The Joy of Car Camping – Base Camping for the active outdoors person

Car Camping.

For many people who love being outdoors,  car camping is their first introduction to the outdoor lifestyle. Eating a meal prepared on a Coleman stove, sitting around a campfire, eating smores, and hoping it does not rain so much that they are under a blue tarp the whole time.

As a person grows older, people pursue car camping less and less.

Backpacking and getting deeper into the wilderness with fewer items of gear strikes their interest.  Multi-day climbs and bivvying along a sheer wall hold more allure.

Or ‘done-in-a-day- activities’ dominate.  Getting in a trail run, a ski, a mountain bike ride, a climb or a day hike seem more doable in an increasingly crowded schedule.

Which is too bad;   car camping can be enjoyable, rewarding, and still have a place in an active outdoor person’s lifestyle.

Updated Dec 2019.

Dispersed camping somewhere in Nevada

Sections of Article

Why Car Camp?

Many people are sometimes surprised when I advocate car camping as a viable activity for an avid outdoors person (esp considering how much backpacking I’ve done).

For many, car camping gives visions of a loud party-like atmosphere with lots of music, crowded KOA campgrounds, and more of a tent city and less an idyllic outdoor experience.

The truth is, car camping in the right situation can be an excellent way to experience the outdoors depending on the outdoor activity or time of the year.   Rather than car camping, it is more the base camping mode that I advocate. Something to come back to when you complete the outdoor activity for the day.  We camp, but it serves the purpose of allowing more of the event during the day to pursue. I typically tend to perform this type of camping when it is late autumn, winter, or when road-tripping.

Joan enjoying the sunset from our campsite in the Bears Ears area.

 

The kind of car camping we are talking about

As mentioned, this article is more about base camping. A way to explore an area actively and being immersed in the outdoors and having something to come back to at night.

This article is not really about car camping for the sake of camping (which can be fun and enjoyable in its own right at times) or a quick trailhead bivy the night before a big backpacking trip (often necessary and utilitarian esp after long drives ). But instead, we are talking about a type of camping for a person who loves to be out all day. And then have a place to call home at night (or nights) without the hurrying back to what they tried to get away from in the first place!

This type of car camping is perfect for:

  • Day hikes in areas not usually a backpacking destination. By being there overnight or more, it is possible to get more immersed in an area that a day trip does not allow. Seeing the sunrise and set and following the cycle of the day is a beautiful way to get to know the subtleties of an area.
  • Allowing overnight trips into the late or early shoulder seasons more easily.  When the high country is full of snow and cold, it is easier to bring more clothing and amenities than backpacking allows.  I have enjoyed hut trips and winter backpacking. Still, sometimes it is easier logistically and gear-wise and to haul the extra clothing, accouterments, food, etc. required of winter activities for base camping purposes.
  • Climbing / canyoneering trips.  Similar to the first reason above concerning day hikes, many of the remote regions of Utah (as one example) do not lend themselves to quick day trips. And if you are doing slot canyons, backpacking is often not an option.
  • Winter activities where you do not want to schlep gear but still want to spend a night or two or more out
  • Or, just because you want to go camping!

 

Windmill at Pawnee Grasslands

Sunset from Pawnee Grasslands campsite. Not a backpacking destination, still a rewarding place.

 

Where to car camp?

There are many places to car camp. Some better than others!  I try to avoid the private campgrounds as those are often oriented towards RVs or people more into ‘party camping.’  Usually, these places are often on the expensive side, too.

Plus, these locations of the places are in the outdoor attraction that brought you there in the first place!

The common places where I car camp:

  • A National Park/Monument or State Campground  – These places are best avoided in the peak season as they can be crowded and are huge. Usually, they do not have very intimate or scenic sites. There are exceptions, though.  However, in the late or off-season, if you pick the right spot, the place can seem very secluded. When I went to the Great Sand Dunes in late November one year, we had the entire campground almost to ourselves.  We hiked the trails just outside the campsite, and we had a wonderful time exploring and immersed in this unique area.
  • USFS/BLM Campground – Usually smaller and a little more out of the way than the above. An excellent choice as these campgrounds are often next to or at trailheads and allow easy access to outdoor activities.
Wild Rivers Scenic area at Rio Grande Gorge

The view after a short walk from a  BLM campsite in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area at the Rio Grande Gorge

 

Gear and Equipment for Car Camping

When I go car camping, I tend to fall somewhere in the middle of ‘taking everything but the kitchen sink’ school of camping and my more austere solo backpacking.  I want to take some creature comforts because I am not hauling everything I need on my back; on the other hand, I want to enjoy the outdoors and not try to recreate what I left behind in the first place esp when I worked as an IT Monkey.  I’ll eat more than ramen, but there will no throw rugs, TVs, and camp stoves that make the one at home look like my old homemade alcohol stove!

Coming from a backpacking background, I have a lot of gear that I cycle into use as car camping gear. The heavy cookpot set from MSR that I received as a gift many years ago works great for car camping, headlamps that work well for night hiking seem to work pretty well in camp,  tarps make a sun or rain shelter and so on.

Be creative!  Just as many everyday items around the household work well for backpacking, many old cook pots, spoons, old picnic plastic wear, etc. work well for your base camp.  The thrift store can be your friend. Why spend a lot of money for something that is going to get beat up, get sand in it, exposed to the elements, etc.?

Enough of my dirt bagging soapbox. On to the more specifics…

Kicking back in Navajo National Monument the night before our backpacking trip. PCO Joan

Equipment During the Day

What to bring during the day are articles in their own right!  Depending on the activity, you’ll bring different gear.  Mountain biking, ski tours, climbing, and day hikes all take various tools.

Here are some examples that show a gear list for day hiking and another one for snowshoeing or winter activities in general.

Take the appropriate gear for the day, come back to base camp, and enjoy more of the same activity the following day!

Note that some of the clothing and gear you take for your day-use activity can easily transition to your camping. Examples included a headlamp, necessary warm clothing (hat, gloves, jacket, rain gear, etc.), water bottles, and so on are usually needed equipment and equipment that a person should have on them for the more activity-oriented camping trips.

Admittedly, a climbing helmet is NOT of much use in camp…

Tent For Car Camping

I find the best shelters are ones NOT meant for car camping.  The tents sold for car camping are usually not the most weather worthy, tend to be made cheaply, and do not work that well at protection from the elements.  I may be a dirt bagger at times, but that does not mean I want a leaky tent above me! (or, more importantly, does someone 😉 )

Instead, buy tents intended for backpacking, but maybe on the heavier side.  Eureka, Alpine Designs, REI’s house brand, and Kelty  (among others)  make ‘bread and butter‘  backpacking tents that are spacious, not expensive and will not have to be worried about as you are on your daily activity.

Our car camping tent of choice ends up being an REI Hoodoo 3. Spacious for two people, free-standing, two-vestibules, weather worthy, and cost under $150 in 2019 dollars.

I advocate a three-person tent since you are not schlepping the gear on your back, why not take the extra room? Most two-person backpacking tents allow just enough room for two people. A three-person shelter gives the extra elbow room that makes for a comfortable night without a weight penalty because you are not schlepping the gear.

Free-standing or not..always stake the tent down! Just ask this couple on one of my backpacking trips. 😉

Another option for shelter is what I call a truck bivyOwning a small pick up with a camper shell in the past, I must confess it is convenient at times to camp this way at times.  I’ve done truck bivvies on many occasions near trailheads after a long drive before a backpacking trip.   Pull up to the site, roll out my pad and sleeping bag, and then heat my water for my coffee on the tailgate the following day. Convenient and easy!  My current vehicle works like this for solo use.

For the base camping via car camping, it can make sense to camp this way if you have such a vehicle.

No wet tent, and it is is easy to pack up in the morning. Throw a tarp out front, and you have a nifty and serviceable shelter.

I prefer to keep it simple for my truck bivvies with nothing more than what I would use in a tent. I am always set up and ready to go for this type of quick camp.

But this article by Swaygo caving gear (another activity perfect for base camping) gives some good ideas if you want to get more elaborate. The part about using a tarp to extend the truck shelter is esp useful.

In the high desert of late spring, a sun shelter is more useful than a rain shelter!

 

Sleeping Gear for Car Camping

At this point in our outdoor experience, we not only have dedicated tents and stoves committed to car camping but also sleeping bags and pads. Weight may not be a concern, but we want useful gear that works well and does not cost much money what activity we might partake in during our outdoor time.

Sleeping Bags for Car Camping

As mentioned, we sometimes take our standard sleeping bags used for backpacking.  However, since we often car camp in places during the offseason when it is both less crowded AND colder, we have been taking these -15F semi-rectangular bags from the Sportsman’s Guide.  I find these bags exceptionally warm and even used one in the Badlands during December.

They zip together to form one large bag for couples (awwwh!), can be opened up to use as a large quilt in cooler-to-warmer weather, and can be individually used (and cinched up) for warmth during cold snaps.  The fleece lining inside makes for an extra comfy bag.  I question the -15F rating for all but the biggest, burliest hunter that uses these bags. However, they kept a past partner, a very cold sleeper,  warm in the single-digit temps we saw in the Great Sand Dunes National Park one night over Thanksgiving Weekend. At about $65 each, they are also quite the bargain.  These bags are hefty and bulky, but if you are car camping, and space is not a premium, then you don’t need to worry about schlepping the extra weight. We’ve been very pleased with these bags.

In our shelter, one frosty morning. Temps hovered just over 10F according to our “neighbor.” PCO Joan.

Sleeping Pads for Car Camping

Over the years, I started keeping some gear in my vehicle for some last-minute trips or trailhead bivvies. The Lightspeed sleeping pads sold at Costco have been perfect: High R-Value, comfortable, durable, and reasonably priced.  I’ve used them for winter camping and multi-month road trips.

If you desire a single piece of padding for couples use, or you want to spread out in a large tent or truck bed,  people have reported good results with the Foambymail.com folks. I have not used them personally, but others gave good reviews.

Couple some closed-cell foam with an inexpensive but cushy, open-cell foam pad available at discount stores, and you can have a warm, relatively inexpensive, and comfortable sleeping pad system easily.

DO NOT buy those inflatable air mattresses available at discount stores and big-box sporting good stores. They tend to develop leaks and provide ineffective insulation from the cold ground.   If you wish to camp beyond the warm summer months, you are better off buying backpacking sleeping pads,  a variation of the foam system, or the Lightspeed sleeping pads mentioned above.

 

Even car camping, this type of pad may be problematic to schlep!!!

The Kitchen

There is one area that I tend to indulge in during car camping: the kitchen set up. When I go backpacking, jerky and dried fruit is considered gourmet fare, and often I bring no stove

When I go car camping? For trips aren’t just a ‘get up and go’ truck bivy for a backpacking trip, I want the yummy food. Perhaps it is my cultural background, but good food and the enjoyment of it with friends and family is something I find to be one of the great pleasures of life.

For the hiking oriented backpacking trips I do, the basic sustenance suffices.  For a trip where weight is not an issue, and there is plenty of cargo room? Bring out the beer packed cooler, the two-burner stove, the fresh veggies, and prepare something I would enjoy at home as much as I  enjoy surrounded by the mountains after a hard day of hiking.

The kitchen gear is my biggest luxury in car camping. But it is a luxury I willingly take and enjoy.

In the Badlands

The Stove

A stove is the heart of a base camp kitchen.  The stove boils the water for hot drinks at night and prepares the meals to start and end the day. Additionally, the quiet hiss of the stove is always soothing to me. This hiss signifies the start of another day out in the mountains, and the blue glow of the working stove at sunset means another night I am about to spend outside.

A stove for car camping can be very basic. If you are like many backpackers, there is a collection of stoves in your possession that work well enough.  The advantage of using an already owned backpacking stove is that no more gear is required. This type of stove also easily fits in a compact vehicle where space is a luxury item.

As mentioned, however,  I do like to cook and eat well on base camp style trips. As such, I bring a stove set aside strictly for base camp style trips.

White Gas Stove: For those trips, I have the old standby of a Coleman dual burner stove.  The white gas version of this stove has gone mostly unchanged for about fifty years (and the basic design itself goes to 1949)!  They are bomber, stand up to all kinds of abuse, and will last for years. Being white gas, they will work efficiently cold weather, too (unlike many non-white gas stoves meant for backpacking).   These stoves can are often tucked away at yard sales, thrift stores, and online for quite a bit less than brand new (eBay affiliate link).  Because they have been around so long, spare parts to refurbish them are plentiful and stocked at many stores selling outdoor products.   Other fancier versions are for sale as well, but this old standby has proven to be an excellent piece of gear over the years.

The disadvantage of the white gas stoves is that they are not as easy to use and are more expensive than the propane version of the same stove.

Propane Stove: The propane version of this stove uses the 1# propane cylinders available just about everywhere. I’ve seen for sale in Walmarts, grocery stores, gas stations, among other places.  These tans are not as easily refillable, plus it is hard to gauge how much fuel in the cylinder; the most considerable disadvantage IMO.

Though more expensive in the short term, a good solution for using propane, in the long run, is to buy a converter that will hook your stove into a standard type-1 propane tank (i.e., the one used for  BBQ grills).   If lugging a standard 20# propane tank is too bulky even for car camping, retailers also sell 5# tanks that are very inexpensive to refill and fit easily in a pre-assembled ‘grab and go‘ kit for base camping.   A 5# tank will easily last a typical amount of base camp style, car camping seen in a year. And if you need more fuel? The fuel costs less than $4 to fill at the local propane refiller.  I love not having to worry about the amount of fuel.

I currently use a propane stove with the bulk 5# tank and like this system.

Finally, if you want a dual propane and white gas stove, retailers sell a white gas to propane converter. I have used it for several years successfully.

Note: Converters and adaptors work well, but do require a little more vigilance about their use. Pay attention!  

Campfires: Campfire can be enjoyable to cook over. Add some foil-wrapped potatoes and corn to a bank of coals, grill some steak, roast some peppers, and finish it off with a cobbler. Yum! However, campfires are not always allowed due to fire bans or just being too fragile an environment.  Take a stove! And despite what people say, please don’t build a fire in non-designated fire rings. Fires in dispersed areas are about as relevant as trenching tents or burying garbage: Old practices from an earlier time. Even with a fire pan. 

On another note: Always pack a lighter with the camp stove.  Ignition switches do fail. Why fumble and look for the lighter when you can conveniently pack it with the camp stove?

Salmon, lemon, and dill? Why, yes!

 

Other Kitchen Gear

A stove is the main item for a backcountry kitchen, but not the only gear you need.

As with other gear, you can cycle in existing or old backpacking gear, older kitchen utensils, or raid the thrift store and dollar store. Many specialty camping items are often more expensive simply because it is sold in an outdoor store and has the word CAMPING slapped on the packaging.

There are many items and ideas to bring for a camp kitchen, but here is the setup we use. We find this setup fits all our basic needs and allows us to cook up many yummy meals after a day of being out and about in a beautiful place.

Open country 2qt and 4qt pots:  Perfect size for most of our needs.

Stockpot:  An old stockpot bought years ago at a dollar store works well for the occasional stew and pasta dishes, but also performs a multi-use duty for heating hot water to wash dishes. We can clean the dishes directly in the stockpot. And at least once we took some dispersed camping sponge baths with the heated water.

Frying Pans: A thrift store find, an ~9″ frying pan works well enough for the two of us to cook a variety of dishes for our camp. The stockpot lid of above fits perfectly on the pan. And an additional non-stick pan of 6″ completes the set. We removed the handles for easy storage and bought pot grips. 

Campstove Griddle: One of the few kitchen items I have bought and explicitly manufactured for camping, this simple grill fits over the typical two-burner stove. Good for sauteing!

Mmm…coffee!

Kitchen Utensils  A mix (again) of old kitchen utensils, thrift stores, and dollar store items. Nothing fancy. A wooden spoon, an old kitchen knife, a can opener, both a slotted and a non-slotted spatula, a ladle, and a soup spoon. Throw in a small plastic cutting board from the dollar store, and you have all the necessary utensils.

Personal eating gear: We use the insulated mugs from home and are often upfront in our vehicle They are also commonly used due to my caffeine addiction!  Some plastic wear works out for the rest of the eating. A plastic bowl and a plate from the dollar store and some simple Lexan utensils or old flatware works just as well, too.

Something I use solo, esp for overnight trail work, ends up being a Frisbee. Don’t laugh! A Frisbee is upturned enough to hold all but the brothiest soup type dishes (chili and stews work well, though), is cleaned quickly, and a ninety cent Lexan spoon completes the eating kit. Appropriately enough, I received the Frisbee for free from a trail work project, too.  I can’t take credit for this idea, though. VOC legend Steve Austin (yeah, that’s his real name) is famous for this trick at trail projects. I liked the idea so much I copied it!

Table: Not necessary, but nice. If you camp in areas that aren’t maintained, there are no picnic tables to cook on. A tailgate works well, but not everyone owns a pick-up. I’ve had excellent luck with a table from ALPS Mountaineering. 

Cooler: Easy enough.  Bring a cooler large enough to hold the fresh veggies, cold drinks, and other perishable items. Pick one that is big enough for your needs and use it!

A Pantry Tote:  Simply an empty plastic tote that I call the pantry. Spices, non-perishable items, drink mixes, etc. go in this bin.  In colder weather, more can go in this bin, and you can take a smaller cooler instead.

Water Containers:  At established campgrounds, water pumps are usually available for filling up containers. In non-established areas and during the off-season, you will have to bring your water supply in a container. Even in established areas in-season, a water jug is worth bringing as it eliminates having to go back and forth to the pump.  The collapsible five-gallon jugs are, to put it technically, crap. They all seem to spring slow leaks after a while. Better to spend the $20 for a rigid water container that is more durable and less expensive in the long term. If picking up and hauling 50 lbs of water is not feasible, you can purchase smaller ones as well.    Note that 2.5-gallon semi-disposable jugs that can you can refill with some finagling, water containers can be bought from the local grocery store for roughly $2 ea.

Cleaning Gear:  A small bottle of Purel or similar for hand washing before meals. Also, bring a small bottle of dish soap (used in an established campground where this is allowed), paper towels, a green scrubby, and a small, quick-drying camp towel comprises the kit for cleaning the kitchen gear. Note we use the stockpot listed above as part of the kitchen cleaning gear. This small also conveniently fits in the stockpot. Pack some garbage bags, too.

 

Some stew being made one early winter camping trip by Longs Peak during some earlier times.

Clothing for Camp

During the day, bring the appropriate attire for your chosen activity. As mentioned earlier, many of the clothing items used during the day can also work well for in camp.

At night, depending on the time of the year and location, more clothing is suggested to be packed than for day use. For the moderately cold temps seen many nights during three-season camping in the Intermountain West (around low 40s many times), you’ll want to take the following items:

  • Warm hat; I typically change into a 200 wt fleece equivalent.
  • Warm jacket, I typically use an old 200 wt fleece jacket or an old sweater. Much of my backpacking clothing is more delicate.
  • Long pants if I used shorts during the day. I like using surplus BDU or similar: Comfortable, durable, and not expensive. Works well for trail work, too!
  • Some heavier wool socks to change into

Weight is not an issue when car camping. Items I usually don’t bring when backpacking, such as camp sandals and a cotton t-shirt, feel great to change into after a day of sweating in my hiking clothes.

When camping shoulder season or even winter camping, I’ll typically bring the following items (again, weight not being an issue):

With our “permacamping” kit for quick overnighters. We went to Price, UT, for volunteer training in Oct 2019. We volunteered in a mixed company, and the beater coat looks a little too beater at times. 😉

This setup has kept me warm and comfortable sitting around in single-digit temps.

If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of deep winter base camping, the  Wintertrekking.com website is an excellent resource for all things related to base camping in the winter. They have fun on the rather cold (to put it mildly!) Canadian Shield.  Good enough for me!

A quick note about modern outdoor clothing around camp: Most modern outdoor clothing is lighter, more packable, and dries faster than their wool, cotton duck and leather counterparts of an earlier generation. However, one thing they are not? As durable!

If you find yourself doing camp chores (tending a campfire comes to mind),   you need more care is to take care of the more delicate clothing. An expensive down jacket can quickly go -POOF- with expensive feathers flying all over the place from one stray spark.  Thin nylon can rip easily when grabbing items such as firewood.

Besides being careful, another solution is to use some ‘beater’ clothes that can take the abuse and aren’t as expensive as your other outdoor clothing.  A thrift store fleece is less than $10,  BDU pants take a licking, and an oversized surplus field jacket will protect your warm (and expensive!) down jacket if you find yourself making a campfire.   The thrift store and surplus store make “go-to” places to find serviceable, inexpensive, and durable ‘beater’ clothing. Just buy clothing large enough to layer over your other clothes.

Misc Gear to Bring Car Camping

Some items don’t quite fit anywhere else but do add to the enjoyment and make life a little easier for car camping. Many of these items are more or less permanently in our car storage.

  • Bankline: Good for helping to tie down a tent or other equipment a little more, quick repairs, or setting up a tarp
  • Bungee cords: See above!
  • Small first aid kit: The basic kit brought for your day use activity is sufficient enough for the primary injuries you may encounter
  • Sunscreen: Always bring and wear this item for outdoor activities! Long sleeve shirts, long pants, and the appropriate hat can substitute.
  • Sunglasses: Protects from the UV radiation and glare from the Sun. I like safety glasses for their price and effectiveness.
  • Tarp: An 8×10 tarp provides much versatility that works well for setting up a cooking area, additional shelter from rain or sun, or even a basic tent it need be.
  • Camp Chairs: Collapsible camp chairs have been popular since about the mid-1990s and are an excellent item to have. I have seen them for under $10 at the local grocery store and at such places as Dick’s Sporting Goods sells studier chairs for about $20. You can pay more for fancier and even burlier ones, but I have good luck with the ~$20 store brand ones from “big box” places such as Dick’s.
  • Work gloves: Makes life a little easier for handling some things in camp esp. firewood. Not needed, but useful. I happen to always have a pair in the vehicle.
  • Gutter Nails: Works well as tent stakes for a tarp set-up, and the nails are not as prone to bending. They are inexpensive, too
  • Toilet Paper and Trowel: Though established sites usually have outhouses, non-established sites do not.
  • Knife: Another item carried by most outdoor people. An excellent thing to have handy. I like a simple fixed blade knife I keep stashed with the cord, duct tape, and bungee cords.
  • Bottle Opener: Stash it near or in the cooler. Not all beer bottles are twisties! 🙂

THanksgiving in the Grand Canyon, 2017.

Putting it all together

One part of camping that puts off many people is the phenomenon known as ‘gear explosion.’ With the various gear, clothing, food, and items used in car camping, it is easy to get disorganized and have items strewn about.

A bit different than a gear explosion. Being outdoors is way cooler than a Michael Bay film, however!

Another aversion to camping for people is how hard it seems to pack.  With so many items, it seems to take forever. It is far easier to pack for, say, backpacking (and even then, people have trouble!).

The trick is organization via pre-packing!

For all my outdoor activities, most of my gear is pre-packed and ready to go. I can go on a ski trip, a climbing trip, a day hike, or a backpack with minimal rearranging and packing of the gear. Everything has its place, is ready to go, and is always placed back where I found it.   This method works well for car camping, too.

The same method applies in camp (whether backpacking or base camping). This organization makes outdoor activities A LOT easier in many ways.

Here is the method that works for me.

It is a method I call Grab and Go.  Pre-pack all the gear, organize it, place it on the spot, grab it when it is time to pack and GO!

I can sum this method up in two words: PRE-PACKED TOTES!

We now keep a lot off the car camping gear in our shed. This allows Joan to have an area for sewing inside the house and easy loading in the car.

Others may have different methods.  But, as noted on previous trips, it seems like other experienced people have similar ideas and techniques…Take that thought for what it is worth!

The camp “maintenance” tote: In an old gym bag, old pack, box, cloth shopping bag, or small tote keep the following pre-packed in a camping ‘maintenance’ package:

  • Gutter nails
  • Duct tape,
  • Cord
  • Tarp
  • Bungee cords.
  • Carabiners end up useful at times

I also have fleece blankets, and poncho liners I bring that are strictly optional but can be handy to wrap in on cold mornings and chilly nights. The work gloves are optional as well, but another simple item that I find convenient at times.

The main tote: In one large tote, I have the following packed and ready to go at all times:

  • Camp stove and lighter
  • Pots, pan, and griddle, cutting board, and utensils
  • Personal eating gear,
  • Paper towels,
  • Camp towel
  • Scrubby
  • Dish soap

Pantry Tote:  We always have a lot of shelf-stable canned or dried food, olive oil, spices, and drink mixes and Nido powder in small twist-off jars ready to go. I restock after each trip.

I like to be organized. Gives me more outdoor time overall.

Next to all of the above: In your gear room/closet, basement, or garage, keep all of the above together in one convenient spot.  And next to those items, keep the cooler with bottle opener, water jugs, camp chairs, camp table, pads, and sleeping bags nearby. Again, all in one spot and ready when needed.  Then…Grab and Go!    As mentioned, Joan and I “cheat” and some of this gear in our 4WD vehicle.

Personal items: Rather than throw everything in one big tote, pack, or bag, I like to have my own clothing and toiletries separate. In a day pack (if hiking, for example), keep the items needed for the day (Ah!), throw that pack in a large duffel or similar, and put the other things inside the large duffel, such as extra clothing, toiletries, a headlamp, etc.  Small stuff sacks or plastic shopping bags help to organize the gear further.  If arriving at night, be sure the headlamp is *easily* accessible.   Place each duffel bag by the above items for an easy ‘grab and go’ when packing for the trip.

Other items: Trip dependent items such as hiking poles, climbing gear, bike equipment, etc. should all be kept nearby for when packing time comes.  If you are like me, these items are used more frequently than for just the camping trips. So, keep them nearby in a place the works well for camping and non-camping activities.

Pack all these items up the night before leaving (if possible). The morning of departing. Or a night of, depending, place all perishable items in cooler that are perishable or need to be cold (beer!),  fill up the water jugs and grab some pre-frozen water bottles. I always have a few of these in our freezer.

Enjoy!

Solo or quick camping?

Though not directly related to this article, I do have the following setup for solo camping or road trips for the late-night truck bivvies before starting a backcountry trip. I suggest reading the Permcamping Kit article and my Trucky Bivy article.

 

Oddly enough, most pickups cannot go up sheer cliffs.

 

First Things First! : Arriving at Camp

Upon arriving at camp, the first thing I like to do is get organized (sense a theme here?).  Esp after a long drive, it is tempting to pull out the camp chair, fish a beer out of the cooler, and relax.  For me, anyway, I find I lose motivation after I stop.

First, I find the campsite of choice and register if need be. Next, I set up the tent (if not doing a truck bivy), organize the kitchen, get the gear ready for the evening, set up the tarp if need be, set up the chair, pull out the cooler, and then drink a well-deserved beer. This half-hour of an organization (at the most) saves much frustration later.

Beer!

 

And finally… 

Car camping as a way to base camp can be a rewarding way to see the outdoors. Immerse yourself in an area for more than a day, where backpacking is not as feasible. Explore the slot canyons, climb those cliff faces, hike to the petroglyphs, travel, or descend into a gorge, and then enjoy the sun setting over where you played all day.

Camping is the way many people were introduced to the outdoors.   And there is no reason it should stop being part of an outdoors person’s life.  Continue to enjoy camping and all it has to offer.

Happy Trails!

In the Tushar Mountains. Joan and I went backpacking before we met up with our friends for a night of camping. Hence the Lunar Duo. PCO Joan W.

 

Car Camping Checklist

The following is a list of gear suggested for camping. It is aimed towards three-season car camping in the Intermountain West with an emphasis on hiking during the day.  Different activities (climbing, for example), family camping, winter camping, different locales, time of the year, and other factors may mean a different set of gear, clothing, and items to take. These methods are also my way of organizing gear.

Your ideas may be better for you.

Think of this list as a useful, all-purpose list that you can or subtract to based on your needs, activity level, and so on. This list is ultimately to give an idea of what works for you.

 

Check List

CATEGORY  ITEM NOTES
Gear and clothing for the day Items as  needed for the chosen activity This article includes a list of equipment for day hiking.
Shelter
Tent Pre-packed in or near the main tote
Poles
Stakes
Sleeping Gear
Sleeping Bag(s) Stored next to other totes/gear
Pad(s) “”
Kitchen Gear
Stove, lighter,  and accessories Pre-packed in or near the main tote
Fuel
Two qt and 4 qt pots
Stock Pot
Griddle
9″ Frying Pan

6″ Frying pan

Kitchen Utensils (Ladle, large spoon, slotted and non-slotted spatulas, tongs, knife, can opener) stored in a mesh bag
Small cutting board
Personal eating gear (Lexan spoon, knife, and fork. Plastic plate and bowl. Insulated mug)
Cleaning Gear (Purel, paper towels, scrubbie, dish soap, small camp towel)
Garbage Bag(s)
Water Jug(s) Stored near totes
Camp Table Stored near totes
Cooler with bottle opener Stored near totes. Filled with perishable food, ice, and cold drinks when leaving for a trip
Pantry Tote Pre-packed with olive oil, spices, hot drink mixes, and shelf-stable food
Camp Clothing
Warm Hat In personal duffel
Light wool and heavier fleece gloves
Long underwear top and bottoms
Fleece jacket
Long Pants
Rain gear (may already be packed in day use clothing)
Change of socks
Camp shoes
Hiking Boots if cooler at night
Misc Gear
Toiletries (toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, etc.) In personal duffel
Cord With maintenance tote
Bungee Cords
Duct Tape
Tarp
Gutter Nails
Poncho Liners and blanket(s)
Carabiners
Small First Aid Kit Should be in day use kit
TP and Trowel In the main tote
Lantern
Headlamp With personal gear. May already have packed in day use kit.
 Knife May already be with the day-use kit
Extra Sunscreen With personal gear; clothing may substitute
Work Gloves (optional) With maintenance tote
Camp Chairs Stored near totes and other gear
Firewood (optional) Preferably picked up locally near the camping area. Most maintained campsites have restrictions about picking up wood from the site itself.  At a maintained site, the campground host will often have firewood for sale.

 

Only have a campfire if conditions permit!  Sometimes there are fire bans in place, and some areas do not allow fires at all. Please be careful if you decide to have a campfire. Only build a campfire in designated campfire rings. 

Other Resources

 

Camp and woodcraft are far beyond the scope of this article. But, here are some additional resources that can prove to be interesting reading or viewing.

How to start a campfire in wet weather, bake biscuits over wood coals, choose a camp spot, make kindling, etc.  skills are increasingly rare, and perhaps not as needed in some cases, but are interesting to know, apply and use from time to time.

Plus, it can be fun!

Tent And Car Camper’s Handbook: Advice for Families & First-timers (Backpacker Magazine) by Kristen Hostetter A good meat and potatoes guide for people new to car camping.

Woodcraft Wanderings A website dedicated to more survival type skills than basic camping. Interesting reading.

Winter Trekking.  I love this site! An in-depth discussion on gear, clothing, and techniques for being comfortable when camping in the very cold weather of the Canadian winter.

Scout’s Outdoor Cookbook  I remember some of the recipes types listed here when I was in Scouts. It seems to be a basic, no-frills book for old-style camp cooking.  I may have to pick up the book… 🙂

Camp Cooking: 100 Years  Another cookbook dedicated to old-style cooking and recipes with a dash of history included.

Camping and Woodcraft: A Handbook for Vacation Campers and Travelers in the Wilderness by Horace Kephart  A classic by the author of Our Southern Highlanders (another noted classic).  Not exactly Leave No Trace! But these books provide a fascinating look at old-time woodcraft, some history and (yes) even some practical knowledge for camping.

Foxfire Series A series of books similar in tone and period to Kephart’s books. Want to know how to butcher a hog, make some moonshine, and build a cabin? Well..here you go. 🙂

Alone in the Wilderness  A fascinating documentary about the late Dick Proenneke.  Not precisely about camping per se, but a great look at a person who set out to go into the wild, live his dream, and thrive. A  mid-late 20th-century version of a mountain man!

How to Camp Out by John Mead Gould may be one of the earliest books about recreation camping.  Though written in 1877, much of the info is still relevant today.

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19 Replies to “The Joy of Car Camping – Base Camping for the active outdoors person”

    1. Indeed! Along with spinach marinated in lemon juice and olive oil! My pack was very heavy. but Wendy’s mother still talks about the meal! So, I think the food was worth the haul….

  1. Hey, great article. I’m a long-time camper, but am doing some research planning for a cross-country road trip next summer. I’ve got the basics but you gave me some great ideas, like the propane converter so we can use the big tank. Thanks!

  2. I’ve never found the joy in the car camping, personally. I don’t try to avoid it out of any sort of machismo but because it just sucks from both an aesthetic and sleep-oriented perspective. Perhaps the danger, for the aspiring car camper, is having too much wilderness baggage along for the ride. If you’re new to camping, and can focus on The Camp with all of its rich symbolism, the melding of human company and an abundance of traditional provisions to insure comfort, then you might have a good time of it, and learn something to expand upon. This thru-hiker, however, is ruined, spoiled by the joy of needing less and finding more. Oh, and silence too, free of the door ding alarm and click of the auxiliary switch.

    1. That’s the narrow thru-hiker perspective where thru-hiking is the apex of all outdoor experiences.

      This thru-hiker has enjoyed his time on the trails…but also exploring the slot canyons, sitting still on the high grass plateau and making a multi-pitch climb.

      As mentioned in the article, it is not about camping for the sake of camping, but camping to allow more experiences to be done..something that can’t just be done in a day.

      Most thru-hikers, with their pushing in one direction and having a goal oriented trip, posses a very limited set of outdoor skills…and sometimes it shows when they are out of their environment of a well marked trail with its social scene and ample guide books.

      There are many ways to enjoy the outdoors…thru-hiking is just one narrow subset of it.

      You want silence? Sit in the national grassland and just observe. Watch the sun setting on a broad expanse with the Rockies in the far background. Now, that’s silence.

  3. Yeah, but… joy? Joy? The Joy in Car Camping? Perhaps, “The Fruitful Utility of Car Camping” or “Car Camping Revival: Means to a Joyous End.” But not “The Joy of Car Camping,” at least for this narrow-minded thru-hiker. Now where’d I leave my battery-powered espresso maker? I’m double-parked and Smoky is haulin’ up the road with a citation in his paws.

  4. Nice article, Mags. Hey, I’m wondering what your camera setup looks like around base camp. Looks like a nice long telephoto on the cover photo for this article. Good sharp subject focus with blurred background, especially with it not being a close-up shot.

    1. Hey Dave,

      My camera is a Pentax K-x DSLR (Essentially a DSLR version of venerable Pentax K1000 35 mm). I believe I shot this photo with a 55-200m lens. A great little lens. Though, I am thinking of splurging on a 300mm for an upcoming trip in the San Juans. We’ll see! 🙂

  5. Wonderful, thorough article, thanks for taking the time to put it together. I live in Boulder and while much of my outdoors time is spent backpacking or winter camping with a ski pulk, I do enjoy car base camping for when I’m out climbing, mountain biking or kayaking for the weekend. Surprised folks have such difficulty understanding why this type of camping is also fun! My folks are coming to visit and want to go camping so I’ve been looking for ideas to make it more fun and enjoyable for them, particularly in the food and cooking dept. I like your tote organization; I’ve been using one big tote but now I’m thinking about breaking stuff apart into separate bins like you do. I also keep everything ready to go in my truck for spur of the moment solo adventures.

    1. Glad you liked it! Some activities (like the ones you mentioned!) are better in a camping environment. Just another tool to keep in the outdoor person’s ‘bag o’ tricks’. 🙂

  6. I know this is an old post, but I’m hoping someone will come along and help me answer my question. I’ve been considering car camping for a while, but I’m still stuck on the cooking part. Where do you keep your gas on a hot day? I’m concerned about keeping the canisters inside the car. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I’m considering just bringing food that doesn’t need to be cooked bc of this (stuff for sandwiches, snacks…).
    Thanks!

    1. Cylinders should never be stored in a place above 125F. Since my wife and I camp in the Rockies a lot, and avoid places such as Utah during the summer, that has never been a problem for us generally. It does get quite hot in a car of course ( http://acprocold.com/blog/hot-car-get/ ). I tend to keep the fuel outside the vehicle for all but the coldest camping. Assuming you have A/C in the vehicle, the fuel itself should be fine to and from the trailheads. For storage of propane when not camping, a cool and dry place with adequate ventilation is suggested.

  7. Great extensive article. I built a camper out of the back of my truck and use it often. Its great to not have to set up a full campsite. It feels like a home away from home. I put a mattress and a separate electrical system in the back as well.

  8. Car camping is also a great opportunity to test out different types of backpacking gear. I’m thinking about switching to using quilts instead of mummy bags. I’m going to try out a quilt car camping first with my mummy in my car. If I hate the quilt, I can always grab my mummy from my car. This is better than testing out on a backpacking trip. If I hate it car camping, I won’t bring it backpacking.

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