10 Best Car Camping Essentials in 2021
I remember packing for camping trips when I was a kid as if we might never see home again. The car would be stuffed to the gills, the trunk at max capacity, tents strapped to the roof, sleeping bags in our laps… And yet we always forgot something.
You’re going to forget something too. It’s inevitable. It’s what keeps camp stores in business. But you definitely won’t forget these 10 camping essentials!
A quick note before we continue: this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. It’s simply the top 10 things I happen to think you should never go car camping without. This list could easily be expanded to include the top 20, or 50, or 100. But I’d probably still forget something.
I should also mention that this list is based on the assumption that you’re car camping at a campground with access to basic amenities like potable water and modern restrooms. It’s not intended for backpacking or survival situations, and it’s not intended for RVing, which isn’t really camping anyway, but don’t get me started.
1. Kelty Wireless Car Camping Family Tent
The success of any camping trip lives and dies by the quality of your tent. It needs to be, above all, waterproof. But it should also be breathable on hot summer days, and spacious enough for your family to spread out.
The Kelty Wireless Car Camping Family Tent scores high marks in all of these categories, and it comes in two, four, and six-person sizes. It has a freestanding design and quick-and-easy set up, even for just one person. Pack-up is easy too.
The polyester rainfly sheds water nicely and is fully removable so you can enjoy a cooling breeze through the bugproof mesh roof on starry nights. The fiberglass poles are tough and make setup a breeze.
As with any tent, it’s best to take the number of people it sleeps comfortably with a grain of salt. If you’re camping with four people, it’s usually best to get the six-person tent so you have room to spread out with all your gear.
2. Coleman Gas Camping Stove
Coleman originally developed its camping stoves for the use of soldiers in the field during WWII before switching gears to market them to campers in the 50s. Chances are, your grandparents went camping with one of these stoves, and your grandchildren will too.
The Coleman Gas Camping Stove is a simple, effective, and affordable way to cook when you’re camping. It has two adjustable burners and runs on those 16 oz propane cylinders that are available just about everywhere.
The back and side panels of the Coleman stove block the wind nicely, and the cooking surface comfortably accommodates two 10” pans. The chrome-plated grate and rust-resistant aluminum cooktop are durable and easy to clean.
Overall, there are higher-end camping stoves on the market, but the Coleman is a reliable workhorse. I’ve had one for years, and my only complaint is that the right burner gets hotter than the left, presumably because it’s closer to the propane tank.
3. Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Cooler
When you’re camping, a cooler needs to do two things: keep your food cold and keep critters from getting into it. The Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze Cooler excels at both. It also comes in 20-quart and 55-quart sizes, depending on your needs.
The Titan Deep Freeze has thick polyurethane insulation that keeps ice for four days or more, and a 36-degree rubber gasket for a flawless seal. Its seamless one-piece construction is not only durable but offers cold air no way to escape.
This thing is also very, very tough. It has rugged T-latches for secure closure and meets the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s bear-resistant container standards when used with the appropriate locks (sold separately).
It is, of course, a little more pricey than your average cooler, but you really do get the bang for your buck on this one. The Arctic Zone Titan Deep Freeze also resists odors and stains and is super easy to clean.
4. Black Diamond Spot 350 Headlamp
I’ve always favored headlamps over flashlights when camping for the simple reason that they keep your hands free. Ever try to set up a tent in the dark while holding a flashlight? It’s a nightmare.
The Spot 350 Headlamp from Black Diamond Equipment is just about the best headlamp out there. It has a simple, comfortable design with the ability to quickly click through its six light modes. It maxes out at a dazzling 350 lumens on high and offers a solid burn time on three AAA batteries.
It’s also nice that the Black Diamond Spot 350 Headlamp is affordable and durable. It keeps on shining even when wet, and has become a favorite of hikers and campers alike for good reason.
5. Outdoor Tech Kodiak Ultra Power Bank
These days, one of the biggest challenges on any camping trip is keeping all your devices charged. And while there are plenty of perfectly adequate power banks out there, you really need a rugged, outdoorsy one like the Outdoor Tech Kodiak Ultra Power Bank.
Waterproof and resistant to dust and dirt, this rechargeable power bank is perfect for keeping your phone, camera, and other devices charged when you’re camping. It has versatile USB and micro-USB ports for any device.
The Kodiak Ultra Power Bank stores 7,800 mAh in its rechargeable battery, which is about enough to charge a fully-depleted iPhone four times. The only complaint is that the charge time is a little slow, but it’s still an essential tool for campers who like to stay plugged in.
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6. UCO Stormproof Match Kit
Look, we all want to be the guy who can get a fire going at a moment’s notice, no matter the conditions. The fact is, most of us are not that guy. But with a solid set of waterproof matches, you can at least pretend to be that guy.
In all seriousness, the UCO Stormproof Match Kit has helped me start countless fires, and it goes with me on every camping and hiking trip. This particular version of the kit includes 75 matches, two extra strikers, and a waterproof case that holds 25 matches at a time (the other 50 come in paper boxes).
The UCO Stormproof Matches really do burn in the harshest conditions. They’re virtually windproof and will strike effectively even when soaking wet. Highly recommended for any camping trip or survival situation.
7. ALPS Mountaineering Fusion 40 Sleeping Bag
The ALPS Mountaineering Fusion 40 Sleeping Bag is a great option for car campers. It has a water-resistant top and is quilted with 600-fill-power down for a great balance of warmth and breathability. It’s a very, very comfy sleeping bag.
Plus, this bag has a zipperless design, which means no zippers will poke you when you roll over at night. It only comes in one size, but its 78″ length should accommodate all but the tallest campers.
When choosing a sleeping bag for car camping, always bear in mind the season in which you plan to go. The Fusion 40 is a 40 degree bag, which makes it great for warm to mild weather, but it’s not intended for cold conditions.
8. Stanley Pour Over Set
Maybe you’re not as picky about your coffee as I am, but I’ve never been able to stomach burnt-tasting coffee from a percolator or grainy “cowboy coffee” made over a fire. Call me “bougie” all you like, but the Stanley Pour Over Set has won me over.
Allowing you to make pour-over coffee every bit as good as your favorite coffee shop, the Stanley Pour Over Set includes an easy-to-clean filter for your favorite beans, which nests perfectly atop the included mug.
Stanley’s 12 oz camping mug with the included travel lid is a great piece of equipment in and of itself. Both the mug and pour-over filter are made of durable, BPA-free stainless steel with a handsome grey-green finish. The set is dishwasher safe.
9. Swiss Army Huntsman Knife
There’s just something about a Swiss Army knife. Even though there are plenty of sharper knives and more advanced multi-tools out there, none of them feel quite as good in one’s pocket, or look quite as at-home at one’s campsite.
The Victorinox Swiss Army Huntsman Knife is an old-school Swiss Army knife from a brand that’s been making them (in Switzerland, mind you) for generations. The blade and tools are made of corrosion-resistant stainless steel, and the casing is traditional red plastic and aluminum.
The Huntsman knife includes 15 functions, with two blades, two screwdrivers, scissors, bottle opener, small saw blade corkscrew sewing eye, toothpick, and tweezers. It’s simply a classic.
10. GEAR AID Fire Strand 550 Paracord
Paracord belongs in the “stuff-I-forgot-to-take-camping” hall of fame. It’s the simplest thing, and there are so many uses for it. This particular strand of cord from GEAR AID has saved my bacon on more occasions than one.
You can use it to fashion a clothesline, to tie down your tents and tarps in heavy wind, or hang backpacks, lights, and water bottles. You can pull apart the fibers to use as fire-starting tinder. You can do countless things with it that neither you nor I have thought of yet.
The GEAR AID Fire Strand 550 Paracord gives you 50 feet of paracord, and it’s an essential item on any car camping checklist. It’s field-tested for strength and durability (not intended for climbing, just F.Y.I.) and includes a handy rust-proof carabiner clip.
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Camping Essentials FAQ
So many things! A lot of items have been left off this list, from true essentials (food, clothing, toiletries) to comfort items (sleeping pads, pillows, camp chairs) to some that might be considered extras (citronella candles, marshmallow sticks, and about a million other things).
How much stuff you bring depends, in part, on how comfortable you are “roughing it.” As a general rule, for car camping, you never need more than your car can hold. If you’re looking for a more thorough camping checklist, there’s a great one here.
Again, so many things. Don’t bring your cat. Don’t bring any white clothing if you want it to stay white. Don’t bring raw chicken (it doesn’t keep well in a cooler. Better to buy it the day you plan to grill it).
Don’t bring anything that has to be plugged in that isn’t absolutely essential, like hairdryers and fans. Don’t bring anybody you don’t want to spend a night in a tent with!
I’m glad you asked! Here are a few pieces of basic advice that will help you get the most out of any car camping trip:
- Always reserve your campsite in advance.
- Know what amenities are available at the campsite. Is there a campfire ring and picnic table? Are restrooms nearby?
- Check the weather, and plan accordingly. Bring rain gear and rain clothing even if there’s no rain in the forecast. Just in case.
- Make a checklist before you start packing.
- Know what your options are for buying food and supplies near the campground.
- Get an early start, and don’t arrive after dark.
- Don’t pack too much… or too little.
- Don’t plan on depending solely on your campfire for cooking.
- Camp close to home if it’s your first time.
- If it’s your first camping trip, try not to worry about it too much! Camping is a learning experience, and you’ll learn from your successes as well as your mistakes.
- Have fun!