Why It’s Okay to Suck at Car Camping

Why It’s Okay to Suck at Car Camping

By Brody Leven

I don’t live out of my car. I don’t own some built-out truck, a restored 1974 VW bus, or a 4×4 Sprinter with a matte black vinyl wrap. I don’t have a sweet sleeping platform, a sink, or much of anything except backpacks “organizing” gear in my car. In fact, I kind of suck at car camping; all of my camping gear is super lightweight, specialized, and fragile. It’s hard to cook for a group on a small canister stove. It’s annoying to set up a tent every night and take it down every morning. I don’t have an organization system dialed. And I still don’t know what to do with my dirty underwear, or when to even consider it dirty.


My friend Dave’s bachelor party in Jackson, Wyoming turned into me to sticking around for a few days of mountain biking in the Tetons. A few days of mountain biking turned into a week of climbing. And a week of climbing turned into two weeks of living out of my car, working in coffee shops, climbing mountains, bathing in rivers, and finding free campsites.

My friends that live in their vehicles always seem to have everything dialed. They know how to wash dishes without using much water and how to sleep at the right angle so it feels like a full-sized bed. They have solar arrays on their roofs and only as much clothing as they need.

But I’ve realized that, for me, it isn’t about being a car-camping expert. It’s just about car camping. It’s usually not hard for me to find the motivation for light-and-fast missions, or human-powered endeavors, or expeditions on the other side of the planet. But for some reason, the notion of car camping 300 miles from home is a bit daunting for me. In my mind, doing it “properly” requires so much stuff. And whenever I think about going for a road trip, I get a little overwhelmed, and then I sigh. I have to pack so much stuff. Where will I sleep every night? How will I carry enough water? Should I bring my computer? Won’t it get too hot in the car during the day, melting the hard drive? Will I ever have wifi so I can drop a ‘gram?


Through my weeks in the Tetons this summer, though, I learned that I don’t need all that stuff. I got a basic-yet-fancy Yeti cooler, which is nice to keep fruit and yogurt cold. I got two Yakima bike racks on my roof, so I don’t always feel like “I wish I had my mountain bike!” but can still ride around towns on my commuter. I have a small, basic Goal Zero solar setup that lets me go days without starting my car, while keeping the podcasts playing and Snapchatting device (aka phone) charged. I don’t sleep in my car, but in a super easy-to-set-up Black Diamond tent. It’s not seven feet tall, doesn’t mount on top of my Subaru and pop up at night, and isn’t outfitted with Mexican blankets (okay, there’s one) or girls in down jackets. But it’s comfortable and I can stare at the stars through its mesh walls.


Heck, I don’t even have camp chairs. And that kinda sucks when you’re trying to hang out. But for me, car camping isn’t just about hanging out. Instead, it offers a comfortable way to spend extended periods of time away from my small condo in Salt Lake City. It allows me to stretch out weekend trips, deciding to stay in the Tetons, or the Sierra, or City of Rocks, or Moab a bit longer than “until I need to shower.” Because really, the shower can wait.
Or you can ask one of those people living in a Sprinter where the nearest bathing river is; they were probably there last week.

With a climbing pack, a duffel of mountain bike gear, a small carry-on of clothes and running gear, a backpack of electronics, and a toothbrush that I always keep in the door pocket, I can stay anywhere a little longer than I expected. And to me, that flexibility is the appeal of car camping.



  1. Mary Pat Harris 1 year ago

    A little chair is a nice addition. All the years Jeff and I have rambled around a couple months a summer we didn’t have them. We say we’re like backpackers but with a car. We try to take the least we can. No cooler either. I sat on one of those Crazy Creek pads on the ground. A couple years back I was walking on a dead end dirt road and found one of those soccer mom chairs in the path in its carry bag. No-one was around so I thought it was meant to be that I now had a chair. This year we packed a second for Jeff. Ahh, life’s simple pleasures. If it weren’t for camping/backpacking you’d not understand the comfort of indoor plumbing on a cold night nor the need to decide when undies need washing. Then again, you’d not know the beauty of a night sky and the connection you have with nature when living outside.
    What an amazing career you have and how wonderful to have so many opportunities to live outside all around the world!

  2. Tony Valadez 1 year ago

    Great write up Brody. I find myself wanting to be too prepared and i usually end up not going at all because it’s too much trouble. There is always something I don’t have that keeps me from going. After reading this and knowing a bit about your frequent travels, I just may go with exactly what I have! I’ll still want that $100 camping chair that I saw though :)

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