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Car Camping Done Right

Car camping is all about possibilities, whether it’s in the Adirondacks out East, the lakes of the Midwest or the empty spaces of the BLA land out West. Getting to a campsite on four wheels means you can take along a mountain bike, kayaks, hardcover pulp fiction and a cooler of microbrews.

The rice was starting to stick to the pot. I lowered the flame on the blowtorch-like burner and rummaged for something to give it a stir. It had been a long day on the river and we hadn’t gotten back to camp until after sundown, leaving us famished. The sun was setting earlier these days, and I pulled the lantern a little closer to see into my cook kit. The first thing I found was a titanium spork, that symbol of ultralight multifunctional minimalism that had served me well on countless backpacking trips. I laughed, dropped it back into the bin and pulled out a proper spatula. Go big or go home.

Car camping is all about possibilities, whether it’s in the Adirondacks out east, the lakes of the Midwest or the empty spaces of the BLM land out west. Getting to a campsite on four wheels means you can take along a mountain bike, kayaks, hardcover pulp fiction and a cooler of microbrews. This is the camping you remember from childhood — a hissing propane lantern, creaky camp chairs and someone strumming a guitar. You’ll still go hard by day: bag a peak, bomb some single-track, kayak some whitewater. But instead of climbing into a mummy bag in a claustrophobic backpacking tent afterward, you can listen to Pink Floyd on a Bluetooth speaker and reward your efforts with a cold one.

I used to think of car camping as cheating. If you didn’t get to a campsite under your own power — by paddle, snowshoes, bicycle or on foot — you were a mere weekend warrior. Driving a car to a campsite was for the lazy and the unadventurous. One bad experience lying awake listening to a neighboring RV generator all night and I swore off drive-in campsites for good. But my recent weekend trip to the bluff country of northeastern Iowa has made me reconsider.

Getting to a campsite on four wheels means you can take along a mountain bike, kayaks, hardcover pulp fiction and a cooler of microbrews.

We loaded up a couple of kayaks and almost as much gear as the 1953 Everest expedition; instead of Sherpas, we weighed down our trusty Volvo and aimed south. My expectations were low. I figured we’d get a good paddle in and a few beers and be home in time for Masterpiece Mystery! on Sunday night. But we managed to find a campsite not far from a kayak put-in on the Upper Iowa River, string up a hammock, pitch the tent and set out for a day of paddling. I felt potential here.

The river was still high from record rainfalls weeks earlier, and we dodged strainers and eddies while gazing at the towering limestone bluffs in this anomalous corner of an otherwise flat state. We paddled until almost sunset, then shuttled the boats back up to our campsite. A few other campers had found the same spot, but my fear of sharing space with a bloated RV was allayed by the quiet murmur from another tent and the crackle of a campfire. We set to work prepping dinner and downing the first beers, well earned after a sunburned paddle. I used the massive cooler they came from, ice cold, as a chair. The sweet corn we bought at the roadside stand was blackening nicely on the grill and the rice was done. That battered picnic table I scoffed at earlier was a welcome place to tuck into our meal (with a full arsenal of proper utensils) and became the arena for a few fierce hands of five-card stud before we decided to turn in. As I laid on my back inside the cool, huge tent, I could hear the gurgling of the river and the chorus of crickets and muted laughter from the next campsite. Loads of gear, easy setup, the great outdoors: this wasn’t so bad after all.

Read on for reviews of the best car camping gear…

Nemo Tango Duo Sleeping Bag

The Tango Duo is for couples who don’t like to sleep apart or buddies who like to spoon. The water-resistant down is more like a plush comforter than a sleeping bag and snaps together instead of zipping, so getting in and out is more civilized. A removable hood gets cozy when needed.

Buy Now: $349

MSR Hubba Hubba NX Tent

The Hubba Hubba could easily be a backpacking tent, weighing in at a respectable 3.6 pounds, yet it’s roomier than most spartan backcountry tents. Setup was extremely fast, with one shock-corded pole that supports the whole tent and a rainfly that clips into the tent’s stakes without additional guy lines.

Buy Now: $389

Whispbar Racks + Kayak Saddles

Whispbar’s claims of manufacturing the quietest, most aerodynamic roof-rack system on the market are well founded; their product helped us rediscover what the sunroof was actually for. Mounting the bars is a cinch and installing bike or boat components takes about 10 seconds, thanks to the QuickDock system, which twists into a central channel on the bars. The kayak J-cradles and the roller saddles fold flat when not in use for quiet and mpg-friendly driving — though given the ease of removal, we just took them off every time. The J-cradles are far easier for strapping the boat; the saddles are more finicky and less accessible.

Buy Now: $449

SealLine Duffel

SealLine has long been a leader in waterproof gear stowage, and their duffel puts all that expertise to use, with a heavy-duty waterproof zipper and storm flap that close securely and a rubber shell that’s seam sealed inside and out. The bag is shaped to fit into a kayak’s bulkhead yet was big enough to swallow almost all of our camping gear. One nitpick: the zipper pull cord feels flimsy and hard to pull in comparison to the bomber construction of the rest of the duffel.

Buy Now: $159

Primus Profile Dual Stove

A stove like the Profile Dual is reason enough to go car camping. With a grill on one side and a full-size burner on the other, you can be boiling pasta and sizzling brats at the same time. Though the gas and spark control knobs arrived loose and rattly, the stove itself felt sturdy, and deployment is quick and easy — flip up the windshield, thread on your propane canister, turn on the gas and flick the spark igniter.

Buy Now: $159

Outdoor Technology Turtle 2.0 Bluetooth Player

A campsite is not the place for blasting Zeppelin. Still, a little music over dinner is welcome. The Turtle 2.0 is compact, simple to use and water-resistant; Bluetooth connectivity will have you and your camping buddies fighting over DJ duties, and battery life (16 hours at its best) is good for a couple nights of tunes or a rainy-day audiobook.

Buy Now: $129

Coleman 120-Quart Xtreme Cooler

Car camping is the perfect proving ground for a big-ass cooler that’s supposed to be able to keep your beers cold for weeks rather than days. The Xtreme — from car camping stalwart, Coleman — held all our weekend’s ample provisions and kept them well chilled from Friday through Sunday, when we were dumping out ice after getting home. A secure latch, heavy-duty handles, cup holders and bench top round out the car camping checklist.

Buy Now: $109

Good-to-Go Dehydrated Food

Sure, car camping means you can bring enough ingredients for a full-on feast, but sometimes you want a one-bag course to go with your brats and corn. The trouble is, a lot of dehydrated camping food tastes like sawdust and has scary preservatives to satisfy the doomsday-prepper crowd. Good-to-Go foods have ingredient lists that read like a recipe you’d make at home. We put the brand to the real test by trying one of their gluten-free vegetarian offerings, a pasta with red sauce, and found it downright delicious. (One tip: cook it longer than they tell you, unless your version of al dente requires dental work afterwards.)

Buy Now: $10

Nemo Cosmo Air Mattresses

Camping air mattresses usually come in two varieties: the spartan, closed-cell foam roll-ups, or those that you inflate with air. Car camping is all about cushiness, and that calls for the latter version of bedding. Nemo’s air mattress really is easy to blow up: Pop open the one-way inflation valve and start tapping your foot; in a minute or two, the mattress is ready for full-on lounging. A sleeve accepts two of these Cosmo Air pads side-by-side for an instant double bed.

Buy Now: $139

Filo Luxury Pillows

Car camping makes inflatables OK (see argument above), which solves the pillow dilemma — i.e., whether you dirty your favorite one from home, or cram a bunch of clothes into a stuff sack for a lumpy alternative. The Filo inflatable pillow needs just a couple of puffs and is ready to go, with a soft sleeping surface and bungee netting on the opposite side where you can stuff clothes for additional height if you’re a snorer (don’t deny it).

Buy Now: $54

Alite Mantis Chair

Sitting on a rock or stump may be hardcore, but let’s face it, it’s uncomfortable. Forget the flimsy chairs your dad kept at the cabin and get a Mantis. The shock-corded lightweight frame sets up in seconds and the sturdy nylon seat stretches over the top. Alite claims it will hold up to 250 pounds. The chair does sit low to the ground, so it’s a bit of an exercise getting in and out — but it’s still better than a rock.

Buy Now: $120

ENO Hammock

The utter minimalism of hammock design and ease of setup alone earn its place among man’s great inventions. With its accompanying Atlas strap system, the ENO is a great camp addition that goes up in seconds. It’s affordable and wide enough to sit in upright, though lengthwise lounging is better for an afternoon of intensive slumber.

Buy Now: $59

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