The Ultimate Guide to Car Camping Gear

Camping is one of my favorite ways to get outside, relax, and enjoy nature. If you want to get outdoors and experience a night under the stars for yourself, then this is the gear guide for you.

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The ultimate (but simple) car camping gear list

What makes this list ‘the ultimate’, you ask?

Most car camping gear lists are really long and overwhelming. They’re packed with tons of stuff that’s not really essential.

This list, on the other hand, is simple and short, which means you’ll probably feel less overwhelmed about camping, and actually go out and try it!

This list is what I consider to be my main car camping gear. We’re keeping things simple and focusing on the essentials here.

Car camping in national forest in Utah

What is car camping?

I use the term ‘car camping’ to differentiate from backcountry camping. When car camping, all your gear is easily packed into your vehicle and you’re able to drive right up to a campsite.

Backcountry camping is when you need to pack everything into a backpack and hike in. This post is focused only on car camping gear.

Check out the video below for the full camping essentials rundown, and a tour of my campsite:

Basic Car Camping Gear: What to Bring Camping (my camping essentials)

Basic Camping Gear

A tent is one of the basic camping essentials

1. Tent

A tent is going to be your shelter for the trip, so it’s worth trying out a few different brands, styles, and sizes to fit your needs.

No matter what your budget, you want to make sure you have a tent that’s going to stand up to the elements and help protect you from wind, rain, and mosquitoes.

For tent sizes, Nick and I use a 3-person tent when we’re car camping.

We love having the extra room for our larger sleeping pads (coming up next) and the extra room to comfortably hang out inside if we need a break from mosquitoes or if it’s raining.

Demo a few different tent options to see what would work best and be most comfortable for your camping trips and group size.

2. Sleeping Pad

Next up, we have sleeping pads.

A sleeping pad has two functions – to provide cushion from the ground and to provide insulation.

When I was a kid, my family would go camping and we would pack blow up air mattresses with a battery-powered pump. That’s a great lower-cost option, however, I personally don’t find those mattresses to be the most comfortable option, and they’re not very insulating.

The Exped MegaMat 10 MW sleeping pad is great for car camping

I have the Exped Megamat 10 (single medium wide size), and I cannot tell you how much I love this sleeping pad!

It mostly self-inflates, so all I have to do is use the hand pump to put a little air in it. It’s comfortable and insulating.

Staying warm with a sleeping bag while car camping

3. Sleeping Bag

Next up we have sleeping bags – the thing that will provide warmth and comfort at night.

When shopping for sleeping bags, you’ll notice that they have a temperature rating.

The temperature rating of a sleeping bag identifies the lowest temperature at which the bag was designed to keep the average sleeper warm. 

There are tons of sleeping bag options and you want to make sure that your sleeping bag is warm enough for the area you’ll be camping.

Pack extra blankets or sleeping bags just in case you get cold.

Camping and backpacking pillow options
Finding the perfect camp pillow

4. Pillow

Some might consider this a ‘luxury item’, but I always bring a pillow. It adds so much comfort, so it’s totally worth it for me to pack one.

There are so many camp pillows on the market. I’ve tested a bunch of the popular options here!

The Therm-a-rest Compressible Travel Pillow is my favorite.

If you don’t want to buy a special camping pillow, just bring a pillow from your bed at home. I do that all the time!

Using a headlamp at night while car camping under the stars

5. Headlamp

Headlamps are essential for getting around the campsite in the dark, reading a book in the tent at night, or if you have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.

Headlamps allow your hands to be free, which is really helpful as you move around camp.

I have a few different headlamps, but this is the one I use most often when I’m car camping.

For more general illumination around camp, you can also consider packing a lantern such as this rechargeable LED lantern by Barebones Living. How perfect is this?!

Cooking with a propane stove and cast iron pan while camping

6. Kitchen Gear

What and how much camp kitchen gear you bring depends on how much you want to cook.

I would consider the basics to be:

You can make a lot of simple and delicious meals with just a camp stove and a cast iron pan.

READ MORE >> Check out my complete camp kitchen gear list here for more details!

If you want to get more ambitious with your camp cooking, something like a dutch oven is really fun to have. The dutch oven is one my my favorite things to cook with!

Small and packable camp chairs

6. Camp Chairs

There are plenty of camping chair options and they typically fold up and are easy to transport.

Camp chairs are nice to pack if you want to relax around a campfire. While most campgrounds have a picnic table, they usually don’t have seating for around the fire pit, so it’s nice to pack your own comfortable chairs.

If you don’t want to go out and buy camp chairs right away, logs or rocks also make good seats!

get my free

Camp Cooking Starter Kit

Printable camping recipes, a gear checklist, and a camping meal planner so you can go camping with confidence (and good food!)

7. Foldable Table

Most designated campgrounds have picnic tables, so this item likely won’t be needed on those trips.

If you’re going somewhere that doesn’t have a picnic table (like a dispersed camping site), then having a small foldable table would be really nice for preparing meals and/or playing card games.

REI small camp table

I currently use the REI Kingdom Low table. It’s a small table that’s nice for 2 people. It’s lower to the ground and works great with the camp chairs I have.

Car camping in the desert

8. First Aid Kit

It’s always a good idea to have a first aid kit on every trip.

I have a big first aid kit in my car that I make sure is always fully stocked with the essentials, and that all the medications have not expired.

I also include duck tape in my medkit.

Make sure everyone knows exactly where to find the first aid kit and how to use the items inside.

Relaxing at camp in a hammock with a beautiful mountain view

What to Bring Camping

That wraps up what I think are the car camping essentials!

While this list was focused on the basic camping gear, don’t forget your personal items like clothing and toiletries, and fun items like games and binoculars.

When you go camping for the first time, write down any of the things you wish you packed, so next time you can remember to bring them.

After a few trips, you’ll develop your own camping preferences and things will be easier and more comfortable the more you do it.

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.

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  1. Hey Amanda, first of all – thanks for a great list! I’ve had a question on pillows: are compresible better than inflatable ones? A bit worried on space and weight since I’ll be using pretty much same gear when doing normal backpack hiking and would prefer to use the same one 😀 Nearby sports store( not a plug, linking just incase) has some inflatable ones, but don’t think they’ve got any compresible models? How much of a difference while sleeping it makes to go for inflatable? I’m already finding sleeping in tent a bit harsher compared to normal so wouldn’t want to skimp on comfort 😀


    1. In general, inflatable pillows are lighter and smaller, but in my opinon, they’re not as comfortable. If I take it backpacking, I want a pillow that’s light and doesn’t take up much space in my backpack, so I usually pack a very small inflatble one, or I just don’t bring one. When I’m car camping and I can drive up to a campsite, I sometimes just bring my pillow from home since I generally have more space in the car and I’m not worried about weight. Hope this helps!

  2. Have this page open in your web browser. Hit Ctrl+P, should bring up the print options. Select destination as printer or save as PDF. A pdf will file will keep all the links available to click on when you open it later.

  3. Is there this info in a list form, with the little boxes to check off? This is great info, and I want something to print and just check off. Thanks!

    1. Unforchuntaley I don’t have this in list form yet, but I’ll try to update this post soon and find a way to add one in!