Updated August 2019
Camping for the first time can be a little daunting. That’s why I HIGHLY RECOMMEND car camping for beginners. You can bring as much stuff as you can safely fit into your car. There’s no judgment from me, in fact, Catherine and I love car camping for this very reason. We can bring as many “luxury items” as we want. Sometimes we even camp near small towns so we can go out for dinner and not have to worry about bringing that food and washing the dishes.
One way to wrap your head around camping for beginners is to compare your camp out to sleeping out in your backyard, or your BFF’s finished basement (without furniture). You need some shelter, a place to sleep, somewhere to sit and a way to cook your meals.
This list just covers the basics. Somewhere to sleep, some light and a way to cook and eat. That’s all you need.
Car Camping for Beginners – Essentials
Tents for Car Camping
There’s a lot of things to think about when it comes to choosing your first tent. The best piece of advice I received was to go for a tent that’s a little bigger than you think you need. This led Catherine and me to purchase a 3-person tent, even though we pretty much only camp as a couple. Honestly, since buying our first tent I can’t imagine having a smaller one. Between getting our sleeping pad, sleeping bags and our gear inside there’s not too much extra room in our tent. The idea of 3 people sleeping in there is unbelievable to me.
Other things to consider when it comes to picking a tent:
- Seasons: Three-season tents will probably cover most of your car camping needs. If you’re hoping to camp all year round you might want to go for a four-season tent. The main difference between the two is the materials. Three season tents tend to be made from lighter fabrics and have more ventilation windows, doors or other openable spaces. Four season tents are made to keep you warm in the winter and withstand some serious wind. This means they’re made of heavier materials, often have more poles and fewer windows, doors or ventilation holes.
- Tent height: Do you want to be able to stand up inside your tent? Or are you okay with getting dressed laying down (that’s what we do). Either way works, but choose the height that’s best for you.
- Tent floor-length: This one applies to all of the tall folk out there. Make sure your tent is long enough to fit you comfortably when laying down. Enough said.
- Footprint: This is essentially a tarp you put under your tent. You can go the cheap route and simply buy a tarp or you can buy a footprint that’s the exact size of your tent. The floor of your tent can take a beating. Since it’s cheaper to replace the tarp or footprint than your entire tent I recommend splashing out on this optional piece of gear if you can.
- Doors: One door or two? The first tent I was kindly lent had one door and a window. It was very nice to be able to lay in the tent and look out the window, but I kept thinking “what if a bear came by…and I couldn’t get out the door”. Granted this is a fairly unlikely event, but hey, it could happen. This thought is what led us to buy a tent with two doors. It’s always good to have an escape route.
- Ventilation: It can get a little stuffy in a tent so you want to make sure you have some good ventilation. It can also help prevent condensation from building up inside. Mesh panels are a great way to solve this problem. Aside from windows or doors with mesh, you can also find tents with small ventilation openings at the top of the tent.
- Vestibules: If you decide to stick with a smaller tent, or if you just need some extra storage space a vestibule really helps. You can use it to store your muddy boots or other gear outside of your tent, but away from rain and other weather conditions.
- Storage: It might seem silly to have pockets and other storage inside your tent, but it can come in really handy. Pockets can hold your glasses, books, keys or other items you want near you during the night. Some tents also include a gear loft to hold extra gear on a shelf above your head.
- Rainfly: This one is a must in my opinion. Some tents come with a rain fly and others are sold separately. Either way, I highly recommend you get one. It’s inevitably going to rain, or if you’re near the ocean it’s going to get foggy. A rainfly will keep you and your gear dry for the next day.
Next up on your list is a sleeping bag. Before you go out and buy one think about what seasons you’re likely to camp in. Are you a fair-weather camper? I sure am! Or are you willing to get out there in the winter temperatures? (Hard pass from me) Once you’ve made those decisions you can use them to guide your sleeping bag choices.
- Sleeping bags come with temperature ratings. Here’s a quick rundown on what temperatures work for each season. Of course, this varies and only you know whether you’re always hot (me) or always cold, but it’s a good place to start.
- Summer bags: 30°+
- Three-season bags: 15° – 30°
- Winter bags: 15° and lower
- Shape: The shape you choose is purely down to personal preference. You can go for a traditional rectangle bag, a mummy bag or a hybrid semi-rectangular bag (which is what I have).
- Rectangle bags: These traditional bags are great if you want to have lots of room to stretch out and the option to unzip the entire thing and use it as a comforter. They’re great for car camping (because who cares how much they weigh!) and can come in double size or some models allow you to zip two bags together.
- Mummy bags: A mummy bag is pretty much the exact opposite of a rectangle bag. It fits close to the body and rather than you rolling around inside the bag you roll over and the bag comes with you. Mummy bags are great if you’re planning to do backpacking as well as car camping because they are often smaller and lighter. Additionally, they tend to keep you warmer because there are fewer pockets of air inside.
- Hybrid semi-rectangular bags: This style of bag is perfect for side sleepers, or those who can’t quite deal with the constriction of a mummy bag. They have a little more room at the bottom to stretch out and you can move inside the bag similar to a rectangle bag.
- Insulation: When it comes to the fill material of your sleeping bag you have two options. Synthetic or down.
- Synthetic: First things first, if you have allergies to down, synthetic is for you. In addition to being hypoallergenic synthetic fill is very affordable. Once you start looking at sleeping bags it will quickly become clear that there is a major price difference between synthetic and down. Synthetic fill will also keep you warm when damp and dries very quickly.
- Down: Down is a very durable fill material. It holds up well over time, is lightweight and is often treated to be water-resistant. As you can imagine it’s also great in the cold and can compress down further than many synthetic bags, making it a good choice for backpackers. All these features come at a price and you might also want to consider the sustainability and animal welfare of the down when making a purchase.
Like all the other gear I’ve described above, sleeping pads come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and types. It might be tempting to buy a basic air mattress on Amazon, but be warned they are not insulated so you could end up feeling very cold, especially on your backside.
Again, the most important thing to do when choosing your sleeping pad is to think about how you’re gonna use it. Are you only going to go car camping? Then you can get one that’s a heavier weight, thicker, wider or more insulated. If you want to get one that can be used for car camping as well as backpacking, you might want to find something lighter weight. Sleeping pads come in three basic types:
- Air pads: These are thin air mattresses that you inflate with your lungs. They can take around 3 minutes to inflate and are usually made from insulated or reflective materials for more warmth. These days air pads are light and quite affordable. One thing to consider is they can be crinkly and loud when you move around on them. Be sure to give the one you’re interested in a try before you buy.
- Self-inflating pads: As the name suggests, these inflate on their own using a valve system. Self-inflating pads often combine some type of foam as well as air for added padding and comfort. They tend to be a little heavier, but are a great option for backpackers as well as car campers. We went ahead and bought a double-wide sleeping pad for the two of us and couldn’t be happier.
- Closed-cell foam pads: These are the only sleeping pads that can be carried outside a pack without fear of damage. Foam pads usually fold up in a zig-zag and are thin, stiff and firm. I’ll be honest I’ve tried one of these and was not a fan at all. If you’re a side sleeper forget about it. Your hip won’t thank you for it.
Your campsite isn’t going to have lighting…that’s just a fact. So unless you want to drain your car battery using your headlights, you’re gonna need some form of lighting. You can go one of two ways when it comes to camp lighting. You can opt for a hands-free headlamp or some sort of ambient lighting such as a lantern. Sure a flashlight can be handy, but give me a lantern or a headlamp any day.
Cooking & Eating
There are ways around needing to bring an entire kitchen (you could go the meal bar route, bring a cooler and only eat cold meals or utilize your campfire), but chances are you’re going to need at least a few things to get your meals up and running. You probably have most of what you need in your house already and since you’re car camping the weight doesn’t even matter so pack it in! Here’s a quick list to jog your memory:
- Plates, cups, forks, knives, and spoons
- Mugs or insulated tumbler for coffee or tea
- Coffee maker (or instant coffee)
- Camp stove + fuel
- Pots or pans plus cooking utensils
- Washbasin, towels, clothes, and soap
This is the last item on my essential car camping for beginners list and honestly, it’s the one thing I’ve forgotten and deeply regretted on my campouts. While most campsites come with a picnic table, there’s nothing quite like sitting on a comfortable chair by the campfire. You might have folding chairs from your kid’s soccer games or a set of beach chairs. Honestly, it doesn’t matter what kind of chair you have so long as it’s comfortable for you. We just bring our beach chairs. We might be sitting a little closer to the ground, but it’s no problem for us.
Car Camping for Beginners – Etiquette
When you start car camping it’s hard to know exactly what’s expected of you at your campsite. There are a few basic rules that will not only make your stay enjoyable, but your camper neighbors will be very appreciative.
Most campgrounds have set quiet hours. When you check-in at your site look around for a sign or ask the ranger when quiet hours start and end. In general, most campsites have quiet hours between 10 pm and 6 am. Lots of campers like to play music in the evenings, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just make sure to be mindful of others wanting to hit the hay early. Turn down music, televisions, your voice, and any other noise when the time comes. At the end of the day just remember to be a good human. Everyone likes good humans.
Keep it Clean
Hopefully, when you arrived at your campsite it was clean. Make sure you leave it better than you found it for the next person. It’s also good to keep food and other trash put away to keep animals out of your campsite during the day or night. Lots of animals have become accustomed to stealing human food, it’s sad but true. Do your part to keep animals wild.
Lots of campers bring their dogs along for the trip. Who doesn’t want their furry friend out in the woods with them? Just remember to keep them on a leash and do your best to keep the barking to a minimum.
Where to Go Car Camping
Finding the perfect place to go car camping can seem daunting. If you’re struggling to find a spot head over to Recreation.gov and search for National Parks near you. You can also head to your home state’s state park website for additional options. One other place to start is HipCamp, it’s Airbnb for camping. Plenty of great folks out there have set up campsites on their land for public use. It’s pretty great!
Death Valley National Park – Furnace Creek Campground
This was my very first camping trip. Located about 5 hours northeast of Los Angeles, Death Valley offers some amazing camping. Make sure to head out there in the fall or winter to avoid the extreme heat. I wrote a full review of the Furnace Creek and shared one of my favorite hikes ever around Ubehebe Crater.
Leo Carrillo State Park – Leo Carrillo Campground (Malibu, CA)
If you’re looking to car camp near the beach Leo Carrillo could be the spot for you. Located in very scenic Malibu, CA, Leo Carrillo campground is steps away from the beach, a short drive away from grocery stores and restaurants, and has plenty of hiking nearby. This beach campground is great for families. There are lots of kids around to play, plenty of open spaces to run around, and a nearby beach to catch some waves or just splash around.
Joshua Tree National Park – Black Rock Campground
Since moving to California three years ago, I’ve made several trips out to Joshua Tree. At first, I thought the desert would be bleak, but after my first trip, I fell in love. Joshua Tree has many campgrounds, Black Rock campground is located at the northwest corner of the park right beside one of the largest Joshua Tree forests. The hiking is incredible and well worth the stay. If you’re more interested in staying in the main part of the park you can also check out Cottonwood campground.
So there you have it. To get your car camping started all you need is a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, lighting, kitchen equipment, and a couple of chairs. I have several pages with gear recommendations as well as affordable camping gear if you’re looking for items I’ve tested and love. Otherwise, my motto is to pack the car and go!