How To & Tips | April 2024

The Ultimate Guide to Car Camping

Looking for a crash course in car camping? You’re in the right place. We founded Luno to help campers sleep well in their vehicles, and since then, we’ve helped thousands of road trippers do just that with our award-winning air mattresses and accessories.

In this ultimate guide to car camping, we’re keeping that tradition alive by highlighting our Car Camping 101 course–a series of YouTube videos packed with car camping hacks. While Car Camping 101 videos are especially informative for road trip rookies, car camping veterans will undoubtedly pick up practical, actionable tricks, too. Our advice? Scroll through this guide and watch these videos before your next car camping adventure.

Car Camping 101 Videos

Want to skip straight to a specific Car Camping 101 video? Feel free to click through the links below.

In addition to breaking down our Car Camping 101 videos, you’ll also find the following in this guide:

  • A downloadable PDF packing list that we reference before every car camping adventure
  • Links to additional educational car camping content, like our guide to finding free car camping, our favorite car camping recipes, and more.
  • Gear recommendations for car camping essentials from Luno and other camping brands we love and trust.

Without further ado, let’s get learnin’!

Chapter 1: Beginner’s Guide To Car Camping

Car camping can be intimidating, especially if you didn’t grow up tent camping with family and friends. In this next episode of Car Camping 101, we’re speaking specifically to first-timers and newbies, and we break down the absolute basics to help you overcome any anxiety and enjoy your first car camping adventure. If you’re new to the car camping game, be sure to give this episode a watch below.

3 Car Camping Tips for Beginners

While we cover more helpful hacks in the video, here are three car camping tips for beginners that we can’t emphasize enough.

Dial in your sleep setup. Sleep deprivation will dampen any adventure, no matter how rad the destination. Here’s a quick step-by-step to help you dial in your sleep setup and snooze more soundly on the road:

  • Leave the flimsy backpacking pads and bulky DIY mattresses at home. Instead, use our handy vehicle compatibility tool to shop for a Luno Air Mattress that’s tailored to fit your specific vehicle.
  • Snag a Luno Fitted Sheet. Our sheets are purpose-built with cutaway corners and slits for valve access. Not only do they stay put on bumpy backroads, but they’re crafted from a stretchy, soft polyester spandex blend that’s ultra-soft and comfy to the touch.
  • Check the weather ahead of your trip and bring a Goldilocks sleeping bag–not too warm, not too cold, but just right. Or, bring plenty of blankets and layer as needed.
  • Bring your favorite pillow. You’re car camping, after all, not backpacking. Bringing your favorite pillow from home is a fantastic way to increase your comfort and boost your chances of a good night’s sleep on the road.

Check out the video below for even more sleep setup advice!

Get organized, stay organized. Don’t pack last minute. Instead, be pre-meditated. Have an organization game plan and pack accordingly–and do so well ahead of your trip. Use bins, packing cubes, see-through duffel bags, seatback organizers, etc. to get organized. Getting organized ahead of your trip will help you stay organized on the road, and staying organized on the road will ensure life at camp is stress-free and fun.

Leave No Trace. This isn’t advice as much as it is a reminder. As car campers who love the great outdoors, it’s important that we act as responsible stewards of wild places, ensuring they’re pristine and protected for generations of campers to come. How do we do that? By following the Seven Leave No Trace Principles:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of others

Dig the idea of responsible car camping? Same. Take our Camper’s Code pledge to commit to making your impact on the outdoors and the outdoor community a positive one.

Chapter 2: How to Car Camp

This Car Camping 101 episode kicks off with an explanation of why we prefer car camping (sleeping in your car) as opposed to tent camping. We didn’t have time to write an entire dissertation on the subject–although we certainly could–but here are a few reasons why we prefer camping in vehicles over tents.

Why Car Camping? 4 Reasons To Ditch the Tent

  • Stop fumbling with tent poles. Pitching a tent can be a pain in the butt, especially in bad weather. On the other hand, when you’re crashing in your car, you’re ready to rock as soon as you pull into camp.
  • Weather protection and resilience. Tent poles bend and break. Tent fabric tears and leaks. Your metal car, however, is much more resilient and can withstand all manner of gnarly weather.
  • Get a better night’s sleep. Sleeping on flimsy camping pads on rocky, uneven ground is a recipe for a poor night’s sleep. When you make the switch to a thick, flat, comfy, dream-inducing Luno Air Mattress, it’s tough to go back.
  • Safety first. Car camping provides a sense of security that tent camping can’t compete with. Locking the car doors at night is one of our favorite aspects of car camping, especially in grizzly country. We also love that car camping keeps us off the ground and away from snakes, spiders, scorpions, etc.

What to Pack? The Car Camping Basics

This Car Camping 101 episode also outlines a basic car camping packing list, which includes the following essentials:

  • A good sleeping setup. We’re a little biased in that department, but we highly recommend you check out a Luno Air Mattress. If you haven’t already snoozed on one of our award-winning mattresses, set up is a dream and durability and comfort are through the roof.
  • Water & food. Your trip will be short-lived without food and water. Literally.
  • Coolers & camp stoves. Be prepared to chef up a storm, no matter the weather, with a cooler and a camp stove. We’ll dive deeper into camp cuisine below.
  • Headlamps & lanterns. Keep your eye on the prize with headlamps and lanterns. Don’t forget extra batteries or an auxiliary power bank and charging cable.
  • First aid. Accidents happen. And according to Murphy’s Law, accidents will most likely happen when you’re out of cell service and miles from the nearest hospital. Pack a first aid kit, and be sure to take a Wilderness First Aid course ahead of your trip so you can learn the basics of backcountry medicine.
  • Fuel and extra fuel. Don’t just fill up your tank at the gas station–grab a to-go container. Hopefully, you’ll never have to use your emergency stash of gas, but it’s always a smart idea to have some on hand.
  • Jumper cables. This goes without saying, but every car camper should have a pair of jumper cables at the ready. Even if you never need them, giving a stranger a jump earns you mega car camping karma points.
  • A car! Last but not least, you need a car to car camp. While you might be dreaming of a six-figure overland vehicle outfitted with a leather couch, flat screen, and bulldozer tires, that’s just not in the cards for most of us. That’s exactly why we founded Luno in the first place–to help outdoor enthusiasts turn ordinary vehicles into extraordinary adventure rigs. With a Luno Air Mattress, you can turn almost any commuter into a camper. And if you’re piloting a truck, don’t worry, we have a Truck Bed Air Mattress for trucks with five-foot beds and another for trucks with six-foot beds. Last but not least, vanlifers can check out our Front Cab Air Mattress, a revolutionary inflatable that turns the front seats of popular van models into an extra sleeping nook.

Download the Luno Packing List!

As we mentioned earlier, we just put together our new Luno Packing List. This helpful PDF is free to download, and it consists of everything you need on a car camping trip–plus a few extras, too. The list includes:

  • Bare necessities like headlamps and sleeping bags, sunscreen and insect repellant.
  • Kitchen essentials like a cutting board and two-burner stove.
  • Hygiene helpers like baby wipes and hand sanitizer.
  • Miscellaneous fun items like frisbees and hammocks.

Check out the packing list here and reference it before your next car camping adventure!

Where to Car Camp?

Before we move on to our next episode of Car Camping 101, this episode also briefly touches on where to car camp. While you can always pay for campsites at designated public and private campgrounds, we usually gravitate toward free car camping. Free car camping is surprisingly easy to find once you know what to look for, and you can find free car camping everywhere from Walmart parking lots to remote National Forests and BLM backroads. Use our Comprehensive Guide to Free Car Camping to find a sweet spot on your next trip!

Chapter 3: Gear Storage

Whether you’re a mountain biker, a hiker, a surfer, a fly fisherman, or all of the above, we all love to bring toys on camping trips. And undoubtedly, one of the trickiest aspects of car camping is storing gear. Messy, unorganized cars can lead to frustrating moments on the road, while clean vehicles with well-thought-out organization systems make car camping a breeze. Give our Gear Storage video a watch and read on for 10 car camping gear storage tips to keep in mind:

  • Develop organization systems: All road trip organization can boil down to one word: systems. By systems, we mean organization protocols you follow religiously, like:
    • Always stashing your toiletries in your driver-side door
    • Always storing wet gear in your roof box
    • Always storing bedding in your Luno Cargo Hammock
    Systems like these make staying organized on the road feel like second nature. And when you’re in a hurry, or it’s dark and your headlamp runs out of batteries, you’ll be able to tackle camp tasks quickly and efficiently.
  • Use the front seats as storage shelves: One of our go-to organization systems? We love to use the front seats as storage shelves. The front seats are spacious, and you can stash and stack big gear tubs, duffle bags, and more, freeing up space in the backseat for your Luno Air Mattress. On the floorboard of the front seats, we like to stash food and water.
  • Clear plastic tubs are your friend: When storing gear, we recommend using clear, plastic tubs. Plastic tubs allow you to see what’s stashed inside, enabling you to keep stock of gear. Forget emptying a massive tub just to find a canister of stove fuel or a pocket knife–with clear bins, you know where everything is at all times.
  • Mesh duffle bags are surprisingly useful: We wanted a transparent duffle bag that, just like clear plastic tubs, allows you to keep stock of contents at all times, so we developed our Mesh Gear Duffle. Not only does this car camper-approved duffle enable you to see what’s inside, improving on-the-road organization, but it’s also ideal for storing damp gear. No more fermenting fishing waders or rank hiking boots–just stash damp gear in the Mesh Duffle and let it breathe as needed.
  • Smart rooftop storage: Rooftop storage can help you stay organized and keep gear out of your sleeping area. We like lockable roof boxes, like these ones from Thule, as they’re incredibly versatile and can be used in summer and winter alike.
  • Under the car storage: If you’re camping in a safe place and you’re not worried about theft, storing gear outside and underneath your car can be a smart play. We’ll sometimes do this with surfboards, freeing up room inside the vehicle for sleeping.
  • Use your Luno Air Mattress in solo mode: All Luno Air Mattresses sport a dual-chambered design. When both sides are inflated, you have plenty of room for two sleepers. When only one side is inflated, you’re in “Solo Mode,” which is perfect for one sleeper. The biggest benefit of Solo Mode is that you free up half of your trunk to stash gear.
  • Luno Shoe and Gear Storage Bags: One of our most popular car camping accessories is our magnetic Gear & Shoe Storage Bag. This car camp essential attaches to the outside of your car via magnets. It sports a mesh bottom, making it perfect for storing gnarly hiking boots, damp surf booties, and more, so they can drip dry overnight without stinking up your sleeping area.
  • Luno Seatback Organizers: Seatback Organizers are another smart way to stay organized on the road. These organization stations fit over the driver and passenger seatbacks and consist of zippered pockets, pouches, and more. We use them to stash electronics, wallets, keys, headlamps, books, toiletries, you name it.
  • Luno Cargo Hammock: Our latest organization innovation, the Luno Cargo Hammock, is already a smash hit with the car camping crowd. This collapsible mesh shelf is compatible with most SUVs and hatchbacks and turns unused ceiling space into valuable gear storage. We like to use this bad boy for stashing clothes, bedding, snacks, and more.

Chapter 4: Tips for Camping in Hot and Cold Weather

Camping in extreme weather can be intimidating, but it’s also extremely rewarding. Hot and cold weather can thin out crowds in popular campgrounds and parks. Plus, we love car camping in ski resort parking lots in winter and spring–there’s no more affordable way to enjoy the ski-in, ski-out lifestyle. Give this Car Camping 101 episode a watch and read on for more hot- and cold-weather camping tips.

5 Tips for Car Camping In Summer Heat

Pay attention to the sun’s trajectory

When car camping in the summer, be on the lookout for shade. Shade can be the difference between a cool, comfortable morning and feeling like you’re waking up in a toaster oven. If you arrive at camp in the evening, think about where the sun will be first thing in the morning, too.

Crack the windows for airflow

Stuffy, warm air can make camping in the summer heat feel stifling. On the other hand, a welcome breeze can make camping in warmer temps, well, a breeze. Many car campers are hesitant to crack windows due to the inevitable barrage of bloodsucking mosquitos, but we’ve got the perfect solution: our Mesh Window Screens. These stretchy mesh screens fit easily over your car windows, enabling you to roll down the windows and enjoy some airflow. The mesh lets in all of the breeze, but none of the bugs.

Become a fan of the fan

If the breeze isn’t blowing, BYOB (Bring Your Own Breeze) with our compact yet powerful Car Camping Fan. This 5-inch fan can run off of your car jack or a USB power bank, making it a versatile essential for camping in warmer weather.

Can’t beat the sheet: Too warm for a sleeping bag? Stay cool with a Luno Fitted Mattress Sheet. The sheet sports cutout corners and valve slits specifically engineered for use with Luno Air Mattresses. Not only that, but it’s crafted from a quick-drying, ultra-comfortable blend of polyester and spandex.

Stay hydrated: This one goes without saying, but it’s important that you stay hydrated while car camping in the heat. Bring a capable cooler stocked with ice and plenty of water. If you’ll have access to rivers, ponds, and other freshwater sources, bring a water filtration system.

8 Tips for Car Camping in Winter

Increase Insulation:

While Luno Air Mattresses are comfortable in both warm and cold weather, in extreme cold, adding extra insulation to your mattress isn’t a bad play. Here are a few insulation-amplifying tips that’ll boost comfort in cold weather:

  • Add a thick blanket between your sleeping bag and mattress.
  • Wrap the mattress in a blanket, like an air mattress burrito in a wool tortilla.
  • Layer a closed-cell foam sleeping pad, like these affordable options from Therm-A-Rest, beneath the air mattress.

The premise for all of these tips is the same: add extra insulation without breaking the bank. Experiment and find the system that works best for you.

Layer Smart: If you’re camping in winter, dress the part with a smart layering system. We like to start with a warm, wicking, wool base layer, add a down puffy jacket for insulation, and then finish off with a waterproof, breathable shell to stay dry. The best part of this versatile formula is that it’s extremely tweakable. We use this formula to handle everything from foggy surf trips on the California coast to winter camping missions in the Arctic Circle. For instance, in extremely frigid conditions, we wear a thicker mid-layer like a parka or double up on puffy jackets. In milder conditions, we might ditch the shell entirely or switch from a puffy jacket to a light sweater.

Avoid Cotton: Cotton might be your go-to for daily wear, but you should leave cotton duds at home while car camping in winter weather. Cotton doesn’t wick well, and if you start to sweat it’ll stay wet for hours. At best, damp, cold cotton clothes are uncomfortable. In a worst-case scenario, they’re a contributing factor to hypothermia.

Insulate Your Windows: Windows are a weak point when it comes to leaking heat, so it’s important to insulate accordingly. Trim a roll of Reflectix to the size and shape of the vehicle windows, then superglue magnets to the corners of the Reflectix panels to keep them in place.

Privacy Curtains: Another helpful tool is our Privacy Curtain, which helps to separate your sleeping area from the front seats, minimizing the space you need to heat and thus keeping you warmer at night.

Run the Heater En Route To Your Campsite:

When you’re a few minutes away from your campsite, crank the heat. This solution is temporary, but it’s a good start, and it’ll help you stay warm as you make camp and get ready for bed.

The Hot Water Bottle Hack: Our favorite cold-weather camping tip? The hot water bottle hack. Boil water (we like a Jetboil for quick-and-easy heating), pour it into a leak-proof Nalgene, and pop the Nalgene into your sleeping bag before you crawl into bed. That bottle will provide hours of heat, making it a much more long-term solution. In extremely cold conditions, we’ll use two hot water bottles, placing one between our legs and one in the footbox of our sleeping bag. An added benefit of this hot water bottle hack is that it guarantees you’ll have unfrozen, drinkable water when you wake up in the morning.

Coping with Condensation and Storing Wet Gear:

Condensation can dampen any winter camping trip–literally. Here are a few ways to minimize chances of condensation while car camping:

  • Store wet gear, like snowboards and wetsuits, outside of the car. A lockable roofbox is a smart move, and can be useful year-round.
  • Have a “utility towel”—we like these ones from Nomadix—on hand at all times. Use it to wipe up condensation as soon as it appears and before the moisture can get clothes and bedding wet.
  • Crack a window. Believe it or not, airflow is critical for comfortable camping in winter. We like to crack a window in the front seat and another in the back, creating a little cross-breeze. It’ll drop the internal temperature of your vehicle, but it’ll also give moisture a chance to escape, reducing the chances of condensation. We’d always rather be a little chilly than wet.

Looking for more cold-weather camping tips? Check out this Winter Camping 101 video:

And don’t forget to drop in on this Winter Car Camping 101 article, where we outline a whopping 54 tips, tricks, and gear recommendations to help you stay warm while camping in cold weather.

Chapter 5: Cooking and Cuisine from Your Car

Put your apron on, because this episode of Car Camping 101 serves up the cooking channel vibes. There’s a common misconception that campers eat nothing but tasteless dehydrated meals and trail mix, but that’s not the case at all. While backpackers need to worry about pack weight and therefore gravitate toward astronaut-approved dehydrated meals, car campers are relatively spoiled. Remember: if you drive to your campsite, you can afford to lug a few luxuries. And with a two-burner stove, a cooler, and a few other car camp kitchen essentials, you can pretty much whip up anything at camp you would at home. Give the Car Camping 101 video a watch and step up your car camping cuisine.

Key Cuisine Tips:

  • Pack a sturdy table and keep it level. While it’s possible to find a flat patch of dirt, a perfect boulder, or even an accommodating tree stump to serve as your camp kitchen, you never know what your campsite will provide. Plus, wind can whip dirt and sand into your dish–ingredients that’ll ruin any meal. For those reasons, we like to bring a packable table like this one from Mountain Summit.
  • Coolers are your friend. Not only will a heavy-duty cooler keep your perishables cold for days on end, but it also serves as much-needed counter space, too!
  • Two-burner stoves are the move. While backpackers will prefer compact one-burner stoves, campers can and should turn to two-burner options, like this one from Camp Chef. These two-burner stoves increase your cooking capacity, enabling you to feed the whole family. They also increase your repertoire of cooking techniques, too. For instance, it’s damn near impossible to simmer on an integrated canister backpacking stove, but it’s no problem on the two-burner Camp Chef.
  • One-burner stoves are ideal for solo travelers and fast boiling. If you’re rolling solo, an integrated canister stove, like these ones from Jetboil, is a great choice. These compact stoves do one thing and one thing only: boil water extremely efficiently. They’re perfect for dehydrated meals, ramen, mac and cheese, and other single-pot recipes. When we’re camping with a bigger group, we like to bring a Jetboil stove along, too, using the Camp Chef two-burner for eggs and bacon and the Jetboil for coffee and tea.
  • One-burner stoves are ideal for solo travelers and fast boiling. If you’re rolling solo, an integrated canister stove, like these ones from Jetboil, is a great choice. These compact stoves do one thing and one thing only: boil water extremely efficiently. They’re perfect for dehydrated meals, ramen, mac and cheese, and other single-pot recipes. When we’re camping with a bigger group, we like to bring a Jetboil stove along, too, using the Camp Chef two-burner for eggs and bacon and the Jetboil for coffee and tea.
  • Keep camp kitchen gear consolidated. This goes back to what we covered in our first Car Camping 101 video: organization. Stash all of your cookware, including utensils, plates, cups, bowls, stoves, and fuel, in a single plastic tub or bin for easy access.
  • Luno Gear & Shoe Storage Bags are infinitely useful, even in the kitchen. Our storage bags sport built-in magnets, so you can affix them to the exterior of your vehicle. We use them in a number of ways while camp cooking, including utensil storage and food storage. They also work extremely well as camp trash and recycling bins!

Be sure to watch the video for more car camping cuisine tips, and head to the Luno Journal to check out some of our team’s favorite car camping recipes!

Chapter 6: Car Camping Safety Tips

Last but not least, let’s talk safety. After all, safety comes first when you’re on the road. Here are a few things to keep in mind on the safety front, both before and during your car camping trip:

  • Tell someone your trip details. This could be a friend, family member, or even a local ranger. It’s important to let someone know where you are going and how long you’ll be gone. If you end up needing a rescue, sharing that information might just save your life.
  • Check the Weather: If you’re on a ski or snowboard trip, you might be chasing storms. Otherwise, you might want to avoid them. Check the weather ahead of your trip and plan accordingly.
  • Make sure you’re stocked with plenty of food and water. And do your research: will your destination have potable water nearby? Is there a water source that requires a reliable filter system, like a river or lake?
  • Bring a communication device. If you like to explore wilderness areas, chances are you’ll be out of cell service a time or two. Get a satellite communication device, like a Garmin InReach, to ensure you always have an emergency means of communication.
  • Don’t sleep with the car on. While it’s safe to sleep in your vehicle while the car is off, we don’t recommend sleeping in your car with the engine on. Why? Because exhaust fumes can transport potentially fatal carbon monoxide into your vehicle.

Watch the video for more safety tips!


Car Camping Class Is Never Over

Whew–that was a big one. Thanks for reading this far, and we hope you enjoyed our Car Camping 101 video series. Be sure to check back and subscribe to receive future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like us to cover in a blog post or video, drop us a note here.

While we had a blast putting these videos and this blog together, some things can’t be learned online–they’ve got to be learned in the field. We hope this content gives you the inspiration, confidence, and know-how to get out in the field safely and continue your car camping coursework in the great outdoors!

That said, in the meantime, if you are hungry for more car camping info (or inspo), check out the Luno Journal, where we regularly discuss car camping tips, road trip ideas, and more.

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the road,

The Luno Crew


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