Car Camping 101
Warm weather is on the way, which means many campgrounds will be opening again, if they are not already open. You can check recreation.gov to see when federally-owned lands are open, what campsites are in your area, and book reservations.
Going car-camping is a fun and easy way to get out into nature without having to back your bear bag or trek 20 miles (even though those trips are a blast, too!) Being prepared with a few key items and ready for the unexpected is important for safety and fun.
We asked around to some of our friends and family who are fans of car-camping about what they would tell someone going for the first time - here is what they said:
Book your site ahead of time or know where to park if sites are full
As mentioned above, you can check recreation.gov and book a campsite, see when parks are open or closed for the season, and other important things to know before you go! Another great site is freecampsites.net, which is exactly what it sounds like: a website where users share spots that are free to camp at!
Planning at the trailhead of the Continental Divide. Photo: Tiffiny Costello
If you ever show up to a campground and all the sites are booked, you can park and camp on public lands, such as National Forest Land for free and legally, as long as there are no “no camping,” or “no parking,” signs. You can also check with the camp host for other options or cancellations or reservations.
Gather your camping essentials
Here is the golden list of things that are absolutely essential for nearly all types of camping: such as your tent, a sleeping bag, and sleeping pad.
This list is a great place to get started, and if you don’t own this gear, hit thrift stores, garage sales, or second-hand camping stores first! Most outdoor gear is made to last, so you don’t always have to buy brand new.
Tent - If you don’t own a tent, Backpacker Magazine has a great guide to choosing a tent for the type of weather and type of camping you will be doing.
Sleeping Bag - you can buy sleeping bags for all types of weather, so make sure you pay attention to the degree rating. You can also buy a sleeping bag liner for an extra layer of warmth. Being warm or cool enough will help you have a better night's’ sleep!
Sleeping Pad / Pillow - for many people a good sleeping pad is the difference between actually going to sleep, or not sleeping at all AND waking up with aches and pains. You don’t want that right? Make sure you sleeping pad is thick enough, and if it is going to be colder, get an insulated pad.
For a pillow, you can either use a stuff sack and put something like a jacket or a couple of shirts in it, bring along an actual pillow, or buy an inflatable pillow.
Multi-tool or knife - you will always need to cut something while camping. Whether it’s cutting open a package, some twine, or rigging your tent in a creative way, a knife or multi-tool is handy to have!
Light - headlamps, lanterns, flashlights - you can never have too much light!
Batteries - don’t forget the batteries!
Personal Toiletries - you might not be able to shower at camp, and you’ll want to brush your teeth in the morning, so a small bag or tote with personal toiletries in it should be on your packing list, and don’t forget the bug spray!
Water supply - fill up a personal flask or hydration bladder everyday if water is available in your campsite, filling up as you need water is easy. If not - pack a 5 gallon water reservoir to keep in your car and plan to refill when you can, but use the water sparingly, depending on how long you are camping. Many National Parks have spigots at the gates, even if you’re going out for a few days, you can still plan to fill up there.
Have an easy and organized camp kitchen setup
Being organized during a car-camping trip is essential, and will make for an easier clean-up. When it comes to your camp kitchen, having an easy way to wash dishes and simple things like prepping your food before you arrive at camp helps with messes and saves time since you will probably be cooking after the sun sets.
Here are some additional items you want to include in your camp kitchen:
Camp stove - the easiest way to get your yummy camp food cooking is with a propane stove, which you can find at most stores. We are also fans of BioLite’s Camp Stove, which we featured in our Kickstarter last year and are amped about their goal to bring clean energy around the world and clean cooking options for people everywhere. Read more about their mission here.
Camp utensils & cooking-ware - for preparing, cooking and eating your food. ToGo Ware’s reusable bamboo utensils are a great non-plastic option! For your cooking ware, hit up a local thrift store and gather items for cooking and eating with at a bargain. Don’t forget a cutting board, and do NOT forget a camp coffee setup! Morning coffee at the campsite is one of the most comforting things about camping.
A setup for doing dishes - the easiest way to wash your dishes is to have a separate wash bin and fill that with warm soapy water then rinse your dishes with clean water afterwards. You can also buy collapsible “camp sinks.” If your campsite has a water spigot, dishes are easy-peasy!
Cooler - keep all your food and drink items in your cooler.
Pack extra gasoline - just in case
This is pretty self-explanatory: you do not want to run out of gas, especially when the chances of your camping area having service are not guaranteed!
Bonus tip: Sleep in your car - or sleep in a tent - or make your car a long-term home for extended fun!
Obviously planning on where to sleep is important when car-camping. If the weather is bad and your tent is not suitable, sleeping in your car is always an option. If you want to make a summer trip out of car-camping, you can also transform your car into a camper, like Erin Outdoors did!
Check for local wood-gathering and burn ban restrictions
Photo: Robson Hatsukami Morgan
This is incredibly important! You should always check to see if you’re allowed to gather wood in the area you’re headed to, and it is just as important to check for a burn ban in the area you intend to camp - even if it has recently rained or snowed. There are varying degrees of burn bans, and you can check the county or park websites for information. Sometimes you cannot even have an open flame and sometimes you can if it is contained in something like a stove. Violating burn bands is subject to fines and if a forest fire is started, it could be federal offense. Yikes!
Checking out the pass views. Colorado, USA. Photo: Tiffiny Costello
Educate yourself on the ethics of Leave No Trace
Being in nature is rewarding in so many ways and it is important be be respectful of the land and air you are enjoying. Even though technically your apple core will compost into the ground, you should still pack in and pack out everything that was not there to begin with - even in busy campgrounds. It’s a great practice to get into and you will also have a sense of pride by knowing that you are leaving your camping area with the least amount of impact as possible! Read more about LNT here.
Take some games!
The chances of you being bored are slim, but taking fun games like a deck of cards, trivia games, Twister, Pit!, or other group games can make for a blast around the campfire!
Have fun, and tune into yourself and nature
Checking out the view at Crater Lake Hike, Indian Peaks Wilderness. Colorado, USA. Photo: Tiffiny Costello
Even though many campsites may have cell phone service, challenge yourself to go “screenless,” for a short hike. Take a journal with you and write about how you’re feeling and what you’re seeing. Sit for a while, just listening to the sounds around you and feel the breeze on your face.
What’s your must-have item when you are on a camping trip? Comment and let us know!