Planning a multi-day backpacking trip can be daunting, deciding what to bring and what to leave behind for space and weight savings can be agonizing. Many times through trial and error you learn what works and what doesn’t and you begin to carefully craft your packing list. Car camping is much more forgiving. Items that are too heavy for backpacking can now be brought along. Items sacrificed due to weight and space can help bring a little more comfort to your campsite. This post is to cover some of the very basic items that you will need. If you are just looking for a comprehensive list, check here at REI.com…
#1 – Tent For years we used a three man Coleman tent we bought at Wal-Mart, much like this one here. This little tent served our car camping needs for many years until we wanted to go backpacking and we upgraded to the REI Half Dome tent similar to this one. Lightweight and small, the Half Dome served as our shelter for many trips until recently when we purchased a rooftop tent from Front Runner Outfitters which now serves as the official *Adventure Not Included basecamp. If you keep your eyes out for sales you can pick up a good tent for car camping for less than $40, for example this one from Big 5 Sports on sale for $30 until this weekend. Keep in mind that these inexpensive tents are not good in inclement weather, in fact few but the very best made tents will stand up to heavy rain or hard winds but unless you want to drop $500-600 on a tent from Northface or Mountain Hardwear, retreating to a local rooming establishment is your best option. Trust us when we say, sleeping in a 3 season tent in gale force winds or below freezing temperatures is not much fun and there is no shame in staying at a nearby motel for the night. Sleeping in your car is always an option but it is not very comfortable. Since our Half Dome tent has gone MIA, our personal choice for our next tent is most likely the REI Passage for the light weight, double doors, ease of setup and good reviews.
#2 – Sleeping bag and #3 – Sleeping Pad There are many choices here but the best and warmest option we have found is a good fitting mummy bag. The fit is important because if the bag is too tight you will be uncomfortable and if it is too big you’ll have a hard time staying warm. If you are backpacking, finding the perfect balance between weight and warmth is important. Car camping however is much more forgiving and I would place a greater emphasis on warmth. You can always open up the bag to vent some warm air but you’ll never be able to generate more heat from a light bag. Personally we use ALPS Mountaineering mummy bags that are rated to about 30 degrees. We got them from the REI outlet for about $80 each and they have been great for us. We have slept in colder temperatures with these but we would not recommended to use them below about 40 degrees without an additional liner or blanket. If you never plan on sleeping out in the cold there is nothing wrong with the classic style sleeping bag from Wal-Mart that you can pick up for about $25.
One of the essential items that go along with the sleeping bag is a sleeping pad. We currently use the Therm-A-Rest 3/4 length pads which are self-inflating pads that are intentionally short to save space and weight. These three quarter style pads only provide cushioning for the upper body and hips and work very well for our older frames when sleeping on the ground. Sleeping pads accomplish two things, providing a little padding and insulating you from the cold ground which can quickly sap the warmth from your body. Some people might prefer an air mattress but they don’t always fit inside the tent and they are prone to leakage. If you go this route, make sure that the mattress fits inside your tent before you take it out for the first time.
#4 – Camp Chair Although some might think this is not an essential item, this can make a huge difference in making your camping trip a more comfortable experience. It never fails that someone is ALWAYS sitting in my camp chair around the fire at the end of the day because they didn’t bring their own. The uses are not limited to camping either, we use ours at the park, tailgates, backyard and even the garage. Although they make a lot of different styles, you just can’t beat the basic collapsing camp chair. Outdoor Gear Labs even did some testing on several different types of camp chairs and this ALPS Mountaineering model was the winner. But at $60 can you really see much difference in the $7 Ozark Trail model? Yes, the ALPS model looks heavier and the max capacity of the chair is 800lbs compared to the 225lb weight limit of the Ozark model but it also weighs 13lbs compared to the less than 5lb weight of the Wal-Mart chair. I’m sure that the ALPS model will last quite a long time but I can’t see dropping that much coin on a camp chair that’s ultimately gonna get used and abused. The Ozark Trail chairs aren’t the most durable things in the world but ours have lasted through many desert camping trips and beat sitting on a rock!
#5 – Headlamp Another indispensable item that every camper should have, headlamps will make your life easier. Imagine this scenario… it’s late at night, you were fast asleep in your tent but now… nature is calling and you can’t ignore it any longer. Okay, look for your flashlight… where is it?!? Oh, okay it rolled over to the other side of the tent… okay, open the zipper and try to get your shoes on, all while fumbling with the flashlight. Switching hands, under your arm, pinched at your neck… wow, this would be nicer if I had BOTH hands free! OK, so do I need to continue?? The LED headlamp is a great innovation in camping technology that everyone should be using. Hands-free, lightweight, bright easy to direct beam and can be found for a low cost. This really is an essential item and these Black Diamond models are really great value and are highly recommended by many hikers and campers.
Personally, we use the Enduro model from Streamlight because I’m a Streamlight fanboy and own a couple of lamps from them. Powered with two AAA batteries and providing 6 hours of continuous light on high, durable, powerful and light. we’ve had these headlamps for a few years now and I use them all the time around the house, on the car and in the backyard, anywhere I need a hands-free light. Not to mention that it makes answering the call of nature in the middle of the night SO much easier without fumbling around with a flashlight!
So that’s it, those are the first five essential items to have to go car camping. That wasn’t so bad was it?? Next time we’ll cover some essentials for one of the most important parts of camping… COOKING! Thanks for reading and remember to find your adventure where ever you may wander!
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