In August, I met friends for some socially distant camping near Canyonlands National Park. We wanted to get outside without adding too much COVID or logistical stress. Car camping turned out to be the perfect plan:
When one friend was a bit camping-averse (Mosquitos! Rain! Dead phone! Warm beer!), we still convinced her. Even if those fears came true she’d have a getaway car—or at least a hide out.
When I accidentally put gluten in the gluten-free mac and cheese, I rendered it inedible for a friend with Celiac’s. But it was no big deal: we had extra GF mac, cheese, and water in the car.
When rain started falling and a 3 hour lightning storm ensued, we didn’t get wet or have to squat in an uncomfortable lightning position! We stayed safe and dry in the car and read to each other from a Kindle.
Car camping is the perfect low-stress adventure for everyone from outdoor newbies to veteran adventurers. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE going into the backcountry—I used to lead wilderness trips—but car camping is my favorite way to explore. Whether I’m in Moab, Assateague, or Tahoe, my favorite part stays consistent: bringing as much food as I want!
Here’s some of what you need to know to drive, survive, and thrive while car camping:
What Counts as Car Camping?
For some, car camping means sleeping in your car. For others, it means driving to a campsite and pitching a tent. But for me, it’s both. Most car camping trips I’ve done had a combination of people sleeping in vehicles (a topic could take up an entire blog of its own), hammocking, and sleeping in tents. Whether you’re doing a two week odyssey across the American Southwest and sleeping in your car on a dirt road, or bringing your parents on their first overnight trip at a campground, car camping is the perfect low pressure way to get outdoors.
What to bring: Car Camping Essentials
For the kitchen
Food- You have the liberty to fill your car to the brim. Bring LOTS of snacks (my favorite is edible cookie dough!) Check out some of Sunski’s favorite recipes here.
Stove- I love this Coleman two burner. It’s easy to set up and clean, and it heats the pan evenly so you can whip up everything from popcorn to quesadillas.
Garbage bags- Be sure to Leave No Trace and pack out everything you bring in.
Table/Chairs- Unless your campsite has a picnic table, you’ll want to cook, play cards, and eat at a cheap camping table with some folding chairs from Walmart or the like.
Cooler- Get fancy with cold beverages and fresh food (Brie, crackers, and white wine?)
Water- Fill up all of your Nalgenes and throw a few extra gallons in the trunk.
For the “bedroom”
Tent –You have room, so stretch out in a bigger-than-necessary tent! Try a 4 person tent for 2 people.
Pillow- Resting on a big, soft, “real” pillow is my SECOND favorite thing about car camping.
Sleeping pad- While some people like air mattresses, I use my backpacking sleeping pad. It’s easy, it’s comfy, and it can be cleaned and dried quickly.
Sleeping Bag- Temperatures drop quickly at night! For ultimate comfort, bring an extra blanket (or two).
Sunskis- You’ll be driving on sun-soaked roads, basking in warm rays, and cooking with a beautiful view of the sunset, so you’ll need eye protection. Grab a pair of Sunski polarized sunglasses for the road, and another for the trail.
Jumper Cables/Battery pack- As much as I try, there’s always a chance the car might die. I carry a portable jump starter battery and jumper cables.
Car Charger- Keep your phone alive so you can take photos and map your way to the trailhead.
It’s not fun to try to find a campsite in the dark, so it helps to plan in advance where you’ll stay. Most National Parks have campgrounds that you can book in advance, and dispersed camping can be found on Bureau of Land Management Land across the country (check out our blog on this coming soon!) Once the car’s in park, make sure to respect other campers and the natural environment. And before you sleep, store all food and smelly items in your locked car to keep animals away.
All this said, the beautiful thing about car camping is that you can plan as little or as much as you want—you have a car in case you forget anything vital! Whether you throw a few sleeping bags and a bag of chips in the trunk at the last minute, or organize your car with a mattress and a gourmet meal, car camping is an easy and accessible way to get out into the woods. See you on the road!