Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Behold, my Brazilian dad’s review of the concept of sleeping outside in a tent: “I HATE camping!” This is the house I grew up in, which was fine because as I look back on it, I don’t think I really understood camping was even a thing as a kid.
Now, as a fully formed adult, camping is definitely a thing. It’s a fantastic thing, actually, and I’m glad I’m not alone in my enthusiasm! Especially since COVID-19 has obliterated the entire concept of future plans, camping is one way to break out of quarantine, stay outside and socially distant and not break the bank.
Seeing as I’m a total beginner (I can count the total number of times I’ve camped on two hands) I wanted to get some advice on car camping — that’s when you’re camping outside but have access to your car — from folks who really know how it’s done.
I was lucky enough to connect via zoom with Jaylyn Gough, who’s worked as a guide and is a climber, hiker, nature photographer and founder of Native Womens Wilderness, a community that seeks to uplift native folks in the outdoors community.
Our other expert is Danielle Williams, Senior Editor of Melanin Base Camp and founder of the #DiversifyOutdoors movement. Williams is a super skilled camper whose experience as a veteran informs the way she moves through the outdoors.
Courtesy of Julia Furlan
So, without further ado, here’s some advice on car camping 101 from folks who know what they’re doing in a big way, and also … me, a camper who probably wouldn’t even make JV if it came down to it.
1. Check in with yourself first.
Before you go mapping some elaborate trip or formulate a packing list, make sure you know what your own limitations are when it comes to sleeping outside.
Ask yourself some pertinent questions, like: “are you able to be around wildlife if that were to come?”
It may sound basic, but making sure you’re in tune with your strengths and limits is a good first step, Gough says. “Also maybe looking at your trauma and your history, because sometimes camping can be a little scary.” It’s okay to be frightened! But if you start your entire process of camping knowing what kinds of things might be challenges and what you’re capable of, you can build the experience to fit what will work for you.
2. Do plenty of research before you head out.
If you’re reading this, you’re already in the right place to start your experience in the outdoors. There are several different kinds of research that will behoove you as you start planning, too, so settle in and check them out:
What to bring: the good news is that there are *lots* of car camping packing lists out there so you don’t need to draft one all by your lonesome!
Whichever list you choose, remember Williams’s ex-military tip: redundancy. Make sure you bring extra of your most essential items like water or batteries because being over prepared is always better than getting caught off guard.
Location, location, location:
If you have no idea where you want to go, look up a list of state or municipal parks near you. Spend some time thinking about what you’re hoping to do during the day — maybe you’re hoping to swim in a lake! Maybe you’re looking for a hike with beautiful views!
Once you’ve settled on where you’re going to go, figure out where you’re going to sleep. Consider your needs and priorities — Is it important to have bathrooms and trash cans at your campsite? Is the terrain going to be accessible to you? Are you hoping for a shaded site? — And plan accordingly.
For Williams, who uses mobility aids when walking, knowing exactly what the accessibility options are around the trailhead is vital. “You really do need to do research ahead of time. And unfortunately, because not everyone is thinking in terms of people who are using mobility aids or people who have different needs,” she says, “it really does put kind of the burden on the individual.”
Even if you’ve checked the website, Williams is a big fan of calling ahead to talk to an actual human person who has seen the place where you’re planning on camping. Rangers have a lot of information and are often really helpful, so go ahead and pick up that phone. I believe in you.
Learn the history: “Plan ahead and prepare” is the first principle of the Leave No Trace ethics code. Knowing not just what the land looks like and how to set up camp, but who that land belonged and belongs to is a really great way to get connected to where you’re camping.
One way to connect with the land you’re going to be on, according to Gough, is: “acknowledging the original territories where [you’re] wandering and exploring. But to also encourage and educate people of the people who came before us,” she says. You can explore the history of your chosen campsite using the Native Land app to learn about indigenous territories, treaties and languages across North America.
3. Gear Up For Anything.
Wherever you get your gear, don’t be afraid to bring it along. Remember: a car is the biggest bag you could possibly pack! This is to say that you don’t need to be afraid of overpacking when you’ve got an entire duffel bag (ahem, a car) that you can fill with supplies.
This intentional packing extends particularly to the weather. “You might check the weather three days before your trip and then the morning of, the conditions could change,” Williams says.
Another pro-tip from Williams: make sure to pack layers. They’re not only the height of fashion, but layers are the easiest way to make sure you are comfortable even as the weather shifts.
And here’s a pro-tip from me, not a pro at all: if there’s something that’s particularly daunting to you about camping, chances are somebody has already thought of a solution. For me, it was using a device to stand up to pee! Lots of folks come to stand-to-pee devices for a lot of reasons, but I gotta say that buying a little piece of plastic that made it so I don’t have to strip down or risk peeing all over myself has been a game changer. Here’s a helpful article with a bunch of options if you’re curious.
4. Make a plan to eat.
If you’re camping, you want to get to be camping, not dreaming of the food you wish you brought along with you! Making sure that you’ve planned all of the meals and snacks you’re going to eat while out in the wilderness will make the entire experience infinitely more enjoyable.
And no matter how much you love those cute little cans of rosé, please do not forget to bring plenty of water. Check to see if your campsite will have potable water, and plan accordingly! The National Parks Service recommends at least two liters of water per day, so that’s a good guideline to start with.
Gough likes to make sure that some of the cooking is done before she’s on the campsite: “I sometimes like preparing my meal if I am putting potatoes in the fire pit right, or corn. I usually try to chop up the potatoes beforehand, put them in olive oil, get the salt and whatever on and maybe stick it in the microwave for like two minutes or a minute, just like start softening it.” But if that sounds too high-level for you, don’t forget you can always just throw some takeout in a cooler or throw together some hot dogs or veggie burgers!
Regardless of what you do, though, make sure you have a plan for how to dispose of all of your cooking items safely and properly. You can bring a trash bag that you keep in your car or use the campsite’s trash facilities if they have them. Just make sure you’re following the instructions on the campsite. You don’t want to have a surprise bear appearance because you forgot to use the bear boxes on a campsite, or you didn’t leave your food safely in your car.
5. Remember that camping is participating in a community.
No matter how alone you might feel out there in nature, you are ultimately sharing the space with all the folks who came before you and all those who will follow. “I think a big part of that is creating space mentally to realize that not everyone has the same exact experience as you do in the outdoors,” Williams says. “All of that which exists in the culture which exists in society, it doesn’t magically disappear when it comes to the activities we love to do in the outdoors, where people we bring all of our baggage with us, for better or for worse.”
Both Williams and Gough stressed the importance of understanding that everyone is coming to camping from their own experience, and that the more kindness and generosity there is on the trail, the more beneficial it is for everyone.
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The podcast portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen.