Car Camping Gear for Every Budget

We’ve been hitting the road every week on different car camping trips since early March. At first, this was a way to get out of the house before I put my head through the drywall during quarantine. As each week has gone by, it’s become a fun game to find a new spot, appreciate Montana more, and let go of my preconceived notions that car camping is a subpar form of the outdoor experience. Car camping also serves as a fantastic base camp for getting into the backcountry in more remote locations. Find a destination, car camp, then backpack into the backcountry the next day.

 

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You don’t need fancy gadgets and a $350 cooler to enjoy car camping this season. Your backpacking stove will cook your noodles, and the cat-hair-covered blankets from the back of your couch can take the place of an 800-fill down quilt. We usually sleep in the bed of my truck when we’re car camping, but in the absence of a truck or lay-flat seat, any tent will do.

There are a few things you want to take with you on every car camping trip, including several that are worth the splurge. We’ve been upgrading our car-camping setup this season, and have advanced from That Time I Forgot a Lighter to a slick propane stove and a cooler that doesn’t turn our food into a science experiment overnight.

Organization

The Bin

We consolidated and organized our gear into one tub like this one. That way we can grab it and take off without worrying about forgetting crucial gear. It has our cookset, stove, toilet paper, paper towels, a dry-box with a lighter and a deck of cards, ground coffee, coffee maker, propane, and two gallon jugs of water. We stop at gas stations to refill the water, and always get extra if we’re camping in the desert for more than a few days. If we grab our sleep systems, the YETI, and this tub, we’re pretty much good to go. In addition to the car camping gear, I bring all of my trail running and day hiking gear for adventures from base camp.

Basic Car Camping Checklist

  • A cooler to store perishables.
  • Tent, or somewhere to sleep.
  • Sleep system, which can include a sleeping bag, blankets, pillow, and sleeping pad.
  • Day pack for organizing and day hiking, or running pack for shorter outings.
  • Water. I bring two gallons per night, per person, which is more than enough for drinking and cooking.
  • Food. Depends when I leave, but usually includes dinner, breakfast, and snacks on snacks.
  • Cookset, including dishes, stove, pot, and lighter.
  • Toiletries, like toothbrush, toothpaste, contact solution, etc.
  • Entertainment, which usually means a book, fishing pole, and a chess board. How wholesome.
  • Camp chairs, hammock…. and anything else you want to make your stay outdoors more comfortable.
  • Layers. It gets cold fast outside. I never leave without a beanie and a puffy, no matter how warm it is during the day.

I’ve listed a few options for each category. Budget means you can grab whatever you have lying around the house and be totally fine. I’ve listed suggestions for budget-friendly items, but everything on this list is something I already had in the garage collecting dust. Splurge is a dedicated item for the ~*~indulgent~*~ side of car camping. There’s no one way to do it, and you don’t need to go all in, either. If you’re going to splurge, I’d recommend splurging on the cooler and making sure your sleep system is comfortable.

Cooler

maggie slepian car camping

Like I said above, there aren’t many places where I recommend splurging over saving, but your cooler is one where it’s better not to mess around. Having a better cooler allows you to stay out longer without access to ice. If you’re trying to keep ice or ice packs cold for more than a night, chances are you have perishable food that could make things get really nasty. I’ve eaten enough slimy ham slices (you’re welcome) and fished around for the block of cheese in puddles of melted ice to finally get rid of the Coors Light insulated bag I’ve been using and go for the YETI.

Budget: Soft-Sided Cooler Bag
MSRP: $15+

Guarantee you have one of these lying around your house. Mine was free at a football game raffle and has Coors Light stamped over it. I wouldn’t keep deli meat in here in the middle of the summer, but it does the job keeping fruits and vegetables edible for a night.

Splurge: YETI Tundra 65
MSRP: $350

The YETI tagline is literally, “The cooler you’ve always wanted, the last one you’ll ever buy.” They know their marketing, and they’ve been an innovator in the technology and crossover aspect between hunting, fishing, Hampton Moms, boating, and camping. I have never experienced a YETI before, and I definitely won’t go back. YETI has almost a cultish following, which is partly smart branding, but began thanks to a product that is just better. YETIs have up to three inches of commercial-grade PU foam in the walls and lid, and ultra-durable hinges, latches, and handles. The hinge rod is rust-proof, and since the coolers are “roto-molded,” it means they have no seams for weaknesses or break points.

It keeps our ice frozen for days, the era of slimy turkey (I told you not to buy deli meat) and warm beer is over. YETI has plenty of tips and tricks for packing your cooler, and I recommend getting their proprietary ice packs as well. We did find the limit for the YETI when we left the truck parked in a 100-degree parking lot for four days, and came back to some rank spinach and cheese. To be fair, that wasn’t the brightest move on our part.

Verdict: Splurge

Tent (or Not)

maggie slepian car camping

You don’t need my tent suggestions for car camping. If you own a backpacking tent, use it. If you want to sleep in the back of your car, do it. If you want to lie under the picnic table at your campsite and count the pieces of gum under the bench, be my guest. But! In the instance you don’t already own a backpacking tent or have a comfortable car to sleep in, choose your car camping tent based on 1) livable space 2) durability 3) ease of setup. Since you aren’t packing your tent in, you can choose the most luxe, hefty option on the market and suffer no consequences besides a slipped disc pulling it out of the car. There is no tent pictured here because, again, we sleep in the bed of the truck.

Budget: Coleman Cabin Tent
MSRP $160 (on sale for $95)

Coleman is the stalwart of car camping setups. This classic “cabin” style tent pops right up thanks to pre-attached poles, weighs 18 pounds (who cares), 56 feet of interior space, and is reinforced and durable. Since weight isn’t an issue, they can use beefier materials to help it stand up to abuse.

Splurge: REI Kingdom 6
MSRP: $499

They pulled no punches in naming this tent. The Kingdom 6 is (almost) bigger than my bedroom. Inside, it splits into two rooms, weighs TWENTY-ONE POUNDS, has 83 feet of interior space (I love writing about the dimensions of car camping gear!), and has color-coded poles for setup. Keep in mind that something this massive is going to take more effort to set up than your single-hub backpacking tent, so go into it with an open mind. The four-person version is here.

Verdict: Save

Camp Chairs

Once again, grab that ancient beach chair from your garage, blow the dust off your hammock, or sit on a rock. Whatever fits your budget. That said, there are a lot of options for being more comfortable, star gazing, or roasting marshmallows. Some are super light and packable, others are like dragging a recliner to the woods. But again… car camping. Take the recliner. After using a variety of chairs this season, I can confidently say you’re going to do just fine with the cheaper option.

Budget: Mountain Summit Gear Anytime Chair
MSRP: $25

This is the classic style for camping and sporting events. It collapses into one piece, can be carried over your shoulder in its own bag, and has a giant cup holder for America-sized drinks. I have a version just like this one, but I’m pretty sure it came from CVS.

Splurge: REI Flexlite Camp Dreamer Chair
MSRP: $100

This chair has a removable head rest that I use as a pillow in the back of the truck, side pockets, and a naturally reclined position so you can chill out and bird watch or lean forward toward the campfire. I also have the Flexlite Camp Chair ($60), which packs down smaller and doesn’t have a headrest. These chairs feel ergonomic, pack into their own stuff sacks, and assemble quickly. Since you have to break them down, they aren’t quite as convenient as the cheap-o folding chairs you can find at the Summer Fun display at your local big box store, and they have similar levels of comfort.

Verdict: Save

Sleep System

maggie slepian car camping

Much like the theme of car camping gear, what you already have will probably work. Take the aforementioned cat-hair-infused blankets from your living room, the air mattress you use during your mother-in-law’s yearly visits, and the pillows from your bed. There! You have your outdoor sleep system. You can also use your backpacking system, or you can go big and buy a whole other setup for car camping. If you check the weather and overnight temperatures and bring a few extra layers, you can’t go wrong.

Budget: Coleman Brazos Sleeping Bag; Outbound Air Mattress
MSRP: $30+; $25

Don’t overthink this. Check the weather and predicted temperature before you go, and know the kind of bag you have. But since you aren’t carrying this for hundreds of miles through the backcountry, you really don’t need anything fancy. The listed Coleman sleeping bag is like the adult version of the sleeping bag you took to slumber parties as a kid. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, and will be perfectly cozy for a night in the front country. This air mattress is comfortable and reasonably priced, but you’ll need an air pump to inflate it from your car. Make sure you know the dimensions of your car / tent so you don’t wind up with an air mattress that doesn’t fit.

Splurge (two-person): Enlightened Equipment Accomplice and Exped Megamat Duo
MSRP: $420; $299

This is a spendy two-person sleep system ideal for comfort in the car camping (glamping?) realm. I’m still using my Therm-a-Rest NeoAir, but for maximum cush, the Megamat is next on the list for upgrades. It is self-inflating, and has a handy pump you can use to perfect the fill. Heading out solo? The EE Revelation and Exped MegaMat are a luxe system for comfort in the outdoors.

Verdict: Save

Stove and Cookset

maggie slepian car camping

I am such a horrific camp cook that I really have no place even writing about this. In the past two months, I’ve removed nearly every hair from my boyfriend’s face (didn’t realize the gas was on), nearly blown up truck bed (propane canister leaks when it’s upside down), dumped the entire dinner on the ground (who knew the strainer lid clicked into place when it’s fitted correctly?), and forgotten the lighter more than once. I really appreciate that there’s room for improvement, though. The time I cook a camp meal without minor explosions or a pound of spaghetti in the dirt will be a glorious one. Regardless, cooking while car camping is one of the great joys of not packing everything on your back. We upgraded from my seldom-used backpacking setup to a full-on car-camping luxury kit nicer than whatever I have in my home kitchen.

This was kind of a toss-up for the verdict. You probably already have what you need for cooking outdoors. You can repurpose your backpacking setup and use old dishes and cookware from home, but if you want a specialty car camping cookset, I’ve enjoyed using the GSI system listed below.

Budget: Etekcity Ultralight Backpacking Stove and MSR Alpine Stowaway Pot
MSRP: $13; $13+

I’ve used my MSR PocketRocket ($45) for ages, but our readers and writers all love this other option that seems to perform just as well as the name brands. Like the rest of the gear here, you can always use your backpacking setup for car camping, you just won’t have quite the efficiency or space as a full-on car camping system. This MSR pot is tried and true, with a durable construction and up to 1.6 liters of capacity. The lid latches to the pot, so you can stash utensils in there if you’re not using them.

Splurge: GSI Outdoors Selkirk 460 and GSI Outdoors Bugaboo Camper
MSRP: $100; $120

I’ve never had a two-burner propane stove before. Despite numerous errors, car camping this season has pushed me to cook more / literally start cooking, and it was definitely time to upgrade the setup. This model has an automatic starter, you can simmer OR boil, and there’s plenty of space to be making coffee and frying eggs in the morning. The Selkirk boils water faster than my stove at home, and you have a lot of control over the water temperature and boil rate. Be sure to always hook up your propane canister at the correct angle, and for God’s sake, read the directions and make sure everything is screwed in before you ignite it. We had some issues with the starter not working, so we’ve been using a stick lighter for the past few weeks. Not the end of the world, but for a $100 camp stove, I would have liked to see the starter last longer than it did.

The Bugaboo Camper set is great. It comes with two large pots (three liter and two liter), strainer lids, a clever locking handle, four plates, cups with lids, and a frying pan. It all nests together (so satisfying) in its own wash tub. The set is easy to use, has held up really well with a lot of use, and we’ve never found ourselves lacking something we needed to cook our intended meal with. The pots and pans are non-stick and super hefty, and if you’re cooking a full-blown meal for up to four people, this is a beautifully designed set worth the money. Note that it does not come with eating or cooking utensils.

Verdict: Tie

Caffeine

maggie slepian car camping

We are coffee people, which is why this gets its own category. This doesn’t necessarily mean coffee snobs, but that we have the functionality of a goldfish without at least 20 ounces of coffee every morning. We’re not alone in this, hence why there is such a massive array of instant coffee, camp coffee options, and ways to brew it. Coffee tastes better at a campsite, right?

Budget: Folgers Instant Coffee
MSRP: $4

Or really, whatever instant coffee you have collecting dust in the back of your cabinet from the quarantine Dalgona coffee trend. Boil water, add the magic crystals, and enjoy.

Splurge: GSI Outdoors Glacier Percolator
MSRP: $50+

Not going to lie, this took us a few tries to get right. But once we did, it produced some of the best coffee I’ve had at home or sitting on the tailgate of my truck. The trick is to get coarse grounds, let it percolate all the way, and actually measure your coffee. Sound like three easy steps? It is, but you’d be surprised at the collective level of culinary incompetence. This percolator is durable, works on your home stove as well, and comes in a few different sizes. We have the 14-cup, which is excessive. Most people will be fine with the 8-cup capacity.

Verdict: Splurge

This is the part where I ask for your go-to car camping tips and favorite gear. ‘Tis the season of not really going anywhere, so might as well keep the distance appropriate and find more dispersed sites this year.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar
    Ross : Jul 12th

    I love sleeping in the back of my truck. I have the same ARE shell as you. A battery car starter thing powers a clip-on fan. Couple of Luci lights for illumination. I’ve slept in rest areas, truck stops, and Cracker Barrels as well as campsites. Who needs an RV?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Maggie : Jul 12th

      Totally agreed! Decided a long time ago we don’t need anything fancy if the truck and topper has proven so reliable. I’m definitely in the market for good lights though, so thanks for the recommendation!

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Alice : Jul 28th

      Hi Ross! I was wondering how deep your truck bed is as I am looking to get a truck and would love to use it for car camping.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    SA BROTHERTON : Jul 13th

    I have a couple solar fans and lights – we’ve been remoteish beach camping a few times this Summer and the fans make a world of difference, in getting to sleep.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      maggie slepian : Jul 13th

      Nice! The lights are the only thing we need to sort out. Had a few lanterns sent over that lost power too quickly or never quite worked. What’s you favorite brand?

      Reply
      • Avatar
        SA Brotherton : Jul 14th

        Mostly Lucis but (I think) the guy from Outside online suggested as a cheap, hang around camp option and they are called ETrends and you can get them on Amazon. I think I paid $13 for 4 and they are maybe 150 lumens…each

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Amy : Jul 13th

    I have been wanting to camp and/or car camp with my older dogs so I can catch sunset sunrise at my nearby favorite mountain. I was searching for a bug net to cover the car sunroof and windows to have the best ventilation w/o bugs, but didn’t find anything that really met my expectations. Got any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      SA BROTHERTON : Jul 14th

      Have you tried maybe a hammock bug net…? I would think that may be large enough and a relatively inexpensive option you could likely rig up…..

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Benjamin : Oct 30th

    I usually use a Coleman percolator for coffee, I would be interested in tasting to see how a cheap percolator compares to a moderately-priced percolator. I also often use a ghille pot (aka Kelty Kettle) for boiling water–you can also cook with it if you have the accessory pack.

    Reply

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