Car camping might not be as “outdoorsy” as backpacking or laying down a tent in the backcountry. But for many people, it’s the absolute best way to camp. It requires less gear (and fitness) than backpacking, and it’s much less intimidating than heading out into the wilderness with nothing but a tent and a sleeping bag.
What Do You Need for Car Camping?
Car camping actually isn’t exactly what it sounds like. You don’t sleep in your car.
Car camping is camping at a campground that you can drive your car to. If you’ve ever gone camping before, you’ve probably stayed at one of these campgrounds. They’re often found in state parks, national forests, and the like.
What makes it car camping is the fact that you can drive right up to your campsite. You don’t need to haul all of your gear on a mile-long hike to get to where you’re camping.
Car Camping Gear List
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the North Face ONE Bag sleeping bag is more than just a sleeping bag – it’s an entire sleeping system! Designed with 3 interchangeable layers that configure it to handle temperatures from 40° to even 5° F temps, the North Face ONE Bag sleeping bag is ready to roll if you want to go road tripping, backpacking, or camping in any season. Additional features include: 3-in-1 layered system, removable mid-layer, compressible 800-fill-power goose fill, a bottom layer that rolls up into a pillow, and more! Purchase: $289.99
There are few better ways to get your kid to love the outdoors than camping. But nothing will ruin your latenight campfire mojo worse than a cold child who won’t just suck it up and shiver himself to sleep in silence. The REI Kindercone saves your night, with a synthetic filling keeping it warm enough for any trip you can expect a pup to enjoy. And it has the added benefit of being able to shrink or lengthen it so you don’t have to buy a new mummy bag for junior every 6 months, which makes its durable nylon outer even more important. [Purchase: $59.99]
The holiday season is a great time to show the people in your life just how much you care. So why not get close, and snuggle up in the Kelty Discovery Love Seat?! This super-comfortable folding camping chair is built for 2 butts… and also stores up inside your car easily after any road trip or camping adventure. Other features of the comfy, cozy Kelty Discovery Low-Love Seat include puncture-resistant quilted 600-denier polyester fabric insulation, durable steel frame, adjustable armrests with 2 insulated beverage holders, padded, multifunction roll-tote storage bag that also doubles as a firewood/gear tote and more! [Purchase: $99.95]
Not all headlamps are created equal, and if you’re looking for one that not only delivers functionality, but also fabulous style try the Petzl Tikka Headlamp! Made to piggyback off of the original LED headlamp from Petzl, the Tikka Headlamp includes a bulb that delivers 200 lumens with a longer burn time, and a stylish design that fits into any practical activity you have planned outdoors including camping, snowboarding, snowshoeing, or even cooking! Shine the light on anything you do in the wilderness with this simple-to-use LED headlamp from PETZL. The re-designed Tikka also features single button transition into lighting modes, wide, uniform light beams, close-range vision capability, red lighting for night vision, IPX4 water resistance, phosphorescent reflector, adjustable elastic headband with an integrated emergency whistle, and a 5 year Petzl guarantee. [Purchase: $29.95]
The first tool I ever purchased for backpacking was a water filter. For 7 years I’ve sworn by the Katadyn Hiker Pro, a hand-pump water filter that has kept me safely hydrated from water sources as diverse as the top of Mt. Rainier to the gnarly creek behind my house when my well failed. But the pump model is exhausting and time consuming. Katadyn leads the charge of today’s innovative gravity filters with its Camp 6L. Just fill it, hang it and you’re done. At a filtration rate of 2L/minute, it’s blazing fast and the capacity makes it perfect for a family or any small group.
On a recent camp where we pulled our water from a snowpatch, I filled it with snow and a little warm water. Leaving it in the sun, the snow soon melted to ice cold water, a huge aid for longer backpacks when you might be wanting to save your fuel for cooking instead of the heat-intensive act of melting snow for water. [Purchase: $89.95]
You never realize how important fire is until you get deep into the wild where it provides heat, discourages bugs (smokey), gives you a cooking tool and provides light. AExtreme Start’s pine firestarter is the solution. When you’re ready to burn, it lights quickly and starts a good raging bonfire in just a few minutes. Purchase: $6.49]
Enter OMeals. Each pack has its own biodegradable heater. Sure to enthrall the kids as you rip the boiler open, throw it in the sac and watch dinner cook itself. The lentils and beef was one of the best camping meals I’d ever had. My only complaint was the meal and its calorie count were both pretty small. [Purchase: $8.00]
Rack up some serious style points when you pack the Jet Boil Flash Cooking System along. This unique mini-stove is loaded with features so that you can have a hot and satisfying meal any place you roam. The Jet Boil Flash Cooking system can create a hot beverage for you in under 2 minutes! So, don’t miss the chance to upgrade your outdoor experience with the Jet Boil Flash Cooking System. Other features of this camping mini-stove include cooking cup clips to avoid spills, fuel canister tripod for stability, 1.0 Liter FluxRing cooking cup, adjustable stainless-steel burner, push-button igniter, stove burner and 100g fuel canister (stows inside the cup) and many more! [Purchase: $99.99]
So many people take the outdoors so seriously today; the most important thing is enjoying yourself. At a pound and some change, the ENO Doublenest Hammock is unnoticeable in your pack but with a 400-lb. weight limit, this 2-person nylon-taffeta hammock turns your backcountry camp into a luxury vacation. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration; but at the least it lets you chill in comfort with that significant (or not-so-significant) other next to those poor suckers resigned to squatting in the dirt like a bunch of animals. [Purchase: $69.99]
Cooking while Camping
Food tends to be a major focus in my life and that doesn’t change when I am out in the woods! (Ask my friends, they will tell you) Food is life……food is MY life! And come on, who doesn’t love a nice meal made solely on the grill!?!?!
Now, let me just admit that “grilling” is something I affectionately refer to as a “boy task” – not saying that I am not capable or knowledgeable, there are just certain tasks categorized in my silly brain that I don’t want to be responsible for….one of which is charring flesh (or veggies….they have feelings too) on a grill! I’ll eat after; just don’t want to be an accessory to murder (especially as a former vegetarian).
Grilling is an amazing way to experience just about any kind of food; there are so many options, things you wouldn’t have even thought about! Recently, my partner in crime and I explored grilled Angel Food cake with balsamic strawberries for dessert! Aaaa-MAAZING!
Whether grilling in the backyard, up on a mountain, or while car camping I like to make the best things possible! And remember…….eating like a king while camping is a quick way to get those friends that are timid about camping to get totally on board with how awesome it can be. It also helps to have people with less picky palates; this makes “kitchen experiments” so much more fun and exciting. Seeing the happy faces enjoying one of my creations is the icing on the cake!
You carry these things, these freeze-dried meals because they are light and take up the least amount of space possible and that is of utmost importance in the backcountry. No one wants to lug seven days’ worth of steak and potatoes that takes up most of your pack weight! Mountain House ($8) is my go-to in these situations. The Beef Stroganoff is pretty yummy! They have a variety of meals that can feed most palates. There are many vegetarian options out there as well, not just from Mountain House. [Purchase: $8.49]
Menu planning is a major component of eating while camping, but mostly while car camping.
Car camping means you can bring everything you would normally make in a fully stocked kitchen to make either over a fire or on a camp stove/grill. I have fond memories of car camping and eating my weight in pasta and Caesar salad or steak and potatoes!
Is your mouth watering yet? This was great! Wine, kabobs, pasta salad, and S’Mores! Good friends! Best night ever!
Being in the backcountry is amazing! I would forgo normal food for a few days or a week and have before for really amazing trips through the backcountry and let me tell you, they are worth it, 100%! I think everyone should do at least one multi-day trip in their lifetime. (It is the same thing I say about working in fast-food, I think everyone should do it at least once) It gives you a sense of completeness and appreciation for the people who did it long before you, barefoot and without some of the creature comforts that the industry has created today.
I try to do at least one big trip a summer! Maroon Bells (Elk Mountains), San Juan’s or Sangres and of course Wyoming! BUT……given the choice, while I love being in the backcountry and exploring the mountains and all their splendor, I would probably take car camping most weekends, because who doesn’t love a Bloody Mary or a Mimosa while listening to nature in the morning as the sun comes up!
Now, I am one of the first people to invite everyone and their mother camping with me, so I am not bagging on those that have less experience and I am by no means Cheryl Strayed (more on this badassery later); I am just saying it is nice to go with people who either have more experience/knowledge or an equal amount than you.
Having a big group of fun people is what makes the experience all the more exciting, fun and can usually turn into quite the party! New camping buddies can present challenges, as well as learning opportunities; depending on their experience, your experience, and the all-around desire to learn more about being in the backcountry.
Meeting and making new camping buddies is always an interesting experience; you get to talk about what you “normally” do and what they “normally” do and hopefully come together to find a common ground on packing, tools, cooking, and activities for your adventure. After all, showing up with three tents for two people is just silly! Usually, this also means a good chunk of your time together will be spent “gear chatting” and telling stories about past camping trips. This is usually where the conversations change into the “company you keep” topic.
The Camping Experience
This reminds of one of my great camping stories of a close friend of mine. He and I decided to be “tent buddies” for the weekend, and I totally knew what I was getting into. We had been friends long enough for me to know what to expect when I made this agreement. What I didn’t expect was that I was going to wake up in the middle of the night with my tent mate severely intoxicated and being placed in the tent….on top of me…… by a fellow camper! OUCH!
(In the morning we informed said fellow camper that there were, in fact, two doors to the tent) It was beyond amusing, to say the least, we still laugh about it to this day…even better than getting landed on was waking up in the morning to him stuck upside down in his sleeping bag yelling for me to help him! Lots of chuckles over breakfast that next morning.
So you see, the Company you keep can make or break a camping experience…..you could get the sourpuss that doesn’t want to do anything or help with anything or you could get the person that is the life of the party to come along and your sides will hurt from laughing so much!
Determining Your Camping Style?
Determining your camping “style” for a particular weekend is largely based on what type of activities you may be planning to pursue during those days. Backpacking up and over a pass or two, you definitely don’t want to carry your camp stove! Just hanging out at a campsite for a birthday celebration, you can bring just about everything but the kitchen sink with you!
Where you go in the state will also determine how cushy or how rough your experience may be. With fire bans in effect, flash floods, massive amounts of mud, and the threat of 40 other strangers joining your weekend (human or animal), all out of your control, it’s hard to predict how well the weekend can go. Finding a place that doesn’t charge a fee, that’s off the beaten path, allows you to build a fire, and awards you the opportunities to either get away or be as connected as ever (with a different view) are all things that come into play when planning a camping weekend.
Being as my friends say, “overly active” my haunts are typically at the base of a 14-er (mountains over 14K feet tall) so I can get up before the sun comes up and tackle one of the most physically and mentally challenging activities that Colorado has to offer.
For example, camping at the base of Crestone Peak (one of the toughest 14-ers I have experienced) was definitely a rewarding and new experience. After a two-mile backpack in from the parking lot, you’re greeted with this daunting view of the morning task you are about to tackle in 12 short hours, AND you still have to set up camp!
Sigh! This campsite did not award us the ability to start a fire, so dinner was the standard backpacker meal of freeze-dried food with your backpacker utensils (think reusable Taco Bell Spork) and trail mix and an early turn-in zipped into your warmest bag to get as much rest as possible before the morning. When you have completed the task, that’s when the celebration begins and the two beers you complained about carrying on the way up to taste, “oh so amazing” when you make your way back to camp.
That being said, not ALL my camping experiences require a massive amount of mental and physical acuity; sometimes I like to just sit around a campfire or along a creek shooting the breeze with my nearest and dearest. Maybe we get into a game of bags or cards, or we just lay around soaking up all the rays, or maybe we find some decent rock and set up some climbing routes. These “car-camping” trips are usually filled with amazing food too; steak, KABOBS, plenty of snacks, actual plates, and plastic ware, and ALWAYS some sort of fun “adult” beverage (or not). It all depends on what you are looking to do and how you find your center in those experiences. My summers are usually an equal mix of the two!
In those moments, when I want to just have a “chill” camping experience, I find myself up off Guanella Pass (just outside of Georgetown or Fairplay-depending on your route) or at the Tarryall Reservoir inside of Pike National Forest not much further from Fairplay. These spaces offer you the best opportunity for dispersed camping where you can do just about anything from shoot guns, kayak, rock climb, flip your ATV over or just relax in the sun. These easy camping trips have made up so many of my favorite Colorado Camping memories. #GetOutside and #MakeYourOwn
Being in the backcountry can be scary and unnerving to a person that has never experienced it before. Which is why I highly recommend a “soft” camping experience for these people, until they know the ropes, what to expect, and are sure it is something they even will enjoy in the future. There is a fine line here, if you take a newbie camping and it is the most horrific experience of their life, you will surely ruin them to this idea any time in the future. “Soft” camping can be equated to car camping somewhere not so far off the beaten path where very little has the possibility to go wrong and change aside from their bed and their view. This way, you can be sure not to get stuck 15 miles deep in the woods with someone having a panic attack! (Trust me, this is NOT fun!)