This past weekend my girlfriend and I decided to take a car camping trip to Hunting Island State Park. The South Carolina park has beautiful driftwood beaches as well as a publicly accessible light house. While on the trip I realized that a list of car camping essentials might be relevant to others here. It’s also something I can use as a checklist for my next trip.
Essentials for making your car camping trip comfortable.
Tent: Footprint, Rain Fly and Stakes (If you’re not sleeping in your vehicle)
Unless you’re planning on sleeping in your car, you’ll need a tent, footprint, rain fly and stakes.
We’ve been borrowing a 30-year old REI tent, which has held up incredibly well. It’s done so well, that I’m considering purchasing a new tent for our next car camping trip—I’ve been looking at the Half Dome 2 and Passage 3 from REI.
What about the footprint, rainfly and stakes? Why do you need all of that? The tent footprint protects the tent floor from abrasion. Today, most tents come with a footprint, but if you’ve got an old one like us, you can just purchase a cheap tarp. That should work just as well. Similarly, the rain fly is a cover that protects the tent from rain and can help keep it insulated in cool weather. Finally, the tent stakes keep your tent from blowing away in strong gusts of wind. The old tent had stakes that were beginning to rust. We replaced them with this cheap set of stakes. They were easy to put in and easy to take out.
In the summer, you can probably skip sleeping bags. This past weekend my girlfriend and I only took blankets and sheets. It’s been hot enough where even sheets are a bit too hot. In colder months a sleeping bag is required. I’ve got an old Coleman sleeping bag, but am evaluating new options.
Do not skimp on sleeping pads. You will be miserable. On our first camping trip my girlfriend convinced me to remove these from our checklist of things to buy before the trip. That was a mistake.
Foam and air construction are the two main designs for sleeping pads. The air construction design need to be inflated (really, every night), but tend to be lighter and take up less space. We were looking at the Klymit Static V2 pad, but my friend Ramsay has convinced me that foam pads are probably a better purchase for car camping.
My friend Ramsay has been through Army Ranger School and is a serious outdoorsman, he felt like for car camping a foam pad like the Therm-A-Rest Z Lite would be a better choice. His main reason’s are comfort, durability and that they don’t have to be inflated. We won’t be camping in cold enough weather to be worried about warmth provided by the pad.
He also mentioned that the foam pads can be folded up and used as benches, which is pretty cool.
You’ll want some chairs to sit around the campfire at night. If you’re car camping, the cheap tailgating chairs from Walmart will work fine. If you’re planning on backpacking and camping it may make more sense to purchase something lighter and more compact. I bought these ultra-light camp chairs and have been impressed with how comfortable they are. The chairs weigh about 2 pounds and fold down into a small bag, which has loops and will allow you to secure it to your backpack or other items. I particularly like that these compact chairs have pockets on each side. They are perfect for beer water bottles, beer cans and phones.
Camping Table (If there’s no picnic tables)
All the campsites I’ve been to provide a fire pit and picnic table to campers, but that may not always be the case. If you’re unsure you may want to consider something like the REI Camp Roll Table, which is durable and packs up tightly.
People always say it’s useful to carry extra rope. That’s essentially what a camp line is. Wrap it around trees or benches and create space to hang lanterns, dry clothes or carry gear. I own the Gear Aid Camp Line Kit, and like it because it comes with clips and hooks to attach multiple lines.
Everything you’ll need for cooking over a campfire.
One of my favorite parts about camping is cooking hot dogs and marshmallows over a campfire. We picked up these extendable skewers that worked perfectly. They double in length so it’s easy to get the hot dog to the center of the fire, if that’s your thing.
If you’re backpacking maybe look at another option. The skewers are sharp and a little difficult to store. We’ve just wrapped the end in a plastic Target bag so it doesn’t accidentally hurt anyone or damage anything.
A cooler is essential for car camping. If you’re bringing food to cook, beers to drink or chocolate for s’mores. You’ll want a place to keep that stuff cool.
The friends we’ve been with the last couple of times all have a fantastic Yeti cooler. The thing kept drinks cold for days. Roto-molded coolers like the Yeti tend to be very expensive, but they will keep things cold forever.
After doing a ton of research I ended up purchasing an RTIC 45 cooler. RTIC coolers are roto-molded and perform almost identically to Yeti coolers, but cost a fraction as much. I went with the RTIC 45 and think it’s the right size for two people for a couple of days. If you’ve got a family or frequently camp with more people the RTIC 65 might be a better purchase for a little more.
If you don’t need something quite that extravagant and needs something affordable to get the job done. The Wirecutter gave this Coleman Cooler an excellent review.
More Details: First Impressions: RTIC 45 Hard Cooler
Lighter, Matches and Firestarter
Once you’re settled in, you’ll want something to get your campfire going. If you’re concerned about wind maybe bring a grill lighter or a zippo. The last few times we’ve been we’ve just brought a couple boxes of matches.
You probably also will want to stop at Walmart and get some firestarter. I’ve had success with Firestart bricks, but I think just about any sort of starter will do.
Bowls, Plates and Utensils
Basically, things to eat with. I’m of the mindset that bowls can be used to eat just about anything. We generally bring a few paper plates and a few plastic forks and knives. To be a little bit more environmentally friendly, bring silverware from home.
People that camp a lot rave about Jetboil. It’s a stove and cup combo that can boil water in less than two minutes. But it’s also cleverly compact as the fuel tank fits into the cup and the cap doubles as a measuring cup. One of our friends brought one on our last camping trip—it was wonderful having a good french press coffee in the morning.
They make varying systems depending on your needs. If you’re car camping and like coffee, I think the Jetboil Flash with a French press is what you’re looking for.
Other Cooking Items
Not everything needs a detailed explanation. The following always come in handy and you’ll want to bring them:
- Paper Towels
- Quart Ziplock Bags
- Aluminum Foil
- Garbage Bags
Useful items that you won’t want to leave without.
Every person at your campsite should have a flashlight. If you’re going alone, you might want to bring two. On our first camping trip my girlfriend fought me on this and didn’t want me to buy a second flashlight. That was a mistake. After sunset most primitive campsites have no lights at all.
I highly recommend the ThruNite Archer LED Flashlight. I’ve owned mine for about 3 years. It’s small, rugged build and bright output make it ideal for camping. I like that it has 4 brightness levels: high, medium, low and firefly. The brightest is a blinding 500 lumens and will provide a couple hundred feed of visibility at night. On the low end, firefly (.05 lumens) is perfect for reading in the dark. The flashlight has a belt clip and lanyard, to help prevent you from loosing it.
What about a flashlight for kids? The ThruNite Archer is probably too powerful. You don’t want them shining that light each other in the faces. I’d recommend getting the Maglite Mini Incandescent flashlight. When I was a kid that’s what my dad gave us for camping in Yosemite. They are tough as nails and their brightest output is 14 lumens.
While flashlights are important for finding things in the dark, it’s also nice to have a lantern for lighting an area. Whether it’s your campsite or the inside of your tent.
On our last trip we had some friends bring a tiny LED Coleman lantern. It was adequate, but I wish we had more area light output around our campsite. When we were cooking at night, it was difficult to find ingredients for the s’mores. We also had some friends that got to the site after dark on the first day. We were around to hold flashlights, but a bright lantern would have been helpful.
I did a ton of research to find the best LED lantern. My main considerations are light output, duration, size, durability and weight. I chose this UST LED lantern seems like the best value thus far. It is heavy, but with 3 D-cell batteries it is bright and capable of lasting several days on the brightest setting.
Some campgrounds may have electrical outlets nearby. However, they are often communal, busy and not a place you want to leave your phone for a few hours. You’ll want to remember to bring a battery with you.
My girlfriend and I just brought the batteries from our Away bags and they worked fine for two days of charging phones. If you don’t have a portable battery that you can bring camping, just about anything from Anker will be a good bet. If space is a concern, this charger has about half the power, but is only the size of a travel toothpaste.
You’ll never know what you’ll end up needing. Having a multi-tool give you a ton of functionality with little weight or space. The Leatherman Skeletool CX is my personal choice. It has only a few tools compared to most multi-tools—a knife, pliers, can and bottle opener and a bit driver. However, it’s light and those functions are incredibly well designed. It’s the best multi-tool for camping in my opinion.
Other Helpful Tools
- Pocket knife
- Duct tape
Sun, Bug and Emergency
Protective gear that will make your car camping trip much more enjoyable.
Accidents happen. When they do, you’ll want to be as prepared as possible. Make sure you’ve got a first-aid kit with you. If you don’t have one, the Survivewear First Aid Kit is recommended by Outdoor Gear Lab. I like it’s compactness and kit’s organization—everything is clearly labled. However, I chose the Mountain Series First Aid Kit. It’s organized almost as well, but has room for medications (which need to be periodically replaced).
You don’t want to get burnt on a camping trip. You’ll be miserable until you get home. Always consider bringing sunscreen—especially, if you’re camping at the beach or in the desert.
Make sure you have a wide-brimmed sun hat that can protect you from the harsh afternoon sun. You want it to be light, breathable and durable. It should be something you aren’t afraid to wash after the trip. I love my Coal sun hat, but it appears to be out of production.
Another thing you won’t want to forget. You probably don’t want to bring anything you will regret smashing or loosing. A cheap pair of polarized sunglasses will take you far. I love this pair of matte black sunglasses with green lenses.
I’ve tried different bug sprays over the years. DEET-based bug repellants like Cutter are the only ones I’ve found to work consistently. DEET is reliable, but tends to smell, be oily and isn’t the type of thing you want to wear if you’re going camping with pets. You don’t want your dog licking you after putting on the stuff.
For this trip I bought a 20 percent Picaridin-based repellent after reading a Wirecutter review. It didn’t smell, wasn’t oily and seemed to to a comparable job to DEET. My only gripe with the Sawyer Repellent is that the spray bottle doesn’t work well when it’s upside down.
I also stumbled upon a few reddit threads about repelling mosquitos. There were plenty of positive comments about Picardin repellants and Thermacell devices—which leads me to my next essential car camping item…
Area Pest Control
My Thermacell Radius Zone has been a lifesaver. It’s like an anti-bug diffuser. It slowly heats up a repellant that keeps bugs away within a 15-foot radius. It works incredibly well, but there are some caveats.
It takes about 20 minutes to become effective. A trip we took in September 2019 had a brutal amount of mosquitos in the morning. I found myself running to set up the Thermacell as quickly as possible, and then running back into the tent for cover. After 15-20 minutes most of the bugs were gone, but I still got eaten pretty badly trying to set the thing up each morning.
Wind can be problematic. I’d say that the Thermacell probably won’t work in anything more than a moderate breeze. It turned out fine for us. Even though we’ve been camping at the beach we had dunes and bushes dampening the wind.
Some other comments on the device as a whole—it’s light and sturdy. I do wish that the LED indicator was a little brighter. I found it difficult to see if it was on in the daylight. Once you’re ready to pack it up, make sure the top and bottom are separate. It’s easy for it to accidentally turn on if they are connected.
Last thing about the Thermacell. There is a 40-hour refill cartridge, but I’d recommend most people buy the 12-hour one. That has been plenty for our 3-day camping trips. Unless you’re going to be spending the entire time at the campsite or have a long trip, the smaller cartridge will suit you well.
Not the cream, but the antihistamine. I’ve found that after a bunch of bites taking Benadryl helps more than any topical ointment—including Benadryl Cream.
You’ll probably need to shower at some point during your trip. I bought one from PackTowel, based on The Wirecutter’s recommendation. I think any quick dry towel will work here though.
You’ll also want to make sure you have some sort of camp line to set up. That way you’ll have a line to let your towel—and any wet clothes—dry on.
Your campsite might have toilets, but I’m certain you’ll want to bring toilet paper anyways. Restrooms may be out of order, toilets could be clogged or everything is occupied. In any case, an emergency roll of toilet paper is a must-have.
My Timex Weekender is a cheap, durable watch that I know I can count on.
Toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant.
Things that you might want to consider, but aren’t required.
A little music in the evenings can be nice, but isn’t required. Consider packing your bluetooth speaker for your camping trip.
Headlamps give you the freedom to use both of your hands while providing light at night. If you arrive to your campsite after dark and need to build your tent, it can be helpful. It might be worth throwing one into your bag for that reason alone. Assuming you avoid that, I think a flashlight and lantern provide adequate illumination.
I tend not to like headlamps, because many people are careless with them. If you’re camping with others please be mindful. Don’t wear them around the campsite. You’ll blind others any time you look at them.
If you’re not cooking hot dogs or something on skewers, you might bring a sandwich press—also known as a pie iron. Basically, you take a couple of pieces of bread and fill it with ham and cheese, fruit (apple pie!) or other fillings. Press the sandwich together and toast it over the fire. I always thought my grandma made the best grilled cheese sandwiches, because she’d take one of these and put it on her stove.
Sandwich presses are not light so you won’t want this for backpacking. However, this is a fantastic meal option for car camping.
Portable Fan or Tent Fan
If it’s going to be hot when you camp, you might consider bringing a portable fan. The issue is there aren’t a lot of great options. I’ve been through a ton of reviews on Amazon and Reddit—most of them are pretty unfavorable. This is largely due to battery life or lack of power. In many cases you’re trading one for the other.
A lot of the fans I researched run off heavy, expensive D-cell batteries. I think your best bet is to find a fan that can run off of an external battery via USB. I don’t have any direct experience, but a fan like this might work.
Douglas Gantenbein, Do I need a tent footprint?, Outside Magazine, Published 5/1/2006
Andy Wellman & Matt Bento, The Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads of 2019, OutdoorGearLab, Last Updated 5/17/2019
Jason Wanlass, The Best Camping Table Review, OutdoorGearLab, Last Updated 6/25/2019
Tanya Christensen, Bring the Kitchen Sink: A Packing Checklist for Car-Supported Camping, Backcountry.com, Retrieved 9/30/2019
Camping Checklist, REI, Retrieved 9/30/2019
Camping for Beginners: What to Know for Your First Campout, REI, Retrieved 10/1/2019
How to Choose Sleeping Pads, REI, Retrieved 10/1/2019
Kit Dillon, The Best Coolers, The Wirecutter, Last Updated July 25, 2019
Maggie Brandenburg, RTIC 65 Review: A high-performing and durable cooler that’s a bit softer on the wallet, OutdoorGearLab, Last Updated 5/9/2019
How to Choose a Lantern, REI, Retrieved 10/2/2019
Ben Applebaum-Bauch, How to Choose a Lantern, OutdoorGearLab, Last Updated 4/12/2019
Eric Hansen, The Best LED Lantern, The Wirecutter, Updated 11/7/2017
u/darthenron, Best gear to repel mosquitos? (Car and primitive camping?), reddit, Last Updated 3/26/2019
Doug Mahoney, The Best Bug Repellents, The Wirecutter, Last Updated 3/26/2019
Avoid bug bites, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Retrieved 10/3/2019
First Aid Checklist, REI, Retrieved 10/3/2019