What to pack for car camping: 48 essentials to kit out your car

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Turning my Honda CR-V into a camper during my time in Australia was the best thing ever. Not only was I able to live out my cliche Australian road tripping fantasies and get the ultimate taste of freedom that only camping in forests can give you, but I was also able to indulge in my OCD and organise the heck out of the car. Figuring out what to pack for car camping can be tricky and living in such a small space does require a bit of clever planning because trust me, you can still lose stuff even in that small a space!

For example, there was this one time I lost my hairbrush for a good few days and found it inside the duvet cover! Like, how…? 

As well as being organised inside the car, you also have to be on top of your everyday life stuff like cooking and keeping stuff clean. I know, I know, I need to calm the farm down and stop being so exciting! But all of this will make your life so much easier when you’re sleeping in your car, somewhere beautiful, well away from everything.

The space restrictions can make this all a bit tricky, especially if your newly built camper car is going to be your long-term home, so I’ve put together my shopping guide of all the items that are essential for every trip. Most of these are very much tried and tested and some of them are things I really, really wish I’d had. So here’s everything you’ll need to kit out your camper car.

Want to learn more about camping in your car in Australia? Check these out:

My top tips for camping in your car

  • You’re going to want to keep things minimal- there’s no extra room for ‘stuff’ unless it has a purpose.
  • it does get cold in Australia as well as blazing hot, so you’ll need to have items to help you cope with both weather conditions.
  • You’ll need to find a place for everything and do your best to always keep it there when not in use, or it will definitely get swallowed up by the black hole that you’re car can easily become (i.e. my hairbrush situation).

Things to know before camping in your car in Australia

What’s the weather like in Australia?

Before I came to Australia I thought it was all sunshine and beaches, but believe me, there have been times when it felt like I was back in the UK in the middle of winter. South Australia in winter (June-August) can be freezing cold with gale force winds and hailstones, whilst North Queensland at this time of year is, on average, a balmy 17-26 degrees Celsius with little rain. But in the summer, North Queensland can be boiling hot. The general rule of thumb you can go on is the more north you are, the warmer it’s most likely to be.

Where are the best places to visit in Australia?

Many people choose to chase the sun and stay south for summer and head north for winter where it’s still warm, but in terms of stating where is ‘best’ is pretty much impossible. Australia is HUGE. Like the size of Europe huge and it’s a fantastic place to travel by road and camp. So far, I have travelled the east coast from Adelaide up to Cairns which was amazing. If you want to get off the backpacker trail then be sure to visit South Australia’s Limestone Coast and Wilsons Promontory for insanely beautiful beaches. Of course, road trips don’t come much more iconic than the Great Ocean Road and there are more beautiful national parks than you can shake a stick at. Basically, where you go will mostly be determined by how long you’re read trippin’ for.

The Great Ocean Road is an absolute must in Australia! It's stunning, breathtaking and so much fun. Read more here about the routes you can take and the stunning spots you will find along the way

How to find campsites in Australia

Australia is made for road trips so there are loads of campsites all over the country and the huge range there is to choose from. They range from the big campsite groups such as Big4 with facilities like pools and clubhouses right down to a field with no facilities in it whatsoever.

A lot of this information can be found in books, guides and by asking with tourist information centres, but the easiest way I found to find somewhere to stop is to use the app WikiCamps. This app is awesome and you can filter campsites by facilities available and also types of campsites. The best thing about it is it also shows up the free campsites. Yes, that’s right, there are places to camp in your car that will cost you nothing! Check out my review of WikiCamps here to find out more about it.

Planning an epic Australian road trip? Wikicamps is the only app you need! Check out my Wikicamps review her and learn how to find the best campsites in Australia.

Essentials to pack for car camping

For the outside of the car

As space is tight when you have a bed inside your car and all the camping gear to take with you, utilising the roof space is a must. Just be sure to know the height of your car when you have it attached. Here are my essentials to get to really give you some more storage space.

1. Roof bag or box: Tom and I bought a roof bag as it was lightweight and expandable, meaning we could squash it down when less stuff was in there. We luckily had a roof rack and cage on our car in which the bag sat but there are some great ones available that don’t require a roof rack if you don’t have one. This roof bag by roofbag.com is waterproof, made from heavy-duty material and comes in a size that fits every car and also with the option of straps so you don’t need a roof rack. Alternatively, we did see a lot of fellow campers travelling with a hard roof box as well, like this one here, however, you will need a roof rack to attach it.

2. Tarpaulin: It seems that when it rains in Australia, it can seriously rain. So to help keep our roof bag watertight, we put a tarpaulin over it as well. We went through a number of cheap and well, crappy ones that didn’t really keep the water out and in the end, bought a decent heavy duty one that lasted a hell of a lot longer. Be sure to measure over the top of your roof bag or box to get a tarp that’s plenty big enough to cover it fully.

3. Bungee cords and bungee bobbles: Ok, so everyone knows what a bungee chord is, but the bungee bobbles I mentioned are little loops of elastic with a big bobble tieing the ends together. They’re great for threading through the holes in the tarpaulin to secure it down further. Ones like these are perfect and helped stop the tarp flapping around like crazy.
4. Awning: Ok, this was one of the things we never got around to getting for the car, but I so wish we had! Having an awning will create a little protected outside space to cook and sit under no matter what the weather. There were times when it rained when we were camping and because we didn’t have an awning, we were forced to retreat to bed super early and eat whatever junk food we had laying around the car. You can get ones that you attached to a roof rack and that simply pull out and create a canopy like this one, or go a step further and add sides and even mosquito nets.

For the windows

Privacy can be a bit tricky in such a small space but there are ways to cover the windows of your car without too much effort.

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5. Windscreen sunshade: You can pretty much get these anywhere and they’re great for helping keep the car cool as well as acting as a curtain at night. We would actually put one on the windscreen and one across the boot door window to block the sun out.

6. Window sunshade: For the rest of the windows we opted for stretchy mesh window covers for the doors and small sunshades with suckers on for the little back windows. The may not offer that much in terms of blocking out the light but we found they provided enough privacy to get changed and have a decent sleep in the car.

7. Chamois: We would always find a lot of condensation on the inside of the windows in the morning so a chamois to wipe the windows down was super handy. They’re cheap but leave the windows streak free unlike using an ordinary cloth. Trust me, a streaky window will drive you mad on a long road trip!

Car maintenance

If you’re going to be heading out to places off the beaten track, it’s always a good idea to have some basic items to keep your car ticking over smoothly. Tom and I always had small bottles of each of these with us, just in case.

8. Engine oil: The type of oil you’ll need to get depends on your car and you’ll be able to find some more details in your car manual. Shops like Supercheap Auto and Repco in Australia have manuals and information to help you find the right one as well, so don’t be shy to ask.

9. Engine coolant: Trust me, you don’t want your coolant running out in a hot country so be sure to have some with you. As with the oil, the coolant you buy will depend on your car and the staff in the shops will be able to help you with that.

10. Screen wash: There is nothing more irritating than having something stuck to the windscreen when you’re stuck on a road for 400km, so keep your screen wash topped up. This stuff is cheap and can be bought pre-mixed to avoid faffing around making the solution.

Inside storage

Trust me, you don’t want all your stuff just rolling around in the back of the car, so here are my top storage items to keep everything in its place.

11. Storage boxes: I recommend you buy 2 large plastic boxes to slide into the boot under the bed. We used one for clothes (yes, that’s one box between the 2 of us, yikes!) and the other for cooking utensils. Be sure to get ones with lids that clip on like these ones to stop them popping off and your stuff going all over the place.12. Packing Cubes: If you’re not already using these for travelling, these are going to change your life. Keeping your clothes in these cubes helps keep everything super tidy and you’ll probably find you can fit a lot more in your storage box this way rather than just chucking clothes in. There are loads of different ones to buy and I have a set of pretty flowery ones that I love, whilst Tom opted for a simple black set.

13. Car seat storage: This is another example of optimising space and I found having one of these to be so handy. We used ours to shove little things in like our torches, essential cables and spare flasks. It’s a good idea to keep things that you might want to be able to grab quickly during the night as it’s pretty much the only easily accessible storage area once the bed is down and you’re on it.

Food storage

Camping in our car meant we didn’t have the luxury of a fridge like you can fit into a campervan, so it was important to store food carefully so nothing leaked or went yucky in the heat. A big part of this is choosing food that will keep such as tinned foods but it’s still important to get your fresh fruit and veggies too!

14. Cool box/Esky/Cool bag: We picked up a cheap soft cool bag like this one from somewhere like K mart for cheap and found it to be great for most of the time. Having a soft bag meant we were able to squash the bag in around our other stuff and under the bed, however, it also probably wasn’t as good at staying cool for as long as a cool box would have been. My advice would be to get a small cool box or Esky (if you’re Australian) if you can find one the right size as it will help keep food fresh for longer.15. Ice packs: These are essential for keeping food fresh, especially in the hot Australian weather. Lots of campsites have freezers to use and refreeze them in or at the very least a fridge to pop them in when you’ve set up for the night. I really like the thin gel-like ones as they take up less space and seemed to freeze pretty quickly again as well.

16. Aluminium foil: A great all-rounder for everything when it comes to camping. Use it to wrap up leftovers or even as a lid for a pan to speed up cooking.

Eating

Because food is life so let’s crack on with this section…

17. Camping table: My Honda CR-V actually had a table built into the boot (how awesome right?) but if your car doesn’t have this, you’re going to want a small folding table to use. This Coleman Outdoor Compact Table looks perfect and it also folds up pretty small to about the same size as a camping chair.18. Camping chairs: Depending on your budget, you can really go to town on camping chairs and buy some really fancy ones, but to be honest, you’re not going to be hard done by if you go for the cheap ones. We just got some from the supermarket and had no issues at all.

19. Camping stove: Tom and I bought a one ring camping stove but to be honest I wish we had bought a 2 ring stove. Whilst a smaller one obviously saved on space, it meant cooking even simple dishes like pasta and a veggie sauce in 2 stages which was a little annoying. If you have space, I would recommend going for a 2 ring stove that uses gas canisters.
20. Gas canisters: Unless you’re really good at lighting fires, you’re going to struggle to cook anything without having the right gas canisters for your stove. I would recommend always having a spare one with you, even if you’re not going away on a long trip.

21. Pots and pans: There are so many cleverly designed camping items and like with the stove, I wish we had chosen a different set of pans. We simply went for a cheap frying pan and saucepan from the shops but trying to juggle these into a storage box with everything else was annoying. Instead, I love the look of these Egofine camping pots that all clip together neatly, taking up far less space. I would also get a sieve as well just to make life easier.22. Cutlery: You don’t need a tonne of stuff but aside from the obvious knives, forks and spoons, be sure to pick up a spatula, spoon and slotted spoon, a couple of chopping knives, 2 x small chopping boards, peeler a can opener and of course a bottle opener!

23. Plates and bowls: You only really need a bowl and a plate per person and it’s a great idea to get hold of a plastic or metal set as they will be more durable and you won’t have to put up with them clanking together while you’re driving.

24. Water canister: I love staying on free campsites (I mean, who doesn’t like free right) but it’s important to note that they often don’t have drinking water available. I highly recommend filling up a decent sized water canister before you leave home so you have enough for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

25. Hot water flask or Keep cup: Tom and I are always trying to do our bit for the environment and by having a thermos flask or keep cup, you’ll reduce your use of plastic and card used in takeaway coffee cups. This way you can also make yourself a drink for the road or pop into a cafe whilst driving and get it filled up. These metal flasks will keep hot drinks hot for 12 hours so you can make plenty to keep you fueled Oh, and they’re super pretty too!

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26. Collapsible water bottle: Again, having a flask to refill with water is going to reduce your intake of single-use plastics. These ones are awesome as they fold up really small when empty so the more you drink the less space they take up in your day pack.

Cleaning

If there’s one thing that’s going to attract the flies and mosquitos (yuck!) it’s having dirty plates laying around. Be sure to clean up quickly after you’ve cooked to help avoid this.

27. Collapsible washing up bowl: These things are great as they take up little space when folded down but pop out to be a decent size. They’re also great for washing clothes in as well.
28. Washing up liquid: I always tried to find one that was more on the eco-friendly side of things as you’re going to be washing up and throwing the water away somewhere.

29: Tea Towels: Be sure to have a couple of tea towels with you so you have a back up if one gets really grubby. It goes a long way to have some half decent ones as well as they’re going to be stored away in a plastic box and the last thing you want is for it to get mouldy in there!

30. Dustpan and brush: Just a small set will be perfect for helping to keep your car clean. One thing about staying at campsites is that the car can get pretty grubby quickly.

31. Sponges: You’re gonna need these for washing up and general cleaning. If you’re using shared BBQs, which are really common in Australia, you’ll also need to do the decent thing and clean up the hot plate afterwards, too.

32. Kitchen roll: To be honest, this is just generally handy to have for so many reasons. Trust me, you’ll be grateful you shoved a roll in the car!

33. Bin bags: I cannot stress enough how important it is to take rubbish with you when you’re at a campsite. Many free campsites in Australia don’t have bins there so you’ll need to have some bin bags or carrier bags to take your trash away with you. There is nothing worse than seeing a beautiful spot full of rubbish!

34. Hand Sanitiser: Drop toilets and funky smelling water. Are you getting my drift? You’re going to be using quite a lot of this stuff so go for a product that is moisturising like this one from Purell.

Gadgets and tech

I think it’s fair to say that keeping vaguely in touch with the outside world is of some importance to most of us, so here are a few gadgets you need to get to make life a little easier on the road.

35. USB cigarette lighter charger: This little gadget saved our bacon so many times. It’s simply a small adapter with 2 USB ports in that works through the car’s cigarette lighter. We would use it to charge both our power banks and phones as we drove in the day. This one by Anker is available with 2 ports and 5 ports, depending on how much tech you have.

36. AUX Cable or FM Transmitter: If you’re lucky enough to have an AUX port in your car (we weren’t we had to go old school) then you’re going to want to buy an aux cable to play music through. If your car is more retro like ours was then you can buy an FM transmitter which plugs into the cigarette lighter and you tune the radio to certain frequencies so you can play music through your phone. A long road trip calls for some epic playlists so don’t skip over this one!

37. GPS: A decent sat nav is going to help you out heaps on long road journeys. As fun as they are, getting lost is only fun for so long! This sat nav by TomTom sat nav comes with free lifetime and traffic world maps so it’s easy to keep updated and you can take it with you no matter where you’re travelling to.

38. Phone holder: If you don’t want to get a GPS then your phone is the next best option. You can download Google maps offline so you don’t need a signal to use it which is handy in Australia as it definitely dips in and out a lot. A decent phone holder is essential if you’re going to use it as a map so you can easily see it and also so Police don’t think you’re using your phone with is illegal whilst driving in Australia. This one sticks to both the dashboard and windshield so it should be suitable for most vehicles.

39. Power bank: As with the cigarette lighter charger, having a power bank definitely saved us on more than one occasion. We had 2 simple power banks with suckers on the back, but you can also get some awesome ones like this one which charges itself via solar power, has 3 outputs and a torch.

Entertainment

40. Games: There’s nothing better than sitting around a campfire with a couple of beers and having a laugh with other campers playing some games. There are loads to choose from, such as a simple pack of cards, travel-sized board games or more risque but hilarious games like Cards Against Humanity.

41. Kindle: If you love to read then you have to get your hands on a kindle and stock it up before you go. I have a Kindle Paperwhite and love that it has a backlight so I can read in the dark and the matte screen makes it easy to read in bright light as well.

Miscellaneous items

42. Bedding: We opted for a duvet and pillows rather than sleeping bags as it’s just a lot cosier. We did however have sleeping bags and we did use them in winter in South Australia as it was freezing. I think it’s best to go for an all season duvet and some pretty bedsheets to brighten things up and make your car nice and homely. Amazon has some great travel themed bedsheets as well!

43. Torch: I would recommend getting a head torch rather than a handheld one. This one by Foxellli is perfect as it’s rechargeable so you have no need to bring spare batteries.44. Toilet roll: All i’ll say is drop toilets and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination…

45. Mosquito repellent: Using a decent insect repellent is so important when you’re camping in your car as there’s literally no escaping the bugs. I get bitten quite a lot and react badly to them in Australia so I always make sure to put a lot on. I prefer the spray ones like this Mosquito Guard repellent over a cream one as I find it covers a larger area more easily.

46. First aid kit: Ok, so I’m a bit on the boring safety side of things but it’s better to be safe than sorry when you’re camping in the middle of nowhere. I always have a selection of medication for headaches, upset stomachs as well as plasters, antiseptic wipes and antihistamines just in case. You can either put your own one together or pick up a pre-made one like this instead.
47 Clothes pegs: A great all round handy item to have, not only for hanging up wet clothes but also for holding anything together like food packets and tarpaulins.

48. String: Again, this item is a great thing to have and can be used in so many ways. We would use it as a clothesline, to tie our tarpaulin down over the roof bag and even as spare shoelaces!

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Turning your car into a camper? Being able to sleep in your car is the ultimate way to get roadtrip freedom! Here's everything you need to pack for car camping to have the best experience! #carcamping #bedincar #roadtripaustralia #australiaroadtrip

Thanks so much for reading this, I hope you find it useful and that it helps you find out what to pack for car camping! 

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