An Intro to Car Camping | VinFast
An Intro to Car Camping
You might be wondering why a website focused on EVs is talking about camping. Well, camping doesn’t always mean an arduous hike through the forest, lugging ultralight gear, and battling the elements. In fact, that sort of camping (referred to as backcountry camping) is rare. Car camping is much more common. Car camping is a lovely hobby that can reconnect you with nature, push out the chaos of modern life, and imbue you and yours with a healthy respect for the natural world. It’s also one deeply connected to your car—and even more so if you drive an EV.
In this post, we plan to do several things: first, we’re going to make an argument for car camping itself. Then, we’ll tell you how to plan for it: picking a destination and season, preparing your car, and finding the right gear. Finally, we’ll end on some reminders to respect the forest you’re entering and be a proper steward of the land.
This article will draw on the author’s immense well of experience in car camping, including a 3+ month long stretch spent traveling the US. Hopefully, it can introduce you to a hobby that some people love enough to turn into a lifestyle.
What is Car Camping?
When some people think of camping, they imagine forays into the depths of the wilderness; nights spent far from the “civilized” world, where laughs and s’mores around a campfire mingle with the stress of having to dig your own toilet. Car camping is much more common—and much tamer.
It’s exactly what it sounds like: camping not far from your car. It’s simple: you pay for a campsite—roughly $20 per night, though some sites are cheaper, or even free—roll your car up to your site, and set up your tent. The site is big enough for a large tent (or two) with some room for meandering, and usually includes a firepit and a picnic table. Car campgrounds can vary in size, from those with twenty spots in tiny state campgrounds, to the hundred-plus spot campgrounds in national parks. You’ll have plenty of space to yourself, but can mingle with other campers if both parties are inclined. There are almost always bathrooms (often flush bathrooms, with functioning sinks), running water, places to dispose of your trash, and a camp host who can answer your questions. You pay for the night, agree to abide by a quiet hour (usually 11pm), and leave the morning your reservation expires.
There’s no lugging your gear two miles through the underbrush or digging your own toilets. (Unless you want to—there are car campgrounds that lack basics like water and toilets, but you have to put real effort into finding them. They’re referred to as “primitive campsites,” and are usually more remote.)
Why Car Camping?
This question hides two different inquiries: “Why camping?” and “Why car camping?”
“Why camping?” is a broad one.
Camping is a shockingly affordable hobby. Once you get the necessary equipment (which can be as low as $80 for a four-person tent), the campground itself rarely runs you over $22 USD. Despite this, it’s rich in opportunity. It can be a way to escape the chaos of modern life: you can go into the forest by yourself or with a couple of friends, sit around a campfire until it gets dark, and fall asleep to the night-noises of the forest. There’s often something instinctual in us that craves a return to nature; something satisfying about sleeping on the ground, where we can hear and feel the movements of the world around us.
It can be horizon-expanding, too. There’s a huge difference in perspective granted by sleeping under a redwood tree that towers so high its tip becomes the vanishing point on your horizon; a profound shift in point of view granted by seeing the striations of the walls of Bryce canyon. If there’s any semblance of the adventurer or romantic in you; any appreciation for the grandeur of the natural world; any sense for spectacle…it’s hard not to be moved by the things that suddenly sit at your doorstep when you’re camping. Or, you can watch the sky go dark and the stars twinkle into view as you talk about everything from philosophy to television, follow it up with a gentle hike the next morning…or go rock climbing, caving, kayaking, or tread complex hiking trails that make you feel like Indiana or Lara Croft.
It can be intimate and exciting. Be respectful of the environment, and you can still burn off all the energy you hold tightly during your hours working in a cubicle, or holed up in an apartment.
“Why car camping?” is more a question of practicality.
Car camping is far and away the most flexible option, and the easiest place for a newbie to start. It offers access to the usual amenities, minimal effort, and can be done with the cheapest of equipment. You can go up on a weekend whim, drive to whatever landscape suits your fancy, and leave whenever you want or need to. Access to the car means that you can make a run into town, if need be, or use that campsite as a “home base” for other activities in the region. You can even use car camping to hopscotch across the country like I did, camping at national parks and having better experiences, seeing more beauty, and finding more affordable opportunities than if I’d stayed at hotels.
Car camping gives you options, and it’s the best place for most people to start.
How to Plan a Trip
Now that we’ve tackled the what and why of car camping, it’s now time to handle the “how.” That comes in three parts: picking your destination and season; prepping your car; and gathering your gear.
When and Where?
When you go is tied to where you go. FDo you want to trek to a big national park, or keep it small and close to home? The big national parks may be crowded, especially on weekends. Check the weather where you’re going: while campgrounds at the foot of Sequoia/Kings Canyon can be oppressively hot in the summer, the park proper can be cool for a jacket.
Once you know where you’re going, you can work on when. Almost all campgrounds are open and easily accessible in the summer. Many are open through fall, or early spring. You’re much harder-pressed to find them open in the winter months, however, but those rules may vary according to region. In general, though, expect limited accessibility from October to April. Familiarize yourself with the weather in that region, and at that time.
There are also more specific time considerations: what day you arrive, and what time. Unsurprisingly, Friday and Saturday nights will be the most crowded. The middle of the week is frequently peaceful. Memorial day weekend is a nightmare. Regardless, aim to arrive with at least a few hours of daylight left—5–7pm depending on the season. That’ll give you time to set up your tent and relax.
Prepping your Car
Most car campgrounds are well-paved, with good roads. If you’re going at the end of the year, or into rougher areas, see if any member of your party has something with all-wheel drive. If you know it might snow, bring chains or have all-weather tires. Make sure you’re gassed up before you head out into the wilderness. Check your fluids, your tire pressure, and the like. I strongly recommend scouting out the area in any way you can, to make sure your ride can handle it.
The single biggest thing you can do for your car is to make sure you have a car emergency kit which includes a basic toolset with both imperial and metric measurements; spare oil and fluids; towels; a fix-a-flat kit; a jump-starter; and a spare tire and jack.
The last thing you should do to prep your car is make sure it’ll be respectful of both nature and the campground. If you have any wood, plants, or other natural detritus from outside the park, get rid of it! That stuff can transmit diseases and pests to the park. If your car is leaking anything, get that fixed. And if it’s got anything unnecessarily noisy on it, turn it off.
What Gear Do I Need?
In general, you only need five things: water, lights, a tent, along with whatever tools you’ll need to set it up, a sleeping bag, and something to soften the ground underneath you—bundles of blankets, sleeping pads, and air mattresses will all do the trick. If you plan on cooking, you’ll need a camp stove or firewood, plus cooking utensils, a cooler to store your food, and a trash bag for detritus. If you plan on making a fire, a shovel and extra water are necessities. I strongly recommend bringing extra clothes, especially warmer ones. Bring any medications people in your party might need, as well as a first aid kit.
Anything else is up to the whims and needs of your party. Some like to bring awnings, tarps, and lawn chairs; others keep it to the bare minimum. It’ll take some experimenting to figure out what you like to bring. That’s the benefit of a car: you can pack a lot. My recommendation is to bring whatever you want, and pay attention to what doesn’t get used. I, for instance, never use the chairs, but someone always winds up playing the Nintendo Switch!
Car camping comes with one big caveat: the risk of damaging nature. We’ve already covered the need to clear your car of natural contaminants from other places, keep it quiet, and make sure it isn’t leaking, but there are other considerations.
The usual adage is, “leave it as you found it.” Don’t leave anything behind, don’t make marks, and don’t take anything. Be careful of your trash, and pay particular attention to chemical pollutants. Don’t, for example, wash dishes over the dirt with non-biodegradable soap, or dump booze into the grass.
If it helps, think of it like this: a CSI team is going to investigate the place after you leave, and if they find any evidence you’re there, you’ll go to jail.
Finally, whatever rules the park has, OBEY THEM. National and state parks are one of the few sanctums of natural beauty left in the country, and those rules aren’t whims of bureaucracy—it’s really a matter of life and death. If there’s any place where you’re going to follow the rules, let it be here.
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