After reading a lot of articles recently about the decline of car camping as a recreational activity, I began to wonder why. This article addresses that question and makes a modest proposal for a new way to look at car camping.
Unfortunately, when it comes to quality camping equipment, the niche of car camping has not been properly filled. Sure, if you’re an avid backpacker, as I am, you have lots of quality options. Quilt vs. sleeping bag, gravity feed filter versus pump, tent versus tarp or alcohol stove versus pressurized. It’s easy to experience 900 fill down envy while in your 850 fill bag.
When it comes to car camping, however, you have: big box stores versus, well, big box stores; pvc air mattress versus memory foam; and, skin-so-soft lotion versus mosquito coils.
Why is that? Do we yearn for those days in our teens and twenties when the campsite flooded and the tent collapsed? Is it fond memories of waking up on a deflated air mattress that you just bought? Did that partially cooked hamburger taste any better because it was cooked on a dirty grill over an open fire?
Car camping doesn’t have to be an ordeal experienced once a year, filed under the tag “What the hell were we thinking?” and then left to mildew in your garage until next season.
What can be done?
Here is what you need to consider if you want all of the great benefits of camping (closeness to nature’s heart, low nightly price, get up and go freedom) without the downside of typical car camping.
- Be prepared to spend $825 – $1200 dollars for a full kit. This will seem like a large amount right off the bat, but it will pay for itself with reuse, and the quality of the experience will guarantee reuse. Spending half that amount for equipment that will fail, make you miserable and then never be reused is a false economy. In that regard, I wonder why inexpensive equipment makers foster their own demise by making such equipment. This might explain the decline in camping. I will detail below the categories of equipment you will need immediately and things you can add later.
- Take care of your equipment. After each trip, make sure your equipment is dry and clean before you store it. Store it in a dry place in containers for easy access for a quick weekend getaway. Before each season, take it out and make sure everything is still there and hasn’t been dipped into in the off season. Decent, quality equipment well-looked-after will last for years. I have tents that are over ten-years-old and that are still working well.
- Break your equipment into logical containers for ease of grab-and-go. There are many sturdy plastic commercial containers in a number of sizes that stack for easy packing. Buy a set, and use one each for your kitchen box, general gear and non-perishable food not in your cooler.
- Tent pricing – A 4 or 6 person tent with the quality features below, at the time of this article, will sell for approximately the following:
- 4 person – $350-$400
- 6 person – $400-$550.
This will be your biggest single expenditure. If you want to look at this as a travel cost (without considering the advantages of camping itself), weigh that cost against a motel/hotel night, and you’ll see that it won’t take long to recoup your money. A rainy night where you get up and everybody else in the campground is soggy except for you also has its own rewards. Not that you’re gloating.
- Tent capacity – Tents are sold based on their apparent capacity i.e. 4 man, 6 man etc…. Manufacturers will over-claim so you think “Hey! We have 6 kids plus two adults so an 8 man is just the ticket and, look! It is only $250.” If you value your sanity do not – repeat – do not try to camp with 8 people in a tent. For comfort, divide the manufacturer’s claim roughly in half. Or use the formula 3=2, 5=3, 7=4. This will leave some portion of the floor unused for your inevitable gear and not just bodies lying down. I use an REI Kingdom 6 for my wife and myself.
- Tent features – A quality tent will have the following features:
- aluminum poles not fiberglass
- shock cording in the poles (stretchy cord that keeps the poles together)
- taped seams that do not require additional waterproofing
- good ventilation in the form of lots of screens
- an available custom footprint (typically sold separately)
- a fly that goes all the way to the ground instead of just the top
- walls that are as near to vertical as possible to accommodate cots and make the interior feel larger
- a storage bag that is big enough to be used easily rather than a tiny factory packed bag that makes it look small, but can never be used again
- storage pockets inside for small items
- an anchor point in the ceiling to hang a light or fan
- good quality aluminum tent pegs
- a back door and vestibule for bonus points
- Multiple tents – If you have a large family, consider more than one tent. The adults and small children can be in the main tent on cots, and the older children can be in good-quality two-person tents, on sleeping pads, on the same site. This means fun for everyone (what kid doesn’t love a tent!), you can keep tent quality up by spreading the numbers around and that smaller tents and mattresses can also double for backpacking trips.
- Knowledgeable retailer – Try to buy your tent from a retailer that understands tents. Big box stores will not be able to provide you with much advice and will likely not have detailed knowledge about what will be a seasonal product. The MEC in Canada and REI in the U.S. are examples of helpful stores. Reputable family tent brands include the MEC and REI brands, Eureka, Big Agnes, Marmot, North Face and Ticla, among others.
So, you’ve now committed and bought a quality tent that will protect you from the elements. A good night’s rest to go with that is next.
- One word – cots. Thinking back to your camping experiences, you will realize that the act of sleeping on the ground has been the basis for many of your less than fond memories. That tree root in your back after your queen mattress went flat, flopping your arm off the mattress when it didn’t go flat and splashing into a puddle on the floor, waking up to find you have migrated off your mattress in the night and, finally, trying to get up in the middle of the night from the floor without crawling over your tent mate.
The answer? Get a cot. This is where the big box retailers come in handy. Go to their camping section in-season, ignore the 28-person tent for $189 and the queen mattress with the self-inflating solar motor. Pick up a couple of folding camp cots, looking for the ones that are a little wider than the usual 29” (32” is good). They run about $50 each and will rock your car camping world.
You can sit on them to take your socks off! Getting up is like, well, getting up from a bed. They keep you off the uneven floor, away from potential water, and, because air flows under them, they are cooler in summer than an air mattress. They zip into their own bag, transport easily in a car and will get lots of use when the relatives come over on the holidays and on sunny days in the back yard. To make them extra comfy, put a thin sleeping pad on each as a bonus.
- Sleeping Bags – if you use a cot, you can bring a single sheet and a light sleeping bag that zips fully open and make-up a real bed. Summer camping doesn’t require much warmth, especially in a tent, which can warm up. To that end, synthetic fill bags are fine and much less expensive than down bags. Remember that, and don’t over do it by bringing a three season or winter bag. 10C rating for the summer is plenty. A sweaty night is an unhappy night. Cost: $50 – $100.
- Pillows – don’t forget them. This is car camping, after all.
Campfires are very romantic. Trying to make coffee in the morning over one is not. Get over the romance and set up a proper kitchen with a few basic items. Save the campfire for s’mores and late night fire watching.
- Stove – a two burner stove that folds into its own case is critical. Fuel options include white gas or propane, with propane becoming the standard. The one pound, green propane canisters are available everywhere. When comparing, look for the BTU rating for the stove and the size of the top surface. Where possible, buy a better quality stove if the price difference is not great, given that stoves have a very long life span. I am still using a white gas Coleman I bought 25 years ago and hope to upgrade to propane – if it ever quits! If your stove has an optional folding stand, buy it if you can, as it will free up picnic table space. Reputable stove companies include Coleman, Camp Chef and Primus. Cost will range from $100 to $150
- Kitchen Box – set up a separate kitchen box with dollar store or yard sale cutlery and utensils, such as a cooking knife, a big cooking spoon, a spatula, a small whisk, plastic plates, bowls and cups, coffee cups, a cutting board, a two liter cook pot, a frying pan and a coffee maker (I use a French press when camping and pack a plastic version to avoid breakage) and a thermos to keep coffee hot for late risers. For clean up, include a square, plastic container for washing dishes, dish soap, a scrubber and a drying towel. Don’t be tempted to stock this box from your own kitchen before each trip, as you will inevitably forget items and end up buying them at increased cost in some local town. The whole kit with everything shouldn’t cost more than $75.
- Cooler – make sure that it’s a good size. Critical features include a hinged lid and drain plug. Wheeled models might be useful on rough terrain. Putting items in square, plastic containers in the cooler (other than the ever important beverages) keeps them out of the water at the bottom and makes it easier to find things. Rinse it out and air dry it after each use to avoid the funky cooler problem. Cost: $50 – $75.
Other Essential Gear
- Lantern – get a propane lantern that uses the same fuel as your stove. Add a battery version for inside the tent. Cost: $50
- Clothes line with pegs – don’t place it in a walk through area or you will take your head off. Trust me.
- Camp chairs – many types available from most basic to really-amazing-footrest-included versions. Indulge your fancy in that department. Cost: $15 – $75
- Hammer – for tent pegs and whacking moles if you encounter that typical camping problem.
- Table cloth (plastic) for the picnic table – this small bit of gracious living makes a huge difference in the feel of camping meals. Pick up some table cloth clips at the dollar store to avoid a blow away.
- Flashlights – one for everyone. You can get packages with multiple flashlights in them. Always buy so that they all use the same size battery.
- Small piece of carpet for inside the tent door to catch dirt/sand
- Dust Sweeper – for the tent floor
Optional Gear (can be added later)
- Dining Tent – should be at the top of your next purchase list. Look for the same quality as your tent. It will be cheaper than a tent, as it’s more basic (no floor, no fly etc…). Especially nice to avoid the bugs. Avoid the bargain dining tents, as they typically last only two seasons, and then clutter up your garage forever. Cost: $250
- BBQ – a small portable propane BBQ that uses the same fuel as your stove is handy. Look for one that folds up into its own case for cleaner packing. Cost: $50
- Bedside table – when using cots, you will be raised off the floor leaving your glasses, book, a bedside light or clock on the floor. A small folding table is handy to address this. Cost: $20
- Folding table – Full height. A handy item to expand your kitchen space or if the picnic table is messy. Cost $100
- Ceiling Fan / light – Battery operated. I got one with a remote so I can turn it off from bed! Look for the lights that you put on backyard umbrellas. Cost: $25
- Other appliances – the world of gadgets is endless. Examples are: toaster ovens, coffee makers, hot water heaters etc… If you consider these, look at getting gadgets that are compatible with the fuel you use.
The Basics for Two
Item # Total
Tent 1 $350 – $550
Cots 2 $100
Sleeping Bags 2 $100 – $200
Stove 1 $100 – $150
Kitchen Box 1 $75
Cooler 1 $50 – $75
Lantern 1 $50
Total $825 – $1200