When the phrase “car camping” comes to mind, you might envision the well-curated craft of surviving in the out-of-doors a la Wes Anderson. It’s a well executed blend of home sweet home meets the great outdoors into a savory alfresco. But when is comes to driving a rickety 1959 trailer across the country on our Save the Planet, Wear Sustainable Tour, the line between survival and car glamping begins to blur. But Dr. Drew, our Tour Manager and Master of Wingin’-It makes tight tour dates and long hours between the white lines look like a breeze. We caught up with Dr. Drew for his advice and insights into easy summer car camping.
Cot or inflatable or sleeping pad? No more sleeping pads! Cots or inflatable only to help keep the ol’ back in fighting shape.
Sleeping bag VS. Blanket? What you want is a high “warm and cozy” factor and the freedom to move freely. In the summertime, I go blanket. Currently using: Down-filled Kammok Bobcat Trail Quilt (mostly because I like the name). For a lighter but equally cozy option, I’m all about the Cashmoore Blanket.
Jerky – A tasty protein filled snack that keeps froth levels high and hunger levels low. Currently munching: Epic Provisions, high quality product and a mission-based company.
Kitchen – Never hit the road without a way to heat up water. No matter where you are, you can fire up a hot meal and warm the soul. Currently using: Jet Boil Genesis Base Camp System. Lightweight, packable, everything you need to get gourmet if you want.
Quinoa – Fills you up in desperate times. Good sweet or savory.
Trail Mix – When the Jet Boil runs out of fuel and you have to go caveman style. I’m currently snacking on Shar Snacks (rhymes with “bear”), which I picked up in Austin. Organic and responsibly sourced.
A good book – Currently reading: History of Haight Ashbury by Charles Perry.
Audio Book – The sound of another human’s voice can be quite comforting on the open road, especially when it reminds you of home. Currently listening to: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.
Tunes – DemerBox for indestructible tunes and a long battery life. Currently jamming to: 2 Spotify playlists, Highway Sounds (more rocky/bluesy) and I’m With Her (all the badass ladies).
Bug Control – When you’re in Charleston in the summertime, you need all the help you can get. I’m not a fan of the chemical sprays so I like to wear clothes with Insect Shield® Technology built right into it. Currently wearing: Debug Mission Ridge Pants and Debug Peak Season Shirt – they keep the bugs out and still look presentable for date night.
Trash – Rule #1: try not to make any. I like to make my own meals, buy in bulk with mason jars, and avoid takeout. But if you’re driving, stick a box on the passenger seat floor, a perfect receptacle for cherry stems and peach pits.
Hydration Station – My ultimate long drive hack: strap a Camelbak to your seat and never deal with water bottle caps and spills again!
Happy Trails. Come out and see the Save the Planet, Wear Sustainable Tour on the road. Check out national summer schedule here.
When it comes to camping in the outdoors, it really doesn’t get much better than the national parks. Home to some of the country’s grandest and most treasured natural landscapes, the national parks are simply loaded with gorgeous places to pitch a tent or hang a hammock beneath the stars. And if it’s ease you’re going for, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more convenient method than car camping.
With car camping, you can reap the same benefits of getting away from it all with a fraction of the hassle and way better food. Just pack the car with a tricked out sleeping system, fill the cooler (bring the good beer), and some good company. You’ll be in the mobile lap of luxury. And some national parks are just too big not to have a car; you need to drive across and see all that the park has to offer (like the TWO deserts that converge in Joshua Tree National Park). Camping, road trips and the National Parks go together like red, white and blue. So, without further ado, here are some of our favorite great American parks to hit the road (and then then hay):
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
At over half a million acres, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves some of the most beautiful forest lands in the East. The park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, making it a convenient diversion for many East Coast road trips. While there are a number of beautiful campsites throughout this large park, the campground at Cades Cove is our pick for top car-camping destination.
As one of the most popular gateways to the park, Cades Cove will be crowded, especially in the warmer months. However, a trip to this area provides a fascinating window into the history of Appalachian culture and serves as basecamp for some of the best day hiking trips in the park.
From your campsite, explore some of the most famous park locations, such as Rocky Top, the inspiration for the well-known University of Tennessee fight song. While that’s a strenuous and fairly long day hike (nearly 14 miles), there are great short options as well. The five-mile hike into Abrams Falls is perfect for the entire family, and offers a nice swimming hole to cool off on a hot summer day. And then you can’t forget about cycling the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop; the campground store even offers bike rentals if you don’t have the space to bring your own.
2. Big Bend National Park
As the old song goes, “The stars at night / are big and bright / deep in the heart of Texas” and nowhere else in the Lone Star State is that more true than in Big Bend National Park. Big Bend was named as a dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2012, making it one of the few places in the United States that is almost completely free of artificial light pollution. You’ll get blazing views of the Milky Way, thousands of stars and planets, satellites, shooting stars and even the faintly glowing clouds of distant nebulae.
Big Bend is open year-round, with the best camping opportunities in the cooler winter months. There are three established campgrounds in the park, each offering a different perspective. Rio Grande Village is the largest, with 100 sites (43 of which can be reserved) tucked in a cottonwood grove close to the Rio Grande River. Cottonwood Campground is a small 24 site first-come-first-serve area that sits in a shady retreat in the desert. And finally, there is Chisos Basin Campground, perched over 5,000 feet with 60 campsites, 26 of which can be reserved. Chisos has the best access to the hiking trails, including the Window Trail, one of the most popular in the park thanks to its access to scenic canyons and ancient rock formations.
Each campground in the park is a comfortable oasis to immerse yourself into the land. When the sun goes down, the artistry of the night sky illuminates the heavens, bathing the living desert in pale shades of blue and green interstellar light.
3. Glacier National Park
Known as the “Crown of the Continent,” Glacier National Park is a 1-million acre land of soaring peaks, sparkling lakes, diverse and abundant wildlife, and of course tons of recreational opportunities, with over 700 miles of trails spiderwebbing throughout the park and no less than 13 different campgrounds featuring a whopping 1,000 sites—so you’ve got options to say the least!
The park is also so large that most people visit a section at a time, and could easily spend a whole vacation exploring each one. So, a car is essentially a must-have—especially when you throw into the mix the fact that Glacier is home to some mighty impressive roads. Going-to-the-Sun Road, for instance, is a 50-mile drive through the center of the park, and it’s arguably the most scenic road in the Continental U.S. and hits most of the popular spots.
The Many Glacier Campground is probably the most popular campground in the park. As such, sites tend to fill up very quickly. But if you’re able to snag one, you’re in for a real treat. The Many Glacier area is the heart of the park and is simply breathtaking. One of the most popular hikes here is to Grinnell Glacier. The 11-mile roundtrip starts at the Many Glacier Hotel and heads first to Lake Josephine, then through beautiful meadows to a steady 1,600-foot climb to the glacier viewpoint. Like most other places in the park, the scenery is breathtaking, but it’s also the chance to see a glacier before they all melt.
4. Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is the gold standard when it comes to America’s National Parks, thanks to its dreamscape of geothermal features and photogenic wildlife. Camping in the park can be an intimidating prospect because–let’s face it–you don’t want to miss anything! There are 12 established campgrounds in Yellowstone: 5 of which allow reservations (1,700 total sites) and 7 of which are first-come, first served (450 sites). The Yellowstone camping information website has all the information you’ll need, including a very handy chart showing at what time of the day the first-come, first-served sites fill up (in most cases, by about 6:45 am).
Reservations and planning ahead are a given for a place as busy as Yellowstone. If you’re coming from the northern side of the park in Montana, Mammoth Hot Springs Campground is one of the best locations to set up a tent near the namesake calcified, odiferous hot springs (and amazingly, it’s open year-round). Norris Campground is centrally located in the park near the Norris Basin, home to many hot springs and geothermal features. If you’re interested in the Yellowstone Lake area, Bridge Bay is your best choice. Madison Campground is the closest spot you’ll find near Old Faithful (about a 20 minute drive). And for the southern end of the park and the West Thumb Geyser Basin, check out Grant Village Campground.
5. Joshua Tree National Park
Probably due to its proximity to the Los Angeles culture machine, Joshua Tree National Park –or at least the namesake tree–has been uniquely influential on pop culture. Bands as diverse as the Eagles, U2, and Selena have recorded near the park. A single visit is enough to understand why this area inspires so much creativity. The cartoonish rock formations at Jumbo Rocks Campground contrast with the dramatic silhouettes of the eponymous Joshua trees. As one of the most popular campgrounds, you will want to show up early (well before sunset) to claim a campsite.
While the park is known worldwide as a rock climbing destination, there are plenty of activities for the entire family. If you’re new to rock climbing, there are guides available. The short but strenuous uphill hike to the top of Mount Ryan affords a 360-degree panoramic view of the entire park, and is highly recommended. A four wheel drive vehicle is required to complete the fascinating 18-mile Geology Motor Tour, an overview of the park’s diverse geological landscape. Don’t miss the brochure kiosk at the start of the tour.
Straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts, Joshua Tree tends to have very predictable weather, with extreme fluctuations in temperatures from day to night typical of the desert. Be sure to research the conditions before you visit and pack plenty of water. The busy season for this park is opposite most national parks, with visitors flocking to the park in winter and spring, and avoiding the summer heat. If you can handle the heat, you’ll have Jumbo Rocks Campground nearly to yourself during the summer.
Is there anything better than camp breakfast? Maybe it’s the fresh air or the fact that you’ll eat anything, but something happens out on the trail that elevates simple bacon and eggs into the feast of the century. Ok, maybe we’re hyperbolizing, but there’s an art to camp cooking that, when done correctly, will change the way you camp forever. Take it from us, your compadres will love you when you say, “No instant oatmeal here,” and whip up the meanest breakfast west (or east) of the Mississippi. So don’t bring home the bacon. Eat it. Eat it all. Here are our tips for creating the ultimate camp kitchen:
Keep your cooler cold by freezing gallon water jugs and leaving them in there. Bonus: You can drink them or wash up with them later.
Use tic-tac boxes as spice dispensers. We suggest adding garlic salt or cajun seasoning to just about anything.
Store charcoal briquettes in a cardboard egg crate, then light the crate to start a fire.
Got those extra eggs? Crack them into a plastic water bottle. No need to bring a bowl or a whisk!
Degrease your camp stove with half a lemon and salt (you’ll thank yourself later)
Make single serve coffee by putting coffee in a filter, tie it up with dental floss or string, then drop it in hot water and let steep like a tea bag.
You can cook anything in a cupcake tin directly over a fire – eggs in bacon, rolls, muffins, quiche, cinnamon buns – anything.
Make pancake batter ahead of time and put into gallon zip-lock bags. Freeze them, and when you’re ready to use take them out, cut a corner of the bag and squeeze into perfect circular pancakes.
When was the last time you did something for the first time? The last time you experienced something that made you see things a little differently? The last time you stood in a new place and felt an overwhelming sense of awe? That’s the feeling we set out to find. We grabbed some friends, packed up our bags and set out for Great Basin National Park – one of the least visited parks in the Lower 48 with some of the oldest trees and the darkest skies.
We left Salt Lake City after work on Friday (later than planned, of course), headed southwest toward the Nevada/Utah border. Joel was driving Rita Jean, a semi-trusty ’86 Westfalia vanagon, with Brandon riding shotgun and Crystal and Hannah in the back. Van Morrison was also along for the ride.
240 miles later, we rolled into Wheeler Peak campground around 10pm, hungry but happy. We paid the fee and went to start up the van and snapped off the gear shaft right then and there. After 4 hours of climbing 10,000 ft, Rita Jean had had enough. We tinkered for an hour then finally pushed Rita to an open site and whipped up some 11pm campside tacos. We all agreed they were the best tacos we’d ever had.
The closest “big” town to Great Basin National Park is Ely, Nevada – 70 miles north of the park. Deny and Trudy from Ely showed up the next morning with a flat bed truck to haul Rita back to Ely for fixing over the weekend. Carless but prepared with a cooler full of bacon and bourbon, we got our day started.
We spent the next two days exploring Wheeler Peak. With a height of 13, 065 ft, the summit is covered with snow most of the year – an ideal climate for the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, an ancient pine species that’s been thriving for thousands of years (yes, thousands). These pines are truly mind blowing. Huge, car-sized trunks give way to twisty bark, looking like a lightning bolt that’s been carved from wood. It’s gnarled and split as sections of the tree die off and peel over the centuries. But these mangled trees are alive and kicking, sometimes with only a narrow strip of living tissue connecting the roots to a handful of branches. And those needles that are sprouting out? Those same needles live for an average of 45 years. The oldest tree in the Western Hemisphere is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, still going strong at 5,062 years old. Those are some deep roots.
Along with ancient pines, we’d always heard about Great Basin’s killer stargazing. They say “Half the Park is After Dark”, and now we know why. Low humidity, minimal light pollution and high elevation give Great Basin the edge when it comes to stargazing. Combine that with Earth’s location deep within the spiral arms of the Milky Way and you’ve got a primo view from the inside looking out. Thousands of stars, five of the eight planets, 88 summer constellations, the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies – all with the naked eye. With binoculars we could easily see Saturn’s rings. Yes, Saturn.
On Monday morning Denny and Trudy picked us up and hauled us to Ely, Nevada. We reunited with a souped-up Rita Jean and hit the road back to Salt Lake City, taking the Northeast route via US-93. We took our sweet time, picnicking at a neat rest stop somewhere outside of Ely. Just across the Utah border, we took a detour off the I-80 to spend an hour cooling off at the Salt Spring Management Water Area , a marshland with natural salt springs and watering holes. Two hours and one roadside diner later, we made it back to SLC – full of memories and ready for our next first experience.