Top 5 Car Camping Setups

Top 5 Car Camping Setups

Car camping can be an incredibly efficient method of traveling.  If done correctly, it will allow you to maximize the time you have at your desired destination and potentially save you lots of money.  There are a few different approaches to car camping that each have their own strengths and weaknesses.  In this article, we'll give you a brief overview of what we think are the top five setups for car camping and break down the pros and cons of each.  

#5: Hiking Tent Next to Your Car

Car Camping Tent Next To Car

 If you happen to be a backpacker and already have a hiking tent, the obvious choice is to simply set up your hiking tent near your car.  If the main goal of your trip is to drive to a trailhead and then spend multiple days backpacking in that one area, then you probably don’t need to invest any time or energy into comfort or efficiency.  You’ll already be roughing it while your backpacking, just keep roughing it for the 1-2 more nights while you’re driving to or from the trailhead.  Most state parks and even some RV campgrounds have places where you can park and set up your tent for a small fee.  If you want to go as cheap as possible, find a National Forest or Bureau of Land Management Land along the way and do dispersed camping for free.  However, if you’re going to be covering lots of ground in your vehicle, want to spend more than 1-2 nights car camping per trip, or you go on multiday roadrips more than once per year, you’ll most likely want to invest in one of the other options that add a little more efficiency, comfort, and safety than a small tent.



Can be 100% free, if you already have a hiking tent
Setup time can be a nuisance, including inflating air mattress, if you have one
A hiking tent takes up very little space in your car
Inside & outside of the tent can easily get wet & dirty which lead to mold and be hard to clean
Most hiking tents are not actually waterproof
Tent material provides virtually no thermal insulation
Will see most wear and tear due to being directly on the ground and having to be set up each night
Tents tend to blow away if you don’t take the time to stake them properly

Our Recommendation: Use a ground tent if you already have one and aren't going to sleep near your car very often.

#4: Vehicle-Attachable Tent

Car Camping Vehicle-Attached Tent

Something like a 10'x10' tent that attaches to your car can be a good way to accommodate a family.  You can easily fit a couple of full-sized air mattresses in one of these tents which makes for a very comfortable night’s sleep for everyone.  The main benefit of the vehicle-attached tent is that you won’t have to walk outside through the dirt, mud or sand to get items from your car.  Once the tent is set up and attached to your vehicle, you can access everything you brought with you without having to go out in the elements.  It might not sound like a big deal, but if it’s raining out and you want something from your car, you’ll truly appreciate being able to reach in your car without having to go out into the elements.  Also, in the very rare situation where you feel your safety might be at risk while you’re in your tent, you’d have the option to jump right into the back of your vehicle and close the trunk door for protection.  For some people, that peace of mind will help them sleep better at night, especially if they have children.



A 10’ x 10’ tent provides enough room for an entire family to sleep comfortably on full-sized air mattresses Same issues as the smaller tent: dirt, mold, no insulation, wear & tear, not waterproof
You always have access to your things Longest setup time, by far.  Can be unwieldy and require multiple people.
You have the added peace of mind of being able to jump in your car and close the door when in danger

Recommendation: Use a vehicle-attached tent if you have a family.  


#3: Rooftop Tent

Car Caping RoofTop Tent

One option that is growing in popularity is the rooftop tent.  This approach addresses a lot of disadvantages of a ground tent while taking up no space inside of your vehicle.  It does come with a lot of downsides though.  The cheapest rooftop tents will be more expensive than even the costliest of any of the other options listed in this article.  The most important thing to consider is that it does require substantial time, effort, tools and accessories to install it, and that’s even if your roof and roofrack can handle the size and weight.  Also, at the end of the day, it’s still a tent with thin fabric that can get moldy, wet, and degrade over time.  For those of you who are dead set on needing a rooftop tent though, you will enjoy the fact that setting up the tent each night will be quicker and easier than a ground tent. And when you’re packing up your rooftop tent, you can leave your bedding inside of it.  This is a great choice for those who have to fill their vehicle with gear that can’t be put under a bedframe (see option #1) or on the roof.



Very common option Most expensive option, by far
Frees up all of the space inside of the car for other gear Requires tools and significant installation time before & after each trip
Very quick to unfold each night Heaviest option, difficult to take on/off vehicle
Added safety from wild animals being off the ground Unable to drive truck once tent is setup
Insulated from cold ground from being on top of car Requires researching your car's rooftop and rack dynamic and static load rating
Can keep bedding inside of tent even when closed Can require modifications or purchasing a new rack for your car
Need a large place to store when not using
Need to climb a ladder to get inside
Reduced fuel efficiency while driving
Cannot store anything else on the roof
Have to maintain/clean tent material

 Recommendation: Use a rooftop tent if you need all the space inside your vehicle for gear and can't fit your gear under a bedframe or on the roof.


#2: Mattress Inside Vehicle


You just need a place to sleep, and you don’t want to fuss around with a tent every single night?  Just throw a mattress topper in the back of your car and call it done!  You won’t have to maintain a tent, you won’t have to worry about anything getting too wet or dirty, you have the nice hard shell of your car around you to protect you from the elements and you can even use your car’s heater or air conditioner if you want!  This is probably the quickest way to just get going, and there’s not a lot of downsides.  However, if you’re going on a lengthy trip and you’re bringing a large amount of clothes or gear, you’re going to have a messy bed pretty quickly.  You could buy a cargo box for your roof to store your stuff in, but it’ll make your stuff a little less accessible which could cause frustration down the road.  If you have a way to manage your mess, this can be a much more efficient and comfortable option than a tent.  A 4” memory foam mattress topper can be pretty cheap nowadays if you don’t have one already.



Virtually no setup required once you reach campsite.  As long as you can manage your mess. Without bedframe (see option #1), your bed can get cluttered
Hard shell of car offers safety & protection from elements Temporarily lose ability to use backseats
No maintenance or installation whatsoever Mattress won’t be on a flat surface
Car remains ready to drive at all times
Can use the car’s heat or air conditioning if needed

 Recommendation: If you already have a rooftop cargo box and don’t need easy access to anything in it, just throw a mattress in the back and call it good!


#1: SUV Sleeping Platform


If you want to improve upon option #2, you can get a modular bedframe to put in the back of your car so that you’re lifted off the floor a bit.  This gives you ample room to store gear you need to readily access underneath your bed.  This is a cheap and quick way to transform your primary vehicle into a mini recreational vehicle.  Some people might compare this option to a “Vanlife build”, but with a modular solution, you won’t need to make any permanent changes to your primary vehicle to accommodate a few road trips per year.  Once your trip is over, you revert back to your normal car in a matter of minutes and fully maintain the resale value.  If you’re looking to spend more than a couple of months at-a-time on the road, you’ll want to look into having a dedicated recreational vehicle, but for most people who want to camp in their car, this option offers the most functionality for the least amount of time, money and effort.



Once you set it up once, you’re set up for the entire trip.  That means zero time between parking and crawling into bed Limited space to sit up inside, the space would be mostly dedicated for sleeping/napping
Hard shell of car offers safety and protection from elements Temporarily lose ability to use backseats
Things stay organized and accessible under your bed
Enjoy perks of a small “Vanlife” build while retaining full functionality and resale value of your car
Can use a full-sized memory foam mattress for superior comfort
Car remains ready to drive at all times

 Recommendation: If you want the comfort of a proper bed, don’t want to clean/maintain tent material, want your stuff to be organized yet accessible, and you want the added efficiency of never having to set up camp before you go to sleep a modular car bedframe is for you!



Everyone has different priorities during their travels.  If you have a large family, then you’re going to be looking at a large tent or a travel trailer.  If you have an obscene amount of gear, or a truck, you might want to research rooftop tents.  But if your main goal is to car camp with any amount of frequency, then you probably won’t want to deal with any type of tent since they all require maintenance and setup time.  Having the ability to set up your bed in your car before you leave and then leaving it ready to sleep in throughout the trip will mean that you get to spend more time doing what you love and less time getting ready for bed each night.  

What priorities do you have while you're traveling?  Leave a message for us in the comments and we can help you find the setup that best fits your needs.

- Written by Nick Mathews, 2021

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This is a really helpful article! I was considering the vehicle-attached tent and now feel the SUV sleeping platform is a better fit for my husband and my travel needs. Who wants to take down and put away a wet tent every day when we could be rolling in no time! Nice solution!


Awesome blog! Very informative on different ways to car camp and helpful to see the pros and cons of each way to do it. Definitely makes me want to buy a sleeping platform for my car so I can get out on a road trip!

Nick Tomczyk

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