Complete Car Camping Packing List:
I see this question asked a lot in camping groups, “We’re going camping, what do I need to pack?”
When you’re new to camping, it can be intimidating trying to figure out what to pack for car camping. The basic answer is food, shelter and sleeping gear (sleeping bags and sleeping pads), but the long answer depends on what kind of camping you like doing. We recommend going back to the basics for your first car camping experience.
“We just bought a tent, what are the car camping essentials we need to buy?”
The phrase “car camping essentials” means different things to different campers. We are middle of the road car campers, we have nice tents and sleeping gear, but enjoy cooking right over the fire and don’t bring fans or A/C. So not super rustic, but not glamping either.
We have the free, printable car camping checklist PDF, here:
This is the actual car camping checklist we made over 10 years ago. We’ve slightly refined the checklist over many car camping trips and we still use it, no matter what kind of camping trip we’re taking. This is just the basics to pack for a car camping trip, if you’re taking infants or toddlers, you should reference those lists separately.
I love printing this list and checking everything off before a packing for a camping trip with my family. There are extra lines for adding your own custom items to the packing list too, so you can ensure that nothing is left behind. This list has everything you’ll need to pack for your car camping trip!
For reference, when we talk about “car camping” we mean driving to a camping site and pitching a tent. We do not mean actually sleeping in your car, which seems to be taking over the definition of car camping.
Car Camping Essentials:
- Car Camping Tent
The bonus about packing for car camping is that you can bring a big tent since you’re not carrying it on your back. If you’re camping with an infant or young toddler, you will love this Marmot 6 person tent because the pack n play fits in it so nicely. That was literally the selling point for us. It holds our family of 3 no problem, and could easily accommodate 2 adults and 2-3 kids depending on sleeping arrangements.
When looking for a tent, do NOT get the size of tent for the number of people you have. In our experience, 4 people will not fit comfortably in a 4 person tent. We have a 3 person tent for backpacking with just the 2 Adult Critterz, and the 6 person tent for car camping when all 3 of us go. You will want to get at least 1 size up because you’ll want room to store some gear inside the tent.
Vestibules on tents are also great, both of our Marmot tents have nice sized ones that can hold shoes, hiking boots and other gear. It’s also a great place to store camp chairs or fire wood if there is rain in the forecast.
- Sleeping Bag
If you’re going during warm weather, you don’t need a crazy expensive mummy bag for car camping. You will be ok packing standard sleeping bags, it doesn’t have to pack down to the size of a burrito either since it’s going in the car. Tiny Critter now sleeps in the sleeping bag that Momma Critter went to sleepovers in back in the early 90s.
If you’re camping in cooler weather, bring a warmer sleeping bag and check out our camping in cold weather tips.
- Sleeping Mattress /sleeping pad and air pump if needed.
When car camping we bring our standard queen size blow up mattress. It’s comfy and fits nicely in the tent. It’s also good if Tiny Creature wants to snuggle, then he can’t slip between two separate mattresses. You don’t need anything fancy if you’re car camping. You should opt for comfort. Don’t forget the air pump! You can go with an electric or manual air pump.
Other campers prefer a cot over an inflatable mattress. Daddy critter likes cots, but Momma critter is a side sleeper and her arm goes numb if she sleeps on a cot too long. The Coleman camping cot is an awesome combo of cot and air mattress. It holds 600 pounds and it quite sturdy. It weighs 40-50 pounds so it won’t be a great idea to take this to a walk-in site, but it would be just fine for car camping.
Inflatable sleeping pads are also good, but a lot of them are more expensive and are better suited for backpack camping over a standard car camping trip. We do have 2 Exped Synmats that are awesome insulated sleeping pads. They inflate quickly by hand, so no need for a pump.
Bring your normal pillow, no need to scrimp on space and bring a blow-up camping pillow. We do recommend changing the pillow cases to something less fancy than you normally use. There will be dirt and campfire smoke, so it’s best to not ruin those 900 thread count bamboo pillow cases when you can have a lovely flannel pillow case that’s camping themed!
- Camping Clothing
Dress for the weather, and pack one warmer or colder outfit. Pack rain gear (at least a rain jacket for everyone, rain pants if you want to be super dry) if you plan on staying at your campsite even if it rains. Bring sturdy hiking shoes or hiking boots for exploring and pack a pair of flip-flops or slip on shoes for middle of the night bathroom runs. Have at least one extra outfit for each kid, you never know when one of your Critterz will discover a mud puddle or get their pants wet wading in a stream.
When we pack for car camping, we take 1 shirt, pair of underwear and pair of socks for each day, and 1 pair of pants for every 2 days. Then we pack 1 extra pair of socks per person, nothing is worse than wet socks. Momma Critter will pack 1 long sleeve shirt and 1 sweatshirt for layering.
So if you’re packing for a weekend trip (Friday evening to Sunday Morning), that’s 3 T-shirts, 3 pairs of underwear, 4 pairs of socks, 1 long sleeve shirt, and 1 sweatshirt per camper. Daddy critter will pack one less of everything, considering he’s already wearing his Friday outfit when we get there.
At least one pair of socks for each camper is a pair of Smart wool socks. They’re merino wool socks that keep your feet warm but not itchy.
For the Tiny Critter we pack one pair of PJs per night, the adults pack one pair of PJs per 3 days.
We all have our own hiking boots that are worn on every camping trip, from car camping to backpacking. Tiny Critter was excited to get his own hiking boots and graduate up from hiking in his shoes. They do make hiking shoes, but all of us Critterz appreciate the ankle support a good hiking boot gives us.
We also bring a large Waterproof Dry Bag for dirty clothes. When you pack them away in the dry bag, your tent doesn’t stink like dirty clothes, it’s amazing.
- Camping Chairs
Most sites have a picnic table at them, but you will want to pack camp chairs for sitting around by the fire. Bring whatever you have, no need for them to be expensive super lightweight packable options. You just need a chair to relax in after a long day of exploring and having fun. Our favorite chairs have cup holders for our water bottles because camping is thirsty work.
Check out our post on the best camp chairs for kids to get ideas for your little ones.
- Lantern/Head Lamp
You will like appreciate having a lantern for the table or tent as ambient light as well as everyone having their own headlamp. Bringing enough headlamps is awesome for a night hike or trips to the bathroom at night. We like the goal zero because you can choose to only have one side of the light on so you’re not blinding the whole campground while you’re playing board games before bedtime.
- Kitchen Basics
For car camping you want to pack silverware, plate, bowl and cup for everyone. Then go over your meal list and think of everything you’ll need to make that meal. You’ll need to pack mixing bowls, spatulas, cutting board, frying pan, tin foil, whisk, measuring cups, water bottles etc. Going to a thrift store is amazing for camping kitchen gear. It doesn’t have to match your kitchen, it just has to be functional. Try our tips for getting cheap gear if you want to buy camping-specific cookware at a great price.
We have a camp kitchen tote bin pre-packed with all of our stuff so we don’t have to scurry around before hand wondering if we have the right stuff packed. We know what the basics are that we always have packed and add from there if we’re doing something different.
Don’t forget to pack the spices. Spices are the key to making camping meals taste better. Any dehydrated meal tastes better with some kind of garlic seasoning and you can’t go wrong with adding cinnamon to oatmeal or toast.
One of the things that always needs to be replenished after a car camping trip is trash bags. Camping etiquette says that if you pack it in, you pack it out, so you should always have a few trash bags on hand so your garbage isn’t getting all over or being left behind. We just use standard kitchen trash bags.
One random thing that ends up in the camp kitchen box is duct tape. Duct tape will help with a broken tent pole, ripped screen tent or leaky hiking boot. Some people wrap a few feet of duct tape around their water bottle so it’s always handy.
Did we mention water bottles? Have one water bottle per camper so everyone can stay hydrated. Hydro packs are cool and we bring those too, but when you’re hanging around the campsite, keep a water bottle handy.
- Camp Cooler
We’re a yeti cooler family, but there are many other cooler brands to choose from for car camping, and all of them will keep food cold. We have a yeti 65, which means Momma Critter can carry it when it’s empty, but once it’s loaded with food it’s a team effort.
- Camp Food
Pack two more meals than you think you’ll need and bring at least one option that doesn’t require the cooler or the stove. We once forgot to pack more fuel for our camp stove, so we needed a quick meal that didn’t require the stove before we ran off to the nearest store. If it’s raining and you’re inside the tent for a bit, making everyone a meat and cheese tortilla roll up is our go-to.
When camping, being outside and expending energy tends to make us Critterz more hungry than normal, so bring extra easy to serve snacks like jerky, crackers, string cheese and pretzels. Easy cheese and crackers are a fun snacktivity and have a surprising amount of protein for your crew!
Momma Critter isn’t always a fan of the taste of campground water in it’s natural state, so bringing some kind of easy water flavoring (Mio, Tang) might help the Little Critters drink more water. The above picture is the campground potable water in it’s natural state. Completely safe to drink, just a little mineral flavor.
We measure some things out at home and bring a few baggies of pre-measured rice so we’re not messing with bringing the entire box of rice and a measuring cup. If you do this make sure you have a good water bottle with measurements on it so you can get the right amount of water too.
We often bring our two-burner camp stove for cooking and our backpacking canister stove for boiling water quickly. If you’re the kind of Critter that needs coffee or tea right away in the morning, you don’t want to set up the whole big stove to heat a saucepan of water. We love how fast our Jet Boil gets us boiling water.
The stove is the focal point of the whole camp kitchen, so you’ll want a good brand. The best stove to get is one you’re comfortable using, so if everyone around you is getting a Blackstone for camping, but that’s just not your thing, buy what you’ll use. Our list just says to pack the stove, so it’s up to you to decide what that means.
Lighters are a must for having a campfire and lighting the camp stove if your stove doesn’t have an automatic igniter. We never camp without packing a lighter in each pack. They’re also great for preventing the ends of paracord from fraying.
- Fire starters
There isn’t an award for starting a fire with one match and no fire starter (we checked). We love making our own fire starters, but there are many great options to purchase and try out. Our current favorite are Black Beard Fire Starters (use our link for 10% off!). Check out our post on fire building for more details.
Momma Critter’s multitool has come in handy so many different times. Momma Critter has had hers for probably 20 years and it’s still going strong. The knife is the most used, but it’s also a pliers, scissors, screwdriver and a bottle opener. It cannot be praised enough, there is one in each car in the Critter household. You will never regret having a multitool on your camping packing list.
Health and First Aid:
- Bathroom Basics
Remember a toothbrush for everyone, a single tube of toothpaste, any medications you regularly take or might need, deodorant and shower stuff. Momma Critter also needs contact stuff and her glasses case along with a mirror for putting in contacts. If you bring individual floss picks, please take them with you, they’re quickly becoming the number one piece of trash at campsites, right behind twist ties.
Occasionally nature calls while you’re out on a hike, so it’s never a bad idea to bring along some toilet paper. Other times the outhouses have been completely out of toilet paper, so we always have a roll handy.
- Bug Spray
We’re not anti-bug, but we definitely recommend bug spray as a must-have item on the packing list for most camping trips. Nothing ruins a nice evening faster than slapping bugs away every 5 seconds. Deet is our answer to any bug problems as we live in Minnesota where mosquitos are plentiful.
We also pre-treat one set of clothes with Permethrin for tick prevention. That set of clothes gets packed away with the camping stuff for the season and pre-treated again in the spring. We treat one pair of socks, one pair of pants, and one long-sleeved button-up shirt per camper.
It’s very important to not get sunburned on your camping trip. Apply as needed and don’t forget to reapply! Our little guy loves Blue Lizard brand, and the kind we have has an awesome cap that turns blue when it’s sunny enough to need sunscreen.
- First Aid Kit
Momma Critter is a nurse, so each car has a giant first aid kit in it already, but we also pack a smaller first aid kit with things that are more camping related. Blister band-aids, normal band-aids and anti-itch cream are at the top of the packing list for the first aid kit. We also make sure we have a tweezers for slivers, a cold pack for bigger bumps and standard pain relievers. Check out our comprehensive first aid kit list.
Camping Fun and Extras:
- Camping Activities
We like to have some kind of easy to pack outdoor activity and a smaller tent activity with when car camping. Stomp Rockets are great for outside, and card games are an awesome rainy-day back up for inside the tent. Our little guy also loves these story dice in the tent when we’re winding down for bedtime. Glow sticks are always a big hit as well and they make a fun nightlight inside the tent or are great for night time games. Use our suggestions or add your own fun items to the packing list!
- Notebook for making a list of what you need for next time
We have 2 note books, one for documenting our camping experiences and another for making notes on what to pack differently next time. We’ve pretty much retired the second note book at this point, but it is essential for your first few car camping trips.
Get the full car camping packing list to see our comprehensive list of what should be in the big categories like Camp Food and Camping Kitchen Basics.
You can bring other things that aren’t car camping essentials, but will add a few more comforts to your camping trip. This is the fun part where you can fine tune your car camping checklist and bring the camping gear that is really important to you and your family.
- Screen tent
These big screen tents are great for putting over a picnic table for bug-free eating. You can also use them as a large play pen for wandering toddlers, you’ll appreciate giving them a little freedom without giving them free reign of the campground. Daddy Critter got this awesome screen tent pavillion for Father’s day. It sets up in minutes and is super sturdy. The tiny critter loves playing in it, camping or not.
- Small rug for shoes outside the tent
It seems silly to bring a rug camping, but it’s so nice to have a designated shoe area and a reminder for the Tiny Critter to take his shoes off before going in the tent. Just having a place to wipe our feet keeps so much dirt and sand out of the tent. We like when the great outdoors stays out of the tent.
If you plan to go on day hikes while camping, you’ll need a day pack. If you’re going on a hike, it’s important to bring snacks and water. A daypack is the best way to carry all of these items so you don’t have to worry about them while hiking or scrambling up hills. We love our Osprey hydro-pack because it makes carrying water hands-free and spill proof.
- Foam squares
Putting these foam mats in the bottom of the tent and is the BEST! It not only makes your tent warmer, but it also makes kneeling or sitting on the floor of the tent comfortable. You’ll only kneel on one acorn before you buy a pack of these, we promise. I especially love having them between the pack n play and my mattress, for middle of the night diaper changes.
We’ve recently also tried moving blankets, and while they do insulate the bottom of the tent nicely, they don’t add much cushion to walk on.
- Extra carabiners and clothes line
You never know when you’ll need to hang something from a tree limb, or fasten something to the outside of a backpack. Don’t get the expensive carabiners that are for climbing, you should get something small like these. They’re also awesome for hanging things from a clothesline, somehow when you’re camping with kids stuff gets wet and dirty easier.
Why don’t you list fire wood?
We don’t list firewood as something to bring because where we live in Minnesota, we are told NOT to move firewood due to invasive insects that are killing trees.
Most campsites will have wood for sale on site that was harvested locally. There are places that will want to inspect your firewood if you bring any and it will have to have a tag stating where it was harvested and that it was kiln dried to be allowed in. That’s too much to mess with, so we buy firewood once we get there. It saves space when packing anyway, and it’s usually $5-$6 per bundle.
That is our complete packing list for car camping. All the items talked about above are listed individually on the list, so you can check them all off individually to be sure you packed it all! Check it out and add your own items in the customizable section!
Let us know in the comments, what is your must-have camping gear?
I’m Molly Foss, aka Momma Critter. I’ve been camping since I was 9 years old and I always wanted to be Robin Hood and live in the forest when I grew up. I’m excited to share my love of camping with my son as he grows up. My favorite thing to do while camping is roast marshmallows over the fire.