How To & Tips | January 2024

The Highway Handbook: What is Car Camping?

Welcome To The Highway Handbook

You’ve got questions? We’ve got answers. That’s the gist of our new educational series, The Highway Handbook. One of our main goals at Luno is to make the outdoors more accessible, and we mainly do that by designing comfortable air mattresses and nifty accessories that help you turn your everyday vehicle into an extraordinary adventure mobile. But gear alone doesn’t remove barriers to the great outdoors, and sometimes, the simple act of sharing knowledge makes all the difference. In The Highway Handbook, our team of car camping experts will answer questions that regularly bombard our DMs. Whether you’re a car camping veteran or new to the game, we hope this series helps you get outside, explore, and enjoy time in nature with friends and family.

In our first edition of The Highway Handbook, we will answer one of the most commonly asked questions in our DMs: “What is the meaning of life?” We’re so glad you asked. The meaning of life is to fly-fish desolate rivers, shred thigh-deep powder, mountain bike hero dirt, climb that freakin’ hard project you’ve been working on, car camp with friends while using Luno gear (use code MEANINGOFLIFE for 0% off), build community, do good, be kind, love deeply, scritch dogs behind the ears, and eat cheese with reckless abandon, preferably somewhere scenic. We’re not 100% certain on all of those, but we’re pretty sure. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s address another commonly asked question: what is car camping?

What Is Car Camping?

“Car camping” can be an admittedly confusing term. Why? Because there are two definitions–one old, one new, both of which are used today. We’ll break down both definitions below, and we’ll also explain the nuanced definitions of vehicle-based camping, overlanding, tent camping, backpacking, rooftop tent camping, and more.

The Traditional Definition Of Car Camping (AKA Tent Camping):

Historically, the term car camping has been used to describe a camper who drives to a campground and sets up a tent near their vehicle, rather than hiking or backpacking to a campsite. Nowadays, if you’re sleeping in a tent near your vehicle, we call this “tent camping,” as it helps to differentiate from both backpacking and the more modern definition of car camping, which we explain below.

A Modern Definition Of Car Camping:

Today, car camping also means camping inside a car. Whenever you see us talking about car camping, this is the definition we’re referring to. Cousins of car camping include vanlife (sleeping in your van) and truck camping (sleeping in the aptly named “bed” of your truck).

What is vehicle-based camping?

You may also stumble upon the umbrella term “vehicle-based camping,” which can refer to camping inside any vehicle. This can include car camping, truck camping, and vanlife.

What is backpacking?

Backpacking refers to any time a camper treks or hikes to a campsite with their camping gear in their backpack. Backpacking trips can be as short as a mile or two, or they can span well over a thousand miles, like the world-famous Appalachian Trail.

What is overlanding?

Overlanding can be a form of car camping. However, like vehicle-based camping, overlanding is an umbrella term that can refer to many forms of travel. Overlanding generally refers to self-sufficient, vehicle-based exploration, often with an element of off-roading involved. An overland vehicle can be anything from a souped-up motorbike or a 4x4 Sprinter to Toyota 4Runner with a rooftop tent or a million-dollar EarthRoamer. Crossing international borders and long-term, long-distance travel are hallmarks of overlanding, but overlanding can also be taken to your backyard backroads.

Is rooftop tent camping a form of car camping?

In our opinion, rooftop tent camping is different from car camping. Why? Namely, because you’re camping on the roof of your car and not inside the car itself, and you therefore face an entirely different set of challenges on the road. First off, stealth camping is out of the cards–a tent pitched on the roof of your car isn’t exactly inconspicuous. Plus, certain spots that allow self-contained car camping, like Walmart parking lots and ski resort overnight lots, may prohibit rooftop tent camping.

The Pros And Cons Of Car Camping

Now that we’ve covered some basic definitions of car camping and its alternatives, let’s dive into some pros and cons.

Car Camping Versus Backpacking:

Backpacking is a fantastic way to connect with nature and get some exercise. Also, it can be extremely quiet, especially if you hike deep into remote wilderness.

The main advantage of car camping versus backpacking is hauling capacity and safety. Backpackers are limited to what they can carry, and thus are notoriously stingy regarding weight. Things like extra socks get tossed aside, and fresh veggies are replaced by freeze-dried cardboard. We love that car camping enables us to haul all of the extras, and we’re usually car camping with heavy, bulky gear like skis and snowboards, bikes and fishing rods, etc. Plus, we always bring heaps of camp cooking essentials and fresh, high-quality ingredients to whip up nourishing and tasty camp meals.

As far as safety goes, backpackers need to be extra strategic with planning and gear management, as they must be completely self-sufficient deep in the backcountry. Everything from weather and trail conditions to dangerous animals and water consumption can be cause for concern. While car campers deal with similar factors on the road, the consequences are often more dire for backpackers, as car campers are already near their vehicles if the trip takes a turn for the worst. Oh, and one more added bonus on the safety front: Car doors can lock. Tent zippers? Not so much.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that many outdoor enthusiasts don’t have months of free time to take on a serious thru-hike like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. When you’re car camping, you can often toss everything in the trunk and be at camp within an hour, feet up by the fire and beverage of choice in hand.

Car Camping Versus Tent Camping:

To be honest, we never tent camp anymore. Why opt for a night on uneven ground in a rustling tent when your comfortable car is just a few steps away? A vehicle provides insulation and lockable doors, and when you outfit that vehicle with a purpose-built, ultra-comfortable Luno Air Mattress, you might just sleep better at camp than you do at home. Additionally, tent camping requires a campsite, whereas when you have a Luno Air Mattress, you can car camp stealthily in urban areas, spend the night in rest areas, and take advantage of zones that allow car camping but not tent camping, like Walmart parking lots and ski resort overnight lots.

Also, tents are expensive, and even the priciest models are less waterproof, durable, and warm than your vehicle. And again, you can’t lock your tent, giving car camping a major advantage in the safety department. Last but not least, tent campers are pitching tents on cold, bumpy ground, which can make sleep a challenge, and they’re more susceptible to visits from critters like snakes, spiders, bears, and so on and so forth.

That said, tent camping does have its benefits. You can fit a family of five in a tent–do that car camping in the back of your Subaru and a sleepless night is guaranteed.

Car Camping Versus Rooftop Tent Camping:

You might expect us not to be rooftop tent fans, but you’re mistaken! We love rooftop tents–they allow car campers to double their sleeping capacity. If you have a Luno Air Mattress and a two-person rooftop tent, you can easily sleep four campers. Luno team members with rooftop tents like to refer to them as “the guest room.”

Rooftop tents have their benefits. The views from the roof are unmatched, and rooftop tents free up trunk space for gear storage. Compared to standard tent camping, rooftop tents are also much more comfortable thanks to the flat sleeping platform and included mattress. Also, the ladder does add a buffer zone, protecting campers from some critters and pests.

Rooftop tents also have their drawbacks, chief among them cost. Sheesh, are they pricey. Installation is a complex production, too–one Luno team member nearly died while trying to install a rooftop tent on his Subie. And if you do manage to install the tent, vehicle aerodynamics are inevitably compromised, meaning fuel efficiency takes a hit–a hard pill to swallow for road trippers. The ladder is also an enormous pain in the butt if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. That said, there are two main reasons why we prefer car camping over rooftop tent camping:

  • Limited Access: As mentioned above, rooftop tent camping can be prohibited in specific zones where self-contained car camping is allowed. These zones include some of our favorite places to car camp, like ski resort parking lots, Walmart parking lots (not particularly scenic, but a great pit stop to keep in your back pocket on road trips), and sneaky camping spots in urban areas (AKA “stealth” or “urban” camping).
  • Setup Time And Energy: Even if you’re a rooftop tent camping pro, setting up your rooftop tent takes time and energy, and doing so in the rain and wind is no fun. (Speaking of wind and rain, if you store your tent while wet, mildew will follow.) On the other hand, depending on your vehicle, you may be able to drive with your Luno Air Mattress already inflated and ready to go, so that when you do arrive at your campsite, you can crawl into the back and catch some sleep without any setup needed.

Car Camping Versus Vanlife, RV Life, And Trailer Camping:

Of all the alternatives to car camping listed in this article, the benefits of vanlife, RV life, and trailer camping are the most significant. Namely, these larger vehicles can haul more gear and creature comforts. You won’t have a toilet, refrigerator, or indoor cooktop car camping, but these amenities are par for the course in a van, RV, or trailer, making these options much more liveable. However, these larger vehicles aren’t without their drawbacks. Here are a few of the major ones:

Cost: While many car campers dream of an ultra-snazzy van, a six-figure Sprinter build simply isn’t in the budget for most of us.
Driveability: For many outdoor enthusiasts, having more than one vehicle isn’t practical, and commuting in a van or RV isn’t feasible. Have you ever tried parallel parking a Sprinter with a 170” wheelbase in the city, let alone a massive RV or bus-sized trailer?
Fuel Efficiency: Gas can be your biggest cost while car camping, and vans and RVs are notorious gas guzzlers. Your car, on the other hand, likely has much better gas mileage, especially if you have an electric or hybrid vehicle.
Room For Friends: Many van builds only have room for two passengers. When you’re camping with a Luno Air Mattress, you can pack the car with friends and gear, and then unload and inflate your mattress upon arrival.

Pro Tip: If you do have a van that holds more than two passengers, turn your front cab into a spare bedroom with our Front Cab Air Mattress. This useful vanlife essential converts your cab into a comfortable mattress perfect for kids, pets, and adults under 5’7”.

The Car Camping Basics: Gear To Get Started

Now that we’ve defined car camping and its alternatives, we’re going to outline a few gear recommendations that we suggest to get you started. You may already have some of these gear recs in your arsenal–things like sleeping bags and pillows–while more car-camping-centric equipment may be new.

The Ultimate Car Camping Sleep Setup

Luno Air Mattress
We’re a little biased here, but the most critical piece of your car camping sleep setup is a mattress that’s purpose-built for the trunk of your vehicle. We design our award-winning mattresses to maximize sleeping real estate, and they’re available in several sizes. Just input your vehicle make, model, and year here, and we’ll set you up with the perfect fit!

We also craft our air mattresses out of durable materials that can handle bumps in the road. Easy to inflate, deflate, transport, and store, they’re a dream sleep setup for any adventurer aiming to turn a weekday commuter into a weekend adventure rig. And most importantly, they’re comfy and supportive, ensuring a good night’s rest no matter where you park.

Pro Tip: Pair it with our Fitted Mattress Sheet and Memory Foam Topper for a comfy, seamless, adventure-ready sleep setup.

A Warm Sleeping Bag
We always recommend a warm sleeping bag, especially during the colder months. And warm sleeping bags, particularly warm, lightweight, backpacking sleeping bags, can cost a pretty penny. But you don’t need to worry about lightweight gear because you're not lugging your sleeping bag in your backpack–you’re car camping. Instead, you can get a warm sleeping bag for under $200, like this 0-degree option from Mountain Hardwear.

Luno Packable Camp Pillow
Our compact and comfortable Packable Camp Pillow will revolutionize your nights on the road. The dual-sided pillowcase has a soft, warm polyester side for frosty nights and a cool, breathable jersey-knit side for comfy camping in warmer temperatures. Plus, the pillow is stuffed with a shredded memory foam filler, which you can add or remove as needed to adjust firmness to your liking.

Pro Tip: If you’re looking to save money, you can always snag your comforter from home and set up your Luno Air Mattress like a standard bed. While we don’t recommend this as much in the winter, it’s a solid workaround during the warmer months.

Gear Storage: Organize Like A Pro

Here are a few of the tools we rely on to stay organized on the road

  • Luno Seatback Organizer 2.0: We call it the “nightstand of car camping” for a reason. This handy, compartmentalized, feature-rich organizer attaches to the back of your front seats so that it’s easily accessible while your Luno Air Mattress is in sleep mode.
  • Luno Gear Tote 50L: Our heavy-duty gear tote is perfect for hauling everything from groceries to climbing gear. Even better, it’s upcycled from retired air mattresses.
  • Luno Mesh Gear Duffel: Just like plastic tubs, our Mesh Gear Duffel helps you keep stock of your gear. The mesh also lets damp gear air out, so we like to use the duffel for hauling dirty laundry, damp wetsuits, fishing waders, etc.
  • Luno Cargo Hammock: Perfect for storing everything from bedding and clothes to fly rods and climbing gear, the Cargo Hammock turns unused ceiling space into valuable storage.


Welcome To Luno Life

Thanks for reading the first edition of The Highway Handbook! We hope you dug it. If you have more questions for us to cover in future posts, feel free to send us a note with questions to cover in future posts. And if you’re looking to learn more about the ins and outs of car camping in the meantime, check out our Ultimate Guide To Car Camping here, or visit the Luno Journal to read up on everything from our favorite car camping recipes to tips for car camping in bear country.

Thanks again, and we’ll see you on the road!

-The Luno Crew


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