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  • Writer's pictureAndi Johnson

Road Trip Ready: The Ultimate Packing List for Solo Car Camping!

Updated: Jun 30

There's something uniquely liberating about hitting the open road and embarking on a solo car camping adventure. The northern United States in the summer is an ideal destination for those seeking solitude, stunning scenery, and a chance to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Whether you're a seasoned camping pro or a newbie to the great outdoors, solo car camping is an experience you won't want to miss. You can read all about my solo car camping trip in the Grand Tetons on my blog. Here are some essential items you don't want to leave behind.


White Jeep Cherokee in the Arizona Desert

First, you need a reliable car with enough space to store all your camping gear. When I took my trip in June 2020, I had a 2016 Jeep Cherokee with around 50,000 miles on it. I’ve heard acronym jokes for Jeep, but honestly, my Jeep Cherokee worked well past the 100k mile mark - I sold it shortly after reaching that mileage milestone. That being said, maintaining the basic maintenance of any vehicle goes a long way, and also helps reduce emissions.



Navigation tools like maps, GPS devices such as the Garmin inReach Messenger, Garmin inReach Mini 2, or SPOT X for satellite communication are essential! In the past, I've relied on my car GPS and cell phone. Additionally, I use various apps for hiking and road trips, including AllTrails, NPS Parks, NPS, iOverlander, National Forest Explores, inRoute, Roadtrippers, Campendium, and Recreation.gov, just to name a few of my main ones, lol.

 

When car camping, having a comfortable sleep setup is essential. Here are several great options for shelter, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and pillows:


Shelter

REI Co-op Half Dome SL 2+ Tent: This tent offers plenty of space and easy setup, sheds over a pound compared to its predecessor, making it an excellent choice for two people who value extra space, an intuitive setup, and convenient storage options.

NEMO Dagger 2P Tent: This is lightweight and spacious, crafted from recycled fabric that is PFC- and PFAS-free and free of fire-retardant chemicals. This tent enhances your camping experience while minimizing environmental impact.

REI Co-op Wonderland SL 6 Tent: Got a bigger group? This tent offers 360° views and large awnings, making it a comfortable 3-season basecamp for your adventures. Its spacious interior can be divided into two rooms for added privacy, creating an ideal setup for family camping trips or group outings.


When it comes sleeping in your car, ensuring privacy, security, and a comfortable bug-free environment as a solo female traveler, window covers and screens are essential additions to your packing list. These items not only provide much-needed shade and privacy but also enhance your security by preventing prying eyes from seeing inside your space. Moreover, high-quality window screens are crucial for keeping insects out, allowing you to enjoy fresh air without the nuisance of bugs. Whether you're traveling in an RV, camping, or staying in a rental, investing in good window covers and screens can significantly improve your overall comfort and peace of mind on your solo adventures.


Sleeping Bags

REI Co-op Siesta Hooded 25 Sleeping Bag: A cozy and versatile option for most seasons. I love that you can stretch, turn, or sprawl out in the REI Co-op Siesta Hooded 20 Sleeping Bag. With ample room and recycled fill with offset quilting, it keeps you cozy on cool nights. For car camping, this is your go-to choice.

Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 20 Sleeping Bag: Want to be snuggled in? This sleeping bag offers warmth and comfort for 3-season backpacking. Made with recycled materials, it ensures sustainability without compromising performance or durability.

The North Face Dolomite One Sleeping Bag: With innovative, interchangeable layers, this functions like three bags in one. It allows you to comfortably sleep outdoors in a wide range of temperatures. This is similar to the one I had - in a gorgeous chartreuse green, but I left it in a rental car and they didn't get it back to me!


Sleeping Pads

REI Co-op Helix Insulated Air Sleeping Pad: This lightweight, plush, and warm, 3-inch thick, it will delight you twice on every trip—first when you carry it on your back and again when you lay down on it at bedtime.

NEMO Tensor All-Season Ultralight Insulated Sleeping Pad: Enhancing the original Tensor line of pads, this pad provides increased warmth for 4-season use without any additional weight, and it's notably quiet for a peaceful night's rest.

Exped MegaMat 10 Sleeping Pad: Extra-large in size, comfort, and warmth, it offers a plush night's sleep on a self-inflating mat with a consistently level surface from edge to edge. This one comes highly recommended and is my top pick!


Pillows

Experience ultimate comfort during your camping slumber with the spacious and plush Exped Mega Pillow. Its generous size pairs perfectly with an Exped MegaMat - listed above -for a luxuriously cozy night's rest.

Crafted to offer significant comfort in a compact package, the Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow ensures restful sleep whether you're camping, flying, road-tripping, or on any adventure away from home.

Why sacrifice the comforts of home when you're camping? Indulge in rejuvenating sleep with the REI Co-op Campwell Pillow. Its convenient, easy-to-clean, two-sided pillowcase allows you to choose between satin or fleece for the ultimate personalized comfort.

These options ensure you have a restful and enjoyable time on your car camping adventure.


 

Clothing and Footwear

Andi posed in front a waterfall in Olympic National Park

Ensure you pack adequate and suitable clothing for the anticipated range of temperatures and weather conditions, including rain gear and warm layers. As an avid hiker and camper, I maintain a well-stocked closet for hiking, with numerous options available at REI - you can check out my RockPorch lockers with this link. For versatility, I prefer thin layers that can be easily layered or removed according to the weather. Some essentials from REI include moisture-wicking long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts, down vests, thin to medium-thickness pullovers, leggings, and joggers. For winter hikes, consider adding fleece-lined leggings to your gear. Additionally, protect your eyes and face from the sun with hats and visors. Depending on the weather, don't forget to pack gloves, a beanie, and a buff to stay warm and comfortable.


point of view looking down at the trail and hiking boots

Investing in proper footwear suitable for hiking, with thick grooved soles for optimal traction is key to keep you and your feet happy for miles to come. It is also important to keep in mind that summer hiking footwear differs significantly from winter hiking footwear. For my outdoor excursions, I pack my reliable Merrell hiking boots for ankle stability, and these trail running shoes for their lightweight design and excellent trail grip. Another great hiking boot is the Danner boots, and they are on sale at REI during their Anniversary Sale. Additionally, I include a pair of running shoes for urban outings, along with sandals from Teva for beach/lake activities, as well as some flip-flops for the shower.


 

First Aid and Backpacks

A first aid kit containing essentials like bandages, antiseptic, and pain relief medication is vital. This one is streamlined to reduce weight without sacrificing essentials, the Adventure Medical Ultralight/Watertight .7 Medical Kit contains the most crucial supplies for your outdoor adventures. You’ll also want bug repellant, antihistamines, and antihistamine creams/lotions for all those mosquitos you will encounter in the spring and summer months. And of course, any supplements and/or daily meds you take, but I suggest taking 2-4 days extra of your daily meds in case your travel plans get derailed.


Andi hiking with her hydration vest on

A water bottle, or a hydration pack such as the Osprey Mira 32 Hydration Pack, water filtration or purification systems, and additional water storage containers are essential for any camping or car trip, especially when traveling long distances between water sources. Water is undoubtedly the top priority for any outdoor excursion. In my experience, it's better to have more water than you think you'll need, as you can always use it later at home. I find the Nathan hydration vest from REI to be excellent, thanks to its numerous pockets and substantial bladder, ideal for a challenging hike. I have that one, and a few more choices linked in my blog post, Discovering Alamere Falls.


Hiking Essentials

Andi solo hiking in the Grand Tetons with a waterfall in the background

If you plan to hike, a daypack to carry essentials like food, water, wilderness wipes, and extra layers is a must. Do Not Skip This Piece! I have PTSD writing this right now based on the number of times I’ve been on a trail and passed people who have not done their research, carried a day pack, and worn basic tennis/running shoes on trails. Just Don’t Do It! Seriously, if there is one takeaway from this post it is to carry some kind of pack with a few essentials and wear shoes with deep grooves. I bought a day pack that also had a bladder - aka hydration pack - in it from Amazon for about $50 for my first time. And of course, wear my hiking boots or trail running shoes I mentioned earlier.


If you plan to camp in cold weather, consider bringing hand warmers, foot warmers, or even an emergency blanket. I was able to purchase a bulk box of hot hands hand and foot warmers. These have saved me so many times as my extremities are prone to poor circulation and therefore get cold fast. I also have a blanket in my car at all times in general as a safety precaution. Because I sleep in my car on my camping trips, I am well-stocked for my trips.


If you're camping in the desert, be sure to have plenty of sunscreen, a sun hat, and extra water. But also don’t skimp on layers and blankets here either. A common misconception is that it’s always warm or hot in the desert which is not true, it can get dangerously cold in the desert as well depending on the season.

 
Jetboil in use in Alabama Hills during sunrise

Food and Kitchen Gear

Whether you're camping in established campgrounds or on BLM land, it's essential to pack non-perishable food, a portable stove, fuel, cookware, utensils, plates, and cups. As an advocate for environmental sustainability, I prioritize eco-friendly options whenever possible. Eco-friendly cutlery and bowls are available at Whole Foods if you're in a pinch, but I also bring two sets of silverware, a cutting board, a pairing knife, a serrated knife, and durable plates and bowls that can withstand high heat. Additionally, I pack two reusable travel coffee mugs—one for coffee and one for tea. On my first solo camping trip, I relied solely on a campfire grill for cooking and heating food. For cooking essentials, a skillet and at least one pot (preferably two) are necessary. I find that a cast iron skillet and pot, both with matching lids, are the most versatile for camping. I use one for cooking meals and the other for heating water for washing up. You'll also need bins for washing your cookware, soap, and towels to clean up your items.


It's crucial to store food properly to avoid attracting wildlife. I strongly recommend using a bear bin and avoiding storing food where you sleep. Many campgrounds provide food shelters at each site for added safety, but ultimately you don't want to rely on them having one. You can find my go-to items for the ultimate camping kitchen here.


It wouldn't be a camping trip without the need for a cooler to store perishable food. I was unemployed during my first solo car camping trip, so I skimped on buying one before heading out and just used a soft cooler bag. This led to a mess in my car and food almost going bad too soon. Thankfully the campground’s general store and coffee shop had a basic Coleman cooler and I was able to snag their last one for just $20. After that first trip, I grabbed this Igloo cooler on sale from REI. 


 

Lighting and Tools

No matter the time zone, season, or how late you might think you'll sleep in or go to bed early, you'll need a flashlight, headlamp, or lantern with extra batteries. I got a compactable battery-operated lantern. A headlamp that I carry when I hike also comes in handy when having to go to the bathroom after dark, as it keeps your hands free to stay ready should you need to protect yourself.


There are many gadgets one could load up on but the main one you'll want is a multi-purpose tool or knife. I purchased a multi-use tool from REI that was small enough to fit in a pants pocket, but still big enough to tackle things I might face while in the wilderness. I also pack a foldable shovel which comes in handy for burying your hot coals, and can be used to help hammer down stakes should you have a tent.


Entertainment and Electronics

Picture of the viewfinder of a camera with a bear in its natural habitat

If you're an avid bird watcher, you may want binoculars, a GoPro, and a camera to capture wildlife sightings. These are two things I had not invested in and definitely couldn’t afford while unemployed. I did have a friend who had an old Cannon camera, but I hardly used it as my iPhone was my go-to. I would say this is a take-it-or-leave-it item(s) especially if your phone has a great camera built in.


While your primary engagement and entertainment will be nature itself, entertainment items like books, games, or a portable music player go a long way when one is alone. I love my iPad and thanks to my Kindle subscription I just pre-download books on it. I also pre-download shows and movies through my Prime Video and Netflix accounts so that I can enjoy a movie night whenever I desire.


Speaking of electronics... You don’t want to skimp on phone chargers and battery banks to keep your devices powered up. In fact, the phrase “the more the merrier” holds true for these items. I purchased a cheap battery bank from Amazon and thankfully - yet sadly - it only survived the length of my first car camping trip. So I suggest investing in a battery bank.

 

Pests and Wildlife

Insect repellent and sunscreen are a must. I cannot stand mosquito bites - I mean who can?! - as it seems they love me so I don't skimp on this during the summer at home or away. But when out in the forest or other wilderness areas, you might need something to ward off ticks and other pests - I strongly suggest grabbing this tick-removal tool. So be sure to do your research and pack appropriately. As a white female of mainly Northern European descent, I burn easily so skimping on sunscreen isn’t an option either. Additionally, both my parents had skin cancer so I am a big advocate for sun protection. I love SuperGoop’s line of sunscreen as it doesn’t feel greasy, or sticky, and provides me with great protection.


If hiking or camping in Bear Country, you'll need bear spray and bear canisters. Thankfully I’ve yet to have to use my bear spray, but having this on hand while sleeping, hiking, and general lounging around the campsite made me 1000 times more at ease in nature. Just be sure to read up on proper use and storage, as well as practice in a safe area before your trip - this is key as you don’t want to ask the bear to wait while you read the instruction manual as he/she is charging you. EEK!

 

Final Tips

Be sure to research the local wildlife and any safety precautions needed to avoid encounters with potentially dangerous animals such as snakes, mountain lions, or bears. If in doubt, check with the park rangers or other authorities for advice. And whatever you do, do not approach wildlife! You are in their space, not the other way around. So be mindful that you are the intruder and they are only trying to protect themselves. Also, they don’t speak human, and they aren’t domesticated, so talking your way out isn’t going to work, lol.


Finally, Leave No Trace! Whether you are camping, hiking, or lounging you must pack up what you brought in. I could go on about all the ways leaving food scrapes, trash, etc. is bad for animals and our planet… But I’ll leave it with pack out what you packed in.



Here is the short and sweet version:

1. A reliable car with enough space to store all your camping gear.

2. Navigation tools like maps, GPS, or a mobile phone with a good signal and offline maps downloaded.

3. A comfortable tent or shelter, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad.

4. Adequate clothing for the expected range of temperatures and weather conditions, including rain gear and warm layers.

5. Proper footwear that is suitable for hiking and walking.

6. A first aid kit containing essentials like bandages, antiseptic, and pain relief medication.

7. A water bottle or hydration pack, water filtration or purification systems, and extra water storage containers in case of long distances between water sources.

8. Non-perishable food, a portable stove, fuel, and cookware.

9. A flashlight, headlamp, or lantern with extra batteries.

10. A multi-purpose tool or knife.

11. Bear spray and/or bear canisters if you're camping in Bear Country.

12. A cooler to store perishable food.

13. Binoculars and cameras to capture wildlife sightings.

14. Entertainment items like books, games, or a portable music player.

15. If you plan to hike, a daypack to carry essentials like food, water, and extra layers.

16. If you're planning to camp in cold weather, consider bringing hand warmers, foot warmers, or even an emergency blanket.

17. If you're camping in the desert, be sure to have plenty of sunscreens, a sun hat, and extra water.

18. Be sure to research the local wildlife and any safety precautions needed to avoid encounters with potentially dangerous animals such as snakes, mountain lions, or bears.

 

I hope you found this list helpful. If you want to know more or have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below or email me at roamwithandi@gmail.com Here is my Amazon camping list, and for my exhaustive camping list, head over to my to my RockPorch lockers. Happy Camping!

Andi solo hiking in the Grand Tetons in the summer


*This is not a paid, or sponsored post. I bought all products with my own money, and all views are my own. There are affiliate links throughout and I appreciate your support by using my links when you shop.*


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