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Car Camping Essentials: The Ultimate Checklist (Including Dog Gear)

Car Camping Essentials: The Ultimate Checklist (Including Dog Gear)

Sometimes, the most challenging part about camping is putting together all the gear you need and making sure you don’t forget anything important for a night outside. To help you head outdoors, I’ve put together a list of the car camping essentials you’ll need for you and your dog. 

This list seems long and can be easily adapted to your needs, trip duration, and preferences. A lot of the items are small pieces of gear, and the truth it, depending on the type of camping you’re doing, you’ll want to be fully stocked!

Whether you’re staying at a state park or looking for a more isolated spot in the middle of nowhere, you’ll be sure to stay safe, have a good time, and enjoy the outdoors in comfort.

What is car camping?

Car camping means you pack all of your camping gear into your car and drive to a camp spot. Usually this means camping at a state park or other managed campground and setting up your tent next to your car.

Campgrounds are either privately-owned or managed by state, local, or federal governments. Some have more amenities than others, like showers and toilets, others are more “primitive” and just provide vault toilets for use.

There is also “dispersed camping,” which means that you find a spot on public land and camp there. Some places allow visitors to stay for up to several weeks. Always, always follow Leave No Trace principles.

With car camping, there is no backpacking or hiking involved. You simply pull up to your designated spot and use that as your base for hikes and other recreational activities.

Camping is generally a great option for those traveling with dogs because most campgrounds welcome dogs without a fee, unlike hotels.

Car camping is a great way to try camping for the first time because you can fill your car as much as you like for the first couple of trips and then start the process of eliminating the things you find you don’t need.

A guide to all the car camping essentials you need for a great night under the stars.

Car Camping Essentials: Sleeping

This is where you’re really going to want to splurge and pick the gear that makes you happiest. If you’re miserable in your tent, you’re going to hate camping.

Go to REI or your other local outdoor store and test the gear in the shop as much as you can. Ask your friends about their gear that they use and love and keep in mind your specific nuances. 

The bonus about shopping at REI is the annual dividend you recieve when you become a member and the generous return policy.

This is where you are really going to want to test different gear and make sure the set up is right for you. My tent set up feels like a cozy second home because I have carefully curated my favorite camping gear items.

Tent: I personally use the same tent for car camping as I do for backpacking. It means that it’s slightly heavier than most backpacking tents and more lightweight compared to traditional car camping tents.

Camping with a dog means that you’ll need more space, depending on the size of your dog. I created an entire guide to picking the right tent for camping with your dog.

The tents listed in this guide include those that I have used or currently use. The assumption is for two people + a medium to large dog. Adjust accordingly for your own situation.

My top picks are the MSR Mutha Hubba NX3 and the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 Classic Tent. I have used both for extended periods of time with minor issues.

Sleeping Pad: Think of a sleeping pad like your mattress at home. This is what will make or break your sleep. I cannot speak highly enough of the Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro sleeping pad. Therm-a-Rest pads notoriously last years and mine is still going strong after four years and well over 100 uses. The high R-value means year-round camping and 3 inches of foam comfort will have you sleeping like a rock.

Sleeping Bag: It’s tough to tell someone which sleeping bag to choose because there are so many different styles out there. Pick one that suits how you sleep (do you run hot or cold? Do you like to stick your feet out? Do sleeping bags make you feel strangled?) and go from there. For what it’s worth, I have the REI Magma 15 and I love it. I’ve also had my eye on the NEMO Forte 20, which has a wide toe box and zippable gills for regulating the temperature.

Pillow: I splurge on space and use two pillows when I car camp. For the bottom, I use a Therm-a-Rest compressible pillow that packs into the size of a water bottle. On top, I go with  the ExPed Air Pillow, a firmer surface that supports my head and neck. Deflated, the pillow fits into a pocket. One important tip to note that it’s important to get all the air out of the pillow prior to packing away. Too much air can cause it to pop and distort.

Make gourmet meals outdoors with the right car camping essentials.

Car Camping Essentials: Cooking

I don’t mess around when it comes to my camp kitchen. It is serious business. Just because I’m not at my home kitchen with a stove and four burners, doesn’t mean that I’m eating cold food that comes from a package. I love making hearty, delicious food at camp and in order to do that, I need a proper camp kitchen setup.

Cooler: YETI coolers are all the rage, but you don’t need to break the bank to keep your food cold. For just $80, the Coleman XTreme Cooler holds 70 quarts and keeps items cold for five days. As a bonus, the lid acts as a seat that holds up to 250 lbs. A great soft-sided cooler option for shorter excursions is the 24-liter Hydro Flask Unbound Soft Cooler Tote.  The price is a bit steep, however, I have traveled with a friend who uses one and our food stayed cold for well over the advertised 48 hours. Its slim shape also allows for easy fit into packed cars.  

Camp stove: For gourmet meals in the outdoors, you’ll want a quality camp stove with fully adjustable burners, like the Eureka Ignite Plus 2-Burner Camp Stove. Reviewers rave about its ability to boil water quickly, as well as settle to a proper simmer for grains and soups. A push button ignition means you don’t have to find the lighter in the dark. The surface is large enough to fit two medium-sized pots and/or pans at once and adjustable feet allow you to adjust for any inclines.

Cooking tools: No camp kitchen is complete without a proper messkit. The GSI Outdoors Destination Kitchen 24 includes everything you need to prepare a delicious meal, including a folding ladle and spatula, a paring knife, a grater, a 4-piece cutlery set, cutting board, spice shakers, condiment pouches, and cleaning supplies. I also bring along additional spices that I keep in a small container like these from GoTubb.

Knife: Don’t skimp on your knife for your camp meals. Trust me, I’ve sliced my finger using a crappy knife. I carried the MSR Alpine Kitchen Knife with me all over the world during our bike tour and it performed beautifully. I had to sharpen it from time to time like any knife, but it never let me down.

Camp Table: If you don’t have a picnic table at your camp spot, camp cooking is less than enjoyable. Trust me, I spent many, many meals squatting on the ground over my stove. It’s painful and I would have given anything to have a table, like this compact lightweight one from Mountain Summit Gear

Coffee: Sure, you can have instant coffee at camp, but there’s really no need when there are so many options to make a proper cup o’ Joe at camp. I have the GSI Outdoors Java Press and use a hand crank Coffee Burr grinder which produces french press coffee just like I have at home. And, of course, don’t forget your coffee mug!

Cookset: Prepare meals just like you do at home with a high performing cookset like the Primus Campfire Cookset. The set includes two pots (3 and 1.8 liters) and one saute pan, with draining lids for pasta night. A folding handle on the large pot can be suspended over the fire and the stackable pots and pans fit into a compact storage bag.

Plates + Utensils: You’re going to need a few tools to eat all that delicious food. I like the UCO 4-Piece Mess Kit which includes just about everything you need. The TOAKS Titongs Set is also pretty innovative, as it doubles as a set of tongs to use for cooking. If you’re looking for something basic, the TOAKS Titanium 3-Piece Cutlery Set will do the job.

Water: I like to bring a big jug of water to leave filled at camp so I can reduce plastic waste and not have to run back and forth to the faucet for my water needs. The GSI Outdoors 2.1 Gallon Folding Water Cube packs down when not in use and has a spout for easy pouring.

Sink: Most state parks and private campgrounds will have dish washing areas for use by guests, but primitive camping means you’ll need to provide your own sink. Plus camp sinks are nice for bringing dishes to a washing area and also for gathering kindling for the fire. The Ultimate Survival Technologies Flexware Sink collapses for easy storage and has two carrying handles for easy transition.

Miscellaneous Camp Kitchen Items:

  • Fuel
  • Trash bags (I just reuse plastic grocery bags)
  • Dish soap
  • Paper towels
  • Matches
  • Zip top bags, various sizes
Car camping essentials for your dog.

Car Camping Essentials: Dog Gear

The amount of gear I pack for even a short weekend trip never ceases to astound me. It never seems like I have to bring a lot, but then I get packing and all of a sudden I have a big bin filled with dog gear. 

Dog Bowl: I usually just pack one dog bowl and use it for both food and water. When I want to save space and travel super light, I bring along my trusty Dexas collapsible travel cup. I love that I can attach these to my day pack to provide water during a hike and then keep it out at camp for food and water. You can learn more why I like them so much in my detailed review.

Tether System: I love the Ruffwear Knot-a-Hitch for car camping. If you have a dog who likes to wander, but you don’t want to tie them up on their six-foot leash while you tend to other camp duties like setting up the tent or cooking, a tether system keeps them contained while allowing them to have a bit of freedom. The Knot-a-Hitch requires a couple trees to secure the ends and that’s pretty much it!

Leash: Multi-purpose leashes are my jam. I want a leash that I can attach around my waist for hands-free hiking or trail running, that connects to a tree or picnic table if I need to tend to something at the site, and that adjusts to a variety of lengths. My go-to leash is the Ruffwear Crag Dog Leash (formerly the Flat Out Leash) and you can see why in my review.

Lighted Collar: Campgrounds can get really dark at night, especially if you are camping on public lands where there are no lights, you want to make sure that your dog is visible to both others and yourself. The Nite Ize Nitehowl LED Safety Necklace is an adjustable lighted collar that looks a bit like a glow stick. The bright colors mean you’ll be able to locate your dog in the dark in a snap.

Travel Dog Bed: Your pup will need a comfortable space to lie down when you’re hanging out at camp and to sleep during the night. The Kurgo Wander Loft Dog Bed rolls up easily into a tight bundle and is cushy for a travel bed. It’s also waterproof and hair shakes off easily. Another favorite is the Whyld River Doggy Bag, hands down the warmest and most innovative camping bed out there for pups. I have a few favorites, so be sure to check out my list of top picks to help you decide.

Dog Treats: We never go anywhere without treats! We are always working on our training skills no matter where we are. Zuke’s Mini Naturals are the perfect size for training treats and each bite is only three calories. I keep them in a treat pouch like the Ruffwear Treat Trader, which snaps around my waist, opposed to clips around a waistband.

Food: I measure out exact amounts of food + one extra day using a Dexas measuring cup and store the food directly into the Kurgo Kibble Carrier. It’s basically a thicker-walled dry bag to keep your pet’s food contained and in one place.

Poop Bags + Holder: Don’t get caught without a poop bag, especially if you’re camping on an undeveloped site. Always practice good poop disposal, even if there is nobody around. I love these earth-friendly bags from Cycle Dog and keep them in a soft-sided holder like this one from Ruffwear.

Dog Shower: I always keep a 2-liter plastic bottle filled with water and topped with the Kurgo Dog Shower in my car. This super handy dandy device allows me to easily rinse off muddy paws and then dry them off once they’re clean.

Car camping essentials for the kitchen and the campsite.

Car Camping Essentials: Other Necessities

These are the miscellaneous items that you’ll need either for day hikes or trail runs or while you’re hanging out at camp. Some are more luxuries, but if you’re gone for a few days, you may want to bring them along to stay connected.

Headlamp: This is one item you’ll always want handy, even if it’s daytime. I always keep mine in the top pocket of my day pack for easy access. This way, I have it in case of emergency on the trail and I know exactly where it is. A rechargeable headlamp like the Petzl Actik Core means that I don’t have to worry about dead batteries. If the juice runs out, I can recharge with my portable charging device or in the car on the way to a trail head.

Lantern: I used to think I could get by just fine with my headlamp camping, and really I can, however, I picked up a LuminAid Lantern at a warehouse sale for dirt cheap and I have to admit that I really enjoy having a bright light to be able to put in the center of a table for eating, talking, or playing games. This lantern has five brightness settings, recharges either by solar power or a USB port, is waterproof, and includes an adjustable strap to hang from various points.

Camping Chair: For years, I never had a camp chair and I was missing out! Picnic tables are never close enough to the fire and the ground is cold at night. Snuggle up with your pup in a Kelty Love Seat, which has plenty of space for you both.

Offline Map: Out in the wilderness, there’s a high chance you’ll be without WiFi or mobile connectivity. If you plan to hike, you’re going to want an offline map. Whether you purchase maps or download one on your phone, this is an essential item to prevent getting lost. I personally use Maps.ME when I go hiking. The app has a ton of trails and it’s easy to navigate.

Dry Sack: I use dry sacks as I would packing cubes. They help me organize my gear and electronics and they have the bonus of being waterproof. The Sea to Summit dry sacks come in a variety of sizes to suit different needs.

Battery Pack: If you plan to be away from electrical outlets for a couple days, you’ll want a battery pack to keep your small electronics charged. The Goal Zero 36 Flip Power Bank can recharge a tablet once, your phone 3 times, or a headlamp up to 5 times. For longer adventures, consider getting something more robust like the Goal Zero Yeti Lithium 200x Portable Power Station, which can charge your laptop and DSLR camera. Both can be recharged with a Goal Zero solar panel.

First Aid Kit: Accidents happen and you don’t want to be unprepared. I always carry a medical kit with me hiking, camping, and backpacking. To save space, I opt for the Adventure Medical Kits Me and My Dog First Aid Kit since it includes supplies I can use for both my dog and myself.

Camping Blanket: I didn’t really understand all the rage about camping blankets until I couldn’t pass up on a screaming deal for one at a warehouse sale. Now I never leave for a camping trip without it! I tend to get cold at night hanging out if we don’t have a fire going, and a blanket prevents me from reaching my threshold point. My blanket of choice is a Rumpl Puffy Recycled Blanket. It packs down into a small size and keeps me toasty warm.

Don't forget the dog treats!

Car Camping Essentials: Clothing

This clothing list is not extensive by any means and the gear below is what I personally use, so it’s geared for women. However, most brands will have a male equivalent of the same product, so guys, just look for your version of what I’ve posted here.

I bring all of these items pretty much year round. I tend to run cold when I’m outdoors all the time, especially if I’ve gone on a long hike or trail run and have sweated. Nights can get cold, even during the heat of summer and I just like to be prepared for all temperatures.

Puffy coat: I practically live in my Patagonia Nano Puff jacket. It keeps me warm in very cold temps and not too hot on those chilly summer nights. It aslo packs up into a pillow if I want to go lightweight and the hood keeps my head extra warm when I need it.

Hiking Boots: As someone who runs a lot of miles, it makes sense that I choose a trail running brand for my hiking boots. I love, love, love my Altra Lone Peak 4 hiking boots. They’re just as comfortable as my trail running shoes, but the high top adds a little more ankle support for rocky terrain.

Beanie: A simple beanie goes a long way to keep you warm when the sun goes down. I like this one made by REI Co-op. It’s inexpensive, itch-free, and fully covers my ears.

Socks: I am very particular about my socks and have been wearing Darn Tough socks for years. They come in a lot of fun colors, keep my feet warm when they get wet, and they have a lifetime guarantee. I have yet to wear a hole in a single pair, but if I did, I could send them back and get a new pair.

Leggings: After I’ve finished all my activities for the day, I like to change into a pair of cozy leggings like these basic ones made by REI Co-op. I keep these as my “clean” pants, so I have something to change into if my day clothes become wet or muddy. 

Sandals: Once again, after a full day out, I like to change into a comfortable pair of shoes when I’m back at camp (usually sandals, if it’s warm enough, almost always with socks at camp. Yes, I went there!). I love my Teva Tirra sandals. They are supremely comfortable, I can hike in them, walk in water with them, and they never cut my feet or chafe.

Merino wool base layer: A merino wool base layer will keep you warm in the winter and cool in warmer weather, while also keeping off the sun. Smartwool makes quality clothing that does the job. I like this crew top because it comes in pretty colors and also has a long back length to keep my bum warm.

Car Camping Essentials Complete Checklist

For a full list of the gear I bring, download my free camping gear essentials checklist. This list includes more essentials I left out here, such as personal and miscellaneous items that you don’t want to forget! The list is printable and reusable if you just want to check off items from your phone or computer as you add them to your pile.

Car Camping Checklist download form.

Car Camping Tips

  • Keep your car camping gear in bins. This way, you can have everything ready to go if you decide to head out on a spontaneous camping trip.
  • Don’t bring things like a hair dryer or curling iron. You won’t use them.
  • Depending on the time of year you plan your camping trip, book your site in advance, especially at popular campgrounds.
  • Check out county and federal campsites for cheaper stays and fewer crowds.
  • Have fun! You won’t have the same creature comforts that you would in a hotel, but you get to be creative with the way you spend your day.
  • Bring board games to pass the time in the evenings.
Car Camping Essentials Pinterst Image

Jerry Patrick

Monday 22nd of February 2021

Hi Jen, I just found your article and read it completely. I am looking for such an article for a long time. I love car camping. I love the camping checklist. Thanks

Jen Sotolongo

Friday 5th of March 2021

Glad you found it helpful!