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Bitten By the Car Camping Bug

Car Camping in the White Mountains
Car Camping in the White Mountains

I didn’t see it coming. My girlfriend and I have been bitten by the car camping bug.

It all started last winter when my girlfriend wanted to camp out in the mountains so we could get a clear view of the Geminids meteor shower without any urban light pollution. We used my backpacking gear, but it wasn’t comfortable enough for her so we’ve since to geared up a bit for a more sedentary, plushier camping style.

The Teacher Becomes a Student

When my girlfriend expressed an interest in car camping, I was cautiously optimistic. I hoped she’d be interested in doing it because we have such different preferences in how we spend our free time. I don’t think I really understood the differences between car camping and backpacking then. I’ve obviously camped out in campgrounds before, but never for more than one night at a time and never with the intention of nesting for a few days in one spot.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d never really spent much time sitting around a campfire, night after night, toasting marshmallows and making s’mores, or listening to a chorus of owls hooting away in the dark. But the wonder and fun that my girlfriend and I share when we experience these things together is something I never could have anticipated. It’s really great!

A Funky AT Campground
A Funky AT Campground

Gearing Up

We’re really still in the early stages of gearing up for car camping, but we quickly realized that we had to buy a few more things instead of using my extra, fairly minimalist, backpacking gear.

We started by buying an inexpensive, but excellent 4 person Mountainsmith Equinox tent which is just right for the two of us to sleep in at night with all of our books, iPads, and stuffed animals. It has a huge amount of mesh and two doors so we can get out easily at night and vent the tent well to keep the amount of internal condensation under control.  This tent is no longer manufactured by Mountainsmith but is still widely available in outlets for under $150.

My girlfriend got a luxuriously wide Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Dream sleeping pad because she’s a side sleeper and a NEMO StratoLoft sleeping bag which is hard to describe but almost like sleeping in a feather bed at home. She’s writing a review. For me, I’m just using my normal backpacking sleep system.

We have a couple of more things that we need to buy, but we’ll probably hold off on them until next year:

  • Screened 10 x 10 house for sitting in during daylight hours
  • 2 x more comfortable camp chairs with drink holders
  • Blue tarp to cover our tent so we can open the doors for ventilation when it rains
  • Clothes line
  • Big water jug (5 gallons)
  • Two burner propane stove
  • Beefy power supply to recharge the iPads
  • Longer marshmallow forks
  • Longer tent stakes and a mallet to bang them into the ground with
  • Bigger gas or battery-powered lantern
  • Trash bags
  • Dust pan and brush to clean dirt our of the tent
  • Solar shower
  • Star chart and night sky identifier

If you can think of anything else we need to budget for, shout it out.

Car camping is much different than I realized and a nice change of pace from the deprivations of backpacking!

But sitting by a campfire, listening to the owls hooting in the night, and holding hands with my girlfriend, that is just priceless.

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  1. Ummm . . . double-wide sleeping bag? (Think cozy & romance! Don’t forget the wine glasses.) You could go really crazy and get one of those inflatable mattresses that are like beds (double-wide, of course). For me, a must-have for car-camping is a grill-top I can stand over a fire/wood coals and steak to go on top of it. However, my idea of car camping is still a backcountry (if you can call it that) site in the woods, just a very short walk from a trailhead parking space, so I can still haul stuff (and even make multiple trips if necessary). I can’t quite bring myself to stay in a prepared site so close to everyone else. I need to be in the woods. Reed’s Gap in PA has some nice isolated prepared spots off dirt roads, as close to in the woods as you can get a car, that I want to try. Did you mean that backpacking is “depraved”, “deprived”, or a little of both?

    • I’m with you – backcountry sites when they are in campgrounds – if possible. But my wife…she likes the idea of using a toilet periodically.

      • The prepared sites at Reed’s Gap (which must be used if you don’t hike in) are not in actual campgrounds (although there are campgrounds in the SP there), so no real toilets. I agree with Stephen, that if you’re going for real toilets they’ll probably have showers too, so you can probably skip the solar shower. As I read through all the comments, you might want to consider a U-Haul truck (RV maybe?) :-)

    • 12V Air pumps are great for the inflatable mattresses. The camp grill is a must have, especially since a lot of the built-in grills, over the fire pits, are often really high off the ground, for some reason.

  2. If you need a blue tarp for over your tent then you bought the wrong tent.

    Skip the beefy power supply, just use your car when you’re driving around. If you’re using your ipads more than that you aren’t really camping.

    Yes longer marshmellow forks, smores are over rated, toast the marshmellows, eat the chocolate and don’t bother buying the graham crackers.

    Lanterns are extremely helpful when cooking as it adds light where you need it. Buy a propane tree the new black ones that split in half rock, propane lantern, hose and two burner stove and attach it to the gas grill tank (40#) when you go out. Best setup and you don’t waste propane 1lb green bottles and money. Avoid lanterns with auto-ignitors, they break easily. Don’t get a 3-burner stove, stick to the 2-burner style. Watch the knobs closely, some aren’t very smooth and make it tough to adjust finely. The coleman single burner with grill warrants a close look depending upon cooking style but I just cook over the fire or charcoal with skillet or dutch oven and use the two burner stove for coffee and other things.

    Solar Shower? No, go to real campgrounds with showers you’re wife will thank you for it.

  3. Speaking of coffee, the coleman drip coffee maker for use on a propane stove works very well. Makes coffee just like home, however it’s slower than I am on the inclines. :) Go with a good percolator, I have an old Comet 20-cup aluminum for use over the fire or stove. The newer ones at Wally world are finicky. Though I’ve heard good things about the GSI models.

  4. Its funny, when I go car camping with my wife and son. Its weird for me not to pack everything up in the morning and get moving. Its a hard habit to break. But like Stephen says if you get into using a Dutch Oven, you’ll love it.

  5. A folding food preparation table is always welcome. Thin, flexible cutting mats to save the tabletop. Serrated knife for crusty breads. Tongs, soup ladle, serving spoon. Cast iron Dutch oven (1/3 coals on top, 2/3rds beneath) to make breads and sweet rolls. Pressure Cooker (gas stove only) for wonderful quick soups. Use nice flatware. Melmac dishes (orphans) outperform paper plates.

    Cowboy coffee (bring freshly ground coffee from home), bring water and coffee to a soft boil in any pot, remove from heat, let coffee rest a minute for the grounds to settle.

    Dr. Bronner’s liquid peppermint soap is good for all outdoor adventures. Just a little is needed.

    LED lantern, quiet and long lasting.

  6. For coffee a french press is probably the best. If you can find a lexan one, they’re next to indestructible.

    A couple of plastic basins for washing up – The “official” way is three basins (hot soapy, cool rinse and cold bleachy to sterilize) – but just using the first two will make cleanup very easy.

    Dutch ovens are fantastic for cooking – I really like them for roasting meats – but they are basically an oven and you can bake anything in them. Beans and other various veggie dishes work well as does lasagne. Don’t ever ever ever use soap to clean them up – just boil water in it and scrape – then re-oil. One of the professional cooks I know uses mineral oil on his, but I haven’t tried it. If you’re baking rolls, its not a bad idea to have a baking pan in it and separate that pan from the oven with a few small stones to lift the pan off the bottom. The other trick I’ve seen is to use a parchment paper liner when baking. Don’t bother with anything other than cast iron – because weight isn’t that important if you’re car camping – but durability and resilience are, The thin enameled ones won’t last, and the aluminum ones won’t develop the same non-stick coating that the iron ones do (and you can melt them if you try hard).

    • I never thought I’d do a Dutch Oven review on SectionHiker, but I think a BAKE-OFF might be in order next year between dutch ovens from several different manufacturers!

      Maybe I should even do it as a group trip…:-)

    • For the Dutch oven, heavier is better, It’s the mass that helps distribute the heat evenly and over a long period of time. My personal fave on a Colorado River trip was peach cobbler.

  7. Get a pie iron or two. These kind:–Made-in-USA.html
    NOT the Rome brand you usually find in camping stores. Trust me on this.

    Get a dinopy for shading your picnic table and keeping tree dirt off of it, and a rubber dishpan for all your washing up needs. Pick your caffeine beverage of choice and get a decent, large capacity maker, whether that be a tea kettle, percolator, French press, or whatever. A grill grate if you plan to cook over the fire. A small saw and/or hatchet if you need to process firewood on site. Consider other seating options like a hammock or chaise lounge.

    Skip the power supply and charge your stuff from the car. It already has a big battery in it!

  8. More clothes, and sturdier footwear, if you plan on camping through shoulder season and winter (cleary, cold, starry winter nights!). May be a no-brainer but it’s much different sitting around a campfire trying to keep warm for hours than it is snuggled up in your sleeping bag. If you’ve ever stand hunted, it’s similar…you want enough insulation to stay comfortable for prolonged periods of no exertion, which is a completely different beast than backpacking, where much of your warmth is generated from movement.

    I grew up with a white gas Coleman stove and lantern…I don’t know that they even make those anymore. It was a little more work to use them but less wasteful than propane canisters. If you already use white gas stoves for winter backpacking, you might look into seeing if these are still available.

  9. It’s actually rather funny to me that you see a big difference between the two. :) I grew up car camping and day hiking and when I started backpacking I realized it was basically just combining those things, and that I could vary my trips to be skewed towards more hiking or more camping based on how much I camping stuff I was willing to carry along.

    (Sorry for the multiple comments, my browser is acting funny)

  10. I spent two nights offseason ( after Labor Day) at the Hermit Island Campground in Phippsburg Maine. This is a campground directly on the coast that is mostly tent only sites and has a couple that are nestled away so that you almost feel like Tom Hanks in Cast away. Probably not the same in the high season, but the place is open to Columbus day I went on a Thursday and was the only one there as far as I could tell. Very different than the White Mountains, but listening to the ocean breaking on the shore in the dark by a campfire is pretty awesome.

  11. This is a great way to introduce smaller kids to camping as well. If you have room in your vehicle, big plastic tubs are handy to keep all of your gear in. There always seems to be a ton of little stuff, lanterns, batteries, etc, and a tub helps keep it all organized. You can even have sub-organizers within the main tubs. Plus, you can store everything in the tubs, and, when it’s camping time, you can just grab your tub. Kind of the total opposite of UL backpacking in some respects.

  12. For car camp cooking, I suggest two things, a good sized aluminum pot for noodles and rice… and either a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven for everything else. Make sure the iron is really well seasoned before taking it camping. Season it well, and it’s the best non-stick surface there is. Check out
    for good info on how to season and cook with cast iron.

    For lighting, I don’t need much else besides my head lamp and a couple of candle lanterns for the picnic table. Nice and quiet, and enough light to maneuver by without blinding myself or others.

  13. cast iron dutch oven and or griddle, small axe, huge tarp or better yet a kelty noah’s tarp 16×16 for cheap, hammock or two( goes well with kelty tarp), bottle of whiskey

  14. I go with the Dutch ovens, but you may find that one is not enough. I have three now, a 8qt, deep 12 quart, and a standard 12 quart all by Lodge. An adults Scout meal (6 adults) would start with corn bread in the 8 quart and when done the bread is removed and the 8 quart is re-used for heating baked beans. The deep 12 quart is used for a stew and the standard 12 is for a crum cake (scout dump cake) or other desert. Towards the end of cooking I’ll have the stew on the bottom, desert stacked on top of that, and the beans on the top of desert. After browning the meat and putting everthing into the deep 12 it takes about 90 minutes for the potatoes, vegies, and meat to be done. All that weight holding down the deep 12 turns it into a pressure cooker. But the weight of the ovens means you can only do it car camping. (But it all came in real handy after Huricane Sandy cooking in the driveway for a week)

    • After spending years reducing the weight in my backpacking kit, I discovered cooking with Dutch ovens as part of scouting. I now have my not quite ultra light kit for hiking, and one hundred pounds of cast iron for car camping. Love the absurdity of lurking on this blog for weight reducing tips, only to have my first post be about cast iron.

  15. Interesting piece. Campfires and marshmallows do sound inviting.

    “Car camping is much different than I realized and a nice change of pace from the depravations of backpacking!”

    Still trying to figure this one out. Are you suggesting that backpackers are deprived? or that they’re depraved?

  16. I had a similar experience with my wife. After we got a bigger tent we took an air mattress for a while that is until REI had a sale. I got a couple of their Comfort Cots and they are great. They are big and kinda heavy but they are comfortable and get you off the ground.

  17. I wish to echo the dutch oven recommendations. They are fun to use and experiment with different recipes.

    Two coolers – one for drinks and one for food you need to keep cold.

    5 gallon buckets with screw on/off lids are handy for items you want to keep clean, dry and/or semi-protected from rodents.

    • I wondered if something like this existed. Bearproof by any chance?

      • Definitely not bearproof. The ring that the lid screws into just snaps onto the rim of a bucket. I haven’t seen one up close & personal; I’ve just been researching it on Google & YouTube since I saw this posted (I keep my dog food in a container that uses the same kind of lid, but everything else is all one piece — it’s great!). You might be able to make it bearproof by drilling through the ring & bucket and installing bolts, but I don’t know if that would prevent the lid from screwing on. Some kind of really strong glue, maybe (JB Weld?)

  18. I always like to have a book light with me for reading after dark. Lanterns a just too bright.

  19. Checkered picnic table tablecloth plus clips.

  20. Many good comments here. Congrats on discovering a new thing to share with wifey.

    Consider skipping the lantern. That may or may not be possible depending on your wife’s level of comfort/discomfort with the outdoors at night but I find the “circle of light” provided by a lantern is a barrier between me and what I’m there to experience.

    A couple candle lanterns and a campfire make for great campsite ambiance.

  21. Here are some notes I put together for a class on Dutch Oven cooking.

  22. I’ve got a few of those screw on tops for 5 or 7 gallon buckets. I really like them. Waterproof but probably not bearproof. I keep one for cat food, one for dog food, one in the back of my jeep, and a few others stashed around for “just in case” moments.

  23. Get one of those $3 camp stove toasters. Toasts bread, bagels, poptarts, etc.

  24. The only non-car camping trips I could see packing cast iron would be a canoe trip and/or a trip with pack mules, after all Lewis and Clark took a lot of cast iron all the way to the Pacific. But you better have a nice stable canoe and not many portages or know how to be a mule skinner.

  25. It will be interesting to watch and see where this leads… it was good car camping experiences that led my wife Renee to be open to backpacking :-)

  26. One item I always carry with me when Car Camping is a G.I. Issue or Style, (but not from any company that ends in the words Mart or Sport I have had horrible luck with those makers), is a “Entrenching tool” or Shovel.. I have found many uses for this little shovel from pounding in Stakes to on almost every trip to a Federal or State Campground was to clean out the fire pit, or the Charcoal Grill…I also switch out ALL the Plastic Stakes to Easton Metal Stakes 8 inches minimum. If you cannot find Easton Tent Stakes go to a Millininary Section of your favorite Store and buy the same size metal Knitting Needles which work just as well. I still bring my Peak One Backpacking Lantern and Stove and have used both regularly in fact, I bring my Backpack fully loaded. I bring a 3 quart size Dutch Oven. I have also carried this size in my Backpack for walk into the lake and stay trips. It is the smallest made that I have found but it cooks up a Cornish Game Hen, potatoes, carrots and onions rather nicely. It is also the perfect size for making a pie or biscuits. A Coffee Perculator! And the properly sized ground Coffee. Let it perk for 3 – 4 minutes and the let sit for 5 minutes to settle or throw a dash of cold water in to the Pot. I just purchased from Campmor a 3.5 cup size stainless steel Perk to replace my 8 cup Perk and in tests here at home on the range, on the Peak One Stove and over some charcoal it worked perfectly. Paper Towels, Utensils based on your preplanned Menu. For Trash I use a “Homer” Bucket with a Lid with a trash bag inside. It iis important to have the Handle to hang it off the Lantern Hooks at night which most campgrounds have how. On occasion I do bring a Galvinized garbage pail they use for animal feed at Tractor Supply which you can also boil a whole lot of water in, the Handle folds up locking the lid in place…I also bring my Traveling Library which is in a wooden box which also act as a table with some 14 Peterson Field guides and my chosen Novels..Funny my Car Camping tent is 12×15 or 180 sq. Ft. and My current backing tent is a Snugpak 12 sq ft. I could list all the gear I bring Car Camping because I usually go to a remote campground for 1 – 2 weeks but it would shock all the Backpackers with the entire equipment list..And do not forget a hatchet to split the firewood with….Happy Camping..

  27. Be very careful where you buy your Ice. Many stores that I found selling ice near Campgrounds only sell the “Hollow Core” type Ice cubes. These melt in a matter of hours and you will be buying Ice every day..I freeze all my Meats before I leave for at least 3 days before the trip. Does not work well for Canned Drinks but Bottled water I freeze and add to the Ice Chest and drink up as it melts.

  28. Wet wipes, or something along those lines are great!

    • I just added one of those real fancy stoves that Basspro & Cabela’s sells which operates on a 1 pound Coleman fuel bottle or you can hook up one of the bigger Barbeque type. It has two Burners on top and an Oven that actually works, tested it out last night and it baked up some nice Bisquick Biscuits and a Mac & Cheese & tuna Cassarole and Coffee and Pan veggies all at the same time…..

  29. I freeze bottles of water before a car camping trip and put them in the cooler rather than ice. At the start of the trip is when there’s the most food in the cooler and least space for ice. As the bottles melt, I have ice water to drink. I will be two or three days into the trip before I need to buy ice.

    I also take a water bottle and add soapy water to it and use that for cleaning my hands. For that purpose, I prefer a bottle with a pop out lid rather than screw on–it just seems easier. I’ll even have that bottle in my pack when hiking. When driving, the bottle goes in the drink holder in the door. I also take it into any public restroom I use because I often need to clean the facilities before I use them.

    I’ve tried Dr. Bonner’s for many things, however, I won’t use it again as toothpaste. It reminded me too much of the experience in my childhood after I vocalized some freshly learned “construction English” to my mother.

  30. One thing, totally terrible for space, anti-thesis of roughing it but AMAZING addition were two of those zero gravity reclining chairs. It was amazing to have the ability to sit by the fire, under the stars, or just grab a siesta snooze after lunch. I never realized how camping can mean never being COMPLETELY comfortable but adding these guys made us feel like we had a couch or ez chair with us. Just having your feet up and weight off your butt made a big difference.

  31. I get my wife to come along car camping several times a month during the summer. For us, we use a giant queen size air mattress. It is a bit excessive and heavy, but she insists on having a huge comfy air mattress to sleep on with enough room for us and two dogs. Since we bring the dogs along we also bring along doggie stuff which adds quite a bit to the packing list.

    I would also recommend a power inverter and long extension cord for the car. We use a power inverter instead of a solar charger for a lot of stuff, this especially comes in handy for using the air pump to fill the mattress (did I mention it is a huge mattress?) Solar chargers just don’t have high output and are only good for charging gadgets, which I tend to leave turned off all weekend anyway.

    If you really want to get fancy with cooking over a fire pit, I would recommend a tripod with a grill grate attached or one of those grills with the spike that you pound into the ground that swivels next to the fire. You can start cooking up steaks, burgers, and fresh vegetables this way and really prepare a full meal. Make sure to bring a cooler full of ice! We prefer the soft sided collapsible zippered coolers from REI. For cleaning up dishes and cookware I’d recommend bringing along a plastic bin to wash dishes in.

    All this extra gear really adds up in weight quickly. We tend to fill the back of the car, but it transforms the camping spot into a home away from home.

  32. I love camping, my wife not so much. So I pick the camping trips and lean towards the glamping idea, not quite my cup of tea, but better then not going at all.

  33. Better to go camping using a cheapo tent with an inadequate rainfly + blue tarp, than sitting at home waiting to be able to afford the right tent with a proper rainfly!

  34. Sounds like you both would enjoy a conversion van for camping, if you ever tire of sleeping on the ground. I own a Chevy Conversion Van and love it for car camping trips both far and near. Blends in well with most any environment, backcountry, country or urban camping. And it is different than an RV, I also own an Airstream RV so that is a whole different why of camping…I like Van camping for fishing, the beach, quick trips to urban museums, out of town event weekends, etc. Just easier to grab-n-go where the RV is more of a planned out or extended camping. Anyway, just a thought when age tells ya the ground is just too hard or the tent is just too restricting sometimes. Me? I love it all!

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