Monday, October 6, 2014

From The Mailbag: Car Camping for Newbies

I recently had a friend reach out with a question on a subject I realize I hadn't addressed much on this blog. Her email asked for tips directed to those new to car camping, and I'm glad for the opportunity to discuss. Here's the question...

Hey Dustin and Towards Simple! 
Fall has just arrived, and I would love to plan a weekend getaway with some friends to take advantage of the perfect camping weather. I'm a seasoned camper, but I have a friend that wants to come that has never been camping before. I would like to start her out with a simple drive-up, car camping trip. I can show her what I know, but most of my camping knowledge is second nature at this point. Can you give me some advice on some of the basic points that new campers need to know?Also, what would be a good location in the greater Nashville area for a total beginner like my friend? 
Thanks so much!Emily

Hey Emily,
Thanks for dropping a line. Because I have focused so much on backpacking (including creating this beginner's guide), I have neglected much discussion of car camping. I forget how luxuriously fun a dedicated campground can be, and, honestly, it wasn't really all that long ago that I was figuring out how to make simple car camping more fun and convenient myself. So, in the very near future, I look forward to creating a more in-depth guide to car-camping. Until then, I'll offer a few general pointers to get your friend started.

Tips for Those New to Car Camping
  • If possible, go with a more experienced friend or group. You'll learn a lot just from seeing how they choose their campsite, pitch their tent, cook meals, etc., etc. 
  • Confirm that sites are available and park/campground is open. Once you decide where to camp (Tennessee's State Park website is a good place to start for locals), reserve a site online ( is another place to look and reserve a site.) At a minimum, you should confirm that sites are available by calling beforehand. 
  • Arrive well before dark. Give yourself plenty of daylight to set-up camp, gather firewood, and get a feel for the layout of your park and campground.
  • Make sure you have a waterproof tent or shelter and that you know how to set it up. Test the waterproofing of your tent with a garden hose at home before camping if you have any question regarding its ability to keep you dry. Also, make certain you know how to pitch your tent/shelter and that you have all the necessary parts (stakes, poles, etc.) 
  • Make sure you have an adequate sleeping bag for the weather anticipated (it is wise to prepare for worst-case-scenario, too.) Any halfway decent bag should have a temperature rating - 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.)
  • Bring a sleeping pad of some sort (this page has some info on pads). Not only will you be much more comfortable, but a sleeping pad will keep you a great deal warmer because it insulates you from the cold ground. 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.
  • Bring warm clothes (including warm hat and gloves), and dress in layers. Limit or omit cotton garments which do not insulate when wet or damp. Look for wool or synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon. Here is some info on clothing for backpacking, but many of the same ideas will apply to camping and enjoying the outdoors. 
  • Only use local firewood, and consider bringing "fake logs" like Duraflame, etc. to supplement. Make sure any wood you burn is local because burning timber from foreign regions can introduce invasive blights and diseases. Many campgrounds will have wood you can purchase on site, or you can gather wood from the surroundings (but only use already downed limbs - do not cut or break limbs/trees). I was surprised to learn a while back that "fake logs" like Duraflame are actually better for the environment that buying real wood. This because the logs are made from a renewable wax base (less carbon emitted) and excess sawdust  (a good way to repurpose waste.) They are also super easy to light, and keep the fire burning for a long time. 
  • Bring a flashlight or headlamp and spare batteries. A headlamp, which may seem dorky to the uninitiated, is MUCH, MUCH more convenient than a flashlight given its hands free use.
  • Pack a cooler with simple foods or pre-prepped meals for cooking over fire. Bring foods that are easy to eat (fruit, nuts, trail mix, jerky, pre-made sandwiches, etc.) If you want to get all gourmet over the campfire, you might want to pre-prep your food at home and make sure you have a suitable pot or container to cook over fire or coals.
  • Bring 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.The beauty of car camping is that you have a large, gasoline-powered machine that will transport and store heavy stuff; take advantage. 
  • Bring non-electronic entertainment. While many car-camping sites might be full of RVs with obnoxious televisions and radios, don't add to the noise pollution. Take advantage of being away from a technology and media saturated world for a short bit. Bring cards, books, acoustic instruments, and other means of entertainment that don't involve LED screens and speakers.
So, that's a quick starter list. As mentioned, I'll provide a more detailed guide to car-camping soon. Until then, I hope this helps your friend a little bit. Oh yeah! You also asked me to recommend a good camping spot  close to Nashville. I would suggest Montgomery Bell State Park. It is less than an hour from Nashville, has a large, well-maintained campground, lots of hiking trails, mountain biking trails close by, two lakes, and is located fairly close to grocery stores (and restaurants) as a safety net for newbies to grab extra supplies if needed. 
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