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Beginner’s Guide to Car Camping

Beginner’s Guide to Car Camping

If you’re new to the idea of camping, the planning, the gear and the preparation can seem very daunting. Luckily, I’ve put together my best resources and advice to help you plan the best camping trip of your life!

Camping is an amazing way to reconnect with nature, unplug for a while, get some fresh air and relax. I find a good camping trip can really reset me for the upcoming week and help me revitalize my day to day. And, it’s an INCREDIBLY affordable way to vacation if you don’t have extra money to put towards your trip.

Car camping is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for first time campers because it really affords the flexibility to bring luxuries you just can’t when backpacking. This means it tends to be far more comfortable. It’s also a lot less intimidating – you can ~almost~ always go and pick something up to eat, buy forgotten supplies or even head home if you’re having a bad time. That’s why it’s the most popular form of camping especially amongst families.

In this guide you will learn all the basics of car camping including how to plan, what to bring, how to set up camp and useful cooking tips. PLUS, I’ll share some of my favorite tips for finding the right gear at the best price!

Table of Contents

Find a Location and Choose some dates

Obviously the first step of your amazing first camping trip is picking the perfect place and perfect time. You should ask yourself:

Where do I want to go? When do I want to go? How long do I want to be gone?

The best part about camping is its relatively easy to find places to camp ANYWHERE. So, if there’s a national, state or local park you’ve wanted to check out find, a campground in the park or nearby! Like to kayak? Stay on a lake or reservoir. All about the beach? There’re tons of amazing beach camping on both coasts. You can even find nice scenic campgrounds in major cities if you’d rather not go too far from home.

As for time of year, generally summer will be the most comfortable season to camp unless you plan on going somewhere with scorching summer heat or humidity. Then shoulder seasons like late spring and early fall may be better in those areas and can be less crowded than summer months. I’d generally not recommend winter camping as a beginner because without proper gear it’s difficult, dangerous, and uncomfortable.

Depending on where you want to go and when, campgrounds can book up WELL in advance so you will need some flexibility. Thankfully in popular locations there are many first-come first-serve options if you aren’t able to snag a reservation

My recommendations:

Location: Look for some place close to home so if you wind up facing problems, you can always bail. As a kid we never camped anywhere more than 3 hours from home and usually stayed at sites about 1 hour away.

Time of year: While this may be a bit location dependent, you want to go when temperatures are warm enough in the evening to be comfortable but not so hot/muggy/buggy during the day to be miserable. I find June to be perfect in my area!

# of Nights: A stay anywhere from 1-3 nights is best for a first-timer. I would suggest a minimum of 2 nights to make sure you get the full experience and not just 24 hours of setting up and cleaning up.

Pick a Campground

When it comes to the campground there are two basic options: developed campgrounds and dispersed campsites. Let me break both down for you.

Developed Campground

These campgrounds are ones with an actual address (that means you can find them on GPS and Google). They can either be privately run (for example KOA, Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Parks, RV Resorts, etc.) or run by the government (National Parks, State Parks, BLM, Forest Service, etc.). At a minimum these parks will have numbered sites with a picnic table and a fire ring as well as pit toilet facilities. Most will also have potable (drinking) water available, though always check – especially if you’re heading somewhere arid! Higher end options will have running water for sinks and toilets in the bathrooms and even hot showers (usually for an additional price).  I’ve actually stayed at campgrounds that have had pools, miniature golf courses, arcades and full service stores and restaurants.  There’s truly something for EVERYONE’S comfort level. Prices for developed campgrounds usually run from $10-$40 a night. Many sites can be reserved in advance so check the websites to ensure you get a spot BEFORE you leave!

Dispersed Campsites

Dispersed camping can only really be found on public lands run by BLM and US Forest Service generally in the Western US. They have no facilities available and are 100% free They’re typically found off dirt roads managed by the agencies. You will know you’re at a site because there will be a fire ring made from rocks (typically) and a large cleared semi-flat space for cars and tents  There are plenty of resources available to help you find dispersed camping sites from apps like iOverlander and Ultimate US Public Campgrounds or websites like and Be forewarned though that these sites will have NO SERVICES and you are REQUIRED to follow Leave No Trace policies – everything you pack in you pack out.

My recommendation:

Choose a developed campground that at a minimum has potable water and pit toilets. No need to prove you’re tough stuff on your first trip. If its reservable definitely make sure to get a reservation before you head out. If it’s first come first serve do some research about how crowded it might be a plan on having some backups if everything’s taken when you get there

Pack for Camp

When camping for the first time it is totally understandable to feel overwhelmed by packing for your trip. Thankfully, I’ve created an all inclusive downloadable checklist of you camping essentials. Just check it off once you’ve chucked it in the car and be stress free in knowing you have everything you’ll need!

Now you may be asking . . . But I don’t have this that or the other thing??? Can I still actually go? WELL, OF COURSE YOU CAN! In all reality you don’t necessarily need any specific gear to go camping. Will it make it more comfortable – absolutely. But if you don’t have spare cash to buy or even rent the necessary supplies just head out grab some premade food and spend a night sleeping under the stars with plenty of blankets and pillows. I promise you will be fine!!

Are you looking to bring gear but are worried you don’t have enough money to buy everything? Don’t worry! There are tons of ways to find affordable gear. First look into buying used gear from places like Gear Trade, REI and Outdoors Geek which even lets you return the gear if you don’t like. You can always check out garage sales or the REI garage sale to find preowned gear at a steep discount.

There’s also plenty of places that will rent you gear like tents sleeping bags and cooking equipment to test the products and see if you’re into the whole camping thing. 

When buying new gear, I almost always buy my gear on sale or with a coupon and try and shop discount sites like SteepandCheap for good deals on higher end brands. Also, don’t feel like you need to buy the high end top of the line gear immediately. The stuff from Target, Walmart and Dick’s will be perfectly fine for your first trips. Will it wear out faster? Yes, but it’s very reasonable to not invest heavily in something you may find is not suited for you.

If you are looking to buy new gear (or even willing to hunt for specific used gear) I have tons of resources on my favorite essentials below.


My Recommendation:

Try and bring as much of my essentials list as possible on your first trip to make sure you get the full experience and that you’re not too uncomfortable. Look into buying a few lower priced but nicer essentials such as your sleeping bag, tent and stove. For other things try and find cheaper options or used gear.

Set Up Camp

So you’ve finally made it to the beautiful lakeside campsite and its time to unload the car and relax! But first you have to set up camp. Here’s my go to set up steps when I arrive to ensure maximum relaxation time:

  1. Set Up tent
    • Find a flat level area big enough for your tent. Place your footprint or tarp down first. Layout your tent and attach the poles. Don’t forget to stake it down! Winds can come suddenly and I’ve seen many tents blow away
  2. Make your bed
    • Roll out and Inflate Sleeping pads/mattresses
    • Position everyone in your tent and work on inflating your sleeping pad or mattress. You never want to wait to do this until bedtime because trust me – it’s the last thing you’ll feel like doing.
    • Finish by laying out your sleeping bag and pillows so your space is already for you to snuggle into later
  3. Set up the kitchen
    • If you brought a stove set it up, attach it to fuel and get it ready for cooking. I have all of my other kitchen supplies in some plastic tubs so I will bring these out and set them on the picnic table with the stove.
    • If the picnic table is dirty I usually lay out the tablecloth. If there is no picnic table than I set up my camp tables.
    • This is also the time when you should put food into bear storage if you are in an area that requires it.
  4. Set out lights
    • Find your headlamps and keep them on you so when it gets dark you aren’t scrambling around your bags and car.
    • If you have a lantern be sure to put it in a central location.
  5. Set up other misc. camp furniture
    • Now that my bed and kitchen are set I will arrange camp chairs around the fire pit, hang a hammock if there are suitable trees and work on unpacking any other misc. things I may have brought.
    • If you are having a campfire – this is also when I’d look for kindling (duff, pinecones, small sticks) and split any larger logs if needed.
  6. Relax and enjoy!
    • Grab your cooler and snacks and start relaxing!

Now the first few times this may take you an hour or more. Once you get the hang of it, I find it takes me (alone) about 30 minutes. It’s helpful if you have everything organized before you leave and pack in a way that is easy to unpack.

Camp Cooking

There are several tried and true methods to cooking camp meals depending on how much of a kitchen you want to bring. You’re skill level in the kitchen may also be a influencing factor as to what types of meals you want to prepare. Regardless, you will want to stick to simple recipes because you don’t want to have to bring tons of ingredients and specialty kitchen utensils and won’t have access to your usual lineup of kitchen appliances.  Also doing dished at camp can be a bit of a pain so consider cooking easy to clean meals. I’ve outline a few different cook methods below.


Classic, simple, easy. For the no fuss style camp cook roast some weenies, have some cold sides and call it a day. Alternatively, many campgrounds have fire pits that come with a cooking grate. You can easily throw some meat and veggies on the grill and have a healthy delicious meal while you relax by the fire. Of course, you can also use cast iron pans and Dutch ovens over the fire to make more elaborate meals or less messy aluminum foil wrapped meals place in the coals.

Need help building a fire? Read here!

Backpacking Stove

A backpacking stove is a small burner attached directly to a fuel source that can come with a small pot to cook 1-2 person one-pot meals or boil water for instant meals.  This is probably the easiest and quickest method to make hot meals. You can cook anything from dehydrated meals popular with backpackers or instant meals that require hot water.  You can also make basic one pot meals, but know they will only serve 1-2 people depending on how large a pot your stove comes with.  I find these to be the best method for making warm beverages too because they tend to have the fastest boil times.

Multi Burner Camp Stove

The traditional camp stove is versatile enough to handle most meals you can come up with.  If cooking is your thing, this will probably be the choice for you.  While simpler meals are best at camp, there is really no limit to what you can cook on these stoves. They typically have two gas powered burners though some come with specialty accessories to create gridles, grills and even pizza ovens!

As for kitchen supplies, look at my packing list of camp essentials to see what I recommend brining. Most of my supplies were either hand me downs, tools I retired from my kitchen or thrifted.  They don’t need to be nice, they just need to get the job done! I keep everything in large plastic tubs to keep organized. When I get home I’ll usually reclean everything (again camp dishes can be challenging) and will restock spices/sauce, garbage bags and paper goods.

Finally, don’t be afraid to only bring pre-made cooler ready meals – they can make your experience much easier and they’re no mess!

Things to Do

One of the best benefits of camping is that it puts you at nature’s front door. There’s tons of stuff you can do while you’re camping ranging from exciting adventures to relaxing downtime. Here’s a list of my favorite camp activities:

  • Go for a hike – look up local hikes on Alltrails or ask the rangers/camp staff for suggestions
  • Play some games around camp like charades, Pictionary, card or dice games, cornhole or Jenga
  • Bring some outdoor toys like kayaks, canoes, SUPs, mountain bikes and spend the day adventuring
  • Take a swim if you camping by the ocean, a lake or a river.
  • Relax at camp with a good book or a well-deserved nap in a hammock.
  • Be inspired and sketch the world around you, start a nature journal, or practice your wildlife photography.
  • Have a campfire, the quintessential camp experience, sing campfire songs (bonus points if you bring a guitar) and roast marshmallows
  • Star gaze (download … for an upgraded experience) and appreciate the lack of light pollution

If you’re camping with kids download my free camp bingo and camp scavenger hunt to keep them entertained while you catch up on some R&R.

Camp Takedown

Once you’re amazing camping trip is over, its time to clean camp and head home. Here are some basic tips to make sure it goes as efficiently and painlessly as possible.

  1. Dry out anything that may have gotten wet before you repack it into a stuff sack. If you’re tent or sleeping bag were got dewy in the morning or some rain rolled through do make sure to dry out everything to prevent mold and mildew from growing while its stored. You may need to air things out at home to make sure they’re dry
  2. Pack everything back up the way it came out. Stuff sleeping bags back in they’re sacks, re roll your tent before placing it in the bag, fold your stove up properly. If you want you’re gear to last you have to store it properly.
  3. Clean out your tent before you pack it. If you have a dust broom sweep it free of sand, bugs, dirt etc. Even if you don’t lift it up with the door open and give it a good shake. The last thing you want on your next trip is grime from your previous trip.
  4. Don’t forget to change your clothes before you pack you’re tent – especially if you don’t have a private area in your camp to change. This one has happened to me a few too many times 😉
  5. Leave the site looking better than you arrived. Dispose of or pack out any trash you may have made and go the extra effort to collect trash you didn’t.  If you moved anything around, move it back. Of course NEVER leave a fire smoldering.
  6. Plan something fun to do on you’re way out so the day isn’t solely packing and cleaning.

There you have it! You’re all set to have the BEST camping trip. If you have any other questions leave them in a comment below!