The Case for Car Camping: 3 Reasons To Love It

The list was befitting the items needed for a 13-year-old’s sleepover: Oreos. Glow sticks. A life-size cardboard cutout of Twilight star Robert Pattinson.

In actuality, these were some of the things packed by my best friends and myself (all, ahem, in our late twenties and early thirties) for our annual “Friendship Reunion” camping trip last July. We met in junior high and now live hours apart from each other, so every summer we—and our assorted husbands, boyfriends and dogs—meet at Lake Wenatchee State Park for a weekend of camping.

Are you picturing a group of rosy-cheeked backpackers, purifying their drinking water, bathing in the lake, and whistling camp songs as they trot away from cell towers and sewer lines? You are mistaken. It’s not that we don’t love the outdoors, but “rugged” is not a word that describes our weekend. For our group, car camping—where you pitch a tent mere feet from where you park your car—is ideal. And I suspect car camping might be perfect for your group as well.

Get Away—But Not Too Far Away—From It All

Sure, camping could mean lacing up fancy hiking boots and setting off into the wilderness with little more than a compass and pocketknife. But it can also mean running water, well-lit paths to the communal bathroom, and real live toilet paper. Where we camp, the setting is utterly gorgeous, a perfect outdoor escape: the expansive Lake Wenatchee framed with mountains, the trickling creeks, the tall, shady pines.

But there are also modern amenities. We take walks through the woods and dip our toes in the frigid lake, but we also might head down the street to watch a World Cup match at a nearby tavern or use our car batteries’ power to pump up our air mattresses. We don’t even mock our friend Jordan very much when he spends what seems like hours sitting by the campfire…playing Oregon Trail on his iPhone (though I am still a little bitter about the fact that he let the “Sarah” character die last summer, saying I’d “walk off” my typhoid). Car camping is the perfect way to get outdoors, even if you don’t want to rough it all that much.

The Needed Gear is Minimal (And the Possibilities Are Endless)

Car camping is easy. Anyone can borrow a tent, sleeping bag and camp stove and pay a small charge for a night’s stay. Come torrential downpour or raging winds, the ill-prepared can always take refuge in their vehicle.

The minimal gear needed frees you to fill your car with a lot of non-essentials. This might mean a Pack ‘n’ Play to wrangle a toddler for naptime, the makings for a gourmet meal, or a ukulele to strum by the fire. For mine, it means lots of ridiculous items that recall the carefree goofiness of our junior high days, which we’ve never managed to lose. Hence the cardboard Robert Pattinson (which Beth brought as a sort of prank for Twilight fans Autumn and Danyeal—he became our unofficial mascot, hanging out at the campsite and wearing red, white and blue accessories for Independence Day).

The glow sticks were used in lieu of fireworks, and we pretended they lit up the night sky as we giggled and sang Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American” on the beach. A great memory? Absolutely. Completely silly? Of course. But that’s the beauty of car camping: the items you’ll enjoy are limited only by your imagination and how many glow sticks (or fishing poles, or baby supplies, or whatever your case might be) will fit in the trunk of your car.

Create Your Own Traditions

With car camping, a good time is very repeatable and new traditions are easily made. Each year, our group builds upon the previous year’s experiences, repeating the elements we’ve loved best. We talk and laugh as we chop carrots and potatoes for “hobo dinners,” the decidedly un-PC name of the little foil-wrapped packets of vegetables and sometimes meat that we roast over the fire.

We accidentally set our marshmallows on fire when we make “s’mOreos” (where an Oreo stands in for the graham cracker and chocolate) after the sun goes down. We flip through magazines and rescue the dogs, tethered to long lines, who constantly get tangled together. We wear the reunion T-shirts Beth designs for us, knowing full well it’s a little bit nerdy for a group of adults to walk around in matching shirts (and ours feature a cartoon robot, no less), yet also knowing that’s one of the best things, part of what makes our trip our trip.

But the real best thing, and the reason why I think everyone needs an annual camping adventure, is the agenda-free time it offers. When you get outside, time expands. Camping is where, for once, I have hours upon hours to catch up with the friends I miss so much most of the year. It’s where I first felt then-pregnant Autumn’s baby kick and where I got to know Beth’s Oregon Trail-loving boyfriend, where I’ll go on a run with Ross, and where Danyeal and my husband Brad will play a mean game of Settlers of Cattan. It’s where I laugh so hard my stomach aches, but also where I have the good conversations that remind me why these friends have been my friends for so long. The broad expanse of time to spend with the people you love (regardless of whether that includes a cardboard vampire) is what makes even the least rugged of camping trips worth taking.

Originally published as “The Case for Car Camping” in the August 2011 issue.

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