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Car Camping Basics: Essential Tips and Gear for a Great Adventure

Car Camping Basics: Essential Tips and Gear for a Great Adventure

Posted at Wed, Oct 4, 2023 9:00 AM

Car Camping Basics: Why You Should Try It and Tips to Get Started

Ah, the great outdoors! Fresh air, exercise, sleeping under the stars, showing the kids how to make S’mores and spot constellations. And cackling gleefully when they realize there’s no Wi-Fi connectivity and they have to actually talk to you and their siblings. 

Camping is so much fun. What are you waiting for?

Oh, you think the only way to camp is to buy a big house-on-wheels and a bunch of pricy gear. No worries:  A vehicle and a little planning are all you need to start enjoying car camping, an easy, low-stress, increasingly popular outdoor activity.

For starters, what is car camping?

Some people are sticklers, insisting that you’re not really car camping unless you actually sleep in the vehicle. If you are of the literal persuasion, the best option is a vehicle with all-wheel or four-wheel drive. You also need one with sufficient cargo space and weight capacity. And finally, the vehicle should be one that is safe, reliable and secure on-road and off.

Most others agree that car camping – sometimes called “tent camping,” “base camping” or “frontcountry camping” – means driving your vehicle to a place where you can unload your stuff and enjoy the outdoor experience without sacrificing a little luxury.

Here are just a few of the reasons why people enjoy car camping:

  • You have easy access to everything you need.
  • Speaking of “everything,” you can bring more stuff than you could if you were flying to your vacation destination.
  • Speaking of “everything” part two, you can bring more supplies and creature comforts than you could if you were hiking. A Dutch oven or propane stove makes for a pretty heavy backpack.
  • Speaking of hiking, when you head out on the trail, or to the lake for some fishing, you can lock your vehicle and keep your stuff secure.
  • Car camping is less expensive than a hotel, even one that includes free breakfast.

How do you get started? The first thing you need, of course, is a vehicle. Pretty much any standard passenger-style wheeled transportation will work – depending on where you’re going, of course, and whether you insist on the whole family, plus pets, bedding down inside. 

That said, SUVs are particularly well suited for camping.  

The Ford Bronco Sport has standard AWD and available features such as roof racks that accommodate roof-top tents (RTTs, for those in the know), a cargo management system with a rubberized floor and other camping-friendly options and accessories. Other four-door Bronco models have rear seats that fold flat, which expands the cargo area for sleeping.

If you have a truck – or have your eye on one – you can successfully car-camp with them too.

The Ford Ranger is a camping favorite, in part because its smaller footprint and trail control system let you take on challenging off-road routes.

The F-150, Ford’s perennial favorite, comes in a hybrid model that can be paired with a built-in generator that puts out enough power to run your campsite. Upgraded suspension and body protection are options that cry out for hardcore off-roading. Plus, you can get all sorts of accessories and upgrades to enhance your camping experience.

Next, do your research. Where do you want to go? Are you headed straight to a single destination or are you going to travel around a bit? Once you know what you want to do, you can plan your route and campsite(s) and determine what you need to pack.

Where are you going to camp? State and national parks are popular locations – so popular, in fact, that you may need to make reservations pretty far in advance to be sure of getting a spot. Check with the park to see what’s available and whether you can drive directly to your assigned site (yes, locations are assigned at parks) or will need to leave your vehicle in a designated lot and hike in.

Most beginners opt for supported camping – that is, an established campground, possibly at a state or national park or a commercial camping location such as KOA. Such areas usually consist of loop roads with assigned sites for either tents, campers or RVs, or a mix of all varieties.

A big advantage to supported camping is that it offers a safe space to get familiar with the experience and your gear. Can’t get the (expletive deleted) tent to cooperate? Supported campgrounds are like neighborhoods and someone nearby will usually be happy to assist. The might tell you tales of their first camping experiences, then their kids might want to play with your kids and pretty soon everyone is old friends.

Here’s some of what you might encounter at a frontcountry or supported campground:

  • Either a check-in station staffed by an employee or a self-check spot to register and pay for your site
  • Restrooms: some have flush toilets and sinks with running water (usually cold). Others offer outhouse-style vault toilets and either non-potable water (ok for washing your hands, but don’t drink it) or no water at all.
  • Potable water at spigots around the campground
  • Showers, when available, which are often coin-operated
  • Picnic tables
  • Fire rings
  • A camp store
  • Food storage boxes, required at some campgrounds, to keep animals from getting into your vittles

As for packing, be like Santa: make your list, check it twice. If you forget something, you can probably find it at the camp store or from one of your new best friends. If you were by yourself in the backcountry … oops.

Here’s a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of essentials:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Ground cover, if you’re in a tent
  • Sleeping pad, especially if you’re bunking in the car
  • Pillows
  • Jammies
  • Toiletries 
  • Soap for hand washing, as well as hand sanitizer or wipes
  • Medications
  • Hiking boots 
  • Hats for everyone
  • Rain gear
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • First aid kit
  • Flashlights and batteries
  • Camp chairs
  • Clothing appropriate for your location, weather and activities
  • Kitchen items such as a stove, fuel or firewood, a cooler with your food and plates, cups and utensils
  • Biodegradable soap and other necessities for cleaning up after meals
  • Pet food, if you brought Fido along
  • Books and games – and maybe a guitar and harmonica

Ready to take off? You’ll love it. After a couple of trips, you’ll be the one helping the newbie pitch that dang tent and telling camping tales.

Happy travels!

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