On the left, a woman sits in the back of her camper van. On the right, a mother and child stand outside their tent in the middle of the forest. 

Car Camping vs. Tent Camping:
Which Type Is Best for You?

Whether you’re sleeping in a cozy tent or a comfy SUV, this guide will help you dial in your sleeping setup
When it comes to where to sleep while camping, most people think of a tent. But your vehicle can make great sleeping quarters too, especially if you want to add some extra comfort or make it a “glamping” trip. And you don’t need to be an RV camper or “vanlifer” to make it happen (although that type of camping is lots of fun too). Sleeping comfortably in a vehicle doesn’t require a fancy truck or a customized overlanding SUV either—with a little ingenuity, even a two-door hatchback can become the perfect sleeping abode. (Car camping pro tip: Sleep with your head toward the front of your vehicle so you’re not fighting with the wheel well for space.)

To help you prepare for camping season, we’ve put together a guide on car camping versus tent camping with some tips for each type.
A man adjusts camping lighting on the back of his vehicle in a scenic forest campsite. 

Car Camping

Some people consider “car camping” to mean sleeping in a tent at a campground with your car close by—as opposed to backpacking where you venture far from your vehicle. But for the sake of this article, we are defining “car camping” as sleeping inside your vehicle rather than a tent.

Tent Camping

The term “tent camping” is a little more self-explanatory—anytime you’re sleeping in a tent, that’s tent camping. It could be near your car at a campsite or out in the wilderness, far away from parking lots and trailheads.
 A woman gets a campfire started in the forest as a man walks in front of the tent behind her.

What’s the setup like for car camping vs. tent camping?

Most tents can be set up in about 15 minutes or less. But first you must find a good spot, preferably one that's flat and free of rocks and other debris. Once the tent has been erected, you’ll need to lay out your sleeping bags and pads, and bring in your supplies. Sleeping in your car can be quicker, depending on the type of vehicle you have. Some setups might involve folding the seats down and spreading out a camping mattress, and prepping your sleeping bags and pillows. On the other hand, if you have a van, truck, or SUV with enough space, it might be as easy as finding a place to park.

Car vs. tent: pros and cons


A tent will likely give you a bit more room to spread out—depending on the size of your tent, of course. Sleeping in a tent also leaves more room in your vehicle for camping gear, like coolers and camp stoves. When you sleep in your car, a lot of your storage space will be taken up by your sleeping area, so you’ll have to get more creative when packing. The same goes if you’re planning to backpack to your tent camping spot, since you can only bring as much as you can carry.

Camping tip: A good list of camping hacks can help you make the most of whatever space you have, whether in a car or tent.


Your degree of comfort largely comes down to personal preference and how you set up your sleeping area. Some campers prefer the warmth and security of a closed vehicle, whereas other folks want to be closer to the sounds of nature. As long as your vehicle is big enough for you to lie down fully, both setups have the potential to be equally comfortable. (But if you can’t fully recline in your car, a tent will likely be the best option.) Many vehicles have room for full-sized sleeping mattresses, which can sometimes be more appealing than the thinner sleeping pads often used in tents.

Weather Protection

Although today’s high-quality tents do an excellent job of keeping you dry and protected from the elements, it’s hard to beat a fully sealed-off car if you run into inclement weather. If you want to stay completely dry while camping in the rain, a vehicle might be your best bet. In addition to rain and wind protection, it offers insulation that will keep you warmer on cooler nights or during winter camping trips. And in extreme conditions, vehicles also have the added convenience of providing heat or A/C, though either should be used sparingly, both to save gas and protect the environment. (Camping tip: Keep your windows cracked for proper ventilation to avoid condensation buildup, but remember insect netting to keep bugs from coming in with the fresh air.)
A woman in a car laughs in the driver’s seat as she reads a map while a man in the back seat reaches an arm forward. 

What should I bring car camping?

While much of your camping gear will be the same for both car camping and tent camping, there are some extra items you may want to consider when sleeping in your car:
  • A solar charger or rechargeable power pack. While portable chargers are nice to have when tent camping, they’re extra helpful for car camping because they will help you resist the urge to use your vehicle to charge or power electronics, which can run down the battery—leaving it dead and you stranded. (Camping tip: Bringing plenty of headlamps and battery-powered lights is another way to help you avoid draining your car battery.)
  • Window coverings. While a car provides safety and protection, windows don’t offer the same personal privacy that a tent does. Not only will covering the windows give you privacy, it will also help further insulate your car if you’re camping in the cold.
Whether you’re in a car or tent, never be without the Ten Essentials:
  • Navigation—map, compass, GPS
  • Headlamp (with batteries)
  • Sun protection—sunscreen, sunglasses, sun hat
  • First aid kit
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Lighter or matches
  • Emergency shelter—bivy sack
  • Extra food
  • Extra water
  • Extra clothing

Car or tent: which one is right for you?

While either car or tent can both be fine sleeping options, there are times when one is clearly the better choice. If you have more people than vehicle sleeping space, you’ll obviously need a tent. Camping alone? You may want to opt for the security of your locked vehicle. Need to set up quickly and head out early to reach your next destination? Sleeping in your car will get you back on the road that much faster. You get the idea. Let your circumstances and personal preferences decide and you’re sure to be well rested and ready for the next day’s adventure.
Ready to go camping? Check out Columbia’s camping gear.