Car Camping

IMG_1795Car camping – The most popular option and offers a quantum leap in the amount of gear you can take.  Tarps to cover your site, an expanded kitchen including a chuck box, new choices in food and cooking techniques are all options car camping brings.  While more gear means more work setting up your site, it also means more comfort and convenience.

NOTE:  here, we will not take up the increasingly popular “wheeled” camping approach.  This style includes pop-up tent campers, travel trailers and motor homes.  This is a site dedicated to getting out into nature on the cheap and those approaches don’t seem to fit the slightly primitive style typified by sleeping in a tent.  True, you may score a pop-up on, but you can also wait a long time before that occurs.  Sadly, the popularity of structure camping has resulted in many camp grounds converting their primitive sites to provide electric hook-ups, and has resulted in both an increase in the density of campers per park, and the proliferation of the kinds of things we go camping to avoid; noise, crowds, late-night lights, exhaust fumes, the visual pollution of cars and vehicles.

If you agree, here are some things we take in our car that set this approach apart:


  • Home-A tent of course.  Your tent should have a “tub” floor.  That is, the water-proof part of the floor should extend up the sides of the tent 4″ or more, forming a tub in which you set up your quarters.  Most tents now routinely consist of a 2 part design; the tent and a rain fly.  Many current designs feature an extended vestibule or “porch” that extends 4 feet or more in front of your tent.  This is very important.  It will rain.  When it does, you need to be able to get in and out of your shelter without opening your front door to too much water.  A suitable and useful alternative can be the ubiquitous  blue tarp, covering the front half of your tent and extending across your picnic table.  This not only helps establish your living space, it keeps the pathway from your bedroom to the kitchen drier, and helps keep dew off of your gear.  A 10′ X 16′ is a suitable size.
  • Screen house.  These can be a nice addition to your gear.  They are what the name implies, a screen house, usually with no floor, access on 2 sides with a water tight roof.  These again help define your space and provide a focus for your party to convene on.  Clever arrangement in your campsite can produce a covered path from your tent to the interior of your screen house.  Add a small rug or carpet square and it even starts to seem comfortable.  The primary function of a screen house, is of course, bug control.  By placing your food and light source behind a screened enclosure, you decrease the likelihood of critter invasion.
  • Tarps-The blue poly tarp has been a boon to car campers.   They serve as ground cloths, firewood covers, rain flies, and general quick shelter from the elements.  They can be used to cover your picnic table.  They help keep debris out of your food, dishes and establish a home-like comfort zone around the place that will be the focus of your stay.
  • Kitchen – Here is where the dedicated car camper can become creative.  Here is a picture of my first camp kitchen,  It weighs in at a hefty 52 lbs, so it’s not something I’d like to portage very far, maybe from the back of my car to the camp site.  [   ]  This is a box made of exterior grade 3/8″ plywood, with fir framing.  This version holds all you need to set up a kitchen including a stove, pots and skillet, utensils, food, wash tub, detergent, knives, cutting board, cups, plates, glasses, table cloth, and paper towels. The bottom has been glassed to improve its weather durability.  A camp kitchen helps organize gear and make it easy to transport.  It need not be tis elaborate.  A 32 gallon utility tub from a big box store you get for $7 works very well.  It will involve a bit more searching, but the principle is the same.  All your gear is in one place.
  • FOOD-Yes, a big area for creative campers, from leg of lamb and mint jelly to a frosted chocolate cake can all be yours by opening your imagination to what you can cook outdoors.  After all your taking cooking gear, a means to cook with, ingredients, and an appetite!   Be creative! Enjoy. Items we have enjoyed are;
    • Pulled pork-Plan on a pound of bone in pork shoulder per person.  Dry rub.  Here’s a recipe we’ve used.  It is delicious.   3tablespoons chili powder
      2 tablespoons paprika
      1 tablespoon cayenne
      1 tablespoon ground cumin
      1 tablespoon ground coriander
      1 tablespoon granulated garlic
      1 tablespoon granulated onion
      1 tablespoon kosher salt
      1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
      We had planned on having left overs.  Didn’t happen.  We had a 3 pound semi-boneless and ate the whole thing.  Had roasted veggies, gravy, coleslaw, the whole nine yards  It was delicious!  The best part of course was the aroma of the roast as it cooked.
    • Roast leg of lamb [ Watch this spot]
    • Goulash- an easy recipe that provides plenty of flavorful food, warms and fills the tummy and is better the second time.

1 Lb Hamburger
1 Medium Onion
1 Green Pepper
2 12-Oz. cans of Tomato Juice
1 Box of Elbow Noodles
1 Tablespoon Cooking Oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Bay leaf


    • Easy beef stew-Prep the beef at home, and freeze it, with the gravy or sauce.  Take fresh potatoes, carrots and onions.  Then simply add the ingredients together when you’re ready to eat.  Don’t forget a loaf of crusty bread to sop up all that good beef juice.


  • Lighting– Here’s a picture of a 20 pound propane tank with a mast from which we powered a lantern and a 2-burner stove.  Car camping lets you accommodate a bug tank like this to provide your fuel source for cooking and lighting.  Sure, the smaller cylinders work just as well,, but they are twice as expensive and you have a land fill item when you’re done.
  • Extras
    • A Dutch oven is a good “add” and offers you lots of neat options.  Besides making outstanding one-pot meals of gourmet quality, you can make biscuits, deserts, soups, use it as a warming oven while pancakes or waffles are being prepared.
    • Table clothes are a nice add, as are regular plates, bowls and silverware.  I’ve even seen folks with stemmed glassware and candelabras.  They were being creative campers.  No sporks in that camp!
    • Coolers-Freeze everything you can-juice, butter, all meat you’re going to cook.  If you have room, add frozen bottles of water rather than cubes.  The 1/2 gallon rectangular plastic juice bottles work well.  They are very tough and adaptable to your cooler.  Keep 2 or 3 ready to go in your freezer.  2 liter soda bottles work too, but being round they waste room in your cooler.
  • Chairs and cots – Of course.  Why sit on the ground if you don’t have to?  Same with sleeping.  Be comfortable, get up off the ground.  Here are some examples of cots.  They provide good comfort, while keeping your gear off the floor of your tent.  You can even store small items like shoes, water bottles, and dry bags under them.  These examples have a “W” shaped leg profile.  We think these do less damage to your tent floor than the design utilizing the “X” leg pattern  If you prefer something higher up, the “X” is for you.   It might be a good idea to place a small carpet square under each led end to help diminish the abrasion impact of the leg.
  • Rugs – Yes, rug.  Most carpet stores will let you reclaim scrap from their waste bins.  Hey, this is creative camping!  Cut a piece big enough to fit in the bottom of your trunk, or back area of your van or SUV.  When you complete your site set up, the last thing in your vehicle will be that piece of carpet.  Place it for a threshold in from of your tent.  Rugs help keep dirt out of your tent, and provides a place to wipe your feet when it’s raining.  If you snag some carpet ends at your favorite carpet installer’s, just leave the remnant in the dumpster when you break camp.
  • Water jug – Take a carrier for your camp water.  All camp grounds will have potable water faucets.  A 5 gallon water cooler bottle makes a nice container to have around camp.  Plenty of water for drinking, cooking and washing.
  • Dumb stuff- Don’t run the battery down on your vehicle. Most modern cars will turn on all the interior lights for 3-5 minutes after you open and close the door or hatch.  If you do this for 3 days without starting your car, you may have a problem starting it when you want to leave.    Dumb, right?    Well, don’t say we didn’t warn you.  Your car provides some access to modern conveniences, like electronic device recharging, right from the power outlet (which used to be called the cigarette lighter plug).  It is easy to run your battery low by over utilizing this source.

So this is your car camping checklist.  It’s more of a plan than a list.  Keep in mind, you can take things with you car camping you would not think of, and shouldn’t bring, canoe or backpacking.  A 20 pound propane tank is just not practical in a canoe.  But it works really great stowed in your trunk or back space.  So check your list and be creative, camping!

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