Get Started with Car Camping


Car camping can be a great way to get away and enjoy yourself in the beautiful Arizona (or other) outdoors.  It's that first baby step towards backpacking or hiking the Arizona or Appalachian Trail, or it's as immersive as you need to be given all of the secluded places a sturdy car can take you.  For those of you who are city dwellers or grew up in the woods, like myself, and had no reason to camp in the woods, here is a quick primer on camping that will get you out the door and let you refine your own needs.


I'll be honest, CampArizona.com has a great "getting started" article that is pretty close to all you need to know and the site also has great campground resources, area trails, gear lists, etc.  But you're reading this article because you want an adventure, so keep reading my article as part of the adventure. 

First things first, where to camp?  Again, Camp Arizona has some great lists of campsites.  Aside from that, Arizona Highways has a lot of articles about camping. If you're interested in camping in the National Forest, check each forest for campgrounds, dispersed camping, and cabins.
Second, you need some gear.  You can easily cover the basics at Walmart, Bass Pro, Cabelas, Target, Sports Authority, your favorite local place.  If you want to get fancy, REI is a good location, but for car camping it's overkill. 
  • Tents - There are lots and lots of options for tents and they are one of those purchases where you don't want to spend to much but don't want to underby, because spare tents are a pain.  When picking the right size, I would suggest taking the number of people the tent says it sleeps and divide by 2 for the amount of people who can fit comfortably.  I have a four person tent for myself (because I'm 6'4") and could 'intimately' fit another person in with me...let's just say I won't be sharing it with any of my guy friends.  If you have kids you could either spring for one of those big multi-room tents, or just buy them their own tent and keep them a little further away.  As far as the multi-room tents go, I don't feel a need for them, but they could be handy to give indoor space for rainy day activities.  Of course, if you have a spare tent that could do the job without dealing with a bulky tent every time. 
  • Sleeping bags - again, lots of options, but chances are you can make due with a pretty inexpensive bag that will keep you warm.  Most of the expense comes from being lightweight and from being more insulated.  With car camping, for the most part you can disregard the lightweight/compact features, you have room in your car and big bags are more comfortable.  And I'd say err on the side of less insulation...you can always sleep in more clothes, but your sub-zero mummy bag can't get lose insulation on a 70 degree night.
  • Accessories - you might want a camp stove, especially if there are fire restrictions.  I haven't used one, but if you want one I'd suggest going to Bass Pro or Cabelas (or Google it if necessary) to get educated by their staff looking through the large variety to find the one best for you.  Be legit and use a cast-iron pan, these can also hold up to heat from campfire cooking.  Maybe you'll need a cooler...pick one a little bigger than you think you need, just in case.  Here are some tips, recipes, etc. for camp cooking.A tarp or two will be as handy as your imagination allows--from a ground fly to a lean-to to whatever else.  They're cheap and handy.
  • Other things to take:  sunscreen, bug spray, dish soap, baby wipes (for "showering"), toilet paper, flashlight/lamp, extra batteries
That's about all that you need to take, but keep in mind that when camping you won't have the usual distractions of TV and such (you WON'T have Netflix on your tablet or smartphone, right??)  Take whatever necessary to keep you occupied...bocce, croquet, board games, fishing poles, hiking boots, etc. 

Safety first!  Ok, third in the list, but whatever.  You're in the wild, respect that.  Be educated about the possible dangers of where you're going and what to do when faced with those dangers.  Be mindful that you might encounter thunderstorms/flash floods, venomous creatures, irritating/pokey plants, falls/drowning, etc.  Also, remember that we have Africanized bees in Arizona.  If you have an old phone (preferably not a smart phone because of better battery life), charge it before you leave and take it with you, keeping it turned off to conserve power.  Even if you don't have it activated, you can call 911 on it.  My old candybar phone will hold a charge for over a year when turned off.
The list of things I took on my Ashurst Lake camping trip (article here):
 Probable necessities:
  • Ozark Trail 4-person "backpacking" tent from Walmart.  I'm 6'4", so most 1-person tents are jokingly small.  This one offered me plenty of room to lay down and the ability to keep my things away from the edges of the tent in downpours.
  • A couple pillows from home.
  • 45 degree sleeping bag, perfect for the overnight lows of 55 degrees.
  • A tarp to put under the tent.
  • Inexpensive Emerson LED lantern from Bass Pro Shops, bright enough to comfortably read by (4 D batteries not included.
  • Mini Mag Light
  • Cast iron skillet.
  • Big jugs of water to refill my water bottle and Camelback.
  • A variety of Cliff bars.
  • Bug spray.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Baby wipes (cause there's no shower)
Other things I brought:
  • Mountain bike and tire pump
  • Kayak
  • Camelback backpack
  • Bear Grylls paracord knife and ultimate knife (one for each backpack) (judge for the BG products, but they're the best fixed-blade knives I've seen for a decent price and they attach easily to your pack).
  • Fishing pole.
  • Power Bait - for trout.
  • Hiking boots
  • Trail shoes
  • Chaco sandles - great for around the camp and in the water.
  • Several books.
  • Hammock purchased at Babbits Backcountry in Flagstaff (my favorite store in Arizona) - be careful setting this up due to the rocks.

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