Car Camping 101

Follow these dos and don’ts of car camping to enjoy low-key, off-grid getaways under the summer stars.  

Car camping is the ultimate combination of getting motovated and being lazy. I’s a fine art—so make sure you do it right.

DO: Bring all the Creature Comforts and Accouterments

This is especially important when it comes to relaxing and sleeping, two primary car camping activities. 1) Start with a big, roomy tent. Two of you? Bring a four-person. Got kids? Give ‘em their own dome. And smile, knowing their sticky, dirty pine-needle-tracking selves will have their own ant-infested zone. 2) Tenting ain’t fun when you’re on the ground, especially when your car can basically haul a bedroom with you. If you plan on car camping more than a couple of times every summer, splurge on an extra-thick, oversized inflatable sleeping pad. Boaters swear by the PVC-foam “Paco” pad (between $200 and $350); they’re just as good for the campground. And bring your “home pillow” and an extra case. Face mosquitos swatted in the middle of the night bleed. 3) Always bring a puffy.

DON’T: Skimp on Good Food 

Car campers specialize in the moveable-feast mindset. You can pack plenty of essentials and luxuries in coolers and storage bins—hot dogs, pre-made burgers, bread, fruit, vegetables, chips, dips and even non-frozen dessert treats—and you can also get creative with what you cook. For breakfast, make an “egg in a hole” by toasting an open-faced buttered bagel in a frying pan and cooking an egg in the middle. For lunch, roast weenies on a stick, and serve with guac in an avocado.  For dinner, let everyone create their own custom combination of meat, vegetables, cheese and sauce, and then wrap it in foil and cook over a campfire. Heat for a few minutes—then pour it into a bowl or fold it into a tortilla. These are my personal camp recipes, but don’t be bound to them, use your imagination. Don’t feel limited. But here’s one piece of advice you will thank me for: After the meal,  get out your industrial-size tub and the Costco-size detergent, and wash the groms by letting them do dishes.

DO: Light Up the Night after Dark

A lot of the excitement of car camping happens after the sun goes down: adult beverages, camp games, s’mores and story-telling, to name a few. Without a doubt, everyone should have a good headlamp or flashlight at their disposal. Of course, the hands-free lights are key for managing all that activity after the sun sets, but here’s a real pro tip: You can use the flashing modes on those lights to create a disco tent (just remember to respect your neighbors).

DON’T: Overthink Your Drinks

Margaritas and daiquiris are fun for backyard gatherings, but glass breaks and spilled sour mix makes picnic tables sticky. Avoid the mess—and opportunistic black bear visits—by sticking to coolers of canned beer,  boxed wine and simple cocktail fixin’s  in plastic containers. And please do the toast the outdoors right by shunning the swill for local brews from community-centered breweries like Upslope, and Odells. Don’t forget the ice!

DO: Bring the Right Footwear

Hiking boots, trail shoes, river kicks and flip flops. Sounds like an entire shoe store, but you have a car: options.

DON’T: Light Fireworks Under Any Circumstances

We adult children love our explosives. But avoid at all cost the urge to bring fireworks camping. A sparkler or bottle rocket in dry pine needles could ignite a forest fire that kills dozens. Colorado history is long on such blazes. Just check out journalist Heather Hansen’s new book Wildfire: On the Front Lines with Station 8 ($25; Mountaineers Books), which details our history with fires and why citizens, not Smokey Bear, need to work harder to prevent them.

Five Favorite Car Camping Spots

Kelly-Dahl Campground

Rollinsville, CO

Located on Highway 119 just west of Boulder and 25 miles northwest of Golden, Kelly-Dahl has a distinctive family atmosphere on weekend days all summer. You’ll find mountain biking and trail running is available on the West Magnolia Loop and Rollins Pass Road.

Chalk Lake Campground

Nathrop, CO

This tucked-away campground 13 miles southwest of Buena Vista sits just below the flanks of majestic 14,196-foot Mt. Princeton. A short hike to the 30-foot Agnes Vaille Waterfall is just across the street, and Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort is just short drive or bike ride down the road.

Twin Peaks Campground

Twin Lakes, CO

This smallish campground is located just west of the small settlement of Twin Lakes. It’s an ideal base if you want to hike 14,439-foot Mt. Elbert, run or ride parts of the Colorado Trail or hike to the top of 12,600-foot Hope Pass.

Ranger Lakes Campground

Gould, CO

This cozy site on the west side of Cameron Pass lies about 75 miles west of Fort Collins. Although the area is recovering from pine beetle infestation, there is a lot of lush, healthy forest land nearby and the Michigan River flows right through the camping area.

Sugarloaf Campground

Albany County, WY

Avoid the Colorado crowds and head to Southern Wyoming. Thirty-five miles west of Laramie, Sugarloaf Campground lords over the heart of the Medicine Bow Mountains. Hike, trail run, fish and SUP-ing are in and around pristine Libby Lake and Lewis Lake. For a big challenge, tackle the moderate hike up 12,014-foot Medicine Bow peak. —B.M.

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