America currently has an insatiable lust for camping. While many people buy massive motorhomes or camper vans, plenty still go camping by pitching a tent outside of their car. Heck, some people, like myself, will fold down some seats and sleep right there in the car. Sleeping in your car or in a tent can be a truly miserable experience, fraught with nearly freezing to death, getting rained on, having nowhere to wash your hands, and so much spoiled food. So, for those of you (or maybe your family) who want to start camping out of the car, here are some products to add to your gear to make sleeping on the go easier.
[Author note: This is one of our holiday gift guides, which is a service we’re doing to help everyone with their end-of-year shopping. This post also contains some affiliate links, which means we might get paid a commission if you buy something listed here or, usually, anything else on one of the sites. We won’t do this often, but it’s a way to support the site if you’re so inclined.]
Coleman 6-Person Dark Room Tent
I’ve said it a few times, and I’ll say it again: I normally hate sleeping in tents. I used to love the experience; being all connected to nature and having a portable home that fits in any car’s trunk. But as I continue to beat myself up on Gambler 500 after Gambler 500, a rough night in a tent is no longer appealing. However, my U-Haul camper isn’t ready yet, so I’m still sleeping in tents.
Thankfully, my wife has figured out how to make a tent a blast to sleep in. One critical element is the tent itself. We’ve had many tents over our relationship, but my favorite are the two Coleman tents that we have right now. One is a huge 6-person dark room dome tent with a screen room (above), and the other is a similar 6-person dark room tent, but without a screen room (below).
There are three things that I love the most about both of them. The first is that there are few parts to put together. The boxes for either tent say that setup takes “a few” minutes. Sure, maybe if you put tents together for a living. In reality, it takes more like 10 minutes for the one without a screen room and 15 minutes for the one with the screen room. I like the one without the screen room for its ease of pitching. You just slide the two main poles through the tent, a secondary pole through the rainfly, then secure it all down. You can definitely do it solo!
While the one with the screen room is a little harder, having that screen room is great because I can keep muddy shoes outside of the tent interior.
My next favorite feature is the fact that I can stand up in either tent. I’m one of those weirdos who don’t like getting dressed while sitting, so not having to hunch over in a tent is fantastic.
And lastly, my absolute favorite feature is the fact that both of them are dark room tents, and they live up to the advertising. When these tents are all zipped up, they’re pretty dark inside, even when the sun is out. Some reviews for these tents suggest that some units may have defects that cause them to leak in storms, but both of ours have been fine. I should also probably note that Coleman’s “6 person” sizing seems to be a stretch, unless those six people include kids or they’re all cuddling.
Where to buy: The 6-Person Dark Room Tent is $81.99 on Amazon, while the version with a screen room is $199.99 on Amazon.
Mr. Heater MH15C
I love tools and gear that serve more than one purpose, and the Mr. Heater MH15C has it in spades. This little radiant heating device has dual functions. It can provide you necessary heat in the cold, which is awesome enough. But flip it over, slap the grate on it, and you can also use it as a camping stove! It emits up to 15,000 BTU.
Best of all is the fact that it has a built-in regulator, and can be used with a big 20-lb propane cylinder. I’ve been using one of these for over four years and I don’t go camping without it.
Where to buy: Amazon for $57.40.
Mr. Heater Big Buddy
Now, that little heater is good, but you probably shouldn’t use it indoors. If you need a heater with more coverage and safe for indoor use, I recommend the Mr. Heater Big Buddy. It emits up to 18,000 BTU and like the smaller one, can be fed by a 20-lb propane cylinder. What it does a lot better is radiate heat in a manner that warms a greater area. It heats up to 450 square feet and if tipped over it’ll shut itself right off. It’ll also shut itself off if there isn’t enough oxygen. I’ve had one of these before and used it to keep a rusty cargo van warm in a cold Michigan winter. It did the job so well that I rarely had it set to full power. Not even air wafting in from the van’s huge rust holes overcame the Big Buddy.
Where to buy: Amazon for $149.99.
EcoFlow Delta Mini
Here’s another gadget that I never go camping without. You know what often sucks about tent camping? You don’t have electricity. If you’re lucky, you might have an inverter in your car, but I’ve never found that to be a good solution for tent camping.
The EcoFlow Delta Mini gives you 882Wh of capacity, a max output of 1,400W (1,800W boost), and outlets for up to 12 devices. This will not be able to power a space heater for very long, but it can power a coffee maker, power tools, or even a toaster. Keeping this in mind, it’s a fantastic way to get residential-style power in the middle of nowhere. Also, you can charge it in a number of ways, from solar panels that plug into the back to even the 12V socket in your car.
Where to buy: From EcoFlow for $749.
Intex Pillow Top Air Mattress With Headboard
Here’s one that you don’t necessarily need, but one you’ll be thankful to have if your body no longer likes sleeping on the ground. I jokingly like to say that an air mattress is for when you want to sleep on the ground, but not right now. Sheryl and I have tried a number of air mattresses, and they rarely make it a night without needing some help.
Well, here’s one that’s finally working for us. We’ve found the Intex able to stay up through the night, sometimes even keeping inflated through two nights. Additional things that I like are the integrated air pump (runs at just 50 Watts!) and the headboard. I thought that the headboard was just a gimmick, but after sleeping in the bed I loved it. In fact, I’ve never had a better night’s sleep than when we paired this bed to the Coleman tent.
Where to buy: Amazon for $162.
Ozark Trail 52-Quart Cooler
This neat cooler is nearly a Yeti cooler, but not for a Yeti price. So, you may be wondering why would you buy a cooler like this when you can buy those little red ones dirt cheap from anywhere? The party trick of these coolers is that they keep ice as ice for a very long time. You may have to refill the ice in one of those little red coolers daily, sometimes twice daily. But one of these can keep ice for perhaps a whole weekend. It’s not a game changer, but it gives you one less thing to worry about.
This cooler is easy to drain and is easy to handle. It’s made from one-piece, roto-molded plastic and has a stainless steel locking hoop to keep animals out of your goodies. There really isn’t much to say about this little guy other than it just works. I wouldn’t say that it’s a must-have, but it does make the quality of camping a lot better than those cheap coolers from the general store.
Where to buy: Walmart for $114.
Dometic Go Water Jug And Faucet
Having running water at your camp isn’t just something for comfort when cooking, drinking, or washing up, but sometimes necessary. I wrote about this pairing recently and my wife, Sheryl, explained how having an autoimmune disease makes running camp water necessary. Sheryl and I do not have one of these setups but we definitely want one. The responses to our post were great, with some people offering cheaper alternatives that require just a little DIY to get what Dometic offers out of the box. Essentially, these cheaper ideas are electric pumps meant for large water jugs, but shoved into whatever water source you have.
So I’ll offer you both. The Dometic Go system pairs an 11-liter water jug with a battery-operated faucet. The faucet can either sit on top of the jug or anywhere you can get it to stick. Thus, it also works with just about any water source. If tinkering isn’t your thing, this is the ticket.
Otherwise, Amazon is full of cheap large jug water pumps. Since they’re designed to fit a jug opening, you may have to modify the one you get to work with your application.
Where to buy: The Dometic Go water jug and faucet for $170 from Dometic’s site.
A water jug pump for $16.99 on Amazon.
Mountain Hardwear Bishop Pass 30 Sleeping Bag
Sometimes you can’t carry an entire air mattress and a bedding set with you, and that’s fine. Thankfully, there are options for getting some comfortable sleep on the go. Last year, I went on a three-day off-road camping trip through some of the best that Utah has to offer. My vehicle for that trip was a Can-Am Commander side-by-side, and my gear was limited to a tent, sleeping pad, pillow, and sleeping bag. The highlight of this gear for me was the sleeping bag. The pillow that I bought kept slipping out from under my head, and the sleeping pad was too small for my big frame. But this sleeping bag? It was my rock.
This sleeping bag is rated for 30 degree temperatures, though has been tested down as low as 19 degrees. It comes with 650-fill-power fluorine-free down. That down is said to be certified to the Responsible Down Standard, which means that the down didn’t come from animals abused with force-feeding or plucking. I can confirm that this sleeping bag is comfy, even at below 40-degree temps without a heater. Add in that propane heater and I bet you’ll be cooking in there.
Where to buy: These can be found at Mountain Hardwear with a left-hand closure (men’s) or a right-hand closure (women’s). Prices start at $176.25.
Ivation Portable Outdoor Shower
Here’s another one that I don’t have, but want to try. Having that aforementioned faucet would be great for washing hands and cleaning up after accidents, but not so much for a shower. This is where this device comes in. There are tons of outdoor showers on the market, but this one is tantalizing because of its low cost. You just need a bucket or some other water source, this outdoor shower head, and boom, you can take a shower anywhere.
This product does have some noted flaws like a short hose and the pickup side of the device is quite thick. But it’s also a fraction of the price of other outdoor showers.
Where to buy: Amazon for $34.99.
That’s it for this year! Hopefully, you now have a gift or a few for yourself or a loved one. If you have your own suggestions for camping gifts, I’ve love to read them below!
I would love to see something like this that’s actually specific to car camping (what you’re talking about here is clearly tent camping, as evidenced by the presence of a tent :-P). Actual car camping brings with it some additional challenges – you need some way to screen your windows for ventilation, you further need some way to open your windows even if it’s raining, you need somewhere to change clothes when it’s light out, etc. None of this is an issue if you have a tent, but when all you have is a car you need different equipment. I bet you could come up with a whole article just talking about car-specific camping supplies.
I really don’t understand all those faucet thingies?
Over here we just let gravity do the job:
A 12V fridge is basically life changing if you car camp a lot. It kind of sets you free wrt having to go into town every couple of days for ice. Plus, you don’t have to worry in the slightest about your food temps
Where’s the folding camping shovel, you know when you go camping off the grid in national parks or Bureau of Land Management Land. Also Bear spray for when you are using the 6 person tent
That bed is EPIC! Do they make tents big enough for it?haha
As I read through this article I imagined each item in terms of bulk/size and space required to take it along. Thus I came to the conclusion that if you really wanted to take all these nifty things along, your going to need a cargo van to transport it all. That is not my idea of camping in any sense of the concept.
Having said that, each item considered separately has worth and with careful planning you could come up with a combination that would work for camping out of a small hatchback.
As a military guy for over 30 years I can say that the most important thing to spend money on is your sleeping bag. Don’t buy anything with less than a zero degree bag. You can always leave it open for cooling things off and will still have that nice margin of safety/comfort. Again, buy the best!
The emphasis placed on water delivery systems leaves me scratching my head. Cleaning “dirty” water for health is very simple. Today’s chemicals are not nearly as nasty as the first ones. Once you have a quantity of safe water, how you care to carry it and dispense it is a simple matter picking the container that best works for you, be it a quart canteen or a 5 gal jug.
As to heat your suggestions are on the mark! The smaller of them would be perfect.
I could fit all of this into my Niro, I’m pretty sure, and it is not a large vehicle. That said, it is not all stuff I would take. A tent, a sleeping bag, and some food and water are more my speed. The heater might be good, especially if an open fire isn’t a practical choice, but I don’t prioritize a faucet or shower when camping.
Also, you are right that a good zero degree bag would be better (especially if it is your only bag), though a lot of people are fair-weather campers. Personally, I have a couple bags for different weather.
And the water delivery options listed, while not a priority for you or me, can be great for the people who want/need it. The idea is basically to give people those container options for their water.
I do think that a few lists to meet different types of needs/camping styles could be interesting to see. Because of all the different ways people camp, a person can mix and match suggestions from a variety of lists.
For a faucet, years ago I bought a battery-operated kerosene pump for under $10. Served for well over a decade before I had to transfer fuel out of an old VW. I’m sure there are better options now, but I rather enjoyed cobbling together off-grid solutions back in the day
How about a good water filter? Although I’ve never had a problem with it I’m a bit leery of campsite water* and while one can boil it it’s a lot easier and less wasteful of fuel to filter drinking water.
* As a kid I made the mistake of drinking unfiltered stream water on a hike up from the valley floor to Glacier point in Yosemite. It was a blazing hot day for which we had brought far too little water of our own. It didn’t take long at all for that stream water to work it’s magic. Ugh!! Never again!
Most car campsites have wells or other water supplies that are safe. I’ve been at a few that have posted ‘boil water’ advisories. If you are having to rely on surface water then a filter is definitely recommended.
In my opinion you’re better off spending a lot of money on a very good sleeping bag, a solid tent and some proper functional clothing. Add maybe a campfire in the evening and you won’t need a gas heater. Gravity solutions to both the shower and the sink are going to save you about 100 dollars and a lot of space in your trunk.
Personally I prefer folding camp beds to air mattresses, both because I don’t like the wobblyness of the air mattress and because they’re cheaper, sturdier and take up less space. Two folding beds are going to set you back maybe 50 bucks, not 160. Also in my experience they don’t tend to deflate overnight.
The battery pack is understandable but maybe a bit oversized for my taste – if you bring a hair dryer and a toaster and a TV camping you’re not doing it right imo. I’ve got a little battery pack with a folding solar panel that is fine for a single phone at least in summer, tempted to get a bigger panel to try out if that’d be able to charge from the maybe 5 hours of daylight I get at this time of the year.
That being said, the things in this article are meant to be neat gadget gifts for somebody who is into recreational camping which sort of negates the “but you can have it cheaper” argument a bit.
My first memory of camping is from Yosemite in 1957. My parents were avid campers so I’m sure I went camping before then. It’s just that no one ever forgets Yosemite. I’m 73 now and still camping and loving it. I have had all shapes and sizes of RVs, but at times we still tent camp. If the family group we go with are tent campers we pitch our tent right along with them. I have a 6 person tent for the mid 70’s, I think it is a Northface that I haven’t used in years. I replaced all the poles because the originals were so weak and the couplers broke. In the late 1990s I bought a 4 person Coleman tent and it has served me well. I don’t camp in really shitty weather. In 2003 while beach camping around La Paz, Baja my weather radio basically said to GTFO and we did. Hurricane Marty caused 100+ million dollars in damage. I still use my Snowline sleeping bag that is 45 years old. I may buy a Yeti cooler someday. I like their stuff and as I type this I’m drinking a cocktail from a Yeti tumbler. My old Coleman ice chests just don’t cut it anymore. In the late 1970s I bought a 3 burner Coleman 426D stove at a yard sale in like new condition. It is bulletproof and will probably be in someone’s campsite 100 years from now. I did update it to burn unleaded gas, but hope I never have to. Coleman type fuel, white gas, lasts forever. Camp on. Happy trails.
Q: A portable faucet? For how much? Why?
A: Just get the big jug of water with the little tap and hang it next to the old camping classic, a bar of soap inside a tied up pair of nylon stockings.
Q: A portable shower? For how much?
Why? I’m camping, who needs a shower?
A: To rinse the mud off before you climb in your tent at least you dope.
Q: What’s a good way to transport a large amount of easily dispensed gray water in or on any vehicle with minimal alterations done to said vehicle that is doing the transporting?
A: What was the question? Oh…
Buy a 10’ piece of 4” ABS pipe from Home Depot. While your there pick up ABS glue, a sillcock, a few pipe thread nuts, gasket material, a 4” ABS end cap, 4” ABS screw plug, and a 4”ABS straight pipe to screw plug adapter coupling (I’m blanking on the technical or even colloquial name for that last one).
Cut the pipe, drill a hole for the sillcock, install sillcock in drilled hole with gasket material and pipe thread nuts, Glue on end cap and threaded plug adapter thingy (it has a name!?).
Fill it with water and strap it to a roof rack.
Now you have what is pretty much a gravity fed water source that can be hooked up to any common hose thread and warms the water in the sun for under $50.
The one I made for my Ranger works great!
If you really want to make it easy, drill and install the sillcock in the 4” ABS end cap before you glue it on the pipe.
Don’t rely on a Coleman tent if you expect any sort of bad weather: rain, hail, snow, winds. The poles will break, the fly will leak, the condensation will be horrible. A better long-term buy are the larger family tents from REI, Nemo, The North Face, etc.
Those Ozark Trail coolers are a great deal, but an even better cooler sold by Walmart are those from the Lifetime brand. With coolers, the two greatest factors for ice retention are: thickness of the walls; total interior size. A 70 liter cooler will keep ice a lot longer (days longer) than a 20 liter cooler with the same wall thickness. Pro tip: instead of using bagged ice, freeze water in milk jugs or rectangular containers made for food storage–the ice will last longer and there will be no water sloshing around in cooler bottom.
I have a Mr. Buddy heater, and it works, but with these caveats: a strong breeze will blow out the pilot; it consumes propane at a voracious rate; burning propane produces a great amount of water vapor (which results in condensation). For true luxury winter camping, a portable wood stove such as the ones from Winnerwell are fantastic–but remember, firewood doesn’t grow on trees.
Never store a sleeping bag (either down or synthetic fill) in its stuff sack. You’ll kill the loft, which is what insulates you from the cold. Also for the cold, don’t sleep on a cot or on the ground without a pad with the highest R rating you can get.
“Pro tip: instead of using bagged ice, freeze water in milk jugs or rectangular containers made for food storage–the ice will last longer and there will be no water sloshing around in cooler bottom.”
Can confirm. Just make sure not to fill it too much or the act of freezing might rupture the container.
As a bonus the meltwater stays clean and can be used for drinking or cooking later.
Besides propane combustion creating condensation, let’s look at the combustion equation
C3H8+5O2 > 3CO2+4H2O and Heat, since this is an exothermic reaction
Besides the water vapor, you get Carbon Dioxide which is not good for you, and your body will react to high CO2 levels,headaches, etc.
But that with perfect combustion, which you won’t see in the ‘Real World’ since Air has more than just
O2 in it
You get incomplete combustion.
C3H8+4O2 > 2CO+CO2+4H2O
plus some others that get you Nitrogen compounds
that Carbon Monoxide: your body won’t notice, and it will _kill_ you in even low levels
So use venting, even when it lets that heat out.
Those rotomolded coolers are incredible. For a weeks-long camping trip this summer, the rotomolded cooler we had needed ice only every 3-4 days with temperatures in the low 80’s during the day, mainly shaded, and openings kept to a minimum. Not constantly searching for ice was great.
I camp in tents all the time, and I’d never recommend anything from Coleman. Or any cheap tent really. Sure they’re cheap and probably will work fine if all you want to do is keep the bugs off. But, if the weather ever gets sketchy they are terrible, your stuff will get wet, and it will turn you off camping forever.
Take the money you save by not buying heaters, showers, electrical supplies, and fancy water dispensers and put it into a better tent.
Agreed. A few years ago I made the transition from a great (fairy expensive) nylon backpacking tent to a canvas duck cloth for car camping.
It’s a game changer.
Sure, it’s bulkier to pack (about 60lbs) and takes a little more work to set up but if you’re gonna be at a spot for a couple days or more it’s well worth it.
Mine is a Kodiak Canvas Flex-Bow four-person. I camp anywhere and in any season. It’s like a little cabin. It even handles a few inches of overnight snow without a problem. And at 6’3” I only have to duck my head like I’m buttoning up my shirt to stand up in it.
Coleman still makes a few “classic” products separate from their cheap Walmart grade stuff.
Coleman Northstar Propane lantern – not really as useful as much now with cheap LED lanterns but nobody complains when I start mine and have a huge amount of nice warm light.
Coleman dual fuel sportster stove – couple of pumps and you have hot water in the morning. Works great in the cold, runs in the wind no problem. Mine has been ultra reliable, even used gas a few times in a pinch. I’d say this is absolutely superior to anything else I have found. Difficult to buy new though.
Coleman steel belted coolers – like the propane lanterns probably not much reason to buy these anymore with the YETI style coolers but they are light, indestructible and work good enough. Mine gets shoved between two dirt bikes in the bed of my truck so it gets trashed by footpegs but still is fine after many, many years. Plus a green cooler with lots of wear and stickers looks infinitely cooler than any modern rotomolded plastic thing.
Coleman is probably the best of the cheap tents. I have a six-man one that is now ten years old, and it’s stood up well to both winds and rain. Most of my tents are high-dollar backpacking specialty tents designed to withstand winter storms, summer gales etc. But I can’t stand up in them 😉 So for car camping the Coleman does well, in any storm bad enough to affect it we’re driving to a hotel anyway.
Those tents look like something Bigfoot would want to tear to shreds. I don’t believe in
Bigfoot. But just in case…..nope.
“Those tents look like something Bigfoot would want to tear to shreds. I don’t believe in
Bigfoot. But just in case…..nope.”
Bigfoot? Don’t be silly. It’s ManBearPig you need to worry about.
(Or just bears)
I’ve used “gravity showers” before. Basically a 5ish gallon black bag full of water with a twist on shower head at the bottom. Great in warm weather, leave it out in the sun, within an hour or two we had hot shower water.
Intex makes the best air mattress I’ve ever slept on. Wife and I have a queen with the integrated pump, and it even has a mini fan to keep it inflated (provided it has access to power) and it’s never let us down. We used it for a 4 night camping trip and only had to lightly re-inflate it on night 3 due to temperatures dropping a bit too much (summer sleeping bags with 30 degree OAT was rough)
OR, and hear me out on this one guys.
Instead of buying all this stuff you go and get a hotel room.
[points at head dot gif]
But I can’t book a hotel room in a forest! Yeah, camping isn’t for everyone. 🙂
Theres camping, and there’s needing thousands of dollars of unnecessary silly crap to car camp.
Actual camping isn’t for everyone. ????.
This is one of these cases where there is no best way for everyone. The best way for me is the answer.
I hate camping and sleeping on the ground. I would rather get a 4×4 Super C or a good class A as I am more in tune with bring the vacation home with me.
If people want to sleep in a tent, go for it. If you want to glamp, go for it. It is not for me to say who is right and who is wrong.
The last time I started a fire in my hotel room to make smores the management was not pleased. 😛
If you’re in the market for a fewer head count, easier-to-setup tent, Quechua makes some awesome “instant-up” darkroom tents.
Additionally, it’s best to not store your sleeping bag compacted in the stuff sack long term. The theory is that it can compress the down and that lofty air gap it provides is where it gets a lot of it’s insulating properties. (assuming you’ve just hauled out the compressed bag for the photo above)
Huh, thanks for the advice on the sleeping bag. I put it back into the sack for a flight home, then left it there. I’ll definitely take it out!
Wow. That explains why my bag is not nearly as warm now as it was the first few years I had it.
Yep. Take it out, beat it lightly to fluff, and give it some time to decompress.
The dark feature in a tent is really a game changer. It allows for a lot more hours of sleep
The 18000 btu (5000 watt?!) heater seems overkill, my 750 watt electric heater can heat our vw california just fine.
We camp on European campsites, power is no problem there, at least 4 amps, lots of times 10 amps (at 230V)
Sleeping bags; mummies models are great for warmth but it can feel tight. Think about getting 2 rectangular ones which zip together to form a 2 person sleeping bag. Great for sharing your cold feet with your partner.
And think about lower but also upper temperature, in summer you will sweat out of your -10 ‘C rated sleeping bag.
I tried a mummy style sleeping bag once. It’s not for me LOL. I like an oversized style that can be zipped to another one if needed. I whole heartedly agree on an air mattress, it a game changer for general tent camping.
I find the personal anecdotes to be a vast improvement on this format. Nice.
Cool. We really do appreciate the feedback as we aren’t going to do a lot of these and we want to make the ones we do feel Autopian.