Every summer, my girlfriends and I leave the city behind and travel north for a weekend of camping and canoeing. But what started as a hardcore backpacking trip 7 years ago has morphed into an increasingly posh 3 days of car camping (US Weekly included). Though it means losing some Girl Scout cred, my aging body certainly appreciates it.
With each passing year, I naturally pick up inspiration for the following year’s trip. What I’ve come up with aren’t MacGyver-like tactics (I leave those to the outdoor professionals), they’re simply tricks for making a weekend in the woods more comfortable.
Note: though what I’m about to describe doesn’t go as far as glamping, it’s also not for the hardcore. This is for the person who’s always been a bit hesitant to camp and needs baby steps to get started.
Be comfortable — you’re car camping after all
I used to be of the mentality that camping meant roughing it. I was supposed to be achy in the morning. It was a sign that I had broken out of my comfort zone (quite literally). But when you plan to be active during the day, sore muscles are really just a pain in the butt … and the back, legs, and shoulders.
1. Pack a pillow (and an air mattress)
When I first started camping, I packed light. Instead of a pillow, I rolled up some clothes. My sleeping pad was small and portable, but also thin, narrow, and all-but-worthless. A few years ago, it dawned on me that I have an entire car trunk at my disposal and pillows don’t take up much room. Like magic, the annual crick in my neck disappeared.
This year, I had an even greater epiphany: Why not bring along an air mattress and battery-operated pump? For about $40, I transformed my tent into a polyester palace. Why didn’t I think of this before?! The mattress folds up into its own little bag for easy carrying and storage and I can roll around in my tent without ever falling onto the hard ground. Comfort, baby.
2. Bring earplugs and an eye mask
Unless you’re camping in the middle of nowhere, chances are you’ll have neighbors. And for some reason, fresh air seems to make people snore. Earplugs can be a savior by blocking out unwanted sounds like crying babies, annoying campfire songs, and (thank goodness) snoring.
Eye masks aren’t quite as imperative, but tents do let in a lot of light and if you want to sleep past sunrise, you’d be wise to pack one.
3. Wear a headlamp
Lanterns and flashlights are great and all, but headlamps are a car camper’s (and actually any camper’s) best friend. When I arrive at my campsite after dark and get yelled at for leaving my headlights on, I can simply turn on my headlamp and still have both hands free to set up my tent, light my campfire, and find something that’s buried at the bottom of my bag.
4. Eat out if you’re so inclined
When my friends and I first started our camping tradition, we brought cooking gear complete with spork and collapsible cup. But for a vegetarian who hates veggie dogs, campfire cooking can get a bit complicated (plus, who wants to wash dishes on vacation?). Though I felt guilty at first, I’ve warmed to the idea of eating out while camping. In our case, we head to a roadhouse about a mile from our campsite. For $15, we get a good meal, live music, and local flavor. To me, that beats canned chili any time.
Of course, if you’re truly in the middle of nowhere, you’ll need to bring provisions. But they can still be delicious. Bread, fancy cheese, olives, and some red wine make for a lovely night by the campfire (just don’t forget the corkscrew!).
Sure, it’s great to toss everything into your trunk and go, but a little preparation never hurts.
5. Get to know the area ahead of time
Getting out into nature often means getting out of GPS range. While it’s fun to get lost on back roads for a little while, it’s also fun to know where the heck you’re going before dark. If you’ve booked a campsite ahead of time (which I recommend in the summer), make sure you know how to get there and what’s around. Can you buy food once you arrive or should you stock up beforehand? Is there a coffee shop or should you bring your caffeine IV and instant coffee packets? What activities are available in the area?
6. Pack smart
While I do condone bringing a trunkload of comfort provisions, one thing I will caution against is packing willy-nilly. Separate your things according to how they’re used so you can easily find what you need when you’re setting up camp. For instance, put your tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, and pump in one bag. Toiletries in another. And clothing separated out either by outfit or by type.
Most important, bring empty bags. They’re the best. Trash bags, Ziploc bags, grocery bags … you never know when you’ll need a bag. Clothes get wet and muddy, beer cans accumulate, and food needs to be preserved.
7. Keep food out of reach
If you’re new to camping, you may not be familiar with all the little critters that like to hang out near campsites. Do your research ahead of time to find out which woodland creatures inhabit your campsite. If the animals are small, keeping food in your car should be safe. But if you’re in bear country, you’ll need to hang your food from a tree to keep from going hungry. No matter where you are, never leave food in your tent. Seriously.
If you’ve always been wary of camping, hopefully these tricks will help make it a little less daunting. Be comfortable. Be practical. Be organized. Be safe!