Have Tent, Will Travel – The Needs of a Good Car Camping Set-Up

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One of the things I loved best about our summer road trips was car camping.

Car camping is one of the easiest and simplest ways to reduce your costs on a long road trip. When I was in my 20s, I took my first car camping trip to Montana and absolutely loved it. Later, when I met Bonnie, our first summer road trip in 2009 was a 12-day car camping trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

I love the fresh air. I love the sense of community of our campgrounds. And I love the price. Even expensive campgrounds are a third of what moderate hotels cost, making camping a great way to travel without spending a lot of money. Check out our cost break down of different accommodations on a road trip. 

We spent two full months car camping over the summers (2012 and 2014), as well as several other week-long road trips, and we have learned some very valuable lessons.

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A Good Tent WILL Make All the Difference

It is, after all, your home away from home. Obviously, it should protect you from the elements, be reasonably easy to set up and takedown, as well as comfortable to sleep in.

The first tent I used back in my 20s was a cheap, round,  three-pole dome tent. It went up fairly easily, but it was not that good in the rain… The rain fly only covered the mesh dome at the top of the tent. It had sleeves you had to slide the fiberglass poles through, which was a pain to deal with.

Our campsite in Bridge Bay. If you look in the trees, you will see a bison... Just one of the hazards of camping in Yellowstone.
Our campsite in Bridge Bay. If you look in the trees, you will see a bison… Just one of the hazards of camping in Yellowstone.

By the time Bonnie and I went on our first trip, I had a two-person rectangular dome tent from Sierra Designs. It was great, easy to set up and could comfortably sleep two people on a full-size air mattress. We once got the tent completely set up in less than five minutes after being chased by a thunderstorm across the plains outside Wall, SD.

That said, it was fairly cramped and it only had one entrance and exit. So, when we got married, we registered at REI… Yes, we are that kind of couple. We got a great tent as a wedding present, a REI Hobitat 4.

The Big Tent

The Hobitat, aka the “big tent,” was outstanding as a car camping tent. It had enough space for a queen-sized air mattress AND plenty of space to walk around the mattress. I cannot stress how important it is when you are car camping for a long period of time to have a tent which you do not have to climb over the other person to get out and go to the bathroom.

The other major improvement of the Hobitat is the interior height. You can stand up in it. That makes a huge difference when you are changing clothes. I hate having to put on pants laying on the ground.

REI has a habit of putting a lot of organization pockets in the interior of their tents and it does make a huge difference when staying for multiple days.

There were two major drawbacks to the “big tent:” how long it took to set up and the height.

The tent took a good 15-20 minutes to fully set up when you added in the ground cloth and the vestibule. While that is not a long time compared to the camper we now use, it was a little cumbersome if you were only staying one night.

Scotts Bluff
Scotts Bluff

The height of the tent was only an issue twice: once in Fredericksburg, Texas, and once in Scottsbluff, NE. The wind was howling in both instances. In the former, the wind moving the top of the tent kept us up that night. In the second instance, we could not set the tent up the wind was blowing so fiercely.

 REI has since discontinued the tent, but here is another, very similar tent. One thing to note is the vestibule is now built-in and it has a second entrance, making it even easier to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom.

Having a large vestibule is important in a larger tent because it will allow you to sit “covered” if it is raining, which is always a good thing. Alternately, you can get a tarp or other shelter for that purpose, but a large vestibule will work very well without adding more stuff in your vehicle.

The Small Tent

One of the things we realized we needed was a small tent we could take backpacking (one of these days we want to do the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim) and one that would be smaller and easier to set up for one night stays.

Cooking Dinner
Grant cooking dinner in the shade of the truck at our campsite.

So, we got an REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent. It is very similar to the Sierra Designs I had when we got married, but had a door on both sides, a few storage pockets (REI loves those pockets) and a vented rain fly.

For quick stops, we could have that tent completely set up and ready to sleep in about seven minutes if we hustled. It was a bit snug, but comfortable.

The biggest drawback was it would only fit a full-size air mattress, vs. a queen-sized mattress for the big tent.

We love this tent so much we have kept it after getting the camper.

The Air Mattress

I wish I could give you a good recommendation for an air mattress. I really do. Our favorite air mattress ever was an Intex air mattress with a built-in battery-powered pump. It was great. It ran on C batteries, had a simple on/off switch and had a reverse flow for pulling out the air quickly.

But, alas, Intex stopped making it and I have yet to find a good replacement. The biggest problem with any air mattress is it will only last you so long. Eventually, it simply will not hold air through the night. There is nothing worse than waking up completely on the ground.

We stayed at one of the Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds on Council Grove Lake... One of the best campgrounds we have ever been to.
While we love tent camping, sleeping on an air mattress gets really old after four weeks.

I will give you these pieces of advice on getting an air mattress. One, make sure before you buy it that it will fit in your tent. Two, do not get a corded pump unless you plan on bringing some way to power said pump. At the very least, you will need to run an extension cable from your vehicle to the tent. That can be a real pain at some campsites. Don’t be that guy who is at the bathroom in Yellowstone National Park running a power cable out to inflate your air mattress! Don’t be that guy!

Cooking Gear

One of the keys of a good car camping set up is cooking gear. Not only does it keep things cheaper by cooking instead of eating out, there is nothing quite like grilling your own food.

The Coleman 1 lb. propane tank is one of the absolute best creations on the face of the earth. It stores easily, there is no mess and it doesn’t take a lot of room. It is available just about anywhere and is cheap. Our recommendation: get a grill that accepts these as the fuel. The grill we had for years was easy to use and clean and sat on top of the picnic table. 

You will want a bin with some pots and pans. You will also want spices for cooking and basic utensils as well.

Camp Chairs and Table

You are gonna want some camp chairs so you can enjoy the outdoors… otherwise, why are you camping to begin with? We have had these chairs from Picnic Time for a few years (both car and rv camping) and love them. They are very comfortable and, combined with the footstools, are about perfect.

Bonnie reading a book on her iPad at the camper.
We love our camp chairs and stool. They make for a compact and comfortable way to sit out and read.

Having a table to set things on is always nice. This table from ALPS Mountaineering has been a great addition to our campsite. The camp table has four cup holders on the “below deck.” I got the model with the checkerboard on it. One day, Bonnie and I might decide to play checkers or chess on it.

Final Thoughts on Car Camping

We loved car camping, but ultimately we realized having a camper was the best move for us. Also, our backs just could not handle sleeping on an air mattress for 10 days in a row. For someone younger on a tighter budget, get a tent and get out on the road and see the country!

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. We can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.

We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.

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