Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Car Camping Trip Planning and Logistics

Setting Up Camp

Most of my car camping revolves around friends. A group of us heading to a nice campground to eat, drink, and have a good time. Lots of blogs that I have enjoyed reading start with a gear kit overview. To try and pretend to be different, I’m going to start with a planning and logistics overview. This is just how I like to plan and execute car camping trips. Hopefully it proves useful for someone new to camping.

Like most people these days, calendars fill up quickly, and pretty soon you can’t fit a relaxing weekend into your summer schedule, much less find a weekend where all your friends are also free. In recent years I’ve taken the lead on reserving campsites way in advance. This January, I booked three weekend car camping trips; one each in May, June, and July. This way, I got those dates on everyone’s calendars as early as possible. I don’t expect that everyone will be able to make all the trips, but in years past we’ve had a good turnout at each trip, and everyone is able to make at least one trip.
Reserving three weekends, I spent about $150, a small price to pay for 6-7 days of hanging out in the woods. Also, reserving your spots early means you get the pick of the litter in terms of campsites. Next time you’re at a park you’re likely to visit again, walk the campground loops and write down the five most attractive spots. When you get home, create a google spreadsheet and save your notes. Next year, those prime spots will be yours. I definitely recommend making reservations. Usually large parks have at least one first-come-first-serve campgrounds, but they tend to fill up really early. Save yourself the aggravation and make a reservation.

Finding a Campground
I’ve done most of my camping in the western U.S. In this region, you’ve got multiple types and levels of campgrounds to choose from:
National Park campgrounds, and other federal agency campgrounds
Agencies such as USFS, USBoR, USACE, USBLM, and USNPS all have campgrounds. You can search federal campgrounds on Recreation.gov and ReserveAmerica.com. Honestly, I’m not totally clear on why there are two sites for reserving federal campgrounds. There appears to be overlap between the two, but I’ve never bothered to really figure it out. Maybe someone has some insight?
State Parks campgrounds
Most states have their own campgrounds system, and reservations can be made online or over the phone. Just google for your state’s parks department and you’ll find a link for camping. I really like state parks for car camping. Usually, they don’t fill up as fast as federal campgrounds, they are sometimes cheaper, and they are often a little closer to home, meaning it makes it possible for friends to join us Friday night without having to take the day off of work.
County Parks campgrounds  
Many counties also have campgrounds. These tend to be small, and may not have the amenities of larger campgrounds. Still, they are often tucked away in places you may not have even known there was camping allowed. Check your county website and see if there’s a campground nearby that you can use for impromptu trips when you just really need to site by a fire for a few hours.
Private Campgrounds  
Popular tourist destinations usually have a few private campgrounds located just outside the parks. Most RV resorts tend to have a few tent spots for rent as well. These can be great on road trips when you just need a cheap spot to crash and take a hot shower. They can also be excellent backup options if you're trying to get a first-come-first serve spot in a park.

A note on dispersed camping
Another type of car camping is 'dispersed camping.' It involves driving out into the forest on forest service, fire access, and 4x4 trail roads in order to reach remote campsites. With dispersed camping, rules can vary. Some areas have established campgrounds with numbered sites, but there are no fees and little to no amenities. Other areas simply require that you are off of the roadway and you can setup camp. Dispersed camping is basically vehicle-supported backpacking, or "overlanding" as it's often called. You need to make some additional considerations for dispersed camping, because you won't have running water, outhouses, or other features of car campgrounds. Always take two vehicles, and bring enough supplies to be safe in case of a breakdown.
Finding good dispersed camping spots is a bit of an art. You have to call your local ranger stations, buy maps, scout the area, and scour the internet. Of course people who find a truly secluded and amazing spot aren't likely to go blabbing about it online.

Food and Drink
Cooking while camping is an activity in and of itself. Whether you cook over a campfire, or bring stoves/grill, food just tastes better when it is cooked outside. For groups of people, keep it quick and easy. Common dinners include burger & dogs, taco night, spaghetti night, steak night, and bbq chicken. Usually big side salads the first couple days, and canned veggies after that.

I tend to skip lunches, relying just on snacks of jerky, GORP, or other goodies in between breakfast and dinner.

Breakfast is usually more like brunch after a few too many beers the night before. A simple group hot breakfast is usually pancakes, eggs, and bacon, with some fresh fruit toward the beginning of the trip.

Your options aren't very constrained so long as you have a decent cooler, so go crazy. Just remember to have a separate food and drink cooler so that your steaks for day three don't go rancid from too many trips to the beer fridge.

On Firewood

Please buy your firewood from the campground host if it is offered. You should avoid bringing wood from home because it risks the spread of invasive plants and bugs which can harm natural forest ecosystems. See this website (dontmovefirewood.org). It might cost a little more, but it helps keep forests healthy. Also it means you don't have to worry about fitting enough firewood in your car before you leave.

Getting There
Usually I'll email out a Google Map that shows driving directions and lists the campsite number. Don't forget to print the reservation confirmation and have a photo ID and credit card.

In a future post I'll detail what I bring car camping, and what I do once I'm there.

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Thanks for sharing your questions/thoughts!