Ready for a road trip? Why stay in cheap motels when you can throw a tent in the trunk of the car and enjoy fresh air instead? Here are 7 tips for an awesome car camping experience geared toward first timers. Check the end of the article for a handy list too.
7 Tips for Terrific Car Camping
You don’t need a ton of special stuff to sleep.
Sure it is fun to go shopping but you probably already have most of what you need for a nice car camping trip already. You just need to consider the basics – food and shelter.
When car camping you don’t need to worry so much about the weight of your gear. There is no need to run to the sporting goods store to invest your paycheck in a space age tent and feather weight sleeping bag. If you have a larger car you can even sleep in it, depending on the weather and the campsite you choose. Of course you can also rent an RV or camper van and make things even easier!
Speaking of choosing a campsite.. check out these websites for awesome campsite locations with reviews!
Tip #1: Your Shelter
First, ask friends and family if you can borrow a tent, chances are someone has one they rarely use. If not, my second favorite option is to head to Craigslist to find a second hand tent. You’ll likely save a lot of money and recycling is cool. Most REI brand tents are great, if you search for a used one you should have no problems.
If you head to the shops to get an inexpensive one, don’t go for a tent that is crappy and will fall apart after one day. On the other hand, there is no need to spend the big bucks for the most technological tent that will withstand arctic snowstorms. Get a tent that is spacious but not huge, that is made with good materials and is easy to set up.
Perhaps the weather is awesome and you don’t need a tent at all. Grab a tarp to throw on the ground and sleep under the stars.
Consider the weather and environment where you are headed. Are there a lot of biting insects? Chance of rain? This will help you decide how best to shelter yourself from the elements.
Some campsites will also have tents or cabins you can rent. These are super cute and often contain some kind of sleeping platforms and even table and chairs. Be sure to look into that if you really don’t feel like dealing with this aspect or are camping in inclement weather. Check out the amazing cabins and yurts in Oregon. Another option is to rent a camper van or RV. Here are some of our favorite RV rental companies.
You might have some folding chairs lying around the house. Many campsites have picnic tables but if you like you can throw some folding chairs in the car as well. They are also easy to find at thrift stores for a few bucks.
Tip #2: Your Bedding
As far as sleeping is concerned, you don’t always need top of the line gear. Depending on how chilly it is where you plan to camp you can even bring your normal blankets from home. Have an air mattress you use for houseguests? Pack it up and take it with you. It works in a tent as well. (caveat for cold weather: conventional air mattresses don’t insulate and you will be freezing)
You can buy special camping mattresses – again check Craigslist for a used one – or just bring two or three thick blankets and throw them on the ground. Pack that favorite pillow and you are all set. If you want to buy a camping mattress I recommend these folding waffle foam ones or the classic inflatable Therm-a-rest. Better yet, if you have enough space bring both and top with a comfy blanket to keep from slipping and sliding. You’ll be sleeping on a cloud!
A sleeping bag is great but not a necessity if the temperatures aren’t too low, blankets work too. And if you are camping with your special someone, cuddling under blankets is way better than having separate sleeping bags.
You can also find all this gear at your local thrift store and give it a good cleaning before your trip. Last time I checked, my local second hand store had at least 10 sleeping bags to choose from.
You don’t need a ton of special stuff to eat.
You gotta eat, right? Here are some tips for how to fill your belly when car camping.
Tip #3: Food and Fire
You can buy a fancy state of the art backpacking stove, but you don’t need it. Perhaps your campsite allows a campfire or BBQ, you can cook on that. Just bring a couple of old pans since they will get filthy.
Depending on how much room you have in the car, my favorite way to cook when car camping is an old school Coleman stove similar to the stove pictured above. You can often find these second hand. They are easy to use and you can cook for a crowd if need be. There are also simpler stoves with one burner that use butane canisters like this one. These stoves are inexpensive, sturdy and great for a basic car camping trip.
The easiest way to eat well when car camping without any hassle is to forego fire and bring some tasty takeaway or food you don’t need to cook. Use a bit of imagination. Sandwiches are easy to make and peanut butter and jam don’t need refrigeration. If you like you can pack up a small cooler and toss in toppings like cheese, hummus or sliced meats. Perhaps bring some prepackaged salads. Grab some dried fruits and nuts. Throw a sourdough loaf, salami, cheese, fruits and a bottle of wine in a tote bag for a romantic dinner. Options are really limitless, check Google and Pinterest for lots of camping and hiking food ideas.
Need that morning coffee to get up and go? Check out these ways to make your espresso without electricity.
One thing to remember is not to leave your food or garbage out when you are sleeping or away from the campsite. In most places this will attract critters from ravens to raccoons, and perhaps even bears depending on where you are. These creatures will toss your stuff around looking for vittles, they will eat your food, and they might even eat you! So always pack up your food securely. Don’t forget – these critters are clever and they can open coolers and zippers and even twist off jar lids. They will tear holes in your tent to get at food. ( I say all this from experience haha)
Some campsites have metal storage boxes for food, some tell you to put it away in an enclosed vehicle. Just follow the protocols for where you are headed.
Depending on where you are camping you might need to bring all of your own water as well. Be sure to check into this before you head out.
Don’t forget the cutlery: a sharp knife and a fork and spoon for each person. Have a spork? Even better! I bring a pair of wooden chopsticks too. Pack up some durable dishware – maybe plastic cups and bowls or old ceramics you don’t mind maybe ruining. But chances are, you’ll come back with everything intact. I prefer metal dishware for carefree camping, you can scour thrift stores for old enamel plates, bowls and cups.
You’ll want to clean your dishware, so be sure to bring along a sponge or brush of some kind, a small container of biodegradable soap and a dishtowel. If you are camping in an ecologically protected area you might want to forego the soap and just use elbow grease and water to clean off your dishes. Don’t worry, simply rinsing them off for a few days won’t hurt you. You can thoroughly clean everything when you get home.
You don’t need a ton of special clothing and gear.
Tip #5: Clothes
Of course the weather where you are camping will determine what you need to pack as far as clothing. Going camping by the lake in the summer? You’ll need your swimsuit, some sneakers and sunscreen. Doing a winter adventure when the weather is chilly? Bring a warm hat, mittens and a scarf. But one thing is certain. Don’t pack too much stuff!
Sure you have your car and you can fill it to the brim with your clothes. But then it will become a mess and you won’t be able to find anything. Part of the joy of camping is simplicity. This isn’t the time to be a glamorous fashionista changing outfits every hour.
Bring the basics. Something comfy to sleep and lounge around the campsite in. Hiking gear, whatever that might mean for the environment you are in – perhaps good sturdy boots, jeans and a jacket or shorts and Tevas. Will you go swimming? Bring a swimsuit and a towel. Keep it simple but be sure to pack warmer clothes than you think you might need. It’s always smart to bring extra socks, a sweater and a wool hat just in case. You can wear them to sleep if the nights turn chillier than expected.
Tip #6: Hygiene
Camping is not the time to be squeaky clean. Enjoy nature and the great outdoors. But this doesn’t mean you have to be filthy and covered in bugs!
Many car campsites have shared bathroom facilities which will allow you to do your business as normal. Even so, you’ll want to bring a few items. It is always a good idea to pack toilet paper, it comes in handy around the campsite to clean things up and the campsite toilets could run out. If you use TP outdoors PLEASE PACK IT OUT WITH YOU. Don’t leave your old wipings for others to observe. They are not beautiful white flowers. Gross. Ok, public service announcement over. But seriously, why do people do that?
Where to shower when camping? The shared bathroom facilities at your campground may have showers. If so, the showers may be cold, dirty or unpleasant. On the other hand they may be fancy and nice. But be prepared. Bring flipflops or some sandals to wear in the restrooms and plan to shower quickly. This isn’t the time for hairdryers and deep conditioning treatments. Throw your hair in a ponytail and don’t wash it while you are camping. Who cares? Bring biodegradable soaps like Dr Bronners or something similar.
If your campsite doesn’t have showers, maybe there is a tap with running water? Bring a washcloth or microfiber towel so that you can take a quick “whore bath” as my mother would call it. haha. But you may be surprised how just rinsing your face and hands can make you feel fresh and clean. You can also pack baby wipes if you are camping in an area without running water. These work great to wipe down your face, hands and sweaty body before going to sleep. But please put them in the trash, they are not biodegradable.
Another option is to bring along a portable solar shower. Here is an option you can take a look at.
Don’t forget to bring along your toothbrush and toothpaste. You can easily brush your teeth with your water bottle, even if your campsite doesn’t have running water.
Basically make sure you bring a toothbrush, small towel and maybe some soap. Anything else is an add on! But we’d also recommend sunscreen, bug spray, pain killers, and a basic first aid kit.
Tip #7: Technology & Gadgets
Why not leave the gadgets and gear at home on a camping trip? You can live without the ipad and laptop for a few days. Bring along a book, yes a real book with paper pages! Or maybe a few pencils and your sketchpad or a journal to write in. Relax! You’re camping! (read more here about the health benefits of Forest Bathing)
It’s smart to have your cell phone with you in case of emergency, so make sure it is charged and ready to go. You can buy car chargers for your phone, but they also drain the car battery so don’t make the mistake of charging your gadgets but killing your car! You can also buy solar chargers for your phone, try them before camping to see how they work. The campsite may have electrical sockets near the restrooms, but keep in mind you will probably need to sit there while your phone charges up. It is probably best just to limit your screen time and save that battery.
I always carry an extra battery for my phone in case of emergency. There are many on the market. Charge it up before you head out on your trip and you’ll have a full extra charge with you just in case.
Are you an avid photographer? Then be sure to pack extra batteries for the camera as well.
Bring along at least one flashlight with fully charged batteries. It can be useful when nature calls in the night. I love to keep a nice big Mag Light in my car at all times for emergencies as it could also be used as a weapon. If you have one, head lamps are super convenient for camping as it leaves your hands free and is good for reading in your tent at night. They look very dorky however! Also try not to shine your headlight into other people’s campsites and wake them up or blind them.
They sell headlamps and flashlights with red filters to prevent night blindness, those are really great if you like to stargaze.
If you like you can bring a guidebook or two about the local flora, fauna, fungi, geology or history and do some field identification. There are even apps if you prefer to use your phone for everything. One other piece of equipment you may want to bring along is a pair of binoculars. Observing nature is fun! Just don’t use them to spy on other campers! haha.
If you love bringing lots of electronics with you while camping, check out our guide to cool gadgets you can use on your next camping trip.
Basic Camping Gear List
Extra pair of socks, warm hat, sweater
Sleeping bag or blankets
Tent and/or tarp
Cup and bowl for each person
Cutlery for each person
At least one sharp knife like a pocket knife
Small dishtowel, sponge, bio soap
Enough food and water for the days you are there
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Flashlight or headlamp or lantern
Just in case: bear spray, whistle, first aid kit, painkillers, matches/lighter, extra blanket, slip ons or sandals, extra batteries and chargers
For fun: folding chairs, cooler, bottle or can opener, binoculars, camera, guidebooks, books, sketchbook, journal, pens and pencils
Enjoy your car camping trip!
Where will you explore? Check out our guides to awesome road trips in Minnesota to see autumn leaves or waterfalls.
Perhaps you’d like to do a Central California road trip and visit Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Big Sur.
Check out these websites for awesome free and discounted camping sites!
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