Beginner Car Camping Trip – Lessons Learned
My wife and I have discovered a passion for car camping in the past year and took a five night trip a few weeks back to the Dolly Copp Campground in Pinkham Notch, which is located directly below Mt Madison near Mt Washington. You really can’t get a better location than that: a short stroll to swimming in the Peabody River, surrounded by plethora of hiking trails in very heart of the White Mountains, and within a five minute drive of our favorite pub, Saalts in Gorham, NH.
While I did manage to get some good hiking in early one morning while my wife slept, the purpose of our trip was to kick back and get off the grid, while trying out some new car camping gear and figuring out what we like. While I’ve car camped by myself plenty, I’ve always used my regular backpacking gear to do it and never more than a night at a time.
This was way different, with a completely different mindset. Rather than sleeping in a tight two person tent, we have a big 4 person Mountainsmith tent that we bought on sale. We sleep on cushy air mattresses and hang out in a screen house during the day, while munching on snacks from a big cooler. We have a campfire at night and roast marshmallows and just read or loaf around without a fixed schedule in mind. It was real relaxing and we had a good time together, popping out for an early dinner and drinks every night rather than cooking up a storm in camp.
When it comes to car camping gear, my wife runs the show and is the main driver in what we buy and try out. I don’t think we’re at the stage where we know what kind of car camping we prefer, but we’re definitely not into getting a pop-up camper or an RV. We’ve got a pretty lean lifestyle and that kind of stuff is out of our price range, and not actually something we’d be interested in any way.
The Screen House
While we’ve owned our 4 person tent for a while, we tried out a new Woodlands Screen House from LL Bean on this trip which “made the trip” as far as we’re concerned. I never would have purchased something like it, but my wife insisted and it was a HUGE win.
Being able to sit around all day without being bothered by bugs, made it possible for us to hang out, rather than leave the campground and spend time elsewhere. I guess it’s obvious on hindsight, but I’ve never really understood why people used them until now. We’ll probably upgrade and get the rain fly that LL Beans sell for this shelter so we can hang out in rainstorms too.
Car Camping Tents
We tried out a few different tents on this trip in addition to our 4 person Mountainsmith, including Kelty’s TrailLogic TN3 “Stargazer” Tent. My wife is seriously into stargazing and I wanted her to see how wonderful that stars in the White Mountains are on a clear night.
While we enjoy sleeping in sleeping bags and sleeping pads, we’ve concluded that we want a car-camping tent that you can stand up in. Climbing out of a tent at night and contorting yourself to get out of a vestibule to pee is a drag, especially for my wife, who insists on using the campground ladies room at night.
Weight and size aren’t an issue, so if you have any suggestions about good car camping tents that you can stand up in, please leave a comment. We haven’t really found anything we like yet online although the Kelty Granby 6 looks like a possible candidate.
Interior Tent Lighting
Another win on this trip, was a pop-up battery-powered lantern that my wife brought along to light the interior of our tent at night. Made by LL Bean, we hung the Stowaway Collapsible Lantern from the gear loft in our tent using a Nite-ize S-biner (which is a great car camping utility item). The Stowaway Lantern is covered with a fine mesh which diffuses the light to produce a glow rather than a harsh light and collapses down to a disc which can be used as a flashlight. There’s a high and a low setting, which we mainly used to read by at night, and requires 3 AAA batteries, which LL Bean claims will run for 36 hours at the high (72 lumens) lighting level.
We read a lot of books on this trip and reading by this lantern’s light was a lot more comfortable than reading by headlamp.
Treating Tents with Permethrin
Early into our trip, my wife decided that we should treat both the screen house mesh and the tents with permethrin to help keep the mosquitos and gnats at bay, especially on the inside of the screen house which is open on the ground. I know my friend Grandpa (a regular SectionHiker reader) treats his tents like this and I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do.
I’m actually surprised that more tent manufacturers don’t treat their tent bodies and mesh with permethrin (the active ingredient in Insect Shield and BugsAway clothing). It seems like it would be a key differentiator in a highly competitive market.
We were pretty lazy when it came to cooking on this trip, eating most of our meals in Gorham at Saalt’s, Libby’s, and the White Mountain Cafe, in Gorham, which are all well worth a visit. We did pack a cooler, 2 stoves, pots, pans, plates, etc, and a bunch of food though and ate a few meals in camp.
The most notable cooking related find on this trip was ice sold by the block, available for $2.50 at the Dolly Copp Gatehouse. When packed in our Coleman ice chest, we found that block ice lasts twice as long by weight than ice cubes. That’s probably obvious, but this was the first time I’d ever seen block ice, so it was a novel experience for me.
Car Camping as a Couple
I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy car camping with my wife when we started down this road last year. But, we both really enjoyed this trip together and it’s nice to be able to share the White Mountains with her in this way since she’s definitely NOT into the hiking and backpacking scene. While there are many different dimensions to car camping and base camp camping that we still have to try, we’re both invested in sticking with it, traveling to other campgrounds, and figuring out what we like together.
We actually don’t do that many recreational things together as a couple, so working on this kind of “project” together is a nice change of pace for us. I think I also surprised my wife, by being open to the more leisurely pace she enjoys on vacations, rather than filling every second of my time with hiking, which I’ve been known to do it the past. I get to do lots of hiking, so sitting around reading books and swimming in ice-cold White Mountain rivers on hot sunny days was a nice change of pace. I could even get used to this!
We have another car camping trip coming up in a few weeks where we’ll be car camping with other people, which should be a very different experience, with lots of group cooking, sitting around a campfire at night, and group activities. Yeah, this car camping thing is good for both of us. I’m glad we’re really doing it.