Car Camping pt. I - Essentials

I started camping in the back of my old Land Cruiser (henceforth known as Burt) in late 2014. My buddy Garrett and I took off on a 6 month, 40k mile road trip from Oklahoma to Alaska on a week's notice. It was great fun, but looking back through photos I'm reminded of the daily burden of coexisting with all of the Stuff we brought. I guess it’s natural to forget the bad sometimes. 

December 2014 - too much Stuff.

December 2014 - too much Stuff.


We started out sleeping in the back, loading all of the Stuff into the front seats, dashboard, roof rack - wherever it could fit. This turned into a dreaded 20 minutes twice a day, every day. As both the trip and winter progressed, we’d often find ourselves sleeping in the front seats in our sleeping bags (after a few months we were both sick of the constant rearranging and decided to grin and bear it on our way through Canada). 


We each had too much of everything - clothes, jackets, socks, bags, cooking gear, etc. The Stuff we thought would make the trip easy and comfortable turned into the opposite. We made the easy mistake of thinking More would make us comfortable when in reality space was what we needed.


I’ve been continually pairing down my car camping setup since that trip; vowing to never be a slave to Stuff again. The amount we bring has a lot to do with the particulars of each trip: length, season, activity, etc, but there is a standard minimum of things that go on each and every trip. I’d call this some sort of a Summer minimum - it can be added to for different uses, but this is the base of it all. 


June 2017 Setup - everything mentioned is stowed inside sans gear box which was being used as a seat by the fire.

June 2017 Setup - everything mentioned is stowed inside sans gear box which was being used as a seat by the fire.

I’m going to give some suggestions and experience with different kinds of gear I’ve used over the years, but before I’d like to caveat with this: Use what you have and be creative when it comes to gear. Instead of spending $250 on an ultra deluxe Exped to sleep on, get a $40 ZPad and top it with folded blankets - $210 is a lot of fuel/food money. Don’t limit yourself by dwelling on what you don’t have. The following is a list of gear to always have:


Sleeping Pads:

I currently use an Exped MegaMat 10 when I’m camping in Burt. I’ve done everything from no pad at all, to a ZPad, Therm-A-Rest, inflatables from Nemo and Big Agnes to a Paco Pad. The Exped is as comfortable as it gets, and comes in different sizes and thicknesses. I highly recommend staying away from the fully inflatable pads, as comfortable and small as they are it won’t be too long before you wake up with it fully deflated - no fun. Self-inflating pads by brands like Therm-A-Rest are a good medium of price to performance.  These pads take in air as well, but have a foam layer inside and aren’t as prone to leaks. They’re not as comfortable as the Exped, but they’re less than half the price, stow almost anywhere, and won’t deflate on you. The main point is this; no matter what you choose, get something! In the summer it’s mostly about comfort, but when it’s colder, you can easily freeze even in a properly rated sleeping bag without a pad. 


Sleeping Bags:

For most warm weather camping blankets are just fine and more comfortable. I like to have two with one of them being a comforter and one being lightweight. It also helps if the lighter blanket is darker, or just something you’re okay with getting dirt/oil/noodles on. I wrap the folded comforter with the light blanket when stowed so that I’m still free to stack gear boxes on top of them/throw them anywhere without fear of dirt.

If you have a sleeping bag - use it. Depending on your climate and bag it can still be a good idea to bring an extra blanket. I’ve slept in my sleeping bag with a blanket over top many times. From spring through fall I use a Nemo 20° bag if I’m not using blankets. If you’re in the market for a bag, I’d get a mummy style bag for those mornings that get colder than expected, but again - if you don’t have a bag, use blankets. You can pay more for a 0° bag, but you’ll probably have it completely unzipped with a leg or more out for most of the summer. The 20-30° bags will have the advantage of being smaller, lighter, and more compact, which is big for maintaining free space.


Tools/Vehicle Repair:

I can't stress this enough, you have to have to have them. Even if you don't know anything about repairing your vehicle, you'll learn soon enough - that's what happened to me. I'm definitely not a master mechanic in any sense, but looking back over the years most of the problems I fixed seemed impossible when I ran into them. We learn by necessity and after each small victory there is a sense of freedom and self sufficiency.  Google and a trip to the auto parts shop are the ticket.  In each truck I keep a toolbox with a complete set of metric and standard wrenches, a ratchet set, extra oil, hoses, clamps, screwdrivers, channel locks, etc. Gorilla duct tape, Goop adhesive (or similar), and super glue will always come in handy. You’ll want some specific things to your vehicle, think spark plug socket, breaker bar for lug nuts, etc. The older vehicle the more the more prudent you should be, but always have at least the above. Also good to have: spark plugs, coolant, anything easy that could turn an expensive tow out of the woods into a quick fix. This is something I'll go into in more depth on a future post.




I’ll go more into this on a future post but I always have the following, no matter the season, climate, or activity:


Rain shell. Always have one on hand, no questions.

Puffy/insulated jacket. Warmth, comfort, a makeshift pillow, etc.

Fleece/insulated layer. For, you know, insulating.

Pair of insulated bottoms. Same as above.

Pair of wool socks. I like Smartwool (2 pairs = better).

These things live inside of the truck in a gear box. If I head out on a hike I grab at least the rain shell and stuff them in my pack. Don’t go anywhere without them or you’ll need them.


Gear Box:

I use a large NRS Canyon Box for keeping all of my cooking gear, hiking boots, food, and every other random thing in. The benefit is that you can move it ALL at once instead of fishing around, and it doubles as a great seat/table. You don’t need to spend a bunch of money on one, but having something with a lid that is okay to be set out in the rain is key. 



An axe is the most useful tool around. It’s a hammer for guy lines, splits wood, a shovel for getting yourself unstuck out of ice/etc, and countless other tools. I use a Max Axe by Forrest Tool Co - it has a great shovel attachment among others, but any axe will do. Don’t cut wood on the ground, or your axe blade will be damaged once it splits the wood and hits the dirt/rocks. Also don’t leave a wood handled axe outside overnight - the sweat it has absorbed makes it a prime target to be chewed up by a porcupine (really). You can also use a hatchet or something smaller, but I find that an axe ends up being steadier, and your movements are longer, slower, and more controlled than with a hatchet. 


This is all I have for today, we'll go more into outerwear/cooking setup/camera gear on future posts.