9 car camping essentials for summer road trips

Camping luggage tightly packed into a car trunk in a forest setting.
These top car camping essentials will make your next outdoor adventure more comfortable and convenient © Youproduction / Shutterstock

If you’re planning your next getaway as a night spent outdoors, skip the tent and opt for a night spent in your car.  The set-up time is negligible, and car camping is an affordable, uncomplicated way to experience the outdoors.

Once you’ve made the initial investment in essential gear, the only recurring costs are gas to get there, food you would have eaten anyway, and nominal campground or park fees. Even if your next camping trip isn’t yet on the calendar, you can be spontaneous and set out when the mood strikes. And, when you’re sticking close to home, most gear here is just as functional in your backyard or driveway as it is deep in a national park campground.

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The Luno Life Mattress turns any boring four-door car into a road-ready adventure wagon © Courtesy of Luno Life

Luno Life Mattresses

Usually, car camping involves setting up an oversized tent or shelter as an adventure basecamp. But Luno Life Mattresses turns your car into that base. The 2.0 version, due out May 15, is sized to fit the specific year, make and model of your vehicle, precisely wrapping around the wheel wells so there’s no lumpy, bunched sleeping pad to interfere with a good night’s rest.

“Base extender” inflatable cubes fill the area behind the front seats to support the mattress and give you an extra foot or more of length in your trunk-camper (fits campers up to 6’4”). The double mattress has a pillow topper for extra comfort and it’s inflatable with a 12v socket cigarette lighter plug. A 12v air pump, carrying case and patch kit are also included. 

Buy for $225 at lunolife.com.

Big Agnes Mica Basin Armchair

You'll need a comfortable chair for sitting around the fire. While the Mica Basin Armchair is on the pricey side, it’s also the cushiest collapsible camp chair we’ve ever used. The chair sets up in a minute or so, uses color-coded, shock-corded aircraft aluminum poles for structure. The poles slip into a high-tenacity seat with ultra-high tear strength. And a center pole self-adjusts to level the seat when the chair is on uneven ground.

The Mica Basin has an armchair-like quality, with a supportive back despite its relatively low height, as well as wings to support your arms, and double drink holders so you only have to get up half as many times to resupply. And it all packs up into a zippered, tube-shaped stuff sack. At 18”x4”x5, and less than three pounds, it’s small enough to fit in a daypack for beach, playground, concert or any other use.

Buy for $130 at amazon.com.

best sleeping bag for car camping
The Nemo Jazz isn't just any old sleeping bag © Courtesy of Nemo

Nemo Jazz Synthetic Sleeping Bag

Nemo’s Jazz isn’t just a sleeping bag – it’s an entire system to help you get the best night’s rest, whether you opt for a solo bag or a queen-sized bag for two. The 20°F rectangular Jazz comes with a silky-soft, integrated, removable sheet that not only keeps the bag fresh without a bag liner, but also makes it feel a lot more like your bed at home than other sleeping bags.

To help you regulate your temperature, the top of the bag folds back from the sheet. And where some bags skimp on padding underneath you, this one has a built-in pillowtop to take your backcountry snoozing up a notch. When you’re packing up camp, let the air out of your pad, and roll up the bag and pad together and pack in a single duffel to make setting up camp easier the next time you go out. Regular length fits campers up to 6’4”, and long is perfect for those up to 6’8”. Pairs with most 25” wide pads. For the Jazz Duo, use two 30” pads. 

Buy for $210 at amazon.com.

Stanley Adventure Base Camp Cook Set

When you’re car camping, you might have way more space than the typical backpacker setup, but space isn’t infinite and keeping track of your gear in camp is just as important as when you’re in the backcountry or frontcountry. We love the Stanley cook set because it’s a full car-camping kitchen packed into the biggest pot, which simplifies keeping track of all the parts and pieces. Inside the stainless steel 3.7 qt. pot you’ll find a 7.25"  frying pan with a folding, locking handle that’s perfect for making omelets.

Also nested inside: a cutting board, spatula, serving spoon, drying rack, and enough plates, bowls, and sporks for a party of four. A bungie holds the vented lid on the pot. And in case you forget how it all fits, Stanley stamped a graphic into the pot lid to remind you how to nest everything together. The trivet doubles as a hot pad, but bring a second so you don’t burn yourself draining your pasta or hoisting the full pot off the stove. 

Buy for $65 at amazon.com.

Fireside Firepit

Leave no trace when you build your campfire in Fireside’s Outdoor Pop Up Base Kit. The eight-pound, rust-free, pop up pit assembles in a couple of minutes, and keeps burning wood off the ground. The metal mesh wood box base facilitates airflow to make fire starting easy. A 2’x2’ firebox holds full-length camp wood – Fireside says it can hold up to 125 pounds, though we didn’t load it that full.

An ember guard Velcros under the firebox so the unit meets BLM, USFS and National Park guidelines for campfires. Once the pit is assembled and your fire is blazing, there’s plenty of room for friends to gather without the campfire feeling crowded, whether you’re roasting marshmallows or keeping warm on a cool night. Click the folding grill into the corners and you can also make a meal. When it’s time to pack up and head home, dump the ashes responsibly, then pack the pit back in its carry bag to keep your car clean. 

Buy for $100 at amazon.com.

using a camp stove outdoors
The Selkirk 540 has enough power to cook a feast but packs into a stowable size © Courtesy of GSI Outdoors

GSI Selkirk 540

Although you might be far away from your home kitchen, car camping is a great time to cook up a gourmet feast. But you’ll need the right stove for the job. GSI’s propane Selkirk 540 has dual 10,000 BTU burners and enough space to hold two big pots at the same time. If the windscreens are cramping your style, they fold easily out of the way.

The stove ignites with a reliable, push-button piezo, so you can leave the lighter at home. Individual micro-control valves fine-tune the stove temperature from a slow simmer to a rolling boil. And when it’s time to pack up, both the powder-coated outside and stainless-steel and nickel-chrome cooking surface are easy to clean. The pot support and stainless-steel burner surround lift out so you can get into tight spots. Then, buckle it shut, and use the integrated handle to shuttle this 10-pound stove back to the car.

Buy for $125 at amazon.com.

MPowerd Luci Solar Inflatable Light and Power Bank

You won’t need to pack extra batteries when you bring the inflatable Luci to light up your campsite. The 360-lumen warm, white LED emits a diffuse but bright glow. The light packs flat for transport then blows up like a beach ball to its full 6” height and hangs from handles on both ends.

A solar panel and battery on top powers the light, recharges the lantern’s internal battery, and powers a single USB phone or headlamp charging port. And when the sun’s not out, the same USB port recharges the lantern’s battery from the wall. Press the power button to illuminate this soft light, and use the same button to click through the Luci’s four modes, including a dance party-worthy flash mode. A battery indicator tells you how much of the light’s 50-hour run time remains. 

Buy for $45 at amazon.com.

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The Honcho Poncho will keep the chill at bay while you explore the outdoors © Courtesy of Cascade Designs

Thermarest Honcho Poncho

While “insulated poncho” might not be at the top of your car camping packing list, one evening with the Thermarest’s Honcho Poncho, and you'll want to wear one every chance you get. The Honcho Poncho is the perfect layer to keep the chill off when you’re hanging out by the campfire, wandering off to watch the moonrise, or making coffee on a dewy morning. If you don’t want to wear it, you can use it as a blanket. And when you finally call it a night, the poncho packs into its pocket and morphs into a pillow.

Water-resistant and polyester insulated, the open-sided poncho has a hood and a giant, zippered kangaroo pocket that held phone and headlamp and a whole lot more. 

Buy for $115 at amazon.com.

Thermacell Radius Zone Mosquito Repellent Gen 2.0 

Hungry mosquitoes won’t ruin your weekend when you’re using Thermacell’s bug-beating diffuser. Powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, the unit keeps bugs at bay so you can picnic, read, or relax in your hammock without constant buzzing. The heating element in the unit ignites when you turn the Radius on, warming a scent-free mosquito repellent to keep the bugs away within a 15-foot area, so you won’t have to douse yourself in DEET or other smelly sprays to keep from getting bitten.

You'll have to recharge it every 6.5 hours, but the repellent cartridge lasts for 12 hours, or 40 hours with the bigger replacement cartridge (sold separately). We used it on a spring camping trip to the Adirondacks, where it’s said the mosquito is the state bird, as well as at home on the deck, and the mosquitoes stayed away. And unlike previous Thermacell units that required a fuel cartridge, this battery-powered one is TSA-approved. 

Buy for $40 at amazon.com.

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