Car Camping 101: Basic Concepts

What is Car Camping?

Car camping is the act of loading a tent and other various gear into your vehicle then driving to a campground with the intention of spending a night, weekend, or even a week or more at a campsite where you park your vehicle and have access to various amenities and activities.   Unlike wilderness and backpack camping, car camping gives you the ability to bring whatever you can squeeze into your vehicle.  Most modern family campgrounds offer electricity, a nearby or on-site water supply, bathhouses, camp stores, ice, and firewood. 

A canoe camper enjoying the solitude of the wilderness.

Base camping is also a synonymous term for family camping.  There are many different forms of camping, but they all fall into two different categories: base camping and mobile camping. Mobile camping includes wilderness camping, backpack camping, canoe camping, exploration camping, motorcycle camping and so on and so on.  Mobile campers use lightweight gear that can be carried for long distances.   In the wilderness, the base camp is the main encampment where supplies, shelter, and communications are stationed for exploration, mountaineering, reconnaissance, and hunting.  From the central location of the base camp, explorers can backpack even further into the wilderness, spend a night or more out in the backcountry, then return to base for restocking.  Car camping is a form of base camping. 

Your family campsite is the base for your exploration and adventure.  

Car Camping Styles

Car Camping can be crafted into a variety of styles based on amenities, needs, interests, and activity levels.  Society has categorized campers into two basic groups: tent campers and RVers.  Tent campers are those using tents for their source of shelter.  RVers include those with Recreational Vehicles (the kind you drive) and Travel Trailers (the kind you pull behind you).  In middle is the pop-up, a combination trailer and tent.  The pop-up’s small size and lack of amenities, many consider it more of a tent on wheels than a true travel trailer. 

There are many advantages to having an RV or TT and there are people with health conditions and special needs who could not camp without them.  Sizes range from the super small with hardly any amenities to ginormous luxury liners.  However, the bigger the rig, the more difficult it becomes to find a place to park it, restricting your choices to large level campsites.  Tent campers can camp anywhere permitted regardless of size, grade, or tree placement. 

Your camping style is also influenced by your destination and activity interests. 

The Destination

Most every campsite will have a picnic table and fire ring.

Your interests, needs, desires, and level of comfort influence your destination.  Car camping campsites range from self-serving primitive sites with zero amenities to full hook-up sites that supply you with your own personal water and electricity supply.  Property amenities can include pit-toilets (aka vault toilets), modern restrooms, heated shower houses, camp stores with ice and firewood.

There are two common core destinations for the average family car camper:  campgrounds located within Public lands and campgrounds owned and operated by private individuals or corporations.  Public Lands are owned and operated by the federal, state or county government for recreational use by the public.  Private campgrounds are owned and operated by individuals or corporations.    

Campgrounds operated by government entities are found within parks and recreation areas.  This includes national, state and county parks.  There’s an astonishing 640 million acres of public land that was ardently fought for and safeguarded against exploitation in order to be preserved for future generations.  Places of uninterrupted beauty that gave inspiration to writers, poets, and politicians.  Places the Native Americans considered sacred, where they gathered, worshipped, and buried their dead.  Within these places of pure natural splendor are opportunities for hiking, fishing, swimming, biking, or anything other possible passion that the outdoors could invoke in one’s soul. 

 Thanks to the valiant and tireless efforts of Conservationists, Preservationists, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, we can enjoy these natural and often rugged places with great ease.  Car camping allows the average family the ability to afford visiting these places all while fulfilling an innate desire to rough it as our ancestors did.   Modern campgrounds and trail systems give even the most novice of campers access to breathtaking natural wonders and endless outdoor activities. 

Public Campgrounds:

  • Located within a county, state, or federally owned park or recreation area.
  • Centrally located within a short distance from hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, boating, and natural interpretative services (nature centers, ranger led hikes, etc.)
  • Similar rules and regulations, which often restrict number of persons and vehicles, length of stay, use of golf carts and motorized devices, use of alcohol, and enforce strict quiet policies and check-out times. 

Private Campgrounds:

  • Owned by individuals and/or private companies
  • Offer fewer opportunities for outdoor activities
  • Rules permitting the use of golf carts, seasonal rates for extended lengths of stay
  • Organized activities for children and adults: games, potlucks, live entertainment, holiday activities, themed weekends,
  • Luxury amenities:  Chain campgrounds like KOAs, which fall under the category of RV Resort, offer super luxurious amenities like laundry facilities, swimming pools, cable television, wifi, large spacious concrete pads and handicap accessible sites. 

The Primitive Campsite

The primitive campsite has no water or electricity.  Typically there is a nearby shared water source and either a vault toilet or port-a-potty within walking distance.  Modern restrooms and shower houses are often within driving distance, depending on the property.

The Non-Electric Campsite

Non-Electric is often used to designate campsites without electricity but have nearby water sources and modern restroom and shower facilities. 

Electric Campsites

Electric Campsites have a 30 amp electrical post, nearby water source, and modern restroom and shower facilities.  

Full-Hook Up Campsites

Full-Hook Up sites have water and electricity.     

Common Car Camping Activities

Your interests should guide you to a property that offers activities your family will enjoy.   The more active and adventurous campers will require the wild destinations of public lands, as will those seeking the quiet solace of nature.  Families with young children, retired couples and those just looking for a place to relax around the campfire with friends will appreciate the slow intimate pace of the private campground and the structured social events. 

State and national parks offer hiking trails, mountain bike trails, cycling, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, swimming, and of course, bird watching.   Some properties have bridal (bring your own horse) paths, paved handicapped accessible trails, and scenic overlooks.  Many also offer boat, canoe, and kayak rentals. Some even have bicycle rentals and guided horseback trails (rent a horse). 

There are over 5,800 state parks in the US, encompassing more than 12 million acres of natural and historic lands.  Three quarters of a billion people visit them annually, that’s three times the annual visits to National Parks.  Chances are, there are several state parks within driving distance from your home, each one offering different outdoor opportunities.  

Here is an extensive list of popular car camping activities to inspire and provide insight on the endless possibilities:

   Active Activities

  • Hiking            
  • Mountain biking
  • Cycling
  • Frisbee
  • Disc Golf

 (frisbee golf)

  • Lawn bowling
  • Corn hole
  • Rock climbing
  • Horseback Riding

Relaxing Activities

  • Read!
  • Take a leisurely walk
  • Take a relaxing inner tube float along a scenic river or creek
  • Take a nap
  • Bird watch
  • Cloud watch
  • Relax in the hammock

Rainy Day Activities

  • Read!
  • Read aloud to each other
  • Board games
  • Card games
  • Dice
  • Crafts
  • Visit local museums/historical societies
  • Jenga
  • Truth or Day
  • Two Truths and A Lie
  • Twenty Questions

Water Activities

  • Canoeing & Kayaking
  • Boating
  • Fishing
  • Swimming
  • Snorkeling
  • Skiing
  • Water balloon fights
  • Squirt gun fights
  • Inflatable kiddie pool

Nighttime Activities

  • Flashlight tag
  •  S’mores
  • Pop popcorn over the campfire
  • Watch outdoor movies on a bed sheet with a projector
  • Glow in the dark bowling – Put glow sticks inside water bottles then try to knock them down with a basketball 
  • Tell ghost stories
  • Hide and go seek

Activities to keep kids busy and engage

  • Take advantage of planned children’s activities and day hikes
  • READ!
  • Scavenger Hunts
  • Crafts
  • Bubbles
  • Sand Toys and action figures
  • Hide and seek

Nature Activities

  • Nature walks/hikes
  • Photography
  • Bird watching
  • Bee watching
  • Plant/animal identification

Common Campground Activities and Available Facilities

  • Swimming Pool
  • Playground Equipment
  • Basketball
  • Kayak/Canoe/Boat Rental
  • Disc Golf Course
  • Miniature Golf Course
  • Saddle Barn/Horseback Riding – For guided horseback trails and pony rides.
  • Themed weekends and holiday activities
  • Interpretative Naturalist Services
  • Planned Kids activities
  • Hiking Trails
  • Mountain Bike Trails
  • Bridal Trails & Horsemen’s Camps – For those who bring their own horses.
  • Picnic Areas – Tables, grills, toilet facilities, playground equipment.
  • Picnic Shelters – Usually if not reserved, shelters are available on a first come, first serve basis. 

Another favorite pastime is to visit the surrounding communities and soak up some local culture.   Nearby towns will be filled with small businesses like specialty shops, cafes, and restaurants as well as historical sites and museums.  Use the internet to find everything the area has to offer. 

And of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing nothing at all. 

Sit and stare at the campfire.  Lay underneath the night sky.  Take some really long naps.     Listen to music.  Binge watch your favorite show. 

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