At Camp: A "How-To" (Have Fun) Guide | Day Drunk: At Camp: A "How-To" (Have Fun) Guide

July 19, 2013

At Camp: A "How-To" (Have Fun) Guide


It's no secret that I love to car camp. For the past 5 years, my love affair with steering my car onto the open road and traveling with no aim has been the driving force in my life. There's no doubt that I have become quite a pro at it. I thought I would take some time to share some tips on how to make a simple night on a road trip an extraordinary good time.

Background: I first stepped foot on a campsite when I was 21 years old, no joke. My suburban parents are emphatically NOT interested in camping and we spent our vacations getting pampered at resorts instead of roughing it in the wild. It wasn't until I met my gal pals that I was able to begin dabbling in the fine art of camping. Shortly after that first trip into the woods of New Hampshire in 2008, I completed my first cross-country road trip and then spent a month camping and traveling around Iceland. The rest is history.

There are countless places on the internet where you can load up on tips on how to be safe and respectful while car camping or just camping in general. While I will not touch upon what to carry in your first aid kit (Ibuprofen, Pepto-Bismol, and aloe vera gel are three of my go-to's) or proper safety techniques when camping in bear country (do not roast a chicken after dark!) and the like, I will give you tips on a perfect camp kitchen, a five star bed set-up, and maximizing your time in general.

1. Grab your friends!!!
Me and AGP at the Lost Coast in California
Me and the gal pals at sunrise at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

If you are a social person, that is, as I am. Having a buddy with you to stare quietly at the stars with, play cards with, or explore with keeps the creepiness of being outside in the dark in a strange place at bay. It helps if your friends are easygoing and willing to contend with the elements.

2. Gather your supplies...
This may seem like an overwhelming task. And indeed it can be. For good reasons. I like to be prepared and camping can throw you out into the elements. Typical car camping supplies include: A tent, a tarp and rope, a cooler, sleeping gear, cooking supplies, headlamp, firewood, and camp chairs. Although, I typically pack quite a bit more than that.

A rainy night in Gallatin National Forest, Montana.
Resting easy in Los Padres National Forest, California.

After years of slapping a sleeping bag on the floor of the tent, I have upgraded to a fancier sleeping situation that includes a queen sized air mattress and a giant bag full of sheets and blankets. I even once packed a thick mattress pad (to keep the air mattress from becoming too cold from contact with the ground-- and comfort). Is this necessary for a quick jaunt on the road? Maybe not, but when you are spending every night for three months in a tent throughout various climates, it can be priceless. Not to mention air mattresses are cheap and comfortable. Should you upgrade? All I am saying is, maybe.

Roasting a chicken in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Eager for a hot, delicious meal.

Part of the reason I go camping is to cook. Does that sound weird? There is just nothing more rewarding to me than unwrapping tinfoil packets brimming with delicious sauces from off the fire or pulling a baked potato out of the embers while under starry skies or maybe freezing your ass off. I am constantly improving on my little milk crate of cooking supplies, which is most importantly stocked with heavy duty tinfoil and a meat thermometer (a camp chef's secret weapon!), as well as: a sharp knife, cutting board, olive oil, my favorite spices and sauces, long metal tongs for flipping foods, a small assortment of Tupperware and plastic baggies for leftovers, garbage bags, biodegradable soap plus a sponge for light clean-up, and a forgiving appetite!!

And last but not least in this section, don't forget your water! Depending on the length and destination of your trip, you may need anywhere from a gallon to five. Refilling gallon jugs or a collapsible 5-gallon container you can purchase at an outdoor supply store will allow you to the freedom to skip the RV campground and stay somewhere more primitive and isolated.

Tip #1: Tired of ice melting in your cooler and constantly battling to keep your food dry? AGP and I just discovered the joys of DRY BAGS! Duh! We put the ice in the dry bag, which (with only small amounts of condensation) keeps our food dry, unspoiled, and provides us with clean ice to spike our drinks with. Of course, you could always reverse this method and put your food in the dry bag and ice on the outside.

Tip #2: It is sometimes wise to pack a small propane or back packing stove to supplement meals on rainy days or late nights or to brew up some tea in the morning. A small pot and frying pan may be a wise addition to your supplies. 

Tip #3: Don't fancy yourself a campfire chef or simply don't care for the hassle of an outdoor kitchen? Prepare your tinfoil packets ahead of time. Or make a stack of burritos at home, wrap them in tinfoil, and when you are hungry, pop those suckers on the fire!

3. Get in car and go!
I spent the first half of my road tripping adventures in my friend's Toyota Rav-4, which had under-floor storage and made it easy for us to pack our kitchen away and sleep in the back in a pinch. My car of choice (and the car that I own), is a manual transmission 2003 Subaru Forester with a Thule roof rack. This car was a lucky find on Craigslist and dutifully endured three straight months of 100 mile+ driving everyday in the (sometimes) blistering heat.

First time in Montana! Gotta love the scenery.
Sherman Pass in the Sierra Nevada. Elevation: 9,200 feet!

Tip #4: A reliable car will save you untold heartache (and wallet-ache).

3. Find Alternative Destinations!!!!!!

Headed to Three Forks Hot Spring in the remote Jordan Valley of Oregon.
Peering over the Yukon River atop Midnight Dome in the city of Dawson, Yukon, Canada.

This, perhaps, is the most important piece of advice I could give. This is where the excitement and the thrill of road tripping lies: exploring and self-discovery. Who wants to camp in a KOA just outside of a major city squished in between RVs? Certainly not me. Who wants to spend $40/night to sleep on a gravel lot? Again, not me. I have even started to go so far as avoiding National Parks and other natural hotspots where I know campsites will be cramped and full of useless amenities like pools and putt-putt courses. Find me an out-of-the-way state park or a local recreation area or even a flat spot in the woods and I am a friend for life.

Try visiting the desert in the winter for a less tourist-y feel.
The mysterious lights of Marfa, Texas!

But how does one actually find these rare and fleeting places? It is a mixture of a little luck and a little preparation. In my road tripping days pre-smart phones, I would often let our life be guided by the little lines that crisscross a standard atlas combined with a lot of pre-trip pining for far-off places. We would simply estimate how long we would like to drive and then pick a town on the map that was somewhere near our destination that had a camping symbol near the name. Yes, we struck out on several occasions and either had to drive extra hours to find a suitable place to sleep or improvise where we judged was safe. But more often than not, we found quaint and remote places to call home for the night. Utilize and to find adventure!

Tip #5: Stay off the interstates!!! Except in emergencies and severe cases of time saving, I rarely use the interstates to get from place to place when on a road trip. Why? You can't find local gems on the interstate, plus it looks exactly the same in every state, no joke. It is the rural routes and small towns where all the fun secrets are hiding (Hot springs? 5,000 year old bristlecone pines? Yes, please!). That's where you can get a taste of real life in each place outside of strip malls and truck stops.

5. Set-up your camp...
Weirdly, this is another joy I have while camping. While it may seem tedious to some, I am always eager to jump out of the car, pop my tent, make my bed, and start organizing my supplies here and there. I even enjoy the spacial challenging of raising a tarp to create a perfectly relaxing and water-proof environment.

Remote camping at Sagehen Meadows near Mono Lake in California.
The Lost Coast of California!
Make sure you get the best bang for your buck: Free camping at Grandview Campground in the ancient bristlecone pine forest.
Night camping among the Redwoods.

For an unschooled city person (like me), getting that fire started may be challenging. Consider investing in fire starters. You can either purchase or make them. The hours spent bending over your smoky pile of sodden logs are banished to a more unprepared camper's site.

Memorized by the fire in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.
Relaxing by the campfire has never been more extreme in Great Salt Plains Lake State Park in Oklahoma.

When setting up your tent, be sure to pop it on an elevated, uphill portion of your site. Avoid areas that may collect run-off in the event of rain. Don't forget to give yourself the best view! You earned it, so point that tent door towards the sunset, or the lake, or just away from everybody else. Do not store food or personal hygiene products in your tent to prevent accidental wildlife encounters. Lock up your food in your car at night, even outside of bear country, lest you face the wrath of the coon!!

Popping the tent by the river at an "unofficial" site in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana.
The best view of them all: Skógafoss, Skogar, Iceland.

Be tidy and respectful-- I always clean-up my camp before bed, folding up camp chairs and stashing miscellaneous items will prevent them from blowing away or getting soggy in spotty weather conditions.

6. Make a drink, sit back, and enjoy!!!
I doubt you mindful people need tips on how to do that.

Lamping at the Boysen Reservoir in Wyoming.

Tip #6: Don't be afraid to improvise. Just because it is not an established campground doesn't mean you can't camp there. Over the years I have spent the nights in Wal-Mart parking lots, under bridges, in abandoned campgrounds, the woods behind rest areas, and even in the woods behind campgrounds! Be safe, trust your instincts and your limits, and remember that in most cases, any official who may thwart your plans for the night would much rather you were off the road and resting than driving while tired and the worst they are going to do is ask you to leave.

Have fun, and let me know what kind of adventure you find!


  1. i didn't camp until i was probably 21 either! love these -- especially the part about avoiding interstates. i hate them, there's nothing to see!

    1. Thank you so much for commenting, LG! I'm happy you found me over here. I am also glad we share the same opinions of interstates!