Camping: the mere utterance of the word to unaccustomed ears immediately brings to mind an endless trove of TV sitcom stereotypes. There's the bumbling nuclear-family camping trip with dad in an old multi-pocket vest trying to teach his bored offspring how to gut a miniscule fish. There's the camping trip where it pours rain the entire time, forcing the campers to huddle in their tents eating cold canned beans. And there's college camping, which usually consists of adopting a boozetefarian diet for a weekend while never venturing more than six feet away from the fire ring.
Can camping be like this? Yes--but only if you let it. In reality, camping is not only easy, but also affordable and fun, and the best way to get into it is through car camping. You park at a pre-made site in a state or national park, and the vehicles serve as home base for your trip. They come equipped with level spots for staking your tents, fire rings, picnic tables, and sometimes even bathrooms (well, pit toilets, but it's better than digging a cat hole). And because it's a government park, rangers, maps, and groomed trails are readily available for hiking.
Additionally, car camping makes for prime hangout time with your friends--unless you're terrified by the prospect of actual socializing away from the comfort of cell phone signals. From enjoying breakfast as the sun rises to exploratory day hikes to games around the campfire, sometimes getting out is all you need to get that much closer to your best mates. Plus, the learning curve for camping is far from steep, so most everyone of any ability level can enjoy it.
But wait, you say. Isn't camping stuff expensive? Don't people sink thousands of dollars to transform their cars into adventure wagons and stuff their garages full of gear? The answer is yes and no. Specific types of camping, such as backpacking or canoe/kayak camping, require similarly specialized gear, which can ratchet up the price tag. However, car camping requires only a handful of basics, many of which can be obtained for a fair price. While you can pick up many of these items at a budget big box store, the quality will be poor and the workmanship shoddy--fine for a one-off trip, but if you plan to continue camping, it's well worth your while to make a small investment in these crucial essentials so you can enjoy them for years of excursions to come:
Yes, you can sleep in your car, but why would you want to? A tent gives you comfortable shelter with access to the refreshing clean atmosphere you ventured out to enjoy in the first place. Tents come in various capacities, but keep in mind that, like most suggested capacities, the suggested number of people the tent can hold is the absolute maximum--more often than not, a three-person tent will pack in three people, but they'd better be very comfortable with each other--so pay close attention to the tent (floor) dimensions. Also, tents nowadays don't look like the old-school teepee-style structures of nostalgic postcards; they're lightweight domes with flexible, collapsible poles, and most come with a weatherproof rain fly cover for extra protection. Throw in a tarp (yes, one from Home Depot will do) to place under your tent if the ground is wet or stony, and you have a complete home-sweet-away-from-home shelter setup. Tip: pop it up in your living room a couple times so you don't find yourself fumbling when you get there, wasting precious daylight.
The snuggle sack. The caterpillar. The burrito. Whatever you call it, you want your sleeping bag to hit a couple notes. First, and most importantly: will it be warm enough? Bags are marked with temperature ratings, but just like tents, this is the extreme end of the spectrum: that 20-degree rated bag will keep you alive through a 20-degree night, but you won't get a very good night's sleep. Add 10 degrees to the rating, and you'll snooze happily. (And women, take note: you sleep 10 degrees colder than men on average, so make sure the bag's rating is not for men; if it is, adjust accordingly.) The temperature you need will be dictated by the general weather of the areas in which you plan on camping, so chances are you're not going to need a 0-degree bag to get a good night's sleep. Next is the style and fill of the bag. While you can still find traditional rectangular bags, most humans aren't shaped like slabs. Enter the mummy bag: much like its ancient Egyptian namesake, mummy bags have a form-fitting sarcophagus shape that snugs around your head, shoulders, and hips, tapering down to narrow feet to form a toasty-warm cocoon. And speaking of being cocooned, it's up to you to decide whether you want to be swathed in goose down or synthetic filler. Down bags tend to pack down smaller and weigh less than their man-made brethren, while the latter can stand up to getting wet without losing warmth--but for car camping, none of those factors is really an issue. Pick the bag that you feel will fit your needs best and that you can comfortably rely on for trip after trip.
Synthetic Sleeping Bags:
Down Sleeping Bags
Now, let's talk about what lies beneath. Many bags also have tabs or ties on the underside to secure a sleeping pad--and trust us, you'll want one, even if your bag doesn't have the built-in attachment. Sure, a yoga mat could work in a pinch, but nothing beats an appropriately insulated inflatable or eggcrate-foam pad when it comes to catching ZZZs over experiencing OWWs all night.
Let there be light! When darkness falls in the outdoors, it envelops you in a thick blanket of dark sky you simply won't see in any suburb. All those stars overhead are majestic, but back on earth, you need light to keep doing stuff once the sun goes down. You can't go wrong with an LED headlamp for pinpointing light exactly where you want it; you'll want one with both white and red LEDs for maximum utility. (Trust us: getting a face full of bright white light isn't fun for your retinas.) For ambient light for your group, pick up a solar- or battery-powered lantern.
Like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts say, always be prepared. Whether it's against bugs, the sun, or that stupid rock that came out of nowhere and stubbed your toe, a little insurance goes a long way. Pack some insect repellent, SPF 50 sunscreen, and a first aid kit and you'll be ready for any scrapes.
Depending on the length of your trip, you'll need somewhere between ⅛ to ¼ of a cord of wood to keep a fire burning each night for several hours. Along with the ubiquitous store-bought bundles, bring some newspaper or scrap wood to use as starter--just make the latter is free of nails, staples, or other pointy metal bits.
It's the source of all life, and you'll want a lot of it. The quantity depends on multiple factors, but on average, count on a gallon a day per person--double that if it's hot and/or you plan on some strenuous hikes--plus an extra gallon or two for washing and hygiene purposes.
The most important thing! Camp cooking can be quite easy and delicious, and car camping means you can bring along actual cookware for maximum convenience. The undisputed king of campfire cooking is the seasoned cast-iron Dutch oven, which you can place directly in the fire and top with coals. Don't have pots or pans that can stand the heat? Most fire rings have a built-in grill so you can use your normal kitchen wares. (Another good investment: a propane camping stove.) In terms of dinner recipes, there's a treasure trove of resources online for everything from quick foil-packet meals to one-pot feasts for a crowd to dessert, and plan simple, hearty breakfasts (eggs, bacon, oatmeal) and lunches (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) to maximize efficiency. Whatever your tastes, there's probably a way to cook it outside. Be sure to pack plenty of spices! Note: if you're camping somewhere where there may be bears, you'll need a bear canister for your food. Otherwise, you may end up with one ripping open your car like you would a bag of jerky.
Okay, it's not a requirement. But enjoying a few craft brews with your friends around a campfire sure beats a bar. With an insulated growler, you can even bring along some of your favorite local microbrew!
Books and games
Books are nice when you're alone in your tent, but also bring some cards and board games for downtime periods--fun and socializing in equal measure! And if you get caught in a sudden downpour, they guarantee entertainment when you're all huddled in a tent together.
You've heard of the campsite rule, right? Leave it cleaner than you found it. Loosely translated, that means pack out and properly dispose of all your garbage. it doesn't matter the style of camping you're undertaking: always respect the outdoors and leave no trace. That guarantees the park will stay beautiful for many visitors to come--that hopefully will include you. Happy trails!