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Ultralight Car Camping

Admit it. Sometimes you pack up all of your expensive ultralight backpacking gear and go car camping so you can practice using it and still have the option to drive to a motel in case it starts to rain. :-)

Seriously, trying out your ultralight gear or any backpacking gear in a more controlled car camping situation is just a good idea. I’ve heard way to many stories from AT thru-hikers and other SectionHiker readers about how they bought a ton of expensive gear and ended up hating it when they got on the trail, and were forced to use it without a net.

When I go car camping, it’s not uncommon for me to take a few stoves and shelters to practice setting up when I’m sitting around camp. If you’re driving you can bring as much gear as you want, from lawn chairs to bug houses, beer and take out. Throw in a bundle of wood from the supermarket and you can rough it in luxury.

Do you ever take car camping trips to practice using your gear?


  1. Sure. But, since I normally travel 4-5 hours to get where I’m hiking or canoeing, that is standard for me.
    I have my backpack and gear. This has been pretty much set up before I leave home for the activity (hiking, peak bagging, canoeing, etc.) My van has three crates with a tent/tarp, dehydrated food, and car camping gear. A few items might overlap, maybe my bag & pad, sometimes my SVEA, but mostly this is ready to go.

    The car camping gear has an older remote Peak/Apex, and anything else I would like to test.
    I spend about 12 hours at camp. Unpack, supper, fire, sleep and pack. We have car camping down pretty tight where it takes about 15 minutes to set up and about 15 minutes to pack it up. Sometimes, we buy wood, but this is rare. There is plenty to be had for the fire place, usually. And, it gives me a chance to explore a bit. Only on week ends in summer is stuff fairly crazy. The general time frame for activity is Memorial day to labour day, and, weekends. I can sleep anywhere I guess, but I hate to make the wife knuckle down and hike in somewhere. Her knees are bad. So, we usually choose a state DEC site somewhere.

    Most states do NOT have the number of state sites like the NY/ADK’s does. There is only one small federal park in the whole state.

  2. As a novice hiker, I’ve not yet tried car camping, but it sounds like a great way to make the transition from hiking with trail experienced friends to solo hiking. It makes sense to test gear and discover things I don’t like or am lacking before getting out on long section hikes. Thanks for suggesting car camping.

    • Susan, well, many people make that mistake. There is a huge difference between hiking trails (and camping) and car camping.

      Privacy-This is a big difference. Mostly, sites in state or federal parks are not very private. Between the road, the usual crammed in feeling that the camp sites have, kids going by all hours, and the brightly lit bathrooms, it is difficult to find privacy with just a tarp or tarp-tent. Note that this is required, by law, for any car camping.

      Supply-I rarely bring anything along the lines of food for car camping. At worst, I can make a meal out of dehydrated foods, but I usually just buy a steak or pound of burger, some fruit and other things when I get close to the camp site. Often this includes soda and/or beer, a bundle of firewood, a loaf of bread, some eggs, maybe a pound of bacon or some cheese, maybe a bag of snacks. Except for the cheese, most is not “packable”; it spoils to easily or weighs too much or means packing cans in and out.

      Fuel, etc-I usually just pack a gallon of fuel for the lantern and stove(s.) I often have several partial cannisters to use up, too. I have an old Tikka, and some other double AA operated items for car camping. For backpacking, especially solo, I just pring a 3/4oz Impulse and a 1.25oz E+Light.

      Bath Rooms- These are usually pretty well set in stone at car cmping places. For backpacking, I much prefer to spread out what I have to do.

      Food/Security- Solo stuff usually involves a hang somewhere. With a car, this means simply throwing it in the back and covering it. Technically speaking, tying anything to trees or a bear hang is not allowed in state parks. I usually mention this if I am hiking or canoeing and don’t have a car. Different attendandents have different rules they enforce. In one spot they did not allow a bear hang, soo, I slept with it. This wouldn’t happen with a car, but I really needed a shower.

      Cleanliness-While you would be correct to think that backpacking is dirtier, a lot will depend on your definition of clean. I rinse off every night with a bandana. I have no qualms about using it for other things after rinsing it out with some water. But, dirt and sweat is easily washed off. As a semi-microbiologist, I know that you cannot catch any disease from yourself, and I will extend that to your close family members. Even e. coli is your own specific variety and you have accomodated with it already. That said, hiking solo is cleaner, from a bacteriological point of view, than being surrounded by people you have never met or camping in an area where other people have been. Car camping is a lot “dirtier” than solo hiking.

  3. Car camping? No thanks. Initial gear testing in the back yard, then maybe an overnight on a nearby section of the Ice Age Trail, or at a state park with “walk in” campsites. With those options available, why would I spend the evening on a grass parking lot surrounded by RVs?

  4. Usually, when we take the kids car camping, I have some new piece of gear to try out, so, that works out well.

  5. I car camp with UL gear because – why carry more?

  6. When I lived and worked in Earthquake Country I carried a weeks supply of Food, Water, Clothing, Tent, Tarp as well as Shovel, Axe, Hatchet, Firearm, Fishing gear, and Trapping gear in a black plastic box in my truck. Today I keep my Backpack in the truck, fully loaded but carry two extra gallons of water and my Fishing and Hunting gear. Since I am a free man, should I be out in a State Park or National Forest and get the urge I just put the Pack on and take a hike.

  7. Sometimes I take backpacking gear on car camping trips to save room in the car. For testing purposes I start in the backyard. The next step is to head to a nearby state park that has “primitive” sites a few miles from a parking lot. If anything goes wrong I can get back to the car in 30 minutes or so. This is how we introduce backpacking to boy scouts.

    I recall on a particularly hot day we realized most of the scouts were short on water after setting up camp and discovering the creek was dry. I got on the fire road and quickly retrieved about 4 gallons of water I had stashed in the car. The scouts were amazed at how quickly I had covered all of those miles carrying a load of water. The parking lot was really only about 1.5 miles away.

  8. Interesting piece. I have taken my backpacking gear car camping for the past 13 years or so… and not backpacking!
    In my defense I had a leg injury and have had to have several reconstructive surgeries at the VA. I just did not want to give up on the dream of getting back on the trail. So, for years I took my hiking gear car camping and tried to keep it in working order.
    Now I finally am able to venture forth and I find my gear somewhat “dated.” I feel like a total novice, poking out in a whole new world, there are so many new things available to hikers today which were not around just a decade ago.
    I am not going to just throw away my old stuff though and I am glad I kept it up all those years while car camping!

  9. You guys should try New Hampshire. In addition to lots of state and federal car campgrounds, even our commercial campgrounds have designated backcountry sites where you can get away from the RVs and have lots of privacy. Of course, it about a 100 yards farther away from the bathroom and showers, but walking is good for you!

  10. I’m starting into the backpacking overnight adventure this Summer. Fortunately I live in upstate New York where there are “Back country” camp sites not very far away from the car so a gear failure isn’t a disaster, and I own a big hunk of land in Vermont where I can do trial overnights to practice (especially hanging a bear bag) and test my gear complement before I really have to depend on it. Web sites like yours Philip certainly help all of us get it right within the first couple times though. We will see.

  11. One of the pleasures of car camping is the relative luxury compared to ultralight backpacking. My family and I have been really enjoying our new to us 1993 Eurovan Westfalia. Sleeping on the beds and cooking with propane in the tiny kitchen in that bus….it’s like being in a nice hotel room when you are used to a backcountry tent / hammock site! Finding quiet camp sites or privacy is a challenge…I have found allstays.com helpful since it shows federal, state, county and private campgrounds on their digital map. I have also made use of Walmart parking lots if it was the only choice fitting time and location…the price is right.

  12. I agree totally with Mike Spalding on this one. Car camping? No Thanks. As long as I can walk I’ll save car camping for the time when I have to be placed in a nursing home. Just drive on out and dump me by the gravel tent pad and I’ll crawl into my pop-up trailer. Who wants to sleep next to 40 foot RVs, gasoline generators and the gawking rolling couch potatoes??

    Beyond all this, the best testing for an UL kit or any kit for that matter is in the back yard or on a porch or deck, especially in the winter.

  13. I like the backyard camp-out for gear testing. If you get cold/wet/bored, or just done with the test, you can just slug your way inside and hop in bed with your SO.

  14. Most of my backpacking trips involve a car camping base camp. I’m constantly testing equipment. My wife’s health doesn’t allow backpacking for her. Many of our trips are car camping with the grandkids and then me striking out on the trail at some point with them. Sometimes, base camp is our small RV, other times a tent. I’d rather be truly in the wild but a public campground sure beats being at home.

    We recently finished a major remodel project on our Kingdom Hall and I pulled many all nighters as a watchman. I tested dime new stove combinations while doing that.

    When hiking with my brother in Montana or brother in law in Arkansas, we might car camp at the trailhead but we are in full backpacking gear mode then.

    My wife and I do some fly and drive trips. On those, we’re usually in National Forest, National or State Park campgrounds but she’ll be in a hammock and I’ll be on the ground with a tarp over both of us. We’ll mostly be using my backpacking gear because it packs better for air travel.

  15. By the way. That video is from Big Bend National Park. I’ve been there at least fifty times. I love that place!

    • I want to go. I was going to ask you. We need to figure out a time. April basically sucks here and I’m thinking about coming southwest to hike from now on.

      • April is probably a pretty good time for Big Bend. It’s not crowded, the desert will be in bloom with an explosion of colors and the weather won’t have gotten extreme yet. Some areas are closed to hiking due to Peregrine falcon nesting but there is plenty left.

        Adjacent to the national park is another 500 square miles in Big Bend Ranch State Park. It’s real wilderness. On any given day, there might be ten people camping in the entire state park.

        We’ll communicate…

  16. If I am car camping that means I am usually with my wife and that means UL is out the window. My wife would pack a five star hotel and gourmet Thia restaurant for our trips if she could. I usually test gear on quick overnighters on the FT near where I live. That way at least I can get in some hiking.

  17. No one else in my family backpacks so I love to car camp with them and pull out all my gear. The kids think I’m cool that I actually know what to do with all that stuff.

  18. Gear testing happens in the backyard. Car camping is a great way to enjoy the outdoors with friends/family that may not want to put the effort of hiking in… It’s how I got my wife to enjoy the outdoors more! I do bring my hammock though (who honestly enjoys sleeping in the dirt?!) and some trials of freezer bag meals.

    There’s a local state park that we take the Scouts to, varying trails in, but a 30 minute walk down a dirt road if an emergency/issues arise… Great for testing & trying new equipment.

  19. Since a few weeks we are testing a dehydrator so we can take our own recipes with us. We just try to eat those at home first, before bringing them into the woods with us. So far, so good by the way.

  20. Guilty as charged! Especially for those special fall mornings and evenings in the Adirondacks when the loons lull you to sleep, and you wake up to glass calm ponds and the sky is so blue against the foliage it makes your soul ache it’s so beautiful. It’s so perfectly still you can’t tell if you’re standing on your head or if the reflection is just that perfect.
    There’s plenty of places to camp from your car and be away from the rv’s and crowds. It’s great if you’re on a schedule but just want to get away for the night.
    And yes, for sure breakin’ out the UL gear is always a plus.

  21. Ultralight gear is particularly beneficial when it comes to motorcycle camping / touring. I have set up my very light Kawasaki Ninja 650R for longer distance riding.. I use soft saddlebags that I can walk in to a remote camp site for an overnight stay as part of my tour route. The bags are small so it requires I be just as selective about what I pack as if it were a traditional backpacking trip. The only additional “luxury items” that the bike lets me bring is a compact camp chair and some heavier reading material. I am trying to figure out some sort of “sissy bar” mount for the bike that would let me strap my GG Gorilla pack right to the bike, which could serve as a sort of backrest during longer rides. These exist for traditional tourers but not for sportbikes like mine.

    • Back in 1971 I had a suicycle for Japanese fame and import, it truly sounded like a Lawn Mower, and had about as much power, but I was an outdoor nut back then. I had a Welding Shop in Columbus Ohio weld a upside down U shaped chromed bar to the back frame just above the axel where my old CampTrails Pack rested, The sleeping bag on those old packs tied on underneath the main bag. That is something you could look into….

  22. We’ve always used our backpacking gear car camping. Because that’s what we have. We like to camp when we’re traveling between our place and the grandparents, and there are several friends we like to camp with who don’t backpack.

    We just bought our first non-backpacking tent. We might even get chairs. The kiddo’s friends are going car camping before we try them backpacking (though they all really want to!).

  23. Not sure if this counts as Car camping but i have tested gear boat camping (driving boat across the lake where there are no roads and people and parking it in a cove. I like doing as most of my pack gear is light and small so doesn’t take up much room in boat and leaves room for Luxury items… (like the Lawn chair… and beer)

    • I don’t think that last item on your list is a luxury, many would argue it’s a necessity!

    • I am using a lot of my gear for canoe/kayak camping. Similar only no motor. LOL I can still cary more than on my back but light weight is still good since it leaves more room for…ummm…”luxuries.” Woodchuck Cider!

    • Your not alone. I have a Tracker Bass Boat the TXW and find myself on some rather large lakes far from the put-in site. On a couple of occasions I got caught out on the lake in a storm trying to head back to the put-in site and got totally drenched and a bit of fear from Lightening. I already had an emergency box on board for Flares and Horns and such which I stowed in one of the forward compartments. After one particularlly scary storm, the thought came to me that if I had the proper gear along I could seek shelter on one of the many Islands that dot the Lake. So I added my Squal Tarp Tent, a silnylon tarp and one of the new Emergency shelter sleeping bags, two quarts of water a Hatchet and 4 MRE’s with their heaters. So now that I am prepared, I haven’t ahd the need but what I found that I have done on a couple of occasions since I am generally out on the water all day, was to pull up to an Island and take an occasional Nap after lunch and my Lady friends who I allow to come along on occasion like the tent as well.

  24. Hi, actually that’s my video :) And let me explain a little background about our camp trip to Big Bend, 1) I’m here in Austin from Japan for 3 months and have limited gears 2) My co-worker in the video is not an experienced hiker therefore it should be a car camping, so it was not really a practice. And in Japan, we don’t have a backyard so always I test my new gear on a real trail.

    Anyway, Big Bend was great and I love Texas. Do you guys have any recommendation for me to hike next time – not a car camping?

    • It is a great video. Thanks for puting it up on Youtube! When Gossamer Gear posted it on facebook, I must have watched it 5-6 times in a row. And it reminded me how I often use UL gear to car camp.

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