Sometimes outdoor adventures require an early start. Sleeping in your car near a trailhead can be an efficient and flexible alternative to tent camping, especially if you’re trying to save time on setup or there’s no room for tents. Spending the night on your deck can also offer additional rotection from the elements.
Here are some tips and tricks to help make your next car ride more comfortable, organized, and enjoyable. We cover where to park, what to pack, some creative updates, and more.
While car camping, be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and common sense safety practices; Never sleep in a vehicle with the engine running.
Station out of the way and know what permits you need
The first question that every sleeping car must answer: Where to park? With apps like AllStays and Hipcamp, you can find out where you can legally stay without being hassled. They offer a variety of free and paid rooms to organize the night. US Forest Service roads are generally open for overnight parking and camping. Be sure to follow local or temporary exceptions, display required passes or permits as directed, and do not block the way for others. And scattered camping is widely available in national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas.
Set up your campsite
After securing a place that allows parking and overnight camping, set up camp on a flat, shady spot. When it’s time to unload the vehicle, avoid crowding with other overnight campers nearby. Check out our camping essentials checklist for an overview of what to pack, including items like a folding table, camp chairs, and a camp stove that can make your setup more comfortable. And, if it’s your first time camping, our Camping for Beginners article covers the basics.
Sleep with your head toward the front of the car.
Flat spots are obviously preferred, but are not always available on windy Forest Service roads or in remote areas. If you are at an angle, be sure to position the car so that your head is above your feet. Sleeping with your head toward the front of the car will also give you more room to move around, as most cars have wheel wells in the back that take up precious space. Do you still lack comfort? Check out these camping tips from REI Co-op members and staff.
Get ready with the ten essentials
The Ten Essentials are just as important on the road as they are on the trail.
Keep your electronic devices charged
Keeping electronic devices charged can be a challenge on the road. Although you can plug in devices while the car is running, you’re out of luck overnight. Use an in-dash solar panel or portable power device to keep your phone, tablet, camera, and any other battery-powered items healthy for the duration of your trip. Not sure which one is right for you? Learn more about choosing solar chargers and portable power.
Solar panel charger
Keep food in the car, ideally in a refrigerator
All it takes is a little time outside to work up an appetite when you’re car camping. Our camp kitchen checklist can help you determine what utensils and foods to bring along on your adventure. While car camping, plan to keep all of your food secured in your car, whether you’re walking to the outhouse or snuggling up in your sleeping bag for the night. Consider packing a cooler to prevent perishables like meat, cheese, eggs, and milk from spoiling. Pro Tip: Pre-chill your cooler with ice or ice blocks to chill the interior before adding any food. For more tips on handling food while car camping, read our article, Storing and Handling Food for Campers and Backpackers.
Invest in a comfortable bed
One of the best parts of sleeping in your car is that you are not carrying your bed on your back. So you can splurge on heavier, more comfortable mats, pillows, and blankets. You can opt for a compact camping pillow or just bring a full size pillow. Don’t forget that cars can be as cold as tents at night, so pack an insulating blanket like a Rumpl or a temperature-rated sleeping bag. Not sure which sleeping bag or mat best suits your car camping needs? Our experts can help you determine how to choose a sleeping bag and mat for car camping.
Warm blanket and pillows
Have your own drive-in
Wind down after a long day of driving or exploring with a movie on your smart device. Just be sure to download the content of your choice before venturing into potentially poor service areas for non-Wi-Fi entertainment.
Watching a movie on a phone
Bring a headlamp or hang lanterns
Getting comfortable for the night doesn’t mean you’re ready to go to bed right away. Hang flashlights or headlights from car handles to illuminate your interior for reading, organizing, or snuggling with your adventurous pup. Other reasons to take a headlamp on the road? It can help light the way when nature calls in the middle of the night, or if you want to do a bit of a hike at dawn or dusk.
Keep absolutely clean
If you sleep in your car, you may not have access to sinks and showers. Stay hygienic with a complete grooming kit that’s ready for the road, including items that don’t need a lot of water like no-rinse shampoo and hand sanitizer.
Open a window enough to ventilate
Breathing all night in a vehicle will fog up the windows and collect moisture where you don’t want it. Ventilation is key. Open a sunroof or a window wide enough that an animal or person cannot enter. Get some cheap mesh and cut it 2 to 3 inches wider than the opening. Fill in the edges around the gap to keep bugs out and voila, no moisture. Try to dry wet clothes as much as possible before going to sleep. Just in case, keep a squeegee in your car to clean the windows in the morning.
Rise and shine (whenever you want)
Cars are great for getting around, but they’re not so good at blocking out light and sound. Create privacy and keep the morning sun out of your face by using string or bungee cords to hang curtains on all windows and behind the front seats for a nice, cozy bedroom-like feel. Bring earplugs to prevent latecomers, early risers, or restless couples from interrupting your sleep. This can be particularly important if you are parked in a less than secluded spot.
Build your own shower
A warm shower after a long walk or bike ride feels amazing. Take that feeling with you on the trail by building your own camping shower.
Solar shower for camping on top of the car
Looking for more camping tips? Our expert advice articles offer a wealth of information on topics ranging from pitching a tent to building a campfire.
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