I haven’t slept in a tent for four years. Until last week I had the luxury of taking shelter each weekend in the comfort of my minivan. But, in the blink of an eye, I hurtled through a red light and was T-boned by another vehicle. Fortunately, I came out of the incident physically unscathed. My van was not so lucky. The following week, my girlfriend, Amy, and I had plans to go on a climbing trip in the Sierras. Although we did not have the van to camp in anymore, we were eager to go ahead with our plan. My mom offered to loan us her Volkswagen Jetta, so we loaded it with our usual gear and a three person tent. Having spent many of my early camping trips living out of a tent and cooking on the ground, the practice was not foreign to me. But with new eyes for the experience, I was in a unique position to see the pros and cons and how to make the best of the situation and still enjoy a week of camping old-school style
Creating a system We packed quickly and haphazardly so we could hit the road before traffic got bad. With the car stuffed to the brim and almost all of our essential gear inaccessible, the first thing we did after arriving in Tuolumne Meadows was unload the car and reorganize it. We discovered a system that best utilized our new small space. Clothes and sleeping gear we loaded behind the passenger seat for easy access. On the other side, behind the driver, we placed a large bin with our climbing gear, also for easy access. We set up our cooking station in the back of the wagon and used two bins for storage. One was large to hold all the food and had a lid to protect against rodents; and one was smaller for cookware, to protect the car from grease on the pots and pans. We slid a piece of cardboard under the stove to protect the car interior from cooking messes. When the stove lid was closed, we stowed the food bin on top and placed a small, well-insulated cooler next to it. On top went the bin of dishes. On the other side of the food bin, we conveniently located a slender 7 gallon water jug. The remaining gear, consisting of a tent, camp chairs, 1 gallon propane tank, etc., was located in the center of the vehicle.
Finding a Campsite
Paying for campsites aren’t expensive, they give you access to bathrooms and running water, but over the course of a climbing trip they tend to add up. Using Google Maps on you phone and some common sense, you can find excellent secluded bivy spots almost anywhere you’re headed. Chances are, if you’re headed to a popular climbing area, there are already well-known bivy spots listed on Mountain Project. If not, do a little asking around at the crag for suggestions on where to stay. Disclaimer: Make sure that the land you are staying on permits camping, and be sure to abide by any posted restrictions and follow Leave No Trace principles. National Forests, indicated by green on a map, permit dispersed camping. Stake a claim early in the evening; it’s easier to make dinner while it’s light out. Also, all the good bivy spots get taken up pretty quickly as soon as night falls, and it’s no fun to drive around looking for a spot when it’s late and you’re tired. You can set up your tent before heading to town for groceries and or entertainment, ensuring that you will have a spot to stay when you get back later that night. Depending on the area, you will most likely want to take your tent down each morning to minimize impact and protect your gear from being stolen.
Packing the Essentials
I recommend the following car camping essentials to make your car camping experience more enjoyable:
For meal time, camp chairs, a card table, and a good cooler with ice that can keep food cold for two or more days. Stanley and Yeti make good coolers for this purpose.
Sleeping on the ground doesn’t have to be uncomfortable; bring a cushy sleeping pad and a couple pillows each.
A large water tank, preferably seven gallons, will get you through a few days of drinking, cooking, and dishwashing.
Bring two tarps, one for the underside of your tent and the other to make a shelter for cooking in the event of inclement weather. Be sure to tuck the edges of the tarp under the tent to keep rain from running underneath.
A refillable one-gallon propane tank is a little pricey but very much worth the $50. It will last for two to three weeks cooking two meals a day and costs about $4 to refill. The small green propane fuel bottles last four to five days and are $5 a canister. It’s helpful to keep one around in case you run out.
Ear plugs are helpful if you are staying in a popular campsite.
Chores around camp are best shared. For an early start, one person can cook breakfast while the other breaks down the tent and loads the car. We swapped these jobs at dinner time.
Plan meals to use space and time efficiently. By planning a few days worth of meals at one time, you will save a lot of time in the evenings avoiding frequent trips to the grocery store. See my previous blog post Food For Thought for camp recipe ideas.
After a week of sleeping in the tent, I was feeling like things had always been this way. Breaking down and setting up camp became rituals of the day, providing a small amount of structure to the looseness our climbing trip. Despite my newfound appreciation for car camping, as someone who spends a lot of time out climbing every weekend, I didn’t feel the experience was compelling enough to persuade me to buy a small car. I signed for a Sprinter the following week.
Walker Emerson is a contributing writer for the Planet Granite Blog. He also sets routes at Planet Granite under the alias ‘Smash’. When he’s not plugging grips and jugging lines, he can be found on weekends clipping bolts at Jailhouse or sailing the granite seas of Yosemite.