Car Camping Basics

By: Travis Mewhirter 

You can leave the heavy packs behind. No need to cram the most space- and weight-efficient equipment into the bags and car. No need for the spartan packing demanded of wilderness camping and backpacking.

We’re going car camping.

Car camping has a few different definitions. Some – like my wife and I – consider car camping to be whenever you can drive your car right up to your camp site at a park. We did this in Yosemite’s lovely Upper Pines Campground, which made hiking all the more easier, since we didn’t have to lug 45-pound packs up the precipitous climb of Yosemite Falls; we simply left everything in the car. Others consider car camping to be when you sleep in your car. We’ve done this, too, though I much prefer the former, since I’m 6-foot-5 and don’t fit so well in cars.

Whichever definition of car camping you choose, you’re correct, and anyway, the basics of car camping, which I’ve outlined below, are much the same. Most of the places you’d car camp will have running water and bathrooms available, though if water isn’t readily available for some reason, I’d bring a few gallons and store them under the seats.

  • Bring firewood
    • Most camp sites that you can drive your car up to are either picked clean of available firewood, or encourage you to bring your own to prevent that exact thing from happening. I learned this the hard way when I camped in Zion and Yosemite; Zion was picked clean, and we had nothing available to start a fire, and it had just snowed in Yosemite, so all the available wood – you weren’t allowed to use wood in the campground for fire anyway – was too damp. Blessedly, our neighbors called it early, so we were able to run over to their fire to warm up before sleeping through a single-digit degree night. So, lesson number one of car camping: Bring your own firewood.
  • Bring lighting
    • When backpacking, you can only bring so much light – a compact lantern you can hang from a tent, a headlamp, a flashlight. But when you’re car camping, you can have an absolute blast making your camp site feel cozy. Christmas lights are a fun addition, providing both ample light and a delightful ambiance. Torches, either the electric kind or the real type, are splendid, and give it a Survivor type feel. The light will allow you to play some card or board games, see everything fine deep into the night, and have a blast.
  • Cookware
    • I can’t stress enough the major benefit of car camping: You no longer have to worry about weight, or space. No longer will you need to pack the tiniest, most compact cookware. You can bring full pots and pans, and a bigger stove than the one that fits into the teeniest nook of your pack! Car camping is the most luxurious form of camping there is, in my mind, so make it luxury. Cook up a steak and veggies on the stove next to your torches while playing cards. Make a salad. Do something you couldn’t normally do while backpacking or camping in the wilderness.
  • Games
    • There are few things I love more than playing games out in the woods. With car camping, this is a legitimate possibility – you can’t exactly fit Settlers of Catan into your backpack for a four-day trip. Car camping is essentially the AirBNB of the backpacking world, so pack some games, play for as long as your eyes will stay awake, eat some good food, and enjoy the blessing of not needing to worry about lugging it all around the mountains the next day.

When you are going to go on your next camping adventure, think of your car! An easy, fun, and new camping expierence.

About the Author:
Travis Mewhirter

Travis Mewhirter is an award-winning journalist, author of four books, podcast host, and professional beach volleyball player. Raised in Hampstead, Maryland, he moved to California when he was 25, and has since made a career of being outside — either on the beach or in the mountains, writing wherever he goes. When he’s not playing beach volleyball, you can find him in the mountains, camping with his wife, Delaney. 

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