Car camping isn’t cool. It’s the dadbod of outdoor living.
What bowling is to sports, car camping is to exploring. It’s something you can do while wearing Crocs. It’s basically what Crocs were made for. But I don’t care. Now that I have a family, I love it, with certain caveats:
– It has to be in a place that feels like we’re outdoors. Many popular roadside “campgrounds” are little more than overpriced parking lots with a spigot, cast iron grill, and overpriced camp store. I want some vegetation (even just a few sparse cacti if we’re staying in the desert), and space from the neighbors. Asphalt should be kept to a minimum.
– I have no problem with RVs, but they should be parked in their own section of the campground, away from people who also drove in, but are sleeping outside in tents. RV camping and car camping are two different things.
– Streetlights should be strategically placed to provide darkness and stargazing.
Before I had a kid, I only went car camping to hang out with friends (low rent glamping), or as a necessity during remote backcountry car trips.
These trips were fun, even enriching experiences. Still, in my mind they didn’t come close to true backcountry camping, where I hiked or paddled as far as possible from roads and cars and porta potties and campground curfews.
To be honest, I always thought the average car-camping person was kind of lame.
They appeared to experience just a tiny hint of unmediated nature, as they sat around their campsites with sagging tents and radios and melting ice and leaking coolers.
But I was wrong.
Car camping shouldn’t be compared to backcountry camping. It’s a different experience. It is pretty dorky; that’s part of its charm. It’s also super fun, rewarding, and an absolutely wonderful thing to do with the kids.
I enjoy it for what it is – parking in a spot, unloading a bunch of stuff (always too much stuff), setting up a tent, making a big weird meal, kindling a fire (or blasting some logs with lighter fluid), roasting s’mores, sitting around the fire, telling stories – so many stories! – staggering around in the dark with flashlights, piling in a tent, being too hot or too cold, listening to someone whisper, or giggle, or snore. And finally, falling asleep breathing the clean night air.
That’s what it’s all about. Being together. Outside. I see now that family car camping trips can give families some of their most meaningful shared memories.
Car camping can also provide a legit outdoor experience.
Pack a few field guides along with your waterproof Bluetooth speaker. Download some apps that help you explore nature with kids. Bring a book of nature writing to read around the fire, or This Book Was a Tree for outdoor crafting.
With younger kids, car camping is obviously much easier than backcountry camping. But it’s also a great way to introduce them to the fundamentals of outdoor living, which might be useful when they’re ready for bigger outdoor trips.
There are always little jobs to do when car camping.
Fetching water, neatening up, chopping food, taking things out, putting them away. These are great small jobs for kids. Many will love the opportunity to contribute around the campsite. But even kids that grumble about it will benefit from the experience.
Heading home is an important part of the whole thing.
Even a relatively posh car camping trip is enough to remind kids to be grateful for the comforts and conveniences of home – at least for a day or two.
Where to Go?
In my opinion, National Forests and BLM campgrounds are some of the best. They’re usually rustic, with minimal accouterments. But camping in the fancier (relatively speaking) National Parks is legit, and makes for outstanding family memories. State Park campgrounds are often ideal for families, with their balance of nature and amenities.
The camping season doesn’t have to end when school begins.
A quick weekend camping trip in the quieter weekends of late September can bring the family together for one last feel of summer.
Here in New England, we have hundreds of beautiful green places nearby to drive, park and pop up a tent. Many of these campgrounds also have hiking paths to explore and places to swim. Likewise, many remain open until Columbus Day, or later.
Then, for truly hardy families, there’s winter camping. But it’s not time (yet) to talk about that.