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Car Camping Setup Ideas Cover

Car Camping Setup Ideas: Tips on Staying Comfortable (On Any Budget)

If you search "car camping" on platforms like Pinterest or Instagram, you're likely to find a hundred luxurious setups that look like they belong in a camping magazine, complete with beach backdrops and gear that cost a month's rent. On the other hand, you'll find people at every campsite who make due in the backseat of their car with a blanket, pillow, and cooler full of beer.With a million different setups and types of car campers out there, it can be hard to sift through it all and figure out what's most important, which advice you should listen to, what gear you need, and what you're fine to leave behind. Where should you spend your money? Do you really need to spend a fortune to have a comfortable setup? What tips can you be aware of ahead of time to make the whole process easier?Well, step into my, car. I'll run through my personal car camping setup below and talk about some tricks of the trade I've learned for staying comfortable. Where it matters, I'll talk about gear at different price points, because even though not all these tips involve buying gear, it helps to know when quality gear can help solve problems.Full disclosure: I'm not a full-time car camper. If I was, I'd for sure spring for more convenience/luxury items to take on the road. Where relevant, I'll make a note of what upgrades I've made (or would make) to give you an idea what car camping looks like on different budgets. And because I'm only one person with my own car camping experiences, I've also included some tips from a few of my fellow car camping buddies, who were kind enough to share their own expertise and advice.
Watch Now: My personal car camping setup!

Car Camp Tip #1: Stay Organized

The key to living in a small space is organization. This can be anything from a plastic Walmart bin to a high-end roof rack and cargo box. Think about the things you'll use on a daily basis (toothbrush, food, chargers, etc.) and keep those things easily accessible. You don't want those things you need every day to be buried at the bottom of your supplies.
Seatback Organizer with Supplies
Organization on a budget:You can go super budget-friendly with this. Personally, I find a few plastic baskets and an overnight bag are enough to keep me organized for a few days at a time; they're inexpensive, they don't take up much room, and I like how they look. I keep kitchen stuff in a couple of them, and I usually keep one by my head at night so I can have an easy place to store my phone, headphones, and flashlight and not lose them in my bedding. If I was planning to go car camping for weeks (or more) at a time, my little baskets would definitely be getting an upgrade. I'd spring for some deeper plastic bins with lids in order to bring more gear. I'd build a platform for my bed and keep my plastic bins beneath it (most bins are around $5 apiece, and you can DIY a platform bed for just the cost of materials). For a bit more (around $60), you can also turn the back of your seats into usable storage. This is a great place to store phone chargers, flashlights, and other things you might want to reach for from your bed. You can also find more durable, water-resistant totes and containers specifically for camping for anywhere between $15 and $100. Plastic baskets: $1 apiecePlastic bins: $5 apiece Seatback organizer: $60 Camping storage containers: $15 - $100
Rola roof rack with coolers and bags
If you want to splurge: If you're bringing a lot of gear or staying in your car long-term, organization is even more important, so here's where I recommend really utilizing every inch of space you've got. How? By investing in a roof rack or hitch cargo carrier. If your car doesn't already have a roof rack, consider adding one and bringing a roof box, bag, or basket along to hold extra gear. Consider a hitch cargo carrier if your car already has a hitch (or you're willing to install one). With a setup like this, you can bring along all the gear you really need to live on the road long term. Bring along that camping stove and propane tank, your lawn chairs, and that portable shower.Roof rack: $150-$600Roof box: $200-$1,500Roof basket: $200-$1,000Roof bag: $20-$200Hitch cargo carrier: $150-$2k+Hitch cargo carrier bag: $40-$200
Organized baskets in back of car
Duffel bag and backpack in front seat
My setup: As I mentioned, I went with a relatively low-budget setup in this category. My go-to organizers are my $5 worth of plastic baskets, a $20 duffel bag, and a $15 mini-backpack for a total cost of about $40. The duffel bag and backpack are also items I use outside of car camping, so it was well worth the money I spent here. Plastic baskets: about $1 apieceDuffel bag: $20Mini purse-backpack: $15
Mattress in Truck Bed with Camper Shell

Car Camp Tip #2: Know Your Space, and Make Sure Your Bed Fits

One of the biggest issues people run into is they think their car is bigger than it really is. After all, it feels perfectly roomy when you're driving around town, loading up groceries, or carting the kids to soccer practice, right? But it's a whole different thing when your car becomes your living space, even for just a couple of days. My friend and fellow car camper, Dani, says this: "You'll be surprised at how small your car is. I'm a small person in a crossover vehicle, but doing stuff in your car like changing clothes or brushing hair is cramped. When you're sitting in chairs you can sit straight up, but when laying in back you're scrunched up. There's not room to sit up straight." Things especially get cramped when trying to stuff a mattress inside (if you're bringing a tent, congrats, you'll have a separate little living room!). It's best to measure before you buy the mattress, then test the mattress before you go camping with it. It's not uncommon to find you can't sit up as far as you thought with the mattress in, or the mattress is too bunched up on the sides, etc. For my setup, I use a self-inflatable air mattress (for context, I believe it cost around $130, but I'll go into this in more detail below). To make it fit in the Traverse, I have to deflate it slightly, which isn't super ideal. If the Traverse was any narrower, I wouldn't be able to fit it in at all. It gets the job done, but my next air mattress will be one custom-fit for my vehicle so I know it fits properly. I'm going to talk about bedding in the next tip, too, so I'll go over the different options for different budgets there.

Car Camp Tip #3: Invest in Good Bedding

Whether you go with a sleeping bag, mattress, tent, or some comfy combination, you can really choose any level of luxury for these things. For instance, you can pick up a cheap sleeping bag and tent from your local big box store for under $100, or you can invest in a legit, rugged tent and bag set for $2k. And of course, there's a huge range of sleeping bags, sleeping pads, mattresses, and tents in between. If you're planning to spend a lot of time car camping, I recommend splurging to the extent you can on your bedding. Camping is always going to involve "roughing it" on some level, but unless you're 20 years old with a spine of steel, you're only going to be able to suffer through so many rough nights before your achy back and neck start putting a serious damper on your trip. (Personally, I’m already a cranky person in the mornings—I don't need a bad night's sleep to compound the issue.) Let's break down the different options for mattresses, sleeping bags, and tents separately:
Blue Sleeping Pad
Green air mattress
Car Camping Air Mattresses & Foam Pads There's a wide, wide world of car camping sleeping pads and mattresses out there, and everyone eventually forms an opinion about which type they prefer: air mattresses or foam pads (there are also some hybrid options or bundles for those who want the best of both worlds). Foam pads are generally better suited for camping since they won't deflate if they get a hole, but many car campers enjoy the comfort of an air mattress and simply take extra care not to pop them. That said, there are a lot of benefits to foam sleeping pads:
  • They're better suited for cold climates since they provide insulation
  • They're generally smaller (this can be a pro and a con - they take up less space, but you have less space to sleep on)
  • As mentioned, you don't have to worry about holes deflating your entire bed
  • You don't need to bring a pump to inflate it
  • They don't raise you up quite as much, so there's more room between you and the ceiling
As I mentioned, you can also find hybrid foam/air mattress pads. In fact, my buddy Dani picked one of these up and used it during our last camping trip (it's an inflatable mattress with a honeycomb foam structure, and I have to admit, I was a little envious). I asked her about her experience sleeping on it, and she had this to say: "It added more cushion than a normal air mattress, so the bed itself was comfy. But it was too big for my car. The mattress scrunched up and was bumpy and wavy, so it weird to sleep on. If it had fit it would have been perfect to sleep on. It was really comfortable." A custom Traverse air mattress will probably be my next big car camp upgrade, and I'll definitely consider a foam mattress or hybrid when it comes time. My most important criteria will be a mattress that's designed to fit my car so I can keep it fully inflated.Bedding on a budget: If you're going car camping overnight a couple times a year, you're probably fine staying in the budget range. But for anything more extensive, I'd say skip these thinner mattresses and pads and spring for something a little higher quality. Air mattress: $10 - $80Foam pads: $10 - $50If you want to splurge: Whether you go for a foam, air, or hybrid mattress or pad, you'll appreciate investing in a good night's sleep. A lot of mattresses in this range inflate themselves by plugging into a standard AC outlet (like the one in your house or on a portable power station). This can save you a lot of time and effort. You'll also find mattresses custom fit for specific vehicles and hybrid foam/air pads. Air mattress: $100 - $260Foam pads: $100 - $200+
Custom-Fit SUV Air Mattress
This custom-fit mattress fits this vehicle perfectlyMy setup: So, here is a place I splurged. My air mattress was about $130, and it has that handy self-inflation feature I mentioned, so it's incredibly convenient to use. When I bought it, I didn't have the Traverse or plan to use it for car camping (it was originally for tent camping), and it's been a reliable mattress over the years. However, if I had to do it again, I'd go for a mattress designed to fit my car so I could keep it fully inflated and have the most comfortable sleep.
Air mattress with cooler and kitchen supplies
You can see my air mattress bunches up on the sides a bit because it's too big for my car. But it's still comfy!Also, yes, my pillows are oriented width-wise rather than length-wise in the car. Because the mattress naturally bunches up on that side of the car, I like making the raised side my "headboard." I'm also short enough at 5'3" to comfortably stretch from side-door to side-door, so it works for me, but for taller people who have to sleep length-wise in the car, it's even more important to have a level mattress that fits the vehicle. Air mattress: $130
Kelty Tru.Comfort Doublewide Sleeping Bag

Sleeping Bags

Unless you're camping in tropical climates (in which case I'm super jealous), I'd recommend a hardy sleeping bag rated for colder weather than you think you're going to encounter. Pay attention to the cold rating (for instance, if they say they're rated for 30-degree temps or 0-degree temps). If you're sweating nonstop during the day, it can be hard to imagine that nights will ever get too cold, but trust me: even during warmer months, you want to be prepared for a chilly night. And if you're car camping in the winter, this is even more vital, because your windows will leak precious heat. Sleeping bags on a budget:You can pick up cheap sleeping bags for $10 - $20 at your local big box store. But these usually don't provide much insulation, so they're more suited for summer camping or indoor camping with the kiddos in the living room than anything else. If you're looking for a "one and done" type of deal for your summer music festival trip, you'll probably be fine with one of these. Sleeping bag: $10 - $20If you want to splurge:You'll never regret being too comfortable, which is why I recommend that if you invest money anywhere, your bedding is a good choice. If you plan on doing a couple of trips a year, camping in cold weather, or living long-term in your car, it's well worth the money to buy a quality sleeping bag with proper insulation and sturdy material. Sleeping bag: $70 - $200My setup: Here's another place I dropped some dough, and I have no regrets. The wool lining of my sleeping bag does an excellent job keeping me warm, and this bag has held up to a lot over the years. I've had mine for a while and don't remember the exact cost, but a quick search tells me similar bags are going for around $120 today. It's got a thick wool lining on one side and is cool on the other, so I can easily flip it around based on the weather. You can pick up a cheap sleeping bag at Walmart for $15, but I'd only recommend these for occasional summer camping. My friend and fellow car camper, Lisa, has this advice on bringing bedding:"Prepare for all weather and overpack with your bedding. My first trip, I had one sheet, and it wasn't enough. Bring plenty of different blankets and layers of bedding to maximize your comfort." Sleeping bag: $120
Sleeping bag and bedding inside Chevy Traverse
Pictured: my personal setup. Side note - you can pick up one of these adorable throw blankets at etrailer. They're incredibly soft and are great for everything from curling up on the couch to huddling up in my car.
Amber S. Inside Chevy Traverse Car Camp Setup
I'm all about staying comfy even when camping, so I have no regrets about splurging on a nice air mattress and sleeping bag.
SUV with tent set up at campsite
TentsTents on a budget:If you're driving in and pitching a tent at the campsite, there is, of course, a wide range of options. You can usually pick up a 2-person tent for around $50 that will be suitable for camping a couple times a year in summertime. If you want to bump up your quality an extra step, look for tents in the $100 - $200 range. You'll typically get more durable (often waterproof) material that will hold up better against UV rays and the elements. If you have a truck or SUV, you can also snag a nice vehicle tent for under $200. These tents either sit inside your truck bed or attach directly to the back of your SUV. Tent: $40 - $200If you want to splurge:Boy, can you splurge here. When do you need to drop $300 - $500 on a tent? Well, if you want some serious protection against the cold and snow, you'll probably want to look into 4-season tents, which can get pricey. If you're bringing the whole family along, you might need to splurge on a larger tent capable of holding more people. Or you might just want a tent with fancy room dividers and customization options. If you're going to be full-timing in your car and are serious about having the most luxurious setup possible, you might even consider a high-end roof tent, like one of these roof by Thule-Tepui and Yakima. Roof tents...well, elevate your car camping experience both figuratively and literally by hoisting you into the air, keeping you off the hard/wet/cold ground and away from wildlife. These are pricey tents (about $1,300 - $2,700), so they're really ideal only for the most dedicated car camper. I've never had one myself, but I've been inside them, and let me tell you, it's a long way from my mattress-in-the-car setup.
Thule-Tepui Blue and Gray Tent with Annex
Thule-Tepui Tent Interior
Pictured: my dream tent, by Thule-Tepui
Tent: $300 - $500Roof tent: $1,300 - $2,700My setup:Personally, I prefer sleeping in my car to tent camping because it just feels safer. So when I car camp, I set up my mattress and sleeping bag in the back and hunker down.
Picnic blanket and camping chair near car camp

Car Camp Tip #4: Set up an Outdoor Space

This can be anything from a picnic blanket on the ground to a vehicle awning to a tent shelter. If you can manage a bit of privacy while you're at it, even better. You'll like having some extra room outdoors to get changed, load up gear, or other activities that are difficult to do inside. I also recommend grabbing a small door mat to place in front of your vehicle. If you've been camping, you know how easy it is to track all manner of dirt, grass, and debris inside. It's good to have a designated place to drop your shoes or wipe your feet without tracking everything into your vehicle/bed/living space. Outdoor spaces on a budget:Picnic blanket: $10 - $70Camping chairs: $10 - $60Door mat: $15 - $30If you want to splurge:Vehicle awning or canopy: $100 - $1,000Outdoor rug: $40 - $160Tent shelters: $100 - $500My setup:Camping chair: $12Picnic blanket: $23 Door mat: $30
Camping in roof tent wearing T-shirt and shorts
Don't forget the accessories like hats and sunglasses!

Car Camp Tip #5: Bring the Right Clothes

When you're camping, you can't exactly run to your closet for a quick change of clothes. So it's important to maximize your use of space and bring the right clothes for the weather. Especially when that weather changes a lot.Layers are everything here. I've had days where I'm at the lake in a bathing suit during the day and huddled around the fire in a hoodie at night. Personally I like light, moisture-wicking T-shirts and warm, fleece pullovers or hoodies. T-shirts (rather than sleeveless tanks) help protect my arms and shoulders from getting sunburned but still help me stay cool. And even in the summer I bring along a cotton hoodie for hanging around outside at night or sleeping. I also have a rain jacket, hat, and sunscreen at all times. It's not about bringing a lot of clothes, but rather selecting different types of clothes so that you can layer up and prepare for different weather. Clothing on a budget:This isn't an article on fashion brands. I'm sure you're well aware of the existence of Target and Kohl's clearance racks, where you can find some pretty great deals. You don't have to spend a fortune on specialty camping clothes unless you want to.If you want to splurge:There are plenty of outdoor brands with high-quality clothing appropriate for camping (North Face, Patagonia, and L.L. Bean, to name a few). It's up to you if you want to shell out big bucks for an $80 pullover or $200 jacket. These items do tend to hold up well over time and provide great insulation. As usual, it just depends on your budget and where you prefer to invest.My setup:Personally, I don't splurge on special outdoor clothes, partially because it's not in the budget and partially because I don't want to worry about ruining expensive clothes when I'm having fun outdoors. If I was doing some hard-core winter camping, I'd probably splurge on an insulated jacket or even a battery-powered heated vest (around $90), but for the climates I camp in, my T-shirts and favorite $9 fleece pullover are more than up for the job.
Portable USB fan in car

Car Camp Tip #6: Bring a Fan or Heater (But Don't Let it Kill Your Battery)

Earlier, I mentioned my friend Dani, a fellow car camper. When I asked her what she considers a "must-have" item on her trips, her response was: her 12V fan. I don't think Dani's alone in this, either. Yes, camping is about experiencing the great outdoors, but let's be real: sometimes the great outdoors...well, isn't great. A 12V or battery-operated fan or heater can take the edge off an extreme-weather day so you can enjoy camping whatever the season. Think of it this way: if a little fan or heater can make the difference between you enjoying the campsite and sitting at home in your climate-controlled living room, why not spring for one of these handy devices? Here's a little bonus tip: if your car's 12V outlet stays powered when your vehicle is off, DON'T forget to remove your fan or accessory when the vehicle is off, or it will drain your battery. (This may or may not have happened to me.) Many modern vehicles have USB outlets now, which usually don't drain your battery, so these are a little safer. Heating and cooling on budget:You don't need to spend a lot here. You can pick up a 12V fan or heater for under $30. (You can even find handheld versions for about $5.)12V fan: $10 - $30 Battery-operated or rechargeable fan: $5 - $3012V heater: $20 - $30 If you want to splurge:If you prefer something bigger and more powerful than a little handheld fan or heater, you can find larger 12V accessories for around $100 - $200 (for instance, this 3-speed fan or this backseat heater). Fan or heater: $100 - $200 My setup:I have a small portable fan as well as a heated blanket similar to this one, which I received as a Christmas gift, and which stays in my car all year long. 12v Fan: about $1212v Blanket: $30
Vehicle screen with 0 miles gas left
This is not what you want to see in the middle of nowhere. (Yes, I did make it to the gas station. No, I don't recommend this kind of gamble.)

Car Camp Tip #7: Be Prepared for Emergencies

Your car is everything when you're camping in it—your home, your transportation, your shelter. Don't overlook regular maintenance. Before your trip, make sure your fluids are topped off, that you have plenty of gas, and that there are no outstanding issues (like that check engine light you've been ignoring). I admit, I've been one of those live-life-on-the-edge people who is sure my car can make it to the next gas station, which has resulted in some tense situations. (0/10: would not recommend.) It's also a good idea to travel with some emergency supplies like a tire repair kit or spare tire if you've got the room. Although I haven't had to change a tire while camping, I have had to change a few in some random parking lots, and each time I've been incredibly grateful to have the necessary tools and the know-how (thanks, dad!) to do it. A jumper box and cables are also super nice to have. If you're in and out of your car all day long, it's easy to accidentally leave a light on or forget your 12V device is plugged in (ahem, see above tip), so you need a way to jump start your battery. Also get yourself a good first-aid kit—you'll be grateful for it the first time you get cut on the rocks at the lake, or get a bee sting, or sprain your ankle on a tree root. Preparedness on a budget:You don't need to spend a ton of money, but I also wouldn't skimp completely on this stuff. It's good to have on hand even when you're not camping. At the bare minimum, I'd grab a first-aid kit with some antiseptic and band-aids; some jumper cables; and a basic tire repair kit (the kind that lets you plug a puncture). First-aid kit: $10Jumper cables: $20 - $30Tire repair kit: $5 - $40 If you want to splurge:The nice thing about "splurging" on safety supplies is 1) It still doesn't involve spending a ton of money, and 2) what money you do spend is typically well worth it if it gets you out of trouble even once. You still don't need to spend a ton on a first-aid kit ($10 - $15 is fine). You also don't need any super fancy jumper cables. However, one item I want to draw your attention to is a dual tire-inflator/jumper starter, just because when I found out this existed, I was really excited. In addition to jumping your vehicle and inflating your tires, it lets you inflate equipment like air mattresses, provides a 12V port for accessories, and provides USB chargers for devices. This thing is pretty much a car camping MVP, and it's small enough to fit in a trunk or back cargo area. I don't currently have one, but it would be near the top of my list if I were to car camp full time. First-aid kit: $10 - $15 Tire repair kit: $5 - $40 Tire inflator/jump starter: $120My setup:First aid kit: $13Tire repair kit: $10 (mine was free as a gift from my concerned father after I punctured my tire...twice)
Driver's Side Window with Mosquito Net
Amber S in Vehicle with Mosquito Net on Window

Car Camp Tip #8: Don't Forget the War on Bugs

Unless you're camping in winter, you'll probably have to defend your campsite and car against insect intruders. Of course, you probably know you need bug spray or some form of insect repellant, whether that's a lantern, candle, sticker, or what have you. But with car camping, you'll also want some mosquito nets for your windows (provided you're sleeping in your car and not a tent). You'll need to crack your windows at night, or your breath will fog up your car by morning. Plus, you'll want the ventilation. To prevent every bug in a one-mile radius from taking the cracked window as an open invitation, however, you'll want some mosquito nets for your windows. What you use will probably depend on where you're camping. I usually camp at actual campgrounds, so I drape a mosquito net over my window and shut it inside the door to cover the opening. If you're stealth camping or urban camping, you probably don't want such an obvious sign that someone is sleeping inside. For these cases, I recommend some smaller nets you can keep completely inside the vehicle for a less glaringly obvious look. Or you can camp only in winter when most of the bugs are dead. My setup: 2 mosquito nets: $20Can of bug repellant: $3I won't go too much into budget setups vs splurge setups here. It doesn't really matter what you use as long as you use something.
Windshield Cover on Car

Tip #9: Cover Your Windows to Prevent the "Fishbowl Effect"

Throw some your car. You're going to want some makeshift curtains or window covers, especially at night, when it's dark outside and your every movement inside your car is illuminated like a high-def movie (aka the fishbowl effect). Plus, it's also nice to block out the blazing sun during the day and help keep things cool inside. This is another case where there's not much difference in setups based on budget (unless maybe you want to pay for extra window tinting). You can grab some designated car curtains for around $20 for a homey feel. You can also use standard windshield/window shades for around $10 or $20. My setup: Windshield sun shade: $10 a pair
Car Camping Setup - Car Open

Car Camp Tip #10: You Do You

Honestly, not everyone in the camping sphere sees eye-to-eye on what camping should look like. But don't let anyone tell you that you're doing it wrong, camping too luxuriously, or not camping luxuriously enough. Another friend here at etrailer, Evangeline, has this piece of advice for campers just starting out: "There are different levels of car camping for different levels of comfort. You need to be honest with yourself about how much comfort you want and plan accordingly." Couldn't have said it better myself!Have questions? Did I miss a tip or must-have item? Let me know in the comments below, or post your own car camping setup.
Amber S.
About Amber S.As a content writer for etrailer, I might spend my morning loading and unloading a bike on five different bike racks to figure out which is easiest to use. I might be in the parking lot, taking pictures of an impressive RV battery setup our techs came across in the shop and discussing the benefits of the setup with the owner. I might spend an afternoon in a manufacturer training classes for some hands-on experience with new products, and then sit down to assemble all this information into a coherent article. At etrailer, one of our core values is that we are always learning, and I learn something new every day. I start each morning with the goal in mind of taking all of this information and figuring out the best way to answer the questions people ask us (and the ones they don’t know to ask yet), and helping people get the solutions they need to make their lives easier, safer, and more fun. I’m a DIYer at heart, so it brings me great joy to help a fellow DIYer find what they’re looking for, whether that’s a product, an answer, or a community.
Related ArticlesRelated ProductsWritten by: Amber S.Updated on: 8/9/21

Doug E.


I pretty much agree with all the Items talked about But, I have a Deep Cycle battery installed in my past vehicles to run all my Camping Electrical Stuff that is recharged while operating the Camping Vehicle. OR a 150 watt solar panel to keep it charged. I have never had a Dead starting vehicle battery doing this......



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