How To & Tips | April 2024

Highway Handbook: What Do I Need for Overnight Car Camping?

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 this month’s edition of the Highway Handbook, we’re tackling a commonly asked albeit tricky question: “What do I need for overnight car camping?”

The short answer is easy: you don’t really need anything to go camping. You’re more than welcome to get your Bear Grylls on, grab a single match and a pair of nail clippers, and stroll headlong into the wilderness. After all, humans can last days without water and weeks without food–you can (probably, but not guaranteed*) survive a night in the woods. So long as it doesn’t get too cold. And there aren’t any bears or wolves.

However, if what you’re really asking is what do I need to be comfortable, safe, and happy while overnight car camping, then the answer is a longer one. Luckily, you’re in the right place to learn exactly what you need to make car camping feel like second nature. In this helpful guide, we’ll break down everything you need to crush car camp life, including pre-trip prep, must-have car camping gear, tricks for finding free campsites, safety tools and protocols, and more.

Read up, and you won’t just survive camping–you’ll enjoy it, too.

Step 1: Pre-Trip Prep Checklist

Don’t get us wrong, we love a spontaneous road trip. But when you’re spending overnights in the wilderness, it pays to plan ahead. Here are a few ways Luno crew members like to prep before we head out on a car camping overnight:

Campsite Scoping

Once you have a destination in mind, start scoping for possible campsites. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you’re searching for a suitable overnight parking spot:

  • Apps and Maps: Use car camper-approved apps like iOverlandr to discover and map out potential campsites.
  • Free Camping For The Win: Don’t forget that when you’re camping inside of your car, you have more leeway than tent campers. You can camp in many rest stops or Cracker Barrel and Walmart parking lots. You can even stealth camp in quiet neighborhoods or urban areas. For more tips on how to find free car camping, check out our comprehensive guide on the subject here.
  • Reservations And Paid Campsites: If you’re heading to a popular destination like a national park, you may want to reserve a campsite months in advance.
  • Make Your Pup A Priority: If you’re traveling with a furry friend, do your research. Are dogs allowed at your destination of choice? Are the trails you’re hoping to hit dog-friendly? If not, you’ll want to pivot by either heading to a new zone or leaving your pooch with a dog sitter.

Route Research

Just like it’s important to research campsites and trails, you’ll want to do your research on your route. Are the mountain passes you’re hoping to cross open or closed due to snow? What’re the conditions on that stretch of backroads–will a low-clearance vehicle be able to handle the heat? If you’re taking an EV, where’s your last chance to top up your battery before you head into the wilderness

Weather Forecasting

We obsess over weather before every adventure. It may sound like overkill, but we research weather a minimum of three times before a trip, as it influences where we’re going, when we’re leaving, and what gear and apparel we’re bringing. Here’s how that plays out:

  • Far In Advance: Get a general sense of weather weeks if not months before your trip. Let’s say you’re planning a summer trip to Moab. After minimal research, you’ll discover that spring or fall is a better window weather-wise (unless you want to get roasted in the desert sun).
  • 10 Days Out: A week to ten days out, you’ll get a general picture of weather patterns for the start of your trip. If you’re planning a car camping ski trip, this info might dictate what type of skis you’re bringing, or it might cause you to consider alternate destinations if your zone of choice is looking dismal.
  • 5 Days Out: While 10-day forecasts are full of uncertainty and can change dramatically, 5-day forecasts are much more reliable. Checking the weather 5 days out can influence whether or not you pull the trigger on your trip or call an audible and explore backup plans. The forecast might even make you leave a day earlier or later to skirt a storm, or it could cause you to postpone your trip entirely. This is also when we’ll dial in wardrobe and gear considerations (e.g. how warm of a sleeping bag and puffy jacket we’ll bring).

Vehicle Maintenance

When car camping, your car is more than a vehicle–it’s your cabin on wheels. It’s also your exit plan in the case of an emergency or injury. Needless to say, your rig must be functional. If you’re handy, give your vehicle a once-over before you leave, and be sure to top up on fluids. If you’d prefer to leave such under-the-hood adventures to the pros, schedule a pre-trip appointment with your mechanic.

Step 2: Pack Gear You’ll Actually Need

We joked in the intro that you don’t need much gear at all to go camping, and that’s true. But if you want to be warm and cozy at night and well-fed and hydrated during the day, here are a few car camping basics that we can’t live without.

Luno AIR Mattress

The foundational piece of gear in any car camper’s kit is a mattress, as it allows you to turn your backseat into a bunk room. Our award-winning mattresses are available in a slew of sizes that are compatible with hundreds of vehicles, including vans and trucks, and they’re shaped specifically to contour to vehicle curvature and maximize sleeping space. They’re also crafted from an exceptionally durable 300-denier Oxford nylon fabric that withstands everything from pine needles to puppy paws. And most importantly? They’re supportive and cushy, helping campers snooze better than ever and recharge their batteries before a day of adventure.

Sleeping Bag Or Blankets

When camping in cold conditions, we highly suggest a sleeping bag. You don’t need to get a super expensive, ultralight sleeping bag like you would if you’re backpacking–you’re not hauling this gear on your back, after all. Go for a warm, reliable, and affordable bag from a high-quality brand, like this sub-$200 one from Mountain Hardwear. In warmer conditions, many car campers will just grab sheets and blankets from home, turning the backseat bed into an ultra-easy, ultra-cozy sleep setup.

Camp Cooking Essentials

Hot food and cold beverages are two things we can’t camp without. As such, we like to bring a double-burner camp stove like the Camp Chef Everest to sizzle up tasty meals for the crew and a solid cooler to stash fresh fruit, veggies, proteins, and pilsners. Check out our guide to the ultimate car camping kitchen to learn more about our favorite car camping kitchen gear as well as wilderness cooking tips and tricks.

Step 3: Organize Your Gear

The quickest way to fall out of love with car camping is a messy rig. If your gear is all over the place and your trunk looks like it got hit with a tornado, you’re going to experience frustration and general disillusionment. The best way to sidestep such easily avoidable tragedies is to adopt organizational systems and use organizational gear to compartmentalize your crud. Below, you’ll find a few of the car camping accessories we use to maintain a sense of order on the road.

Cargo Hammock

The more time you spend car camping, the more you realize how important it is to make the most of under-utilized space in your vehicle. The Cargo Hammock does exactly that, transforming unused ceiling space into practical, easy-access storage. The expansive netting shelf is perfect for stashing everything from sleeping bags to fishing rods, while the zippered pocket holds easy-to-lose essentials like headlamps and keys.

Seatback Organizer

We call the Seatback Organizer the “nightstand of car camping,” and for good reason. It’s a game-changing organization station that attaches to the back of the front seats and is easy to access when you’re sprawled out on your Luno AIR Mattress. Sleek and well-designed, the Organizer is packed with features including a water bottle holder, removable pouch, translucent headlamp pocket, and more.

Mesh Gear Duffel

Damp duds make your vehicle musty–and that’s a big car camping no-no. Avoid such unfortunate odors with the Mesh Gear Duffel. Crafted from durable, breathable mesh, the duffel let’s damp gear and garb air dry. It’s perfect for waders, wetsuits, you name it.

Gear & Shoe Storage Bag

Equipped with microfiber-lined magnets, these nifty storage bags attach to the exterior of your vehicle without scratching the paint job. The Gear & Shoe Storage Bags sport waterproof lids and mesh bottoms, making them ideal for stashing wet and stinky shoes overnight. However, they’re also extraordinarily versatile, and we use them for storing everything from cooking supplies and utensils to trash and recycling.

Step 4: Make Sure You have Plenty of Fuel

You don’t want to be car camping on an empty tank–and we mean that literally and figuratively.

  • Vehicle Fuel: Make sure your vehicle is stocked with gas (or battery juice) before venturing into remote zones. If you’re going deep, consider filling up a jerry can and bringing it along, just in case.
  • Stove Fuel: Even the most advanced stoves are useless without fuel! Stock up on stove fuel before your trip, and double check that your stove is compatible with both fuel type and canister type.
  • Human Fuel: This goes without saying, but bring plenty of food and water. Plan your meals out day by day, and bring extra non-perishables just in case. If you’re going on a longer trip, consider bringing along a water filtration system.

Step 5: Pack Safety Gear

Last but not least, let’s talk about safety. We know, we know–safety first. But we’re rebels without a cause around here.

Jokes aside, here are two pieces of safety gear we like to keep on hand whenever we hit the road:

  • First Aid Kit: We never camp without a first aid kit. That said, while having a first aid kit is mission-critical, it’s also imperative that you know how to use it. At the very least, consider taking a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course.
  • Satellite Communication Device: Although there are plenty of campgrounds that have cell service, the best car camping is often far from civilization. A satellite communicator, like the ultra-popular Garmin InReach, helps you contact loved ones or call for help during an emergency. For peace of mind, download GAIA GPS on your phone and check your route for cell coverage with their map overlay.

Get The Gear, Make A Plan, And Go For It

One of our core beliefs at Luno is that car camping is a blast, and anyone can do it. However, car camping gets easier, more comfortable, more rewarding, and safer when you get the basic gear and prepare like a pro.

It makes sense, right? If your gear, vehicle, and crew are all dialed in, chances are you’re going to have a rad, memorable, and safe adventure. We hope that this article helps you do just that, and it puts some gas in your proverbial tank.

Thanks for reading this month’s edition of The Highway Handbook. Stay tuned for a new one next month!

As always, we’ll see you on the road!

- The Luno Crew


*Added by the Luno legal team.


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