In Part I of this quick Car Camping for Beginners series, we discussed where to find a good campground and the differences in types of campsites. Moving on from there, we should discuss some of the gear and clothing you'll need to buy, borrow, or rent before your first camping trip. Thankfully, gear that is suitable for car camping can be much cheaper than the specialized, lightweight and often absurdly expensive gear needed for backpacking. If, however, you expect you want to take up backpacking in the future, you might consider spending a bit more for items that can be used for both endeavors (Here's my guide to backpacking gear as a reference.) You can always use backpacking gear for car camping, but you can't always use car camping gear for backpacking because it is often too heavy and bulky strap on your back. The most important thing is to get out there, however, even if you decide to sleep in the back of a truck bundled in a bunch of wool blankets. You can probably do a bit better than that, so here is a quick overview of what will help keep you warm and comfortable.
GEAR TO BRING
I won't make this list fully exhaustive, but here are some of the things you'll probably want to bring for a comfortable night (or several nights) sleeping outdoors. I don't make any mention of food or cooking items, because I'll cover that in my next post. Also, here are some tips on ways to acquire affordable gear.
- Tent or Shelter. The great thing about car camping is that you can bring a big, bulky, roomy tent because you don't have to carry it on your back. You can get away with a pretty cheap tent from a big box store, but be sure to test its waterproofing abilities at home on a rainy night or under a hose/sprinkler before heading out for a camping trip. Some cheaper tents will need to have seam sealer applied to make them fully waterproof. I have a really cheap 4 person Coleman tent that I bought years ago at a big box store I often bring for car camping. It holds two people and two dogs with tons of room to spare. If, however, you know you want to backpacking later, you might be a bit more picky about buying a new tent. You can use a backpacking tent for camping, but you certainly don't want to weigh yourself down on a backpacking trip with a big, heavy, bulky tent you bought for car-camping. You don't have to bring a tent, however. You can learn to pitch a tarp (be careful with this plan if you're a beginner), or sleep in the back of a pickup truck with a camper top (but be certain to ask - some campgrounds require a tent.)
- Sleeping Bag. Any halfway decent bag should have a temperature rating which lists the lowest temperature in which one can expect to safely use the bag. Make sure yours will be warm enough. Don't take a summer bag that has a 55-degree temperature rating for fall camping that can hit lows in the 40s and 30s (here's more info on sleeping bags.)
- Sleeping Pad, Mat, or Air Mattress. Not only will you be much more comfortable with some padding between you and the ground, but a sleeping pad will keep you a great deal warmer because it insulates you from the cold earth. Even an inexpensive closed cell foam pad found in the camping section of big box stores will keep you MUCH warmer than simply throwing your bag on the tent floor. These can usually be had for $7-$15. Because you're car camping, you can even bring a big inflatable mattress like you might use for guests at your home. Just bring something to keep you insulated from the ground.
- Flashlight or Headlamp & Spare Batteries. (Optional: Lantern). I strongly suggest investing in a headlamp for camping. They may look dorky to the uninitiated, but having both hands free while hauling fire wood, fumbling with your zipper during a midnight bathroom break, or just lugging gear around is much more convenient that carrying flashlight. Lanterns and candles are also nice for after-dark card playing or simply ambiance.
- First Aid Kit. It's always a good idea to have at least a minimal first aid kit, especially if you plan to do any hiking or other backcountry activities. (Here's a post on putting together a simple first aid kit for hiking.)
- Camp chairs and/or hammock(s). Some campsites will have a picnic table and benches and some will not. You'll be much more comfortable and warm with some sort of dedicated chair than you will be on a bench, log, rock, or the ground. Camping and backpacking hammocks designed to be strung from trees are also an easy luxury and can also provide sleeping options (just remember that a hammock can be much colder than sleeping on the ground without a dedicated under quilt or insulated sleeping pad.)
- Toiletries. First find out if your site has a bathroom and/or shower close by. I always make certain I bring some toilet paper no matter the situation. Biodegradable camp soap is also something nice to bring. If you plan to shower in a public bathroom, you might want to bring some flip flops or shower shoes. Which brings us to…
WHAT TO WEAR
Be sure to bring enough clothes to keep you warm and dry in worst-case-scenario situations for the time of year you'll be camping. This should include a warm hat and warm gloves in cooler temps.
- Dress in a layering system. A typical layering system involves a base layer (what is directly against the skin), an insulating layer (a fleece or "puffy" is a good choice), and an outer shell layer (a waterproof rain jacket.) You may want to add extra layers, and because you're car camping with shelter always close by, a truly waterproof rain shell is not imperative. The important point is to dress in layers for warmth rather than relying on one bulky coat alone, for instance. (See this post for more information about layering clothing.)
- As best you can, completely omit cotton garments. Cotton does not insulate when wet and dries very slowly. For this reason, cotton can actually be dangerous if you find yourself soaking wet in cold temperatures. Fabrics to look for are wool and, more popularly, synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon.
- Fleece (made from polyester) is a GREAT fabric for camping. Fleece is very durable, easily available, affordable, feels great, dries quickly, and insulates very well when wet or dry.
That is a brief overview of some of the gear and clothing to consider before heading out. In the next post, we'll discuss food, entertainment, and campfires.
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