Car camping in Colorado can be as luxurious as you make it, which is why it’s so darn appealing. From utilizing established Forest Service campgrounds, Bureau of Land Management back roads, or privately owned getaways like the KOA, car camping is fairly easy to perfect. The art, and the only challenges, are keeping yourself organized, obtaining appropriate gear, and convincing your family and friends to pitch in for gas.

Camping has evolved to encompass a variety of techniques, preferences, and accessibility. Traditionally, driving to a campground still meant pitching a tent, but with the publicity of motor vehicle nomad athletes (affectionately termed “dirtbags”), car camping has turned into car-living. Who needs a tent when you have a bed built into the back of your Subaru or cargo van? Regardless of whether or not you’ve dreamt of #vanlife, here are some tips for the simple and joyous experience of accessible, destination car camping in Colorado.

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  • Your car – As long as your vehicle can drive the distance, and as long as you’re willing to drive without seeing through your back window when it’s packed to the roof, then you’ve got the most basic aspect of car camping dialed.
  • Shelter – Will you be sleeping a tent? How many people will be snoring next to you? Will there be rain, wind, or snow? Your shelter will truly determine your comfort level, even if you’re sleeping in the car, as your car may not be long enough if you’re 5’9” or taller. The tent you bring along should be big enough to comfortably fit occupants and their sleeping gear, including space in the vestibule for shoes or water bottles. I’d recommend tents with stash pockets and a mesh shelf in the ceiling for headlamps, glasses, chapstick, and other small items that you want to keep dry and accessible in the middle of the night. Make sure the tent poles are durable to withstand high winds, that your rain fly is actually waterproof, and always plan appropriately for any chance of inclement weather (don’t pitch your tent in a flood-prone area).
  • Sleeping Gear – Now this is where things start to get fancy if you’re willing to spend. The simplest and most cost efficient set-up is basic foam sleeping pad and a synthetic sleeping bag warm enough for the conditions. Looking for pure comfort? I’ve seen a range of air mattresses, self-inflating sleeping pads, foam mattress toppers, pillows, fleece and down blankets, and anything anyone is willing to stuff into the car. It’s truly your choice on how comfortable and resourceful you want to be, and as along as your sleep system fits into your tent or vehicle, bring it along!
  • Kitchen – Your meals will not only keep you happy and motivated for whatever activities you’re planning, they help nurture the community aspect of camping. Communicate with your fellow campers – are you sharing a stove, cookware, or any ingredients? If you’re goal is to cook for the entire group, make sure the propane stove is big enough to handle multiple pans at once. And have backup propane. Are you chopping things? Bring a cutting board and a sharp knife. What cooking oils are you using? Are you grilling meat or corn on the cob over the fire? Will you need a cooler? Maybe some tin foil would be handy. Thoroughly visualize the meals you will be having and browse your kitchen for all the things you would need to make your feast a reality. Buy biodegradable soap and bring a sturdy sponge for cleaning up. Use plastic totes to stay organized or old milk crates. I’d also recommend taking this opportunity to try dishes you may not associate with camping, like pizza over the fire, breakfast burritos, steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy, pot-pie, banana protein pancakes – I could go on! And don’t forget about the campfire desserts. Take s’mores to a whole new level with Oreos, strawberries, Reese’s cups, or even pudding.
Camping - Clear Lake - San Juan Mountains - OutThere Colorado
Camping near Clear Lake in the San Juan Mountains. Photo Credit: OutThere Colorado.
  • All around camp comfort
    • Chairs are at the top of this list. Since you’re packing everything into a car, heavy camp chairs with cup holders are a must. There are a variety of chairs out there, so I just recommend the one you are most comfortable in.
    • Comfy footwear such as down booties or sandals to lounge and complete camp tasks in are always a good idea.
    • Water storage and purification. Collapsible multi-gallon jugs make life so much easier, especially when they can fold nicely into the car. But if you’re afraid of poking holes, tearing seams, and want something guaranteed to last a lifetime, go with jugs made of hard plastic. Regardless of what style you choose, make sure the material is BPA-Free. Most campgrounds have faucets with potable water. But if you’re getting your water from a stream or alternative source with questionable potency (it doesn’t matter how clean it looks), make sure you bring a water filter and/or iodine tablets.
    • It’s always a good idea to have the proper clothing for the activities and weather, but also bring a few comfort items. If you’re hiking or getting dirty, have a change of clean clothes handy. Baby wipes also come in handy here for freshening up.
    • Battery-powered speakers for music and spare batteries. If you want to get extra fancy, bring a compact solar panel and rechargeable battery pack for all your electronics. Don’t depend on your car battery to charge everything, as you might end up needing a jump in the morning.
    • Other miscellaneous items include a hatchet or full-on axe if you’re splitting wood (keep in mind that many Forest Service areas do not allow the collection of wood), sunscreen, and a hammock if you’ve got one.
New Hammocks Created for Backpacking and Camping - OutThere Colorado
New hammocks created for backpacking and camping include optional rain flys and liners that help insulate against cold temperatures. Photo Credit: Dena Rosenberry

Getting Started

As I mentioned above, plastic totes and milk crates make things so much easier to pack.

  • Stay organized and know where you’re stashing everything. Keep a list if you have to. Start your packing process early so you have time to remember all the nuances, like your toothbrush.
  • Do your research. Do you need maps where you’re going? Hiking permits? 4-wheel drive? What are the campground regulations or the rules of the BLM area? Many do not allow glass bottles or even campfires if you’re going to be in a dry and wildfire-prone area.
  • Understand Leave No Trace It’s not fun pulling up to a site to find ravens and raccoons having scattered the previous camper’s trash.

Wildlife is another aspect of car camping. Will you be traveling to an area with bears? Many campgrounds will have bear lockers to store all food and scented items, which you may have to share with other campers. Any overflow, or if you’re in a campground that does not provide lockers, food generally can be kept safely in your car. Exceptions include areas such as Yosemite National Park, where anything that carries a scent, like toothpaste, must be vacated from the vehicle and properly stored. Regardless of where you’re going, take this opportunity to empty your car and clean up any crumbs or things that may attract curious wildlife, such as empty bottles or wrappers.

If you have to invest in some new gear, read as many gear reviews online as you willingly can. Balance sale items with the more expensive items, as, in many cases, you get what you pay for. But also understand what you need versus what you want. Keeping a smart budget is always helpful with car camping, especially when you need to save money for gas and all the delicious food you’re going to bring. And when it’s time to actually start packing the car, make sure the packing makes sense. Don’t just throw everything in. If this is a long road trip, will it be easy to access snacks while driving? Water? How about your coat and headlamp when you show up in the middle of the night? The tent should be the first thing to come out of the trunk, followed by your sleep system.

Pro Tips

  • Don’t be afraid of glamping (glamorous camping) if that’s your style. Your camping experience is yours to own, but of course, respect your neighbors (especially quiet hours), pick up your trash, and always leave the campsite better than how you found it.
  • While most established campgrounds have bathrooms, what if you took the more adventurous route down a BLM dirt road? Don’t worry. Set yourself up with a bathroom kit and know the rules. Most places require you dig a cat hole at least 6” deep and at least 200 feet away from any water sources, roads, trails, or other campsites. I usually use a bag you can’t see through to carry with me. Inside I have unscented baby wipes, hand sanitizer, an empty ziplock, and sometimes (being a woman) sanitary items. The goal is to Leave No Trace. I don’t bother with toilet paper as it can get messy real quick and you should not be burying it or anything else besides fecal matter. Baby wipes are easy to handle, clean yourself up with, feel fresh, and they easily fold into the ziplock bag. Get over yourself if you find it gross – it’s ok! Everyone obviously poops and this is the best way to ensure the health of the space you’re recreating in, not only for yourself and future generations, but the ecosystem itself. Bury your hole, sanitize your hands, and then wash with soap and water once back at camp. If you’re going to be camping for a while, don’t be afraid to reuse the ziplock (this is why I keep it in a bag you can’t see through). Fill it up! Then dispose of the ziplock bag properly in a trash can.
  • Preparation – I can’t stress this enough. I mention the weather a lot and for good reason. The mountains can be sunny one moment and snowing or thundering the next. The desert can be unforgiving, and if you’re not hydrating enough or mitigating sun exposure, you can suffer from heat stroke or from severe sunburn. On the other hand, don’t over hydrate. If you’re sweating, you should be replenishing salt in your body in addition to water. And while Gatorade is cheap and easy, the sugar content offsets its healthy attributes, and honestly, Gatorade leaves my mouth sticky. Salty nuts are enough, or any salty snack. You can also buy electrolyte powders to throw into your water, but again, watch for unnecessary sugar content. Furthermore, keep a First-Aid kit handy, know how to use it, and update it regularly. And if you have the time and money, it’s a good idea to get CPR certified if you’re not already – you truly never know!
  • Getting a good night’s rest might be hard to come by if you’re just getting into camping. Bring some earplugs to help with anxiety over extraneous noise, your partying neighbors, or your snoring tent-mates. Designate some warm, clean socks just for sleeping in (your feet will love you). And don’t forget a beanie or a warm headband if you think your head will get cold. Furthermore, if you have to pee in the middle of the night, do it. Don’t try to hold it in. You lose valuable body heat trying to keep it at the right temperature, and it’ll keep you in a shallower state of sleep. Especially if it’s a cold night, you’ll sleep better if you just get up and go, trust me.
  • Other tent tips including keeping your shoes outside the tent in the vestibule, so you keep the inside the tent as clean as possible. When you put your shoes back on, make sure you always shake them out, just in case creepy crawlies find refuge in them.
  • If you’re sleeping in your car and you have to move things around, try to leave the driver’s seat empty. If something crazy were to happen, you have fast and easy access to driving the car. Also, crack a window or two to keep air circulation fresh. If you’re running the engine to keep warm for a bit, definitely crack the windows for proper ventilation.

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The Next Steps

Once you’ve got the basics sorted out, take a step back. Don’t overthink. While the list of gear and food might seem overwhelming, car camping is truly a choose-your-own-adventure kind of experience. If you find yourself stressing out, keep it simple. Having good company may be all you need.

Pick an itinerary you’re excited about, with reasonable driving times planned out, look up the local camping opportunities, even dispersed camping on BLM or Forest Service land which will save you money. Try aiming for a destination close by for your first go – does your own city have car camping opportunities?

Overall, the purpose of car camping is to have fun and explore beautiful areas, bond with friends and family, or if you’re going solo, to revel in the solitude of a quiet mind. Even if you don’t foresee downtime, it might be wise to throw in a deck of cards or a book. If you’re traveling with a group, how about some camp-friendly board games? Or how about a small notepad to journal in? I have produced some of my best writing out there in the woods, cuddling into the tent or next to the campfire.

And lastly, I’d like you to challenge yourself. What do you consider to be your comfort zone? Try something new, maybe even something you’ve previously considered risky, like going solo. Try a new destination, a new dish, make new friends. Try it all. Car camping is the best way to experiment with all sorts of gear and combinations of food, friends, and self-will. And all it takes is the commitment to pack the car and drive off, maybe a little cash in the bank and a lot of coffee.

Pearl Lake State Park Colorado Parks and Wildlife OutThere Colorado
Tent site by Pearl Lake. Photo Credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Inspiring Media

Have you ever wondered how recreational camping came about? The history of Motorhomes? Reserve America has put together a neat little history lesson.

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