Your Ultimate Car Camping Checklist.
Here’s how it works: It’s broken up into categories, so you can skip around as you please. Some items are obvious, like car insurance, but others not so obvious. The idea was to leave NOTHING off the list. You can download the car camping checklist in a downloadable format here and not have to worry about forgetting anything. And if you’re not sure where to go, make sure you check out our Vagabond Road Trip Planning software we developed to generate a suggested trip based on what you like! It’s super fun (and free), Enjoy!
Car Camping Checklist – Road Trip Essentials
This post is not only about what to bring–the obvious and the not so obvious–but also how to setup your systems on the road to make your trip better, more efficient, and more tactical than you could have ever imagined. Enjoy our comprehensive car camping checklist in PDF form as well, available below. Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means this blog gets a small commission if you buy our suggestion. It’s how we keep this site afloat. With that being said, these tips and suggested items are based on hundreds of thousands of miles of roadtripping America (and other countries).
Not in the mood to read this? You can download a full Car Camping Checklist here.
Core Road Trip Packing List
We’ll go over all the tiers of road trip essentials and start at the basics… stuff you’d never forget even without this post, and move our way down to my special packing lists and recipes that I have developed over the years.
- License and Registration
Make sure it won’t expire on your trip – I’m embarrassed to include this but it is truly the ultimate road trip essential!
- Car Insurance
Make sure you have it–of course–but make sure you know where it is. Nothing worse than scrounging around for something you know you have.
- Triple AAA
Don’t be a hero should something go wrong, let Triple AAA handle it. Plus, they have so many other perks that I never knew about that makes membership with them worth it, like exchanging your money for foreign currency for free if you purchase over $250, or issuing you an international driver’s license for super cheap in one day. Did you know that? Anyway, they’re a good deal.
- Your Car’s Manual
All those weird lights that go on are confusing, right? You don’t want to bring the car into the shop for an expensive visit (those visits seem to happen no matter why you bring the car in), especially if it’s just your air pressure is low! Know your lights–and the other stuff in your car manual too in case you’re out of WiFi.
- Spare Tire
Gotta have that spare just in case. Check to make sure the one you have is in good condition and all the tools are in their proper place.
- First-Aid Emergency Kit
This should be tucked right next to your spare tire. All those odd-shaped bandaids and rolls of gauze should be there, cause why not? You might need it! Here’s a suggestion.
Road Map Checklist
These things are still fairly obvious, but this is a comprehensive car camping checklist and I don’t want to presume anything, so bear with me or simply skip ahead if you so choose, though there’re some hidden rubies tucked inside some of these suggestions you may wanna know about.
Don’t rely on your phone cause it’ll only get service 50% of the time you’re driving. I have Verizon and I could only find service whenever I was near some sort of town. Garmin was a LIFESAVER and if I were you, I would invest in the BEST GPS you can afford… this is the tool you will be using more than anything so buy the best one out there. I use the Garmin Nuvi 2689LMT North America.
ABSOLUTE MUST. A map of each state is always my most prized piece of gear. No matter how comfortable I am with my electronics, there’s nothing like seeing the big picture and highlighting shit on an actual map. I like to trace my route too for memorabilia. I’m a Rand McNally fan.
When all else fails, just make sure you’re heading in the right direction! Sometimes (in rare cases) even my GPS will signal out and that’s when the compass comes into play. If all I know is I need to head north and the compass says north, I’m in good shape!
- Truck Stop Guide / Rest Area Guide
Great invention in the world and it took me forever to find one and I ALWAYS needed it! Definitely grab a copy for those long treks when you have no idea when you’ll be able to pull over and sleep legally, or when you will get to a bathroom or gas station!
Now we need to smooth out all those annoyances of driving–like too much sun and occasional traffic and back pain.
Not just the driver. Make sure everyone in the car has a pair.
All I know is that if you bring a blanket, it will always be in use. Find a few and throw em in the back.
- Travel Pillow
Keep your body in tip-top shape while on the road. If your neck is uncomfortable or you can’t get to sleep, use a travel pillow. Also, one of the fundamentals of road trip etiquette is making sure your travel mates are always comfortable. Take care of others before yourself on a road trip.
- Flip Flops
This is a HUGE one… flip flops are SO much more comfortable than wearing sneakers, or whatever you wear, the whole trip. But just remember not to drive with them, that’s dangerous. They fall off and get stuck under the break and it’s no good. Also good for hikes when you gotta trudge through a creek. I love Havaianas, they’re durable and not that expensive. Here are some army fatigue ones I found.
- Road Trip Music Playlist
Gotta have some music for every mood. For instance, you’ll need pick-me-up music for when you’re getting tired, you’ll need hype music for the mornings when you’re all pumped up. Some wind-down music for the evenings and some WAKE UP music for the afternoons.
- Road Trip Comedy Playlist
Did you know you can make a playlist of standup comedy? Oh, these are so necessary because laughter is the greatest medicine in the world next to being on the road. Sometimes music won’t cut it, you’re sick of podcasts… but comedy! YES! Laughter!
- Road Trip Podcast Playlist
Music can hurt my hears after hours of it, that’s when I switch it over to podcasts. I love a good interview podcast, business podcast, crime story podcast, and of course, OUR VAGABOND SECRETS PODCAST!
Food Packing Checklist
This isn’t just about food, it’s about systems! Systems are the key to a successful road trip, and you gotta eat, right? Right! So, here are some suggestions for food to add to your car camping checklist!
- Cooler (and ice)
Don’t buy food on the road; cook it, store it, and keep nice and fresh, especially on those stretches where there’s nowhere to buy food. America is not so populated. You’ll have many days with long stretches of land where there’s not much commerce, so make sure the cooler is always full of food, water, and ice, and make sure to drain the excess water every morning so it doesn’t leak into your pasta salad. Here’s a good starting point for cooler shopping.
- Large Water Bottles
Firstly you don’t wanna be thirsty. Secondly if you break down somewhere, you’ll need water. Never risk running low, always restock every chance you get. In many parts of the country you can refill a gallon jug for like fifty cents. Here’s a gallon jug.
- Reusable Shopping Bag
Why not, right? They take up no room and there’s no reason to use plastic if you don’t have to. Besides, some supermarkets don’t offer bags and you don’t wanna look like a tourist, at least a novice tourist.
Oh jeez, being hangry on the road is the worst! Keep everyone’s sugar levels up so nobody gets cranky before dinner. Crankiness = Noooooo.
Don’t be unhygienic just because you’re on the road. We’ve got a rep to uphold. It’s easy to fall into unhealthy hygiene habits when you’re roadtripping, so here are your hygiene suggestions to keep you from being all stanky and what not to add to your car camping checklist.
- Trash Bag
A clean car is a happy car. Don’t fall prey to the car junkyard that’ll be sure to form on the floor of your passenger side seat if you don’t get into the habit of throwing trash away immediately before it collects at everyone’s feet. Something like this.
- Center Console Blocker
Have you seen these? Oh man, they are awesome. They block all those things from falling between the seats. Just make sure you buy one that fits your car.
- Wet Wipes
Let’s be real, these can be used for nearly everything. Rest areas won’t have toilet paper all the time, camping, cleaning dishes, washing hands, cleaning up messes… the list goes on.
- Gum (or mints)
There’s nothing like shitty breath in the morning when you can’t find a place to brush your teeth. This will put a bandaid on that morning breath or afternoon breath when you are somewhere in the woods.
- Toilet Roll
Yeah, not everyone wants to wipe with wet wipes! Keep a roll in the back of the car for stop-offs.
- Hand Sanitizer
Because why not?
- A Towel
Use a microfiber towel; they’re light and dry off super fast. In fact, buy a few.
Health & Safety Checklist
Okay we wanna take precautions in case something goes awry. These items are not just for emergencies, they’re for everyday usage as well. Just make sure this is a category you’re checking off before you leave. Here are some items to add to your car camping checklist.
Keep cash on you. Not too much, of course.
I like a big one for outside, and a tiny one for inside the car.
- Bug Spray
- Painkiller/ Anti-Inflammatory Medication
Not promoting drug addiction here. Just keep some Advil and basic anti-inflammatory medication close by. Headaches will come and go, especially when changing altitudes rapidly.
- Duct Tape
Need to fix something on the road but don’t have the right parts? DUCT TAPE! Bumper hanging on by a thread? DUCT TAPE! Hiking shoe soles fall off on mile five of hiking the Grand Canyon (yes that happened) – DUCT TAPE! Literally this shit is good for everything. I can ASSURE you that at some point, you’ll be happy you have it. Man, I should be their spokesperson.
Traveling With Your Pet Checklist
I love my dog. So, I love little gadgets that make traveling with her easier and safer. This list will likely grow as I think of more things, but for now, here’s a starter checklist for your pet’s needs if you’ll be traveling with them. Also, this is mostly for dogs… I don’t know how to travel with cats or rabbits!
- Dog Seat Belt
Traveling with your pup? Don’t leave home without a car seat belt I use them all the time on short trips and long trips. Make sure you connect it to their harness and NOT the collar. Also… I have no idea if these are crash-tested, but it’s better than having nothing in my opinion. Here is a good suggestion.
- Dog Water Bottle
I love these, but they’re not essential… but you can use them on hikes and in the car and anywhere!
Gotta have some great pics and videos, right? Here’s a way to document your trip without keeping your phone in front of you the whole trip. After all, that’s the point of getting on the road: to disconnect with technology and connect with the outdoors! These items are highly suggested. In my opinion, they are some of the most important.
I love GoPros because you can record everything and then take still images from the best of the trip. I hate holding my phone out every ten seconds to “document” the adventure. Rather, I prefer to rig a GoPro out my window and focus on what’s important: living my life!
- Hard Drives
You don’t want all those photos and videos clogging up your devices. Also, it makes it far too difficult to sort through everything is you just let your photo library build up. It’s like not cleaning out your inbox for a year. So, put everything neatly on a hard drive, complete with folders of dates and locations so that you can find them all after your trip. I’ve used a million hard drives. This one SHOULD work for MAC and PC.
- Memory Chips
If you’re using a camera that requires a memory card, make sure you have more than one. They fill up quickly.
- Phone / Tablet Mount
Great for watching Netflix at night. Just suction your mount to the window, level your tablet and throw on a movie while looking at the stars.
- Extra Camera Batteries
Same goes for extra batteries. Make sure you’ve got more than two and a place to store all these camera accessories together.
- Camera Case
This will save you so much time finding camera-related accessories that are tiny, like microchips and batteries.
Apps & Electronics Checklist
Another category that will constantly grow, especially the apps. Now, like I said previously if you’ve been reading this entire post: the whole point of roadtripping is to disconnect from apps and reconnect with nature and the road and the great outdoors. So, I’m only including what I deem to be worth it to bring with you (if you so choose).
- Multi Car Charger
Super important! This is going to be your main outlet for the duration of the trip, so you want to make sure that it’s not one of those loud chargers that sounds like a generator running that keeps the whole neighborhood up, and you want to make sure it’s easy to insert and put away when not using. Also, don’t use these when the engine isn’t running! Eats up battery like a vacuum. And make sure it has a plug, like this one.
My favorite travel app. It’s a free open-source app (meaning it allows users to share data with each other) that allows you to download detailed maps which can be used offline and without cell service and acts as GPS. It helped us drive across South Africa and I tell everyone I know about it!
- Portable Wifi or Internet
When you’re somewhere stationary and there’s Wifi, don’t use data. If you work from the road and need to answer emails and do light work in the evenings or mornings or whatever, bring some portable data since A LOT of the country is without service.
You need to do some hikes even if you’re not a hiker. And even if you don’t hike, you need to go to some National Parks and visit some National Monuments. If not now, then when? Here are essentials to add to your car camping checklist.
- National Park Pass
You need this because you’ll save money by the fourth park. Also, it’s not just national parks that accept the pass, it’s also national forests and landmarks (I believe), and it’s only eighty bucks for the year. You can buy the pass here.
- Day pack
Get one of those foldable backpacks that you can stuff in the back of your car and poof it out when you wanna truck up some mountain.
- Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman
You’ll be surprised how often you need this.
- Sun Screen
Don’t forget it. The sun’ll be baking your arms through the windows if you don’t lotion up.
- Snow Shovel
Ever get stuck in the snowy mud? It’s a nightmare. Ever spin out in a snow bank? Also shitty. Carry a foldable shovel and you won’t have to car Triple AAA if this ever happens to you.
- Ice Scraper
If you’re traveling in cold weather and it rains overnight, well… you’ll need an ice scraper! You may not think of this if you’re used to warmer weather, and you might simply forget to bring one if you are used to colder weather… so, that’s why I’m including it here.
Not only is an umbrella a must, but it’s the greatest fashion accessory that nobody knows about. Ever stroll down the sidewalk with a flashy umbrella? It’s the best. Anyway, just wanna make sure I didn’t forget this (even if you opt-out for carrying one).
Sleeping in Your Car Camping Checklist
This is for people with SUVs or station wagons. Sedans won’t really cut it, unless you’re alone and can sleep a bit uncomfortably. I have a Subaru and love to park out in the middle of Colorado or New Mexico and sleep under the stars or pouring rain. I have a whole method for how to sleep in your car that you can find here. But here’s a brief checklist.
What you wanna do is cut out makeshift curtains from some fabric and add Velcro all around your car windows so you can slap em on and off. Use this for sleeping, fucking, changing, or napping in the middle of the day.
- Air Mattress
When you put your backseats down, it needs to fit perfectly. Usually a full size is a perfect fit, and then you can stuff the gaps on the sides with laundry and pillows to make sure you don’t roll off in the middle of the night.
Perfect for setting up systems and sticking things to the wall of your car that you need often rather than searching all over for the same damn thing over and over!
Don’t park your car in the supermarket parking lot in Arizona without throwing a sunshade on your car. Finally, it’s the perfect solution for privacy to block that front windshield when sleeping at night.
If you’re gonna be on the road for a while, sometimes I get homesick and need to reconnect with my everyday life. A great way to do this is to simply dive into some of the shows I watch in my living room or write down what’s going on in my head.
- Travel Notebook
I’m a travel writer, so for me traveling without a travel notebook (yes, a brand-new notebook specifically for the trip) would be like forgetting to bring my break pads. Some of my greatest ideas and inspiration come to me when I’m on the road, so this is essential. Also you’ll forget so many people you met along the way and so many small incidents if you don’t write them down. It’s worth it to just have one in case you need it. Poketo is hands-down the best company in the world.
- Netflix/ HBO/ Hulu/ Disney +/ Apple +/ Amazon Prime/ NO MORE!
For your favorite shows when you wanna break from the road. Throw your phone or tablet in that mount, blow up that air mattress, lay down and watch The Office.
- A Book (just one)
Most people never end up actually reading on a road trip, but if you’re one of the rare exceptions, some books are REALLY great for road trips and camping excursions.
- Travel Games
I don’t usually end up playing that much Yahtzee when I’m on the road, but you might consider bringing a few board games for camping or picnics or whatever. Picnics? Yeah, I guess you could play shoots and ladders during a picnic.
Bedtime Car Camping Checklist
This goes hand-in-hand with the hygiene checklist. Don’t fall out of your nightly routine just cause you’re on the road. Make it easy by having all your nighttime needs in a separate bag so you can grab it and go.
- Toiletry Bag
Get one of the toiletry bags that unfolds and has a hook! Like this one… I don’t think it’s necessary to list all the toiletries you’ll need, but here are some things to remember…
If you take medication make sure you have enough to last you through the trip. This is has been a huge inconvenience for me because different states (and countries) have different rules and laws about what medications can or cannot be switched to another pharmacy. Just make sure you’re full of pills!
- Meditation Cushion/ Block
This takes up a lot of room but I need to meditate. I like to meditate at night or morning, whenever I can get it in, and doing it on the concrete of a parking lot or the damp grass of a rest area needs some comfort. Just a suggestion… I use this one at home and it folds up so perfect for bringing along with you.
As far as I’m concerned, this should be number one on your car camping checklist… But I know that might just be me. However, if you don’t wanna keep paying for shitty coffee every time you pass some rest stop, here’s how to make your own. First I’ll go over the cold brew coffee recipe, the ice coffee recipe, then the hot coffee system I use.
Cold Brew Coffee
Cold brew coffee is coffee concentrate diluted with water and ice to create that chocolate-ly taste (also much stronger) rather than just making hot coffee and putting it in the fridge (or cooler in this case). So, with that being said, instead of paying $4 every time you need a jolt of LET’S DO THIS! You’ll need:
- Coarsely ground coffee
- Cheese cloth
- Cold Water
- Drinking Cup
Here’s actually a cold brew set list I made to make everything easier for you if you wanna buy it online.
You probably can figure this out, but just make some hot coffee, put it in a thick glass container, then throw it in your cooler.
You know how to make coffee, but here’s an idea for ya:
- Fireproof Coffee Mug
You’ll use this not just for coffee, but other liquids too. Try to find one that you can place over a fire so you can use one mug for camping, road tripping, in a hotel, everywhere!
Want More? Check Out The Vagabond Backpacking Checklist
Okay! That’s it! You’re ready! Now just download the checklist and if you want more of this, check out some links below!
- Backpackers Checklist – everything you need for a long term adventure trip.