7 Tips for Car Camping on a Budget

A person resting in a car with their feet out of the window and with a guitar

Car camping on a budget is a great way to get outdoors without the bother of setting up a tent or forking out for a hotel. It’s inconspicuous, convenient and, above all, cheap. 

However, if you are planning to go car camping on a budget, you will need to do a little more planning for your trip to go smoothly. Don’t end up running your engine all night just for heat because your equipment isn’t keeping you warm enough.

The seven tips below will set you up for comfortable car camping on a budget that won’t break the bank.

7. Find a Great Free Location for Car Camping

Picking a great spot to spend the night is key to successful car camping. While there are plenty of fee-charging campsites to choose from, these can be fairly pricey. This is especially true in more sought-after holiday destinations.

To significantly reduce these costs, it’s worth spending some time researching a good location. 

Camping outside specified campsites is often regulated and sometimes forbidden by local by-laws in many jurisdictions. Given this, the ideal strategy for car camping is to make contact with a friendly landowner or farmer. Politely ask if you can stay the night on their land—often, they will agree. Make it clear that you will set off early the next morning and that you will leave no trace behind.

If this isn’t possible, get onto Google Maps to scout out good potential spots on public land. However, do remember to look up how strictly enforced camping regulations are.

Wild camping is legal in US parks, but the exact rules vary depending on where you are, so always check ahead. You don’t want a knock on your windscreen in the middle of the night! If you’re in the UK, you can camp anywhere in Scotland without needing permission. Things are a bit trickier in England (the Lake District and Dartmoor are probably the most relaxed spots).

The great thing about a car, though, is that you’re not as likely to get spotted as you are in a tent. People often don’t look twice at a car parked discreetly away from a road. You may decide that your location is secluded enough not to cause an issue!

A green campervan with open roof ready for car camping.

6. Showering on a Budget

To avoid paying to shower and use the facilities at a registered campsite or a gym in a nearby town, it’s necessary to plan how you’ll keep clean ahead of your trip. 

This is much easier to do if you’re camping in the summer. Showering outside is convenient and free, although it’s not always possible in winter (depending on how cold it is where you are).

There are two main options when it comes to outdoor showering. The first and cheapest is a solar shower, like this ASANMU 20 liter model. You can pick one of these up for a reasonable price (much cheaper than paying regular campsite fees).

Leave it in direct sunlight (this can even be inside your car) while the car is parked up during the day. It will absorb heat to provide you with warm water for your shower later that evening.

The second (and slightly more expensive) option is an electrically powered shower like this powerful model. You’ll need to provide the rechargeable batteries with power, so you’ll have to start thinking about the next item on the list: electricity.

5. Portable Batteries and Generators for Car Camping

Of course, the simplest way to charge phone batteries, electric showers and other paraphernalia is by running your engine and drawing power from the car battery. One way is to use a power converter like this one.

However, burning all that fuel can get expensive. If you plan to go car camping more than once, investing in a portable battery or generator is a worthwhile choice. Although they can be expensive, especially if you are on a tight budget, they will save you a lot of cash in the long run. 

Charge them up in public places (local libraries or cafes, for example) before heading into the wild. You’ll be able to power your lights and other equipment for free—no engine running required!

This Orico model has a good balance of reliability and affordability, giving you many hours of use on a single charge.

Two people eating a picnic under a tarp while car camping

4. Tarps for Car Camping on a Budget

When you look up car camping online, you’ll find plenty of websites trying to sell you tent extensions that fit to your car.

As you can see, they can be quite expensive. What you’re really paying for is the convenience of a temporary shelter that will attach neatly to your car. 

However, with a few ropes and toggles, you can easily attach a much cheaper camping tarp to your car. With a bit of ingenuity, you can achieve the same result. Before you invest in a tarp, we recommend going through our article on the best camping tarp material. This provides essential advice about which kind of tarp will suit your needs best.

We particularly recommend the DD superlight tarp. This will give you a great combination of durability and water resistance at an affordable price.

3. Get your Car Camping Sleeping Set-Up Right

There are many models of mattresses specifically designed for sleeping in your car. Most of them are designed to be laid out sideways along the back seats, with air-filled pockets to fill up the footwells.

A typical example is this Onirii model, which comes complete with a blindfold and an inflatable pillow.

The problem with this design is that it requires you to sleep sideways along the width of the car. This can feel extremely cramped over a whole night, especially if you are (but even if you’re not) tall. 

Instead, we recommend picking up a cheap inflatable mattress, like this affordable single blow-up model. Lower the front and back seats (where possible) and arrange some sturdy storage boxes as mattress supports. This will allow you to sleep lengthwise inside your car. These boxes can also double up as storage for your supplies. 

For simple tips on how to stay warm while sleeping on a camping trip, read our guide to keeping yourself insulated.

2. Improve your Car Camping Storage Capacity

Car campers will often tout rooftop containers, such as this one, as an effective storage solution. However, these are not only unwieldy and hard to set up but also expensive.

This is before you even consider the fact that they make your car less aerodynamic. By increasing drag, they’ll mean that you end up spending much more on fuel.

Keeping items in the plastic storage bins that support your bed is a good idea. In addition, picking up a few seat-back hanging organizers will make the logistics of your trip far more easy.

This High Road StashAway organizer will keep your possessions safe when you’re on the road. It’ll also make them readily available when you’re on the move or setting up camp. What’s more, you won’t have to brave a rainy night to retrieve items from the top of the car!

A person under a tarp in a forest while car camping on a budget

1. Prepare your own Meals for Car Camping on a Budget

One of the biggest expenses of any trip is food—or at least it can be if you aren’t prepared! The worst thing you can do if you’re on a tight budget is end up making an unplanned trip to a local town. Eating at a restaurant or picking up overpriced supplies because your food has run low will seriously eat into your budget.

Outdoor food brands aren’t much better for the bank balance. Vacuum-packed pre-cooked meals and high-protein snack bars are often outrageously expensive. They’re also just not necessary to get the nutrients that you need.

The great thing about car camping is that you aren’t as restricted by weight as you would be if you were hiking. It’s a great idea to invest in a cooler like this Coleman Coastal Xtreme model, which will hold more than enough food for a short getaway. 

Nestle one of these in your car’s rear footwell and stock up with meals that you’ve prepared at home. You’ll never look back.

For more tips on what to prepare for a trip, check out this list of 10 simple hiking tips for beginners.

In Conclusion

The key to successful car camping on a budget is preparation, preparation, preparation. Work out your plan in advance by following these seven tips, and you’ll be amazed by the results when you tot up how much you’ve spent!

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