The Best Car Camping Gear: Staff Picks

Spend a night under the stars in car-assisted comfort thanks to our favorite product picks.

Heather Balogh Rochfort|Published February 3, 2023

26 reviews with an average rating of 3.3 out of 5 stars
Campers sit around a fire in a desert setting. In the background is a car with a vehicle shelter attached and a tent.

Camping adventures don't always include a hefty backpack or tiny bags of dehydrated food. Often, logging a couple nights under a starry sky is easier with your steel steed within arm's reach. Vehicle-assisted camping is a great option for anyone who wants to bring more comforts from home or folks who have physical limitations.

Regardless of whether you opt to sleep in your car or in a tent nearby, or if you're driving into a campground or a dispersed wilderness site, vehicle-assisted camping can be more fun with the right gear. We asked our staffers and members for their most recommended items available at REI Co-op, ranging from necessary gear to nice-to-have tchotchkes that make life at camp a lot more comfortable. Find the perfect additions to your car-camping kit among these 15 staff picks.

Staff Picks

Find our quick recommendations here or read on for the full breakdown of our favorite car camping gear.


Living

Is your gear muddy? Do you stink? (Be honest.) Reach for the NEMO Helio, a high-pressured shower that isn't reliant upon gravity to get the work done. The secret is the foot pump: Give it a few good steps to pressurize the 2.9-gallon tank and you'll have enough hard spray for a five to seven minute washing for you or your bike. It comes with a 7-foot-long hose so any surface is within reach. Pro tip: Fill the black tank with water and hang it in the sunshine to warm. It's the best kind of shower! Buy here.

If you're one of those campers who needs to stay connected on the go, the Yeti 200X from Goal Zero is the power solution for you. There are numerous ways to charge up this brick: Plug it into a wall at home before leaving, into your car via a 12V charging cable or recharge it while you're off-grid using Goal Zero solar panels (sold separately). Either way, you should have enough energy to charge a smartphone 20 times. It charges multiple devices too. As long as you use a USB-C cable, you can charge laptops, cameras, phones and tablets. Buy here.

A strand of lights might not be an obvious choice for camping, but it should be. Instead of pooling the light in one area like a traditional lantern, string lights let you spread it out or even encircle an area you want to brighten up just so. The effect is A+ ambiance.

Our favorite for the occasion is the MPOWERD Luci Solar String Lights + Charger, an 18-foot-long strand decorated with 10 nodes. The durable nylon cord rarely tangles, easily wrapping up around the plastic base when not in use. That base holds a small solar panel, which can juice up the lights for more twinkling when the battery runs out. MPOWERD claims 16 hours in direct sun can fully charge the device. (We had no problem after a day or two of the lights sitting on a vehicle dashboard in New England.) A built-in USB port means you can also power up other devices with the Luci's hub.

The Luci Solar String Lights + Charger is a slam dunk for car camping (string it around a picnic table or tent vestibule), but it's compact enough for backpacking, too. It's less than a pound and about the size of a New York bagel, so you can easily slide it in the side pocket of a backpack or lash it to the top lid for on-the-go solar charging.

Our testers also lauded its versatility in more casual pursuits. One tester brightened up her tailgate for a season of post-adventure hangs and sunset missions. "Best night: Hot drinks and an apple crumble were enjoyed on the Maine-New Hampshire state line under the glow of these lights," she wrote on her feedback form. While that tester wished for a few more light nodes on the string, she couldn't have been happier at the ability to Pinterest-out her truck. Buy here.

Luci Portable Solar String Lights - 18' White
Bottom Line: The MPOWERD Luci Solar String Lights + Charger are a fun and flirty way to light up your space and charge your devices at the same time.

Testing Stats:

  • Nights out: 16
  • Testing states: Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Washington
  • Best testing story: While testing this string of lights in the snowy woods of New Hampshire this winter, our tester found a new friend in the form of a barn owl, which was perched on a nearby fence. "I flicked through the high, medium and low power levels to see what would happen, and the owl seemed to dig it by hooting softly every time the light changed," says our tester.

Grab a bubbly water and duck out of the rain beneath the Trailgate from REI Co-op. Designed specifically for wagons, SUVs and canopied trucks, this vehicle shelter offers campers a protected place to hang out beyond the inside of the tent or car. Thanks to 75-denier polyester (read: ultra durable), the Trailgate withstands the worst of inclement weather while easily fitting four camp chairs beneath its wings. The oversize front door can be pitched like an awning or rolled up to enjoy beautiful scenery. Plus, it's easy to set uppitch over any hatchback vehicle; some REI Co-op Members report that they accomplished the task on their own. Buy here.

Sleeping

Rooftop tents boast a certain cool factor, and the Thule Tepui Foothill has thoughtful touches that make it one of our favorites. Not only does it easily fit two adults (make that two-and-a-half, as we squished in with our preschooler), but its smaller footprint leaves available rooftop space on your car. This means you can still stor a paddleboard or fly rods on the roof to take out on your adventure. The 1.6-inch, built-in foam mattress is plenty comfortable on tired joints, but all the windows are our favorite feature. The Tepui Foothill has both an extra-large rear window and dual skylights, promising a cross-breeze on hot days and starry views at night. Buy here.

Does camp sleep make you cranky? The HEST Dually has your number, regardless of whether you sleep in a tent or the back of the truck. Unlike other sleeping pads, the Dually doesn't inflate. Instead, you've got nearly 4 inches of high-performance foam to protect your joints from the harsh realities of the ground. When fully unfolded, it's roughly the width of a full (long) or queen (wide) mattress, or fills the back of a standard truck bed. It does weigh considerably more than traditional sleeping pads, so you don't want to move this around a lot. Still, the weight penalty is worth the comfort; it's arguably as good than your bed at home. Buy here.

Versions: Long, wide

Luxe comfort is the beauty of car camping, and no sleeping bag brings more of that better than the NEMO Jazz. Offered in both a single and double version, the Jazz is designed to replicate your bed at home with a trifecta of coziness. First, you'll slide in beneath a built-in, removable sheet that's easy to wash and works great as a light layer during warm summer nights. On top sits a feather bed-style quilted layer before the final overfilled quilt packed with 100% recycled synthetic insulation. A sleeve on the bottom holds a sleeping pad in place so you don't slip around, and a smaller pocket at the head prevents your pillow from escaping during the night. Sure, the Jazz isn't a lightweight sleeping bag, but when your car is doing the heavy lifting, who cares? Buy the single or double here.

Versions: Single, double

Eating

Dehydrated meals in a bag are fine for the backcountry, but when you're based at your car, it's time for some better food—and that's where the Eureka Ignite shines. A briefcase-type carrying handle allows for easy transport from car to table, where the two wind-blocking wings easily pop up and latch into place. Two burners allow for high-quality meals for a family or small groups. The real secret to gourmet camp meals is the precise simmer capabilities on the control knobs, a rarity in camp stoves that tend to waffle between no-flame or torched. You'll never burn another meal again! Buy here.

No ice, no problem. It doesn't matter if you're overlanding for a week or living the permanent road trip life in a campervan; the CFX3 from Dometic will keep your condiments cold without a single cube of ice. Unlike other coolers on this list, this one is electrically powered like a refrigerator. When you're on the go, plug it into your car and use the accompanying app to control the temperature settings via Bluetooth. (The compressor cooling technology goes as low as -7°F for a deep freeze.) The 35-liter cooler holds up to 50 cans, but thanks to the dual compartments (one with a wire basket), it's easy to keep your goods organized. "I have freedom from ice!" proclaims one psyched co-op member. Buy here.

A good bowl can do a lot of things. This tough-and-ready container by Hydro Flask works great as both a mixing bowl and dinner receptacle thanks to its heavy-duty stainless-steel construction that doesn't retain flavors. The double-wall insulation means it's useful year round: It keeps cold food cold and hot food hot. Hydro Flask designed a press-in plastic lid that easily secures the container, so you'll never have to worry about spilled food when driving down bumpy forest roads. Buy here.

Meet the best camp gadget you never knew you needed. When paired with the Dometic GO Hydration Water Jug (sold separately), this water faucet morphs into an easy-to-use dream for washing your hands, getting a glass of water or filling a pot to boil on the camp stove. Simply attach the faucet to the top of a water jug or table with the included magnetic pucks and let the rechargeable faucet do the rest. With a full battery charge, the faucet should dispense about 150 liters of running water, which is more than enough for a weekend trip. And if you camp with kids who like to play outside after dark, get this: It comes with an integrated LED light that provides a little guidance in those evening hours. Buy here.

Remember that Eureka camp stove from earlier? You need to put it somewhere, and this REI Co-op Roll Table is our top pick. It's a simple, effective design, with aluminum legs and a heat-resistant aluminum top that are durable yet lightweight, so the table is both portable and hardy enough for camp life. Thanks to the included stuff sack, it's easy to carry around and set up, then stores tidily in a car trunk. While it's little and light, it's still mighty: The Roll Top has a maximum weight of 100 pounds, which is more than enough for a family feast or a rousing game of cards. Buy here.


Organization

Give the gift of organization with the REI Co-op Pack-Away Bin. This spacious, collapsible polyester tub comes in two capacities—100 liters and 140 liters—to hold your loved one's gear. It's great for toting camp-kitchen items to the campground or for stowing outdoor tools and equipment during the off-season. Add additional structure to your storage by nesting a couple pack-away cubes inside (they make primo stocking stuffers).

It's not cool to leave trash at the campsite, so make packing out easy on yourself with a reusable trash container. Just like a regular trash can, you can line this 10-liter sack with a plastic bag to throw out when you're back in civilization. The Trash Dry Sack is fully waterproof and comes with a roll-top enclosure, so nothing gross leaks out. And it's versatile. Thanks to various webbing straps attached to the sack, campers can use a rope and hang it from a tree to keep critters away or secure it to a backpack while on the trail. Buy here.

The Nite Ize Gear Line was originally designed for backpackers, so it's lightweight, compact and useful. If you'll be at camp for a few days, string it up and hang your most essential items vertically or horizontally for easy access. Or perhaps it poured all night and your tent fly and jacket are soaked? Hang 'em up on the line. With 4 feet of length and a handful of plastic clips to secure items, the possibilities are endless (and the price is right). Buy here.


Leave No Trace

As humans who love being outside, chances are good that you've already heard of Leave No Trace. It sounds basic, but it actually means more than just picking up your trash while recreating outside. Instead, it can be viewed as a respectful way to interact with the natural world by ensuring that we leave wild spaces better than we found them (no matter how far from the road you've traveled).

More specifically, Leave No Trace is a guiding set of principles to help protect the planet from the more than 150 million visitors recreating each year. To do this, longtime REI Co-op partner and stewardship organization Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics developed an easy-to-understand framework dubbed the Leave No Trace Seven Principles. These principles cover a range of practices that are all designed to minimize impact from almost any recreational activity.

Learn more about Leave No Trace and the Seven Principles here.

Methodology

We asked our co-op staff, members and customers to share their favorite gear for vehicle-assisted camping. They reported back with their top choices for everything from tents and sleeping bags to camp stoves and lighting solutions. These are their picks for the best items for car camping currently available at REI.