Car camping for dummies
The first rule of thumb is to find the biggest cooler you can buy.
You’ll want to fill it with good things. Like beer and ice and more beer. And maybe some food.
You’ll load that sucker in your truck or van or sedan, along with the bikes, volleyball net, dogs, your friends and maybe a kayak or two. And then, when the vehicle is groaning under the combined weight of all that stuff, you’ll throw in another case of beer, and head on down the road.
Yup, the cooler. It’s the most important part of car camping. As vital as the car itself, and maybe more important. Sure, the car gets you to where you’re going, but if it should break down on the way, you’ve got enough icy cold beverages to last until the tow truck arrives and the cooler makes a nice bench to sit your sorry butt on, too.
The very fact that you can haul a cooler weighing half a ton is as a compelling a reason as any to go car camping. The other reasons are good, too.
Bikes, which allow for exploratory missions around the campsite, are easily hauled. As is your significant other, the BBQ (nothing tastes quite like a bloody steak when you’re roughing it in the wilderness), and plenty of furniture, like lawn chairs. You wouldn’t want to sit in the dirt, now, would you?
Fortunately for those of us who live in Colorado, the joint is jam packed with some of the best car camping in the lower 48. There are roads, campsites and empty places on the map aplenty. And there’s plenty of beer, too, although it isn’t sold on Sundays.
The first thing you should consider when deciding on a weekend of car camping is the vehicle itself. Vans are a good choice, and there’s nothing better than the venerable VW Bus. If you’re lucky, your bus will come complete with a stove (perfect for boiling up a cup o’ joe in the morning), a fridge and a bed. Don’t be fooled, the fridge is for food, not beer. That’s why you bought the cooler, remember?
Buses are great because they have high clearance for dirt roads, allow you to sleep in comfort and when they break down can be fixed using bailing wire, zip ties and duct tape. The do have drawbacks, though, mainly the fact that they are slower than a 90-year-old women hopped up on muscle relaxants. In other words, once you load the bus up, head west, because it will take you all weekend to climb up over Vail Pass if you strike out for Summit County.
While Toyota trucks and VW Buses have a certain kind of cachet, you’ll be able to haul just as much gear, sleep in the back and get where you need to go in a station wagon.
That fun family car from the 1970s actually makes for a great car camping vehicle. Just forget about being hip. Or cool, or pulled over like the guys in the VW as the State Troopers comb their bus for contraband.
Yup, all those things that make station wagons the laughing stock of your friends make them perfect for car camping. Nobody looks twice at a station wagon, especially not the police, so load that sucker up with your cooler, your dogs and your bikes and drive off into the sunset, free for the weekend and ready to meet the wilderness head on, with a fist full of Pabst.
Another good option is the Toyota truck. Toyotas are tough. They’ve got four-wheel drive. They run forever. And if you have a topper on the bed, you can sleep in the back, out of the rain. They also haul a ton of stuff and can get you where you need to go with everything, although you may have to stop to access the back for more beer from time to time.
The real benefit of the Toyota is the 4-wheel drive. Anyone can set up camp at a rest stop off of I-70. If you’ve got a Toyota, you can travel a bit farther afield, like deep into the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Load up that sucker with enough beer and you won’t ever have to come back to civilization. Unless, of course, you need more ice.
Tom Winter is a freelance writer based in Vail.