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Car Camping Essentials — Everything You Need to Pack
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Car camping is a great way to get into nature without working too hard. You don’t need an expensive RV. Instead, you just toss everything you need into your vehicle, drive right up to your campsite, and set up shop. The process allows you to carry more convenience items than backpacking, so if you aren’t entirely sold on the idea of roughing it, car camping is a nice compromise.
Car camping makes it easy to pack heavy camping gear, cook tasty meals in the great outdoors, and bring essential comfort items that backcountry camping doesn’t allow. It is also a great way to introduce newbies to the joys of camping.
If you want to ditch the hustle and bustle of your everyday life but are new to living out of a tent, car camping provides a low learning threshold for outdoor recreation. However, getting started can be a little confusing if you’ve never pitched a tent, let alone packed for a camping trip.
Your first car camping trip can feel overwhelming since you might not know exactly what to pack. Here is some practical advice on packing crucial gear from a well-seasoned car camper.
When it comes to camping basics, it doesn’t get much more basic than a tent. Unless you can comfortably stretch out and sleep in your vehicle, a quality tent is the best way to get out of the elements and enjoy a good night’s sleep while you’re camping.
The trick to choosing the right tent for car camping is finding a shelter that hits the perfect balance between space and packability. A large, spacious tent might make your camping experience feel more luxurious, but bigger tents can take up a ton of truck space. If you’re driving a compact car, you might not have room for something big and bulky and may need to opt for a more compact and lightweight model.
However, a roomier tent can make your campsite feel much more like home if you can spare the trunk space. Most tents list their capacity by the number of people that can sleep inside. However, a four-person tent is rarely big enough to accommodate four full-grown adults. It just means the tent has enough floor space for four side-by-side sleeping bags without any room for extra gear.
When shopping for a tent, it’s a good idea to grab a model that is a size or two larger than the number of people who will be sleeping inside. My four-person tent is just big enough for me, my husband, and our dog. The floor provides just enough space for two air mattresses or sleeping pads, the dog’s bed, and two backpacks full of clothes and toiletries.
2. Sleeping Bag
When it comes to camping comfort, choosing a sleeping bag may be the most crucial decision you’ll make. It will determine how well you sleep, and nothing can ruin a camping trip faster than waking up cranky because you tossed and turned all night long in discomfort.
Quality sleeping bags can be expensive. However, cheap sleeping bags are rarely comfortable and can be downright dangerous, especially if nighttime temperatures turn chilly.
All sleeping bags come with a temperature rating. The temperature rating identifies the lowest temperature at which the average sleeper will feel comfortably warm in the bag. To be safe, it’s a smart idea to pack sleeping bags rated for temperatures at least ten degrees cooler than the predicted overnight temperatures at your campsite.
3. Sleeping Pad or Air Mattress
A sleeping pad or inflatable mattress is one of the least appreciated and underrated pieces of camping gear out there. Inexperienced campers may be tempted to forget about this car camping essential, but that is definitely a rookie mistake.
A sleeping pad does more than provide some soft cushioning between your body and the hard, lumpy ground. It also provides a layer of insulation that is especially important in cooler weather. If temperatures are particularly frigid, you should avoid using an air mattress. Although a cheap air mattress may be more comfortable and will work fine in warm weather, they aren’t very insulating.
Manufacturers rate the insulation of sleeping pads and mattresses with the R-value scale. The higher the R-value rating, the more insulation the pad provides.
Pillows might seem like an unnecessary luxury item if you’re roughing it in nature. However, having a soft place to rest your head makes getting a good night’s sleep a heckuva lot easier.
You might not have enough space to pack all your regular pillows from your bed at home. If space is at a premium, a compressible camping pillow doesn’t take up a lot of space but can add some serious comfort points to your camp sleeping arrangements.
5. Headlamp or Flashlight
If you’re used to the bright glow of street lamps and porch lights, you may not realize just how dark most campgrounds get after the sun goes down. A flashlight or headlamp makes it much easier to get around the campsite in the dark. They are especially handy if you have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Choosing a light with a red or green option instead of just a bright white light will help preserve your natural night vision. It also cuts down on light pollution, which is a boon for stargazers.
6. Camp Chairs
There aren’t a lot of comfortable places to sit in nature, especially considering our modern notions of seating. Folding camp chairs are essential for comfortable seating around any campsite.
7. First Aid Kit
It’s a smart idea to keep a basic boo-boo kit in your car, whether you’re camping or not. Any camping first-aid kit should include adhesive bandages, antiseptic wipes, gauze and medical tape, antibacterial ointment, hydrocortisone cream, burn gel, and tweezers.
Depending on your personal health needs and the hazards you might encounter during your camping trip, you may want a more extensive med kit that includes things like sunscreen, insect repellant, instant cold packs, an Epi-pen, etc.
8. Pocket Knife
Whether you need to cut a length of rope or peel an apple, a pocket knife is one of the most versatile tools you can carry camping.
9. Camp Kitchen
Setting up a camp kitchen can be as basic or as ambitious as you want. At the very least, car campers need a camp stove, fuel, and appropriate cookware. A cooler is also vital if you want to keep drinks cool in hot weather or need to store perishable items.
Other handy items for your camp kitchen include paper towels, biodegradable dish soap, a dish scrubber, cooking utensils, a cutting board, a pot holder, a can opener, plates, bowls, eating utensils (sporks are wonderful do-everything eating gear), and trash bags.
While a camp table isn’t absolutely essential, it will make preparing meals a whole lot easier, especially if your campsite isn’t equipped with a picnic table.
A durable tablecloth is also an excellent addition, even if you only use the provided picnic table. The picnic tables at most campground sites are usually rough and dirty. A tablecloth will make your site feel more homey and make after-meal cleanup much easier.
Packing fresh water is a good idea even if your camping destination has potable water. A good rule of thumb is to bring two gallons of water per person per day. While that might sound excessive, campers need water for more than just drinking. When you factor in water for cooking and cleaning, campers can burn through H2O in a hurry. It’s better to have more than you need than to run out in the middle of your stay.
11. Car Emergency Kit
Camping often takes you pretty far away from civilization, so you should be prepared to handle minor vehicle issues on your own. A car emergency kit will help you deal with flat tires and dead batteries to get your car or truck back on the blacktop without calling AAA.
You should also fill up your gas tank before getting too far from the nearest gas station.
Your car camping packing list should be personal. Consider what you would pack if you were on a hotel vacation. While you’ll need to leave your favorite electronic items, such as your hair dryer and electric toothbrush, at home, you can bring along many of the same things on a camping trip that you would pack for any vacation. Here are a few things that many beginning campers tend to overlook.
- Hand sanitizer
- Toilet paper
- Hat with a brim
- Rain gear
- Baby wipes
- Lip balm
- Extra shoes
- Duct tape
- Battery-powered string lights
- Battery bank and charging cord
- Hiking day pack
- Coffee mugs
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