If you don’t have much camping experience, you’re not alone. Over the past 20 years, fewer kids have been introduced to the outdoors, so a declining number of people have grown up camping with family and friends. It’s no surprise, then, that many adults these days have never pitched a tent or cooked over a camp stove.
If you’d like to start camping, but aren’t sure where to begin, car camping in a state park is a great first step. When you camp in a park close to your vehicle, you can enjoy the outdoors without having to rough it too much.
At most state parks, you’ll have access to toilets and hot showers, so you’ll feel a little more comfortable about being in a primitive environment. With a vehicle, you’re not limited by weight, and you can pack in roomy tents, tasty food, and other creature comforts that help people ease into camping.
With your vehicle serving as a safety net, you can also learn the ropes and make mistakes without dire consequences. If you forget to pack something, or a piece of gear breaks, you can just drive back to town for more supplies.
If car camping sounds like your kind of adventure, this quick start guide includes more info on the benefits of car camping, and offers tips on picking a destination, preparing for the trip and packing the necessary gear.
The Case for Car Camping
If you aren't even sure if car camping is for you in the first place, here are four reasons that might convince you otherwise:
1. There’s more room for error.
If you hike deep into the backcountry and something goes awry, you often have to just deal with it. But, car camping allows you to deal with mistakes in the outdoors more easily. If you forget to pack something or completely scorch dinner, you can usually drive down the road a few miles and find more provisions. Also, car camping is a good opportunity to become familiar with gear and perfect your systems. If you discover one night in camp that your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough, you can grab an extra blanket that you’ve packed in the car.
2. "Roughing it" doesn’t have to be so rough.
Some people like the outdoors, but cringe at the idea of going without a shower or indoor plumbing. At most state park campsites, you can camp near a bathhouse (aka "comfort station") with toilets and hot showers. Because your car allows you to haul more weight, you can also bring large inflatable mattresses and cots, so you don’t have to sleep on a thinner sleeping pad. Also, some tent-camping sites include electric outlets, so you can plug in a fan to cool down a tent on a hot summer night.
3. You can relax.
Some people relieve stress by strapping 40 pounds to their back and hiking for miles in remote wilderness. To others, that sounds like a lot of work. With car camping, your retreat won’t tax you physically, unless you tack on a long side hike or bike ride on a park trail. Because car camping requires minimal physical exertion, you don’t have to be super fit or strong to enjoy it, and small children can have fun, too.
4. You can mix in extra activities
Your campsite can serve as a home base for all sorts of day trips. In most state parks, you’ll have easy access to hiking and biking trails or lakes and streams. For daytime entertainment, you can walk in the woods, hop on a mountain bike, or go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding.
Where to Go
Ranging from north Alabama to the Gulf Coast, Alabama’s state parks include a wide variety of car camping sites, whether you’re looking for a mountain retreat, or a spot near a lake, a stream, or even the ocean.
Many parks offer a variety of campsites, including full hookup sites that provide water, electricity, and sewer for RVs and other types of campers. At some parks, you can pitch a tent in a full hookup site, or choose a less expensive tent-only site (which often has electricity and water). Plus, more parks now have primitive campgrounds with sites that have a picnic table and fire ring, but few other amenities. Typically, tent-only sites and primitive campgrounds will offer more privacy and peace and quiet.
To research parks and book reservations, visit alapark.com. With some parks, you can see what’s available and reserve a campsite online, but others require you to book by phone. Just remember that it’s best to book several months in advance, as campsites go quickly, especially for the summer, weekends, and holidays.
Any of these parks would be a great choice for a car camping experience:
Located on Lookout Mountain near Fort Payne, DeSoto State Park has 25 miles of hiking and biking trails, an abundance of waterfalls, and opportunities for canoeing and kayaking on Little River. The park’s Improved Campground includes 94 full hookup sites and two nearby comfort stations with restrooms, showers, and a coin laundry. Tents are allowed at these sites, which also have picnic tables and grills.
Situated atop 1,600-foot Monte Sano Mountain in Huntsville, this 2,400-acre state park has scenic overlooks, 22 miles of hiking and biking trails, plus quick access to more trails on adjacent land trust property. Also, the vast picnic area includes a large playground. In the park’s main campground you’ll find 89 campsites, including 15 full hookup sites and dozens of others with water and electricity.
Located at an elevation of 2,407 feet on Cheaha Mountain, Cheaha State Park has four miles of trails that lead to amazing views, waterfalls, and rock climbing areas. Plus, you can swim in a six-acre lake that includes a beach with a playground. Adjacent to the park you’ll have access to longer hikes on the Pinhoti Trail, Odum Scout Trail, and Chinnabee Silent Trail. At the Improved Campground, all 72 sites have water, sewer and electrical hook-ups, plus picnic tables, grills and access to bathhouses. In the Semi-Primitive campground, sites have picnic tables, a fire ring, communal water spigots and access to bathhouses. Plus, you’re within walking distance to hiking trails and the pool. At the Primitive Campground, there’s no electricity or picnic table, but there is a fire ring, community water faucet and bathroom.
Rather than rent an expensive condo, you can car camp just 1.5 miles from the beaches at Gulf Shores. At Gulf State Park there are 496 improved campsites with water, sewer, electricity, a picnic table, grill, and access to 11 bathhouses and two playgrounds. Tucked into the trees there are also 11 primitive campsites that include stone campfire rings, grill tops, picnic tables and access to bathhouses, playgrounds and laundry facilities. Just be aware that summertime is probably not ideal for tent camping here, as it’s very hot, and conditions are more favorable in the late fall, winter and early spring.
A beautiful 69,000-acre lake is your backdrop when you camp at Lake Guntersville State Park or the neighboring Town Creek Fishing Center. In the park, you can fish, go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, or hike 36 miles of trails. In the park’s main campground there are 295 improved campsites with electrical hookups, picnic table, grill and fire ring. Plus, there are bathhouses and a playground. You’ll find more campsites along the water at the Town Creek Fishing Center, which also offers bathhouses and boat rentals.
What to Take
Several websites, such as REI.com, offer comprehensive gear lists for car camping. While prepping for your first trip, keep in mind that you don’t have to break the bank to be sufficiently outfitted (and you can rent some things, too). While you should invest in a few key items, you can also incorporate things you already have around the house.
Tent: Opt for a tent that provides good elbow room, rather than a shelter that’s small and cramped. This will give people room to store clothing and a few extras, plus you’ll be more comfortable if you have to stay in the tent for a long time during a storm. Cabin-style tents are great for families with small kids, but if you have older kids, consider providing them their own modest-sized tents for space and privacy.
Sleeping systems: Ensure that sleeping bags are rated to handle the coolest temperatures that you’ll encounter. If you’re not ready to invest in bags, consider renting them. Also, pack foam or inflatable sleeping pads to protect you from the cold, hard ground. For ultimate comfort, bring an inflatable air mattress, and pack extra blankets in case someone gets cold. Since you’ll have room in the car, pack your own pillow.
First-Aid Kit: You can build your own kit from store-bought items, but pre-assembled kits can actually be less expensive, and some include helpful guides that explain how to use the contents. To choose the right kit, you need to consider the length of your outing, how many people the kit will serve, and the particular needs of people in the group. At most outdoor stores, you’ll find a wide range of kits from super-lightweight pouches for solo travelers, to beefy family kits.
Camp Kitchen: Save money by using your own kitchen supplies for your first trip. When you’ve planned your menu, fill a plastic storage container with necessary items, like a skillet, cook pots, pasta strainer, plastic bowls, plates and cutlery, a kitchen knife (with sheath) for food prep, a spatula, measuring cup, and insulated mugs for hot drinks. Because kitchen items get dinged up while camping, you’ll eventually want to buy extra skillets, pots, etc., so you don’t wreck things you need for your home.
Headlamps & Lanterns: Invest in a headlamp for each camper, so people can keep their hands free as they move around in the dark. For general use around camp, most headlamps on the market will perform just fine. For car camping, it’s helpful to have a battery powered lantern for common eating areas and the interior of your tent. With the soft glow from a lantern, you can eat, play games, or locate items without draining headlamp batteries or blinding your tent-mates.
Toiletries & Extras : For the bathhouse, pack a washcloth, towels, shower shoes, personal hygiene items, plus extra toilet paper.
Toolbox: Pack a toolbox or plastic container with utility items, such as a rubber hammer to drive in tent stakes, extra tent stakes, a mattress pump, and repair kits for tents and sleeping pads.
Day packs: Bring along small packs for hikes and other day trips.
Just because you’re new to this camping thing, doesn’t mean you want everyone else to know it. Here are a few tips that will make you seem like a seasoned camper.
Quiet hours: Most campgrounds have quiet hours, so be a good neighbor and honor these rules. In some campgrounds, people play music and watch TVs, but you should avoid flooding the campground with unwanted noise.
Keep your campsite clean: Put trash in appropriate containers and avoid leaving food out in your campsite. Otherwise, you’ll ants and unwanted animals, such as raccoons and mice.
Pet etiquette: Check to make sure that pets are allowed in the campground. In most cases, a dog must be on a leash.
Written by Marcus Woolf for RootsRated in partnership with BCBS of AL.