Before we got a camper van, we did a lot of car camping, so if you are a beginner, I can help! In this guide, I’m going to talk you through the different types of car camping, essential things you will needs, packing tips, and just beginner tips in general:
If you want to scroll to a particular section, these are the topics you can click to take you there:
- Is it legal to car camp in the UK?
- Types of car camping
- Things you will need for car camping
- How to pack your car for car camping
- Car camping tips for beginners
If you’d like to know more about tent camping read here
But first….Why go car camping?
Car camping is so easy and fun, and anyone can do it, as long as you have a car. Here are some of the reasons I love it:
You don’t need to faff about with setting up a tent
Ok, you can actually use a tent for car camping, but it’s not essential. And if you use a rooftop tent, the process is significantly less faff than a regular tent.
You can take more luxuries with you
You can actually make the whole experience quite cosy. When regular tent camping, the idea is to pack as little as possible. If your tent is your car, you can pack whatever you like.
You don’t have to carry anything
As you will be sleeping in or on top of your car, you don’t need to lug your camping gear to your sleep spot. If you are out of shape, this makes life easier.
Everything you need is right there
If you head out to camp in a tent, if you have forgotten something, too bad.
If it’s cold, you have access to heat
Ideally you will have great sleeping gear, which is designed to keep you nice and toasty warm. But that won’t keep the air around you warm. If you are sleeping in the car, a quick blast of the car heater will do the trick.
You won’t need to hike to find a good camp spot
When wild camping, you will have to hike a little to find your spot. With a car, you just drive right up to it. Of course there are some limitations here, and you aren’t going to always find a place where you are completely away from everyone. But it’s a trade off.
You won’t get wet
If out regular tent camping and it’s raining and wet, you will be stuck inside the tent. And worse, if you are packing up you will get wet, your tent will be wet. Everything will just be wet. If you are camping in a car, you can stay nice and dry.
Most importantly, it’s free…sort of
If you stay in a campsite, you will of course have to pay for that. But you can choose not to stay in a campsite and go completely rogue, that will cost you nothing.
Is car camping legal in the UK?
Yes and no. Staying in a campsite is fine. However, camping in a car outside of a campsite is a type of wild camping. In England and Wales, it is illegal to wild camp outside of a designated campsite without the landowners permission. In Scotland it is allowed.
Dartmoor National park is the only place in England where wild camping is allowed, however, this only applies to tent camping. Not car camping.
Now, that’s not to say people don’t wild car camp. It’s a risk you take. I touch on this a little further down in the article, when I go through some car camping tips.
Read more: Wild camping in a tent tips and essentials
What are the different types of car camping?
- Sleeping inside the car – If you are a beginner on a budget, I would start with this method of car camping.
- A rooftop tent – If you are more the glamping type, with money to spare, then this type of car camping will be more suited to you.
- Setting up a tent next to your car – For the purpose of this guide, I’m going to focus more on sleeping in the car, or on top of it. You can find out more about tent camping here, or tips on how to keep warm in a tent here.
Sleeping inside the car
This was our preferred method for car camping. All you need to do is put the back seats down, and your front seats forwards, and there you have a nice space for sleeping.
The longer your car the better, although, it’s not essential. When Ollie and I would car camp, I was able to sleep stretched out. He is tall, so had to bend a little. If you are car camping alone, you can sleep diagonally to get more length.
Pros of sleeping inside your car
- You don’t need to spend extra money on a tent. If you own a car, you are good to go.
- If you get cold, you could do a quick blast of the heating.
- You don’t need to find extra space for set up outside.
Cons of sleeping inside your car
- If you aren’t organised, it can get messy and cramped.
- It can get a bit stuffy inside, and condensation will build up.
- Your sleep space is also your storage space, which can be a faff reorganising things.
Sleeping in a rooftop tent
We were loaned a rooftop tent for a few days, and it was wonderful. You will need racks on top of your car, and the tent sits on top of it.
There are a few different types you can get. We used TentBox. It’s so easy to set up, and can be done in a few minutes. All you do is unstrap it, and it pops up. It comes with a memory foam mattress, which sits inside.
Pros of a rooftop tent
- It’s much more organised than sleeping in the car. Your mattress/bedding lives in the tent on the roof. So you can keep your car boot space nice and organised with all your other camping gear.
- Super quick and easy to set up. In a few minutes you are done.
- Sleeping on the roof means you might get some better views.
- Less stuffy than camping in the car
Cons of a rooftop tent
- They are quite expensive.
- They make your vehicle height taller. If your car isn’t that tall to begin with, it should be ok. However, if you have a big car, this will be an issue if you try to park somewhere where there is a barrier height limit. 2m is what is the most common height limit.
- Depending on what country you are in, car camping is not allowed outside of a camp site. With a rooftop tent, you won’t be very stealth, so won’t get away with car camping in secret.
Whilst we loved camping on top of the car, it didn’t maker sense for us to buy a roof top tent, as we knew we would be getting a camper van. Sleeping inside the car did the job just fine.
Explore rooftop tents:
High End – Tent Box Classic rooftop tent: Check out the latest price in Amazon here
High End – Tent Box Classic rooftop Tent: Check out the latest price on Decathlon here
Budget – Tent Box Lite: Check out the latest price on Amazon here
Budget – Tent Box Lite: Check out the latest price on Decathlon here
A beginners guide to things you will need for car camping
Now I’m going to talk you through all the little things you will need to make the car camping experience more enjoyable. I will start off with the things which are essential for car camping. Then I will go through the things that are not so essential, but would be fun to have.
I have divided it into the following sections:
- Sleeping essentials you will need for car camping
- Car camping cooking and kitchen essentials
- Other essential things you will need for car camping
- Non essentials, but things you will need if you want to elevate your car camping game
4 Sleeping essentials you will need for car camping
- Some sort of mattress or sleeping mat
You could go simple with this one and get a camping mat. Bonus if you already have one lying around. Or you could go a bit more luxury with a mattress designed for car camping. If you have a rooftop tent, it may already have one with it.
Car camping mattress: Click here to find out out more
- Inflatable pillow
Some inflatable mats come with a pillow attached, although, I don’t find them that comfy, so I would recommend a separate inflatable pillow. If you want to be really bouji, you can take regular pillows.
This inflatable pillow with neck support compresses down to the size of a soda can. You can find out more about it here.
- Sleeping bag
If you don’t already own a sleeping bag, I would recommend you get a winter or 3 season one. This will cover you through the coldest weather. Even in spring and autumn, it can get cold at night. But if you are too hot, you can just unzip. It will be a lot easier to cool down if you are too hot, than warm up if you are too cold.
If there are two of you, you could even get a double person sleeping bag.
- Black out eye mask
Unless you have window curtains, you are going to need something to keep the light out. Even if you know you will be sleeping after dark, and waking with the sunrise, trust me, you need these. One word. Moon.
Yes, the moon can be surprisingly bright which will make it harder for you to sleep.
Find out more about the black out eye masks here
Car camping cooking and kitchen essentials: 6 Things you will need
- Camping cookware and utensils
Camping cookware is designed to pack away small, with all items stacking together. This set comes with all the essentials you will need when car camping, such as pot, pan, plates, cutlery, cups.
Buy camping cookware on Amazon here
Buy camping cookware from Blacks here
- Portable stove
An absolute kitchen essential for car camping, is your cooking stove. Not just for cooking food, but for making coffee. You buy the stove top and gas as separate pieces, then stick them together when you cook.
Cooking stove: Buy on Amazon here
Cooking stove and gas: Buy from Blacks here
Top tip: Always have more than one gas can with you, so you don’t run out. How sad and demoralising would that be, not being able to cook your food. Or worse, not being able to make coffee in the morning.
- Portable table
You could argue that this isn’t essential for car camping. We actually never had one. Now that we have one for our camper van, I’m not sure how we ever did without it.
Folding camping table: Take a look on amazon here
Folding camping table: Take a look on Blacks here
These tables pack away really small. It really elevate the experience, being able to sit and eat at a table.
- Camping chairs
If you don’t get a table, at the very least, get some chairs. Without them, your only options are sitting in the car, or cross legged on the ground which, unless you are a child, is not the most comfortable thing to do for extended periods.
Wouldn’t you rather eat your dinner on a comfy camping chair, then contorted on the ground?
Explore camping chairs:
Blacks do these really cool portable moon chairs. Or if you want to keep small and light, you might like this portable chair from Trekology. For uber luxury, then you should get one of these high back padded chairs from Kingcamp. This one is on my wishlist.
- Rubbish bin
You will need somewhere to put your rubbish when car camping. Something that closes or is sealable is ideal, in order to contain any smells.
At a basic level, this can be ziplock bags. What I would recommend is a car bin. We have one of these for our camper van, and love it. Is it strange to love a bin?
Read more: All the campervan accessories I recommend
Car bin: Buy on Amazon here
You can attach it to the back of the front seat, or simply tuck it away on the ground. It’s not that big, so doesn’t take up much space.
- Cleaning brush
This is for cleaning your pans/plates with. You don’t need a washing bowl (although I have put one in the non essentials list further down), you can just heat up some water in the pan, then scrub away.
7 Other essential things you will need for car camping
- Some sort of light
Whether you choose a head torch or lantern, you need something to see in the dark. Your phone torch is not good enough. Trust me. A head torch will do the trick, and you don’t need to put it on your head if you don’t like it.
A lantern though, is a lot cooler. Quite atmospheric one might say.
- Toilet paper and trowel
I don’t think I need to explain toilet paper. A trowel on the other hand, is what you will need if you plan to do wilder-poos. If you do it, you need to bury it.
- Other personal hygiene products
Think of it like going away on any trip. What would you take? Toothbrush, toothpaste, cleanser etc. Of course, one might argue that these things are not essential….but I think they are.
- Waterproof picnic blanket
I spoke earlier about taking a table and chairs, but on the other end of the spectrum, having a blanket will allow you to truly relax and lay back. It must be waterproof though. Even in the summer, the ground can be wet with dew in the mornings.
Find out more about the waterproof picnic blanket here
One might argue that a picnic blanket isn’t an essential item when car camping, but think of it this way, at some point on your trip you will want to just lie down and chill. Do you want to lie on the bare ground?
- Portable charger
Unless you have a Nokia, your phone will need recharging at some point. My favourite power bank brand is Ankor. I find they give the most charges and last the longest. If you want a proper plug socket, you can get a power inverter with AC outlet.
Explore portable chargers:
Ankor Portable power bank: Find out more here
Power inverter AC outlet: Find out more here
- First aid kit
You should always keep a first aid kit in the car. Hopefully you won’t ever need to use it, but it becomes absolutely essential if you do.
- Microfibre towel
One of the things you will need when car camping, is something to dry up with. Wether it’s the cookware you just cleaned, or yourself after a wash.
A microfibre towel is designed to be quick drying, which is essential. A regular towel will stay wet, and will start to smell or become mouldy. Another great thing about microfibre towels, is they pack away much smaller than regular towels.
If you haven’t used one before, don’t expect something luxurious. They can take a bit of getting used to if you haven’t used one before.
12 Non essentials, but things you will need if you want to elevate your car camping game
- Wind protector
This is to protect your cooking stove from the wind. You don’t need this thing for camping, as you can just move to a wind protected side of the car to cook, however, it can make life a lot easier.
Check out the wind protector here
- Canopy awning
A canopy awning will protect you from the sun and the rain. On a hot sunny day, it’s nice to be able to get some shade, and the last thing you want to do is sit in the car.
Find out more about the canopy awning here
On the other side of the spectrum, if it’s raining, it will feel pretty miserable sitting in a cramped car. A canopy awning will allow you to continue ‘enjoying’ the outside….unless it’s a torrential downpour. In that situation, sit inside the car.
- Outdoor fire pit
An outdoor fire pit is the epitome of camping. Having one of these will seriously elevate your car camping experience. They pack away small as well, so it’s less a case of do I have space for it, and more a case of do I want it?
You can take some marshmallows, and relive your childhood.
Explore camping fire pits:
Mesh fire pit: Find out more on Amazon here
Collapsable grill fire pit: Find out more on Amazon here
- Spirit level
When car camping, you will want to be as level as possible when parked up. Do you want to sleep on a slant? I actually don’t mind it. Ollie hates it and tries to make us as level as possible. Maybe it’s because I’m small and just roll onto him when we sleep.
- Wheel chocks
In order to get your car as level as possible every time when camping, one of the things you will need is wheel chocks. You put them by your tires and drive onto them. This is for those situations when there is no level ground.
Wheel chocks: Buy on Amazon
- Portable shower
When Ollie and I would go out car camping, we would sometimes be out for 4 days at a time. By the time we got home we would be quite stinky. That’s when I started looking for a solution, and found this. All you need to do is, put the water in, pump it up, then spray.
Top tip: If you want a warm shower, mix in some boiled water with the cold water.
If you are staying in a campsite, then you won’t need to bother with this.
Portable shower: Buy on Amazon
- Cooler box
As well as being able to keep your drinks nice and cold, you will be able to take perishables with you.
This Coleman Cooler keeps contents cool on ice for days.
Explore Coleman Cool Box:
Coleman Cool box: Check out the latest price on Amazon here
Coleman Cool box: Check out the latest price on Blacks here
We didn’t have a cooler box during our car camping days, so I wouldn’t say it’s something you need. It really depends on your preferences, and what food you would like to take.
We would be out for 4 days at a time, and were fine with dried or tinned food. Any longer and we might have got ourselves one of these. You know, for cheese.
Make sure to get some freezer blocks to go with it.
- Washing up bowl
This is to wash your cookware in. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not essential. It’s just nice to have. You can get bowls which collapse, so space won’t be an issue. This one also doubles up as a collider which will be handy if you are cooking pasta.
- Cadac cooker
If you want to up your camping cooking game, get a Cadac cooker. You can get small portable ones, which won’t take up too much space in your car. Then your cooking options are endless. You can even cook pizza.
Explore Cadac cookers:
Cadac Safari Chef 2 Pro: Check out the latest price on Amazon here
The Cadac Cooker Safari Chef 2 Pro: Check out the latest price on Blacks here
Cadac Safari Chef Compact 30: Check out the latest price on Decathlon here
- Fun games
This one is for fun. There are tones of games out there to choose from, or you could go simply and take a deck of cards. Picture this, sitting in front of your outdoor fire pit at night, full of food, a drink by your side, playing a good game with your companion….or solitaire if you are alone.
- Mokka coffee pot
If you like your coffee, then look no further than a moka pot. They are used on the stove top and make the best espesso. Nothing beats waking up after camping, and sitting with a good coffee in the middle of nature.
- Inflatable sofa
Inflatable sofas are basically material sacs which you swish around to trap air. It’s by no means essential for car camping, but it’s damn comfy.
Inflatable sofa: Check out the full colour range and buy on Amazon here
For more ideas of what to take when camping read here.
A beginners guide to packing the car, for camping
As someone who likes organisation, this is a very important step. If you don’t care so much, you can just throw everything in the boot.
Good luck with that. I will pray for you.
If you are like me, keep reading….
How you pack your car when camping, should differ whether you are sleeping in a rooftop tent (or tent outside), or inside the car.
If sleeping in the car, you will need a system which allows you to easily move items to different locations.
If sleeping on the roof (or outside), you can pack your car with a bit more fixed organisation.
Packing a car for rooftop car camping
One word (or two)….Boot tidy. We had one of these when we were rooftop tent camping, and I fell in love. However, it might not be the best solution if you are camping inside the car, so you will need to it figure out if it will fit when you reorganise your car for sleeping.
Find out more about the boot tidy on Amazon here.
When packing your car, you will want to make sure similar items are together. Ie. Clothes in one section, food in another etc. That way you won’t get confused trying to figure out where different items are.
Packing for camping inside the car
When sleeping inside your car, your boot is also your sleeping space. So when setting up to sleep, everything needs to be moved to either the front seats, or the floor behind the font seats.
Top tip: Any items placed on the floor behind the front seats won’t be accessible when the back seats are put down for sleeping. So only put items there, that you won’t need overnight.
Use different bags/backpacks instead of boxes for organisation:
You will want to keep different items grouped together. The reason I recommend bags over boxes, is when you set your car up for sleeping, your back seats will go down, your front seats will go forwards and slant forwards. So you need to be able to fit your items on the back seat floor, the front seat floor, or the bit of space left on the front seats.
If the boot tidy will fit in one of these places (it depends on how much stuff you plan to take), then you can get it. Otherwise:
Multiple bags is a better than a couple of big bags, as you will find it much easier to find a place to slot them into when it comes time to sleep.
- Clothes, toiletries, food and cookware can each have their own bag.
- Sleeping items come packed in their own bags, these can just be slotted neatly into the boot.
Pack the boot with access in mind:
Any items or bits of gear you might need before setting up for sleep, place near the opening of the boot, for easy access. And vice versa.
The open end of the boot: Use this for the table and chairs, and place them lengthways.
The back end of the boot: All your sleeping gear. You won’t need these until later, so they can be hidden away.
The middle section: Everything else.
Reorganising the car for sleeping:
Back seat floors: Ay items you won’t need in the evening/overnight/first thing in the morning. Remember, you won’t be able to access this bit, until you have out the back seats back up.
Front passenger seat and floor: Anything you want easy access to.
Front driver seat: Anything else you might want access to, but due to the steering wheel being in the way, smaller bags are better here.
7 Car camping tips for beginners
We have talked about the different types of car camping, all the things you might need, and tips on how to pack your car. Now it’s time to go through the general tips for car camping.
- Find your spot
If you aren’t planning on using a campsite, you will need to find somewhere to park up, which is an art form in itself. There are a few user generated apps out there which show you locations other people have found. My favourite is Park4Night. Other people who have tried that spot can leave reviews, so you know what to expect. There is a paid and free version. We use the free version which is good enough.
- Be adaptable
Again, if you aren’t planning on using a campsite, be aware of the rules of the country you are in. As I mentioned earlier, in England, it’s illegal to camp outside of a campsite, even if you are sleeping in your car.
Anyhow, if you forgoe a campsite and are parked up somewhere, and are asked to move, just move. Don’t try to argue it, as you are in the wrong.
I know it’s a pain, but that’s the way it is.
- Make it dark
I touched on this tip in the things you will need when car camping. Your car is all windows, so figure out a way to make things dark at night. The moon, other car lights, or even street lights can make it too bright to have a good night sleep.
Note: If rooftop tent camping, you don’t need to worry about this.
Explore light blockers:
Windscreen shield: Buy on Amazon here
Detachable car window curtains: Buy on Amazon here
- Leave the window open
Bare with me on this one. One of the downsides to camping in a car, is condensation, so a good tip is to leave a very small crack open in the window. This will allow airflow ventilation. Now, if it’s the dead of winter, and freezing outside, maybe leave it closed.
- Take a companion
If you want to go car camping alone, by all means do it. The reason I recommend this though, is sleeping with someone else in the car with you will help increase the temperature. I notice a huge difference when Ollie is in the car with me vs without.
- Take the luxuries
One of the best things about car camping is being able to elevate your comfort level. Take all the things that you wouldn’t take on a regular tent camping trip. You have the space, so why not.
- Leave no trace
It’s the same as when tent camping. Take all your rubbish and things away with you. Like you were never there. Apart from leaving nature and wildlife undisturbed, you leave the place nice for others to enjoy. It’s not very nice to turn up somewhere to camp, to find rubbish all over the place.