Updated for 2021
Car Camping is the best part of living in Colorado. Yes, backpacking is great but it’s so easy to load up the car and just drive to a totally new destination for a night. Over the years I have really dialed in our car camping setup and wanted to share how we make it very comfortable and a little luxury!
Car Camping Essentials
Easy Up Tent
We have two tents, one for car camping and one for backpacking. For car camping, we use a big spacious 4 person tent Ozark Trail 4-Person Instance Cabin (Amazon, Walmart) that literally sets up in a matter of seconds. You lay it open, fold out the arms, pull from the center, lock the arms in place, and stake it down. Seriously so simple!
If you’re looking for a backpacking and car camping tent I use this 2 person Half Dome from REI – had it for almost 10 years now too! Sea to Summit Just released ultralight camping and backpacking tents (2 and 4 people) and some versions even work as shade tents.
Sleeping Pads + Air Mattress
You are car camping, bring an air mattress! Honestly, we have found the best air mattresses are the cheapest. Why? Because no matter how much you spend the will inevitably pop! On our first camping trip, our air mattress popped right before going to bed and we had nothing to sleep on but piles of clothes. So we always always always bring out backpacking sleeping pads just in case.
To stay warm you need something insulated between you and the ground, so bring a sleeping pad. REI has some fantastic sleeping pads and I prefer the REI AirRAils Pad that is made for side sleepers. Not all pads are the same so depending on how you like to sleep you may need a different type of pad. If you want an even more luxurious experience… invest in a Paco Pad. These thick Paco Pads are seriously comfortable but do take up more space. But you’re car camping so ya got the room!
Bring a tarp, actually bring two. If it looks like rain you will want to put your tarp down under your tent to prevent the bottom of your tent from getting wet. You may even want to string up another tarp as a shelter. For a pretty tarp like the one below check out Tarpesty. These fun tarps are waterproof and perfect for camping, a picnic or the beach.
Easy Up Tent/Sun Shade
We actually don’t have an easy-up tent. These are great when you need shade but we typically don’t spend too much daytime at our campsite and when we set these up and leave the probability that we come back and it’s still intact is very low. I have seen many tents get totally crushed by the wind. We debate getting one every year so I will update if we get one and love it.
As I said, car camping means living in luxury! We typically bring out sleeping bags, pillows and sheets & a blanket. We use a fitted sheet to cover our air mattress then place our sleeping bags on top. In the Summer you may want to kick off your bag and sleep with just sheets. In the winter our bags will keep us warm enough but an added blanket is nice for added weight and comfort.
I personally run really cold so having a big blanket on the side closest to the tent wall keeps me more comfortable. Or if you wanna kick a leg or not be totally constrained by your sleeping bag… bring some blankets. Don’t forget your pillow!
Camp Kitchen Essentials
Car camping means you can bring a lot and live in luxury. In my camping kitchen essential post I break down everything you need for your camp kitchen and exactly how to organize all of it. If you are looking for luxury check out the Biolite Camp Firepit here.
You need a headlamp. If you want to walk around your campsite and be hands-free- and you do then you need a headlamp. My Petzl headlamp lasted me about 10 years so last summer when it really died, I went for another Petzl. Yep, it’s under $30 and works great. I recommended Petzl or Black Diamond Brand headlamps.
Hydration Pack Bag
For longer hikes, I prefer a hydration pack. I just purchased this Gregory Maya 16L bag that I am super excited to use. I choose this bag because of its size and its compartment. A lot of the bags I saw were just a flap open when I find it annoying and no side/outside pockets.
Now, what to pack all your clothing in! Well, I use about 9 bags just because they’re all small to medium size. Clay uses his Patagonia Black Hole Duffle and I love my Lo & Son’s Weekender bag. I usually compartmentalize all my things, so clothing goes in a bag in my tent, toiletries and electronics stay in the passenger seat and locked at night and I usually have another bag just of shoes & jackets. The shoes and jackets bag is also accessible while we drive so if we get out and it’s chilly I can grab those easily.
There are lots of great coolers on the market and there is one for every budget too. Yeti is the OG cooler that started it all but sells at a premium price. There are other totally comparable coolers at much lower prices such as Rtic and Grizzly. I highly recommend buying the baskets as you can keep food that doesn’t need to been ice there like cheese!
- 75 Gallon Grizzly – Overnight or multi-day trips – we use this one all the time
- 50 g RTIC hard cooler – Great for an overnight or only beer or food
- RTIC Backpack – I honestly didn’t think we would like this as much as we do – so convenient and holds a lot
- RTIC Soft Pack – Great to keep in the car for snacks, day trips or food only
Ideally, you have 2 coolers – one only for food and one only for drinks with extra ice. This way when everyone goes to get a drink they are not opening the food cooler. Learn more about the proper camp kitchen setup with coolers here.
Camp boxes are the key to having an enjoyable car camping experience. Currently, we use 3 camping boxes that are essential to our set up. Don’t buy cheap boxes. You will regret it immediately. We bought 2 heavy-duty boxes with locking tops that are perfect. To organize the inside we just use cardboard board boxes cut off.
- Camp Kitchen Box – What to put in the camp kitchen here
- Camp Gear – The camp gearbox holds all the other little things you need while camping such as sunscreen, bug spray, first aid kit, rope, duct tape, firs starters, lighters, lanterns, speaker, cords, mallet, extra tent steaks… really anything else your campsite may need goes in that box.
- Tent/Sleeping Gear – This box is pretty big. It fits our sleeping pads, air mattress, tarp and sleeping bags all in one. We just got this size box from Target and it barely all fits.
P.S. All those stickers you have laying around? Put them on the SIDES of your camp box! Putting on top will get lots of wear and tear so go for the sides.
I will continue to update this post as our car camping expertise continues to evolve. Have any questions? leave me a comment or shoot me a DM!
Now that you know how to camp… where should ya go? Check out my Colorado Guides here for some camping ideas!