There was a time a few decades back when I considered myself a camping expert. As a young mom, I orchestrated numerous family camping trips to the beaches of Mexico, the high country of Arizona, and the national parks of the West.
Setting up tents, cooking on a propane stove, and tearing down a campsite all came easily in those days.
Over the years that interest waned, and I’ll admit that I’ve become a hotel devotee. These days, nothing beats a plush hotel mattress after a long day of traveling.
But let’s face it: Traveling via airplanes and hotels hasn’t been practical lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, when one of my air-travel trips was canceled recently, I decided to use my vacation time to hit the road.
An obvious issue with a road trip, though, is where to stay along the way. Add in the need to social distance, and I decided that camping was the way to go. Channeling my younger self, I set about planning a car-camping trip to southeastern Arizona.
Technically, car camping involves loading up your gear in a car, as opposed to backpacking it to a site. Usually, that gear includes a tent for sleeping.
I decided to take the term a bit more literally. Although I had a tent with me on my recent trip, I knew I would feel more secure if I actually slept in my car. I ended up turning my SUV into a mini camper, and I never felt the need to set up my tent.
Here are 11 things I learned along the way.
1. Do Your Research
This is true for any trip, but doing your research in advance is doubly important for camping trips. Not only will you need to find out where camping is available and legal, but you’ll need to determine whether campgrounds are currently open.
And with more travelers expected to turn to road trips and camping in the coming months, it makes sense to check the availability of individual sites at the campgrounds.
As in many states, Arizona State Parks offer great campgrounds at reasonable prices. I chose to focus on two destinations -- Kartchner Caverns State Park in Benson and Catalina State Park in Tucson. Both feature convenient locations for exploring the region, as well as clean, safe campgrounds. The paved camping sites and handicap-accessible restrooms also make state parks a good choice for people with physical limitations.
For those who prefer a more remote setting, the U.S. Forest Service also offers a range of camping choices, from developed campgrounds to dispersed camping in the middle of nowhere. Since I was traveling solo on this trip, I opted for safety in numbers.
2. Choose Your Site Wisely
If the campground has an option for reserving a specific site, as Arizona State Parks do, take some time to study the maps and descriptions of the individual campsites. I made sure to choose sites that listed shade as one of the amenities.
Also, if you have a choice between a pull-through campsite or a back-in site, I recommend the back-in sites for car camping. Backing in is easy with a car, and the back-in sites are likely to provide more privacy.
3. Know Your Vehicle
It pays to check out the capabilities of your car beforehand, whether you’re planning to sleep in it or just pack it with your tent and gear.
If you do plan to sleep in your SUV, I suggest putting down the seats and doing a trial run of lying down in the back. I found that although my back seats folded completely down, my front seats did not collapse forward. Luckily, I was able to push the passenger seat ahead enough to make room for me to comfortably lie down.
If you are using your car just for gear, it’s a good idea to make sure all of your equipment fits comfortably.
4. Invest In Good Sleeping Equipment
It probably goes without saying that camping is much more comfortable if you have an air mattress of some sort.
For tent campers, there are virtually endless choices of air mattresses that are either self-inflating or can be inflated with an electric or hand pump. A quick internet search will turn up numerous choices in a range of prices.
Because headroom is at a premium in the back of an SUV, I recommend a thinner mattress that can be inflated with just a few breaths. For SUV sleeping, look for ultralight backpacking sleeping pads.
5. Lean On Technology
Your car will be a great technological resource for you, regardless of whether you are sleeping in it or just driving it to your tent site.
Because I wanted to have the ability to use my laptop, my camera battery charger, and an electric tea kettle, I invested in an inexpensive power inverter. The gadget plugs into your car power socket (cigarette lighter) and typically has electrical outlets and USB ports.
Internet resources caution, however, that the inverters can deplete a car’s battery, so be sure to use the gadgets carefully.
Pro Tip: For camping and for long drives, I’ve found that audiobooks downloaded to your phone are the perfect way to while away the time, especially if you’re traveling solo. Check out your local library’s services to see if the Libby or OverDrive apps are available for borrowing audiobook titles.
6. Consider Privacy Features
If you do plan to sleep in your SUV, privacy is a definite concern.
Perhaps my favorite purchase turned out to be the inexpensive suction-cup window shades I used on the four side windows of my SUV. Consisting of an outer black cloth curtain and an inner mesh curtain, they not only provided privacy, but they also shaded the morning sun. And because the evenings were warm in southeastern Arizona, I opened the windows slightly and tucked in the mesh layer to shield against insects.
I also used standard windshield sun blockers for the front and rear windows.
7. Bungee Cords Are Your Friend
Bungee cords are a camping staple, and you’re sure to find countless uses for the stretchy bands. I hooked one to the back of the driver’s seat headrest, creating a looped paper towel dispenser. And on the passenger side, I used a bungee to attach a small tote, which I used to store items like sunglasses, antibacterial wipes, and my phone. It kept those small but important items off the seat and easily accessible while I was driving.
8. Everything Has Its Place
With a very limited amount of space, it is crucial to stay organized while camping. I found that see-through plastic totes worked great to keep my supplies organized and secure. I used a small and a medium-size tote to store things like dish soap, paper towels, toilet tissue, a small lantern, and extra batteries. The tote’s closure clips kept things from spilling out while I was driving, and the see-through plastic allowed me to easily find supplies at the campsite.
9. Pack Clothes In Cubes
I love to use a rolling bag when I travel, but that seemed to be a waste of space while I was camping. As an alternative, packing cubes offered the perfect way to keep clothes organized. The cubes fit easily into the vacant spaces under the folded back seats, and by separating the clothing items by category, I was able to quickly choose what I needed in the mornings and evenings.
10. Bike If You Can
Although I was mostly satisfied with my camping experience, there were a few things that would have made the experience more fun. Among them was a bike. I noticed many other campers returning to their campsites on bikes after exploring the area. If possible, I would recommend installing a rack that would allow you to take your bikes along on your camping trip. It would be a wonderful recreation option.
11. Cooking Is Part Of The Fun
Early on in my planning, I decided I would not do extensive cooking while camping. Rather, I packed ready-made salads and supplies for sandwiches. But I soon realized that outdoor cooking is one of the pleasures of camping. Evenings seemed a little uneventful without having something on the grill. In the future, I would add a small propane grill and stove to my camping supplies.
Overall, I think car camping is a perfect way to continue traveling while complying with safety restrictions, and it’s great for people of almost any age. By choosing a developed campground, I never felt unsafe. Even though a couple-dozen years have passed since I last camped, I was able to have restful, comfortable nights sleeping in the back of my SUV.
An added benefit: You might just wake up to the sight of a rugged mountain range bathed in morning sunlight, like I did at Catalina State Park.
For more on Arizona’s natural beauty, see this page.