On a recent long weekend fishing trip in Northern New Mexico, Wiley the trout hound sits atop the author’s camping gear, stowed inside the trunk area of a 1996 Geo Tracker. Photo by Karl F. Moffatt/For The New Mexican
By KARL F. MOFFATT | The New Mexican
July 11, 2007
Has the high price of gas forced you to park the pickup and pack the commuter car just to go camping this summer?
Maybe you’re new to the West and raring to get out there and do some camping for the first time?
Whatever your situation, here is a road-trip tested, no-nonsense guide to economical, car-camping that’ll have you bound for the boonies in no time at all.
First, keep in mind that there are very few recreation areas in the West, including those deep within the national forests, that can’t be reached by passenger car.
You simply have to learn to drive low and slow.
Second, visit a store like the Coleman factory outlet in Santa Fe, where they have everything you could possibly need for camping in one place.
Their equipment is legendary, affordable and it works.
You can also pick up most of the following recommended items by shopping around at discount department, hardware and sporting-goods stores.
Just remember, we’re car camping here. We don’t need a lot of high-dollar, top of the line, lighter-than-air backpacking gear.
We just want reliable, affordable equipment that’ll get us comfortably through a typical three-day weekend camping trip.
Shelter and Sleeping
A good night’s sleep is essential, so grab one of those nice big, rectangular cut, flannel lined, cotton-duck covered sleeping bags. They’re roomy, cushy and really cheap.
The nylon-covered bags are just too noisy and slippery; and the mummy bags are too confining. Consider buying a bag rated for cooler temperatures, because it’s easier to cool off in a heavier bag than to try and warm up in a lighter one, although wearing a pair of thick wool socks and a knit watch cap solves that problem, too.
You’ll also need some kind of a ground mat for cushioning and warmth. Those thin, blue foam mats work fine if you’re a kid, but the self-inflating ground mats are so much better.
And while that soft bed of pine needles may be tempting, don’t camp under trees. There’s always the possibility of a limb coming down, a lightning strike or noisy raindrops dripping on your tent long after the storm has passed.
Instead, take two sleeping bags along, one for emergencies and to be used as a mattress on top of the ground mat for a really comfy night’s sleep.
For your tent, consider a freestanding, mid-size dome. They’re quick and simple to set up, require minimal staking and work just fine.
Make sure you check the tent out in the store first. Lie down, sit up and move around in it and make sure it’s a good fit. The floor should be made of a heavier material than the tent walls and extend upward to keep out any flooding. Dragging your heel in the dirt around your tent can also help do the same.
And make sure the tent’s rain fly stands out from the tent walls and is big enough to actually shed rain. Is there plenty of mosquito netting inside for ventilation and does it have little pockets on the tent walls to stash your eyeglasses?
And two doors are always better than one.
Remember to pick up a piece of thick plastic from your local hardware store to fit under your tent floor to protect it from sharp objects, crawly pests and ground moisture.
It’ll protect your investment, but carry some duct tape just in case.
Include a couple of pillows, your slippers, a good book and a battery-powered reading light in your bedroll. Bring extra batteries and a spare bulb — because you will inevitably fall asleep and leave the light on all night.
And if you have trouble getting to sleep outdoors, a good-sized can of pepper spray and a pair of those soft earplugs should help.
Buy a good jackknife and carry it; you will use it.
Get some of that old-fashioned blue and white speckled enamelware like the cowboys use. A big coffee cup, a plate and a metal spoon and fork are all you need for each person. This stuff cleans up easily with a water-filled spray bottle and paper towels.
There’s nothing better for your face and body on a hot, dry summer’s day than a blast of fine mist from that spray bottle, too.
For general cooking, buy yourself a good mid-sized, cast-iron skillet and a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed, stainless-steel pot with a tight lid. Both will provide the service, durability and ease of cleanup that camp use requires.
Do not opt instead for cheap, thin, non-stick coated aluminum pots and pans. You will regret it for too many reasons to list here.
And don’t forget the cowboy coffee pot. Add grounds, water and boil for a bit. Let the coffee settle before pouring carefully through a paper towel to filter out loose grounds.
For cooking, try a single or double burner propane or liquid gas stove. They work great and are essential when fire restrictions are in effect. A portable propane barbecue grill is fantastic for grilling steaks, chicken and fish and eliminates the need to tend a campfire and clean up pots and pans.
Bring along a roll of heavy-duty tinfoil to wrap and cook fish, steam fresh vegetables or bake potatoes. Carry a big, plastic trash bag to wrap up your greasy grill before you pack it up in the car.
Bring a five-gallon water jug with a spigot and a couple of kilo-sized plastic water bottles. Haul a water purifier for emergencies. Never pass up a chance to top off your water jugs.
Lastly, pack a chuck box full of dry goods like sugar, coffee or tea, nondairy creamer, hot chocolate, marshmallows, instant soup, soda crackers and all those other items you’ll need.
Then there’s your cooler. Make sure it has handles, a drain and recessed space in the lid for ease of packing.
Always use block ice. It’ll last three or four times longer than cube ice. Wrap your sleeping bags around the cooler and it’ll last even longer! Don’t drain the all the water out; it’s what’s keeping the food cold! Use plastic bags that can be zipped tight to store meats, dairy and other perishables. Double bag them, squeeze out as much of the air as you can to create a seal and sit them up to reduce the chance of water seeping in.
Remember to bring along condiments like butter, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, salsa, steak sauce etc.
Most people arrive home from camping wearing the same clothes they left in. Just bring a pair of jeans and shorts, a couple of changes of good socks, some underwear, your boots and sandals, a couple of T-shirts and a button-down shirt for when you go to town. A wool or fleece sweater, raincoat, wide-brimmed hat and a baseball cap, bandanna and a pair of leather gloves should cover it.
First-Aide and Personal Kit
Have at the very least isopropyl alcohol, antibiotic cream, cloth Band-Aids, athletic tape, an Ace bandage, a needle and thread, Exacto-knife or razor blade, Pepto-Bismol, pain reliever, sunscreen and Solarcaine, toothpaste and brush, prescription medications, soap and a towel, toilet paper and more importantly, baby wipes and insect repellent.
A plastic tarp, 8×10 minimum, and at least 100-feet of rope cut into four equal lengths for rigging a shade or rain shelter.
A folding camp chair or stool and a TV dinner tray or other small folding table.
A deck of cards and a battery powered, AM/FM radio to help pass the time when forced under the shelter. AM radio really kicks in at night and can pick up some far out stations.
Bring your comfort blanket from home to snuggle in.
Use plenty of bags and boxes to arrange your stuff for easier packing.
Roll tarps, ground mats and sleeping bags on the hood of the car.
Carry jumper cables, a tow strap, a can of tire inflator, some basic tools, although you can get away with a Leatherman in a pinch.
Bring a small bow saw for cutting firewood and a collapsible bucket for hauling water.
Bring a folding shovel for snuffing out fires, digging cat holes and fighting off bears.
Always bring chocolate; you will die for it if you don’t have it.
And never pass up a good swimming hole or real roadside diner.
Also see this article at the Santa Fe New Mexican’s web site