The Beginner’s Guide to Car Camping

published Jul 24, 2014
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(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

Come the sunshine, one of the first things my family does is to pack up the car and head out into the great outdoors. We are lucky to be living in Edmonton, Canada with easy access to some of the most spectacular national parks in the world, Jasper and Banff.

So, you want to wake up to this gorgeous view, but have no idea where to start? That’s where I come in, with some handy hints and tips that will make your first, or latest, camping experience a breeze.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

If you’ve never camped before, it can certainly seem intimidating. However, with these basic preparations and easy organizing tips, you can soon be enjoying a lovely, reasonably-priced summer vacation with very little effort on your part.

1. Booking a Campsite

Start with research on where you want to go — most campgrounds are based in national, state, or provincial parks.

  • If you’ve never camped before, it might be a good idea to find a campsite you can book online or over the phone. This ensures you get a reserved campsite and won’t have to be scrabbling around looking for one at the last minute. These campsites get booked up fast during the summer, especially around holidays, so it’s worth planning and reserving them in advance.
  • Some campgrounds will also have a few sites set aside on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you’re flexible with time and have enough resources to keep driving, this can be a great spur-of-the-moment plan.
  • Many campsites now come with luxuries like showers, toilets, washing up areas, playgrounds for kids, and even laundry areas. If you pick a smaller or remote site, they may have fewer amenities, so plan accordingly.
(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

2. Camping Essentials

The next step is to organize the equipment that you will need for camping. Contrary to what you might think, camping, and in particular, car and tent camping, does not need expensive equipment. Here are the essentials:

  • Tent: Ideally one with a waterproof outer layer. There are a wide variety to suit every budget, so pick the one that suits you and the season you’ll be camping. We use a summer four-person tent, and it works well for our small three-person family since it’s easy to put up and light to carry. If you have a larger group, it’s worth investing in a tent with ‘rooms’. Make sure the tent comes with a ground sheet and a carry bag.
  • Sleeping bag: Find one rated for the season you want to go camping. We use three-season bags, as its always better to be warmer than shivering with cold. Mine, for example, is rated up to -14°C, so I can alternate it as a blanket or full coverage sleeping bag.
  • Clothes, toiletries and personal effects: Go easy on packing clothes. I take light, easy dry trousers and shorts, cotton tee shirts, a fleece and a rain jacket. We also carry lots of socks and a pair of thermals, just in case the weather turns. A washcloth, towels, bathing suit, and your personal hygiene items plus an extra roll of toilet paper (just in case). Note that if you’re camping in an area with wildlife, store ALL your toiletries in the car and never in the tent with you.
  • Small toolbox: Fill it with essentials like a hammer and screwdriver. An axe is useful for lots of things like hammering in tent pegs and chopping wood for fires. As with most sharp objects, keep away from kids and always have a cover for it.
  • First Aid box: Never go anywhere without it. Additional safety equipment like a flashlight, lantern, extra batteries, extra water bottle and water purifier tablets are helpful.
  • Food, drinks, and cooking equipment: There’s a lot to be said here on cooking while camping, so check out the post I wrote separately on it!

3. Other Things to Pack

  • Mattress or sleeping pads: These may not be considered essential, but it saves my back a ton of strain. These are easy to pack, take up very little room, and crucially, add a extra, comfy layer between you and the ground you’re sleeping on.
  • Lightweight day pack: In case you want to go for a day trip or a hike.
  • Tarpaulin and ropes: It’s very useful if you need an extra tent footprint or want to put together a makeshift shelter in case of rain.
  • Extra rug or two: They come in handy for everything from more warmth at night to using as a makeshift tablecloth.
  • Indoor activities: If you’re camping with kids or family, pack indoor activities that you can enjoy if you have a bad weather day. Our daughter loves hiking and walking, and we enjoy exploring nature with her, but we also relax by playing Uno, Snap and a few board games. My husband and I play a lot of Scrabble and I have a few books that I can relax with.
(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

4. Final tips to make your camping experience a positive one:

  • Be respectful. Note any time restrictions at your campground and follow them accordingly. Remember that there are other people around, so don’t play loud music or yell or let the kids run around disruptively. Make sure you keep an eye on kids, and don’t let them wander too far away.
  • Take extra care if you are camping in wilder grounds. Follow animal safety advisories and never ever second guess them. The safety rules are there for a reason, to ensure that everyone has a safe camping experience.
  • Remember that nature is wild. Follow the rules of the park or campsite you are visiting. If there are no garbage disposal bins, take your rubbish with you on your way out. Keep the sites clean for the next visitor, put out any fires, and make sure everything is in order before you leave.
  • And finally — have fun. Camping, for us, is the ultimate family vacation, and we love every minute of it. I love that my daughter grows up surrounded by nature and I revel in her wonder and joy at it. It brings us together as a family (ha, try spending a week in a tiny tent with them) and keeps us young, happy, and respectful of the beauty of nature. Oh, and I get to play with campfire cooking!

Whether you’re a novice or experienced campers, hopefully these tips will help you with your next trip. There’s nothing as magical as the first night: the stars come out and shine brighter than you can ever imagine in a city and if you watch closely, you can see satellites and shooting stars flashing by. This life, my friends, is one of the best, and most idyllic ways you can enjoy your summer.

→ More camping tips from Michelle: How I Pack Food for Car Camping