This ultimate guide includes 16 useful SUV car camping tips with links to useful resources. I will be using my personal experience of SUV camping to provide all of the advice outlined in this article. If you’re looking to find out how to camp in your car, this is the post for you!
What Is Car Camping?
Car camping is when you sleep inside your car at a campsite instead of pitching your tent outside. You pack all of your gear for the trip into your car and then make a comfortable bed inside your vehicle to sleep for the night. Car camping generally involves sleeping in the back of the car on an air bed, mat, or sleeping platform.
This is not to be confused with tent camping, which involves choosing to pitch a shelter outside of your vehicle. Recently, rooftop tents have become more popular, which involves pitching on top of your car and sleeping above ground for the night.
It’s time to go into detail about how to prepare your car, find the perfect camping gear, and stay safe while on your adventure. There are also tips on preparing delicious food, making the perfect bed, staying warm at night, and finding the perfect camping location.
Get inspired and plan the perfect itinerary
One of the most exciting things about car camping is the ability to take a road less traveled and visit some beautiful locations. I often get inspiration from Instagram, or by searching Google for the best national parks and nature destinations that I could drive to.
If you need some inspiration, I have a collection of posts in my Road Trip Itineraries category. Wherever you go, as long as you’re well prepared, you’ll have a great time SUV camping.
Useful Articles On The Road Trip Expert
- Car Camping Packing List
- 19 Places You Can Legally Sleep In Your Car
- Places To Shower While On The Road
- Is It Illegal To Sleep In Your Car? (All Questions Answered)
- Is It Safe To Sleep In A Car?
Find the perfect car camping SUV
While car camping, it’s important to have a vehicle in which you can make a comfortable bed. We’ve got a full article outlining the Best Cars To Sleep In to help you.
Aim for a car with fold-flat seats, a van, or something in which you can build a sleeping platform. The most important thing is that you have a flat area for sleeping!
If you want to rent a car then Rental Cars is a great option to find a car just for your trip.
Here is a list of SUVs with fold-flat seats:
- Ford Expedition – Full-size, 8 or 9 People, power-fold option
- Hyundai Palisade – Full Size, 7 or 8 people, power-fold option
- Toyota Sequoia – Full-size, 8 or 9 people, power-fold option
- General Motors Chevrolet Suburban: Full-size, 8 or 9 people, power-fold option
- Hyundai Sante Fe – Mid-size, 7 people, power-fold as standard
- General Motors Buick Enclave – Mid-size, 7 people, power-fold option
- Ford Explorer – Mid-size, 7 people, power-fold option
- Jeep Grand Cherokee – Mid-size, 7 people, power-fold option
- Honda Pilot – Mid-size, 7 people, power-fold option
- Kia Sorento – Mid-size, 8 people, power-fold option
- Toyota Highlander – Mid-size, 7 or 8 people, power-fold option
- Chevrolet Captiva
Follow a packing list to avoid forgetting anything
Now that you’ve found an awesome destination, it’s time to start thinking about all of the gear you’re likely to need. I’ve written an extensive article outlining all of my recommended Car Camping Essentials, which you can check out.
For now, here is a shortlist of the core items you need to think about.
- License and registration documents
- Owner’s manual
- Car insurance details
- Breakdown cover details
- Car phone mount and charger
- Privacy curtains
- Windscreen covers
- Car trunk organizer
- Car air bed
- Sleeping bag
- Travel Pillow
- Camping stove
- Cooking equipment
- Food and drink
- Cool box with ice
- Plates and cutlery
- Washing up equipment
- Spare wheel
- Car Jack
When you are sleeping in your car you will need to choose between using a car air bed, constructing a sleeping platform, or using a simple camping mat. If you have a larger budget you could consider a rooftop tent.
Top Tip: Make sure to take lots of water. It’s essential to have plenty for drinking, washing, and cooking. Use every opportunity you can to fill up your water bottles before heading to your final location.
Make the perfect bed
Pictured above you will see my car camping setup. A roll-up mattress will be more comfortable than a thin camping mat, which would be my least favorite option. A high-quality car air bed will, however, provide you with a very comfortable sleeping area.
It’s also important to pack sufficient bedding to keep you warm and comfortable. Your main options are:
- Sleeping bag (with a bit that covers your head)
- Space blanket
- Wooly blankets
- A travel pillow
One of the most important things for comfort when sleeping in a car is to ensure you have a flat sleeping area. If you don’t have a car with fold-flat seats, you might want to consider building a sleeping platform or using another creative solution.
Use privacy curtains
Using privacy curtains or window covers is a great way to create a cozy sleeping environment in the back of your car. If you have car sunshades, these can double up as privacy covers at night. However, for a really cozy sleeping area, you could check out these Magnetic Car Curtains.
Make insulative car window covers
During the winter months, privacy curtains won’t provide sufficient insulation to keep your sleeping area warm during the night.
If you want to lock in the heat, then you can make window covers using insulation foam. Simply purchase some insulation foam, adhesive spray, and black fabric. Cut to size and use the adhesive spray to create window covers. This won’t just give you privacy, but keep you warmer as well!
Plan an exciting road trip route
One of the best things about car camping is the journey to your sleeping location. Instead of driving directly there, why not plan an exciting road trip route with attractions along the way? Take some time to go for a hike in a scenic location or try out some local food in a small town.
We have an article with some great tips and tricks on Finding Tourist Attractions Along a Route. Remember, always leave room for spontaneity by taking the scenic route! Instead of taking the highway, take the backroads and see what you encounter.
If you’re planning an extensive journey, read our article titled How To Plan a Road Trip.
Prepare your vehicle for the road
When preparing your vehicle for the road, you must remember to bring your license, car registration, proof of insurance, and the owner’s manual.
It’s also a good idea to buy roadside assistance in case you break down. Pack items such as a jerry can, roadside emergency kit, and first aid kit. For more information check this article titled How To Prepare A Car For a Long Road Trip.
I always hit the road with a full tank of gas. There’s nothing worse than range anxiety when out in the wilderness on a camping adventure!
Find a safe place to park overnight
It’s important when SUV camping to find somewhere safe to park overnight. If you choose to stay in an urban area you could consider Walmart, casino parking lots, and religious buildings. Many of them allow overnight parking for free.
For those adventure lovers, the Bureau of Land Management-BLM Land is a great option, as well as maintained campsites. You can use the U.S National Park Service website to find nearby campgrounds!
Prepare delicious food
When car camping, it’s good to be prepared for your meals. This ensures you don’t end up spending loads of money on cheap, unhealthy food during your entire trip. When purchasing food for your trip, think about whether you have a mini-refrigerator or something to heat up your food like a camping stove.
Remember that eating healthily keeps your energy levels high, so it’s good to buy lots of healthy meals. Our Road Trip Food Ideas article has lots of recipe ideas, products, and other helpful tips.
A few items you could consider taking:
- Bullet blender – great for protein shakes, smoothies, breakfasts.
- Mini stove – excellent for cooking and doesn’t take up too much space.
- Griddle – a great way to grill meat and fish while on your trip.
Stay clean while car camping
Personal cleanliness is just as important on the road as it is at home. Thankfully, there are plenty of options available to you so you can stay clean while car camping. The first of which is a portable shower for your vehicle, which is a great option if you can find somewhere secluded to use it.
If a portable shower isn’t your style, then you can find free public showers all across the U.S, listed in the ‘public showers directory’. You could also use the showers at gyms, public swimming pools, campgrounds, or state and national parks. If you’re feeling adventurous, have a dip in a hot spring! Many more options are available, so check out our article titled 12 Places to Shower on the Road.
Crack open the windows at night to stay cool
SUV camping in hot weather can be a sticky affair, so it’s a good idea to crack open each window just a tiny bit to let the air in. Don’t open the windows too much, as you don’t want to let people know you’re in there. Another option would be opening the sunroof as it’s less noticeable.
Park in a shaded area, and feel free to use the AC before bed. However, remember to turn it off before sleeping, as it’s not safe to leave it on overnight. Seriously, DON’T DO IT. You could also put a fan next to the cracked window to draw cool air in and use thin, breathable bedding.
Our article on How To Stay Cool While Sleeping in a Car has more advice and information.
Stay warm at night but don’t leave the engine running
Sleeping in your car in cold weather can be a chilly affair, so you need to wrap up warm. Insulate your car, as this will keep it warm in the winter (and actually cooler in the summer).
You might be tempted to leave the engine running to keep yourself warm, but don’t do this. It can lead to dangerous fumes entering the vehicle while you sleep. Use a portable heater to keep yourself warm instead.
Follow these security tips
- Aim for bigger, well lit parking areas such as truck stops, Walmarts, and 24 hour shops. Be prepared to move to another space if you don’t feel safe, or book a room if needs be.
- When you’re sleeping, make sure your phone is charging so you always have the ability to call someone if required.
- Don’t post your location on social media, but let a friend or family member know where you’re parking.
- Phone a friend who stays up late if you feel unsafe at all using the bathroom or doing something late at night.
- Keep things with you that make you feel safe.
- Have a safe box that you can put important documents or items into, to protect from theft.
- Consider installing a motion sensor light to your car on the outside in case someone approaches during the night.
- Consider using a steering lock to prevent people from stealing your car when you’re away from the vehicle.
Follow these safety tips
As already stated, it’s not safe to keep the engine running, as engine fumes may enter the cabin. Use a blanket to stay warm in the winter, and crack open the windows to stay cool in the summer.
One worry is that someone might try and rob you or do you harm. The best way to mitigate that is to cover the car windows so that people can’t see in and realize there’s someone sleeping there. Plus, you won’t have light disturbing you in the morning.
You will also need to check the local rules on sleeping in your car as sometimes it’s considered vagrancy. Check out our article titled Sleeping In The Car: The Ultimate Comprehensive Guide if you want more tips on safety and comfort.
Double check everything on departure day
On your day of departure, make sure you’ve packed everything you’ll need for your trip. Apart from clothes and bedding, you’ll want to bring enough food until your next available stop to buy more.
Have your phone fully charged so whatever happens, you can call for help. If you’re camping in the winter get a thermos flask of tea or coffee so you can keep warm on your trip.
Enjoy it – car camping is supposed to be fun!
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you make a qualifying purchase, but this is at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting The Road Trip Expert.
Iain founded The Road Trip Expert in 2019 and continues to manage the website to this day. The inspiration to start the blog came during an extensive road trip around Europe with two friends that spanned several months and involved over 25,000km of driving. He started backpacking in 2014 and has had the pleasure of exploring over 60 countries. Read more on the About page.