How To Get Started With Car Camping In 11 EZ Steps
One of the best—and most fun—ways to get away for a cheap vacation is to go car camping. And there’s something special about being in a National Park overnight. Have you ever thought you might like to try it? How would a person get started with campground camping anyway? Here are some easy steps to guide you through a first trip or two. By then, you’ll be a pro!
“Car camping” means you put your camping stuff (and a whole lot of other stuff you probably don’t need) in the car and go to a campground where you park in or next to the campsite.
“Car” refers to anything roadworthy that will haul your stuff.
Car camping is for “abled” and “disabled”.
#1 Pick a great place to go
For a first time trip, DCMB recommends you choose a National Park Service campground. This might be a National Park, National Monument, National Recreation Area, or National Seashore. The scenery will be wowee, there’ll be plenty to do, and the camping services will be predictable (though basic; emphasis on BASIC).
Go for 2 nights, so you have time to hang out and see the sights rather than loading and unloading the car.
#2 Do a little research
Once you’ve settled on a park, read the pertinent National Park Service website cover to cover. Search HERE.
See the list of campgrounds under the “Plan Your Visit” menu. There may be one or several.
Choose. Are you okay with the altitude of the campground? Is it open when you want to be there? Does it have a reputation for bugs (Google this) during certain months?
Does the site have a parking spot, flat space for tent, picnic table, and fire ring? Nearish flush toilets and water faucet?
Skip the “walk-in”, “primitive”, or “dispersed” campsites. Likewise, “vault” toilets, “privies” or “bring you own pooper”. These are all euphemisms for “seriously roughing it” and unlikely to be remotely appealing to a newbie car camper.
Definitely make a reservation at a National Park Service facility if reservations are offered. Reserve a disabled campsite if you qualify.
Cancel if the forecast calls for inclement weather. You want your first experience to be delightful.
You’ll be able to find a newbie car camping packing list right here at DCMB: What To Bring: Low-Budget List For First-Time Car Campers.
If you have a tent, set it up in your living room before you leave. Make sure it has ALL the poles and stakes, plus a few extra stakes.
Take all the food, batteries, and stove/lantern fuel you need, so you don’t have to drive a long distance for it.
Duffels and bins are useful for schlepping stuff and organizing it in the car.
#4 Cruise on down the road and into the park
Enjoy the weather, scenery, wildlife, ambience. Whistle a jolly tune. Fill up with gas.
Drop in at the park’s Visitor Center, say hi to the ranger, and ask a smattering of on-task questions. Get the official park map and schedule of park activities. Sign up for a ranger-led desert hike, hands-on dinosaur walk, kayaking in a marsh, stargazing with a telescope, flamingo watch, or clamming adventure. Whatever!
#5 Mosey into the campground
Arrive at least 3 hours before dark, so you can get situated without stress.
Stop at the entrance booth. Be charming to the ranger. When the booth is not (wo)manned, there’ll be a sign with instructions.
If the campground is first-come-first-served, drive around and find a spot you like, then pay at the kiosk near the campground entrance. Use your NP Senior Pass for discounts.
Drive slowly, working very hard not to run over toddlers on bicycles and grannies playing frisbee.
#6 Settle in
Situate your vehicle in the space provided, making sure there’s nothing to trip on in the dark. Obstacles between the car and picnic table have a way of doing that. Tips and technique at Brilliant! 3 Practical Ways To Light Your Campsite.
#7 Set up house
Throw your pretty plastic tablecloth over the picnic table. Place your old bathmat appreciatively on the bench.
If you brought a tent, organize it early on arrival. It may take you a while. Tents tend not to want to go up easily when you’re in a hurry.
Pitch the tent on a flat space. Otherwise, lalala “there were 3 in the bed, and the little one said, ‘Roll over, roll over’ So they all rolled over and one fell out….”
Stake the tent. Otherwise, you may have a very expensive kite. Use a rock to pound tent stakes.
Stake the fly (the outer, waterproof layer) so it doesn’t flop or flap against the rest of the tent. There should be space between the two. This will keep air circulating inside.
Put your bed stuff in the tent.
In the absence of a tent, you’ll be sleeping in some sort of wheeled object. Not a whole lot to set up, but the warning against tilted sleeping quarters still applies.
#8 Tour the facilities
Find the bathroom and freshen up. Locate the water faucet and fill your water jug.
Buy firewood. Tour the campground. It’s normal practice to take protracted looks at your neighbors’ camps. Wave as you do so. They will reciprocate with both the looking and the waving.
Your dog will also appreciate this form of exercise and the curiosity sniffs that are de rigueur.
#9 Make yourself at home
Kick back. Eat whatever.
Lounge around. Make popcorn. Read, write, use your iPad offline, plan tomorrow, look at maps, be casual.
Start your fire at some point, using your fake fire log and campground-bought split wood.
Clean up all food and food debris. Comply 110% with campground food storage regulations.
Go to the evening ranger talk, listen to the loons, watch the aurora borealis.
Observe the curfew, but stay up ’til all hours in peace and quiet if you feel like it.
Your Zzzzzzzz’s are for sleeping, not for damaging your brain or meeting your maker. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES take anything with a live flame into the tent or other enclosed space. There is a very significant danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.
That’s it for car camping EZ!
Now you only have to get up (you know how to do this already). Eat breakfast (that too). Play all day (may be unfamiliar territory). Repeat #8-10 (you have plenty of experience under your belt). Pack up (that too). Swear you have more stuff than you came with. Leave (alas). Stop for homemade pie on the way home.
Great beginner campgrounds:
Photo credits. Featured image and top, Lewis Lake Campground, Yellowstone: Public Domain by NPS/Neal Herbert via Flickr. Arches National Park, Devil’s Garden Campground: CC BY 2.0 by Brian Washburn via Flickr. Toilet panel…Restroom, Grand Canyon North Rim Campground: CC BY 2.0 by Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr. Vault toilet, Recreation at John Day Lock and Dam: CC BY 2.0 by Portland Corps via Flickr. Box in the woods, Pratt Lake Privy: CC BY-ND 2.0 by Steve Cyr via Flickr.
Blue car, packing: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Andrew Smith via Flickr. Visitor Center panel…Grand Canyon Visitor Center: CC BY 2.0 by Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr. Mammoth Hotsprings campground entry, Yellowstone NP: CC BY 2.0 by Yellowstone National Park via Flickr.
More photo credits
Tent panel…. Campground Mather, Grand Canyon National Park: CC BY 2.0 by Kristen M. Caldon & National Park Service via Flickr. Tilted tent, Campgrounds: CC BY-SA 2.0 by jtemplerobinson via Flickr. Tent stake panel… Staked tent, Mineral Springs 2: CC BY 2.0 by Gene Bisbee via Flickr. Flying tent, Image 077: CC BY 2.0 by Scott Thomson via Flickr. Relax: CC BY 2.0 by Brett Nelson via Flickr. Loon panel….Common loon: CC BY-ND 2.0 by Shawn McCready via Flickr. Aurora Borealis, Theodore Roosevelt NP: CC0 by National Park Service/Jeff Zylland. Campfire program tonight sign, Madison Campground, Yellowstone NP: CC0 Public Domain by Yellowstone National Park via Flickr. Trabant Camping Car: CC BY 2.0 by Johnnomads via Flickr.