Traditional car camping in a campground is a great way to enjoy time outside without the logistics of backpacking. However, camping in your car doesn’t have to be in a developed campsite. With a bit of preparation, you can turn you car into a cozy sleeping spot anywhere dispersed camping is allowed. It means you won’t have to set up or take down a tent — and if you sleep near where you’d like to hike, it makes it easy to get an early start. Here are a few things to consider.
Know where you can park
Developed trailheads on Forest Service land are closed to camping; same goes for picnic areas. However, there are many areas in national forests where you can camp in a dispersed camping spot and be near trails. Check with local land managers before heading out, and make sure your car is capable of handling the roads you’ll encounter (also, check out our tips on how to drive forest roads like a pro). The local ranger station will be able to provide you with the best information. Most national parks will not allow you to sleep in your car outside of established campsites.
Never leave your car running
In the dry heat of summer, leaving your car running for any length of time can pose a wildfire risk, so it’s best to leave your car off and parked safely. Remember to unplug any chargers or other devices and turn off your lights when your car isn’t running. The last thing you want is a dead battery when you get ready to head home!
Keep the critters out
In some areas you’ll need to be mindful of small rodents that can make their way into your car through vents and other open spaces. Make sure to keep all food sealed and stored in a hard-side container when not in use. You can also utilize food storage methods you’d use when backpacking, such as a bear canister or hanging food properly from a tree.
Never light stoves inside
Make sure to do all your cooking outside of your vehicle (unless you’re in a camper van designed for it). Not only is an open flame in your car a fire hazard, it can also cause hazardous breathing conditions that can be fatal.
Think about how you can make your car more comfortable to sleep in. Depending on your car, you may be able to add a small section of flat board or other solid surface to give you a more comfortable space. Reflective bubble insulation, or similar material, can be cut to fit in your car windows, adding some privacy and keeping you warmer.