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, car camping is often pursued less and less.

Backpacking and getting deeper into the wilderness with less gear strikes their interest.  Multi-day climbs and bivvying along a sheer wall holds 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 May 2012.

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 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 a good way to experience the outdoors depending on the  outdoor activity and/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 the outdoor activity is done for the day.  Camping is done, but it serves the purpose of allowing more of the activity during the day to pursued.


Robbers Roost

Utah sunset at a camp site near Robber’s Roost


The kind of car camping being discussed

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 rather a type of camping for a person who loves to hike all day, bike along the single track or go along the twisty slot canyons 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:


Windmill at Pawnee Grasslands

Sunset from Pawnee Grasslands campsite. Not a backpacking destination. Still a wonderful place.

Where to car camp?

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

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

The typical 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 do not have very intimate or scenic sites. There are exceptions, though.  However in late or off season, if the right spot is picked, the place can seem very secluded. When someone and I went to the Great Sand Dunes in late November, we had the entire campground almost to ourselves.  The trails were right outside the campsite and we had a wonderful time exploring and being immersed in this unique area.
  • USFS/BLM Campground – Usually smaller and a little more out of the way than the above. A good choice as these campgrounds are often next to or at trailheads and allow easy access to outdoor activities.
  • USFS/BLM land – The USFS and BLM lands usually have minimal restrictions in place. Often, you simply find a spot by a road, call it good and have a free spot to call home for a night or nights.

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 (My desk in a dimly lit IT office and my too small apartment comes to mind. 😉  )  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 home made alcohol stove! 😀

Coming from a backpacking background, I have a lot of gear that has been cycled into use as car camping gear. The heavy cook pot set from MSR that was a gift many years ago works great for car camping, head lamps that work well for night hiking seem to work pretty well in camp, recycled tarps make great sun or rain shelters and so on.

Be creative!  Just as many common items around the house 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, be exposed to the elements, etc?

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

Tarp and ski poles make a good sun shelter. The tailgate of my truck works well for a chip holder! :)

Equipment During the Day

What to bring during the day are articles in their own right!  Depending on the activity, different gear may be brought. If you are into mountain biking, one set of gear should be brought. Top ropping for the day at Shelf Road? Another set.

Here’s some example that show  a gear list for day hiking and another one for winter activities.

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 activity can easily transition to your camping: A head lamp, basic warm clothing (hat, gloves, jacket, rain gear, etc), water bottles and so on are usually basic equipment and gear 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 meant for backpacking, but may be on the heaver side.  Eureka, Sierra Designs and Kelty  (among others)both make ‘bread and butter’  backpacking tents that are spacious, not terribly expensive and will not have to be worried about as you are on your day activity.

The Eureka tents in particular a great buy in my opinion. A sturdy, three-person free-standing backpacking tent can be bought for under $150 easily. They are a bit heavy for my backpacking tastes (9 lbs!), but work well for base camping.  The Boy Scouts of America use Eureka Tents as their mainstay….and if the tents can stand up to hordes of hyper 12 year olds, they can stand up to whatever you may dish at it. 😉

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.

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 bivy.  Owning a small pick up with a camper shell, I must confess it is convenient at times to camp this way.  Though outside the scope of this article, I’ve done truck bivvies on many occasions at or near trailheads (shh! Don’t tell the rangers. 🙂 ) after a long drive before a backpacking trip.   Pull up to the site, roll out my pad and sleeping bag and then heat up my water for my coffee on the tailgate the following day. Convenient and easy!

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

When it is rainy, windy, muddy or even snowy on the ground, it is sometimes easier to just roll out the pads and bags (usually on top of a painters drop cloth or similar to keep off the dirt), crack open the side windows for ventilation and drift off to sleep. 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.

But this article by Swaygo caving gear (another activity perfect for base camp style car camping!) gives some good ideas if you want to get more elaborate. The part of 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

For most of our car camping, someone and I are able to use our normal backpacking sleeping bags and pads.  Depending on the time of the year, temperatures or even desired comfort level, we may take a different set up as shown below.

Sleeping Bags for Car Camping

As mentioned, we sometimes take our normal sleeping bags used for backpacking.  However, since we will often car camp in places during the off season when it is both less crowded AND colder, we have been taking these -15F semi-rectangular bags from the Sportsman’s Guide.

They zip together to form one large bag for couples (awwwh!), can be opened up to use as large quilt in cooler-to-warmer weather and can be individually used (and cinched up) for warmth during really cold weather.  The fleece lining inside makes for an extra comfy bag! I question the -15F rating for all but the biggest, burliest hunter that these bags are aimed for. However, they kept someone (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 $60 ea. they are also quite the bargain.  These bags are VERY heavy and bulky, but if you are car camping (and space is not a premium) than you don’t need to worry about schlepping the extra weight. We’ve been very pleased with these bags.

Devil Duck all snug in a -20F mummy bag while canyoneering in Utah over Thanksgiving one year. It gets cold during those Utah nights!

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.

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

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

DO NOT buy those inflatable air mattresses available at discount stores and big box sporting good stores. They have a tendency 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 or a variation of the foam system above.


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

The Kitchen

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

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.

A person who hauls in 10 lbs of marinated pork on skis tends to enjoying eating well!

The Stove

A stove is the heart of a base camp kitchen.  The stove boils the water for hot drinks at night, prepares the meals to start and end the day and the quiet hiss of the stove is always soothing to me: It signifies the start of another day out in the mountains and the blue glow  of the working stove at sunset means another night is about to be spent 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 essentially 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 in efficiently cold weather too (unlike many non-white gas stoves meant for backpacking).   These stoves can often be found 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 sold as well, but this old standby has proven to be a very reliable 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 avialble just about everywhere (I’ve seen for sale in Walmarts, grocery stores, gas stations among others places).  These versions are not easily refillable plus it is hard to gauge how much fuel is really in the cylinder (the largest disadvantage IMO).

Though more expensive in the short term, a good solution for using propane in the long term  is to buy a convertor 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, 5# tanks are also sold (if more expensive than the 20# models initially) 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? Costs less than $4 to fill at the local propane refiller. Not having to worry about the amount of fuel is wonderful!

Finally, if you want the a dual propane and white gas stove, a converter is sold  that I have used for several years now successfully.

Note: Converters and adaptors work well, but do require a little more vigilance about their use. Pay attention!  Also, while I mention Coleman, other companies make  less expensive versions of the same type of stoves.  Thought I have not used these stoves personally, people seem to be pleased with them. No idea of their long term longevity and/or compatibility with Coleman parts, however.

Campfires: Campfire can be a wonderful 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!

On another note: A lighter should always be packed with the camp stove. Why fumble and look for the lighter when it can be conveniently packed with the stove?


Though not practical, hauling a Coleman stove to an overlook on an October full moon works well for grilling up some sausage. 🙂

Other Kitchen Gear

A stove is the main item for a backcountry kitchen, but it is not the only item needed.

As with other gear, you can easily 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 set up someone and and I 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.

MSR Cookset:  This 1.5 and 2 liter pot cookset was  bought back in the dark ages of my early  backpacking experience when I did not know any better. 😉  But, now it works perfectly for both quick bivvies before starting a backpacking trip and as an addition to the camp kitchen.

Stockpot:  An old stockpot bought years ago at a dollar store works well for the occasional stew and pasta dishes, but also performs multi-use duty for heating up hot water to wash dishes. We are able to wash the dishes directly in the stockpot.

Frying Pan: 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.

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

Percolator: There are many ways to make the (for me!) all important morning coffee. French-presses are now sold for camping and backpacking. Coffee bags and instant coffee are an adequate solution for the morning pick-me-up. But I prefer the percolator. Another item often kicking around in basements, yard sales or thrift stores, there is something I love about drinking a pot of coffee brewed on a percolator. Easy to use, multi-use (you can heat up water for other hot drinks as well) and gives that sense of old school and classic utility that fits so well on a camping trip or in a backcountry ski hut. Plus the uber-strong coffee I like can be made quite easily in a percolator! 🙂


enjoying some morning Cup o’ Joe in our camp kitchen

Kitchen Utensils  A mix (again) of old kitchen utensils, thrift store 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 ladle. Throw in a small plastic cutting board from the dollar store, and  the basic utensils are there.

Personal eating gear: We use the insulated mugs from home and are often up front in the truck cab. They are  also often being used due to my caffeine addiction!  Some basic plastic wear  works out for the rest of  the eating. A plastic bowl and  a plate from the dollar store and some basic Lexan utensils or old flat ware works just as well, too.

Something I use solo (esp for overnight trail work) is 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 easily 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 one owns  a pick-up. If a truck is not owned, squatting over the dirt can be hard on the back and not very comfortable. Specialty camping tables can be bought; an old card table from the basement or a thrift store works well, too. Even with a picnic table or a tailgate, these tables do make things a little easier for organizing and cooking.

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

A Pantry Tote:  Simply an empty plastic tote (also called sweater  box or bin) bought 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 a smaller cooler can be taken.

Water Containers:  At established campgrounds, water pumps are usually available for filling up containers. In non-established areas and during off season, you will have to bring your own water supply in a container. Even in established areas in-season, a container 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, smaller ones can be bought as well.    Note that 2.5 gallon semi-disposable (can be refilled with some finagling) jugs 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, a small bottle of dish soap (used  in a established campground where this is allowed), paper towels, a green scrubby  and a small, quick drying camp towel comprises the small kit for cleaning the kitchen gear. Note the stock pot of above is used as part of the kitchen cleaning gear. This small kit also conveniently fits in the stock pot.  A large garbage bag is also suggested for easier cleanup.


Some stew being made one early winter camping trip by Longs Peak

Clothing for Camp

During the day, bring the appropriate clothing 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 then for day use. For the moderately cool temps seen many nights during three season camping in Colorado (around low 40s many times), you’ll want to take the following items:

  • Warm hat
  • Gloves
  • Long underwear tops and bottoms
  • Warm jacket (I use an old fleece jacket or an old sweater. Much of my backpacking clothing is more delicate)
  • Long pants  (I like using surplus BDUs (EBay affiliate link). Comfortable, durable and not expensive. Works well for trail work, too!)
  • Dry socks to change into

Weight is not as an issue when car camping. Items I normally don’t bring such as  camp shoes (a pair a sandals to air out the feet are heaven!) and a cotton t-shirt are wonderful to change into after a day of sweating in my hiking or climbing clothes.

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

  • Expedition weight long underwear (Surplus store version works well and is inexpensive)
  • A heavier  ‘puffy’ jacket
  • A thick balaclava
  • Surplus wool pants
  • Army liner pants. Ugly..but warm and cheap. When a campfire spark hits them, I just don’t care! 🙂
  • Pac boots

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

Other items I’ve seen or have used myself for colder weather camping:

  • Old ski bibs
  • Fleece pants
  • Lined overalls
  • Thick wool or fleece shirts
  • Others too many to list!

If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of deep winter base camping, the 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!

Mark, Kevin and I relaxing in camp after some climbing at Shelf Road.

A quick note about modern outdoor clothing around camp: Most modern outdoor clothing is lighter, more packable and dries quicker 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) more care is needed to take care of the more delicate clothing. An expensive down jacket can easily 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.   If there is no campfire, the problem is solved. 🙂 But that is not an ideal solution if you enjoy the simple ambiance of a campfire and/or you are active in camp.

Besides being careful, another solution is to simply 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.   The thrift store and surplus store  are wonderful places to find serviceable, inexpensive and durable ‘beater’ clothing. Just buy clothing large enough to layer over your other clothing.

Misc Gear to Bring Car Camping

There are some items that don’t quite fit anywhere else, but do add to the enjoyment (and make life a little easier)  for car camping:

  • Parachute cord: 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!
  • Duct Tape: If you are an active outdoor person, I don’t have to explain why it is good to keep a roll in the supplies… 😉
  • Small first aid kit: The basic kit brought for your day use activity is sufficient enough for the basic injuries you may encounter
  • Head lamp: I like the basic 3 LED head lamp made by Energizer. Only $10 w/batteries at discount stores and has a red light that is great for not ruining night vision or disturbing a tent partner. Better than a hand held flashlight as it is more convenient
  • Sunscreen: Always bring and wear this item for outdoor activities! Long sleeve shirts, long pants and the appropriate hat can substitute.
  • Sunglasses: Provides protection from the UV radiation and glare from the Sun.
  • 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 a nice item to have. I have seen them for under $10 at the local grocery store and at such places as Sports Authority sells a little studier models for about $15. You can pay more for fancier and even burlier ones, but I have good luck with the ~$15 store brand ones from big box places such as Sports Authority.
  • Lantern: Some people enjoy using, but I find head lamps to be easier to use and adequate overall. YMMV.
  • Work gloves: Makes life a little easier for handling some things in camp esp. fire wood. Not needed, but useful. I happen to always have a pair in the truck.
  • Gutter Nails:Works well as tent stakes for a tarp set-up and 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.
  • Pocket Knife: Another item carried by most outdoor people. Good item to have handy
  • Bottle Opener: Stash it near or in the cooler. Not all beer bottles are twisties! 🙂


enjoying some reading at the Pawnee Grasslands

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 very easy to get disorganized and have items strewn about.

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!).

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

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 really well for car camping, too.

The same method applies in camp (whether backpacking or base camping). Perhaps it is being anal :), but 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 spot, grab it when it is time to pack and GO!

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

Others may have different methods.  But, as someone noted on our Great Sand Dunes trip, seems like other experienced people have similar ideas and methods….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, parachute cord, ground cloth, 8×10 tarp, bungee cords. I also have a fleece blanket and a poncho liner I bring that is strictly optional, but can be handy to wrap in on cool mornings and chilly nights. I had them already, so they are there. A poncho liner is esp versatile. The work gloves are optional as well, but another simple item that is handy 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, 5# propane tank and accessories,  pots, pan, and griddle, utensils, personal eating gear, cutting board, percolator, paper towels, camp towel, scrubby, dish soap, Purell, tent and accessories and a batter powered lantern (a gift, rarely used).   someone kiddingly(?) calls this tote the “Holy Tote”.  🙂  She knows I like to keep it packed just so and put everything back just so. She pokes fun at the tote as I am usually the one lugging the tote in and out of truck!

Holy Tote!

Holy Tote Batman!

Pantry Tote: In the pantry tote, not much is pre-packed. However, I do have a small bottle of olive oil, hot sauce, and a basic spice kit similar to this one. With these basic ingredients, many tasty dishes can be made. When it comes time for a trip, the dried food, coffee, beverage powders, etc. are thrown in here. I never have to go looking for the other staples as they are already to go.

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!

Personal items: Rather than throw everything in one big tote, pack or bag, I like to have personal 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 (A kit bag, actually. Yes. More military surplus!)  or similar and put the other items inside the large duffel such as extra clothing, toiletries, a head lamp, etc.  Small stuff sacks or plastic shopping bags help to further organize the gear.  If arriving at night, be sure the head lamp 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 leaving (or night of, depending), place all items in cooler that are  perishable or need to be cold (beer!),  fill up the water jugs. grab some ice and firewood (if wanted or allowed) and you are on your way.


Solo 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.

In my truckHaving a truck, doing a fair amount of trailhead bivvies, and having limited space in our small apartment, I keep some items in the vehicle at all times. These  items include an old winter sleeping bag,  my old MSR cookset with a spoon and lighter, an old  single burner propane stove, a small propane cylinder,  a Z-Lite pad, some blankets ,a Frisbee, gutter nails, a ground cloth, a tarp and duct tape all in a plastic tote.  Behind the bench seat (besides an atlas and other maps) are bungee cords, parachute cord, work gloves and two camp chairs.  Works well for the late night truck bivvies before a big trip (don’t have to unpack and repack my gear before starting the trip) and keeps some gear ready to go at all times.

Those without a truck and/or doing late night trailhead bivvies need not be this overkill. 😉   I recognize this method does not work for everyone, but it is an option to keep in mind if you are in a similar situation.

Oddly enough, my pickup does not have the ability to 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 organization (at the most) saves much frustration later.

My tailgate with a cooler of  beer on top. A fairly common site. 😉


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 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!


At the Great Sand Dunes on a clear and cold night


Car Camping Checklist

The following is a list of gear suggested  for camping. It is aimed towards three-season car camping in Colorado 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. This is also my way of organizing gear. Your way may be better for you.

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


Check List

This website offers a detailed Excel spreadsheet that can be downloaded if a more granular packing list is desired. Otherwise, this quick and dirty less may suffice.

Gear and clothing for the day Items as  needed for chosen activity This article includes a list of gear for day hiking.
Shelter Tent Pre-packed in main tote
Sleeping Gear Sleeping Bag(s) Stored next to other totes/gear
Pad(s) “”
Ground cloth for truck or cowboy camping Pre-packed in maintenance tote
Kitchen Gear Stove, lighter (and perhaps a spare one) and accessories Pre-packed in main tote
A 2 liter and a 1.5 liter pot
Stock Pot
9″ Frying Pan
Kitchen Utensils (Ladle, large spoon, slotted and non-slotted spatulas, knife, can opener) stored in mesh bag
Small cutting board
Percolator Coffee Pot
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 trip
Pantry Tote Pre-packed with olive oil, hot sauce, spices. Later packed with coffee, cold and hot beverage mixes, dried and non-perishable food  on night before or day of trip
Camp Clothing Warm Hat In personal duffel
Light wool or fleece gloves
Long underwear top and bottoms
Fleece jacket or warm sweater
Long Pants
Rain gear (may already be packed in day use clothing)
Change of socks
Camp shoes
Misc Gear Toiletries (Toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, etc.) In personal duffel
Parachute Cord With maintenance tote
Bungee Cords
Duct Tape
Gutter Nails
Poncho Liner and/or blanket(s) (optional)
Ground Cloth May already be packed in maintenance tote
Small First Aid Kit Should be in day use kit
TP and Trowel In main tote
Lantern (optional)
Head lamp(s) With personal gear. May already have packed in day use kit
Pocket knife May already be with 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 places do not allow fires at all. Please be careful if you decide to have a campfire.


Other Resources

Camp and wood craft is far beyond the scope of this article. But, here are some other 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. are skills 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! In-depth discussion on gear, clothing and tecnique 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. Seems to be a basic, no-frills book for old-style camp cooking.  I just 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 for 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 time period to Kephart’s books. Want to know how to butcher a hog, make some moonshine and build a cabin? you go. 🙂

Alone in the Wilderness  A fascinating documentary about the late Dick Proenneke.  Not exactly 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!


16 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…).

    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 ( ). 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.

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