Car Camping: How to Prepare for Sleeping in Your Car

One of the easiest and most accessible forms of camping is car camping. All this means is that you’re sleeping in your car overnight of course, but you can make an adventure of it really easily.

Some people choose to sleep in their car because they don’t have a tent. Some people don’t like tents, some people just want the convenience of not having to find and use a campsite – the list of reasons go on.

Whatever your reasons are for sleeping in your car the most important things are that you’re comfortable and safe.

So, whether you’re sleeping in the back of an SUV, have a small car barely long enough to stretch out in, or a family saloon, a little prepping will make all the difference.

I wrote up this article to cover all the things you need to know about car camping to ensure you’re both of these things.

I included some handy tips on what to pack in your boot. How to find safe places to sleep overnight and some other tidbits that’ll make your camping trip a lot more enjoyable.

Some Tips to Help You Have an Awesome Car Camping Trip

Be Prepared with Everything You Need

It’s no different than camping outdoors, preparation is the key to a fun and comfortable experience sleeping in your car.

The best thing about sleeping in your car is that it shouldn’t be a problem fitting everything you need in your trunk regardless of the size of your car.

The problems come when you start packing all those luxuries and electronic devices, but I’ll leave it for you to decide what you really need to take.

Here is a list covering most of the basic you should be at least considering when car camping:

Checklist of Items for Sleeping in Your Car

  • Plenty of blankets/sleeping bag (see below)
  • Fresh water and food
  • Lightweight camping stove
  • Cooking utensils, pots, pans, etc
  • Spare clothes
  • Torch/headlamp
  • Pocket knife/multi-tool
  • Eye mask(see below)
  • Paracord
  • First aid kit
  • Toiletry kit

These are the basics and should have you covered to be self-sufficient for a few nights until you get somewhere you can stock up.

Don’t Forget Ventilation

There is no worse feeling than waking up on a beautiful morning, seeing the sweeping luscious landscape as one of the first things you see….then realizing you’re in a stuffy, sweaty, smelly confined place.

If you don’t want to create this sticky environment with condensation dripping down the windows – and I know you don’t, leave a window or the sunroof open a little.

Obviously you need to keep security in mind. Plus, in humid environments you don’t want creepy crawlies getting in, so if you want to be super prepared buy or make a piece of mesh that will cover the open area of the window.

Use your own judgment on how wide you are willing to leave a window open, but do open one a little to avoid creating that sweaty uncomfortable environment.

Make Sure You’re Comfy

It goes without saying that you want to be comfy, my tip here is to make the most of the space in your trunk to bring plenty of nice bedding.

One of the main benefits of sleeping in your car is that there is no trekking around or backpacking to campsites carrying your stuff.

Obviously, if you can fold your back seats down you can make a space to lay down. Or leaning the front seats back as far as they’ll go will almost do the same thing.

It’s going to come down to what car you have and how much room there is for you. I’m sure you’ll find a way to make the most of it.

Remember You’re Surrounded by Windows

This is one of the things most people forget when planning to sleep in their cars. Sure, it’s nice to gaze at the stars when you want, but you don’t have curtains to pull across when you want to sleep.

If you are easily disturbed by lights or movements I suggest picking up an eye mask or a sleeping bag with a hood that covers your face.

You can also get window shades that stick on the window and give you some privacy too. I’m not trying to scare you, if you’re staying at a campsite I’m sure you won’t be bothered much.

How to Find Safe (And Sometimes Free) Places to Park Overnight

It’s not a good idea to just pull up anywhere, roll out the sleeping bag, and sleep for the night. This can get you in trouble with the authorities, and worse might put you at risk.

In an ideal world, you will have planned ahead for a campsite or designated place that allows you to car camp.

If not or if you find yourself needing to stop before you’ve reached your destination here are some places to consider:

Religious Premises

Try finding a church or some other kind of religious building with a car park. It’s polite to pop in and ask if you can sleep in their car park overnight, but they are likely to say yes.

If you see a charitable donation box the least you can do is drop a few coins in. It’ll do your conscience wonders, and you’re in a place of worship after all.

24 Hour Department Stores

Again, you need to check if there are any rules against sleeping in a car park of a department store that’s open 24 hours, but generally speaking, there isn’t.

The benefits here is that there will more than likely be security patrolling, CCTV on the car park, and the reason I say choose a 24-hour store is so that you’re not left completely isolated.

Residential Areas

There is no law against parking up and catching some sleep in a residential neighborhood – as long as it’s not a pay to park zone and there are no other local restrictions of course.

My advice is to pick a decent neighborhood of course. Just looking around should give you a good idea if you don’t know the area at all.

It’s safer to pick somewhere well lit and in a public area. You are more likely to get disturbed by traffic or people walking by however.

Commonly Asked Questions About Car Camping

Is It Safe to Sleep in a Car with the Engine Running?

It’s always tempting to let the engine run if you need heat or want to charge the battery to run some of the electrical devices – but it’s a very bad idea.

I don’t recommend running the engine for a prolonged period while not moving, and certainly not while you’re sleeping.

There are a number of potential hazards to running the engine while you’re sleeping. Some of which are:

The car can overheat – The fan is a backup to aid the air-cooled system while you’re driving and if it fails or can’t keep the temperature down you’re looking at a blown engine gasket as the best case scenario.

You risk carbon monoxide poisoning – Your car is pumping out carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, both of which are harmful if you breathe in too much. Even in a well-ventilated area it’s far too risky.

You might cause an accident – Do you shuffle around in your sleep? Even worse, if you’re prone to sleepwalking or doing things in a haze you might shift your car into gear or release the break (depending on the model of car) and roll or drive into a stationary object.

Is It Safe to Sleep in a Car with Ac On?

It’s a very bad idea to run your AC while you’re sleeping, no matter how hot or uncomfortable you are.

First of all, for the AC to run properly you need the engine running. So, see the reasons above why sleeping with a car engine running is an incredibly bad idea.

If you’re running some kind of AC without the engine running all you’ll end up doing is draining your battery and finding yourself stranded in the morning.

Can I Sleep in My Car at a Campsite?

If you’re planning on sleeping in your car at a campsite it’s always best to ring ahead and check what the rules are for that site.

In my experience, the rule of thumb is that it’s ok to sleep in your car at almost any campsite as long as you pay the fee to stay there, and of course keep to the rules.

In most instances, you’ll have to park up with the camper vans and other vehicles people camp or sleep in and it’s not a big issue.

What you can’t do is try and sneak in or near to a campsite and take a nap overnight thinking it’s no big deal because you’re not using any of the facilities at the campsite.

The best reason to sleep at a campsite in your car is to use their facilities, so pay up and make the most of it.

I bet it’ll feel great to have a proper shower if you’ve been in your car for a few days.



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