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Car Camp Like A Pro

Finding Campgrounds And What To Bring

With summer steadily approaching, we’ve got our mind on one thing: camping season. As an affordable and endlessly variable activity, it’s our go-to for getting out in the warmer weather with friends and family. Camping out of the car allows us to pack more creature comforts and be more adaptable to pursuing different activities and zones while away for the weekend. We can bring the bikes and paddle-boards, hiking boots and bocce ball, anything we may want to make the most of our mini-vacation. 

Where To Go

First, ask yourself what level of amenities you prefer: do you want access to a bathroom, firepit, and picnic table? If so, you’ll want to stay at a designated campground which often needs to be booked ahead of time. 

Reserve America handles bookings for most campgrounds on state and federal lands. However, national parks need to be booked directly through the National Park Service. HipCamp has also built an impressive catalog of campsites on private lands, primarily on the west coast.

Using one of the above booking sites is as easy as reserving a hotel room. And you can typically enter the campground’s name into Google Maps and navigate there the same way you’d find your hotel. And just like at a hotel, expect there to be multiple groups at the same campground, sharing in the natural spaces around you. 

If you’re looking to ditch the crowds, dispersed camping is your best bet, where you find a remote campsite in a national forest, on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, or in some state parks. Policies and best-practices vary by region: the LNT practices differ between the desert of Utah and the forests of the Midwest for example. Check out your destination’s BLM office for specific information about the region.

How To Get There

Navigating to a campground is easy. Finding a dispersed campsite tends to be a bit more complicated and requires more time.

To find a spot to camp in BLM land or national forests requires a lot of trial and error. Add in some buffer time for your first night to find a spot–it could be just off the highway or may require some zigzagging through canyon country. Make sure you’re camping in either a designated campsite, or a well-used site, rather than creating new impacts on delicate landscapes. Satellite view on a mapping app will help you hone in on where folks have previously camped. While satellite view can help locate the well-used sites, it can still be hard to tell the road conditions leading to that perfect spot. Use caution when navigating rough roads and err on the side of caution if that road looks too steep or loose for your vehicle.

Sleep System

You’re going to need a tent, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad. Depending on your vehicle, your car may be the perfect shelter on its own with back seats folded flat. There are numerous tutorials online for creating bed platforms and storage solutions if you intend to car camp often and turn your everyday car into a true glamping set-up. 

Tents come in every possible array of weight, season and size considerations. If you’ll be exclusively car camping (not backpacking) a heavier-weight tent can save you some money on that investment, rather than an ultra-light and packable tent made for fast and light pursuits.  While a three-person tent can fit around three average-sized people lying parallel to each other while touching, bringing the same size tent for two people provides room to change, hang out, or finish the card game tournament when the bugs come out. If you’re camping with a dog, plan for an extra person’s worth of space for them to also get cozy while sleeping outside. 

Consider the weather you’ll be in while camping when shopping for a sleeping pad. Sleeping pads not only provide comfort against the less-than-comfortable ground but also insulate to keep you warmer. Check the “R-value” of sleeping pads: the higher the number the more insulating. There are some great options for double sleeping pads, so you can avoid the dreaded gap in the middle of a tent between two pads. 

Sleeping bags can feel like an overwhelming choice: with the numerous options of temperature, insulation, and shape. Synthetic fill bags, which are less packable than down, work great for car camping, where space is less a concern. Temperature ratings on sleeping bags are generally survival, not comfort ratings, so aim for a lower temperature bag than the weather in which you’ll be camping. A 30-degree bag is great for general summer use, and you can add a sleeping bag liner for additional warmth as needed. A 20 or 15-degree bag works well for three-season use. If you’re unsure of the weather, it’s always worth adding a few blankets or quilts to the car just in case.

Cooking

Even if you plan to have a campfire, a portable camp stove is great to bring along. Especially for morning coffee, a stove helps boil water more efficiently, and you don’t have to worry about having the fire out before you set off for the day’s adventure. Single- or double-burner stoves come in all shapes and sizes. Depending on the complexity of meals you have planned, a wider base can better support larger pots or frying pans. 

While disposable plates and silverware can seem like a simple solution, they’ll generate lots of waste to pack out from your campsite. Bringing along some reusable plastic plates or bowls, spoons, and cook-kit will lighten the load overall. Most of the same things in your home kitchen can do dual duty camping, like that small frying pan, spatula, and plastic plates sitting in the back of the cupboard. 

For food storage and cooking, we recommend freezing anything that can be frozen before you go, pack your cooler tightly, and try to minimize how often it’s opened while at the campsite. Packing in reverse order of use can help keep things cold: the last night’s dinner packed on the bottom of the cooler, with the first day’s food on top. You can do a lot of prep ahead of time too, to make meals more quickly at camp. Having pre-chopped veggies or even pre-made meals to heat up can be a great time-saver after a day outside.

Camp Comfort

There are a few things that can take your car camping set-up from so-so to comfy and cozy for a weekend of savoring time with friends. Solar-powered lanterns or string lights provide nice ambient light for cooking or hanging out after dark, without the hazard of headlamp beams. 

A couple folding chairs keep you from sitting in the dirt, and save the cooler from being used as a bench. If you’re headed someplace either prone to rain or very exposed sun, a canopy adds nice protection from the elements. Whether a pop-up tent style or a tarp hung between cars, a little shelter can add important comfort.

Clothing

It’s probably going to be colder than you expect, so make sure to have warm layers to keep comfortable. For trips at high elevation, a beanie, wool socks, and puffy jacket are great to have along for after the sun sets. For footwear, we like having some slip-on shoes for hanging around camp, in addition to any activity-specific footwear you have for the trip.

Emma Cunningham is a writer, creative marketing specialist, 500hr yoga instructor, & philanthropist. Now based in Los Angeles, Emma focuses on writing stories & content for brands committed to social & environmental good. Her personal mission is to educate & inspire others to grow more conscious about conserving the planet’s beauty.