There are a lot of ways to go camping. There’s the really easy option that is pitching your tent in the backyard. I think the technical term for this is “backyard camping”. On the other extreme there is “backcountry camping” which entails packing all of your gear into a big backpack and carrying it into the wilderness. Once you hike to your destination, or just find a flat spot that your legs refuse to carry you beyond…you pitch a tent. These are extremes. There is a lot in the middle. We’re going to focus on a nice, happy medium — car camping.
Car camping is essentially camping with easy access to your car. This could take place in an pay-to-stay campground, on a remote desert road or at an established dispersed camping area on BLM or National Forest land. Your location isn’t as important as the presence of a vehicle.
If you’ve ever pitched a tent in your backyard you’re perfectly capable when it comes to car camping. If you’ve done a fair bit of backcountry camping you’re over qualified for car camping…but should still give it a go.
Until recently the majority of my camping adventures were focused exclusively on backpacking into a site. With time I acquired all the lightweight gear, became versed in dehydrated meals and was generally capable of fitting my entire life into a 50L backpack. At least for a weekend. As someone living in the Rocky Mountains I believed this was the one and only way to truly camp.
I have proven myself wrong. This year I have intentionally introduced myself to car camping. Oh hai there, luxuries!
Car camping has open so many new avenues of adventure to me! It is more accessible than backpacking simply because it doesn’t require as much time. You can just drive to a suitable campground or other camping spot and pitch your tent. There is no need to cushion in an additional three to six hours for hiking before bed! Packing is also significantly easier. Technically…if it fits in the car, it can come with! Cooking now happens on a two burner stove and my bed is made up of a nice, squishy air mattress. It’s glorious.
So, let’s chat about the reasons you should give car camping a try…whether you prefer a hotel or a blanket of stars, you’ll be able to find a way to love at least some parts of car camping!
Up first — accessibility. This is the biggest perk of car camping. There is no required level of physical fitness or wilderness comfort. You simply need to drive up at an acceptable campsite, wrestle your tent into position and settle in. This accessibility allows more people to camp. Not only because you get to bring along some of the comforts of home [keep reading!] but because you don’t need to dedicate as much time to packing or hiking. There are few places you can car camping. Finding a location you can camp at that you’ll also truly enjoy can be tricky.
The two easiest places to find camping is in state and national parks campgrounds or at private campgrounds. Depending upon the area you’re visiting you may need to plan in advance for peak weeks or high season. Most of these campgrounds have extensive information online [or via phone] so you’ll know exactly what you expect in terms of activities and facilities.
Other campsite options include BLM land or National Forest land. This gets a bit more tricky simply because there are not always obvious boundaries for where this public land ends and private land begins. It is your responsibility, as an individual, to know these boundaries. It can also be a bit confusing to figure out exactly what type of camping [dispersed vs campsite] is allowed since jurisdiction and regulations can vary by area. Due to this added confusion I tend to recommend people head to established campgrounds for their first few adventures in a tent.
All Gear Works!
Speaking of tents…don’t stress about what sort of tent you’re taking camping when you’re car camping. Sure, there are still a lot of options out there, but if you’re on a budget or in a rush don’t spend too much money or time on the fancy features of the gear you’re bringing. As long as what you have will get the job done [ie: warm, dry, comfy] you’re good to go. With car camping you have a margin for error. The close proximity to your car combined with the motor that’ll be lugging all the gear around means you have less to worry about.
This “make it work” logic works for your tent, cooking set up and sleeping bag. Some features are non-negotiable. This includes a tent that is waterproof, a cook stove that heats with utensils to craft meals and a sleeping bag/pad combo that will keep you truly warm. This is the bare minimum and you’ll love yourself a little more if you have the added features of easy setup, legitimate silverware and an extra soft sleeping pad, but don’t fret over it too much. That’s the beauty of car camping…you don’t need to worry much about the size, weight and pack-ability of every item you’re taking with you.
Sleeping Is Comfy!
Now, if you have the time and energy to plan ahead [or if you’d like us to help with that!] you can create a really cozy experience while car camping. I use cozy sleeping as an example, because that’s usually the biggest thing that keeps people from camping, but don’t let the cozy stop at the zipper of your sleeping bag. With a little creativity you can get yourself the comforts from home in every aspect of camping. From your meals to your clothes to your tent to your bed. Yes, bed…not just sleeping bag.
Let’s start with the sleeping situation. You can opt for a sleeping pad on the ground with your sleeping bag on top and a sweatshirt rolled up as a pillow. Or…you can invest in a cot, a thick insulated pad, bed sheets, a comforter and a pillow. Yup, all of those things can come car camping with you and no one will bat an eye [especially in established campgrounds]. I have the first option [pad + bag + dry bag of clothes] as my lightweight sleeping set up. But, I also have the second option for car camping. I have a cot that I set up with a four-inch insulated sleeping pad that is only slightly smaller than a twin bed [or a double bed, if we combine two when my partner tags along on adventures]. All it took was a cheap, basic sheet set, a comforter and a pillow to make this set up extra cozy.
You’ll most likely be sleeping in your tent…so once you know you’ve fallen in love with car camping invest in a good one. I’m tall [nearly six foot!] so finding a tent I can stand up in was key. It requires extra work to set up a fancy “glamping” tent but I sure love it when I can stand up to dress myself! That said, if you love your backpacking tent don’t let my need for a lush tent keep you from using your backpacking tent. We car camped with backpacking tents on the regular before I could wrap my mind around a big, spacious tent. They both have perks…for example, the backpacking tent is quieter on a windy night + SO much easier to put away when packing up!
Meal Options Are Limitless!
Finally, let’s talk about the food you’ll get to consume at camp when your car is nearby. I’m not going to pretend I’ve never shown up at camp with a burrito bowl from Chipotle or Qdoba in hand…but I’ll be the first to say there is something awesome about whipping up a legitimately home cooked meal on a campfire or grill. If you want to go the cook-it-yourself route check out the recipes on Fresh Off The Grid to get started. They have a whole range or recipes. You can also keep it simple by whipping up this macaroni and cheese recipe in advance then simply reheating it at camp [insider tip: add some alfredo sauce and chicken when prepping at home!].
To get started with cooking full meals at camp you’ll want to set yourself up for success with the right tools. Quite honestly, brand names don’t matter here — choose what fits your needs and is easily accessible to you. These are the items that are a “must” for every car camping trip that involved cooking…
- propane stove with two burners [remember the propane!]
- pot/pan set [two pots, one pan, two lids]
- spatula, spoon, whisk
- can opener
- knife + cutting board
- plates, bowls, silverware
- biodegradable soap, sponge
- paper towels for spills + dish towel of washing up
- salt, pepper, Lowry’s season salt, olive oil, spreadable butter
…with those basic kitchen/cooking items you’ll be able to whip up a full meal with no issue. Honestly, the hardest part of cooking at camp is doing the dishes. Some campgrounds have sinks available for washing up dishes…but not all of them. I’ll admit it, we have tucked away some dishes to just take home to wash. No shame in being resourceful!
On that note…ready to go car camping? There really are a lot of reasons to at least give it a go. I’ve only listed a few, but I could keep going about how great it is to have access to more gear, more space and…running water!
If you’re up for taking on car camping but aren’t sure where to start let me know! I offer an array of services from travel consultations [where we chat about the how’s and where’s of adventures] to full itinerary planning [where I do all the grunt work and you have all the fun!]. I do this to give everyone a level playing field when it comes to adventure…so why not start with car camping? Shoot me an email at email@example.com to get started!