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With air travel and hotel stays on the decline, camping might just be the hottest getaway around in this COVID-19 world. It encourages social distance, you can usually get to a site by car, and it’s a beautiful way to get out of your house and into nature without too much fuss.
If you’ve been wanting to get into camping, car camping—that is, driving to your site and setting up camp there, rather than hiking to and from your destination—is a great way to start. Compared to, say, a full-on, month-long backwoods backpacking trip, it’s an easy and stress-free way to test out your camping mettle and to introduce yourself (or a nature-cautious partner or friend) to the great outdoors.
Ready to sleep under the stars? With these tried and true tips and a few key pieces of gear, you’ll be prepared to make the most of your car camping adventure.
What is car camping?
For some, car camping is simply camping where you sleep and live out of the back of your car. But for the purposes of this article, we’re defining it as camping to a drive-up spot rather than a hike-in location. Car camping is gaining popularity because it takes very little planning and can be as glamorous (hence the oft-used portmanteau phrase “glamping”) or as rustic as you’d like it to be.
Where should you go car camping?
There are many apps and resources for finding a campsite, but the easiest place to start is Reserve America or Recreation.gov. Reserve America is the go-to site for reserving most state and local government park lands campgrounds in North America, and Recreation.gov allows you to book on federal land. Both sites allow you to search by location, date, and amenities—including if a spot allows animals, has working bathrooms, or allows campfires. Both sites open up listings about six months in advance, so keep in mind that a little bit of planning may be called for with some more popular spots.
As camping increases in popularity, campsites can be more difficult to come by, but the gig economy is helping to mitigate that. HipCamp is like an AirBnB for camping—it allows you to search for anything from campsites to RV sites to glamping excursions. If you live by an urban area where most city dwellers rush out into the fresh air for R&R, HipCamp is an alternative way to find a spot, especially on short notice. If you’re really not about the whole sleeping-in-a-tent thing, we love Getaway, a service that allows you to book a tiny cabin in a secluded spot close to many urban areas in the U.S.
Check the amenities
Before you book your site, make sure the location has everything you need. Do they allow pets? Is there running water? Are there bathrooms and, if you’re planning on bathrooms, do they have showers? Not all campsites offer the same comforts, so think about what you might need and be sure to check if the campsite you’re eyeing matches up with those needs.
Another big thing to check for is if your site allows for campfires. As our climate grows hotter and our summers and early fall grow dryer, more and more campsites are banning them—even those with fire pits—to prevent forest fires. Don’t show up hoping to roast some marshmallows by an open flame only to arrive and find out there is a campfire ban. Do your research and make sure your campsite allows for fires and, if not, come up with a contingency plan for those s’mores.
Keep it clean
It doesn’t make sense to go into the woods with a plan to have a COVID-free vacation, only to contract a stomach bug because you ate with dirty hands, couldn’t wash after going to the bathroom, or you had cross-contamination at your cook station. Make sure you bring hand sanitizer, a good dish soap, and a travel bottle with hand soap that you can take to the bathrooms. Even if you’re going to a campsite with bathrooms and running water, it’s more than likely they won’t be stocked with soap or towels.
If you want to pack light but stay clean, one great camping hygiene staple is liquid Dr. Bronner’s soap. It’s multi-purpose and works just as well on your hands and body as it does on your pots and pans, and it’s biodegradable and gentle on the environment.
Leave the scented toiletries at home
It’s probably not likely you’ll encounter a bear at a well-populated campsite, but why tempt fate? Bears and other wild animals are attracted to scents of any kind—that means your scented toothpaste, your deodorant, and your face creams are all beckoning the animals to pay you a visit. If you can, leave anything with a fragrance at home and opt to spend the weekend au natural or come with unscented versions.
If you can’t go all fragrance-free, wash your face after you brush your teeth to get off any remnants of the scent of toothpaste. You should also keep that toothbrush and any toiletries locked in the car or a campsite-designated bear box with all of your food.
Don’t overthink it. If you’re feeling nervous about spending more time than usual outside, think of camping as a weekend-long BBQ, only in a breathtaking spot with tons of fresh air. If you do that, you’re golden. Bring your music, your yard games, your favorite beer, and let the party go on.
Still, just because you’re relaxing, this doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. Remember to check yourself and your family members for ticks at the end of each day—examine clothing and skin closely to make sure no potential Lyme disease-carriers have attached themselves to you. If your campsite has running water, take a quick shower before going to bed to rinse off unattached bugs.
Also, don’t let your companions cover all the duties. Camping requires attentiveness—especially when it comes to camp setup, meal planning, and cleanup tasks—so make sure that the work of the weekend doesn’t fall on any one person. Many hands make light work, and dividing tasks can make them feel more fun. If you’re going with friends or extended family, delegate jobs and responsibilities, and maybe even plan out in advance who makes which meal when and who is on cleanup duty.
Car camping is fun because you can bring favorite items from home that weigh too much a backpacking trip—like cozy socks, comfy camp chairs, and your favorite pillow. If you’ve never camped before, the National Parks Service advises you bring face masks and hand sanitizer, along with their “10 Essentials” list. This includes includes water, sun protection, a first aid kit, a tent and sleeping bag, food and cooking gear, warm and water resistant clothing, flashlights and lanterns, matches or lighters, and—if you plan to venture away from your site—maps and a navigation systems. Read on to learn some of our favorite starter supplies for those just getting their start in the camping game.
What you need
1. A tent to make setup simple
Whether you’re just starting out and don’t want to wrangle with poles and setup directions or you hate setting up a cumbersome tent in the dark, this tent will take the headache out of setup and start any camping trip on a stress-free note. This tent fully assembles in under five minutes, really living up to the “Instant Tent” name. We also like that it’s roomy enough to fit a queen-sized air mattress and a dog, and that it allows for full standing in the center—which is so nice when you’re trying to get dressed.
2. A cushiony sleeping pad to protect you from the ground
One of the best parts of car camping is that you’re not there to impress anyone with how many rocks and roots you can sleep on. (You can save that for your first backpacking trip.) You’re there to get away from it all, and get a good night’s sleep under the stars.
This camping mattress will help you do just that. Boasting a durable design that was made expressly for outdoor use, this air mattress is super soft and cushy on top, but durable enough to withstand any twigs and brambles you may accidentally track into bed with you. The powerful wireless pump is where this mattress really shines. It holds a charge up to six uses and fully inflates this mattress in 90 seconds, allowing you to dive right into dreamtime even if you arrive at your campsite late at night.
3. A sleeping bag to stay warm and comfy all night
Unless you plan to start snow-camping, which is a whole different style of camping altogether, you can probably make do with a 30-bag, which is a bag that promises to keep you warm and cozy in any weather 30 degrees or warmer. So, although this bag isn’t the best choice for cold-weather camping, it’s a great entry-level choice for three-season campers. It washes easily and, because it’s poly-filled, it dries quickly.
Because of its straight-topped shape, it allows you to sleep in any position with ease, opens easily on hot summer nights, and—should you ever choose to upgrade to a different style—opens up to be a camp blanket to throw on the ground or over your legs by the campfire.
4. A camping stove to make tasty meals
There are few things more satisfying than cooking over an open fire pit but, let’s be honest, an open flame isn’t the most reliable heat source. Plus, now that more and more camp sites are restricting fires, it’s best to come prepared with a cook stove. The Coleman classic propane stove comes with all of the necessary components, without unnecessary bells and whistles and is a cinch for beginners to use. The two adjustable burners ensure that no one will be fighting over whether you should make the eggs or coffee first, and the wind-blocking shields protect the burners from being blown out by high winds or ill-positioned breezes.
5. Campside cookware to ease food prep
When you are trying to be space-conscious, it’s nice to have a cookset that keeps everything organized. This set nests pots, pans, plates, cups, bowls, and lids within a handy stuff sack that is also a basin for carrying water or for washing up after dinner. The three liter pot, two liter pot, and fry pan are all non-stick, which makes for speedy cooking when butter and oil is at a premium.
You may hold a romantic notion of using a cast-iron skillet on a blazing a campfire, but keep in mind that almost everything you cook while camping is going to stick. Cast iron can be tough to clean without running water, so we favor this camping-specific set to make cleanup a breeze—leaving more time for outdoor exploration.
6. A kitchen set for the campside chef
Be the king or queen of your campside kitchen! With this kit, you’ll have everything you need to bring your campsite cooking to a gourmet level. This perfectly compact kitchen set includes a foldable spatula, tongs, and spoon, as well as salt and pepper shaker, a container for spices, a soap bottle, an oil bottle, a drying towel, and a cutting board.
7. A lantern with bug-zapping capabilities—and bug spray to be safe
Where there’s nature, there are bugs. You need a lantern so you can keep those late night games of campsite cards going, but lanterns attract bugs. This handy gadget is a lantern and bug-zapper in one, promising to keep your campsite bright and the bugs at bay.
To be extra-safe about keeping bugs away, get a spray that contains DEET, Picaridin, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, or IR3535. These chemicals are all proven to keep bugs away, and are the surest way to prevent pesky ticks, mosquitos, and fleas from barging in on your outdoor gathering.
8. A powerful cooler so you always have a drink on hand
Prevent spoiled food or your groceries getting gunked up in melted ice. This Igloo cooler may even keep your food colder camp-side than it would be at home! It guarantees to keep your ice cold for four to five days in 90 degree heat and with the secure rubber straps, you’re ensured that the cooler is well-sealed against any airflow and against curious creatures that might amble by your site. As an added bonus, it’s coated with UV inhibitors help to both deflect heat and extend the life of the cooler.
9. A camp chair to stay cozy by the fire
Sure, you can sit on the hard, splintering picnic benches, but any seasoned car camper will tell you that you that one of the best parts of having a drive-up site is being able to stash a big, comfy camp chair. If you want to get cozy with your camp mate, consider the Sierra Designs double folding chair that has enough room for two people and a dog to cozy up between. The cup holders fit either a water bottle or a Solo cup and make for a relaxing recline.
If you’re sitting solo, REI’s Camp X chair is a great option. It’s made of a lightweight mesh that drains water, dries quickly, and prevents too much heat from retaining on your skin—even if you’re perched on it for several hours by the campfire. Its frame is made of lightweight steel, so it feels sturdy and supportive while you’re sitting on it but folds up easily into its carrying case.
10. A solar-powered charger to keep your phone juiced
While we’d like to recommend you leave your phone at home, since it’s probably functioning as your camera, GPS, and flashlight, that’s probably not realistic. Keep it well-charged so it can sustain all of its multifunctional glory. This charger is good for both iPhones and Androids, boasts a 15000mAh power bank (making it, truly, the only charger you’ll need) and can recharge itself when positioned on a sunny car dashboard or hanging from a carabiner on your backpack. It also doubles as a flashlight and, in a pinch, a strobe for if you ever find yourself needing to call for help.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.
Gallery: I took a 1,000-mile road trip in a 150-square-foot RV, where no space was left unused. Take a look inside. (INSIDER)