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Have you ever hit the road with your family (or group) and wondered whether you’ve successfully crossed everything off your car camping checklist? If that sounds familiar, this post might further complicate things for you as you realize all of the amazing gear you’ve been missing all along. But, don’t let that dissuade you.
While you can easily replicate your parent’s car camping experience from many decades ago using old-school gear and a trusty station wagon, contemporary car camping gear has the potential to take the edge off of of your trip. In short, what can otherwise be an overwhelming and exhausting experience for most parents or trip organizers can be dealt with using the right gear and planning. As a small business owner who outfits vehicles for car camping in New England, I’ve developed opinions about what type of car camping gear can make a difference. This type of difference maker is particularly relevant when you’re trying to balance the needs of the group with cost and “packability.” Below is a list of some of my favorite car camping gear as I’ve outfitted clients. I’ve also planned numerous car camping trips for my family and friends, which helped inform my list. And trust me, many of the items listed really do make a difference when it comes down to it.
GCI Master Cook Station
You’re not really car camping until you have something to organize all of your stuff when you get out of the car. GCI’s Master Cook Station is a collapsible camp table with an aluminum countertop. It also comes with a storage rack, four plastic side tables, and, yes, a soft-shell sink with a drain for washing up.
Kicker Bullfrog BF400 Bluetooth Speaker
Of all the things one can drop some money on for car camping, solid bluetooth speakers rank pretty high on my list. While I’m a big fan of the low-cost Anker Soundcore ($26) and often send clients off with one of these tucked neatly in the center aisle, I’m also enamored with the JBL Clip 2 ($41) for adventures on my paddleboard where having a waterproof speaker matters. But, we’re really talking about the ultimate car camping equipment here, so let’s go big! And on the way to prepping for car camping luxury, pick up some Kicker Bullfrog BF400 Bluetooth speakers. Rock through the night with the best portable speaker audio output you’ll find. They also come with an AM/FM tuner and are surprisingly considering their power-packing capabilities. Oh, and like some speakers, they don’t charge other devices.
ARB Shade Awning
There are a few different models of this shade awning. We have an ARB Shade Awning ($272) installed on our ’86 Westfalia. Different models will fit different types of vehicles. On a hot or rainy day, you’ll definitely look like the coolest (and driest) camper, when you unfurl this beauty from the side (or back) of your vehicle.
Road Shower 4L
While this is still on my wish list (for the other side of our Westy), bringing this along on a car camping trip can kick any outdoor experience into beast mode with one quick fill of the reservoir. The Road Shower 4L ($420) holds ten gallons of glorious water and comes with a shower head. If securing a portable shower to your vehicle isn’t on your to-do list, you should also check out a smaller, portable solar shower like the Advanced Elements SS761. It’s under $20 and packs a punch with it’s more-than-sufficient 3 gallon bag. It’s not for me, but if you need some more privacy, check out the Wolfwise Popup Shower ($35).
Luci – The Original Inflatable Solar Light, Clear Finish
The solar Lucie light ($19) is hands-down the best all-around light solution for any camping trip. What it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up with functionality. I stuff 3 or 4 of these portable lights in our client bags and am always pleased to see how quickly people take to these lights. I’m honestly not sure why they haven’t fully replaced flashlights since they outlast flashlights, don’t require a battery, are completely waterproof and are also collapsible. And, as if that weren’t enough…they float! They haven’t done anything to improve on these since the Luci lights were first released. The guts of the light are 10 powerful white LEDs that shine in 3 settings: bright, super bright, 1 second flashing. This model also features a charge indicator so you know how much battery life is left and will hold your charge and provide solid light for 12 hours on a single solar charge. And if that’s not enough to convince you to buy a few of these, buy one or more for your friends, These will knock the socks off of any real outdoorsman or woman who appreciates their impressive utility (and low cost)
Dltsli portable Silicone Collapsible Tea Kettle
Car camping isn’t car camping until you have a means to make coffee or tea. You might as well roll around in the dust and rub two sticks together if you haven’t devised a way to supply you and your group with liquid goodness. If you’re a small group (which most of our clients are), you’ll find the Dltsli Portlable Silicone collapsible, silicone tea kettle indispensable. We typically pair this gem with a single-burner propane stove (this is a good one) to simplify the process of heating up water while on the road.
Thermacell Radius Insect Repeller
The Thermacell Radius Insect Repeller ($50) creates a 110-square-foot mosquito-free zone around your campsite, using low-level heat to vaporize a natural chrysanthemum-based repellent. It runs on electricity and lasts six hours per charge. We typically use a few bottles of something like Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Natural Insect Repellent, but in the Northeast, Permethrin is an effective way to protect your clothing, tent or gear from the nasty little creatures. Sawyer Sp657 Permethrin Premium Clothing Insect Repellent is known for being an effective product. And lastly, since ticks and mosquitoes have a way of climbing up your legs, I highly recommend checking out some Merino Wool socks that have been treated with permethrin ($10).
Teva Ember Moc Slippers
The Teva Ember Mocs slippers ($70) are incredibly comfortable and will ease you from a busy day to a “kick your feet up” night. These slip-ons have quilted ripstop uppers and rubber soles for just
Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Portable Power Station
Since this is the “ultimate” car camping list, we’re holding nothing back. While it’s not cheap, the Yeti 400 Portable Power station is the premium choice in portable power among a bunch of cheaper and less effective options. If you’re not able to afford this modern marvel, you should check out one of the more robust Anker chargers like the Portable Charger Anker PowerCore 20100mAh. We absolutely love this model and rely on it for our personal trips and for our favorite clients. The charge on this charging unit seems to last forever and it’s just the right size for your next excursion.
Luminoodle – The Original LED Light Rope
The classic Luminoodle LED Light Rope ($41) is a great addition to your car camping toolbox. It comes in a 5- or 10-foot long rope. There’s no reason to blind everyone around the campfire with your old school flashlights and other devices. There’s also no reason to get the more expensive model from Luminoodle based on the superior reviews for this lower-cost option. The main benefit of using one of these lights is your ability to power them using a USB cord. When you need some extra light in the car, some enhanced visibility with your bike (or pedestrian) or some decorations to boost your car camping vibe, this can only move the needle forward in every category we can think of.
Front Runner Camp Kitchen Utensil Set
When it comes to equipping yourself with camping utensils, it’s so easy to choose the cheapest option. Trust me, we’ve done in several times with utensils, and I’ve regretted it each time. Thankfully, there is now the Front Runner Camp Kitchen Utensil set ($66). This set is set up for a group of 4, so if you need more than that, you might want to consider going cheap and purchasing a few of the lower cost (and lower quality) Coleman sets. The Front Runner set comes with everything a group of four needs to eat well—steel utensils with plastic handles, a cutting board, a bread knife, and a spatula.
Escort Max 360c radar detector
While radar detection isn’t on the top of anyone’s list for car camping, it might save you a few bucks. Below are some of the Escort Max 360c features listed by Amazon.
- Built-in Bluetooth technology gives you access to the Escort Live app, an exclusive real-time ticket-protection.
- Built-in Wi-Fi connects to your car’s on-board Wi-Fi connection, giving you access to Escort Live without the need for connecting your smartphone to the detector.
- Digital signal processing (DSP) technology finds threats faster and more accurately (laser, x, back, ka-pop, and ka-band)
- Ivt filter-updatable system automatically reduces false alerts from moving in-vehicle technology sources such as collision avoidance systems and Adaptive cruise control.
AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker
This is definitely a must have if you’re going mobile–and are disconnected from a 12-volt power source. Based on the reputation, stellar ratings and flat out flexibility of this little gem, we recommend the Aeropress Coffee and Espresso maker as the best portable coffee press on the market. The price is also easy on the wallet. And, you probably deserve some time away from your K-packs anyway.
Kuat Racks Sherpa 2.0 -2 Bike Rack
More power to you if you have the means to purchase the Kuat Racks Sherpa 2.0 bike rack. If you’re carrying high end bicycles–especially mountain bikes with larger rims–this might be worth the cost. However, if you’re more like me and you’re willing to forego on this high-end option so you can use your funds elsewhere, you should definitely check out the Allen Sports hitch-mounted bike rack. These racks run around $100-$125 depending on whether you get the locking or the non-locking model. They are extremely flexible, easy to install and remove and are able to hold bikes with different frame sizes.
Hydrapak Expedition Storage 8L Bottle
The Hydrapack expedition storage bottles are relatively new in the water bottle world. In short, they can flatten, roll up or be beaten up without losing much in the way of utility. They’re great for car camping and can be used with a Plug-N-Play cap to create a nice water dispensing solution wherever you set up basecamp. Also, don’t forget to check out our post about the best water bottles for bicyclists.
If you’re wondering where to go while you’re on the road, you should consider supplementing some of your camping trip with a few stays at an Airbnb–read here to learn about the basics. You might also want to read more about some signature destinations in New England if you’ll be exploring the Northeast. If you’re lucky enough to have the budget for a camper-van rental, you should check out the national directory of camper rentals.