Colorado, where I live, is a state that’s made for exploring, inviting residents and guests to escape into the outdoors, commune with nature, and enjoy the delights of the open air. One of our favorite ways to do that? Camping. While experienced campers can strap on a backpack and hit the trail, the gateway experience for more people is car camping. There’s a reason for this: Car camping can be achieved as simply or as elaborately as you wish.
In backpacking and other types of self-supported camping, weight matters — you have to carry everything that you’ll need. This is a great experience, but for me, car camping is key. It means that I can bring items that may seem like extras (hello, cast iron skillet for breakfast and a truly cushy sleeping pad), which makes my camping experience more pleasant. And in the end, aren’t you there to have a good time? From necessity to nice-to-have, here are 10 things you’ll want to take car camping.
Tent: It may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s hard to camp without a tent. There are many different models out there, from small tents that allow you to sleep solo (Coleman makes a great lower-cost version that works well as long as it’s not too windy) to Taj Mahal versions that double as palaces. Determine which one best suits your situation, size-wise, and proceed from there. And don’t think you have to spend a fortune: Most of the really pricey options are also super light, which really only matters when you’re carrying it for multiple miles.
No matter what size you have, make sure that it includes a rain fly (for inclement weather), stakes and ties (to keep it from blowing away), and a tarp to protect the bottom of the tent from the ground.
- Sleeping bag. Sleeping bags are as distinctive as the people who cozy up in them. From lightweight versions to technical sacks that will keep you warm when it gets below -30 degrees, picking a sleeping bag is a personal decision. I love my Kelty sleeping bag because it’s great in a wide range of temperatures and has a zipper in the foot area so that I can stick my feet out if I get too hot. (Mine’s six or seven years old now, but the Cosmic model is similar.) Designs vary, too, from mummy sacks to double sleeping bags. Take into account the climate where you’ll be camping and read the specs to ensure a comfortable fit.
- Mattress and/or sleeping pad and pillow. Take advantage of the extra space in your car for some creature comforts and ensure you enjoy a restful night’s sleep with a sleeping pad, like this cushy, easily inflated camping pad from Thermarest, or an inflatable air mattress like the MondoKing3D for the ultimate in camping comfort. A pillow is not a necessity, but it sure is nice to have.
Camp stove, cooler and cooking utensils. Most car camping sites have fire pits, which makes for some tasty outdoor eating. Plan your meals ahead, make a grocery list and pack your cooler with real food, like eggs and bacon for breakfast or pancake ingredients. Meals don’t need to start and end with hot dogs: There are lots of recipes for gourmet campground fare. Just be sure to remember firewood and the correct utensils for cooking.
However, there are times when having a fire is not an option, as in times of drought or heightened fire danger. Don’t resort to binging on bars — bring a camp stove. Coleman and Jetboil both make great versions that run on small propane canisters. That way you can still enjoy a hot meal without posing a fire danger. Check your campsite before you travel, but having a plan B is always smart.
- Chairs. Tents are for sleeping, not for hanging out. To ensure social success, bring a couple of camping chairs. They don’t have to be fancy, though there are rocking versions, love seat versions and recliner versions, if you want to take your sitting to the next level.
- Camping hammock. It’s not a necessity, but a camping hammock, like this one from Trek Light Gear, is a joy in life. Not only does it provide extra seating/lounging/sleeping space, but it’s also lightweight and durable. It’s easy to hang and can provide countless hours of relaxation on your next camping trip.
- Outdoor fixes. There are some things that you should always have in your camping gear, no matter where you go or what you’re planning on doing. These items are small, but mighty, and include: insect repellent, sunscreen, sunglasses, a tarp, duct tape, a few clothes pins, twine or rope, a shovel, a knife or utility tool, ear plugs, wet wipes and a first aid kit. They don’t take up much space but can mean the different between patching your tent or heading home early
- The right clothing. Few things can ruin a camping trip faster than not having enough clothing or having the wrong clothes. Make sure to pack a raincoat, even if the forecast is clear. And layers are the key to success, allowing you to shed clothing if it gets too hot and add on warmer layers if the evening becomes cooler. Layers that are temperature-activated to react to your body heat allow you to pack less, but remain comfortable. For example, the Expedition Chill long-sleeve is perfect to keep you cool during a day hike and help ward off the chill of the evening without packing two shirts. Need a bit more warmth? A comfy hoody never goes amiss, both for lounging around the campfire as well as cozying up in the tent. A hat for the sun and one for colder weather, along with specialized clothing like a bathing suit, should be added as needed.
Light(s). It’s amazing how dark it can get in nature. When car camping, having light sources that efficiently light your space without encroaching on other people’s campsites or ruining the stars is key. Your best bet is to take several types of lights: personal and communal. For your personal light, a headlamp, like the Tikka from Petzl, is helpful. Strap it on your head and use it for short jaunts to the privy or for reading in your tent. Just make sure that you remain aware of your friends: no one likes to be blinded by your light.
For communal lighting, consider a lantern that illuminates a broader space. Use a portable LED lantern, or a USB solar inflatable lantern like this one from LuminAid. You’ll be able to see your friends around the dinner table, and it’ll contribute to the experience rather than detract from it.
Looking to spruce up your site? LED string lights can add a bit of whimsy and charm to your site without taking up a bunch of space in the car. As an added bonus, they can help you find your tent among others in the dark.
- Diversions. One of the best parts of car camping is the ability to bring items to liven up your campsite. After a full day of exploring, you can return to your campsite and bring out your guitar for a bit of music. Or, wait until dark to bust out the glow-in-the-dark bocce set that you brought. Unexpected downpour? A deck of cards or group game like Cards Against Humanity can entertain a crowd even when the weather is less than ideal.
While there are other items that you can bring car camping that take it to an even higher level (like a pressurized, portable shower), the beauty of this outdoor pursuit is that you can go as light or as luxe as you’d like. Each trip is different, so get out there and define your own personal car camping checklist.
For great stories on the best outdoor destinations, product recommendations, and more, be sure to sign up for our newsletter!