Why in the world would anyone want to sleep in their car (i.e. car camp) while on a trip? Seriously, who wouldn’t rather be in a hotel, Air BNB, VRBO, or even in an RV? In our post-Covid world, the three reasons that come to mind immediately are health, money, desire to travel, and accessibility. I have watched numerous videos of people car camping or even car living and finally thought it might be worth a try because, well, it sounded like something I didn’t really want to do and therefore it might be a growth opportunity. I tried car-camping once a year (and hated it each time) for at least three years before I found a setup I could live with. In this post, we are going to explore why you might want to car camp, my personal experiences with car camping, and if you are considering doing this, some of my favorite items that have been a game-changer regarding my car-camping adventures! Let’s start with a few reasons you might want to consider Car Camping.
Reasons for Car Camping
Did you know many people live in their cars on purpose? There are those that are homeless and can’t afford a home and then there are those living in their vehicles because they want to live a nomad lifestyle. They have jobs (mostly remote jobs) and want to save money and/or explore more. The good news is they have mastered the art of car camping – like taking it to an entirely new level and we can learn from these brave, adventurous souls.
Because this blog is all about empowerment, having a growth mindset, overcoming obstacles, and finding ways to accomplish what you want in life, let’s explore this option more thoroughly from that perspective.
The reasons you might want to car camp are numerous but hey, let’s start with the obvious – money. The cost of everything has risen and that means sometimes we need to make some trade-offs to accomplish what we want in life. Let’s say you want to explore some national parks this summer but the high cost of gasoline has you reconsidering it. You could forgo a few nights in a hotel and car camp to accomplish your goals.
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Or maybe you have a pet and don’t want to leave him behind. Many hotels require an extra $50-$100 non-negotiable deposit per stay for a pet. That’s in addition to the extra $25-$50 per night for having a pet in the room. If you are just staying one night, that can add up fast!
Health & Cleanliness
Whether you are immunocompromised or you just get creeped out at the thought of sleeping in a room that someone else slept in the previous night (with all their potential catastrophic germs), car camping is a way to avoid the fear of comprising your health when traveling. You can stay in a vehicle that has your germs and not have to be exposed to any more than necessary.
I mean seriously, there’s nothing worse than pulling the covers back to find the hair of the last person that stayed there. Gross!
Staying in hotels can actually be an inconvenience – especially if you enjoy the outdoors and exploring. If you love nature, trying to find a decent place to stay while exploring those places off the beaten path can be a challenge and an inconvenience. This can be especially true when traveling with a pet.
When car-camping, you can pay for a camping spot (much cheaper than a hotel) or sleep for free in a Walmart parking lot, on BLM land, or use the FREEROAM app to find free camping wherever you are.
Depending on where you are and what you can afford, you might be safer in your car than in a sketchy hotel room. Just sayin.
That being said, don’t think that just because you are in your car, you shouldn’t prepare. Even with a dog in the car, I keep bear spray, a loud whistle, and a knife right by my pillow. Whatever you do, be safe out there, wherever you are.
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Before we get into the nitty-gritty of car camping, it’s really important to discuss mindset and expectations. One of the reasons I had such a difficult time car camping is because I was looking for a setup that would be as comfortable as sleeping in my bed at home. That’s just not going to happen, especially in a Prius with a 62 lb. dog. Get your mind right about car camping. It’s not going to be like home and it’s going to feel uncomfortable. As I always say, this is how we grow. Go into this thinking it’s a growth experience and you will be far less miserable. Set the bar low – it’s not going to feel like a luxury hotel, regardless of the equipment you purchase.
How to Car Camp – Equipment & Set-Up
For this section, I’m going to discuss it as if you are a single person who is car camping. If you have two people, just adjust. And I’m assuming you have a vehicle with back seats that lay down. Otherwise, wow, you are going to be uncomfortable.
It doesn’t matter if you have a Prius or a large SUV, it’s possible to set it up for car camping. I drive a Prius, am 5’10”, and sleep in the back with my 62 lb. lab when necessary. But I can only do that because I’ve found the best setup for me (and believe me that took more trial and error than I care to admit).
If you are car camping to save money, just know the initial investment of your setup will pay for itself in two-three nights. If you only plan to car camp once this year and then never do it again, the investment may not be worth it for you. However, if you have a two-week road trip planned and want to save money on that trip or this is something you want to be able to continue to do as a way to travel more, then this may be a viable option.
Sleep Pad – if you are over 30, you are going to want a sleeping pad of some sort. And if you are over 50, you are going to want a better quality sleeping pad. What kind of pad you get depends on a few factors – age, physical stature, pets, and personal preferences. For example, you can get an air mattress camping pad for pretty cheap. I can’t use an air mattress because I have a dog and don’t want to run the risk of his paws poking a hole in it.
I have an amazing bed at home so it’s a challenge for me to car camp and get any rest at all. For this reason, I searched to find a setup that was as comfortable as possible for me and my pet. And while my sleep pad was a little more expensive, it paid for itself quickly. I paid around $150 for this Willpo Sleep pad (but I’ve seen it on sale recently for $90) and here is why I like it so much.
- Compact and easy to pack (I have a Prius, remember)
- Super comfy!
- Comes in this awesome carrying case that has enough room to also store a sheet (for warm nights) and pillow (sheet and pillow not included in purchase).
- It has a wonderful and soft velvety cover that is removable and washable.
I actually ended up purchasing two of them. They velcro together and it makes the entire back of my car into a bed. My dog appreciates the added cushiness too!
Sleeping Bag – Depending on what time of year you are car camping, you’ll want a sleeping bag that can keep you warm. I don’t have a specific recommendation for this as it will depend largely on what time of year it is and what the conditions are where you are traveling. Just be prepared and know that all sleeping bags are not created equally. They have different temperature ratings, styles, and weights. The kind that wraps you up in a cocoon may make you feel claustrophobic while another person may feel safe and snug. It’s a very individual choice.
Solar or Rechargeable Fan – I have found a rechargeable fan to be an invaluable little piece of equipment when car or tent camping. I hang a bungee cord across the back of my car, let that fan hang and wow, it’s just like home (well, not exactly but it helps tremendously)! As a bonus, the one I use has a light and remote control so I can lay in the back and read, get situated, and/or turn that light on in the middle of the night if necessary. You can find a variety of both solar and rechargeable options. Here’s the one I use and I love it (click on the image to order)!
Window Nets – These window nets are amazing in the spring and summer when you want to let a breeze in but keep the bugs out! They fit over pretty much any window (order based on the type of vehicle you have) and they are great to use even when you aren’t car camping.
The point here is you shouldn’t let the obstacle of money stop you from chasing your dreams and experiences. And you might even have the money to stay in hotels but would rather spend it on experiences. There are options. Car camping is one of them. And remember, if at first you hate it, don’t let that be a reason to not try again. Sometimes it’s about having the right mindset and equipment that can turn an experience from awful to amazing! As long as you prepare appropriately, test out your setup beforehand, and stay in places that are safe, this could be one way to get out and explore more this year.