Car Camping for Beginners

Camping expert Amy Boissonneault runs through everything you need to know for your first camp out.

Photo by Paul Chambers
Published on

So, you’ve caught the camping bug! You’re in for a real treat. In this beginner's guide to car camping, we’ll cover some common questions and get you well on your way. With the right gear and a few hot tips, you’ll be ready to pack the car up and head out into the great outdoors. There’s nothing better than escaping the city and reconnecting to nature (and, bonus, to yourself).

Gear

Camping gear options are endless but for your first trip out, there are just a few essential items that you’ll need for a top notch experience. Whether you want to keep it super budget friendly or are more inclined to have a glamping experience, each item comes with a vast array of options and features. Chat with your Curated Expert to find the option that best suits your needs and comfort.

Your sleep system includes a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag!

Tent

Your home away from home. Most tents are designed for between one and eight people, but larger options are available as well. Look for vents that provide airflow, mesh windows so you can enjoy clear night skies, internal pockets and hooks to help you stay organized, and sealed or taped seams for weather proofing. For added comfort and space, opt for a tent with a one to two-person capacity larger than your camping party. Don’t forget to consider extra space for the dog if you plan to have them sleep in the tent along with you!

Important things to consider when purchasing your first tent...

  • Peak Height: If you’re on the taller side, you will likely want to find a tent with a higher roof. You won’t be able to stand up in every tent but it sure makes getting dressed easier.
  • Rainfly: A rainfly fits on top of your tent to provide protection from the elements. Plenty of tents will come with this included. Note that some rainfly covers simply protect the top of the tent while others will come all the way down the ground – a rainfly that only covers the top will keep you dry in a light rain but if it’s windy or really coming down out there, you’ll want a full coverage rainfly to keep you cozy and dry!
  • Set Up: The larger the tent gets, the more complicated set up tends to be. Look for things like color coded pole systems and/or fast-pitch designs if you want to keep it quick and easy.
  • Vestibules: Great for storing dirty shoes in a covered area outside of the tent.
  • Doors: Two or more doors means that when nature calls in the middle of the night, you don’t have to scramble over your fellow campers to get out of the tent!

Hot tip! Practice setting up your tent at home first to familiarize yourself with your new gear so there aren’t any surprises when you arrive at camp.

Sleeping Pad

It might seem weird, this whole ‘sleeping on the ground’ thing, but with the right sleeping system you will be plenty comfortable! Sleeping pads help insulate you from the cold ground as well as provide cushioning. While an air mattress might sound tempting, keep in mind it won’t provide any insulation from the ground, often leaving sleepers feeling chilled. Look for R-value – this measures the insulation level provided in a sleeping pad. Other options will be extra long or wide, and if you aren’t ready to sleep on the ground, try out a cot!

Sleeping Bag

The main thing to consider when purchasing your first sleeping bag is the temperature rating. Fair-weather campers can likely get away with a summer bag; however, a three-season sleeping bag will provide a greater variety of use with protection from unpredictable weather during shoulder seasons. If anything, err on the side of being too warm – you can always unzip your sleeping bag and stick a leg out to cool down.

Hot tip! Store the clothes you plan on wearing the next day in the foot of your sleeping bag while you sleep – this will keep them (and your feet) warmer! No one likes putting on cold clothes first thing in the morning.

Camp Kitchen

A camping stove, pot, plates, utensils, cup, and a liter of milk on a wooden table.
Photo by Stefan Widua

Stove

A two-burner propane camp stove should do the trick. Most fold up like a suitcase for easy storage, and you can cook all your hot meals here. Always bring some extra fuel along to make sure you don’t run out mid-trip! Simply pack a pot and pan from your kitchen at home as well as some cooking utensils and you’re all set.

Cooler

Your camp fridge. Grab a block of ice and fill it to the brim with all your goods! As well as bringing a cooler, I pack all my dry food into a medium sized plastic bin. That way everything is easy to find and safely stored.

The Extras

This list is truly endless – especially with the added freedom of being able to pack everything into your car as opposed to onto your back. To keep it short, I’ll share a few of my go-to items, and you can adjust the extra camping accessories you add to your personal gear-set as needed. Not on the list but a must have: bug deterrent.

Tarp

While the rainfly on your tent has you covered while you sleep, if you get caught in the rain (trust me, it’s going to happen sooner or later), it’s pretty nice to have a covered eating and hanging out area. Most campsites will be equipped with a picnic table so go ahead and set your tarp up above it if (when) the clouds start rolling in. Don’t forget to pack some rope and practice a few handy knots!

Entertainment

Possibly the most important ‘extra’ on this list – don’t forget the games! One of the great things about camping is disconnecting from phones and computers and staring at screens all day. A few of my favorite camp games include cards, Monopoly Deal, Boggle, and… does napping in the hammock count? I always bring a good book along, too!

First Aid Kit

Whether you need it for sliver removal or something more serious, don’t head out into nature without one. Keep one in your car or camping gear bin so it never gets left behind! Going on day hikes from your campsite? Carry a smaller, separate kit in your pack.

Camera

Make sure you document all the fun you’re about to have! Digital, film, polaroid, disposable… anything goes here. Relive those camp vibes post trip and build up the stoke for your next one – frame your favorite photo at home, share them on social (tag us, we’d love to see!), or heck, get a photo printed on a mug and enjoy it every morning with your coffee.

Camp Furniture

The most obvious addition here is a few good camp chairs for around the fire. My favorite piece of camp furniture, however, has got to be my camping hammock. They are generally quick and simple to set up and offer a place to read, nap, and relax while feeling totally immersed in the nature around you.

Lighting

A camper sitting outside her tent wearing a headlamp in the evening.
Photo by Yuriy Rzhemovskiy

It might be obvious, but once the sun sets your campsite is going to get… well, dark. You’ll want some good lighting options to avoid tripping your way around camp. Personally, I find the handsfree versatility of headlamps to be super valuable. If you don’t want to wear one, lanterns provide a nice ambient light – great for game night at the picnic table. There’s nothing wrong with a good old flashlight, either, but they aren’t quite as convenient for camp use. If you’re hanging out around the campfire (make sure to check the regulations at your campground regarding open fires), turn off your lights and the firelight should be enough to see one another. Remember to turn off the lights and look up at the stars before climbing into your tent for the night.

Hot tip! Keep a headlamp bedside in case you have to sneak out for a midnight bathroom break.

Location

For your first camping trip, it’s always a good idea to stay relatively close to home. Summer is an ideal time of year for beginner campers to head out on their first big outdoor adventure, but shoulder seasons (Spring and Fall) generally mean fewer people. Most campsites will have access to day hikes, beaches, rivers, and all sorts of fun ways to spend your time. Check your local state parks, national parks, or private campgrounds to reserve a site in advance and keep your eye on the weather. There’s no shame in calling it quits if you encounter bad weather, realize you’re unprepared, or just aren’t having any fun (although this seems highly unlikely).

Clothing

Author Amy Boissonneault wearing a hooded jacket and standing outside her tent holding two cups.

Layers, layers, layers, and one more time for those in the back… LAYERS! No matter how many times you checked the forecast before you left, one thing every experienced camper knows is that weather can change quickly. Even if it’s hot during the day, once the sun sets, you’ll be reaching for your socks (yes, socks and sandals are appropriate in camp) and fleece. If you’re trying to stay warm, be sure to avoid wearing cotton as it traps moisture next to your skin and makes it difficult to warm up. Synthetic layers will help wick moisture away plus they dry fast! Remember, function over fashion in the outdoors.

Best Practices

First and foremost, ensure your entire party is versed in Leave No Trace practices. Leaving the places we hike and camp better than we found them is the golden rule. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the amenities provided at the campground you will be visiting. Some things to make note of are restroom facilities (some even have showers!), water sources, picnic tables, playgrounds, and even theatres in some cases. Don’t forget to set up your gear at home before you go or, better yet, have a campout in the backyard to test it all out!

The great thing about car camping is you have the freedom to bring anything and everything that fits into your vehicle. If you aren’t ready to go all out purchasing the listed gear, no sweat! Borrow from a friend or bring some cozy blankets from home in place of a sleeping bag. Now that we've covered camping basics, it's time to get out there! If you’re ready to start building your gear set and looking for recommendations, click on the link to my profile below to chat with me.

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Growing up on the west coast, camping and getting outdoors in general was always (and continues to be) a priority. Whether it's skiing, hiking, camping, or something a little more off grid, it seems like we're always looking for the next adventure. I might live in the city these days but I spend the...

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