Can You Camp In Your Car


Car camping has become a go to option for people looking for a simple and cheap way to travel. Whether you want to simplify your camping weekend or take a road trip, sleeping in your car is a great option.

The short answer is yes, you can definitely camp in your car! Car camping is a fun and inexpensive way to travel once you figure out your setup and where you want to stay.

Camping in your car is not a new concept by any means, but more and more people are starting to look into it in order to save time, hassle, and money while camping. You’ll learn how to find the best places to park, the different styles of car camping, and why it’s becoming such a hit among campers.

camp in trunk

Sleeping in your car gets a bad rap sometimes, but when you’re on the go it can actually be one of the best ways to travel. Deciding where to park is half the battle, and the rest is up to your personal preference. 

Benefits of Car Camping vs Tent Camping

If you’ve ever woken up to a scorpion or spider in your tent, if you’ve ever had your rain fly shift during a storm and had most of your gear get soaked, and if you’ve ever cursed and struggled for an hour to get your tent set up in the dark then you know how frustrating tent camping can be sometimes.

When you camp in your car you tend to trade storage space for convenience, but if you can get creative with how you organize your gear and once you find the camping style that works best for you, you’ll end up saving not only time and hassle but money as well.

You can work around the storage issue with bins and shelving, and instead of having to find a campsite to pitch your tent and spending money every night, camping in your car lets you put that money towards other parts of your trip.

Packing light will help you leave more space to stretch out and make your small space more comfortable. Check out our guide to the most essential camping gear to help reduce your load.

Camping in car

Places To Car Camp

It’ll probably be the first question you’re going to ask yourself when planning out your camping trip – where am I going to park? Fortunately there are many different places to choose from once you know where to look

Campgrounds

Campgrounds are always a popular option because of the amenities they offer. From fire pits and picnic tables at your site to bathrooms with showers and nearby laundry facilities, the money you spend to stay at a campground may just be worth the peace of mind you get in return.

Box Stores And Malls

If the thought of spending money on a campsite doesn’t appeal to you, then you can also look at what companies allow free overnight parking in their lots. Walmart is great for this, as they have locations all over and many of their stores are open 24 hours. 

You’ll have a place to use the bathroom or grab a midnight snack, but the only problem is you may have trouble falling asleep under their extremely bright parking lot lights.

You can also try the parking lots of other grocery and department stores, but there’s a chance you’ll get told to move on in the middle of the night. Having said that, I have never been forced to leave a chain store parking lot, and they often have lights and security cameras that you can take advantage of for added safety.

Casinos

Another parking lot that you can generally crash in is a casino’s. If you’re not drawing too much attention to yourself, no one will usually mind if you stay overnight. Since casinos are open 24 hours any security guards that see your car throughout the night will probably assume you’re inside gambling anyway.

Rest Stops

Partially designed for this very purpose, if you’re on your way to your final destination and need to catch some sleep, rest areas have no problem with you staying the night. They are generally well-lit and you’ll have easy access to both bathrooms and vending machines if you need them, and many rest areas have a night time security guard.

Wilderness Camping

If you’re out in the wilderness, the Bureau of Land Management allows for overnight parking in all of the lands that they control, and Forest Services will let you park on any forest service road as long as you are not blocking it.

Some places are free to park and some make you pay a fee, and some may even require a permit. You can check on the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service websites to see if a permit is required to camp, and you can also use handy apps like AllStays and Hipcamp to check on permits and find other places to stay as well.

Jeep camping

Styles of Car Camping

Depending on what vehicle you have, there are many different ways that you can go about car camping. Now that you know where you’re staying, it’s time to figure out the best setup for you.

Pickup Truck

People have been sleeping in the beds of pickup trucks since they were first made, and there are multiple different ways that you can camp out of the back of your pickup truck. 

Truck Back Camper

First, you can get a slide-in camper. This combines the comfort of an RV with the simple portability of your truck. The slide-in is a small camper body that mounts in the bed of the truck, and can come with a kitchenette in addition to a bed/

The advantages are you get to maximize your space and it’s generally the most comfortable style, the downsides are that you add significantly to your truck’s height and weight, you lose the functionality of your truck bed, and there’s no hiding the fact that you’re camping out when you’re in unsanctioned parking lots.

Under A Topper

Another option you can consider for your truck is a hard bed topper that fits on to your truck bed. You can get toppers in extra-tall varieties to give yourself more head room, and you can even find ones with a carpeted lining, which works great for Velcroing things like lights to it. 

The pros are it’s much less conspicuous to have a canopy than something like a slide-in camper, but you also have to worry about how you’re going to maintain climate control and make sure you have enough room to sleep around your gear. 

In order to fix the space issue, some people will build their bed on a platform so that their gear is stored underneath, and others opt to build shelving that they sleep around instead. 

roof top camping

Roof Top Tent

Something else you can consider is a rooftop tent, which combines the convenience of sleeping in your car with the added space and flexibility of a tent. Most of these tents are easy to install and setup/breakdown is a breeze.

Roof top tents keep you and your gear out of the reach of neighbors and wildlife. It’s a good idea to store any food and valuables locked inside the car rather than your tent, and don’t forget your ladder.

The downside is that this also makes it pretty obvious when you’re camping out, and you’re less likely to get away with staying in some parking lots. Be sure to check your vehicle’s weight limit before climbing on top, having a quality roof rack is important.

Fold Down Interiors

One thing that you can do in just about any vehicle is fold down the seats and stretch out in a sleeping bag or on top of a foam pad, but you’re going to have to get very creative in how you store your gear because your trunk space will end up being your bed space.

It can also be highly uncomfortable if you have hooks, seat belt inserts, and other parts sticking up without proper padding. Bringing along a camping mattress or slab of foam will improve the comfort and your sleep.

Every style is going to have certain advantages and disadvantages, and it may take some trial and error before you figure out what’s going to work best for you.

camping in van

Van Life

Whether you have a family van or cargo van, clearing out the back and throwing in an inflatable mattress is one of the easiest car camping methods. It’s living the weekend van life, hit the beach or hike in the mountains, There’s lots of space for your gear and relaxing.

Having a taller vehicle like a van allows for more room to get dressed, prepare food and hideout from the rain as well. Hanging a bug net across the rear door will get you a beautiful view and loads of fresh air from the comfort of your bed.

Choosing A Parking Spot

Once you’ve figured out where you want to park, there are multiple other things to take into consideration. Safety is always the biggest concern, and if you’re camping in a parking lot you want to make sure that it is well lit and in a decent area. 

Flat And Level

Finding flat and level ground is important otherwise sleeping can be very uncomfortable. Parking on a hill will leave you hugging the side wall of your car or curled in a ball against the trunk lid.

You should always make sure you put on the parking brake when you stop to prevent waking up in a ditch. Make sure you don’t park on ground that is too soft or you run the risk of getting stuck. And you want to avoid standing water as well, staring your day with a soaker is a total bummer.

If you’re going to leave your vehicle in one place during the day, having some shade will keep it from heating up too much. This can be accomplished by parking under a tree or by having some makeshift curtains to block out the sun. A visor for your front window is a good investment as well.

Bathrooms Access

If you’re not in a campground, you’re also going to want to consider what your options for using the bathroom are. Make sure you know where and how to bury your stuff if you decide to go outside.

Bring along the necessary toiletries because you can’t rely on a public restroom being stocked. Some air freshener to cut down on the smells of your sweaty feet and armpits isn’t a bad idea either.

car camping

Point To The View

There’s nothing quite like waking up to a spectacular view, so get those windows pointed to take advantage of it. You can back up and point your toes to the horizon, or gaze out the moonroof at the constellations.

What you don’t want to see, however, are houses or other private buildings and you should try to park away from them whenever possible.

Closing Thoughts 

Camping in your car is actually pretty easy, and will make for a fun experience. Finding a setup that fits your needs may take a little prep and forethought mixed with trial and error.

The stigma of sleeping in a car is long gone and more people are taking advantage of their vehicle’s space to enhance their adventures. For ideas on how to get the most comfort out of your space check out How To Make Car Camping Comfortable.

Beau

Beau is an avid backpacker and camper who takes every opportunity to get outdoors and into nature. Having accomplished many different multi-day hiking and camping trips throughout the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia he's always looking for great ways to lighten his pack and get the most out of his gear.

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