One of the things I loved best about our summer road trips was car camping.
Car camping is one of the easiest and simplest ways to reduce your costs on a long road trip. When I was in my 20s, I took my first car camping trip to Montana and absolutely loved it. Later, when I met Bonnie, our first summer road trip in 2009 was a 12-day car camping trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
I love the fresh air. I love the sense of community of our campgrounds. And I love the price. Even expensive campgrounds are a third of what moderate hotels cost, making camping a great way to travel without spending a lot of money. Check out our cost break down of different accommodations on a road trip.
We spent two full months car camping over the summers (2012 and 2014), as well as several other week-long road trips, and we have learned some very valuable lessons.
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A Good Tent WILL Make All the Difference
It is, after all, your home away from home. Obviously, it should protect you from the elements, be reasonably easy to set up and take down, as well as comfortable to sleep in.
The first tent I used back in my 20s was a cheap, round, three pole dome tent. It went up fairly easily, but it was not that good in the rain… The rain fly only covered the mesh dome at the top of the tent. It had sleeves you had to slide the fiberglass poles through, which was a pain to deal with.
By the time Bonnie and I went on our first trip, I had a two-person rectangular dome tent from Sierra Designs. It was great, easy to set up and could comfortably sleep two people on a full-size air mattress. We once got the tent completely set up in less than five minutes after being chased by a thunderstorm across the plains outside Wall, SD.
That said, it was fairly cramped and it only had one entrance and exit. So, when we got married, we registered at REI… Yes, we are that kind of couple. We got a great tent as a wedding present, a REI Hobitat 4.
The Big Tent
The Hobitat, aka the “big tent,” was outstanding as a car camping tent. It had enough space for a queen-sized air mattress AND plenty of space to walk around the mattress. I cannot stress how important it is when you are car camping for a long period of time to have a tent which you do not have to climb over the other person to get out and go to the bathroom.
The other major improvement of the Hobitat is the interior height. You can stand up in it. That makes a huge difference when you are changing clothes. I hate having to put on pants laying on the ground.
REI has a habit of putting a lot of organization pockets in the interior of their tents and it does make a huge difference when staying for multiple days.
There were two major drawbacks to the “big tent:” how long it took to set up and the height.
The tent took a good 15-20 minutes to fully set up when you added in the ground cloth and the vestibule. While that is not a long time compared to the camper we now use, it was a little cumbersome if you were only staying one night.
The height of the tent was only an issue twice: once in Fredericksburg, Texas, and once in Scottsbluff, NE. The wind was howling in both instances. In the former, the wind moving the top of the tent kept us up that night. In the second instance, we could not set the tent up the wind was blowing so fiercely.
REI has since discontinued the tent, but here is another, very similar tent. One thing to note is the vestibule is now built-in and it has a second entrance, making it even easier to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom.
Having a large vestibule is important in a larger tent because it will allow you to sit “covered” if it is raining, which is always a good thing. Alternately, you can get a tarp or other shelter for that purpose, but a large vestibule will work very well without adding more stuff in your vehicle.
The Small Tent
One of the things we realized we needed was a small tent we could take backpacking (one of these days we want to do the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim) and one that would be smaller and easier to set up for one night stays.
So, we got an REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent. It is very similar to the Sierra Designs I had when we got married, but had a door on both sides, a few storage pockets (REI loves those pockets) and a vented rain fly.
For quick stops, we could have that tent completely set up and ready to sleep in about seven minutes if we hustled. It was a bit snug, but comfortable.
The biggest drawback was it would only fit a full-size air mattress, vs. a queen-sized mattress for the big tent.
We love this tent so much we have kept it after getting the camper.
The Air Mattress
I wish I could give you a good recommendation for an air mattress. I really do. Our favorite air mattress ever was an Intex air mattress with a built-in battery-powered pump. It was great. It ran on C batteries, had a simple on/off switch and had a reverse flow for pulling out the air quickly.
But, alas, Intex stopped making it and I have yet to find a good replacement. The biggest problem with any air mattress is it will only last you so long. Eventually, it simply will not hold air through the night. There is nothing worse than waking up completely on the ground.
I will give you these pieces of advice on getting an air mattress. One, make sure before you buy it that it will fit in your tent. Two, do not get a corded pump unless you plan on bringing some way to power said pump. At the very least, you will need to run an extension cable from your vehicle to the tent. That can be a real pain at some campsites. Don’t be that guy who is at the bathroom in Yellowstone National Park running a power cable out to inflate your air mattress! Don’t be that guy!
One of the keys of a good car camping set up is cooking gear. Not only does it keep things cheaper by cooking instead of eating out, there is nothing quite like grilling your own food.
The Coleman 1 lb. propane tank is one of the absolute best creations on the face of the earth. It stores easily, there is no mess and it doesn't take a lot of room. It is available just about anywhere and is cheap. Our recommendation: get a grill which accepts these as the fuel. The grill we had for years was easy to use and clean and sat on top of the picnic table.
You will want a bin with some pots and pans. You will also want spices for cooking and basic utensils as well.
Camp Chairs and Table
You are gonna want some camp chairs so you can enjoy the outdoors... otherwise, why are you camping to begin with? We have had these chairs from Picnic Time for a few years (both car and rv camping) and love them. They are very comfortable and, combined with the footstools, are about perfect.
Having a table to set things on is always nice. This table from ALPS Mountaineering has been a great addition to our campsite. The camp table has four cup holders on the "below deck." I got the model with the checkerboard on it. One day, Bonnie and I might decide to play checkers or chess on it.
Final Thoughts on Car Camping
We loved car camping, but ultimately we realized having a camper was the best move for us. Also, our backs just could not handle sleeping on an air mattress for 10 days in a row. For someone younger on a tighter budget, get a tent and get out on the road and see the country!