September 18, 2020

Essential gear for car camping

Here is a packing list of all the camping gear you need for a fun, successful, and safe car camping experience. We recommend that you keep separate bins for each category for better organization and easier access. We have broken it down into 6 categories:

By the way, if you plan to camp in the American Southwest, we have car camping gear rentals in Las Vegas. We can also ship you the rental items of your choice to anywhere in the United States (shipping and handling fees apply). For more info, check out our car camping gear rental program and our camping gear reviews.

A WORD OF CAUTION: Park visitor centers are closed and emergency services are far away and limited. If you leave the comfort and safety of your house, you do so at your own risk! Please be smart, practice good ethics, follow Leave-No-Trace principles, and BE CAREFUL.

Camping gear
Camping gear for rent
Disclaimer: This photo is only for show. NEVER put your kitchen inside your tent!!!

Expand the view of each item below for more information. Here’s a printable checklist of all the camping gear mentioned below:

Emergency gear

Keep these items in your vehicle at all times! They can be put away in a box in the most hard-to-reach spot in your car. You don’t want to use these items unless you absolutely have to. In case of emergency, you’ll most likely have to take everything out of your vehicle in order to get to this box. Aside for the below items, also place in this box:

  • Emergency food (i.e., a few Clif bars)
  • Extra water (i.e., a six-pack of Dasani)
  • A few dozen feet of reflective cord
  • Headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries (you should have 2 or three light sources – one in your emergency box, another in your glove box, and a third in your hiking bag)
  • First aid kit – this should be a second, more complete kit than the one you obviously already have in your hiking/biking bag or in your toiletries kit (see camping attire section below)
Take as many blankets as would fit in your vehicle! You have an option of fleece, down, and/or wool blend blankets (we do not recommend the military-style wool blankets – they are too stiff and itchy to be comfortable). All do wonders, and you don’t have to wait for an emergency to use them. These are great for chilly evenings, reading in bed during the day, watching the stars in the middle of the night, whenever.

Examples:

The Big Agnes Dotsero Down blanket comes in one huge size but packs down really small and provides incredibly soft warmth. We recommend you keep this one with your sleeping gear (see below). 

The Stansport Wood Blend Camp blanket should be stocked in your emergency box for really chilly nights. This blanket is 55% wool and 45% polyester, and only a bit softer than the cheaper military-style blankets. Wool maintains heat retention capabilities even when wet and it’s naturally water-repellent, so this blanket will come in handy in wet weather.

Example: CO-Z Mini Folding Shovel
This is a lightweight, durable, multi-functional, collapsible shovel. It doesn’t take much space in the car, and it will come handy on dirt roads or icy situations. Among other functions, use it to dig a tire out of sand, move large rocks out of your way, or clear snow around your vehicle.
Maybe even TWO full-size spare tires? Do yourself a favor right now, go out to your vehicle and check that the spare tire you have – whether a donut or full size – (1) actually goes with the car that you have, and (2) that you have all the tools in your car to change a tire, including a jack that fits your car. Now do yourself a second favor: Before you leave for a roadtrip on dirt roads, (1) get two full size spare tires for your vehicle, and (2) check that the tires are at the appropriate air pressure.
Example: WindGallop Portable Air Compressor
This air compressor is easy to use and very quick at inflating. A bicycle pump will also work, but will take much longer and much more energy out of you. We also recommend a tire repair kit, but make sure you know how to use it if you want it to work well!
Different people have different preferences for the actual GPS device. Here’s a great blog about which GPS is best for you. The important thing is to download the correct maps onto your device before heading out.

Examples:

For hiking, you can use the Garmin GPSMAP 64st, which includes preloaded topo maps for the entire USA, plus a 1-year BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription.

For driving, you can use your Smartphone and download the specific maps from the GAIA App.

Never rely on your GPS alone! Make sure you have the latest edition of Rand McNally in your vehicle, PLUS the National Geographic waterproof topo maps of wherever it is that you’re going. This is a general Southwest map as an example, but there are even more detailed maps for the regions within the Southwest, so pick the ones you’re going to. And bring a compass only if you know how to use it. Otherwise, it’s useless.

Sleeping gear

This is your overnight camping gear. Keep this in the next hardest-to-reach spot in your vehicle, maybe in front of your emergency box. You only need to access this box when you arrive at a new campsite. You want your sleeping gear to be as comfortable as you can make it in order to get a good night sleep. It should be super quick and easy to put up at night and take down in the morning.

Example: Big Agnes Blacktail tent
This tent is free-standing, easy to set-up and breakdown (one person can easily do it in less than 5 minutes), and it is spacious inside and out. It has two doors and two vestibules (once the fly is up). The rainfly comes all the way down, which is a great plus in cold or stormy weather, and fly and door vents allow for venting options. The best thing about this tent, and Big Agnes in particular, is that it comes in a large stuff sack for easy packing.

Before heading out, make sure your tent has all the necessary accessories, including ground tarp, tent stakes and guylines.

NOTE: The Big Agnes Sheep Mountain 4 tent is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory. In case you want to buy this tent, the Sheep Mountain series is only sold as group gear to outfitters. Should you want to purchase it for personal use, we can talk to Big Agnes about it to make it happen. Otherwise, it may be available on Amazon.

Examples: Big Agnes tent stakes, mallet, ground tarp, guylines

Your tent most likely already comes with guylines that you can use to tie it down in windy conditions. If you need more cord, remember that you have some reflective cord in your emergency box.

Your tent, of course, already comes with tent stakes, but if you’re heading to the desert, especially locations in the Southwest of the United States, you need durable stakes to hammer into the hard ground (get a simple mallet for this purpose in case you can’t find big enough rocks for the job). The thin stakes that come with your tent are great for soft grassy surfaces, but they will immediately bend in the desert. We recommend to get a six-pack of the Big Agnes tent stakes when you purchase your tent. These are made of lightweight durable aluminum so they won’t bend or break (unlike the plastic stakes sold at Walmart).

You also want to make sure you put a waterproof ground tarp underneath your tent to protect it from abrasion and from picking up ground moisture.
NOTE: This is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Example: Big Agnes Two Track sleeping pad

These pads are extremely comfortable, surprisingly durable, and offer supreme insulation! They come in short, regular, and long sizes that are all lightweight and roll up quite small, yet inflate to 2″. It takes seconds for them to self-inflate to 1″, then a few seconds more to blow them up to maximum thickness. It’s also possible to micro-adjust the firmness of the pad using a two-way valve that allows for quick inflation and deflation. Their only downfall is that they are so slippery, but Big Agnes also makes sleeping bags with sleeping pad attachment sleeves in order to avoid sliding onto the cold ground. For couples, Big Agnes also makes the heavier Hinman Sleeping pad which comes in a double-wide size. Again a bonus from Big Agnes, they come in large stuff sacks for easy packing.

NOTE: The Big Agnes Two Track sleeping pad is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Example: Big Agnes Lost Dog sleeping bag

Sleeping bags come in all shapes and sizes for all sorts of different activities and temperatures. This is a short and to-the-point account about things to consider when choosing the right sleeping bag for you. As you’ve already noticed, we are big fans of Big Agnes for their attention to warmth, comfort, and packability. For car camping, we recommend their Lost Dog series for its versatility. It comes in four different temperature ratings, all of which pack down small and are fairly lightweight. This bag is a cross between rectangular and mummy shape, giving your feet a bit more room to move, but not too much that it gathers any cool air pockets. It has separate sleeves for the sleeping pad and pillow, so you never slide off onto the cold ground. For couples, Big Agnes also makes a double-wide size Dream Island sleeping bag.

Example: Big Agnes Q Core camping pillow

For ultimate comfort, you can add a pillow to your camping kit. The better the pillow, the more protection you’ll have for your back and neck and the better sleep you’ll get. Of course you could stuff your clothes into a stuff sack and use that as your pillow, but you’re risking uneven padding distribution which may result in restless sleep.

*unless you’re sleeping in your car.

Kitchen gear

You want this box accessible when you reach camp, or if you plan to cook a picnic lunch on the road. Depending on size, these items may not fit in a box and you may have to spread them out throughout your vehicle. Just make sure you know where everything is and keep all items within arm’s reach when you open the car door.

Example: Coleman 2-burner camping stove

It’s the classic propane 2-burner camping stove that you can pick up at Walmart. We have tested the equivalent CampChef, Ozark Trail, and Eureka stoves and found them to be just as good as the Coleman, despite being more expensive! All companies also make upgraded stoves with self-igniters, but they seem to fail quickly, so might as well stick with the good ole’ long-stem lighter. Don’t forget the propane!

NOTE: The Coleman 2-burner camping stove is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Examples: Coleman Propane and long-stem lighter

Your stove is no good without a power source. In the case of the Coleman 2-burner camping stove you need propane and a lighter. If you get a lightweight backpacking stove, such as the MSR PocketRocket, you’ll most likely need isobutane. Just don’t forget these essential items!

Example: Lifetime camping table

How much space do you have in your vehicle? If you have a large van, get this height-adjustable table. It’s nice and sturdy and comes with a carrying handle. If you don’t have much space, consider the Big Agnes Soul kitchen table.

Example: Coleman 50L cooler

It may be big and bulky, but it has to be in order to be well-insulated. If you need extra space in the car, you can go with a collapsible cooler, but it doesn’t keep things cool as long as a rigid cooler. Speaking of keeping things cooler for longer, we recommend supplementing weekend trips with reusable ice packs so you wouldn’t have to stop for ice so much.

Examples: Sierra Dawn Campsuds Biodegradable Soap, hand sanitizer, and dish rags. Also necessary are trash bags, and zip lock bags.

Cooking gear

If it fits, you can combine the kitchen and cooking gear in one box. You need both fairly handy when you stop the car to prepare food.

Example: GSI Outdoors Halulite 3.2L

This lightweight cooking pot with lid will amaze you with its heating speed. Not that any of that matters while car camping, but it is just so cool and convenient! This pot comes in three sizes: 2L, 3.2L, and 4.7L. We found that 2L is never enough for a 2-person meal, though it could be OK for one person, and 4.7L unnecessarily takes too much space in the storage box. Hence 3.2L is the perfect size for 2 people. The best things about this pot are its silicone thumb pads and holes in the lid that make straining pasta safe, secure, simple, and fun (seriously, it’s fun!)

Update: GSI Outdoors just came out with a new 3L pot, the Escape Collapsible Pot. We haven’t had a chance to try it out just yet, but it looks like a better alternative to the Halulite because it is non-stick and collapsible.

NOTE: The GSI Outdoors Halulite 3.2L is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Example: GSI Outdoors Bugaboo 10″ frying pan

This durable, sturdy, non-stick, lightweight frying pan heats up evenly and is very easy to clean. It comes in three sizes: 8″, 10″, and 12″. We found that 8″ is too small for a 2-person meal, though it could be OK for one person, and 12″ unnecessarily takes too much space in the storage box. Hence 10″ is the perfect size for 2 people.

NOTE: The GSI Outdoors Bugaboo 10″ frying pan is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Example: GSI Outdoors Santoku 6″

It’s a knife. In all honesty, there’s not much that sets this knife apart from any other knife of the same size and shape. The only thing we urge you to check is that the knife you get comes with a protective sheath. You do not want any emergencies to arise from digging into your cooking box!

NOTE: The GSI Outdoors Santoku 6″ is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Your cooking utensils should include:

  • Spatula
  • Ladel
  • Big spoon
  • Tongs
  • Bottle opener
  • Car opener
  • Cutting board

GSI Outdoors sells the spatula, ladle, and big spoon as a 3-piece set. They are simple, light-weight utensils that won’t scar the surfaces of the Bugaboo frying pan and the Halulite sauce pan. Tongs, bottle opener, can opener, and cutting board are sold separately.  

NOTE: These items are all part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Your eating utensils should include:

  • Fork
  • Knife
  • Spoon
  • Bowl with lid
  • Insulated mug with lid
  • Drinking glass
  • Full-sized plate

GSI Outdoors sells the Infinity Table Set, a one-person set that includes all of the above in a mesh stuff sack. You don’t really need much more than that! Notice that the bowl comes with a lid, so it doubles as a leftovers container.   

NOTE: The GSI Outdoors Infinity Table Set is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Camp life

The other things. These are the items that are absolutely necessary for car camping but don’t fit in the other categories. Aside for the headlamp (unless you remember to keep one in the glove compartment), these items don’t need to be kept handy. When you arrive at a campground, once the kitchen and bedding is set up, then you can move on to get these items out and situate.

ExampleGSI Outdoors Cube 20L

This is a collapsible water jug for all your camp watering needs. Although GSI Outdoors makes the Cube in three sizes (10L, 15L, and 20L), we think the 20L is best for car camping. When collapsed, it doesn’t take much room in the car. When full, you’ll always have more water than you need.

NOTE: The GSI Outdoors Cube 20L is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

ExampleGSI Outdoors Java Press 30 fl.oz. and GSI Outdoors Glacier Vacuum Bottle 1L

This should probably be a category of its own. We actually wrote a whole different blog about it. There are many great ways to make coffee, but after doing extensive research, we’ve decided to settle on the GSI Outdoors JavaPress for our car camping needs. The reason: This is the quickest way to make the most mud-free coffee with the least amount of clean-up. You can also use it to make loose-leaf tea. Though this press comes in smaller and bigger sizes, we chose the 30 fl. oz. press so we can make a second batch of coffee in the morning to keep in the thermos for later (in the GSI Outdoors 1L vacuum bottle, of course).

DetourOn Tip: 30 fl.oz. take roughly 1L of water (or one Nalgene-full) so you don’t have to guestimate the amount of water to boil, and it also happens to make the exact amount of coffee that the thermos can hold.

NOTE: The GSI Outdoors Java Press 30 fl. oz. and GSI Outdoors Glacier Vacuum Bottle 1L are part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Example: UCO Madrona camping lantern

Gotta have light! UCO has some really cool products that would make for awesome stocking stuffers and birthday presents. But let’s talk about their lanterns. The Madrona comes in two styles: It either runs on 3 D-cell batteries or on a rechargeable battery. It has a light output of dim to high and a blue light for night vision. The coolest thing about it, though, is it’s magnetic quick-connect lanyard for mounting the lantern to a tent, tree, or post. Or just set it on a tabletop or flat surface for traditional use.

NOTE: The UCO Madrona camping lantern is part of the DetourOn rentals inventory.

Example: Black Diamond Storm 400

Gotta have light when you’re moving about! We really like the versatility of the Black Diamond Storm 400. It’s extremely bright when you need it to be (400 lumen with a spot to 100m distance) but it can also dim down to a dispersed 8 lumens for reading in bed. And it’s waterproof, in case it starts raining on you.

Example: Helinox Chair One

There’s such a big choice out there for camp chairs. Leave this purchase for last and see how much space you have in your vehicle, then decide on the one for you. The Helinox Chair One falls somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t take much space, but it isn’t tiny either. It isn’t heavy, but it’s not feather-light either. Happy medium.

Camping attire

We’re not gonna get into too much detail here. Feel free to print out our packing list for reference, but you do you! We have a separate section in the checklist for toiletries, clothing, things to pack in a hiking bag, and other miscellaneous items.

Conclusion

Here’s a printable camping gear checklist of all of the above. Especially during these times of extreme uncertainty, you should take all safety precautions possible before heading out to remote areas. Remember, if you plan to camp in the American Southwest, we have car camping gear rentals in Las Vegas. Refer to this blog from Backwoods for responsible social distancing. Whatever you choose to do, have a great time out there and be safe!

A WORD OF CAUTION: Park visitor centers are closed and emergency services are far away and limited. If you leave the comfort and safety of your house, you do so at your own risk! Please be smart, practice good ethics, follow Leave-No-Trace principles, and BE CAREFUL.

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