20 Brilliant Car Camping Hacks For Your Best Trip Yet

Post Summary: 20 Genius Car Camping Hacks For Your Next Road Trip

Going on a road trip?

We totally get it – it’s an extremely popular way to travel and live these days, especially on the West Coast!

If you’ve been dying to convert your own van, or at least pieces of it, we’re sharing some of the best car camping hacks we’ve used and loved! 

We’ve traveled in a converted van for 10-days, learned how to sleep in our car comfortably and safely, as well as in our own Mazda CX-5 traveling the American Southwest, and these car camping hacks helped make our life in the car much easier.

In this post, we’ll share with you sleeping tips, cooking tricks, and hacks to make life on the road fun and worthwhile!

20 Brilliant Car Camping Hacks For Your Next Road Trip

1. Essential For Car Camping Hacks: Pack In A Camping Bin

Earlier this year, when we were planning our Southwest road trip route, we went to Lowe’s and bought this huge bin to store all our camping gear. Now, REI makes these 100L and 140L Packaway bins, that are collapsible to save a TON of space when on the road!

There are so many little items needed for trips like this – a huge bin to throw everything in makes it easier to keep things in order. When we’re not camping, this bin lives fully packed in our closet. It’s perfect for spontaneous road trips – we just throw it in the car and go!

It’s one of the most important car camping hacks to can use to stay organized on the road.

Some of our car camping essentials:

REI Co Op Packaway Bin for Car Camping hacks
car camping bin
You can also buy a hard-sided bin from Lowe’s or Home Depot!

2. Master Your Sleep Setup

If you read just one of these car camping hacks, let it be this – you MUST master your car camping sleep setup!

A good night’s sleep is essential to having a great camping trip, so it’s important to make a plan and gather the right supplies to make that happen for you.

First, read our complete guide on how to sleep in a car. After that, gather your sleeping supplies. We love this REI mattress because it comes with an air mattress and hand pump for easy setup.

The Exped Mega Mat Duo (pictured below) also gets crazy good reviews and easily squishes between wheel wells and other nooks and crannies in your car.

Exped MegaMat Duo 10 Sleeping Pad
REI Sleep System Air Mattress

3. Bring Cash For Small Towns and Last-Minute Camping

Cash is king, especially when it comes to small towns and last-minute camping reservations. This especially comes in handy when finding last-minute places to camp.

We often find epic spots to stay overnight using The Dyrt, (it’s the largest campground search platform!) which we use constantly to find detailed info about campgrounds along our road trip route. We love using their pro membership because we get access to things like offline browsing, and BLM and National Park maps!

Get a 30 Day free trial of The Dyrt, only given to our readers (that’s you!) Click here and use the code Mandagies to try it out today!

Many camping places in the Pacific Northwest will have a ranger station billboard at the entrance of a campground. If it’s a first-come-first-serve area, you are able to fill your info out, put a cash payment in an envelope, and drop it in a payment box for pickup in the morning.

Don’t have any cash on hand? No problem, read our guide to finding free camping anywhere in the USA!

Read More: Here’s How You Can Easily Sleep In You Car!

car camping hacks

4. Pack Tiny Toiletries

This is one of the easiest car camping hacks, that you probably have lying around your house!

Like our camping bin above, we have a clear plastic container at home for collecting all the samples, hotel goodies, and tiny bottles we acquire during travel.

When it’s time to pack, we’ll take this out, pick what we need, and we’re set to go! Need tips on what to bring? See our complete backpacking hygiene list here!

Here are some tricks for making your own travel-sized collection:

  • Create a designated bin to store all the little jars and samples you collect over time.
  • When you empty out a jar of product, clean it and keep it for future use.
  • Go online and find promo offers. I always look for Clinique when I need to buy something because they almost always come with free little bonus goodies. They’re a perfect size!
  • Buy reusable travel-sized bottles to fill up with your own product at home. We own this set from Nalgene, and I’m itching to try this squeezable kind too!

Read More: The 10 Basics You Need On Any Camping Checklist

5. Arm Yourselves With Good Music And Podcasts Is A Perfect Car Camping Hack

If you’re finding the best car camp hacks, this probably means you won’t be in the same place for very long. That equates to a ton of time in the car, which also means that music and podcasts for a road trip are essential.

Pick a variety of music and podcasts to satisfy any interest and keep the tunes fresh. No one likes listening to the same playlist 1000x. Remember to pack portable speakers like these for your non-car listening!

Want a more interactive way to pass the time? Try these 101 road trip questions, or browse these classic camping games – some of these you can play in the car or around the fire!

Read More: 30 Necessary Items You Need To Bring On Any Road Trip
Read More: Ask These Questions To Your Friends On A Road Trip

6. Minimize Gear / Maximize Functionality

If you plan on sleeping in a car, you are going to have to snuggle up next to everything you packed. Make sure to make smart choices and find multi-functions for all your gear.

Do you have a swiss army knife with a spoon, corkscrew, fork, and other things? Great! You’ve saved yourself a lot of space by packing multi-tool items – one of the best car camping hacks to save on storage!

Another easy car camping hack would be to save space by packing items that store small – like pots and pans that fit into one another.

Looking to find camping gear, but you’re on a budget? Read our 10 strategies for finding cheap camping gear, for half the price and just as good quality as new!

7. Scope Out The Nearest Coffee Shops and Cafes (WiFi)

If you’re like us, we love working with adventurous companies and documenting authentic, real outdoor experiences. Usually, on a trip, we block off time to sit down, import our memory cards, and show you what we’ve been up to in real-time at a local cafe.

This car camping hack gets us our caffeine fix and the chance to update you on the things we’re doing. If we know the cities we’re stopping at, we usually ask on Instagram for people’s favorite places. We find that local recommendations are usually the best ones!

No Time For Stops? Read 4 Ways How To Prepare Coffee On The Road

car camping hacks

8. Research Shower Stops For A Clean Car Camping Hack

When Berty and I were taking our road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, we did our research and made sure we could get clean every other day or so. Staying clean while camping is so important, especially when you are traveling with someone else!

Here are some hygiene related car camping hacks, to stay fresh and clean on the road!

  1. Do you have a gym membership with multiple locations? See if they have a stop near you, and use their shower!
  2. Purchase a shower bag like this one and simply hang it off the side of your car for a quick rinse.
  3. Find out if your campground has showers. We know in Oregon, state campgrounds are REQUIRED to have proper shower facilities.

Read More: 25 Oregon Coast Campgrounds To Book ASAP

9. Crack Opposite Windows When You Sleep

While it’s fun to make drawings on the windows when sleeping in the car, it feels like a nasty, sweaty box in the morning.

To avoid getting sick (and just wake up refreshed instead of gross), crack the windows to create airflow through the car.

It’s best if you open two windows across from one another – this will create a nice cross breeze! On a clear night, Berty and I will crack open our sunroof! Car camping hack success!

Read More: Here’s How To Comfortable Sleep In Your Car

Total Eclipse with Elysian Brewing and Atlas Obscura 2017, car camping

10. Make Some DIY Privacy Curtains

Probably one of the most important car camping hacks is creating privacy! Some campervans come with privacy windows or window shields, but I would guarantee you that almost all normal cars don’t.

If you are driving a regular car (like us) and still want to sleep in it (like us) check out this tutorial for a super cheap MYO curtain option. 

Don’t have time to make curtains? Want an easy solution? Try throwing a rain fly over your car and staking it down. Just make sure the zipper and car door line up!

Read More: 9 Lessons We Learned From Living In A Van For 10 Days

Car Camping Hacks - Window Covers

11. Pack Inflatable Sleeping Pads

Sleeping in your car is probably a lot more comfortable and warmer than outside (depending on what time of year you are traveling) but there are ways to make it even MORE comfortable.

Use sleeping pads in the car to even out the bumps and uneven floor caused by the folding seats. Unless you enjoy sleeping on a seatbelt (somehow you always end up having one right in your back) a sleeping pad will make car camping a lot more enjoyable.

12. Bring Lots of Extra Water

Water can and will come in handy in several different ways. You can obviously use it to stay hydrated, but also to cook, clean, and cool down your car.

If you are trying to produce as little waste as possible, consider buying a large jug of water instead of individual bottles.

Or better yet, borrow or buy a plastic reusable, and refill it with fresh water whenever you can. (Gas stations, campground, recreational facilities, the list goes on!)

Read More: How To Plan A Trip To The Pacific Northwest

13. Bring a Heat Source

A heat source could be anything from a camping stove (just never use it in the actual car!) to a Jetboil. It’s important to have a heat-producing source to protect yourself on cold nights and to properly cook food.

Here are some of our favorite easy meals to eat while camping!

On VERY cold nights on winter road trips on the west coast, Berty and I like to boil water, pour it in a heat-safe water bottle (like this Nalgene), and place it by our feet in our sleeping bags.

If you are trying to maximize space and minimize gear, we suggest traveling with a Jetboil and cooking over a campfire when you can. You can also read our top list of ultralight backpacking stoves to cut down on bulk and weight!

Read More: Stuck Camping In The Rain? Here’s How To Cope

14. …And A Light Source

Pick your favorite brand (there are a lot of great ones out there) and purchase or borrow headlamps, flashlights, and/or tent lights to properly see at night. Make sure to also pack extra batteries or use reusable ones with a charger.

15. Bring Outdoor Seating

Berty and I brought large camping chairs with us on our last road trip, but next time I think we are going to look for something a little smaller.

REI makes camping chairs in all sizes, including ones that fold up really small – small enough to shove in between car seats!

It’s nice to have seating outside of the car so that people can gather around a campfire or dinner table. Here are also some mini camping chairs here, here and here.

Read More: 9 Important Questions To Ask When Planning A Road Trip

16. …And A Hammock

If you are car camping, chances are you are driving through national parks and nature, not just the city. The weather will probably be nice at some point during your trip – a hammock will come in handy so that the cool breeze can rock you to sleep.

17. …And A Tent

Sleeping in the car is convenient and safe, but at some point, it will get old (or it might just get too dang hot in there). Bring extra options like a tent and a hammock (see above) to switch up the sleeping scenery once in awhile if you’re on a long journey.

Read More: Camping In The Pacific Northwest? Here’s Everything You Need To Know.

18. Coffee Lover? Make Sure To Read This:

Earlier we suggested scoping out cafe stops for wifi and the occasional drink. But what if those are nowhere to be found?

Pack pre-ground coffee in a reusable glass jar, and pick your choice of brewing methods. Personally, we love using our Chemex (even though it takes more time, it’s worth it) but we’ve also tried easier brewing methods like a french press and backpacking drip cones.

Read More: How To Make Coffee While Camping (6 Clever Ways)

Car Camping Hack - Preparing Coffee On The Road

19. Consider a Cargo Box For The Top Of Your Car

Get your stuff out of your sleeping area and out of sight with a rooftop storage system. Something like this Thule Cargo Box will help you keep your gear secure and safe (and most have locks, too).

When Berty and I would get ready for bed, we’d toss up our food and any smelly supplies in the cargo box so we didn’t have to smell it all night.

Read More: 9 Questions You Need To Ask Before Any Road Trip

Read More: 8 Clever Ways To Save Money While Traveling

20. Pack A Foldable Table

This tip may not work for everyone, but hear us out.

When Berty and I took our road trip down the coast, we were constantly looking for more “counter space” for our cooking. Many times we would make dinner in a parking lot, only to have to put things on the ground for lack of space!

Sometimes it’s worth the effort to park somewhere with a picnic table for meals, other times it’s really helpful to just have a table when you’re in the middle of nowhere. We found some super-small options, like this one, this one, and this one.

21. Most Importantly – Tell People Your Route.

Sh** happens. When it does, it’s comforting to know that people know where you are. Tell someone you trust where you are going and where you’ll be staying.

Be as specific as possible so if they don’t hear from you in a few days, someone will be looking!

Do This Now: Write important numbers down on a piece of paper and keep it with you in case your phone dies.

Read More: 12 Essentials You Need In Any Car Emergency Kit

Read More: How To Keep Your Tech Safe While Traveling

Emily Mandagie with Map in Camper Van -TheMandagies.com

Disclaimer – Some of the links used above are affiliate links, which means if you decide to purchase, we get a small percentage. But don’t worry, this doesn’t cost you extra at all! It simply helps us keep this blog running – thank you for your support! This is not a sponsored post, and all opinions are our own.

What are some car camping hacks you use while traveling? Leave us a comment if we’ve missed anything, we’re always looking for more/better suggestions!


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