7 Steps to Managing Car Camping Stuff for Good

When it comes to managing car camping stuff, the experts are doing it wrong!

The so-called experts are obsessed with checklists, labeling, sorting, grouping, selecting, arranging, and wasting time in general.  Nothing says, “I suck at adventure!” like a color-coded three-ring binder. I do not want to have a Marie Kondo-style catharsis every time I head out to nature.

My approach to managing car camping stuff allows you to think less, keep it simple, and hit the road in record time. You will have dedicated bins for camping that you never sort through at home.  You will not spend hours painstakingly packing single items into your vehicle.

Managing Car Camping Stuff overview:

  1. Determine what you typically need on car camping trips.
  2. Get it all together (household items not allowed).
  3. Determine what storage you will need. 
  4. Organize your storage into broad categories.
  5. Hit the road! Stop thinking! Drop the clipboard! Do it! Do it, now!
  6. Pack up properly at the end of the trip so that you do not need to go through your gear later.
  7. Make a note of any consumable supplies that are getting low.

7 Steps to Managing Car Camping Stuff for Good

1: Determine what you typically need on car camping trips.

Think like a doomsday prepperIf you had ten minutes to load your car and peel out of the driveway in the shadow of a radioactive mushroom cloud, what would you want to have packed and ready to go?  This perspective will help you manage your car camping stuff.

At this point, you are allowed to make a camping checklist.  After all, this should be the last checklist you ever make for camping.  You will note that I am not including clothing, food, medications, or personal electronics; your “suitcase items” do not belong in your camping gear.

Car Camping Checklist

(Note: You may not need everything on this list.)

Managing car camping stuff selecting

  • Shelter
    • Tent (probably not going in a bin)
    • Extra tarp / rain fly
    • Shade structure
    • Bug net (depending on where you camp)
  • Health and Safety
  • Food and Water
    • Water purification (Keeping some iodine tablets as a back-up is a good idea.)
    • Water storage
    • Basic cookware and utensils (This can be as minimal as a mess kit and some sporks.)
    • Cooking stove (See my post 8 Car Camping Cooking Options to think about what works best for you.)
    • Fire starting (I like to have more than one option for this.)
    • Camping sink (A small bin can serve double duty.)
    • Cleaning stuff (a well-sealed container of dish soap and a scrubber)
  • Bedding
    • Padding
    • Sleeping bags
    • Extra blankets (Tip: Tie these up in a roll so that they can be pillows when you are warm enough.)
  • Tools
  • Creature comforts
    • Hammock (This is by far my favorite creature comfort.  A camping hammock is a worthwhile investment.)
    • Camp chairs
    • Air mattress
  • Consumables
    • Garbage bags
    • Paper towels / toilet paper
    • Tin foil
    • Baggies
    • Fire starters
  • Recreation / Fun
    • Cards, toys, games, etc.

Things that will not be going in your dedicated car camping bins including clothing, food, water, medications, and towels.

2: Get it all together (household items not allowed).

camping stuff from the thrift store
A thrift store is a great place to get stuff for camping.  Check out my post of Thrift Store Tips.

Acquire all of your camping gear.  Do not take the frying pan from the kitchen or the flashlights from the garage.  This gear will be for camping only.  Visit the dollar store, the thrift store, or wherever and get what you need.

It may seem wasteful to have duplicate items, but it will save you time.  Managing car camping stuff once and for all is far superior to running around the house with checklists for every camping trip.  Besides, a perfect frying pan for camping is different from your perfect everyday frying pan.

3: Determine what storage you will need.

camping storage totes.jpg

Lay out all of your camping stuff on a large surface.  Try to visualize how much storage you will need to hold it all. Are you a camping minimalist or camping maximum-ist? If you have specific kits (for first aid, cooking, etc.), contain these first before deciding what you need to hold it all.

For my wife and I, we can keep all of our camping stuff in two large lockers and one extra tote.  We pack our clothes, food, and dog stuff separately.

Figure out the number, size, and type of bins that you will need for managing your car camping stuff.

  • What size bins will work for your vehicle?
  • How much do you want to carry at once?
  • Do you want wheels?
  • What measurements would be ideal?
  • Will your storage be exposed to wind and rain?
  • Will they have weight on them?
  • Should they be stack-able?
  • Will the bins also serve as seats or tables?

managing car camping stuff dog

The large bins that I use (shown above) have worked nicely.  They fit on my roof rack, include latches, are sturdy enough to sit on, and can be left out in the rain.  The wheels are nice, but I find it uncomfortable to roll them long distances because the handle ends up being too low (even though I am pretty short).

Plano heavy-duty sportman’s trunk (shown) on amazon

Basic, budget roof rack on amazon

Low-profile camping chairs on amazon

4: Organize your storage bins into broad categories.

One drawback of this approach to managing car camping stuff is that you can end up looking through multiple totes when you want to find something.  It is best to organize the containers into broad categories.  Once you have reached your final decision on the categories, label the bins.

Since I have three containers, I organize them thus:

  • Bedding and shelter (large tote)
  • Food and water (large tote)
  • Everything else (small tote)

5: Hit the road! Stop thinking! Step away from the clipboard! Do it! Do it, now!

managing car camping stuff for travel
If the dogs are coming on the trip, the totes go on the roof.

Now it is time for your simplification to pay off.  You do not need to spend time the night before or wake up too early. You have managed your camping stuff well enough so that that you can throw your gear in the car and take off.

Since your storage has been planned with your vehicle in mind, you do not need to play the game of car camping tetris that “the experts” recommend.  Packing your car piecemeal is a waste of time and you end up with a disorganized mess soon after arrival.

Preparing for camping becomes as easy as heading off to a hotel.  You only need to pack clothes and personal effects.  Everything else is already packed.  You may discover managing car camping stuff this way makes you more inclined to go camping.

6: Pack up properly at the end of the trip.

Car camping cooking options sink
This toolbox holds cookware and serves as sink.

To ensure that you do not need go through your camping stuff at home, put everything away properly.  Do not come home with a garbage bag full of dirty dishes.  Do not put soaking-wet gear into the storage totes.

Your goal is to store everything well when you leave camp.  When you get home, drop your bins where they belong, and resume your life.

7: Make a note of consumable supplies that are getting low.

You do not want to get to your campsite only to realize that you do not have paper towels, dish soap, or other consumables.  Do your future self a favor by taking a quick note during your camping trip.

Write down any supplies that are getting low.  Tape this note to your camping bins when you get home so that you will not have a frustrating surprise next month.  Rather than opening your totes to refill them, just take a bag of what needs to be added on your next trip.

Consumable items that might be in your camping kit:

  • Hand sanitizer
  • Dish soap
  • Paper plates / bowls
  • Paper towels / napkins / tissues / toilet paper
  • Tin foil
  • First aid supplies
  • Fire starters
  • Cooking fuel
  • Batteries
  • Plastic bags (large and small)
  • Zip ties
  • Rope
  • Cooking oil

But what if I need different gear for different camping trips?

managing car camping stuff featured

It is true that you will have different needs for different camping trips.  Most campers like some variety.  Sometimes you are camping by a lake, sometimes you have no facilities, sometimes you are camping in the cold, and so on.

Your camping needs will vary.  Nevertheless, you can make your life easier by containing your standard, go-to camping stuff.  My method for managing car camping stuff is built around what will want available on a typical trip.

Store the “sometimes” camping gear near the standard camping gear so that you can grab the additions easily.

Related post: Car Camping without the Campground

Conclusions on Managing Car Camping Stuff

If you love the idea of creating checklists, sorting items by category on the garage floor, tiny plastic drawers, firing up your favorite label maker, etc., then my approach to managing car camping stuff is not for you.

If you would rather not spend your time organizing, checking, and packing, simply use dedicated storage that is only opened during your camping life.  Organize your gear once, and be done with it.

The obvious drawback of this approach to managing car camping stuff is that you have duplicates.  You have an extra frying pan in your camping stuff, extra flashlights in your camping stuff, etc.  I am OK with keeping extra stuff if it saves me time and frustration when I am ready to go camping.

Check out my post 12 Tips for Car Camping after Flying if your travels are taking you farther afield.

Read more of my posts on Car Camping.

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