How To Go Camping With A Small Car

small car for camping

Family camping with a small car is tricky but with some careful packing it can be done and the bonus is that as there’s little room, you don’t end up packing things you don’t need.

So how do you go camping with a small car? You’ll need a roof box or, if your car is powerful enough, a trailer. Clear out your car completely before your trip and make use of every space inside, including under the seats, the footwells and in the door pockets. Pack soft, squash-able items at the bottom, heavier items on top.

We have a pretty small car – a Peugeot 208 – but after several family camping trips, we’ve perfected the art of packing everything in, you can find out more about how we do this below.


Use a roof box or a trailer

Sadly a trailer isn’t an option for our car as we don’t have a tow-bar and it’s only a 1.2 engine so car barely get up steep hills in second year at the best of times. But if your car is small and has enough power for a trailer then this is one of the best options for taking more stuff camping with you. If you don’t have room to store a trailer then you could always borrow or hire one. And don’t forget there are speed restrictions for towing a trailer in the UK:

  • maximum 60mph on motorways and dual carriageways
  • maximum 50mph on other types of roads

A roof box is a great idea for most cars – you’ll just have to consider the weight (every car has a roof loading limit and you’ll need to include the weight of the roof bars within this limit) and the capacity of the box.

Decide what you want to pack in the roof box before deciding on what capacity you need. It’s better to pack lighter items in the roof box so as not to overload the acceptable loading limit and to make sure your car isn’t unbalanced. Bulky but lighter items such as your sleeping bags, chairs, extra blankets and air beds or mats are ideal for packing in a roof box.

Don’t forget to lock the roof box before you set off or your belongings will be scattered in a trail behind you!


Clear out your car before you start packing

The first thing to do is clear out your car. We did this before a recent camping trip and I’m ashamed to say we filled a carrier bag full of rubbish and also found items such as a kids’ crash helmet, wellies, empty cans of de-icer, old socks, an empty sippy cup and lots of toys in the boot and under the seats.

Just cleaning the car out gave us a lot more space and meant that every available area, including the glove box, footwells and door pockets, could be used for camping gear.


Remove your car’s parcel shelf

Removing your car’s parcel shelf will give you a little extra room for stacking items in your boot. However, you’ll still need to be able to see out of the back window so don’t get too carried away and pack it up to the roof.

You can either store the parcel shelf at home, or if you’re worried about car security on the campsite, you can side it behind the back of the backseats and pop it back in place once you’ve unpacked at the campsite.


Prioritise your essential camping kit

A good strong tent, self inflating mats, decent sleeping bags and pillows are really the top priority for a camping trip as getting a good night sleep will ensure everyone enjoys the trip as much as possible. I would personally sacrifice taking things such as a foldable table in place of a decent sleeping bag and mat for every member of the family.

Other essentials that you probably can’t leave at home are:

  • something to cook with – a portable gas stove with two hobs or one hob and a grill, plus spare gas canisters and a kettle and foldable pans. Also pack a sharp knife, small chopping board,  wooden spoon and sieve.
  • something to eat off – look for foldable pans, cups and plate sets specifically designed to save space when camping, such as this set available from Decathalon. For the kids just take a plastic bowl, plate and set of cutlery each. Just use their regular water bottles or sip cup for drinks with meals.
  • something to wash up with – a cloth, pan scrubber and tea towel.
  • clothes for warm and cold weather – a couple of sets of each per person, plus wellies, sandals and trainers/hiking shoes.
  • any essentials for younger toddlers such as bottles, milk, nappies etc.
  • basic food for the first night and day – buy the rest from the local shop or supermarket or go out for food at a cafe or pub.
  • foldable lanterns and small head torches.
  • sunscreen, sun hats, insect repellent and any medication.
  • toothbrushes, toothpaste, a flannel each and some soap/body wash.

We’ve written an entire post about packing light for a family camping trip – you can read it here.


Vacuum pack fabric items

If you’re taking an air pump with you then vacuum packing clothes can be a great way to save space taken up with items such as blankets and towels. You can vacuum pack clothes but they will get very wrinkled so save this for items like PJs, vests and underwear.

You can use your vacuum cleaner to pack the clothes before you leave and use the reverse setting on your air pump to pack the clothes up before you return home.

This advice comes with a few warnings though:

  1. Vacuum pack bags are useless if they have even the tiniest tear in them, so store them carefully in the tent or in your car and don’t lose the valve stoppers.
  2. Make sure you have room in your tent for everything you vacuum pack. It’s all very well vacuum packing lots of clothes but if they won’t fit in your tent when you get to the site, you’ll have to keep resealing and vacuum packing the bags every time you take something out.
  3. Once the air has been sucked out, the bag of fabric items will be pretty solid so won’t be able to be wedged into spaces as easily.

Put soft, squashable items on the bottom of your boot

An alternative to vacuum packing clothes is to pack any squashable items in the bottom of your boot and let the weight of the more solid, heavily items squash them down for you.

Lay out blankets and sleeping bags on the bottom of your boot and pile heavier items on top of them. The weight of the items on top will squash flat the soft items underneath.


Make every inch of space count

We pack items under seats, in the footwells (so the kids can rest their feet on them), in the glove compartment and in the side door pockets. We cram items such as shoes, toilet bags and nappies into any spare nook and cranny to fill odd gaps and make the most of the space available.

You can also use things like small towels and blankets to wrap around breakable items to protect them.

If you have two kids, then don’t forget to utilises the seat space between their carseats as well.

Let your family take the train and meet them there

Camping near a train station will give you the luxury of filling your car with equipment instead of people and meeting your family at the campsite, or picking them up from the local station. Getting the train with toddlers can be stressful so make sure whoever takes them on the train has plenty to keep them entertained.

If you don’t plan to use your car during the trip then this tip will save you masses of room, as you’ll be able to remove the children’s carseats and use the backseat for camping gear.

Do two trips to a local campsite

If the above packing tips don’t work and you’re camping locally, then make two trips. You can take essentials such as the tent in the first trip so your partner or friend can be putting it up while you pop home for the rest of your supplies. If you take your kids back home with you in the car then this is a great opportunity for keeping them out of the way while the other person puts up the tent, they may also have a nap as well!

If your tent needs two people to put it up then ask at the campsite reception if you can leave some of your equipment there while you drive back for the rest.


Further Questions

Can I sleep my car on a campsite?

This will depend on the campsite, but most UK campsites will only allow you to sleep in a car if the car is designed to be slept in. For example, it should have internal sleeping accommodation and have features such as curtains and reclining seats.

If you’re going camping with kids, then camping in a car is going to be tricky as you may struggle for  room. However, if you can adapt your car into a sleeper and bring a tent as well, sleeping in the car maybe an option as you’ll have extra space.


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