Earlier this week, I received an e-mail from a reader who had some questions about camping in a car. I’m not talking decked-out Sprinter van camping; I’m talking about the nitty gritty, sleeping in your sedan car-camping. For most of us van-dwellers and seasoned road-trippers, car-camping is how it all began.
My first big adventure was a nearly month-long journey in the summer of 2010 – traveling from Florida to Utah in a cramped two-door Jeep with three of my male climbing buddies. To call it an adventure would be an understatement. It was one of the dirtiest, haphazard, ill-planned journeys I have ever embarked on – and it also sparked a lifetime of road travel (and began the adventure-driven purpose of this blog).
Here are my top four car-camping tips learned from that trip:
- Less is more. Whether you’re traveling alone, or with friends, you’ll quickly discover that less is more. When packing for any road trip adventure, try to minimize from the get-go. After my first car-camping road trip, I came home and realized that I hadn’t worn half of the clothes I brought, or even touched most of the gear and food I packed. Downsize, downsize, downsize. Trust me, you’ll savor those extra few inches of space.
- Do some pre-trip planning. During this inaugural road trip, I basically just jumped in the car and let the boys take the lead – another mistake. We spent almost an entire month on the road, yet climbed for less than five days total. Why? Because we didn’t plan ahead. We traveled out to Arkansas to climb at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, but didn’t realize that the summertime renders this crag a nightmare of overgrown vegetation and intolerable swarms of insects. We were totally unprepared, and it took a big toll on our trip’s overall success.
- You can (usually) sleep in National Forests for free! The majority of our nights were spent sleeping in National Forests, which we learned are for the taking for overnight stays. For bonus karma points, explore the area around you when you wake up, and do some litter pick-up to show some appreciation for your free nights stay.
- Beware the wind in Kansas. Seriously, beware the wind. We had a giant canvas storage container strapped to the top of the Jeep, and during a stretch of particularly nasty gusts, the wind tore the canvas apart – and we lost nearly everything that was inside. I escaped the situation missing only my sleeping pad, but our buddy Jeff lost all of his clothes and camping gear. Major bummer. (You can read more about it in this post.)
The second road trip I embarked on was a five-week coast-to-coast excursion in the summer of 2011 with Niko – a post-graduation celebration spent exploring climbing areas, meeting new lifelong friends, and living out of my parent’s Honda Pilot (which they claim still has a faint residual odor of dirtbag, oops).
Here’s what I learned during that life-changing trip:
- Wal-Marts are a lifesaver for late-night pit stops. If you haven’t already, check out my guide to car-camping at Wal-Mart. ‘Nuff said.
- Organization is key. Living out of a small space requires diligent organization to maintain your sanity. I am a huge fan of plastic tub containers, in varying sizes. I have two smaller containers for gear/random stuff, and one of those standard large ones where I keep all my cooking supplies/food. I prefer the clear containers so you can always see where things are inside without having to dig around.
- Crack a window. While sleeping in your car, you may feel slightly uneasy about the idea of leaving your window open – but trust me, you need some fresh air. Otherwise, you’ll fog up your interior and wake up in a pool of humid, sweaty misery. I’m paranoid, and always make sure my windows are closed enough that a wrist wouldn’t be able to fit inside.
- Crash pads make excellent beds. If you’re a climber, this should be a no-brainer. Crash pads aren’t just for bouldering – they make fantastic beds. My Stonelick pad fits perfectly into the hatchback of my old Scion tC, and it created the ultimate little nest. Otherwise, sleeping pads or other mats will add some comfort to sleeping in your car.
- Always keep extra plastic bags handy. Frequent trips to Wal-Marts during trips inevitably leaves you with a supply of seemingly useless plastic bags – but don’t toss those horrible pollutants into the trash just yet! They make fantastic mini-trash bags, serve as makeshift gloves for scooping leftover mash potatoes out of your pot (and, you know, picking up poop and the like).
Perhaps my most powerful car-camping experience was the seven-week solo trip I took in autumn of 2011. I learned a lifetime’s worth of car-camping techniques and wisdom, and had nothing but positive interactions with fellow travelers and adventurers during my one-woman trek from Florida to North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado, and the south.
Here’s what I discovered during my 6,657 mile solo trip:
- Always keep your keys within reach while sleeping in your car. Let’s face it, sleeping in your car leaves you slightly exposed, and there’s no way around that. No matter where you are, or how safe you feel, it’s always a good idea to keep your keys within reach. Don’t ever leave them in the ignition, and it’s smart if you can keep them tucked somewhere out of sight from anyone who might be peeking in your windows.
- Similarly, when rearranging your gear to make room in your car for sleeping, always try to keep the driver’s area clear in case you need to make a quick getaway. Especially when traveling in a smaller car, you may find that you need to rearrange your supplies to make proper room for a sleeping area. My rule of thumb is to always keep the driver’s area clear in the event that I need to jump into action and drive away quickly.
- Hoarding napkins is always a good idea. This goes hand-in-hand with the plastic bag idea. Inevitable visits to fast food restaurants will leave you with a mound of un-used napkins, and tucking them into that cubby on the side of your door will arm you with an arsenal of clean-up supplies. Blowing your nose, cleaning up spills, wiping down cookware, you name it.
- Rest stops are not as scary as you think. This is one stigma that I quickly overcame while road tripping. Do not fear pulling off at an interstate rest stop to snag a few hours of sleep – everyone else there is doing the same thing as you. Major gas stations like Loves and Flying J’s also welcome weary travelers to spend the night in their parking lots, and I’ve never had a bad experience snoozing at any of those places. Be confident, be aware, and you’ll be a-okay.
Additional advice includes concepts like spending one hour a week to clean out and re-organize your car, make sure all your registration and tags are always up to date, keep a real map handy for those times when your GPS fails you, and always follow your urges to pull off at random places along your adventure.
Once I depart on a yearlong adventure of living out of a car, I’m sure I’ll collect a novel’s worth of advice for car-camping, but until then, heed this advice and feel free to add your own tips and tricks in the comments section – and if you have any additional questions about car-camping, feel free to leave comments or shoot me an e-mail directly at katieboue (at) gmail (dot) com!