Although backpacking rewards minimalism, car camping is a celebration of excess. Being able to pack a vehicle with gear and not have to lug it anywhere to set up camp allows for some creature comforts far from where the city lights and traffic fade. There are the obvious essentials, and then there are the often-overlooked, but freakishly awesome, items that can take any camping experience a step further.
We here at The Inertia take car camping seriously, because sometimes it’s fun to pack a bit extra and leave roughing it for another day. So we thought we would share some of our favorites that we’ve tested over the years to add a few nice-to-haves to the camping experience; whether or not they are essential items for survival. So if you’re parking it in front of your secret surf spot or hanging with the family in the woods, here are some of our favorite items that to enhance your car camping experience.
Pros: Can easily pack in tons of stuff.
Cons: Lack of pockets on the inside.
For whatever reason, camping always seems to mean lots and lots of stuff. Although you could toss it all into the trunk of your car, it’s nice to have it all organized in one place. Available in four different size options, Patagonia’s Black Hole Duffel is made with 100 percent recycled body fabric, lining, and webbing and is durable enough to withstand anything you may throw its way. Other features that make it a winner are removable, ergonomic shoulder straps, burly daisy chains, a padded base, a full-access main compartment, and a zippered side pocket for essentials.
As a side note that has nothing to do with car camping, both the 40 liter and 55 liter versions (there are also 70-liter and 100-liter options) fit in the overhead compartment on airplanes.
Pros: Long lasting ice retention. Easy portability.
Cons: Bulky for how much it can fit.
One of the greatest challenges of camping is figuring out how to keep your food, and more importantly, your beer, cold for the duration of your trip. Designed specifically for the road, the Roadie Cooler is tall enough to accommodate bottles of wine and other goodies but slim enough to fit behind the driver’s seat. Featuring Permafrost insulation, the Roadie will keep your ice icy and your cold ones cool, so all you have to worry about is having a good time.
Pros: Easy setup.
Cons: Shorter than a standard table.
A table makes a campsite that much more manageable, with the ability to cook, play games, and just organize your stuff better. While the traditional cream-colored bifold table is a staple of larger camp setups, it takes up a lot of space. This folding roll-top table from Wuromise packs down small yet doesn’t sacrifice strength, allowing for up to 225 lbs on top. With a cargo net underneath, you can keep cooking supplies, dry goods, or any number of things safely stashed out of the way. Being compact, the table does sacrifice a bit in height clocking in at 27 inches, but to be fair, most classic folding tables only add another few inches at best, clocking in at around 29 inches on average, the tallest we found going up to 34 inches.
Pros: Comfortable and easy to setup.
300 bucks is a little steep for a camping chair, but Nemo’s Stargaze Luxury Recliner comes with all the bells and whistles to make it the ultimate in comfortable experiences. Not only does the chair swing, but it also auto-reclines so you can quickly extend out for napping or stargazing. Additionally, the aluminum frames allow the chair to easily fold into the included padded carry case for seamless transport and storage.
We understand that a lot of people might not want to spend $300 on a camping chair, and that’s fair enough. If you want something that has a bit of sway to it but in a bit more reasonable price point, check out the Hammock Chair by Cascade Mountain Tech. It’s not as durable as the Stargaze, but if you treat it well it’ll give you plenty of relaxing times near the campfire.CHECK PRICE ON REI
Pros: Easy to use, solid pressure.
Cons: Shower requires constant foot-pumping.
Showers are a luxury while camping, and if you’re not in the backcountry where weight is a consideration, they’re definitely a luxury worth having. The Nemo Helio is a simple and straightforward design and it packs down small when not filled with water. With an 11-Liter capacity, and foot pump to pressurize the system, you’ve got a 5-7 minute long shower with solid pressure, though it does require a bit of foot-pumping while you’re showering to keep the high-pressure flow alive. The black color absorbs heat from the sun to warm the water, so if you’re camping somewhere sunny, you may even score a warm shower. Best of all? It comes with a lifetime warranty. That said, if you want something a little more luxurious, check out our guide to the Best Portable Showers for some battery-powered options.
Pros: Easy to use, multiple color options.
Cons: On the bulkier side.
A good lantern is essential for hanging out, cooking, and playing games post sunset. The AlpenGlow is a rechargeable lantern that doubles as a portable charging port for USB compatible devices. Featuring high-efficiency ChromaReal LED technology, the lantern has multiple settings including cool and warm light, candle flicker, single color, multicolor, and cycling color, so you can easily adjust the ambiance according to your mood.
Pros: Easy to regulate the fire’s intensity.
Cons: Takes up a lot of space.
Nothing says camping better than cozying up next to a warm fire. BioLite’s FirePit+ is a super unique, portable design that burns wood or charcoal to create a hyper efficient fire. The fire pit sports 51 air jets that inject the fire with oxygen along key locations, creating a uniform temperature and mixing of gases inside the fire to improve combustion and reduce smoke. The fire pit also features an updated 12,800 mAh battery that runs the fan on the fire for up to 30 hrs. on a single charge. It also includes USB-A outputs and micro-USB inputs so you can charge your phone and other essentials while you chill. The legs of the fire pit fold and a travel bag is included, making it perfect for packing along for road trips and car camping trips.
Pros: Nice and warm yet packs up easily.
Cons: Sparks from the fire could leave a hole in the material.
Regardless of what time of year you’re camping, a warm blanket is essential for chilling in the car or hanging by the fire. The NanoLoft fill mimics the feel of down while still trapping heat even when wet, offering that comfy cozy feel. Additionally, the blanket includes a water-resistant stuff sack and a cape clip that allows you to fasten it around your neck when you need your hands free.
Pros: Lightweight, packs down small.
Cons: Not great for more than one person.
Who doesn’t enjoy lounging in a hammock alongside a creek or overlooking the ocean? Klymit’s single hammock includes two 10 foot tree straps with 18 daisy chains each and two aluminum carabiners, so you can easily set it up anywhere. Designed to withstand the elements, the hammock is made with abrasion-resistant fabric and packs down into its own pocket for easy transport. Be sure to check out our best hammocks article for more options.
Pros: Warm yet breathable.
If you like to camp with you spouse, your kids, or the dog, the Nemo Jazz 30 may be the bag for you. A doublewide sleeping bag designed to comfortably sleep two, the Jazz 30 has all the comforts of your bed at home while on the road. The Jazz 30 includes a built-in bedsheet for toasty nights, a pillow pocket to ensure your pillow stays under your head, and an integrated pad sleeve—it pairs perfectly the Nemo Roamer sleeping pad. The sleeping bag comes with an oversized duffel that can store both the bag and pads, making transportation and storage a breeze. Looking for more couples camping gear? Here’s our favorite camping gear for couples.
Pros: Supremely comfortable, durable design and easy inflation.
Cons: Doesn’t pack down super small, a little wide for the back of most cars.
REI has created a winner in the camping mattress category with their four-inch-thick Camp Dreamer Double Self-Inflating Deluxe Bed. The bed is easily one of the best nights sleep our experienced gear testers have had out in the field, with four inches of air-supported foam for a dreamy experience whether you prefer a firm bed or a soft one. The two-valve system was also a favorite feature, supported by the included inflation bag that helps finish up the pad’s self-inflation process.
Another stand-out feature of the pad was its durability – we have dragged this one out into the brush for nights under the starts, spent days lounging on it in the tent, and it has stood up. While we don’t condone pushing your luck with inflatable sleeping pads, it’s nice to know this one can be trusted. The one negative we found was that the pad is a bit wide to fit perfectly in the back of most wagons/midsize SUVs, be sure to check measurements if you plan on using this as a car-bed setup.CHECK PRICE ON REI
Pros: Roomy and spacious.
Cons: Needs at least two people to setup.
The North Face Wawona 6 is an absolutely giant camping tent. We loved it so much that we gave it the nod for Best Car Camping Tent in our recent Best Camping Tents article.It has an impressively roomy 6.3-foot peak height and walls roughly the same. Multiple people can stand or set up chairs inside the tent, it’s that good. Made from thick, durable materials, it has two full doors and a bag full of extra-large, extra-thick aluminum poles. You’ll be surprised when setting it up that poles that thick do bend that much — but they do! — and are color-coded to match the sleeves for a setup that won’t have you cursing the frustration away. But setup is still a two-person job due to the height and the bend of the poles.
Beyond the extra-large interior and quality components, the real kicker of The North Face Wawona 6 is the huge vestibule. It’s more than a vestibule — it’s an entire room. The North Face decided to turn the obligatory “extra space” feature into a connected tunnel of sorts, which has to be staked separately and offers two extra-large side doors. This means you can have a private room, a spacious place to eat lunch in the shade or simply throw all your dirty sandals after a full day of river-rock-hopping.
If price is a concern, check out the Coleman Sundome 6 ($129) It has plenty of room and costs less than most concert tickets these days. For something even more durable and spacious (albeit a few hundred dollars more), check out the canvas flex-bow tents from Kodiak. We love how rugged they are. They are fairly heavy and bulky when packed, but if your vehicle can fit it, it’s our choice for stays longer than a weekend.CHECK PRICE ON REI
Pros: Could save your life in an emergency.
Cons: Subscription required.
Depending on where you’re posted up for the night, you may or may not have cell service. The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is compact satellite communicator that will allow you to stay in touch anywhere your travels take you, whether that’s a rest stop in the middle of nowhere or a backcountry slice of BLM land. If you decide to venture out of cell service, the inReach is only 3.5 oz. and has 14 days of battery life, so it’s easy to pack along. It provides two-way communication, tracking, and interactive SOS capabilities, so not only will you be able to send for help in an emergency, but you’ll also be able to keep loved ones up-to-date on your whereabouts.
Pros: Gives your site unparalleled ambiance.
Cons: Need AC power to plug into.
LED lights have been a game changer for a while now, giving reliable lighting solutions at a fraction of the power consumption on traditional lightbulbs. But they didn’t always look so great compared to their counterparts, until now. With these outdoor patio lights, you can illuminate the campsite to get a fun outdoor party vibe well into dawn, even far away from the campfire, but still retain the warm color of an incandescant bulb. We liked this string of 100 feet, and found it worked great in a variety of weather conditions.
They do require plug-in power though, so unless your campsite has a power outlet you may need to see below for our next recommendation.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Pros: Powers up your devices or lights. Can combine with solar panel for renewable power.
Cons: Not good for inclement weather.
While a hybrid or Tesla might be able to charge your phone and laptop 100,000 times without worrying about a dead battery, not everyone drives a battery-powered vehicle (yet). Until then, theres nothing like a portable battery to keep the lights on. GoalZero’s line of Yeti power stations can do a whole lot more than just charge your phone – the 500X can power almost anything from portable fridges to televisions. If the portable power station is too beastly for you, the Boulder 50 Solar Panel is a great compact, portable option for times when you’re posting up in the sun. Or, for simple, on-the-go charging, the Sherpa 100PD Power Bank gets the job done.
Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.