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3 tips for going camping in your car

Forget the hassle of bringing the kitchen sink when you go camping. Here are three things you need to know about keeping your camping trips simple and lightweight.

Camping doesn't have to be complicated. You don't need loads of specialized gear. You don't need to excessively plan your weekend trip. And, most importantly, you might not even need a tent.

Most of the time, the term "car camping" is not in reference to sleeping inside your vehicle. Some outdoor die-hards might not consider that camping at all, but it still gets you outdoors and can greatly reduce the amount of stress around a trip to the woods that is meant to be relaxing, rejuvenating and stress-free.

Here are some tips to help you start camping in your car.

How car camping works

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Taylor Martin/CNET

Sleeping in your car at a campsite may sound ludicrous, but it isn't. In fact, it can be even more glamorous than an expensive tent, if you've got the right vehicle.

If you drive a coupe, sedan or compact, you don't exactly have the right vehicle for the job. Trucks, crossovers, SUVs and vans, on the other hand, usually have enough space in the back for a one- to two-person air mattress or sleeping pad and are perfect for a weekend getaway. And of course, four-wheel drive is always helpful.

Sleeping in a car will keep you up off the ground and dry, if there's any rain. It's also much more insulated than a typical tent. As long as you don't leave the lights on for too long without running the engine for some time, you've got a light source built-in. And many cars these days come with built-in power inverters, meaning you have an emergency power source, if needed.

For a truck with an open bed, consider installing a hard or soft camper shell or a tent designed to be pitched on the bed of the truck (pictured above) or off the back of an SUV.

Just remember to bring an air mattress or sleeping pad and plenty of blankets. And before you go to sleep, don't forget to crack a window -- even just a little bit -- for ventilation. Otherwise, you will wake up in a hot, steamy, stinky mess.

How to car camp for free

So where can you go camping in a car? All around the US, there are designated campgrounds for tent, car or RV camping. You can back right up to the lot, where there will be a readymade campsite with a picnic table, fire pit, a nearby water source and sometimes electricity.

When looking for or booking a campsite for car camping, look for tent camping lots that are listed as "back-in" or that having parking on site.

It can be hard to find something available, especially if it's in the summer, fall or near a holiday. But there's a helpful tip that many don't know. Most national forests around the country offer free primitive camping. This is called dispersed camping, or camping outside a designated campground and living out of a backpack or car for up to 16 days. No amenities, such as trash collection, restrooms or water, are provided.

The restrictions on this kind of camping vary from one national forest to another. To be on the safe side, give the local ranger station a call or pay them a visit. You can also check individual regulations on the US Forest Service website.

How to pack strategically

When camping out of a car, you don't really need to worry so much about weight management or how much gear or food you bring. The car's suspension is handling the load instead of your back.

However, the more you bring, the more you have to keep track of. And if you don't want to leave all your gear and belongings outside while you sleep, the less you bring, the better off you'll be. That is, if you don't overlook the essentials.

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Taylor Martin/CNET
  • Bring lots of water. You can never really have too much water, as it's not just used for drinking. It can and will be used for cooking, washing dishes, first aid, hygiene and more. And you don't want to be stuck out in the woods without clean water.
  • Stock up on plastic bags and trash bags. Most parks and national forests have a strict leave no trace policy, meaning you should leave the campsite how you found it. You'll be surprised at how much trash you accrue over just a weekend. You have to take that trash with you and dispose of it in dumpsters near the ranger station or at home.
  • A complete first aid kit is crucial. You never know what will happen while camping. And you don't realize how difficult it can be to explain where you are to emergency services. You should he able to render basic first aid on-site, so don't forget to replenish any supplies you may have used on previous trips.
  • Stackable storage bins are your best friend. Keeping everything organized and knowing where everything is or should go will make your camping trip feel more successful. Small- and medium-sized totes will make all the difference.
  • You can never bring too many blankets. You can always shed layers when it's too hot out. But you can't add more layers if there are no more layers to add. If you're camping at the right time of year, you don't have to worry about freezing to death, but more blankets might make your stay in the woods more comfortable or enjoyable.
  • Bring plenty of fire starters and a lighter. Of course you'll want to build a fire of some sort. First, be sure to check the local regulations or restrictions (such as bans during times of drought) on campfires. Second, don't use gasoline to start the fire and don't harvest deadfall for firewood without the proper permit. You should use a dedicated fire starter and either purchase firewood or gather a small amount of wood from around the campsite. And don't forget to fully extinguish any fires before going to sleep or leaving the site.
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