You’ve pitched your tent in the backyard. Now you’re ready to take the next step: Discover the thrill (and ease) of car camping!
Parks and private campgrounds across the country have drive-in sites, and many are equipped with water spigots, picnic tables, barbecue pits, even electric hookups. Lakes and trailheads are steps away. Simply park, pitch, and toss your sleeping bags inside your tent. The car serves as a secure storage unit as you explore the wilderness. If you run out of milk or someone comes down with an earache in the middle of the night, you can get back to civilization—pronto. In the morning, fire up a propane stove and whip up the hot cocoa and oatmeal—or pile into the car and head to the nearest pancake house.
Where to Go
Many public campgrounds are on lakes or in mountains; private ones sometimes make up for less spectacular scenery with niceties, such as pools, mini golf, go carts, and hayrides. Overnight fees range from a couple of bucks to around $40 for a family of four. Reserve well in advance if you’re camping in peak season, and expect company. Some private outfits, like KOA, really pack ’em in—a boon for kids who like to make friends on vacation, but sometimes a disappointment for those who want to get away from it all. Be prepared, too, for RVs and trailers as neighbors (drive-in campgrounds were designed with them in mind). Request a spot in the back forty for maximum peace and privacy. When you’re all snuggled in for the night, crickets will sing you to sleep.
Related: America's Most Scenic Campgrounds
www.recreation.gov Lists campgrounds at national parks and on other federal lands.
www.reserveamerica.com Lets you line up spots at public and private campgrounds.
www.koa.com Details its 450 campgrounds, all with pools and playgrounds, and some with WiFi.
Keep this in Mind if You’re Sleeping Outside
- Size up when buying a tent: Choose a six-person for a family of four.
- A dome tent gives you more head room; straight-walled tents have more shoulder room.
- Set the tent on a ground cloth one inch shorter than its perimeter.
- For kids, choose an all-synthetic bag that’s good to 40 degrees(fine for summer). A rectangular bag with a full-length zipper can be opened and used as a group coverlet.
- Keep flaps open as much as possible for ventilation; your warmth comes from the sleeping bag. A self-inflating foam core pad will be less clammy than an air mattress.
- Some state parks no longer allow you to build open fires, says Jamie Abish of New York’s family-owned Tent & Trails (www.tenttrails.com), an outdoor clothing and equipment store. If regulations put the kibosh on your barbecue, a simple propane-fueled camp stove won’t cramp your hot-dogs- and marshmallows-on-sticks routine, and is a godsend for mornings when you want to boil water for coffee—fast.
- Freeze hot dogs and sausages at home and pack them in the cooler while still frozen. By the time you’re ready to cook the next night they’ll have thawed some but will still be safe to eat.
- Use space-saving Ziploc bags for everything from soap and dish sponges to the brown sugar and raisins for sprinkling on oatmeal.
- Stringing up a tarp near your tent will give your gang a place to hang out when it rains.
- Tie nylon rope between two trees and use as it a clothesline for wet towels and swimsuits.
- For night exploring, use a headlamp instead of a flashlight.
- Go camping with another family, or let your kids bring a friend or two. Share the chores—and the adventure.