Car Camping with Dogs: Essential Guide and Checklist

Pack your bags, it’s time to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Car camping with dogs is full of excitement and a great way to make some long-lasting memories with your furry friend. Its simple nature also means it is one of the easiest trips you can take with a dog!


To make it even easier, we’ve laid all of the groundwork for you. Buckle up and come along as we lay out all of the essential gear you’ll need, and share tips and tricks that will make car camping with dogs an unforgettable adventure for all of the right reasons.


Car Camping For Beginners

What Is Car Camping?

Car camping is exactly what you would expect it to be. Camping with your car!


car camping with a dog at sunsetSome car campers sleep exclusively in their vehicle, while others travel by car and set up tents or hammocks to sleep in overnight. This depends on your personal comfort levels and how much space you have in your vehicle. 


Car camping trips can be as long or short as you would like. You might have also heard longer trips being referred to as ‘van life’.


While this title most typically applies to people and pups traveling in – you guessed it –  vans, it can also be applied to pretty much anyone who car camps for prolonged periods of time, regardless of their vehicle.


The Best Vehicle For Car Camping With Dogs

The best vehicle for car camping with dogs is the one that you already have! While car camping might be more comfortable in a bigger vehicle, it certainly isn’t impossible in a smaller one. 


car camping with a dog in a desertThere are plenty of ways to get creative with your set-up and make a smaller car work, even with multiple dogs. If squeezing in the back will be too tight of a fit, why not invest in a rooftop tent or car tent extension? These can be used to open up the trunk of the car and create space with the illusion of still being ‘inside’ the vehicle. 


Still eager for an upgrade? A van, truck, or even an RV, can all make for comfortable sleeping spaces that can easily accommodate multiple dogs.


Car Camping Vs Other Types Of Camping

There really is a camping style for any explorer. Depending on your personal preferences, fitness level, and how comfortable you are outdoors, you might also enjoy:


Tent Camping

woman and dog camping under a tentArrive at your campground by vehicle and enjoy nature from the comfort of your tent. This is likely the most popular form of camping, and goes hand-in-hand with car camping! 


Tent camping can be as rough or as luxurious as you’re willing to make it. You can choose to take nothing but your tent, or bump up your comfort levels with inclusions like portable personal showers and pop-up kitchens.



glamping roomGlamping is perfect for every member of the family. If you and your pup love spending time outdoors but also feel like a good night’s rest comes from a proper bed, then this is your solution. Some glamping set-ups even include boutique outdoor showers and hot tubs under the stars.


Glamping and car camping can go hand-in-hand if you have a cozy van set up or a customizable RV.


Primitive Camping

primitive camping with a dog by a bonfirePrimitive camping, or ‘free camping’, won’t appeal to every camper. It’s best undertaken by campers with lots of experience and strong survival skills. Primitive camping involves setting up wherever your boots take you, rather than at dedicated managed campgrounds.


Often paired with longer hikes and navigation activities, its challenging nature makes for a great bonding experience for you and your dog.



group of friends backpacking with a dogBackpacking is great fun with dogs and perfect for those who love the wilderness. Unlike car camping, there is no vehicle involved at all.


Campers set out on foot to find that perfect spot, or pitch a tent at specific rest stops overnight while tackling longer trails. It involves limited supplies and lots of time outdoors. 


Backpacking is somewhat similar to primitive camping, although there are some notable differences. Unlike primitive camping, backpackers may choose to hike in to designated campsites with facilities, rather than setting up in solely remote locations.


The Peaks And Valleys Of Car Camping

Peaks and valleys, highs and lows, pros and cons. Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, let’s take a look at the best and worst parts of car camping.



Initial Costs

car camping with a dog at night timeIf you’re considering car camping, you likely already have access to a car. This means that, for beginners, the starting costs of car camping are very minimal. Even the smallest of cars can be used for dog-friendly camping if you pack minimally and prepare properly. 


While you still will need to purchase items for cooking, you won’t have the large initial outlay of a tent to worry about.



While there are many waterproof hammocks and tents on the market, nothing says ‘weatherproof’ quite like steel does. 


If you’ll be camping in an area with extreme temperatures, car camping also means you’ll have access to electricity, no matter where you choose to set up. There are many great heating and cooling options available that can be plugged directly into your car via an adaptor. 



car camping with a dog on the roadOne of the biggest benefits of car camping is that there is no pack-up required. While this makes for an easy trip, it also provides peace of mind in an emergency. 


Whether you need to evacuate due to a forest fire or just feel unsafe, you can buckle in your pup and climb into the front seat without needing to leave your car or pull down a tent. This makes car camping a great choice for solo campers.




While camping will always be more affordable than a traditional holiday, car camping can still add up. On top of campground booking costs, you also need to account for gas costs. 


If you will be off-roading, consider as well the cost of potential damages that may occur and need to be repaired. Higher insurance costs are another hidden expense that can creep up. 


Car camping can also be a little bit addictive (trust us). While not a necessity, you might eventually find yourself wanting to upgrade to a bigger car or higher-quality gear. 



man car camping with his dogIt can be hard to maintain privacy when all of your walls are dominated by windows. If you and your pup will be sleeping in your car every night, consider investing in window shades or pop-up curtains for your windows. 


Leaving windows uncovered might prompt your dog to bark at other campers passing by, or could even pose a security risk. 


Less Space For Other Gear

If it’s just you and your pooch in the car, the backseats provide valuable storage space for the gear and equipment that always seems to spawn out of nowhere when camping. If you need to fold down the seats to sleep, however, you’ll lose that bit of extra room. 


Luckily, this is easily overcome by investing in roof racks, using your car and a tent, or simply packing less. It’s just something to keep in mind while planning your trip.


Planning Your Pet-Friendly Car Camping Trip

Location, Location, Location

One of the most exciting parts of camping is finding that perfect location. A place where you and your dog can relax and spend some quality time together, surrounded by nature. 


When choosing your location, consider these factors:



How close is the campground to your starting point? If you’re only taking a quick weekend trip, consider how much time you want to spend driving versus how much time you want to spend at your destination.


This will vary depending on your travel style. If you and your dog both love the car, then the prospect of a six-hour round trip might sound exciting! If you don’t want to spend half the weekend in the car, however, you might be better off choosing a campground that is a little bit closer to home. 



woman car camping with a dog while watching sunriseThe best thing about camping is that it can be done anywhere. Depending on where you live, you might be lucky enough to have many different environments on your doorstep. 


Take some time to think over your preferences and decide what you would like to see. Do you prefer a peaceful spot in the mountains or a family-friendly campground by the lake? Different environments will require different pieces of equipment, so keep that in mind also. 



Tying into this, many campgrounds are seasonal. Availability, accessibility, and recreational activities can all be impacted by the time of year that you visit. To ensure the best trip for you and your dog, choose a campground that is appropriate for the season you’ll be visiting in.


For example, a trip to Joshua Tree might be too hot for your dog in the peak of summer. A winter trip will be more appropriate for most breeds. 


How Long to Stay

car camping with a dogSome avid campers choose to take extended breaks from work (or even quit) and camp their way around the country full-time! Others sneak in an overnight trip whenever they can, taking advantage of long weekends and sneaky sick days.


What your car camping trip looks like is completely up to you. That’s the beauty of it!


How long you choose to camp for will depend on your schedule, your enthusiasm, and the amount of supplies you can fit in your car. You’ll also need to consider how willing your dog is to be away for an extended period of time – are they a total homebody, or will they be just as happy curled up by a fire as they would be at home with their favorite toy?


Choosing A Dog-Friendly Campground

Planning Your Stops

Car camping with your dog means adding an extra layer of preparation to your trip. It’s much more risky to just show up at a campground without any prior research, not knowing if they are dog-friendly or if you’ll be left scrabbling for another place to stay. 


If going where the road takes you is what you love most about camping, a good compromise is to find a small list of pet-friendly campgrounds in the immediate area. This means you’ll never be left with nowhere to stay.


While it does take away some of the spontaneity that makes car camping so special, the company more than makes up for it. 


Types Of Campgrounds

Public Campgrounds

camping chairs and bonfire in a public campgroundPublic campgrounds are some of the most popular. They include camps managed by national parks, state parks, and forest reserves. Depending on your state, you may find that a fair few of these are actually dog-friendly!


While dogs are not permitted in most national parks, campgrounds and specific paved trails are often exceptions to this. 


These campgrounds are usually well-maintained and cared for. Depending on their location, they will have a variety of amenities available. 


Private Campgrounds

Privately-owned campgrounds are dog-friendly at their discretion. Given the recent popularity of camping with pets, more and more are opening up to dogs. 


Private campgrounds often pop up around popular tourist destinations. Offering a variety of sites, amenities, and price points, they’re a fantastic way to explore some of the country’s most beautiful spots with your dog.


RV Parks

RV Parks are usually located just outside of major towns, making them a great jumping point for day trips and other adventures. They don’t always have that ‘in touch with nature’ feeling, but that doesn’t mean you should cross them off of your list. Many are dog-friendly and will take car campers, so they can be a great backup option if you find yourself in a pinch. 


Campground Etiquette: Tips And Tricks From An Experienced Camper

Follow  ‘Leave No Trace’ Principles

There is one common piece of etiquette that any good car camper should follow, and that is the  ‘leave no trace’ ideology. The idea behind this phrase is that campers should leave sites exactly as they found them. For car camping, this involves:


  • Sticking to established roads (paved or dirt) and sites when arriving and setting up.
  • Properly disposing of trash, including dog waste and leftover food items.
  • Leaving the environment as it was on arrival. This means no removing or rearranging rocks, sticks, or plant life. 
  • Respecting local wildlife.
  • Caring for your vehicle. Avoiding and preventing gas and oil leaks, as well as cleaning up appropriately when required. 


car camping with siberian husky dogLeaving no trace preserves campsites for other campers and future generations. It’s especially important for campers with dogs.


While one person not following the rules might not have a large impact, multiple dog owners ignoring common camping etiquette means there is a high chance that pets will no longer be permitted in certain spots. This is a loss for the local environment and other doggy campers.


Observe Noise Restrictions And Quiet Hours

Almost all campsites enforce noise restrictions and designated quiet hours – for good reason!  They provide a peaceful environment for all campers and protect the routines of native animals.


For car campers with dogs, quiet hours can be a little tricky. You will need to make sure that your pet is not making unnecessary noise during these times, which can be difficult in busy areas. You should also avoid running your car engine during these periods. 


Be Considerate of Surrounding Campsites

This is fairly simple: avoid parking too close to other campsites, do not walk through other campers’ spots, do not allow your dog to wander through other sites, and definitely do not let your dog do their business on other sites!


Essentially, respect the space of others. If you wouldn’t do it to your neighbor at home, don’t do it to your neighbors at the campsite.


Common Camping Rules For Dogs

couple car camping with dogsRules for dogs will vary from campsite to campsite, although you will find that most have similar requirements. 


Dogs will often need to remain on leash and are not usually allowed to be left unattended. As in any public place, you will need to dispose of your pup’s waste appropriately. This will vary depending on location – campsites in bear country have specific guidelines for disposing of doggy bags, for example. 


If you are unsure, it’s always best to call the campsite and ask. It’s better to be prepared than to find you and your dog in an uncomfortable, or even unsafe, situation.


Fun Activities For Dogs While Car Camping

Car camping means lots of spare space… which means more room for activities!


If you find yourself with a little extra room, why not pack a fun activity to try with your dog? Some camping-compatible ideas include:



The Best Gear For Car Camping With A Dog

You’ve chosen an awe-inspiring spot and have a plethora of activities planned for you and your pups. Go ahead and grab your bags, it’s time to put your plan in motion!


Sleep Essentials For Car Camping

A good night’s sleep can make or break a camping trip. This is especially true for a car camping trip, where you can expect to be doing a fair amount of driving. There are a few different pieces of gear that you can choose from to create the perfect portable bedroom for you and your dog:


Inflatable car mattress

With designs to fit a variety of cars, inflatable car mattresses slip easily into the backseat for maximum comfort. Choose a single, double, or even a queen-sized mattress to accommodate for you and your dog. If you would like to simplify your sleeping arrangements even further, a self-inflating mattress will make all the difference.


Sleeping mat

Sleeping mats are more lightweight than inflatable mattresses, making them a more practical option for campers who are tight on space. They provide a cushioned surface that can be rolled over car seats to increase their comfort.


Usually made of foam, it makes them easy to clean and simple to store in between uses. They are susceptible to pet claws, however.


Rooftop tent

If your back seats are fully loaded, a rooftop tent could be the solution you are looking for. Simpler to set up than a standard tent, rooftop tents are fitted to the top of the vehicle and expand outwards when opened. 


They are accessed by a ladder, making them a little trickier to use with dogs, but not impossible. If you’re traveling with a smaller dog in a little vehicle, a rooftop tent is likely going to be ideal for you. 


If your companion is a larger breed, don’t strike a rooftop tent off of your list just yet. Some options come with additional ground annexes attached to the main tent. If your dog doesn’t mind their own space, setting their sleeping quarters up in this spot is a simple solution to the ladder issue.


Sleeping bag

Specifically designed to save space, sleeping bags are much more compact than blankets and are a must for any camper. Nylon and polyester are the most common materials on the market, and there are a wide variety of sizes and prints to choose from. Sharing a sleeping bag with your dog is one of the best parts of camping together (as well as a great way to keep cozy on colder nights).


Heated blanket

If you’re looking for a luxurious touch, a heated blanket will make for a great addition to your packing list. Perfect for winter, car camping allows you to plug a heated blanket directly into your vehicle. While they can be a fire risk and you should avoid running them while you’re sleeping, heated blankets make chilly mornings a little bit easier for everybody.



Short on room? Inflatable pillows strike the perfect balance of being comfortable and saving space.


Essential Cooking Equipment When Car Camping

There’s a certain magic that comes with preparing your meal outdoors. Nothing can quite compare to comfort food that has been carefully prepared in a camp kitchen. To keep your produce fresh and your meals warm, however, you’ll need a few essentials:


Camp stove

A portable camp stove is the simplest way to heat and cook your food while car camping. From heating soup to searing steak, a portable camping stove will expand your meal options far beyond dry food bags and trail mix. 


Camp stoves are lightweight and versatile, making them a must-have addition to any trip. They come in a variety of sizes and cater to everyone, from large groups to solo campers.


Portable fire pit

If you are a more traditional camper, you might also like to consider cooking on a portable fire pit with a grill attachment.


Whether or not your campground allows fire pits will depend on the season and weather patterns. Check all guidelines in advance, or risk not having any way to heat your food.


Cooking utensils

A high-quality set of cooking utensils are worth their weight in gold while camping. Essentials include items such as tongs, can openers, bottle openers, and spatulas. 


For durability, opt for sets that are made from stainless steel or heat-resistant nylon. While they can be bulky and are heavier than plastic alternatives, the jump in quality is certainly worth it.



A reliable cooler is the only way to safely store perishable items on a multi-day trip. There are many compact coolers on the market these days, so don’t feel you need to skip the cooler if you are short on space. Even a smaller design should be enough to fit at least a few fresh fruits or vegetables. 


Opt for a design with a sealed lid to prevent leaks. It is common for coolers to shift around while car camping, and the last thing you want is a spill on the same seat where you’re supposed to be sleeping!



Forget the plastic cutlery and invest in a set of high-quality plates, knives, and forks at a minimum. It’s better for the environment and you don’t have to worry about anything getting bent out of shape on the journey.


Camping table

Camping tables provide a comfortable place to prepare meals. Not only do they save you some discomfort, but they also help prevent bugs and other animals (or certain cheeky dogs) from finding their way into your food, as they keep all of your essential items elevated off of the ground.


No extra room? If you don’t mind making yourself comfortable on the ground, a picnic blanket and small folding tray are space-saving alternatives that add a certain amount of rustic charm to eating amongst nature.


Must-Have Gear For Dogs When Car Camping

Choosing the best camping gear for your dog can be overwhelming. After hours of research and endless testing, we’ve narrowed down our packing list to the best of the best. Read more about the best dog camping gear available in 2024 here.

Final Thoughts: Car Camping With Dogs

From choosing the right vehicle, to selecting the perfect campground, to packing the right gear – camping requires careful preparation. Don’t let this dissuade you, however. Following this simple guide will make car camping with dogs as easy as can be – happy camping!