I absolutely adore solo camping and have been doing it for 4 years. I started out camping in my tiny vintage camper, then moved on to a new 21-foot travel trailer. This year I am going back to vintage after the renovation of my 1978 Airstream Argosy Minuet is completed.
Even though I enjoy camping in a camper, I want to share a little secret: I love solo camping in my 2008 Toyota 4Runner!
Car camping came from my need to travel as comfortably as possible while staying within my budget, on a cross-country trip in 2021. I had signed up for a writing workshop in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and to save money, I decided to road trip it from my home in Wisconsin, camping along the way.
I wanted to save money by not staying in hotels, but I was nervous about pulling my camper so far by myself. So I turned my Toyota 4Runner into my camper. Since this was new territory for me, I devoured all the information about car camping I could. Videos, blog posts, forums, you name it; I checked them all out. I made window covers and lists of the necessities I would need. It helped that I had most of what I needed already.
Once I was set and had outfitted my car for my road trip, I couldn’t wait to see how it would all go.
During that trip, it took several shots at rearranging things till I had a comfortable, accessible, and (somewhat) uncluttered space. I became an obsessive fan of car camping. There was just something about fitting everything I needed into my vehicle and the ease of movement that I fell in love with.
I have made my car a temporary home on wheels on more long-distance trips since that first experience and want to share the reasons I love car camping as a solo traveler. Hopefully, I will inspire you to try it.
1. I Feel Safe
Feeling safe while solo traveling is the most important thing. I love how safe I feel sleeping in my car at night. I put the covers I made for my windows up, lock the doors, and have created a safe cocoon for myself. While I’ve never encountered a problem, knowing that all I need to do if I feel uncomfortable at a place I am parked is jump in the front seat and leave.
If I am out in the wilderness, there’s more protection between myself and a curious bear that may wander into my campsite.
Pro Tip: I always make sure to have a personal alarm handy when I travel solo. I carry it when I hike and anywhere I am by myself. I have it by my side at night when I am in my car.
2. It’s A Great Way To Try Solo Travel
I tell women all the time that if they would like to travel solo but are too fearful of it, they should just go slow. Car camping is actually one of those “dip your toe in” ways to try solo travel. Rocking an overnighter at a local campground is a perfect gateway to build your confidence. You’re close to home yet practicing your independence. You get to feel comfortable being alone. Plus, you don’t have to invest a lot of money in the experience.
3. I Save Money
Car camping is perfect for the budget-conscious solo traveler. If I can save money not paying for hotels (and do more free things), I have more left over to go other places, even with my limited travel budget.
Initially, there is a cost to getting the gear you need. A good sleeping pad or mattress is your biggest cost. I use a 4-inch queen mattress topper that I cut in half. I cover that with a set of twin sheets that were left over from when my daughter graduated from college. If you already camp, you probably have everything you need.
Once you’re set up, it’s just the cost of a campground. I usually pay a max of $40 a night at a campground. You can even go cheaper. There are many options for free camping on public-use land, or in overnight parking lots and truck stops. All it takes is a little advanced planning.
Then there’s gas milage. Unfortunately, my 4Runner isn’t the greatest on gas, and when I am pulling my travel trailer, it is even more dismal.
Pro Tip: Making your own window coverings is fairly easy. I make templates from sheets of paper taped together first, then I use cardboard to cut out the actual window coverings. I make them bigger so they will sit in the window. I take cloth and tape (or glue) tabs to each one for removal. Once I finish cutting and make sure they fit, I spray paint them black. You can find many videos on YouTube for more ways to make your own.
4. Protection From The Elements
We all know how miserable it can be tent camping in the rain. The probability of your gear getting wet is high. It’s uncomfortable. Depending on the season, it can be cold. I’d much rather have that hard barrier between myself and the weather. If it’s chilly, I bring along a small ceramic heater and I stay toasty warm. Sure, I may feel a little confined in that small space when the weather is less than ideal, but it sure is cozy.
5. A Sense Of Freedom
This is huge for me. I love my freedom. Car camping offers so much ease. I take about 5 minutes to pack up and leave. I can fit into any campsite. Camping state and county parks are my favorite, and just having my vehicle, I can take advantage of tent and non-electric sites. As long as you can drive into your site, your fine.
Freedom means you can park and camp overnight just about anywhere. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spots, parking lots, casinos, Cracker Barrel restaurants, and truck stops. With a little planning, or with an app like Campendium, you can find places to camp for free.
6. It’s Simple
While car camping requires some advanced planning initially — think bedding, cooking tools, and clothing storage — once you have your gear and a system down, there is nothing simpler than jumping in your car and hitting the road. It’s amazing how little you actually need to be comfortable. Honestly, I am not a “no maintenance” gal. I like my creature comforts, my makeup, and my hair care products, but I manage well.
The same goes for food. I don’t cook elaborate meals when I’m car camping. I carried a one-burner propane stove and one kettle. My go-to meal is soup along with a small cooler filled with fresh veggies, some snacks, and water. Think minimalistic, and you’ll be fine.
Pro Tip: Less is more when you are car camping. For cooking, I carry one medium saucepan, a one-burner propane stove, a collapsible dish pan, a large spoon, a metal spatula, tongs, tin foil, a French press for coffee, a can opener, one plate, a bowl, and a utensil set. It all fits neatly in a tote.
7. It’s Cozy
When I’m car camping on my solo adventures, I love crawling in the back of my 4Runner, curling up with a great book and my journal, and gazing at the stars through my back window. I have a string of battery-operated fairy lights I hang up above me. Toss in some cute decorative pillows, and my favorite soft comforter just for car camping, and I have a tiny oasis, a space of cozy solitude. There’s not much that makes me happier.
I found I enjoyed car camping so much that I just purchased an SUV tent that attaches to the back of my 4Runner. I’m excited to use it when I want to camp more than a couple nights in my car. It will give me more room and is standalone, so when I leave for a day of exploring, there’s evidence that my campsite is occupied.
Car camping may not be for everyone, but it’s a way of travel that I love, and it suits solo travelers perfectly. The simplicity, ease of travel, and budget-friendliness appeal to me most of all. If you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of solo travel, car camping may be the perfect entry point for you. Even if you’ve been solo traveling for a while, it’s worth a try. Who knows? You may find you love it as much as I do.
Fascinated by the possibilities of car camping? You’ll want to read up on boondocking, too.