Car Camping vs Tent Camping

Trying to figure out whether car camping or tent camping is right for you? Read this guide for the pros and cons of each type of camping!

A once in a lifetime experience seeing the full solar eclipse in Pymatuming State Park after car camping!
Table of Contents
- Car Camping vs. Tent Camping: What's Right for You?
- Pros of Car Camping
- Pros of Tent Camping
- So Which is Better - Car Camping vs Tent Camping?

Car Camping vs Tent Camping: What’s Right for You?

For beginners, camping can seem extremely overwhelming.

  • What supplies and gear do I need?
  • What do I have to pack?
  • How can I sleep comfortably?
  • What type of camping is right for me? 

When I first got started camping, I felt exactly the same way. It felt like friends had been camping their entire lives and I was thirty years old trying to pick up a new hobby. My first car camping experience was in 2020, when I drove across the country to move from California to Ohio. I fell in love and since then I’ve camped over 15 nights a year for the last three years. I was a total beginner to camping in 2020 but I am here to tell you it’s never too late to try something new! 

The goal of this guide is to compare tent camping vs car camping. For ease of reading, in this post, when I refer to “car camping”, I am talking about sleeping in the car and when I refer to “tent camping”, I am talking about sleeping in a tent but with access to your car. They’re both great ways to experience nature, but they offer different pros and cons for each.

Read on for more information comparing car camping vs tent camping!

As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're out exploring! Pack out all trash, leave wildlife alone, and generally leave it better than you found it - for more information visit the Leave No Trace Center.

Pros of Car Camping

You don’t need to purchase a tent

One of the biggest barriers to the outdoors is gear. One of my favorite things about car camping is that I was able to do it with about 90% of items I already owned. For my first trip we only purchased a mattress and a cooler – we had everything else we needed. (And honestly, depending on the trip length, you may not even really need a cooler). Good tents are expensive and can set you back hundreds of dollars, depending on your needs. Car camping was a great foray into camping without dropping serious cash on something I wasn’t sure if I was going to like in the long run. 

It “feels safer”

This is obviously an objective pro, however, as a solo female camper and hiker, this is important for me. I feel more comfortable solo when I am sleeping in my car, a very solid 2019 Subaru Forester. When car camping, I can lock the doors. This means it would be significantly harder for someone to get into my car than it would be my tent. My car setup allows me to quickly hop into the driver’s seat from the inside, if an emergency were to occur. That peace of mind doesn’t exist for tent camping.

Tom the dog testing the car camping setup

Cars are less vulnerable to the elements

When I was camping in May at Pine Grove furnace, our first night was beautiful. I slept peacefully in my tent…until it started raining. While my tent is a great setup and didn’t get wet, it was annoying to have to maneuver wet clothes inside of the tent and stressful to worry about shoes, bags and electronics getting wet. I slept in my car the second night and was a lot happier. Cars are also more stable in the wind (nothing like a tent fly flapping in the wind to give you a terrible night of sleep). If there’s any risk of conditions, I opt for sleeping in the car. 

Looking for car camping checklist? Download my FREE guide here!

Pros of Tent Camping

Better for folks with smaller cars

I think I feel great about car camping because I have always owned a Subaru Forester – first a 2008 (RIP Izzy) and now a 2019. If I had a Prius, I think I’d maybe feel differently about sleeping in my car. If you have a smaller car that wouldn’t be comfortable to sleep in, the tent is the way to go. 

However, don’t completely write off car camping. There are some great guides out there to sleeping in smaller cars, like this YouTube video about car camping in a Honda Civic.

Better for a large group 

Cars are limited in space. My Subaru Forester comfortably fits 2 people, and acceptably fits 2 people and a 35 lb dog. Anything else would be a tight fit. With tent camping, you can purchase a tent to fit your entire family if you so choose or multiple tents to fit a group. I’ve seen some awesome camping setups where there are tents for sleeping and tents for eating (almost like at a sports game). Or for those of you with kids, tents for the adults and then tents for the kids. With the tent setup, you have the flexibility to do what works best for your group. 

By the fire at the group tenting site in Pine Grove Furnace State Park

Feel closer to nature

One of my favorite parts of tent camping is when you fall asleep to the sounds of the forest or nature around you. It’s a little bit harder to feel that connected in a vehicle. I love sleeping in backpacking shelters that have three walls (like at Raccoon Creek State Park) because I am basically outside. I also enjoy sleeping in my tent with my rainfly off if possible for a similar feeling. The car does not provide that level of connection with nature. 

If you’re looking for tent camping where you hike to a campsite with no car access, check out my backpacking guides! 
- Must Have Backpacking Gear
- Backpacking Clothing Guide
- How to Plan for a Backpacking Trip

So Which is Better – Car Camping vs Tent Camping?

The verdict? It depends. Take a look at what gear you already have, what kind of car you own, how many people are coming with you, and what kind of camping you’re looking to do. You can’t go wrong with either tent camping or car camping – they’re both awesome ways to enjoy the outdoors. 

Camping is for everyone and I would love to help you on your journey! If you have any questions or want to chat more, feel free to either comment below or send me a DM on Instagram @torytalkstrails! 

Updated May 29 2024

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