Tips for Car Camping after Flying

I strongly recommend car camping after flying as an option for your next travel adventure.  This approach allows you to get the most out of your car rental, stay closer to your outdoor destinations, and save money on accommodations.

For my approach to car camping after flying, you will use one or more large, checked suitcases that contain camping gear only.  Your carry-on luggage will hold your clothes and personal effects.

Here are my 12 tips for car camping after flying:

1) Don’t bother with shipping your camping gear.

Shipping camping gear

Unless you have friends or family at your destination, shipping your gear ahead of time has way too many complications.  Furthermore, you might not even save any money.  Do you really want to end your trip trying to repackage your gear and trying to drop it off?

If you are determined to ship your gear, there are many options available, but each has its complications.  Unless you already know which overland shipping option works for you, forget about it.

2) Plan on checking suitcases for car camping after flying.

Flying with camping gear

Much of your camping gear is not allowed in carry-on.  Keep it simple by containing all of your camping gear in checked baggage.  I will discuss items that cannot fly at all toward the end of this post.

Even though checking bags can get expensive, this is still the best approach for car camping after flying.  If you choose appropriate luggage and follow the airline’s rules, it will be easy.  The money that you are going to save on accommodations will more than compensate for the cost of one or two checked bags.

Different airlines have frustratingly unique rules.  For example, Spirit Airlines wants your checked bag to be under 40 lbs as compared to the standard 50 lbs.  Furthermore, airline fees for additional bags are often different (e.g., United Airlines: $30, $40, $150, and so on).

Table of airline baggage fees on TripAdvisor

Generally speaking, if your single camping suitcase is smaller than 62″, and less than 50 pounds, you can expect to pay about $30.

3) Set a weight limit in an increment of 50 lbs.

Minimal campsite
You can be very comfortable without a ton of gear.

When my wife and I go car camping from home, we probably bring 200 lbs of gear (not including our pudgy pups).  When we fly to our car camping trip, we limit ourselves to a single, 50-pound suitcase that is camping gear only.   If we upped our personal limit to two 50-pound suitcases, we could bring tiny camp chairs, a collapsible cooler, upgraded cookware, etc.

Remember that our clothes and personal items are our carry-on baggage.

If you have kids or want more comforts, a 100-lb limit is very reasonable. (Don’t forget to check the fee structure of the specific airline.)

4) Choose the right luggage for car camping after flying.

camping suitcase for flying
4.5 pounds to spare!

A large, beat-up suitcase is what you want.  Do not ruin a nice suitcase by dragging it around in the dirt and filling it with grubby gear. Do not make yourself miserable by lugging around a flimsy 50-lb box or plastic tote.  A large duffel bag is too disorganized and may not protect your gear.

When you are making your way to the car rental counter, you will be glad to have some wheels or, at least, a decent handle.  In addition, a typical, clam-shell style suitcase keeps your gear accessible and organized in the backseat or trunk.

You can find plenty of candidates for a camping suitcase at the Goodwill or other thrift store.  Look for something that is large (up to 62 inches) and sturdy enough to hold the weight.  This purchase will pay for itself in a single trip, but I hope you can use it on multiple trips.

5) Ditch your massive glamping tent.

As hard as it is to give up your 8-person camp mansion, I still recommend it.  You want something that fits easily into your camping suitcase.  My wife and I pare down to a two-person tent for car camping after flying.

Check the price of a two-person tent on amazon.

If you are worried about feeling cramped during inclement weather or down-time, consider packing an additional shelter.  You can create a comfortable lounge shelter with a tarp, some rope, and maybe some bug netting.  This will still save you a lot of space in your camping suitcase.

You could choose to sleep in the rental car itself, but make sure that you are upgrading to a vehicle that will be comfortable.  If this is your plan, I definitely recommend that you include a separate daytime shelter so that you do not feel boxed-in.

6) When it comes to bedding, think like a backpacker.

You have probably realized that if you already have camping gear for backpacking, you have a real advantage in packing for car camping after flying.  The minimal sleeping pad and stuff-able sleeping bag will fit easily.

Depending on your personal requirements and where you are headed, you might be able to get by with a couple of yoga mats, a comforter, and a space blanket.

I do not know what will work best for you, but remember that this is not a life or death situation.  If worse comes to worst, you can get in the car and turn on the heater (or even admit defeat and head to a hotel).

7) Make sure your camp stove is allowed on a flight.

Car camping cooking options BioLite
My Biolite stove is cleared for takeoff.

It is probably obvious that your camp stove fuel is not allowed anywhere on the plane.  Your camp stove is only allowed on the plane if it is completely free of fuel and fumes.  If there is any scent of fuel, forget about it.

Option 1: Clean your stove impeccably and buy fuel when you get there.

Option 2: Leave your camp stove behind and use the campfire.

Option 3: Use a biomass (twigs and such) stove with no battery.

Check the price of biofuel (no battery) camp stove on amazon.

Option 4: Use a battery-accelarated biomass stove like the Biolite.

I love my Biolite stove, and the integrated battery is allowed in checked baggage since it is less than the 100 watt-hour maximum.  The TSA has detailed rules for batteries.

Check the price on the Biolite CampStove 2 on amazon.

If you want to read more on this topic, check out my post on Car Camping Cooking Options.

8) Include some luxury along the way.

The cheapest method of car camping after flying is to stick to dispersed camping and forgo amenities completely.  This is a bit too extreme for me.  I at least want to “splurge” on a campground occasionally to get cleaned up, do some laundry, etc.

I personally like to camp cheap for a few nights and then splurge on fancy hotel.  After all, I am still coming out ahead on the budget.  Nothing feels more luxurious than a spa treatment or fancy restaurant after roughing it in the wild.

9) Do not select “hike-in” campsites.

The approach that I am describing is not conducive to moving your gear down the trail.  You are relying heavily on your rental car as your base of operations. It is acting as your storage locker, your bear box, your generator, and maybe even your sleeping shelter.

In making your plans, make sure that none of you campsites require you to hike-in.

10) Use an improvised cooler for car camping after flying.

Car camping after flying cooler

Your favorite car camping cooler is definitely not going to make the cut, so how are you going to keep your perishables cool?

Improvised cooler options:

  • A cheap cooler that you can donate at the end of the trip
  • A disposable Styrofoam cooler
  • An insulated grocery bag (found at most supermarkets)
  • The redneck special: You will need a large box, a smaller box, some newspaper, and a heavy-duty trash bag.  Crumple up the newspaper and line the bottom of the big box.  Place the small box on the layer of newspaper balls.  Surround the interior box with crumpled newspapers.  Line the interior box with the garbage bag.  Add ice and a lid.

11) Make yourself comfortable with some small upgrades.

Hammock next to a tent
This hammock is must on our camping trips.

Car camping after flying need not be miserable. Think about the little items that will make you happy in your travels. My favorite tiny upgrade is a camping hammock.  It takes up almost no space is as comfortable as the couch.  Depending on where you are headed, a shade-structure or bug net might make the difference.

Check the price of large bug net on amazon.

Check the price of travel hammock on amazon.

12) Renting camping gear is a an option, but I don’t recommend it.

There are basically two ways to rent camping gear when you are flying to your camping destination.  Both ways are expensive and add unnecessary complications to your trip.  You have to deal with picking up, dropping off, and fussing with unfamiliar gear.

You can rent from a place that will send the gear to wherever you are headed. This is fraught with some of the same complications as shipping your own gear.

A better option is to visit a brick-and-mortar service like REI or EMS, but you have to make sure that they have a convenient location for your travels.  Also, a look at the price lists shows that the rental fees will add up in a hurry.

There are some camping items that you cannot bring on a plane.

You will have to double check that the gear in your camping suitcase is allowed. Here is a brief list of some common camping items that are prohibited by the TSA:

  • Bear spray (no option)
  • Cooking spray (no option)
  • Matches (safety matches are allowed for carry on only)
  • Disposable lighters (carry on allowed)
  • All flammable fuels / gels (no option)
  • Fire extinguisher (no option for compressed gasses)

Tips for Car Camping after Flying conclusion

I hope that the airline and security requirements do not dissuade you.  I have never had any problems with my checked camping gear.  If you follow these tips, your common sense, and the baggage rules, your trip will go smoothly.

Car camping after flying is a wonderful option for people that want to get out in some unfamiliar locales without spending a fortune.  If car camping is you jam, check out my other posts on car camping.

Using Tarps for Camping Tents

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