A few years ago, my husband and I took a month-long road trip through the American Northwest, starting in Mammoth Lakes, California, and making a big loop through Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. We camped about half the time and got pretty darn good at it. Here’s how we learned to live (happily) out of our car.

10 tips for your car-camping road trip

1. Do a dry run

Before you set out on your big trip, test your gear on a short, local camping trip and find out what’s missing or isn’t working.

2. Just bin it

One advantage of car camping is the ability to bring a lot with you. But, when you’re on a 4-week trek, the space in your car gets a little more precious. We bought some good-sized bins that fit neatly in the rear of our Forester and filled them with related equipment (cooking supplies in one bin, tent and bedding in another, etc.). That way, we always knew where everything was and removed the bins only as needed. Bonus: when the trip’s over, you can just stack those bins in your garage or storage unit and they’ll be all ready for next time.

3. Divvy up your luggage

Stow the clothes and supplies you need for a night of camping in a small bag, which you can keep with you in the tent. But remember that bears are attracted to the smell of some toiletries, like shampoo or flavored lip balm. If you’re in bear country, those need to stay in a bear-proof locker or canister.

4. Sleep on air

We’ve talked about the glories of inflatable bedding before, and I highly recommend it. When you’re getting up at dawn with 200 miles to drive, you need a good night’s rest. Our air mattress is compact, sturdy, and comes with its own pleasingly efficient inflating device. We even brought it on our kayaking trip to the San Juan Islands, where it barely fit in the tent provided. (Our fellow kayakers teased us, but we had the last laugh when we crawled into our bow-shaped but comfy bed at night.)

Just make sure the inflator is fully charged when you’re ready to set up camp. If it’s battery powered, stock up on spare batteries before you leave home. If it’s a plug-in, remember to juice it up whenever you find a plug (the campground bathroom, a Laundromat, or those nights you decide to stay in a motel).

5. Fire up the camp stove

When you’re on the road for weeks at a time, eating all your meals in restaurants gets expensive (plus, campgrounds are often miles from the nearest town). With a camp stove, a few cans of propane, and a well-stocked cooler, you can have fresh, hot coffee and fragrant bacon in the morning or rustle up fajitas or pasta at night, all without leaving the comfort of your campfire. Being able to heat up water for washing your dishes is also really nice.

Note: if you’re in bear country, be sure to put all food, unwashed dishes, and anything else that smells like food in a food-storage locker before retiring for the night. If you aren’t sure if lockers are available where you’ll be camping, consider buying or renting some bear-resistant canisters. (Don’t store food in your car — bears in some popular camping areas recognize the shape of a cooler — and definitely not in your tent.)

6. Invest in a roomy tent

The fun of camping will start to fade quickly if your tent’s too cramped. Look for one where you can stand upright (or at least mostly upright), with room for your camping bags as well as your mattress. (Going to your car every time you need something gets old fast.) You might also consider a tent with a vestibule around the door — it offers welcome protection from the sun and rain and a handy place to store muddy shoes.

7. Stake out your spot early

Many campgrounds (particularly in national parks) are first-come, first-served. If you show up an hour before sunset, you risk finding the campground full or getting stuck with a terrible campsite. If you have your heart set on a particular spot, get there ASAP, especially if the campground is known to be popular.

8. No showers? No problem.

Not all of our campgrounds had showers, but we were still able to stay reasonably clean by setting up a wash station in front of our tent. The aforementioned vestibule and a few carefully placed towels offered privacy, while a large bowl filled with water (heated on the camp stove) and a small bottle of shower gel helped us tackle the grime.

9. Don’t forget firewood and ice

Many campgrounds have stores or offices where you can buy these necessities, but not all of them do, so keep your eye out for grocery stores or markets along the way. You’ll need ice to keep the food in your cooler fresh. And while a campfire isn’t essential, sitting by a crackling fire is one of the absolute best things about camping. A campsite with no firewood is just sad.

10. Go deluxe once in a while

Camping is great. Sleeping under the stars is wonderful. Roughing it is fun. But after 4 or 5 days, it can start to get on your nerves. Now and again, splurge on a motel room and enjoy a long, hot shower, laundry facilities, and Wi-Fi. Go to a roadhouse and take in a hearty dinner and some local color. Have drinks at a fantastic mountain lodge. After a little indulgence, you’ll be refreshed and ready to pitch your tent again.

Car camping must-haves

We’ve covered the biggies above, but here’s a short list of other essentials:

  • A headlamp: ideal for setting up tents in the dark and avoiding late-night stumbles on the way to the bathroom
  • A battery-powered camp light: so you can play cards/games after dark and not blind each other with your headlamps (you can also hang the light inside your tent)
  • A plastic table cloth: makes your site feel homey and provides a clean space for eating and food prep
  • Cutting boards: you’ll use them a dozen times a day
  • Lightweight folding chairs: for relaxing by the campfire or under your vestibule
  • A large plastic or metal bowl: for washing dishes (and yourself)
  • A mesh bag: for carrying piles of wet dishes and utensils back from the spigot (never drop your clean silverware in the dirt again!)
  • A clothesline and clothespins: for damp towels, bathing suits, etc.
  • Playing cards: for when you run out of ghost stories

Our road trip was one of the best vacations we’ve ever taken and it turned us in to car-camping pros. With a little preparation and some smart packing, life on the road can be a breeze. Just make sure your car is in good repair (and your car insurance coverage is up to snuff) before you head out.

And did you know homeowners or renters insurance protects the stuff in your car against theft? We can help you with that too!

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Destinations | Getting there


about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.