Car Camping 101: What You Need (and What You Need to Know)

Car camping at Chester Frost Park
Car camping at Chester Frost Park Jake Wheeler
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Truth be told, there are a few things better than a good, old-fashioned car camping trip. Sure, backpacking to a campsite has its perks (more solitude, more exercise, more breathtaking scenery), but what car camping may lack in epic adventure, it more than makes up for in comfort, convenience, and virtually no barrier-to-entry.

At the end of a stressful workweek, retreating into the woods, spending time around a campfire with family or friends, crawling into the sleeping bag as soon as the sun goes down, and sleeping in the open air beneath the stars is about as good as it gets.

All in all, car camping is an excellent way to ease into camping—allowing you to partake in an authentic outdoor experience while still providing ample room for cozy amenities. It’s like your little weekend home, based in the parking lot, not too far away, in case there’s anything you need.

Here are a few tips and tricks (as well as a few fantastic places to visit in the Southeast), that will help ensure you have a memorable car camping trip.

Getting Organized

We’ve all been there before: scrambling around the house, searching for our missing headlamp, attempting to assemble a semi-edible assortment of whatever dry foods we can lay our hands on, cramming a strange clothing selection into a bag much too small.

Well, there are ways to ensure that these sorts of problems don’t arise. If you hope to take regular camping trips, it’s best to be completely equipped and organized prior to departure. In keeping gear structured at all times, when the right weekend rolls around, you will have already taken the organizational work out of the equation and be ready to go.

This starts with your car—the biggest (literally) tool in organizing a successful camping trip. If you own an SUV, you most likely have the option of folding up rear seating to allow for extra space. (Trucks with campers are also great!) But even sedans can be packed in a way that works. One of the best steps you can take is color coding your bags and bins, so that each piece of storage is easily distinguishable. With larger cars, plastic tubs can be used and labeled appropriately.

In addition to storage and sleep space, your car can also serve as a miniature kitchen. Do the prep work at home, or even pre-cook foods ahead of time, so that all you have to do later is heat up your meal. Bringing prepared foods inside a cooler, as well as a bin with old pots and cooking utensils, makes cooking extremely easy and on-the-go.

In the morning, rather than scrambling to retrieve a bear bag you slung from a tree the night before (one of the biggest pain points for backpackers), all you’ll have to do is walk over to your car, locate the storage container specifically designated for kitchen needs, and go from there. Grab your double burner camp stove, pour a couple cups of water from your gallon jug, wait for it to boil, dump in some oats, dice up a banana, and glop on a generous amount of peanut butter; and, voilà you’ve got yourself a delicious serving of oatmeal.

Having goods assembled also helps immensely for when things don’t go as planned.
After all, weather is always unpredictable. Temperatures may be warmer than anticipated, or colder; the skies may pour rain or inflict sunburn. You don’t want to be scrummaging through your car searching for your cooking supplies in the middle of a summer deluge.

Planning Ahead

Some people like to arrive at a campsite on a Friday and never once leave it until Sunday evening. Others like to use the campsite as a basecamp for further exploration of an area. Based on what kinds of activities you hope to do, you may need a separate packing list for each.

For example, if you’re planning a long trail run, you may want to consider an extra pair of socks and a hydration pack. If you wish to climb, you’ll want to prepare a climbing pack ahead of time—including rope, plenty of chalk, a harness and shoes, quickdraws and a grigri. Keeping each activity bag separate is beneficial, so when you go climbing, you won’t have to worry about re-packing; you can simply just snag the prepped bag, and go.

Also when mapping out activities for the weekend, a literal map is always useful. This way, you don’t have to worry about getting lost on a trail or accidentally hiking further than intended. Maps generally display trail difficulty level and distance, as well as an overall layout of the area and suggested places to visit. Procuring a map for each interest will help you to brainstorm places to go, as well as become aware of their proximity to one another.

In addition to planning activities, arranging a first aid kit provides peace of mind from the start. You probably won’t need to go overboard and bring rattlesnake repellent or a pair of crutches; but it’s always wise to bring along a small weekender kit, packed with basic wound care and medication.

Closing Time

When it’s all said and done, beer and grub are necessary on any camping trip. Bring a massive cooler that doesn’t require added ice, pack it with cold brews and meat to cook over a fire, and treat yourself! After all, this is really what a weekend car camping trip is all about.

Once you’re sufficiently full on s’mores, and the fire dies out, you’ll want to catch some Z's. Sleeping pads, a tarp, a quality sleeping bag, and pillows all will aid a good night’s rest. If you had left the car behind, a lot of these comforts would also have had to stay behind; but because you have the car space, why not smuggle into extra blankets and padding! (And in the warmer months, hammocks are always a good idea.)

When Sunday morning rolls around, the goal is for you to feel rejuvenated and inspired. By preparing your adventures, keeping your belongings organized, and packing appropriately, no obstacle can possibly interrupt your awesome car camping experience!

Elevate Your Car Camping Game

  • Check out a roof rack system. Adding a cargo box not only looks really, really cool, but it can afford some valuable space in your vehicle. Getting the extra gear up and out of the way will allow more room in your car for friends or family. Plus, Yakima makes great rack accessories that will ensure that all of your “toys” arrive at your destination safely.

  • Get a big tent. Nothing says “car camping” like a huge tent. Obviously, you can use your backpacking tent if you already have one, but the increased livable space of a big tent will take your car camping game to the next level. You won’t have to crawl over each other to get in and out which improves everyone’s experience. The Marmot Limestone 6 is one of our favorites.

  • Bring the thick pads. Treat yourself to a comfy night’s sleep on a thick pad that typically won’t fit into a backpack. Check out the Therm-A-Rest Neoair Dream if you want something really plush but still packable.
    Break out the double burner stove. Cook yourself some meals that require more than boiling water. A hearty breakfast can really start the day off right, and any opportunity to add luxury to your camping experience should be maximized.

  • Get a big, bad cooler. Let’s be honest, is there really anything more amazing than a cooler that keeps ice for a week? If you don’t have one already, you’re probably looking for an excuse... so go ahead and get the Yeti. A nice cooler will allow you the opportunity to cook more home-style meals, plus you’ll have a Yeti.

  • Harness the sun. Goal Zero makes some great products that allow you to remain reasonably connected to the outside world. Check out their line of solar panels and battery packs to make sure you keep a charge on your phone or device.

Additional Gear Checklist

  • Tupperware bins or duffle bags for organization

  • Comfy fold-out chairs

  • Hammock / Lounger

  • Music—the DreamWave Tremor is a durable, water resistant bluetooth sound system with up to 20 hours of play time and a shoulder strap perfect for toting around a campsite.

  • Games: corn hole, cards, backgammon, hacky sack, etc.

  • Lantern & headlamp

  • 5-gallon water storage

  • Wash basin, soap, scrub brushes

  • Firewood, tender, lighter

  • Group tarp (in case of rain)

  • Maps / Guidebooks

Where to Go

Originally written for Rock/Creek.

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