Essentials: Family Car Camping

The danger of car camping is the temptation to bring everything, plus the kitchen sink—or at least as much as you can pack into your vehicle. And that’s understandable. After all, you don’t have to pare down your kit like you do when weight matters (as with backpacking). But bringing everything can also lead to needless excess. So consider this a shortlist of the must-have items. Then supplement according to the space in your trunk.

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A no-brainer, but be sure you get the right one. You want a three-season tent, which should handle conditions from late spring into early fall, when the temps are mild. The number of campers that’ll join should dictate the tent’s size, but we say err on the side of more space rather than less. Vents are important, and try to get a tent with a vestibule (a place outside the tent interior yet still under the tent’s rainfly), which helps separate the wet and muddy stuff from your sleeping quarters.

Stove and Cookware

In this modern-day world of the informed epicure, you can go hog wild on your kitchen stuff and drop as much money as you like. But even if you can manage little more than boiling water, a two-burner, propane-powered model that you can set up on a picnic table should give you the versatility and multiple cooking surfaces you need. And car camping also typically means that the site will have a fire pit, and sometimes a grill. So plan accordingly, whether it’s buying a cast-iron Dutch oven to slow-cook meats over the fire or packing marshmallows. As for the tableware, you can use paper, but go a bit green and consider some of the nice cookware/silverware kits that are lightweight, which typically include pots, plates, cups, mugs, and bowls that go together like Russian nesting dolls.


Go with headlamps over flashlights as they allow for hands-free rummaging around in the dark. And they make every imaginable model now, from blinding floodlights to lights that auto-adjust the beam width depending on what you’re looking at, to fun kid-specific models with custom-designed colors. Just be sure to get one that has some control over the amount of light it emits—a dim setting lets you save battery power and read without blinding your tent mates. And supplement that with a camp lantern or two. These allow for a mellower ambient light, both inside and outside the tent. If the bugs are bad, you can position the lantern further away from where you’re sitting, so that the insects congregate there, rather than in front of your headlamp.


Here’s the one place not to skimp. Inflatable sleeping pads like those designed for the backcountry are great. But if you don’t have ’em, you can use a futon mattress or machine-inflatable mattress. And sleeping bags are great as well, but aren’t essential provided you pack enough blankets to keep you warm. You can even turn the entire tent into one big slumber party for the whole family.


Most car campsites come with a convenient picnic table, but that often becomes the staging ground for all the camping stuff. So pack along an extra foldable chair or two. Chances are you’ll also bring a cooler to hold your perishables and drinks. Be sure it’s a hard-sided one so you can use it as a makeshift bench. Or go big and spring for a compact, foldout table and then you can reserve the whole picnic table for group dining.

What are some other must-have essentials on your camping list? Let us know on Twitter (@Columbia1938).