in national and state parks during high season, can be snatched up several months in advance, leaving a dicey supply of first-come, first-served spots for gamblers rolling up without a reservation. Even if your first (second or third) choices aren’t available, some diligent searching online will usually turn up other good options in the area you plan to visit—possibly a primitive campsite a little farther off the beaten path, or a private campground offering cabins or glamping sites. For the latter, Hipcamp is a great resource.

 Getting Organized for the Outdoors

Organization is key when planning and partaking in a successful camping trip from start to finish. Having the right gear is up there too, but getting fully rigged up with cutting-edge equipment can come later—even after a few preliminary car camping trips to fine-tune what stuff you’ll want to bring along next time. For now, start off with a solid set of containers to assemble your gear and keep it organized.

You don’t have to break the budget on these. Big box stores like Walmart and Home Depot offer deals on bin packs like Sterilite 45 Gallon Wheeled Latch and Roughneck 18 Gal. Rugged Stackable Storage Tote Container to keep your gear separated and ready to roll at a moment’s notice. Dividing everything into clearly labeled bins—sleeping, cooking, hiking, backpacks, jackets, boots, rain gear—will make packing for your trip a cinch. It will also alleviate all the stress that goes into the initial push to get outdoors.

Pack up for the outdoors with the Front Runner Wolf Pack boxes.
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If you’re looking for beefier, high-end storage options, check out the Front Runner Wolf Pack Quad Set ($236). These durable containers are stackable and roomy, which make them ideal for using as your storage in the vehicle. Just pull the gear you want for your trip from the bigger bins, then pack these for use in the wild where their high-strength plastic is built to withstand the rigors of backcountry travel.

Choose Dometic's new line of soft storage from their GO collection for car camping.
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To stow stuff more easily in your car, go for Dometic’s new line of storage solutions. Brand new to the noted outdoor fridge company, this variety of storage options include soft storage, which comes in two sizes, 20 liter or 10 liter. These handy little cubes are tough as well as being ideal for storing lots of kitchen gear since they are made from water-resistant and rugged thermoplastic-coated polyester, which gives them a semi-rigid structure that can collapse down. Add in the slip-in insulated totes—GO Pac Insulated 20L and 10L—and your storage transforms into a cooler.

Get Gear That Feels Like Home

Car camping is ideal for newbies given that you can haul enough creature comforts to make your downtime in the outdoors almost as comfy as your back patio. Dometic, the leader in off-the-grid refrigeration and cooling systems, has recently released an entire suite of products geared for exactly that purpose. The Dometic GO line is specifically designed for easy stowing in your trunk or SUV cargo area while conserving maximum space—which is also key for car campers.

Relax at your next car camping site with furniture from Dometic's GO outdoor line.
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Highlights from their new furniture line include the Compact Camp Table ($200), Compact Camp Chair ($150), and Compact Camp Bench ($100). The table is a sweet setup, featuring a sturdy bamboo top and aluminum legs pushed to the corners for more leg room. Dometic’s camp chairs are available in three subdued colors (Silt, Ash, and Glacier) that blend into the environment. Made with a foldable aluminum frame, 600D fabric, and beechwood arms, they’re a natural fit with the table, which folds in half and has adjustable legs; opt among three heights (think coffee table, kids’ table, and dinner table).

Take along the Dometic GO Camp Blanket on your next outdoor excursion to keep warm on cool nights.
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For another seating option, go with the bench, which is big enough to seat two adults—and could also work as a cot for a napping child in a pinch. It’s made with the same lightweight aluminum frame and heavy-duty fabric as the chairs. A perfect companion for either the bench or chairs is the Camp Blanket ($140), a dual-sided throw that blends a soft, padded top with a waterproof bottom—ideal for sitting on dewy grass or around a campfire.

Light up your car camping site with a set of BioLite's Alpen Glow LED lanterns.
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Proper lighting is another must-have. Maximize the homeyness by opting for lighting that gives off a warm yellow glow (as opposed to harsh white light). The new BioLite AlpenGlow Multi Pack ($280) will fully illuminate your site with four USB lanterns in two sizes that have multi-color settings. The lighting system offers options for either cool or warm dimmable white hues, along with a candle mode that gives off a soothing flicker. The LED lights are water-resistant and will run for five hours on high and up to 200 hours on low.

You can fit a family in the huge UST four person tent.
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The part of home that’s hardest to replicate in the wild is the sleeping situation. Cramped tents and thin pads aren’t exactly a cozy bedroom, but there are options here as well to significantly up the comfort level. First, for more space, tote along the UST House Party 4 Person Tent ($400). The single-wall tent (no need to set up a separate rain fly) has large side vents to channel cool breezes, plenty of storage pockets, a huge door for easy in and out, and almost six feet of height inside.

Sleep like you're at home when in the wild with the Hest Sleep System mattress.
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Next, toss in a super comfy sleeping pad like the HEST Sleep System Wide ($499), and you won’t want to get up too early for that first cup of coffee on a cold morning. This super comfy mattress mixes a stiff, inflatable bottom half with a memory foam topper covered in a stretchy, breathable cover so you’ll be comfy, no matter how hard and cold the ground is.

Planning and organizing your first (or next) car camping trip is a snap if you utilize the right resources and put a little thought into gear selection and storage. With the proliferation of excellent online portals and offline apps, along with lots of new camp gear, setting out on that first car camping trip isn’t just doable—it’s hopefully the beginning of a beautiful new habit.

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