How to get started with car camping

boys camping
© K Martinko – Car camping with kids

It's a great way to spend time outside and travel for cheap.

Car camping is one of my favorite ways to get outside with kids during the summer months. While there is some heated debate between me and my husband as to what constitutes 'real' camping (he prefers canoe tripping), I think that car camping is an excellent starting point, especially for families with young kids who aren't ready yet for backcountry travel.

Many people have asked how I approach camping with my own family, so I figure it's time for a "get started with camping" post, in which I outline the basic steps to spending a few days in a campground.

1. Research where you're going.

There are different kinds of campgrounds. Some are privately owned and full of fancy amenities like mini golf courses and swimming pools; others are more basic state, provincial, or national parks. The former is typically more expensive than the latter and can have more of a 'party' feel, especially if music is allowed. Determine what kind of experience you want, research the location, and book your site in advance.

You can find campgrounds in rural areas, as well as urban. We recently stayed in a fabulous KOA campground close to downtown Montreal that allowed us to explore the city cheaply and easily. So a campground can either be an experience in itself or a frugal form of accommodation for a bigger trip.

2. Borrow or buy basic gear.

If you've never car-camped before, I encourage you to borrow basic gear before spending money on it. That way, you'll have a sense of whether or not you like it. Camping gear does require upfront investment, but it pays off quickly. $500 in the first year becomes $0 the next, and you can reuse high-quality gear for many years if you treat it well.

I prefer not to skimp on camping gear, as I've had bad experiences with cheap leaky tents in rainstorms and sleeping bags that leak feathers all over. Spending more for a good product pays off in the end, as you don't have to replace it. My family (both extended and immediate) likes to give camping gear as gifts at birthdays and Christmas, and over the years this can build up a useful collection.

packed car© K Martinko – You'd be amazed what I can cram into this small car for a 2-week camping trip for five people!

3. This is all you need.

The most rudimentary camping gear includes a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat (you probably don't want to be right on the ground), pillow (or you can bunch up your clothes), food, and the means to light and maintain a fire. Always purchase or source firewood from the place you're going; do not transport for risk of carrying invasive species.

When camping with a car, there's room for extras, so I like to pack a stove and fuel for hot food (it means I don't have to wait for a fire to heat up for morning coffee), a lantern for playing games or reading at night, dishes and a basin for washing them, a tablecloth, lawn chair, and cooler (although I only take a cooler during the hottest part of the summer).

For personal effects, I take sun protection gear, bug spray, a change of clothes, warm clothes, practical footwear, a book to read. Sporting gear, games, a musical instrument, and toys for kids are a plus, too.

4. Plan meals in advance.

Knowing what you're going to eat and when makes everything go more smoothly. I've learned over the years that we snack more in a campground than at home, and that I am less inclined to spend time cooking than I think. Focus on reheating, rather than cooking from scratch, and pack more food than you think you'll need. The outdoors makes everyone hungrier.

4. Relax!

Sit back and enjoy the experience of being outside all day long. Hang around the campsite and stoke the fire. Kids will be entertained by this, happy to roast marshmallows and watch the coals burn down.

When they get antsy, ask park staff what there is to do. Check out hiking trails, ponds, playgrounds, beaches. Take a drive into a nearby town to wander down the main street and get ice cream.

It's helpful to make a no-device rule for both adults and children, so that no one is tempted to waste this special getaway by watching screens. Turn them off or, better yet, leave them at home.

kids exploring water© K Martinko – Exploring the beaches at Kilbear Provincial Park, Ontario

5. Clean up afterward.

When you get home, air out sleeping bags and mattresses on a laundry line. Wash your tent if it got muddy during your trip; you can do this with a garden hose, then spread it on a lawn or over a deck railing to dry thoroughly.

Next stage:

Once you become comfortable with car camping for 1-2 nights, you can take it to the next level by going for longer. My family typically goes on 10- to 14-day car camping road trips each summer, stocking up on food as we travel across the country. We spend relatively little on these trips; since food costs remain the same and we already own our gear, the main added expenses are transportation and entrance fees for campgrounds.

This year, I think my kids are ready for the next camping stage. Much to my husband's delight, we're going to try our first family canoe trip in Algonquin Park, Canada. It's only two nights, but we'll leave our car at a drop-off point and proceed by canoe through a series of lakes and portages, carrying all our gear on our backs. I'll be back to tell you more about that in July!

How to get started with car camping
It's a great way to spend time outside and travel for cheap.

Related Content on Treehugger.com