Flan's Guide To Car Camping
IT'S CASUAL / CREATURE COMFORTS / EMOTIONS / PLAN AHEAD / BULKY OK / BOOKING / AVOIDING CROWDS / SHIT GOALS / CHECKLIST / LINKS
guest post this week from Flannery. Thanks Flan!!!!
This is a guide for people who want to go camping, who maybe didn't go camping as kids or are just starting to get outside a lot. It's mostly about car camping because back country camping requires both more experience and more gear. This guide is for beginners and for people on a budget. It assumes you can start a fire but maybe not navigate by stars. I started camping a lot by myself when I was 31 or 32 years old, so I'm still very green.
As COVID becomes more and more a part of life, camping still feels like a safe option. I have sort of a terminal worldview and I can't promise unspoiled beauty will be there forever, so I think it's important to get out there. Travel lightly and remember there is likely a lot to see nearby. You do need a car (or a friend with a car) but you don't have to drive forever.
Brand names have been omitted where possible and encrypted otherwise. I'm not paid to hype anything and I don't care to. The Craigslist brand is neither omitted nor altered because it is the platonic ideal and the only true internet, besides Fujichia.com and maybe my blog.
My big tip for new campers, be real with yourself about what creature comforts you need, and plan accordingly. If you need a flush toilet, don't do dispersed or primitive camping. If you don't want to sleep on the ground, buy a cot. Don't feel pressured into thinking there's a right/wrong way to camp. Some people will try to tell you the only way to see the Grand Canyon is by helicopter, or by riding a donkey rim to rim. If that's in your budget, great, but those people are blowhards. There is no right or wrong way to experience the outdoors. Be real about what you need, what your body needs, and camp with people who respect your limits. Camping should be CHEAP and FUN.
Emotions can run high where it concerns food, water, shelter and comfort, so make sure you can get along with the other people in your party. Making a fire with another human being can be a challenge if neither of you is an expert. Do not go camping on a first date. Don't invite everyone you know. Ideally a group camp setup functions like a commune, "from each according to their ability" etc. But sometimes "cool" people turn out to be dead weight when asked to do the dishes, and that's fine. When it goes well it goes great, cooking is fun, cleanup is easy, someone brought marshmallows. That's the dream, and sometimes dreams come true.
If you're thinking about camping and you're on a budget, it's good to think about 6 months in advance. That way you have time to set some Craigslist alerts, hit the thrifties, and shop end-of-season sales. I also use my roommate's 𝓕𝓪𝓬𝓮𝓫𝓸𝓸𝓴 marketplace login and it is, unfortunately, way superior to Craigslist. In the fall and winter a lot of people are clearing out their nice, name-brand gear and selling it for cheap. Maybe they bought a ton of stuff for one trip to Yosemite and it was such a disaster, they're never going back. Maybe they just don't like their family very much? Either way, end of summer you'll see a lot of barely-used gear for sale and it's a great time to start accumulating stuff gradually.
With car camping, too, as opposed to backpacking, you don't have to be super ergonomic. You can bring the cast iron from home. You can (and should) bring all the clothes you might need. Buying for efficiency/storage can make your trip way more expensive than it needs to be. Unless you're camping in extreme weather conditions, a generic sleeping bag and three-season tent will be fine. Brand name products do tend to last longer & that's why I recommend Craigslist. But you know what? Generic, off-brand, and second hand stuff is all fine. If you do splurge, share the wealth and let friends borrow your stuff. You don't camp all the time, do you? Let people use your bedroll, it's only polite. If you borrow something from someone else, get them a souvenir. Sporting goods stores can be really seductive but that shit's just gonna sit in your basement most of the time. Be generous with your stuff, it's just stuff!
National parks and more popular state parks also book as far out as 6 months, so if you want to go to a popular national park, the reservation system opens up in January. I use 𝓒𝓪𝓶𝓹𝓯𝓵𝓪𝓻𝓮 which alerts you to cancellations at parks and is totally free, you should tip the programmers if you are able. I also use the "Best Car & Tent Camping" series available free through your library (hopefully) at hoopladigital.com (most libraries also have these in print.) These books are great, and usually include the best campsites within the park. If you book in advance these are incredible resources (their utility on the road is limited.) If you work at a desk you can plan a dream vacation and make it look like work. Your library is a great place to download audiobooks beforehand too. You can bring a book but it's gonna get dirty, maybe wet. Just so you know.
I like national and state parks a lot. I think they're one of the most functional parts of U.S. Government. The Ken Burns documentary about the NPS is subtitled "America's Best Idea." He's right! "Leave no trace" is a principle I love and respect, and I appreciate not being surveilled. Some people don't like other tourists, I don't mind them. It can be nice to share a sunset or wildlife experience with strangers. I think the big caution with national & state parks is the police, who are essentially feds. Be careful with your drugs, don't park your car where you're not supposed to, and mind your Ps & Qs. If a park uses a dropbox/honor system for payment, I would advise paying. The park staff with whom you interact are mostly volunteers or retirees and will be stern but friendly. If you make a joke they will laugh. It is usually chill. Don't take it personally if they ask you to move your car.
National forests are excellent and underrated, with lots of options for wilderness camping. Cheap cabins are also available in many National Forests for $20 and $30 a night. Word of mouth is still my favorite way to find out about a great spot. Don't blow it up on 𝓘𝓷𝓼𝓽𝓪𝓰𝓻𝓪𝓶, that's tacky. "Keep it secret, keep it safe." Your naturalist friends will know of some out of the way places.
I'm loathe to recommend an app, but if you're looking last minute or en route, the 𝓓𝔂𝓻𝓽 app does a great job of aggregating BLM sites, national & state park sites, and smaller campsites. It includes free and dispersed camping. I used to camp without a smart phone just relying on a few out-of-date books from the library. It sounds romantic but you can end up driving forever. In New Mexico, for instance, a lot of the land is tribal land with its own rules and regulations. People who insist you can just "park anywhere and camp" are understating the risks, which vary a lot, especially if you're a woman, if you're not white, whatever. More on that later. Sorry if I sound like a Girl Scout but I find parks and campsites cheap and reliable. If you're comfortable going off-grid, go for it. If you're not, find a campsite. You'll sleep better!
If you're trying to avoid crowds, camp Monday-Friday and camp during the spring and fall. Off-season, weather is a little more hit and miss, and you miss out on the longest days of summer, but it's also less crowded, less noisy, less trashy in general. Plus lots of changing colors and textures that summer crowds don't see: ice melting, ice forming, sherbert-colored sunsets, etc. Flowers bloom in the spring and mating season happens in the fall. If you're doing first come first serve camping in a busy area, try to arrive no later than a Thursday. A great way to avoid a crowd is to find a park without a flush toilet or shower: there's likely to be a lot less families. I wouldn't book a park with a playground unless you have kids. The more facilities there are, the more crowded these sites will be. And I like people, just not a million of them, you know?
Bring a checkbook or cash: lots of parks use a drop box, and lots of places that sell firewood and miscellany don't accept cards. Dryer lint is a great fire starter. Don't count on being able to have a fire: I would always bring a camp stove. Lots of places in the summer/fall have burn bans in effect, and rain can happen anytime. Camp stoves are cheap and almost always available used on Craigslist. Even shitty ones can last a lifetime. Probably the biggest pain in the ass, IMO, is cleaning up after cooking, especially if it's even a little chilly, even worse if there are bears in the area. Don't get party too hard before scraps are cleaned up and food stuff is secured, or you will wake up to a bunch of fucked up raccoons. Trust me on this one!
I camp in the Midwest, where rural areas are super MAGA. I try not to assume this is true of every gas station or mom and pop junk shop, but the size and scale of anti-immigrant, pro-Trump and Confederate folk art can feel extremely hostile. The NAACP issued a travel advisory for Missouri, what can I say? It's like the worst state in the USA. With masks, it's become harder to pass unnoticed in some parts of the country. If you're a woman, if you're BIPOC, if you're queer/gender non-conforming, the "middle of nowhere" can feel unsafe, be it in the Midwest, in sunny California, or in upstate New York.
That said, I think everyone belongs outdoors and you have a right to be there. As with any Craigslist exchange or first date, let your friends know where you are, keep your guard up, prepare for the worst but hope for the best. I think most people just want to do their thing, see something nice and be left alone. I've camped alone a lot and the worst thing that happened was some couple tried to make me their third. A lot of women told me how brave they thought I was, which is cute. I recognize this might be really different if I wasn't white, or if I stood out in any way besides a few dumb tattoos. Plan a trip that supports your peace of mind, and don't let anyone tell you the best experience is the most rugged, the most solitary, the most out-there. It is not. If something feels unsafe, leave. YOU DO YOU. That is the most important rule of camping, and life.
You don't have to buy anything special, but sometimes I do. Of all the lux stuff I've bought to camp, my favorite is probably a 𝓙𝓮𝓽𝓫𝓸𝓲𝓵 water boiler for hot water & emergency meals. Any cooler works, you don't need to spend $400. I do appreciate bear-proof coolers, for obvious reasons. Camp slippers/sandals are good for hopping out of the tent at night to go pee, or wandering around and looking for the moon. I also travel with a portable bidet, you might notice on my list. It's great. Even on a hike if you just need to pee & don't want to be covered in pee. My goal last year was to be able to dig a hole & shit in the hole & bury the shit but I'm not there yet. Maybe next year. Don't poop just anywhere and leave it, that is just about the rudest thing you can do.
Speaking of pee & poop (it's important) I bring 𝓜𝓮𝓽𝓪𝓶𝓾𝓬𝓲𝓵 or psyllium husk & homemade sauerkraut because I tend to get constipated when I travel, also homemade sauerkraut goes great with everything. You gotta drink any soluble fiber fast or it turns into goo. It works for diarrhea too, really it works for anything, and I count it as first aid. Don't be shy, give it a try.
I'm vegetarian and it's great because I don't have to buy ice all the time to keep my chicken from thawing, or whatever. A damp veggie burger is probably fine. (I also recommend vegetarianism for long flights, the vegan meals arrive first and taste better.) Fruit and vegetables will rot fast in a hot car though, so keep your bananas somewhere cool or you're gonna be driving a dumpster. Tacos are a perfect food to make when camping.
If you're outside of cell reception or just don't want to look at your phone, Paul Tawrell's "Camping & Survival: The Ultimate Outdoors Book" is a great resource. Hopefully the only thing you need to look up is "stinky eggs" and not "how to make a tourniquet" but guess what, both are included. It's a fun read "just in case." Get your car checked out before you go too far. Find out what the biggest buzzkill will be where you are and plan accordingly. In the Midwest that includes mosquitos, ticks, and raccoons. Read the dinky little bulletins at the front of the campsite, there's important information there. Also ranger programs and tidbits.
I keep thinking I'm going to make this into a zine but for now I just wanted to write it down. I write this guide in my head & revise it every time I camp. Like I said feel free to share your opinions and expertise. A more comprehensive and collaborative guide would be cool.
Here's the list of things I bring, customize as necessary. Thanks as always and see ya outside.
Knife & cutting board (x2)
Sink & bucket
Cast iron pan
Jetboil water boiler
Dryer lint (for fire)
Flashlights x 2
Lantern x 2
Tent peg mallet
First aid kit
A little rug for outside your tent is nice
Ziploc bags for leftovers/misc.
"Mystical fire" packets
Salt & pepper
Veggie burger/veggie dogs
Shelf stable almond milk
Flan has a great blog where she writes about movies that are about music. Even if you don't care about Mamma Mia or whatever it is always fun to read and even the ones about movies she didn't like are fun and illuminating. FWIW we both liked Mamma Mia, it's a wild ride. [blogspot]
Flan also has a radio show every week, it's called New Flanland and you can listen online. It's live on Wednesdays from 4 to 5pm (eastern time) but all the shows are archived and you can listen anytime: [wfmu]
She also has a good website with links to even more great stuff if you can believe it! that's here: [link]
Thanks Flan! :)