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Solo Car Camping Tips

A Solo Autumn Camp
A Solo Autumn Camp

I do a lot of solo camping before and after day hikes when I’m up in New Hampshire’s White Mountains for the weekend. It’s a great way to save money, get a good night’s sleep between hikes, and get a little privacy to think. I know a lot of hikers who’d rather sleep in their car than set up a tent for the night. But, I’ve got a simple system for solo car camping that makes it easy to set up camp quickly and tear it down in the morning.

Solo Car Camping Tips

  • Use a freestanding tent which is fast to set up and take down, in the dark, if necessary
  • Find free primitive camp sites that you can drive up to, but still provide privacy
  • Keep your car loaded up with firewood and jugs of tap water
  • Pack a lawn chair for hanging out by the fire
  • Keep a JetBoil and extra backpacking meals in your car
Build yourself a camp fire
Build yourself a camp fire

Since most of my regional hikes are in a national forest, there has lots of FREE primitive campsites that I can drive up to and camp at during the night: Haystack Road, Old Cherry Mountain Road, Galehead Road, etc. You just need to get yourself a decent White Mountain National Forest Map to find them.

First come, first serve. No reservations or credit cards required. Most of them already have fire rings, so you can built a small fire to relax by without having to worry about leave no trace impacts. Plenty of water nearby and no need for a bear bag: just put all your food and smellables in the car and lock it up for the night!

Car Camping
Car Camping

Come spring, I load up my trunk with firewood, a lawn chair, a freestanding tent (which is super fast to set up), sleeping bag, pad, a Jetboil, and a couple of backpacking dinners and breakfasts. I fill a couple of gallon jugs with tap water, so I always have plenty of clean water on hand too.

Having everything pre-packed in my car gives me a lot of flexibility to drive up the night before a hike and camp out or stay an extra day, without any preparation and hassle. Once you get a system down and figure out a couple of good places to camp, solo car camping becomes really easy and enjoyable.

If you like to hike someplace that a few hours from home and you do it nearly every weekend, solo car camping is the way to go.

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  1. Milton Beauregard

    You’re doing it right Philip. I used to live in Southern California not far from the ocean. If I wasn’t spending the weekend at the beach, I would hitch out to the desert and camp near a lake. I always got there in several hours after leaving work and rarely got there after dark. The night before, I would load up on supplies, food, beer, water, etc. and have everything packed and ready to go. I would wear pack to work and jump on the interstate which was just a few blocks away.
    The area I camped seemed innocuous from the road which led into the lake. It was a massive jumble of granite boulders several hundred feet in an egg shaped formation that rose several hundred feet into the desert air from the scrub and tumbleweed around it. What no one else knew was that on top of the boulders was a spot large enough for a sleeping, cooking and sitting area with a beautifully flat sandy and all important, level space. The view was 360 degrees and even had a large granite overhang to lay in the shade if it got too hot. The lake was a 15 min walk if I needed a swim. BEAUTIFUL.
    I eventually spent just about every other weekend for nearly a year camping in that spot just to get out of the city. Late Sunday afternoons, I would pack it up and hitch back to the megalopolis with a much lighter pack. I live in a totally different area now but I still look back at that year of desert camping with much fondness. You have the right idea. Nice post.

  2. Yeah, I use a packing crate with a divider for food. It has about two weeks of freeze dried and dehydrated stuff in it (oatmeal, bars, cocoa, rice, pasta, a couple cans of mushroom soup, spaghetti sauces, spices, etc.) I just use my old 123r for car camping, it can prepare most anything I cook at home (I’m retired, the wife still works.) The big thing is to load up with meats & fresh veggies before I go.

    I go with my wife a lot (spending the weekend with her before leaving on a longer trip.) At times I go solo, arriving near dark. I just unroll the tent (kept in the car) three stakes, two poles and it is up. If it is raining, I set up the 2nd tarp…it is used as a cover over the rear seat & gear in the car where it can dry after I head out. The tent may or not be rolled up and put in it’s bag, depends on how wet it is. Sometimes I just lay it over the gear box, knowing it will dry by the time I get back.

    I leave my wife’s gear in the car, so, everything can be set up for two if she decides to go with me. Chairs, second tarp, saw, pad, 2man tent, etc. All she needs is her bag and clothes for a weekend. It takes about 10-15 minutes to pack this stuff in the car in the morning(and maybe another 10 minutes to pack my pack.) Then I am free to hike or canoe. It makes it easy to get on the trail by 0700 or so.

  3. Great tips! Couple questions — I’ve heard that moving firewood, even a short distance, is a bad idea. And NH prohibits the use of out of state firewood. However, it is great to have it ready to go in the trunk, as you mentioned. What is your strategy? Do you buy local firewood (heat treated?) when you get to NH? Collect locally on the way? Just curious since NH advises that firewood should be bought and used locally to prevent the spread of pests within the state. And a few NH counties have specific regulations to prevent the transport of emerald ash borer to outside county limits. Thanks!

  4. Sounds good to me! One thing – traveling firewood into areas is often illegal because of the risk of introducing pests/diseases to the local forests. I believe it is prohibited in WMNF – http://www.fs.usda.gov/alerts/whitemountain/alerts-notices/?aid=2972

  5. Gotta Watch that Firewood these days. Bark Beetles for one. When I bought my Toyota Tacoma in 2003 I found a place that installed bed liners, wanting to protect the bed from all sorts of items. I had three choices, a Plastic Spray on type, a Plastic Molded type and a Padded heavy cloth like material type. I tested out the Padded material and was impressed the Literature said it was impermeable to just about anything including Gasoline. It is held in place with Hook and loop patches glued to the sidewalls of the truck body and can be easily removed and hosed down or shaken out. It has 1 inch of thick padding for the floor with even thicker padding for the little lands and grooves built into the truck bed, so it is very much like sleeping on a mattress. I also have a Shell Top with Screened Windows and a Dome Light. So I am able at a moments notice to set up camp by just Parking, walking around to the back and climbing in…When I bought a new Refrigerator I found that the shipping box was the perfect size to line the Truck Bed with so I keep that in the truck and load all my loads onto that, Lumber, Gardening Soil, etc. etc. When it gets dirty I just removed the Cardboard and shake it out or use a Broom to sweep it with. I have yet to have the need to remove the Liner to clean it yet with this method. Plus the double thickness of the box adds to the padding though a bit slippery.
    One item I do suggest that people carry when driving the back roads or the Forest Roads or the Desert trails is a “Come Along” or a Hand operated Ratchet hoist. I have only used it twice but both times I was sure glad I had it..On a Desert road in the Anza Borrego Desert in So. Calif. I came to close to the edge and slipped off the road into a ditch. I got out the “Come along” and pulled myself out. 10 years Later while driving down a forest path to a Deer Stand I got hung up on a hidden tree stump and was able to pull myself off the Stump. $39.95 for a 4000 pound unit. Buy one that is rated at twice the weight of your vehicle or as close to that as you can. ..I bet Tow Truck Operators really would have cleaned out my Wallet to come to where I was both times to pull me out..So it is well worth it..

    Both the Campfires in the supplied Pictures scare me. The first one the forest leaves and duff are not cleared away enough and the second appears to be a non-approved type and that Pink Chair frightens me more than anything…. I use a much smaller lower to the Ground folding chair, developed for the Beach but now being adapted for Turkey hunters. And as it is attributed to an Indian saying…White man make big fire, sit far away from and is cold,,Indian make small fire sit close and his warm..

    I also use a much different design for fireplaces in that I build the fireplace with a much taller back and leave the front open, which causes the heat to reflect back towards you. The open front allows me to rake some coals away from the main fire and place my three legged cast iron dutch oven on top of instead of hanging it over the fire…I also stragetically place a couple of flat rocks there and rake coals in between then to cook in pots without the Legs instead of hanging them over the fire. The heat is easier to control that way……..

  6. Re: leaving food in the car

    Cars are not smell proof. Won’t leaving food/smellables in the car potentially attract bears to the car? Can’t bears breach a car if they smell stuff they want?

    I don’t want to make a big deal out of this if it’s not an issue. I’m just curious. I live in WNC where there are lots of black bears and I’ve often thought about doing solo car camping this way but I don’t want to contribute to the bears that are becoming habituated to humans.

    • A couple of decades ago in Yosemite, the black bears figured out that if they body slammed the roof of certain Honda and Toyota cars, the side windows would blow out and they could get the goodies stored inside. They actually knew which models to attack, it was the ones with the frameless side windows.

      • Thankfully east coast bears aren’t up to speed on this trick yet. Another reason to buy US cars and trucks?

      • So is it ok to leave food in the car just because they haven’t figured out how to get into a car yet?

      • How do you think bears figure out how to get into cars in the first place?

        Because people leave food in them, right? When that happens enough times, eventually they figure it out.

        Look man, I know you know lots of stuff about hiking, etc. but I think you are burying your head in the sand on this one. It’s quite surprising actually since you seem rather responsible in most other regards.

      • I want to keep New Hampshire bears wild. Really I do. but I don’t think it’s currently necessary to store your food in a bear canister when car camping (in New Hampshire). If that changes, I’ll adapt.

      • Yosemite and the Sierras are the only place on earth where bears breaking into cars is a systemtic issue. Research the egregious habituation of bears a century ago and the severity of the problem will make sense. It will take a lot more than food in the trunk for bears elsewhere to pick up the habit.

        Lots of killjoys out this spring.

        Paying for camping isn’t camping. Down with UserFee.

      • In Banff, Jasper and Kluane, when we went on a road-trip, all the rangers said to store food in the cars instead of using a canister, bear-bagging it or putting it into a locker. The provincial administrators near Radium Hot Spring solicited the same advice too.

        If one is a carless hiker, then, yes, canister is best followed by bagging it, but every single employee said to store food in the car when possible.

      • I remember being told that YaanG when we camped there. We had a Volkswagen Westfalia and the Rangers told us the Bears even learned how to open the Sliding Side Door so we had to keep it locked and then they told us how the Bears recognized the vehicles like ours with the fabric pop up tops and would climb up onto the vehicle an break in that way… Needless to say the family did not sleep well that night and all voted against me to leave the next day….

  7. Carrying wood in the car and storing food in the car sound like great ideas for the region where you are, but campers in the Sierra Nevada and other mountains of the West need to be sure to follow the rules against transporting firewood (spreads tree diseases) and keeping food in car (spreads the food all around the interior when the bear enters by ripping the window out). -JJ

  8. Here I thought I just needed to worry about being murdered or raped if I car camped by myself. Now I can add bears eating my car and beetles destroying the land to my list.
    But seriously, this is a great idea. I already keep gear in my car, I like the idea of adding water, freeze dried meals and some sort of heat source to make spur of the moment get aways easier and cheaper.

  9. Can’t bring firewood into Maine either. Just FYI.

  10. Goto http://www.dontmovefirewood.org/ for more information. It’s easy to buy 1 or 2 bundles when you get to where you’re going.

  11. I use the pressed sawdust firewood logs that you can buy at Lowes/Home Depot. They are individually wrapped so they don’t make a mess in the car, burn for about 2 hours each, and don’t have any insects in them to cause any trouble.

  12. Had no idea there were free National Forest sites in the Whites. Thanks for that. I stayed at Cold River before a 4-day backpack in and around the Wild River Wilderness last fall. Believe I paid, but did not begrudge it for the location and P&Q.

  13. About the firewood: another option is to save lumber cut-offs from DIY projects or snag them from a friendly contractor. No bugs to worry about in tail ends of 2x4s. Just don’t use treated lumber.

  14. I buy kiln-dried firewood from a farmstand near me for my own car stash, and pick up local firewood on the way up. The local firewood isn’t always dry enough to burn well, so the times that I’m exhausted after a hike or the weather is bad, building a base with kiln-dried wood is like gold. A warm fire catches quickly, dampness is sizzling out of the local wood, and my dinner is cooking on its grate. Fantastic way to end the day. :)

  15. I like to car camp to check out new gear or to save a motel bill before starting out. I use walk-in campsites sites where there’s more peace and privacy than a campground. I often eat in a restaurant before setting up for the night. I find that a real meal and a good night’s rest is a good way to start out.

    We have also used our backpacking gear to car camp when we fly to a destination and rent a car.

    We also “car” camped with backpacking gear in Denali National park where you have to take a bus into the backcountry. It was one of our best outdoor experiences ever.

    And we have also used our backpacking gear packed in a duffle on a sailboat where we anchored out and slept on the boat.

    Backpacking gear is a magic carpet that can take you to a wealth of outdoor adventure!

  16. Parking in the WMNF requires a pass. http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/whitemountain/passes-permits/recreation/?cid=stelprdb5297292

    Most places, the camping is free. I think there may be a fee along Tripoli road, but that may be just the parking pass. I get a $25 parking permit and its good for a year. Still cheaper than a motel room in the Summer in the White Mountains.

  17. camping is what got me into backpacking,car camping, bike camping, and now backpacking for the last few years. last summer on a nice day after work me and my neighbor where talking about how nice it was out and how we would love to be in the woods, (i was working nearly 80 hours a week at the time) i suggested we go out that night I’d drop him of at work and go into work an hour late. 20 minutes later the cars packed up, 50 min. drive and hiking and camping we go. up early hiked out and back to work the next day. it was just the break i needed. in the bike community they call these trips s24o (sub 24 hr overnight) it’s where you pack up your bicycle with your gear and go for a ride camp overnight and ride back home. I’ve done a few different trips on work nights. I’m in the middle of planing a large section hike and think i need one of these quick overnights soon.

  18. I own the map linked in this article (2014 edition) and can’t find anything indicating where car camping sites are. All I can see is “Tripoli Rd Camping” in bold red text but I’m looking right at Haystack and Galehead roads and can’t see any text or symbols, am I missing something obvious or has this feature been removed from newer editions?

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