Car Camping – Essential Gear, Worth-It Upgrades, Lessons & Tips

Car Camping Set Up

After months of being stuck in the house during the cool spring months of 2020, I was ready to GTFO. Solution: Car camping.

Camping, in general, is a pretty inexpensive and healthy way to spend time, so getting out as often as possible is the goal. I had done a little bit of car camping, but mostly did backcountry backpacking. I was used to only being able to take what I could comfortably carry on my back. But, it can be hard to go backpacking every weekend. Car camping was the solution, as I could take the dogs along with me, be more comfortable, not have to travel as far, etc.

I wanted to make car camping as comfortable and easy I could, so that I could get out as often as possible. To get my car camping game tight, I did it for six consecutive weekends. Here’s what we learned.

Gear Essentials & Nice Upgrades

Generally, my camping style falls somewhere in between glamping and minimalist. In addition to the basic gear necessary for backpacking, here’s what I added or upgraded that made car camping awesome.

  • Bigger tent – No, not in the political sense….I actually bought a huge 4 person tent with an enormous vestibule. With all this space, I can have a queen sized air mattress, dog bed and other miscellaneous stuff without feeling cramped. If the weather is bad, I can actually set up the camp chairs inside, as well. The large vestibule helps keep shoes and other junk nice and dry.
  • Camp chairs – I love these minimalist little camp chairs I got from REI. These could theoretically be taken on a backpacking trip and don’t take up a lot of room.
  • Air mattress – Probably the best addition I made for comfort. Definitely a step up from the old blow up mattresses I remember as a kid, the one I got doesn’t send the other person flying every time you move, or leave you laying on the ground by morning time. I did upgrade to a rechargeable, cordless pump, as well. And don’t forget the pillows! I got a couple of little car camping pillows that stay with the sleeping bags, so they’re always in reach.
  • Folding table – While a tailgate can be very useful, I did decide a versatile table was worth shelling out a little cash. I liked this one because of how well it packed down, and the adjustable legs. Don’t find too many completely level places to put your table in the great outdoors.
  • Fire pit – Having a fire is just about my favorite thing about camping. Going to camp sites, though, even dispersed campsites, there is often not a lot of wood around to scavenge. Hauling wood is annoying. I found this little fold-able fire pit that will create a nice little fire from the smallest twigs, branches, etc. Provides a good bit of heat, ambiance, and theoretically you could cook on it. It is also easier to put out at night, as opposed to a raging camp fire with huge logs.
  • Propane stove – I went all in with the Coleman 2 burner propane stove. Heating up things on the backpacking stove wasn’t cutting it, and having to rely on the camp fire to cook things, as I mentioned above, can be problematic. This classic car camping kitchen appliance is worth it. And while I haven’t tried it yet myself, I learned that with an inexpensive adapter you can refill the little green tanks from you home propane tank. No throwing away those expensive canisters anymore!
  • Dutch Oven – This is really the height of extravagance for me. It weighs a ton, and can take some practice to master, but you can make pretty much anything in a Dutch Oven….pizza, nachos, stew, enchiladas, cakes! And everything tastes sooooooo good when its been cooked in a Dutch Oven. I follow this guy Levditti on Youtube just to see what he’s cooking up in his Dutch Oven.
  • Collapsible Cooler – A soft-sided collapsible cooler will keep things cold enough for a couple night car camping trip, won’t break the bank, or take up a lot of space in your house.
  • Water container – Take all the water you need for cooking, drinking, cleaning up, straight from your tap. Don’t buy the gallon jugs, get one or a few of these collapsible jugs.

You might have noticed a theme….collapsible, foldable, small. Space is a premium in your vehicle. I personally live in a pretty small space, as well. Whenever possible, I choose things that use space wisely.

Food Upgrades

Food options can really expand when you can have a cooler, real pots and pans, and no real weight or size restrictions. I love to eat, and don’t mind cooking, so this is the best difference between backpacking and car camping. Adding the option of fresh fruits, veggies, and my beloved cheese, adds so much to quality of life while camping. In addition, I’m able to carry a full bottle of hot sauce with me now; crucial!

Keep things simple and organized, (more about that later,) and you’ll be eating large in the outdoors.

Favorite Meals for Car Camping

Frito Pie

Frito Pie tops my list of favorites pretty much anytime. But it’s especially good for car camping. It’s quick, easy, hardy, and customizable. Take a bag of Fritos (some people like to do personal mini bags, and pour toppings right into the bag, but I like way too much stuff on mine for that to work), your favorite canned chili, and whatever you want on top. Amy’s Kitchen Spicy Chile is my go-to.

Before you go, chop up lettuce, tomato, onions, or any other fresh veggie you like. Sharp cheddar cheese is a must for me. My partner has to have pickled jalapenos. The full bottle of hot sauce, comes in handy here, so you can spice it up as much as you like. If you’ve talked some friends into going camping, too, Frito pie is generally a crowd pleaser. Having this meal while car camping is nice, because you may be at a campsite with an actual bathroom. At bare minimum, you’ve been able to bring a good amount of TP. 😉

Mountain Stew

The contents of Mountain Stew are anything that makes you feel like you’re in the mountains! Being a mountain mushroom forager, my stew always contains as many types of mushrooms as I can find. Now, I don’t want to tell anyone how to live, but it is my strong opinion that stews should contain potatoes. I found the little fingerling ones work great, no peeling, no chopping. Throw in garlic, onion, carrots, etc. Must have some bullion cubes, as well. Throw everything in the incredibly heavy dutch oven that you’ve been able to bring, and fill with a large amount of water that you have available in your water jug.

Since you’re car camping, you will likely have a nice fire ring to build a fire or light up some charcoal. And since you’re out in nature, you don’t really have much to do but sit in your camp chair, tend the fire, and wait for your stew to boil and blend ingredients into the perfect taste of the mountains. Sop up the precious broth with a nice crusty bread that you’d never have been able to drag along backpacking.

Organization Upgrades

Clear plastic, shallow boxes, with labels – this is really the secret sauce to car camping. I get made fun of quite a bit by my so-called ‘friends’ for my labels, but I do think they’re useful. You can organize how it makes sense to you, but the goal is to have a general sense of what is or should be in each box.

  • They are easy to grab and throw in the car.
  • Nothing can get buried too far at the bottom that it is inconvenient to grab.
  • You should be able to see everything that is in the box easily.

Car Camping Kitchen Box

I do recommend having a box that contains all your kitchen stuff. Purchase stuff you need for cooking so that you can always have it in the box and don’t need to take things from your regular kitchen. You will forget something and it takes too long to gather things. Things I have in my kitchen box:

  • Can opener. I am quite the can opener connoisseur, and I can say the EZ- DUZ-IT is the best.
  • Spatula, Ladle, Serving Spoon
  • Knives & Cutting board
  • Spices/Oil/Hot Sauce
  • Trash bags
  • Paper Towels
  • Matches/Lighters
  • Tin Foil & Ziplock Bags
  • Dish soap
  • Collapsible Mixing Bowls and Measuring Cups

Goal is to go Camping Quickly & Stress Free

Ideally, you should be able to decide to go camping at noon on a Friday, and be out the door early Saturday morning, relatively stress free. Now, you’re able to grab your containers, your sleeping bag (with your pillow in it), your travel toiletries bag and some clothes, stop by the store on your way out of town to throw some stuff in the cooler, and bam! You’re enjoying your roadtrip playlist as you drive to a camp site.

Camp Sites

Depending on your vehicle, your comfort level, your location, camp sites will vary. National Forests, State and National Parks, and BLM public lands are always a good place to start. There are private camp grounds, as well. If you’re looking for dispersed camping, I would recommend iOverlander.

Its good to have a few ‘old haunts’ that are your go-to’s, and a list of new places you’d like to try. Having the list of new places already researched and ready to go can help with spontaneity….I know, it’s planning for spontaneity, an oxymoron, but nerds like me can’t help it. I have a spreadsheet for everything, including potential car camping places so when the mood strikes or opportunity arises, I’m able to be more spontaneous (stored-up spontaneity!)

Random Pro Tips

  • Toilet paper packets – I always have lots of little packets of toilet paper in zip lock baggies. I have them in every jacket, every backpack, in every camping box, side pockets of the car doors…you get the idea. It’s always nice to have quick and easy access to dry toilet paper.
  • Sunscreen & Hand Sanitizer – like the TP packets, I have mini travel sized sunscreen and hand sanitizer stashed everywhere.
  • Dog lovers – dog bed/blankets should be made of slick material. I have thrown away dog beds because they were too hard to get all the sticks/leaves/pine needles, etc. out of them.

Other Lessons

  • You can get more people to go car camping with you than you can backpacking. I was able to get anywhere from one other person to a dozen + to join me for car camping. It is a fun way to socialize, and bond with new and old friends. Like the guy that I lent my extra sleeping bag to because his dog peed on his….we’ll be forever friends.
  • Don’t over pack. You will probably be just a few hours from a town, and gone for only a few days. Don’t worry too much about being prepared for every contingency. You can get creative, make friends with a nearby camper, or if need be, just book it back to civilization pretty easily.
  • When the news sucks, its really good to go camping! Let’s face it, the news is never really good. Getting away from screens and info-streams is so beneficial to mental health. Being able to quickly throw things in the car and have an inexpensive, yet comfortable experience in the outdoors is a great way to unplug and actually recharge.

Pack-up Your Car and Go Camping!

After reading this, you should have a pretty good idea what you need to go car camping, and an idea how to organize things so that its easy to pack and go! Hopefully, you’re also filled the inspiration to go out and enjoy the outdoors more, and that car camping can be a good tool for you to do so. You can keep it on the inexpensive side, and know that you’re likely to have a really big return on your investment. You’ll be rich with memories and good stories.

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