As chronic road-trippers and full-time nomads, we spend a ton of time camping. It helps us save money on accommodations and allows us to stay as close as possible to the places we want to explore. Regardless, we’d choose sleeping under the stars and cozying up next to the campfire over a stuffy, boring hotel room any day! But anyone who has camped before knows there is a lot of gear involved and when you live on the road, every square inch of your car is precious. Throughout our time living nomadically and camping frequently, we’ve become experts in how to pack strategically for camping on a road trip – everything that we need, but nothing that we don’t! In this article, we’ll provide you all of our road trip camping essentials, including a downloadable checklist to help you prepare for your camping trip on the road.
- Overview | Road Trip Camping Essentials
- Details | Our Road Trip Camping Essentials
- Essential Camping Gear
- Comfort Items
- Cleaning Supplies
- Kitchen & cooking gear
Hi there! We’re Sarah and Matt, two nomads road tripping across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home month to month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time we can get hiking, camping, backpacking, and exploring new places! We hope that our experiences will help you plan for your next adventure and inspire you to be an outlier!
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Overview | Road Trip Camping Essentials
In March of 2021, we got rid of most our belongings, packed up what was left, subleased our apartment in Virginia and hit the road: California bound! We drove from Virginia to St. Louis in one day, then to Denver the next. From Denver, we continued to Southern California and spent the next several months exploring California, southern Utah, Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota, Minnesota… eventually we realized we loved life on the road too much to ever give it up and we made this nomadic lifestyle permanent.
We both secured jobs that would allow us to work remotely full-time during the week (Sarah is a Data Scientist at a medical device company and Matt works for the United Network for Organ Sharing). We settle into a new “home base” each month with space for us both to work, typically in small towns strategically located near beautiful places with abundant opportunities for camping and outdoor adventuring on the weekends.
Road Trip Car Camping Essentials
While we’re on the road, we typically spend at least two nights per week camping, either car camping at an established campground, dispersed camping, or backpacking. Our nomadic lifestyle demands that every single item we own fits into our mid-sized Subaru Forester (it’s not a ton of space for 2 people + feline companion).
As such, our road trip camping checklist is a carefully curated collection of only the must-have camping essentials, plus a few items we consider to be “luxuries” but are worth the space! As you’ll find in this list, the key is small and flexible. If it can be used for multiple purposes and is lightweight, collapses down, or packs easily, it makes the cut. If not, it’s probably getting left behind.
We’ve learned a ton about what you really need (and don’t need!) for camping while road tripping, and we hope our experiences will save you a little time and frustration.
Note: We want to point out that we do not have children, so our list of road trip camping essentials is best for couples, solo travelers, or group road trips.
Be confident you have everything you need with our free car camping checklist!
Our interactive excel checklist is complete with all the essentials you need for your road trip camping adventure!
Car Camping Essentials
In this section, we’ll cover all the camping gear that we consider to be absolutely essentials: think tent, sleeping bag, pillow, etc:
Tent + rainfly + footprint | Mountain Hardwear Aspect 3 + Footprint
We use a backpacking tent for both car camping and backpacking. It’s lightweight and compact, which makes it great for road trips, but spacious enough to fit 2 people fairly comfortably.
Sleeping pad | Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite Sleeping Pad
I often sleep better on my Them-a-rest sleeping pad than I do in a hotel bed… this thing is so comfy and weighs only 12 ounces! Only downside is that it’s a bit noisy if you tend to move in your sleep a lot. Therm-a-rest also makes a Women’s version.
Sleeping Bag | REI Co-op Women’s Magma 30 / REI Co-op Men’s Magma 30
At this price point, you can’t beat the REI Co-op Magma 30 (Women’s and Men’s). We both use this sleeping bag, and it’s lightweight enough for backpacking without sacrificing on warmth and durability.
Sleeping Bag Liner | Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite Sleeping Bag Liner
I’m a very cold sleeper so I often use this Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner, even for summer nights. It’s super cozy, lightweight, adds 8 degrees of warmth, and helps keep your sleeping bag cleaner.
Inflatable Pillow | Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow
This Sea to Summit inflatable pillow is super lightweight and packs down tiny (I have actually lost it a few times because it packs down so small), so it’s great for camping and backpacking trips. The best part, it is shockingly comfortable! I am a light sleeper (in a normal bed), so this is huge for me!
Fire supplies | fire starters, lighter, long-burn matches, lighter fluid
All essentials for getting your campfire going. Just make sure to check for and adhere to fire restrictions in the area you are camping.
Headlamp | Black Diamond Storm 400
Navigating around a campsite is nearly impossible after dark without a headlamp. We both use Black Diamond Storm 400’s, and we’ve found them to be reliable and long-lasting despite the compact size.
In this section, we’ll cover items that will make you feel more at home at your camp setup, from lounging around in a hammock to cozying up by the campfire. While not absolutely essential, these items make the camping experience more enjoyable!
Camp chairs | REI Flexlite Camp Chair
These camp chairs are compact, easy to set up, comfortable, and pack down small, making them great for road trips. Perfect for sitting around the fire!
Camp blanket | Kammock Mountain Blanket
As a person who is ALWAYS cold, this blanket has kept me warm and allowed me to enjoy many cold camping nights! With a fleece interior and durable, water-repellent exterior, this blanket is perfect for cozying up next to the campfire. And even better, it can double as a poncho and the stuff sack is fleece allowing it to be used as a pillow if you are in a pinch!
Small towel | PackTowl lightweight towel
This compact lightweight towel packs down small, making it versatile for both camping and backpacking trips. Use it for drying off after a swim or shower or just cleaning up around camp.
Hammock | Eno Hammock
Laying in a hammock with a book and a glass of wine is the perfect way to wind down at camp after a busy day of hiking! P.S. don’t forget you also need a hammock suspension kit to go with the hammock (I made this mistake and was very disappointed the first time I tried to set up my hammock…).
Lantern | MPOWERD Inflatable Solar Lantern
This is perhaps my favorite camping gadget. It’s solar-powered so you don’t have to worry about charging it while camping, and it can even be used to charge your phone/other electronics. Plus it’s inflatable so it packs down small for easy storage.
For *attempting* to keep things tidy and staying clean while camping, we use the following items:
Wash bucket | SOL Collapsible Sink
A wash bucket makes washing dishes or doing laundry at the campground 100 times easier, and this collapsible sink is perfect for road trips because, you guessed it, it takes up less space!
Biodegradable soap | Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash
This environmentally friendly soap serves several purposes – it can’t be used to wash dishes, laundry or yourself! 3 in 1 = our kind of camping gear.
Clothesline | Sea to Summit Lite Line
If you’re camping for a few days, you may want to freshen up your clothes along the way. This laundry line can be wrapped around a tree, and it’s so tiny that it’s worth bringing along just in case.
Travel laundry detergent | Sea to Summit Pocket Soaps
These tiny little detergent tabs come in handy if you’re on the road for a few days with no access to a washing machine. Fill up your wash bucket, toss in your clothes, and let them soak.
Bug Spray | Nothing quite ruins a nice night under the stars like pesky mosquitoes and no bug spray to defend yourself. If you don’t have bug spray, you may find yourself seeking relief in your tent, and you don’t want to miss out on quality time in the great outdoors.
Sunscreen and Chapstick| Second perhaps only to bug bites for “how to put a damper on a night at the campground” is a bad sunburn or chapped lips.
Bathing wipes | For the days between showers, these come in handy to freshen up.
First-aid-kit | It’s always good to have basic first aid gear in case of an emergency, especially if you are camping in remote areas.
Toiletry bag | Sea to Summit’s Hanging Toiletry Bag
Packed with the usual essentials (toothbrush + toothpaste, deodorant, contact case and solution, etc) these toiletry bags are compact but have plenty of internal pockets for all the essentials.
Toilet Paper & Plastic Bag | Don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper if you are dispersed camping (no bathrooms), and a sealable plastic bag to pack out your trash. If you are camping somewhere where you must pack out human waste, these Biffy Bags will do the trick.
Kitchen & Cooking Gear
Campstove | Jetboil Flash
When a campfire isn’t possible (due to fire bans, unexpected rain, etc), our go-to backup plan is usually some type of pasta (ramen, mac-and-cheese, etc) cooked with the Jetboil. We also use it for making coffee in the morning, when speed is key. This thing is crazy fast at boiling water and super easy to use – it has more than covered its cost in the time it has saved for us.
Extra Fuel | Jetboil Jetpower Fuel
It’s always a good idea to keep extra Jetboil fuel on hand for the inevitable moment that you’re attempting to make some hot coffee on a cold morning and the flame goes out.
Coffee Filter | Sea to Summit Collapsible Coffee Filter
If you’re a coffee snob (like me…) who needs *real* coffee in the morning, even in the backcountry, the compact Sea to Summit collapsible filter makes it easy. Pair with the Jetboil Flash and Sea to Summit cups and you’ll have your cup of joe in no time!
Cast-iron pan | Lodge 12 Inch
Cooking over the campfire is one of my favorite things about camping, and this cast-iron helps me make delicious meals that soak up all that smoky campfire flavor.
Cutting Board + Knife | Miyabi Evolution Chef’s Knife
We love to cook so having a cutting board and good quality knife is important to us – it’s great for cutting anything and everything (slicing meats, dicing veggies, etc).
Tongs + Metal Spatula | Some “must-haves” for cooking with the cast iron over the fire.
Potholders| Again, essential for cooking with the cast iron over the fire. A towel can also do the trick.
Kitchen towels | Nice to have for cleaning up messes, wiping off dishes and handling hot pans (we typically use them as potholders too).
Fire roasting stick | For toasting marshmallows or cooking hotdogs over the fire, of course!
Cooler | When camping, it’s important to have a high quality cooler that can keep your food cold for the entire day (or multiple days). We could not car camp without our Yeti Tundra 35. It’s the perfect size – large enough to store food for a few days, but doesn’t take up too much space in the car.
Utensils & Tableware
Camping plates & bowls | Sea to Summit Delta Plates & Bowls
For plates and bowls we use Sea to Summit’s Delta collection – these are cheap, durable and the thumb grip makes them great for eating around the campfire. Plus, they are lightweight enough to take on backpacking trips.
Utensils | sporks
You may be noticing a theme to our camping checklist: items with multiple uses. More utility, less space in the car (or backpack) is always the aim and the spork does just that.
Cups | Sea to Summit Collapsible Cups
Sea to Summit makes our favorite lightweight camping and backpacking gear, and these cups are no different! They are lightweight, durable, and pack down small. We take two on every packing trip and always keep them in the car for camping. We often use them as bowls as well. Just make sure you clean them out after dinner. It’s no fun to be sipping coffee with a hint of last night’s dinner!
Extra water | Be sure to check whether the campground you’re staying at has running water. If it doesn’t, or you’re dispersed camping, make sure you pack all the extra water you will need. We originally purchased these 2-liter Platypus bottles to carry extra water backpacking in the desert, but they’re also great for storing water while car camping.
These are tableware items that certainly aren’t essential but make our lives easier while camping:
- Bottle opener | For cracking a beer or popping open a bottle of wine to wind down.
- Coffee Mugs | To keep your cup of joe piping hot on a cold morning.
- Reusable water bottle | The easiest way to make sure you stay hydrated while camping is to keep a water handy.
- Coozies | For keeping that beer cold when you’re hanging out by the campfire.
- Collapsible wine “glass” | This is a totally a “luxury” camping item but I love my folding wine “glass” (it’s actually plastic so no concerns about breaking).
Below are some other miscellaneous kitchen supplies to make sure you pack for your camping road trip:
- Dish sponges
- Paper towels
- Reusable sandwich bags | Help the environment and save money on plastic bags = win, win!
- Trash bags | To keep your campsite tidy (be sure to store it in the car or bear lockers if camping in bear territory).
- Coffee filters | I typically use standard coffee filters with my Collapsible Filter because I find it makes the coffee less grainy.
In this section, we’ll cover the staple food items that are always in our camping pantry.
For lunch, we typically pack something that’s easy to put together in the car, lasts for several hours unrefrigerated while hiking, and can be reused for multiple meals. Here are a few ideas:
- PB&J (on an English muffin/bagel) | A classic, simple and easy. To spice it up a bit, use an English muffin or bagel instead of 2 slices of bread.
- Turkey & Cheese (with ranch or avocado) | Also easy because all you need to keep cold is turkey meat and cheese, and you can make several sandwiches with one pack. Add ranch or fresh slices of avocado to spice it up!
- Chicken Pouches| Stock up on some Starkist chicken and bread and you have yourself a halfway decent lunch. They make a bunch of different flavors (my favorite is buffalo) available at all grocery stores. Best part is that the pouches don’t need to be refrigerated and pack some good protein.
We love cooking over the fire while camping whenever we can, but we also have a few go-to backup options when cooking over a fire isn’t possible:
- African Peanut Stew | This stew takes a little more work, but it’s so delicious we promise its worth the effort! Try to prep your veggies before you leave on your trip to save you time cutting them at the campsite!
- Barbecue Chicken Quesadillas | Pre-cook the chicken ahead of time and these are a super easy and tasty campfire meal!
- Jalapeno Cheddar Turkey Burgers | A fun twist on a campfire classic, these spicy, cheesy burgers make the perfect camp dinner.
- Ramen | When fire is not an option or we know we won’t have the time/energy to start a campfire , our go-to meal with the Jetboil is Ramen noodles, spiced up with some fresh veggies (bell peppers or green onions), chili paste, peanuts, and soy sauce.
- Annie’s Mac & Cheese | Another go-to option for a quick and easy meal when fire is not an option.
When we’re camping, we typically spend most the day hiking, so calorie-dense and tasty snacks are key. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Cheese-It’s | Cheesy. Crunchy. Crispy. The best.
- Cheese, Salami and Cracked Blacked Pepper Wheat Things | After a busy day of hiking, we always crave protein so some very basic charcuterie really hits the spot! (P.S. Cracked Black Pepper Wheat Thins also amazing)
- Peanut M&M’s | Great for camping because they don’t melt like other chocolate candies do!
- Bottle of red wine | For winding down after a long day of hiking, red wine is perfect because you don’t have to keep it cold. Just open and enjoy!
- Games| It’s great to have a few games to play for when you’re finally settled down next to the campfire. We love card games, like Thinking and Drinking that give you a random topic to prompt new and fun conversations.
- Journaling | When we’re traveling, we love to write about our experiences while they are fresh in our minds and keeping a journal is the perfect way to wind down by the campfire.
- Portable speakers | Just make sure you are respectful of your neighbors.
- Books | Physical books take up a lot of space in the car, so I typically load up my Kindle with a good book for camping trips on the road.
- Music | We never hit the road for a camping trip without a new Spotify playlist lined up! Check out our top 59 favorite songs about travel and adventure for inspiration!
- Cell phone + charger
- Power banks | For charging phones and other electronics
- Campground reservation (if needed)
- Driver’s license
- Your itinerary left with an emergency contact | This is especially important if you are off-roading or dispersed camping, in the off chance that something goes wrong.
Tips on Organizing the Car for Camping
We know that keeping a neat car while camping can be a serious challenge. And searching through endless piles of stuff in the car when you’re looking for matches to get your fire started can be incredibly frustrating. In this section, we give you our best tips for keeping the car organized while camping on a road trip.
Invest in a quality car top carrier
To fit all the essentials and avoid having to play Tetris to pack the car for camping every time, a good quality hardshell rooftop carrier is 100% worth the investment. For our mid-size Subaru Forester, we use a Medium Thule Pulse Hardshell and it has made our lives so much easier!
Before switching to our Thule Pulse, we had a cheap softshell carrier and had all sorts of problems with it, from fighting to install it to wind-torn straps to wet stuff. Our Thule has been a game changer – lightweight and aerodynamic (better for gas mileage), easy to install and pack, built-in lock and key, and reliably waterproof. If you don’t already have crossbars on your car, you’ll also need to purchase a set of crossbars (these go perpendicular to the roof rack) and rail feet, to which the crossbars will be attached.
Use plastic drawers to keep your stuff organized and easy to access
We have a set of cheap large plastic drawers that we keep in the car for storing our car camping gear. We use one drawer for cooking supplies, one for camping essentials, and one for hiking gear. Being able to easily access our most important gear has made car camping so much smoother.
We also have two sets of smaller plastics drawers for storing little items that tend to get lost easily – think utensils, matches and fire starters, scissors, first-aid supplies, etc. No more searching through every nook and cranny in the car for those matches!
Other useful resources
Planning a camping trip in the U.S.? Check out these resources for inspiration to plan your trip:
- Road trip | 59 Best Songs About Travel and Adventure
- Road trip | The Ultimate Packing List for Road Trips
- Road trip | Top Highlights & Lowlights of Our Western USA Road Trip
- Travel Inspiration | 59 Best Songs about Travel & Adventure
- Camping | How to Plan the Perfect Camping Trip in the Alabama Hills
- Camping | Complete Guide to Hiking and Camping in the Smoky Mountains
What gear would you add to our list of road trip camping essentials? Let us know in the comments section below!