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I’ve spent 3 months of 2020 solo road tripping across the USA. I visited 21 states from the Pacific Coast all the way to Michigan and car camped for over half of those nights. So, my “expert” title may be self-proclaimed, but the fact is I have a lot of personal experience road tripping and car camping! From tents and sleep systems to the best kitchen essentials and camp stove, here’s my roundup of the best car camping gear.
Table of contents
What is car camping?
Lowergear.com defines car camping as “you load up all of your gear for the trip in your car, pull into your campsite, and set up your tent on a designated tent pad. …or near your car. When car-camping, there’s no hiking or backpacking involved in getting to your site, so the weight of your gear, or how much you pack, is of little concern as long as it all fits in your car.”
My definition of car camping – and the basis for the camping gear recommendations in this post – is similar to above, except I believe that how much you pack does matter to a certain degree. I agree that the trip may not be fun if you fail to bring enough stuff – or the right stuff – for your personal comfort level. However, I’d argue that there is also a point where bringing too much stuff becomes a hassle and the trip is no longer fun.
Who are the gear recommendations in this post for?
Generally, anyone seeking quality, multi-functional camping gear; think minimalist mindset without sacrificing comfort or convenience. All of the picks in this post are part of my personal gear collection. These are all items I used while solo car camping on my 2020 road trips, but they’re versatile (which is why I love them!) and can be used on future group trips too.
Best Tent for Car Camping
The NKT Indy GT XL Tent has proven to be the best tent for my car camping trips. 3 features about this tent collectively make it my top pick:
1. Large vestibule/covered porch
This is my favorite feature! The covered porch provides protection from the elements separate from the inner tent where you sleep. It provides shelter from sun and rain, so there’s no need to bring a separate pop-up canopy or other bulky camping gear for this purpose. It’s a great size too – my small camping chair and table fit inside with room to spare.
Speaking from experience, I’ve camped in the rain in a tent that didn’t have a separate covered porch in the past and it was awful. I camped at Tomorrowworld 2015, which is still ranked on Rolling Stone’s list of 5 music festivals that ended in disaster. Aside from the fact the field I was camped on turned into a complete mudpit, the larger problem was that the wet clothes I’d been wearing all day ended up having to come inside the tent – where I was sleeping – since I had no other place to put them. Same with my shoes. At some point near everything became wet, dirty and gross.
So when I decided to purchase a new tent before this recent long-haul car camping trip, history was not about to be repeated! I got totally drenched in a rainstorm one of the days I was camping at Zion, but when I made it back to camp I left my wet clothes and dirty shoes in the vestibule. Everything in the inner tent stayed dry and clean!
I’d rate the tent 5 stars just for keeping me and my bed dry from the rain. Beyond that though, the covered porch offered some shade from the sun. I was comfortable with the amount of shade with the front rainfly unzipped and rolled up, but there are multiple ways this can be set this up.
Second, the tent’s size is perfect for comfort and versatility. The center is 6 feet tall – enough for me to stand up straight inside. I don’t have to crawl in and out of this tent or awkwardly maneuver inside to change clothes!
The inner tent comfortably fits a queen size air mattress. And yes – this is what I bring even when camping solo! But I don’t plan on always camping solo. The NKT Indy GT XL Tent is big enough to fit a friend or two, so I’ll use it for future group camping trips in the too. No need to buy another tent!
And even though this isn’t a super small tent, it’s easy enough to pitch it on my own.
I’ll reiterate the fact that the NKT Indy GL XL Tent is waterproof. This speaks for itself.
Best Sleep System for Car Camping
For a few weeks I slept on a cheap, short air mattress inflated with a portable pump & batteries – the kind of air mattress that costs less than $20 and is about 10 inches high.
It was okay if the air mattress was new, but they never lasted long. Air always slowly leaked – even though I never found any holes – until eventually I’d wake up on a completely flat air mattress.
But those days are long gone! Now I’m camping (or should I say glamping?) on an Intex Durabeam Deluxe Comfort Elevated Airbed.
I know other options exist, like a thin camping pad. But I had so much camping planned and I’m not willing to sacrifice comfort, especially since setting up my glamping gear is so easy!
The Intex Durabeam Deluxe Comfort Elevated Airbed is much better quality than those cheap air mattresses I slept on originally. To date, I haven’t experienced any leak problems and I love that it self inflates and deflates via built-in pump. With help from an extension cord, the air mattress plugs into a Car Power Inverter that plugs into my car for power.
All I have to do is flip a switch on the air mattress and wait a few minutes. I don’t think DIY glamping gets much easier than this!
Car Camping Kitchen Essentials
Best Camping Stove
There are a ton of camping stove setups to choose from, but the Jetboil MiniMo Camping Stove System is my favorite – and in my opinion – the best.
The compact, all-in-one setup was the main reason I chose a Jetboil camping stove system. And I’m so glad I did. It’s so easy to use and convenient to travel with – definitely worth the higher price tag.
Excluding the fuel canister (available in various sizes and purchased separately) the entire system packs into itself and weighs less than 1 pound. The flame ignites by pushing a button, so no need for a lighter. And the bottom cover doubles as a measuring cup and bowl.
I mainly use it to boil water to prepare Mountain House Freeze Dried Meals, but I’m not limited to just that. Rice is the only other food I’ve cooked so far, but since the heat is adjustable, possibilities are endless. The system even comes with an attachment that allows stove cooking with any pot or pan.
Jetboil makes a variety of accessories for their camping stove systems that enable ultimate versatility. Their precision camping stove systems also come in smaller and larger models, with slight variations in features depending on your needs.
There are alot of different coolers out there, but I found the RTIC Insulated Soft Cooler Bag to be the most versatile option at the best price point.
RTIC prides itself on offering the same quality as YETI, ORCA, and other well-known brands, but at a cheaper price point.
The RTIC Insulated Soft Cooler Bag claims to keep everything inside cold for days. I found this to be accurate – even in my hot car!
On extremely hot days (over 100+ degrees Fahrenheit), my items kept cold at least a day. The cooler kept my items cold even longer when I had block ice versus ice chips.
When the outside weather was cooler (anywhere from 50-75 degrees Fahrenheit), the ice inside my cooler lasted noticeably longer. I could go anywhere from 1.5 to 2+ days without stopping to buy more ice.
Overall I found the cooler to be a great quality, with no issues after using it daily for over 2 months on my car camping trip. It still looks brand new!
So here you have it – my top picks for the ultimate car camping gear essentials! These are the items I use and love, and are what worked best for me while on my multi-month car camping road trip. Do you use any of these products? If so, what are your thoughts?