When I was a kid, my parents never took me camping. It simply wasn’t on our radar as a recreational activity. But my brother was in the Cub Scouts, and his troop did some things that resembled camping, and I thought it looked like fun and that I would like to do it.
I joined the Girl Scouts in elementary school, and by “join” I mean I showed up to one meeting. I thought we were going to talk about camping, but instead we made glass jars look like Santa Claus. I never went back.
Later, I went with my childhood friend and her family to a local campground. I grew up in Frederick County, and the Catoctin and Appalachian Mountains were nearly in my back yard. I don’t remember much about the experience, but it was outside. It was in the mountains. And it was fun. I liked the smell of the campfire.
Last year, Al and I completed a 2-week road trip through Canada. We started at our home in Maryland, headed north to Montreal, Quebec, Gaspesie, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, and Halifax. We would have never done the trip if we hadn’t been able to camp for most of it. I learned to love it, and to watch what others were doing to make our camp experience easier.
Recently, my parents expressed interest at this whole idea of “camping.” They like long car rides and road trips. What if, they said, we experienced road trips by camping at local campgrounds?
Well, mom and dad, since you’re asking, I think it’s a fantastic idea! It will require, however, an initial outlay of money for your tent and air mattress and some small accessories, but those expenses are easily recoverable when you think about how much money you’ll save in the long run when you’re not paying for a hotel, and the new experience you’ll have together. So, mom and dad, this post is for you.
I am often on the receiving end of questions about how I camp. “Do you sleep in the woods?” “Do you carry everything on your back, or do you drive there?” The way that I see it, there are a couple different ways of camping.
There’s backpacking, whereby you walk somewhere, set up camp, sleep there, break down camp, and then walk somewhere else, preferably very far away from the first place, and do it again, indefinitely. It’s tiresome but rewarding.
Then there’s car camping. This seems to confuse people, myself included. There’s camping in your car, and then there’s camping at a campsite you can drive to. That’s what I’m talking about here–camping at a campsite you can drive to. Not sleeping in your car. And of course, none of this is specific to your golden years. You can start camping at any age.
While car camping isn’t truly “glamping” (glamorous camping), you can make it so. Google “glamping” and you’ll get images of cozy A-frame tents and circular yurts filled with woven wool blankets and rugs and fluffy pillows and string lights. You cannot forget the string lights. Despite this post’s title, I’m aiming for one notch below glamorous. Camping may not be glamorous, but it should be comfortable and enjoyable.
Let’s look at what it takes to get started.
Essentials for Car Camping
For someone who has really never camped before, there’s a bit of a learning curve. There’s some element of letting go: agreeing to be dirty (or just less clean than usual), to be bitten by mosquitoes, to drink cold coffee (or tea, mom), to be frustrated with the tent set-up, to get rained on, to sleep fitfully. Just a few months ago we were awakened well before dawn by the relentless, never ceasing, sound of the whip-poor-will. But consider the trade-offs when you decide to camp outside. For one, you’ll save money. Camping is just cheaper–way cheaper–than a hotel. There’s also being outside. It’s kinda nice and relaxing sometimes. I’m more likely to see and hear things that I never would if I were spending the time inside–things like natural events and wildlife.
My gear recommendations are based on my own experience. There’s a ton of variety to each and every single piece of gear and a lot of it comes down to personal preference and sales. Someone who’s had more experience than me can surely recommend different things.
Al and I recently found the REI Grand Hut 6 tent and had our first outing with it a few weeks ago. It is a large tent with enough room to stand up in. Tents typically consist of the shelter itself and an additional rain fly which can be removed in perfect weather, plus the stakes and poles. Look for large tents that fit 4-6 people. The extra room will add to your camping experience.
An Air Mattress or Foldable Cots
On my last backpacking trip, I tried out a new sleeping pad. It was super comfortable (for a change), but I couldn’t help feeling like Jack in the Titanic. It was hard to stay on top of the pad. Comfortable camping does not entail sleeping on small raft-like “mattresses” or foam rolls. Invest in a self-inflating full size or queen air mattress or cots that will ensure a good night’s rest.
If the air mattress isn’t self-inflating, a pump will be a necessity.
A Comforter or Quilt
You could go the route of sleeping bags here, but why? May as well make it feel like home with a comforter . . .
Sheets and Pillows
. . . and a fitted sheet, pillows, and pillow cases.
There will be times when you want to hang up wet towels and swimsuits. Bring a line to string somewhere on your campsite to hang your damp belongings.
A Shade/Rain Shelter
A shade/rain shelter is not a necessity, but it’s nice to have to pop over the picnic table and bring some additional sun or rain protection. This is also the place where you can string those dang battery-powered lights.
A Lantern (or Two)
Lanterns have come a long way. LED lanterns are bright and long-lasting. One or two can help you in those hours between dusk and nightfall but before bed, or with evening trips to the showers or toilets. Speaking of showers . . .
. . . I’ll admit it. I’m a little bit of a germaphobe. I would never bathe in a public shower without flip flops or water-friendly footwear. If I forgot them, then oh well, I guess I’d have to go dirty. I’ve seen all matter of bugs, trash, and hairballs in public showers. Usually it’s not too much of a problem, but I sure do feel better with those shoes.
Crates and Stuff Sacks
We’ve had good luck with a few Instacrates for food items and any other bulky items we want to pack up in the back of the car. Stuff sacks come in handy for those trips to the shower when you want to take your change of clothes, toothbrush, and shampoo.
A Way to Heat Water and Some Dishes and Utensils
This is where you can decide to go big or go home. I think lots of people take gas cook tops and stoves. I’m happy with a JetBoil to heat some water for my coffee, and that’s about it. Think about the things you might want to use to drink your coffee and eat your food, and bring those too.
Fun Things That Aren’t Necessities
Consider bringing a hammock, useful for a mid-afternoon nap. You may or may not have a place to hang it, but it’s nice to have.
Camp chairs are another convenience. Most sites will have a picnic table, but it’s helpful to have a few camp chairs to pop around the fire ring.
Speaking of the fire ring, some fire starter and a lighter is a good idea, and most campgrounds sell firewood on site.
On our last camping trip, the weather was a little chilly, and the picnic table a little dirty. I remembered a thick wool blanket we kept in the back of the car and laid it along the picnic bench. It made the place pretty cozy.
One last thing I’ve been bringing that really makes it feel like vacation is my Kindle Paperwhite. I don’t know why, but absent a phone and other forms of habitual entertainment, it’s nice to fill my downtime with reading.
I think that about wraps it up. You can start by assembling gear for camping, or you could, you know, rent an RV. It’s much easier, of course.