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How I camp in my car during road trips

The plan was simple. With my girlfriend vacationing overseas with family, I’d hit the road and visit some places scattered around the West that I needed to mark off of my various travel quests. And along the way, I’d also visit some online friends near Las Vegas, Boise, Northern California, and Carson City. The trip would require quite a bit of driving—I guesstimated roughly 3,500 miles—and I needed to squeeze it into a short 10-day window to make it work.

roadtrip map
Just a quick 3,881-mile solo roadtrip to some relatively obscure BLM-managed public lands…

And as a trip we hadn’t exactly budgeted for, I’d also need to keep expenses to a minimum. So that meant two things: I’d have to be very efficient in my travel days, and I’d basically need to use my vehicle like an RV.

I have done a number of fly-and-camp trips before, but for this trip, I wouldn’t be camping as much as living in my vehicle. Being able to sleep in Sam the Subie instead of having to set up a tent would give me the most flexibility in where I stayed each night. That was an important cost-saver, as it allowed me to avoid hotels and campground fees and either disperse camp on public lands, stay in a friend’s driveway, or even catch some sleep in a rest area or parking lot. And since I wasn’t sure how the weather would turn out, it’d also ensure that I had a warm place to sleep for the night—one where I could avoid the unrelenting wind I encountered the entire trip.

The video below will show you the main items I brought and where I kept them in the vehicle. Since I was driving my own vehicle, I could bring a few optional items I normally wouldn’t bring on a fly-and-camp trip—most notably, a large foam mattress topper and a full-sized cooler. I also brought a hefty amount of food and snacks, as evidenced by the huge black tote bin.

The setup I used here worked great on my trip. While the video explains quite a bit, I’ll go into more detail below on some additional topics.

What to bring and where to put it

When I’m traveling on a road trip like this, I prefer to keep my setup as simple and organized as possible throughout the trip. That means thinking about where everything goes before I hit the road, making sure that the things I’ll need to access—either while I’m traveling or when I’m in bed—are easily accessible. That’s why I try to keep everything in a container. So food and snacks go into one bin, and the cooking stuff goes into another. That makes it much easier to stay organized. The main exception to this is my clothes. I prefer to have clothes stored in batches so that it’s easier to pick out what I need without having to struggle to extract an entire duffel bag.

Keeping it simple and organized also means bringing a bit less and fewer “maybe I’ll need this” sort of items.. The fewer items you bring, the fewer things you’ll have to manage during your trip. In this case, I brought two things that I definitely didn’t end up needing: my backpacking chair and my multi-use camping bucket. Both items were small and didn’t clutter things up, so I tossed them in even though I wasn’t sure if I’d use them. And, like just about every time, I was right. Because I didn’t spend any time at an actual campsite, I never made a campfire—and therefore, I never needed the chair. When I ate, I simply sat in the backseat or at a picnic table. And I assumed that the bucket would come in handy for things like washing up and doing dishes. I really didn’t need to do much of those tasks either, given the more frequent showers I snagged and how few dishes I dirtied.

Food and cooking

In order to save money, I planned on snacking for breakfast and lunch, and then cooking a simple dinner like soup, chili, or a grilled cheese sandwich. I also assumed that I’d occasionally get some cheap fast food, especially if I was tired and still had a long drive before bed. And I also hoped that I’d try a handful of breweries along the way when time permitted.

As it turned out, I spent quite a bit more time hanging out with friends during the trip than I had anticipated, including joining them for some home-cooked meals. And since I managed to add in a number of additional destinations, I would often arrive to my intended campsite pretty late, opting to snack instead of cook in what were often some rather fierce winds.

In the end, I managed to stay within budget, even though I cooked far less than I originally intended. And I also managed to sneak in stops at nine craft breweries, too.

barrel 10 flight
Brewery stops are always among my favorite road trip stops.

The not-cooking strategy

But just because my plan this trip was to cook doesn’t mean yours has to be. While one of the biggest benefits of camping is saving money on hotels and eating out, that doesn’t mean that you have to cook every time you camp on a road trip. In fact, sometimes you camp just so that you can afford that fun night out on the town, as I did when I brewery-hopped around Boise halfway through my trip. And you can still save a lot of money by sleeping in your car while eating most of your meals out. Indeed, that reduces quite a bit of the gear you need to bring—though I still recommend bringing a cooler for cold beverages and plenty of snacks for the road.

Finding places to camp

Aside from one night at a friend’s house, I didn’t preplan where I’d sleep each night. But because most of my primary destinations were BLM Conservation Lands areas, I knew that I’d have quite a few dispersed camping opportunities. I also knew that there were a number of developed campgrounds around that would likely have space if I needed them. And because I was sleeping in my car, I could also get some shut-eye at a rest area, truck stop, or even a Wal-Mart parking lot if I absolutely needed to.

pony express campsite
Just a 1/4 mile away from Hwy 93, this campsite was the perfect place to avoid the lights and bustle of the rest area.

The first night I ended up stopping at a rest area right along the Pony Express Trail in northern Nevada to use the restroom. Since I kinda wanted to check out the trail the next morning and was already tired, I decided that I might as well sleep there. But boy, for being such a remote place, it sure was a busy rest area—and given the layout of the parking lot, it was hard to block out all of the rest area lights and approaching headlights.

After about an hour, I decided to find another spot. I hopped on Google Maps, turned on satellite view, and took a look around the area. It took just a handful of seconds to find a better spot about a quarter mile away, and probably about 90 seconds to drive there. It’s a whole lot easier to move your campsite to a better location when you don’t have to pack up a tent. Once I relocated, I slept great under the dark and quiet sky. When you’re traveling in the West, there’s often a good campsite not too far away—especially during the shoulder season.

There are a number of apps and websites you can use to locate possible places to camp. When looking for dispersed camping sites, I usually start by scouring a state atlas or gazetteer, then when I’ve narrowed down my target area, I switch to Google Maps satellite view and zoom in to identify specific sites that might work. In addition, I also regularly consult, Campendium,, and the iOverlander app for sites that others have already identified. When I’m looking for developed campgrounds, I check, Reserve America, or just google “campgrounds in my area,” though those search results tend to include RV parks. Allstays is a highly rated app you might also want to check out.

Driving versus sleeping mode

While most of my stuff stays in the same spot throughout my trip, I do move a few items when I shift to sleep mode. When I’m driving, I like having the passenger seat free for things like maps, a snack I’ve pulled out of my food bin, or any other items I might need quick access to. But when I get to my destination for the night, I move any items that had occupied the rear seat (usually my food bin and my computer backpack) up to the passenger seat. This gives me a completely empty rear seat right next to my bed.

An empty rear seat

Having this rear seat available is great. Once I get the car set up for the night, this tends to be where I spend my time before I lay down to sleep. I can easily change clothes, watch a movie on my tablet, put on my shoes, snack or eat dinner, work on my laptop, scour maps while I revise the next day’s itinerary, and so forth—all while escaping the elements and not drawing any attention to the vehicle. Importantly, it’s also the easiest way to get in and out of bed, something you’ll want to consider if your vehicle doesn’t have an easy way to open the rear gate from the interior. I just climb up onto the bed and swing my legs around. When I’m sleeping, the seat conveniently converts into a handy bedside table where I place my glasses, headlamp, and phone for quick retrieval in the middle of the night.

Parking for the night

When I park for the night, the first thing I do is decide on how I want to position the vehicle. The primary considerations here are blocking any annoying lights, and pointing into the wind. If there’s any annoying light, I try to point the car towards it so that the sunshade I put in my front window blocks it from shining into the rest of the car. If it’s windy, I often position the car into the wind, which cuts down on the vehicle shaking or the windows whistling.

blm campsite
This dispersed campsite near Fossil Falls was great—but boy, that early morning sun was bright. Thank goodness I had a blanket to cover my face in the morning.

Once I have the vehicle pointed the right direction, I put on the emergency brake to limit any rocking when I’m moving around in the vehicle. I transfer the items from the rear seat to the front seat and get my bed ready.

I then put on the mesh window coverings, always covering both of the rear windows. These are the perfect solution to keeping annoying bugs out, but they also help shield bright lights and even light rain. If it’s hot out or I’m worried about it raining, I’ll add them to the front windows too. I then roll down the windows to the desired level. If it’s cold out, that might just be an inch or two for both of the rear windows. If it’s hot and I want a lot more airflow, then I’ll roll all four windows all the way down. This is something you can play around with, but you’ll want to keep at least one window cracked during the night.

I usually keep the car keys easily accessible on my center console and lock the doors when I’m ready for bed. I like to keep the drivers seat completely clear so I can quickly hop in and move the car quickly if I need to. When I’m camping in my own car, I always bring a full size pillow and also a cheap fleece blanket to cover my face in the night if the breeze is cold or to block out any unexpected light, like a bright moon moving across the night sky.

The entire process of shifting from driving to sleeping mode takes less than two minutes—much quicker than setting up a tent. When I wake up in the morning, I get dressed and shift it back before hitting the road again.

Toilets and showers

Probably the most popular question I get about these types of road trips is how and/or where I use the restroom and shower. For the most part, the answer is pretty easy. Except in some pretty remote areas, there’s nearly always a restroom available somewhere—whether at a rest area, gas station, fast food restaurant, or even a campground or wilderness trailhead. In the event that’s not the case, I have a trowel and toilet paper. If you want something a bit more convenient, there are a number of other options, including luggable loo and other portable toilets, female urination devices, and so forth—though none of these really works inside the vehicle.

cowboy camp
I originally stopped here to use the pit toilet, but ended up camping here later that night. Keep an eye open for possible camping spots while you’re out-and-about.

As for showers, I knew that I’d be staying with a friend about halfway through the trip, so I was guaranteed at least one shower. Beyond that, I knew I could either pop into a truck stop or developed campground and pay for one, so I came prepared with my normal public shower kit (sandals, quick dry towels, shampoo/body soap, and a plastic bag to keep my stuff dry). But in a pinch, I could also rig up something shower-like on top of my car if it was warm enough out, or make sure to get to the hot springs on my itinerary, or just make due with a “backpackers shower,” also known as a wet wipes bath. I could have brought my camp shower, but it just didn’t seem like I’d need it. There are a lot of other showering solutions available out there, but I’ll wait to tackle those in a future post.

In the end, I got a bit lucky on the trip and ended up having access to a shower at each place where I visited an online friend. And because we ended up having a meal together, I also ended up cooking far less than I had expected. It’s great when things like this happen—but on trips like these, I always try to be self-contained as possible.

Sleeping in a rental car

Not taking your own vehicle on a road trip? Don’t worry, you can pull off much of this in a rental car, too. Because not all vehicles have seats that fold flat, however, you’ll have to manage to snag a vehicle that does. I’ve had the best luck with full size SUVs and minivans with stow-and-go seating. Either way, don’t drive off the lot until you have one that will work for you.

Here’s a video of what I brought when I camped in a rental car a few years back. The video quality isn’t great, but it’s still useful in understanding what items I brought with me.

You should also check out my extensive post on travel camping, which outlines which camping items I bring when I “fly-and-camp.”

Some other tips

  • You don’t need a mattress set up as stupidly comfy as mine. Most of the time I sleep in my vehicle, I just use a simple backpacking sleeping pad.
  • Not all Wal-Marts allow overnight parking. Here’s a listing of recent reports.
  • Passing by a national park unit on your trip? Remember that many of the visitor center restrooms stay open all night.
  • I use a pool noodle slice to cover up the hook that the rear seat attaches to. Trust me, this is preferable to bashing your hip against it when you shift in your sleep.
pool noodle
This simple quick fix has worked well.
  • Headlamps fit great on the back of headrests.
  • If you don’t want to wake up at sunrise, consider where the sun will be rising. I use the Peak Finder app to determine this, but you can also just make an educated guess. Same with a full moon, which can seem incredibly bright when you’re trying to sleep.
  • Have a membership to a national gym chain? Well, that’s a great place to grab a shower while traveling.
  • Too hot? Too cold? You can always turn on the vehicle for awhile to cool off or warm up.
  • I like bringing a small pack towel in with me when I stop at public restrooms so I can dry off after rinsing my face when there are just hand dryers available.
  • Not a great sleeper? Bring some ear plugs to help drown out weird noises. You can also bring a sleep mask to help shield bright lights from other campsites, vehicles, or lampposts.
  • If you want to add some additional privacy or black-out those weirdly shaped rear windows, try using some reflectix and trim it to fit. If you’re planning on stealth camping, spray mount some black fabric to one or both of the sides. These also work great for insulting the vehicle and you can store them flat under your mattress when not in use.
  • These headrest hooks are quite handy. I use these frequently throughout the day when I’m on the road, and later at night, I hang a water bottle from one attached to the drivers headrest so I can easily find it when I’m in bed.
  • Don’t forget these important tips on making ice last longer in your cooler.

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