A Guide to Car Camping
Planning a Car Camping Trip
The summer is close, the weather is warming up, and the days are nice and long. This is the perfect time to get out and enjoy the outdoors as much as possible.
You may be especially feeling that outdoors itch because the various stay-at-home orders and the dampened economy has you inside your home much more than usual. As those restrictions are slowly lifted, so are your spirits about getting out soon. In this post, we’ll go over some things to think about and offer lots of tips/tricks. So whether you go camping every year, or this is your first time, we hope you find some helpful information here.
I originally wrote this blog post and it turned out to be wayyy too long. I zone out when I type sometimes and get too focused on the details. So, I’ve shortened this one up quite a bit and will be writing several more detailed blog posts about the topics discussed below. Keep an eye out for these soon!
Why Choose Car Camping
Not only is car camping one of the easiest ways to camp outdoors, it’s also one of the most affordable. Staying in hotels can cost a fortune; hundreds of dollars for a weekend on average in most situations. Not camping. Almost anywhere in the country, you could get a campsite for under $100 for a weekend; probably even under $50 if you’re not too picky. Our country has some of the best public land camping options in the world and if you know where to look. You can even camp for free in some National Forests and almost always on BLM lands. Keep in mind though, these free options have very little to no amenities (i.e. restrooms, trash cans, etc.).
Car camping also allows you to bring most of the creature comforts from home. This is the easiest way to camp, so if this happens to be your first time or haven’t been camping in a while, we suggest going this route. Bringing your car along also means you can make your campsite a basecamp, and make fun, smaller adventures out and about. It’s a pretty awesome feeling to get back to your campsite after a hard day hiking, climbing, or mountain biking and cracking open a nice cold one in front of your campfire with your bed only a few steps away.
If you do want more of a challenge and want to feel remote, try to hunt for sites that are a little further in the backcountry. Just be sure to check what restrictions, rules, and permits are in place or are needed before you head out.
Where Do You Want To Go?
The answer to this question depends on what kind of adventure you’re looking for. Are you looking to have lots of amenities at your campsite? Or are you looking to forgo all of that and just rough it with only what you brought with you?
If you have a location in mind and it’s near state or federal lands, we recommend checking out Reserve America. They handle pretty much everything inside those lands. The only exception to that is if you are looking to stay inside a National Park. You’ll have to book straight through the NPS website if you are interested. These places usually have some killer views and are located ideally to many recreation opportunities. This also means you’ll have to book as far in advance as possible. Some of the more popular parks and lands book up over a year ahead of time.
Another possibility if public lands are booked up or aren’t nearby, is looking into campgrounds on privately owned land. You can use sites such as Hipcamp to search these areas. Prices vary for these campgrounds, but are usually just as nice. You can always just do a quick Google search for campsites near your destination to see what is around.
What Gear Should You Bring?
Since you’re car camping, you can afford to bring a few more things than you would if you were thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Now, how you bring them is entirely up to you; but we’ll go over some key items not to forget. Also, how much you spend on equipment is entirely up to you too. You can certainly use your own tried-and-true gear to limit expenses, but there is something to be said about the newer gear out there these days; especially when your comfort and/or your family and friend’s comfort is at stake.
When it comes to the kitchen while car camping, you can bring quite a bit of stuff. A stove is a must, mostly because you can wake up and have coffee going in just a few minutes rather than waiting to get a campfire going. You’ll also want to have enough plates, bowls, and cups for everyone. Whether they’re disposable or reusable is up to you, just make sure you pack enough garbage bags to pack out your trash. Some other essential tools to consider packing are wooden/heat resistant utensils (tongs, spoons, spatulas, etc…), a cast iron skillet or dutch oven, and old pots and pans from around the house.
It’s also crucial to make sure you pack something to keep your cold things cold. Usually a cooler of some sort works for this. Now, in most situations you don’t need a cooler that can withstand bear attacks and sustain drops from 40-foot cliffs. These cost anywhere from $400 all the way to a house mortgage payment. They’re nice, sure; but if you know how to pack and prepare a cooler properly your $40 Coleman will last 3-5 days on one bag of ice perfectly fine.
The most important pieces of gear that can make or break a camping trip are the tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bags. These items from a big-box store may get the job done in a pinch and save you money, but these are some of the items you shouldn’t skimp out on. Think of these things like investments, and if taken care of properly, will last you years and years.
Tents come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors. Tents are all measured by how many people they can fit inside; 1P (Person) means only one person and no personal items, 2P means only two people can fit inside and no personal items, etc…. So if you value space and keeping some belongings inside your tent, go up one more “P” than the number of people you’ll have in your tent. If you already own a tent and it’s been stored for a while, you’ll want to inspect it thoroughly to make sure it will survive this season. Check the seams for sealant peeling off, mildew on the rain tarp or body, and holes anywhere on the tent. If you can’t easily fix it yourself, you may want to invest in a new one.
Sleeping pads and sleeping bags go hand-in-hand. Start with your sleeping pad. Are you using an air mattress? We don’t recommend that because it ultimately won’t keep you nearly as warm. Your choices are typically a foam mat, or an inflatable pad. If you're a side sleeper like me, skip the foam pads and go straight to an inflatable one that's about 2-3" thick.
There are lots of options for sleeping bags out there, but it's actually pretty simple to pick out the one that's right for your trip. First, what's the weather for your trip? Make sure the lowest temperature forecasted is above the temperature rating of your bag. Should you use a down or synthetic fill bag? A down sleeping bag is lighter, packs smaller, but is ultimately more expensive than an equivalent synthetic fill. Down sleeping bags are also not warmer than synthetic despite a common myth out there; they're rated to the exact same temperature.
Now you're back from your adventure and hanging out around camp! What are some things you should pack to make your campsite a little more comfortable? I'm sure there are more items to bring than what I have listed, but these are some of what we consider essential pieces of gear to bring. Remember, you’re car camping, not ultra-light backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail. You can bring some extras to make everyone smile!
A nice, comfortable camp chair can be a lifesaver. Sure, a log can seem more rugged and make for great pictures on Instagram; but it's impossible to say a soft chair with a back on it isn't comfier. Also, try to bring an extra table if you can. It can be either a standard size, fold-in-half table that seats 6, or a super small 2'x2' table. Extra space to prep dinner or place all the food buffet-style can make life much easier around the campsite.
Next, you should look into packing in some sort of shelter. This can be those standard 10’x10’ pop-ups or just a blue tarp and some string! What if it starts to rain while you’re cooking dinner? Or if there happens to not be any shade in your campsite? a simple shelter like this will make your day! Also, the perfect companion to any shelter is to hang up some battery-powered string lights! These add an awesome flair to the campsite and great ambient light. If you don’t have or don’t want to bring these, at least pack some headlamps, lanterns, and/or flashlights. It sucks to stumble to around at night looking for the bathroom.
Some other essentials to make sure you pack are sunscreen and bug spray. Studies have shown that anything over SPF 100 might not be any more effective than SPF 50. But regardless of what you choose, it’s worth packing; nothing is worse than climbing into a sleeping bag and looking/feeling like a lobster that just got cooked. As far as bug spray goes, we personally recommend anything with Picaridin or Permethrin. These chemicals are much friendlier to you, your gear, and the environment than DEET is. If you use DEET just be careful where you spray it, it can ruin the waterproof-ness of anything it touches and even eats through some materials commonly found in outdoor gear.
Lastly, make sure you pack a first aid kit. This kit doesn’t have to be anything fancy or be fit for combat zones overseas. As long as it has enough materials to cover everyone in the group and have items to help with the activity you may be doing it’s perfectly fine.
We always bring more clothes than we probably need when we’re car camping. I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. We also bring clothing for colder weather than it’s expected to get down to. A good starting place would be to pack some wool socks, some long underwear, a jacket to keep you warm, and some sort of knit hat. We always recommend that you avoid cotton in the outdoors. When it gets wet, it doesn’t dry nearly as easy as other materials. Look for Merino Wool products; they keep you just as warm, dry much faster, and are naturally antimicrobial too! Next, make sure you bring the appropriate rain gear with you; even if it’s not supposed to rain. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
I don’t know about you, but when I’m back at my campsite for the night I want to be as comfortable as possible. I always pack, and recommend you do as well, some comfy camp clothes to lounge around in. This allows you to get out of the dirty/sweaty clothes you’ve been in all day. If the temperature allows for it, bring something open-toed for your feet like flip flops or Chacos. Your feet will thank you later.
How're You Going to Get There?
Car camping allows you to camp almost anywhere you like. The vast majority of campsites are designated campgrounds that are very easy to get to. Usually you just need to use a basic GPS or, if you like to do things the harder way, a map and compass. If you like to search for a little more solitude and get off the beaten path a little, you can check out campsites in National Forests or on BLM land. Also, when travelling to these areas, you may need to use a dedicated map of the area.
Roads in those areas may be sparse, well-hidden, or very rough. Special off-roading maps and apps rate the roads depending on how rough they are. OnX is a great app for this that covers all 50 states. If you’re really far in the backcountry too, you may want to download the maps onto you phone or device ahead of time. That way if you run out of service, you can still navigate properly.
Now that you have a good grasp on where you’re going to go, what to bring with you, and how you’re going to get there, there are a few other considerations to keep in mind. First and foremost, make sure you follow Leave No Trace (LNT) principles as best as you can. They can keep you and your group safe as well as help you respect the environment. One thing to especially remember to do is keep your campsite clean and store your food properly. You don’t want any small or large critters sniffing around your campsite. Look into the rules and regulations of where you’re staying to see how they recommend storing your food. Just remember, bears can rip the door off your car like it’s a play toy.
For the last tip of this blog, make sure you make your camping trip enjoyable for everyone! That can be as simple as bringing playing cards, playing cornhole, seeing how high you can stack your giant Jenga set, or just making sure everyone has a role in planning the trip. The point of most camping trips is to relax, forget about the stresses of home and work, and to have fun.
We hope you made it through the blog post and got to this point. Thanks for sticking with it! Hopefully you learned something new or, at the very least, have a little bit clearer understanding of something you didn’t before. This isn’t an extensive list, but just some items to consider for any trip you make. Like I said in the beginning, keep an eye out for more detailed posts about various topics I’ve included in here.
See you out there!