Car camping is a great way to take all of those extra comforts along with you into the woods — like a big, thick mattress, two-burner cookstove and camp chairs — so that roughing it isn’t so tough.
Some people have so much gear that they have to load up a utility trailer to get everything to the campsite, even packing along Christmas lights. Those folks are a stark contrast to backpackers who are doing everything possible to get rid of bulky, heavy items and may even elect to be somewhat uncomfortable just so they carry less weight.
With summer in full swing and camping a fun family outing, here are some suggestions to make your trips a little more pleasant.
To comfortably camp you need to fulfill two basic needs: a place to sleep out of the rain and away from bugs and some tasty food to eat. Meet these two desires and you are more likely to have happy campers.
Make sure your sleeping bag is warm enough, or light enough, for the temperatures you will encounter. Bags are usually rated to a certain temperature, just check the tag. You can log on to the National Weather Service’s website to get seven-day forecasts for anywhere in the United States so you know what’s coming.
To make the ground softer to sleep on, there are a variety of pads to cushion your body. Closed cell foam pads are the least expensive. More expensive self-inflating pads, like the Therm-a-Rest, squish down nicely to take up less room. And then there are the large inflatable air mattresses. If you go with the air mattress, you might want to consider placing a blanket on top of it. As the night air cools, air mattresses get colder. Also make sure your electric pump is fully charged or you pack spare batteries.
Another option is to buy a cot. They are more expensive than a pad, and you may want to add a pad to the cot for cushioning, but they get you up off the ground and away from rocks, roots or pine cones that may poke into your body.
If you have the room, spoil yourself and take a pillow.
Tents come in a variety of designs, materials and costs. More expensive tents have more durable components or are made of lighter materials.
Start by determining how many people you want to sleep in your tent. Tents are typically sized by how many people they sleep. But I think they measure short, skinny people when they do this. So if you want to be comfortable in the tent, always plan on making it about one person bigger than you need. If you have a group or family of three, buy or borrow a four-man tent.
To extend your tent life, cut a piece of heavy plastic or buy a tarp to place on the ground. (Some tents come with ground cloths.) The barrier will keep rocks, sticks and abandoned bottle caps from puncturing the bottom of the tent. Most tent makers also recommend that you set tents with the rain fly on, whether you think it will rain or not. The rain fly shades the tent and extends the life of the tent material.
You should also always set your tent up in your yard for the first time, rather than waiting until you get to the campground. That way you won’t have angry family members standing around in the dark as you scratch your head trying to figure out which pole goes into which socket.
Two-burner propane or kerosene cookstoves make preparing meals much easier than trying to heat every meal over a campfire. The propane models have the added advantage that you don’t have to mess with pouring liquid fuel, pumping the tank to build up pressure and maintain pressure, and the flame seems much more minutely adjustable.
Backpacking stoves can do double duty at a campground, but then you have only one burner to cook on, which requires a little more planning on what to cook first.
A backpacking stove coupled with a propane grill or charcoal grill can ease some of that cooking stress. Propane grills have the advantage of heating up more quickly. Charcoal grills may provide a better flavor, but you also have the messy ashes to deal with and you have to wait for the briquettes to heat up. If you dump your ashes out, make sure they are completely cool. You don’t want to start a forest fire.
If you want to go old fashioned and eat over a campfire, take a grill (just the grate part). That way you’ll have a flat surface for cooking on.
No one should starve when you go car camping, but plan meals that don’t require the chef to spend hours slicing, dicing and frying while everyone else is playing in the creek. Noodles, couscous, dehydrated potatoes and minute rice are simple to prepare and provide a good source of carbohydrates. You can flavor them with your favorite spices, broth or vegetables that you cut ahead of time back home.
Or slice up potatoes, add some onion, salt and pepper, butter and/or bacon on top and wrap each potato in tin foil. Throw the potatoes in the campfire coals, turning about every 10 minutes and in a half hour or less you can eat a delicious, smoky flavored tater.
For carnivores, place your steaks, chops or kabobs in marinade at home, double bagging them to ensure they don’t leak. Then throw them on the grill for dinner.
It’s also easier, and cleaner, to make your hamburger patties at home. Separate them with wax paper. Then you’re not molding raw meat in the wild, keeping your hands cleaner. Or just go with hotdogs or bratwurst. They are some of the simplest of camp foods to prepare. My favorites are the brats with cheddar inside. Get a roasting stick and a bun and you’re set.
For breakfast, if you can get away with camp coffee, a granola bar and your favorite fruit, that’s great. Meat eaters may want fried bacon, but it’s such a chore to clean up a greasy pan while camping. Try cooking the bacon ahead of time so you just have to warm it up.
Pancakes are an easy breakfast meal to fix, although the bowl you mix them in is tough to clean. One way to avoid that is to pack the mix in a resealable plastic bag. Pour the correct amount of water in the bag and mix. Then there’s no bowl to clean. My kids love M&Ms in their pancakes, but dried or fresh berries are also great, especially if you picked the berries from a nearby bush. Don’t forget the syrup and a little oil or butter to grease your frying pan.
Keep lunches simple with something like crackers and cheese, summer sausage and vegetables like carrot sticks and fruit. Watermelon cut up into bite-sized chunks and packed in a resealable plastic bowl is a great idea and so refreshing on a hot day. Oranges also travel well.
There’s a wide range of camp cooking gear for sale if you don’t have old fry pans or pots that you can take from home. Cook kits can serve double duty when car camping or backpacking, but they aren’t large enough for more than a few folks. Invest in some paper plates to ease cleanup and don’t forget a roll of paper towels and a garbage bag.
A campout is just not the same for some folks without a fire. Campgrounds that have hosts often sell small stacks of firewood for $5. That amount is enough to get you through one night of s’mores. Finding firewood in the surrounding forest can be tough close to the campground, so if you have room you might want to bring your own from home.
If you choose to scrounge for firewood, you might want to bring an axe, hatchet or handsaw to cut the wood into useable chunks. Just be careful swinging the axe and hatchet.
Don’t forget that before you leave your campsite to make sure the fire is dead. Bring along a bucket to dump water on the ashes. Stir the ashes and add more water to put the fire completely out.
Fires are a great way to stay warm, but it’s also a good idea to plan for bad weather and bring appropriate clothes. Don’t forget a rain jacket, which can also double as a windbreaker or the outer layer over a jacket, vest or sweater. A warm hat and gloves can make a cool night or morning much more pleasant.
One of the cool things about camping these days is that you can make reservations to ensure you have a place to sleep as you travel on a roadtrip. The convenience of being able to plan ahead and ensure a camping spot sure beats driving along some dirt forest road in the dark trying to locate a spot, especially when you don’t know the area.
Just log on to the Forest Service’s recreation.gov website to make a reservation. It helps if you know the name and location of the campsite. The only bad thing is that they charge $9 to reserve a $14 campsite. Still, $23 for a place to sleep sure beats $100 or more for a motel room.
Another option is to check out commercial campgrounds like those run by KOA. KOA sites have flush toilets, showers, picnic areas and even amenities like swimming pools. Some KOAs and other commercial campgrounds even offer small cabins to sleep in so you don’t have to buy, borrow or carry a tent. You may pay more, but the sites appeal to families traveling in unknown areas. You can also make reservations at these sites, ensuring you have a place to park.
Managed campgrounds also leave a few spots open for campers without reservations, but get there early to ensure you get a spot. Check out time is 10 a.m. at federal sites, with check in at 11 a.m. The more popular the area, the harder it will be to find a site.
Whatever camping option you choose, and whether you haul tons of gear or very little, the important thing is to get out and enjoy a little bit of nature this summer. Build your trip around an activity like fishing, visiting a historical site or landmark, hiking or boating on a lake or river. Camping brings families and friends closer together, with fewer of the distractions of our modern world. It’s a chance to create some great memories. Even a weekend of “roughing it” is a chance to explore some of the beautiful places in Montana, as well as make you more appreciative of the luxuries of home when you return.