6 Things to Pack on Your Next Car Camping Trip
Photographer and Huckberry Ambassador Forrest Mankins has long been an avid car camper. He recently returned from a six-month, 40,000-mile road trip to Alaska and back and learned a few things along the way. It's taken some trial and error, but Forrest has curated a minimalist, no-nonsense packing list for life on the road. Read on for the six things you should have on every car-camping adventure. And if you have any other gear you can't live without, let us know in the comment below. As always, see you out there.
Photo: Forrest Mankins
I started camping in the back of my old Land Cruiser (henceforth known as Burt) in late 2014. My buddy Garrett and I took off on a 6-month, 40,000-mile road trip from Oklahoma to Alaska on a week's notice. It was great fun, but looking back through photos, I'm reminded of the daily burden of coexisting with all of the stuff we brought. I guess it’s natural to forget the bad sometimes.
We started out sleeping in the back, loading all of the stuff into the front seats, dashboard, and roof rack — wherever it could fit. This turned into a dreaded 20 minutes twice a day, every day. As the trip progressed, we’d often find ourselves sleeping in the front seats in our sleeping bags because we were both sick of the constant rearranging.
We each had too much of everything — clothes, jackets, socks, bags, cooking gear, etc. The stuff we thought would make the trip easy and comfortable turned into the opposite. We made the easy mistake of thinking more would make us comfortable when, in reality, space was what we needed.
I’ve been continually paring down my car camping setup since that trip, vowing to never be a slave to stuff again. The amount we bring has a lot to do with the particulars of each trip; length, season, activity, etc, but there is a standard minimum of things that go on each and every trip.
I’m going to suggest some different kinds of gear I’ve used over the years, but first, a caveat: Use what you have and be creative when it comes to gear. Instead of spending $250 on an ultra-deluxe Exped to sleep on, get a $40 ZPad and top it with folded blankets — $210 is a lot of fuel/food money. Don’t limit yourself by dwelling on what you don’t have, but remember to pack these six things.
Photo: Forrest Mankins
I currently use an Exped MegaMat 10 when I’m camping in Burt. I’ve done everything from no pad at all, to a ZPad, to a Therm-A-Rest, to inflatables from NEMO and Big Agnes, to a Paco Pad. The Exped is as comfortable as it gets, and comes in different sizes and thicknesses. I highly recommend staying away from the fully inflatable pads, as comfortable and small as they are it won't be too long before you wake up with it fully deflated — no fun. Self-inflating pads by brands like Therm-A-Rest are a good medium of price to performance. These pads take in air as well, but have a foam layer inside and aren't as prone to leaks. They're not as comfortable as the Exped, but they're less than half the price, stow almost anywhere, and won't deflate on you. The main point is this, no matter what you choose, get something. In the summer it's mostly about comfort, but when it's colder, you can easily freeze without a pad, even in a properly rated sleeping bag.
For most warm-weather camping, blankets are just fine and more comfortable. I like to have two — one comforter and one lightweight. It also helps if the lightweight blanket is darker, or just something you’re okay with spilling dirt/oil/noodles on. I wrap the folded comforter with the light blanket when stowed, so I’m still free to stack gear boxes on top of them without fear of dirt.
If you have a sleeping bag — use it. Depending on your climate and bag, it can still be a good idea to bring an extra blanket. I’ve slept in my sleeping bag with a blanket over top many times. From spring through fall I use a NEMO 20°F bag if I’m not using blankets. If you’re in the market for a bag, I’d get a mummy-style bag for those mornings that get colder than expected. But again, if you don’t have a bag, use blankets. You can pay more for a 0°F bag, but you’ll probably have it completely unzipped with a leg or two out for most of the summer. The 15-30°F bags will have the advantage of being smaller, lighter, and more compact, which is big for maintaining free space.
Photo: Forrest Mankins
I can't stress this enough, you have to have to have them. Even if you don't know anything about repairing your vehicle, you'll learn soon enough — that's what happened to me. I'm definitely not a master mechanic in any sense, but looking back over the years, most of the problems I fixed seemed impossible when I ran into them. We learn by necessity, and after each small victory, there is a sense of freedom and self-sufficiency. Google and a trip to the auto parts shop are the ticket. In each truck, I keep a toolbox with a complete set of metric and standard wrenches, a ratchet set, extra oil, hoses, clamps, screwdrivers, channel locks, etc. Gorilla duct tape, Goop adhesive (or similar), and super glue will always come in handy. You’ll also want some specific things to your vehicle (think spark plug socket or breaker bar for the lug nuts). The older the vehicle, the more prudent you should be, but always have at least the above. Also good to have: spark plugs, coolant, and anything easy that could turn an expensive tow out of the woods into a quick fix. And most importantly, always have a set of jumper cables.
I always have the following, no matter the season, climate, or activity:
Rain shell — always have one on hand, no questions
Puffy/insulated jacket — warmth, comfort, a makeshift pillow, etc.
Fleece/insulated layer — for, you know, insulating
Pair of insulated bottoms — again, for insulating
Pair (or two) of wool socks — I like Smartwool
These things live inside of the truck in a gear box . If I head out on a hike, I grab at least the rain shell and stuff it in my pack. Don’t go anywhere without it, or you’ll need it.
I use a large NRS Canyon Box for keeping all of my cooking gear, hiking boots, food, and every other random thing in. The benefit is that you can move it ALL at once instead of fishing around, and it doubles as a great seat/table. You don’t need to spend a bunch of money on one, but having something with a lid that is okay to be set out in the rain is key.
An axe is the most useful tool around. It’s a hammer for guy lines, splits wood, a shovel for getting yourself unstuck out of ice/etc, and countless other tools. I use a Max Axe by Forrest Tool Co. — it has a great shovel attachment among others, but any axe will do. Don’t cut wood on the ground, or your axe blade will be damaged once it splits the wood and hits the dirt/rocks. Also don’t leave a wood handled axe outside overnight — the sweat it has absorbed makes it a prime target to be chewed up by a porcupine (really). You can also use a hatchet or something smaller, but I find that an axe ends up being steadier, and your movements are longer, slower, and more controlled than with a hatchet.
This article originally appeared on Huckberry Ambassador Forrest Mankin's blog.