Gear for Car Camping: 3 Essentials for the Best Weekend Ever

Stop! Before you start packing for your road trip with every camping gadget under the sun, let’s take a step back and breathe…and maybe put down that inflatable kayak.

We get it, car camping can be overwhelming, but here’s the thing: When you’re first dipping a toe in the camping water, there really isn’t a lot of gear for car camping you need to be comfortable. Especially if you’re only heading out for the weekend. Trust us, we’ve been there.

Which is exactly what we’ll be doing in five days’ time. Yikes!

Reflecting on our experience camping in a tent at SpiritFest as well as our recent van living test run, Sporty and I figured out what car camping gear we absolutely cannot do without. We whittled it down to the 3 absolute must-haves that will keep you comfy, cozy, and carefree. No need to thank us, just bring the vegan marshmallows.

Ready? Let’s dive into the gear for car camping and prepare for a wild weekend you won’t soon forget.

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Beautiful campsite on the mountain at sun set

What Gear for Car Camping Is Essential?

Now that we’ve got your attention and you’re all fired up for your car camping adventure, let’s talk about the gear you’ll need to make it an unforgettable experience.

First up, having someone fun to camp with is key. Next, you’ll need somewhere comfy to sleep. And of course, we can’t forget about that something to boil water on because, let’s face it, no camping trip is complete without a steaming cup of coffee to start the day.

So grab your camping buddy, get ready to cozy up, and let’s dive into what “gear” will make your car camping weekend the best one yet.

1. Someone Fun To Camp With

When sleeping quarters are tight, choosing the right camping buddy is key.

While not camping gear per sé, having someone fun along for the adventure is super important. It doesn’t matter how comfy your camping mattress is or how delicious that first cup of coffee tastes, if your camping buddy isn’t a good fit, you won’t have fun.

View from inside a van of human and dog enjoying the sunset

Key Attributes

Camping isn’t like hanging out on the couch at home. Things can easily go pear-shaped.

If/when that happens you’re going to want to be with someone who:

  • Has an excellent sense of humor;
  • Is relatively calm in stressful situations and
  • Either know how to change a flat tire or is willing to figure it out.

Bonus points if they’d be willing to share their coffee with you.

2. Somewhere Comfy to Sleep

It’s worth splurging on a decent camping mattress. The view isn’t nearly as breathtaking after a bad night’s sleep.

When Sporty and I first tried our hand at camping we bought a tent, two air mattresses, and a sleeping bag each. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience.

Now, I get that for a lot of people this would have seemed luxurious, but it certainly wasn’t our idea of luxury. I also get that we were camping, not spending the night at the Hilton.


View into back of a van with thick mattresses and cozy wedding

Key Necessities

  • Good enough shelter.

You need at least some level of comfort if you’re to have any hope of a good night’s sleep. For us, that meant ditching the tent and skinny mattresses and buying a car we could sleep in.

  • A comfortable mattress.

We also splurged on some really decent mattresses. We’re talking extra thick and super poofy. Best of all, we don’t have to inflate them. They’re ready to sleep on the minute you unroll them.

I should note that they’re definitely not hiking mattresses. They’re bulky and heavy and that’s just fine. The furthest we need to carry them is from the house to the car and back again.

Because we’re camping in our car, we haven’t bothered to buy new sleeping bags or pillows. (We donated our old ones to a homeless shelter last winter.) We’ll just use our regular bedding for now. 

  • A headlamp

Another super important item for bedtime is a good headlamp or torch. They’re great for reading, finding your PJs, illuminating your path to the bathroom, and avoiding animals on your way. I jest not. 

When we went on our van dwelling test weekend I narrowly missed walking into a grazing horse on my way to the ablution block. I’m not sure who got the bigger fright.

3. Something to Boil Water On (Because Coffee)

For Sporty and I, being able to make coffee welcome the morning dew is as important as having somewhere comfy to sleep with someone you enjoy being with.

As far as we’re concerned, a morning without coffee is not worth getting up for.

Key Options

  • If you have the money and feel like spending it on a ‘nice to have’, then by all means, spring for a Wacaco Minipresso.

They’re super cute and compact, but you still need boiling water. Just sayin’.

  • We opted for a small camping stove and pot. This way we can boil water for coffee (which we brew in a glass jar and pour through a small strainer) and cook our food.

We can also make a spot of tea in the afternoon, should the desire arise.

What Is Gear For Car Camping?

Car camping gear is the essential equipment and supplies needed for a relaxing and enjoyable outdoor adventure, just a stone’s throw from your car. Unlike backpacking, where you have to lug everything on your back, car camping allows you to bring along more gear and enjoy a bit of luxury in the great outdoors. It’s all about finding that sweet spot between roughing it and glamping.

Mentioned in the post above is the bare minimum you need to have a decent weekend away. (In our opinion.) There are of course some additional pieces of gear to add to your car camping checklist should you decide to make these adventures a regular occurrence.

Gear like a collapsible table and foldable camp chairs, for example, will definitely make the experience more comfortable. Some campgrounds will provide this, usually in the form of those all-in-one picnic table bench thingies.

However, if your chosen campground doesn’t, then you’ll be forced to sit in the car or on the ground. Not the worst, but not the best, either.

Should the camping bug bite hard, an electric cooler is a must and will certainly take your outdoor experience to the next level. As will a car awning sun shelter. 

How Can Our Camping Essentials List Benefit You?

  • Someone Fun To Camp With: Camping is all about sharing memorable moments with friends or family. The right camping partner can turn a regular weekend into an unforgettable adventure filled with laughter and campfire stories.
  • Somewhere Comfy to Sleep: Quality sleep is crucial for an enjoyable camping trip. With comfy gear, you wake up refreshed and ready for more adventures, instead of groggy and grumpy.
  • Something to Boil Water On (Because Coffee): Who can survive backcountry without coffee, right? Having a way to brew your caffeine fix in the wild keeps your energy levels up and your spirits high.

How We Conducted Our Research

Our approach to researching car camping “gear” essentials was anything but ordinary. We didn’t just sit behind a desk and Google stuff. Instead, we took a hands-on, experiential approach. We hit the road, camped in different places, and put the theories to the test ourselves. We wanted to make sure you get a genuine understanding of why these essentials matter for a fantastic car camping experience and not just some boring list of products.

Wrapping It Up

In conclusion, car camping is all about finding that sweet spot between adventure and comfort. The three essentials we’ve discussed – a fun camping buddy, a comfortable sleeping setup, and a way to brew your favorite drinks – can make or break your weekend adventure.

Like so many things, car camping can be as simple or extravagant as you’d like it to be. Our approach (as complete newbies) is to start with the bare essentials 

Hand holding cool retro enamel coffee cup up against a beautiful river and mountain vista


Q1: Can I go car camping alone, or is it better with company?

A1: Car camping can be a fantastic solo adventure, but it’s often more enjoyable with company. Sharing the experience with friends or family adds an extra layer of fun and safety.

Q2: What’s the difference between car camping gear and backpacking gear?

A2: Car camping gear tends to be bulkier and more comfortable since you don’t have to carry it far. Backpacking gear is designed for portability and weight savings, as you need to carry it on your back.

Q3: What’s the best way to make coffee while car camping?

A3: There are a few ways, but a campfire percolator or a portable camping coffee maker is a popular choice. Don’t forget instant coffee if you’re lazy or in a hurry!

Photos by Jimmy ConoverKevin Schmid and Clay Banks on Unsplash