In Praise of Car Camping

Mj 618_348_in praise of car camping
Chris Harris / Getty Images

My father’s life lesson number one: A man’s automobile should be an escape pod. Not a sign of status, not a chick magnet, but a way of pressing life’s eject button and heading wherever the starry sky makes you feel whole again.

From the 1963 VW hippie bus of my diaper years, to the ’91 Toyota pickup he eventually sold to me, to the VW Jetta wagon he’s still driving, Dad’s car-camping vehicles have always been strictly business: small enough to park near his law office, but big enough to sleep two during last-minute Yosemite climbing trips and weeklong blue-highway runs in the Southwest.

Dad was on to something. I‘m in my forties and still driving his old Toyota pickup. I used to be the guy who needed everything to fit into 3,500 cubic inches of nylon, but over the years I’ve learned that camping is really about wiggle room. My pickup is my new backpack. Now it’s about being able to pack climbing gear and trail-running shoes, but also a couple of lawn chairs for sipping single malt and staring at the stars; tucking a few good books behind the front seat for the odd rest day lying by the river, but also a fly rod in case the fish decide to rise. You’d never drive my truck to a job interview, but you simply couldn’t find a more welcome sight after a scary climb in the Yosemite high country, when you’re ready to grab a six-pack at the first lonesome gas station you see and head out on a bad dirt road to a desert hot spring.

When you roll this way, it helps to have your basic systems wired: a milk crate full of cooking gear, always clean and packed with a sharp knife and a battered old cutting board, the green double-burner Coleman, the indestructible ice chest, the quality sleeping bag – and, if you’re that kind of guy, a decent pillow. But the reward is being able to leave town at a moment’s notice, picking up a buddy after work, driving into the wee hours, cooking a killer meal because you were able to stop at the grocery store and load up on steaks, and then sleeping wherever you manage to park.

What it all comes down to is keeping a low bar to entry. In other words making instant adventure so easy and comfortable you won’t hesitate to follow Dad’s Life Lesson Number Two: hitting the eject button as often as possible. 

Car Camping in Four Easy Steps:

  1. Load up the car with base-camp essentials, including a cooler filled with pork chops and beer.
  2. Park and pitch your tent on the edge of vast wildernessThe perfect car-camping site — one that allows you to relax in style and sits just a few feet away from adventure – is a rare find. Try the site inside Zion National Park.
  3. Spend your days deep in the backcountry
  4. Return from the backcountry around sunset for happy hour.

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