Car Camping Tips

Home & Family, Outdoors
on June 17, 2001

Looking for a fun and inexpensive outdoor escape? Try camping from your car.

Think of car camping as a backpacking trip on wheels. Backpackers carry all they need for a week or more in the wilderness, so think of your car’s trunk—or a car-top carrier—as one oversized backpack. And you can take along a few comforts as well.

What’s needed are the basics—shelter, food (and a means of preparing it), changes of clothes, sleeping bags or blankets, a flashlight, first-aid kit, and that handy camp tool, a pocket knife.

For shelter, consider buying a tent sized just for sleeping; extra gear can be stored in the car. A couple can get by in a two-person tent; a family will want something larger. Even a tarp will work as a lean-to, though it may not keep off rain if a wind blows.

One tip: set any new tent up in the back yard before you take off. You don’t want to arrive at a campground at dusk and find yourself reading instructions in the dark.

A rule of thumb: in car camping, as in backpacking, think compact. Everything you take must fit in the car and allow room for passengers. Sleeping bags should be “stuffable,” ground pads should roll up into small bundles, and if you take outdoor furniture, compact camp stools are better than chaise lounges. Most campsites have picnic tables.

For cooking, many state or national campgrounds (which almost always have tent sites) provide fire rings or grills, but because wood may be scarce, take a bag of charcoal, or a small, white-gas camp stove. A small grill plate also is handy if one isn’t at the site. Throw in a few pots, pans, cutlery, paper plates, and easily prepared food, and you’re almost ready to go.

Don’t forget a plastic container of water (avoid glass on camping trips). While most campsites have potable water, it’s good to take a few gallons, just in case.

For convenience, put gear in boxes or duffels. Pack cooking gear and food together, clothes and sleeping gear separate. When you arrive at a campsite, you can pull your portable “rooms” out of the car as you need them—kitchen, bedroom, closet. Remember, the simpler the better.

“Roughing it” for a weekend can be fun, and if it can’t be packed in a car trunk, chances are you don’t need it.