In my opinion, this is definitely the place to start. It can be done with relatively little investment (so you can decide if camping is for you before you go all in) and it can be done with relatively little risk (which can increase with wilderness camping). When I say car camping, I don’t mean sleeping in your car, although that is an option some people choose. I mean you drive your car and park it at your campsite, cabin, yurt, or other camp lodging option, allowing you to bring some luxuries along that wilderness camping does not.
Camping in a Tent
If you want the true camping feel, I personally believe you have to do it in a tent. Not to mention, tent sites are the most prolific and easiest to find/reserve, plus they’re the cheapest! Nothing beats cozying up in a warm sleeping bag and drifting off to sleep with soothing night sounds and soft glow of the moon and the stars.
Site Selection: Every campground will have a map with the sites, water locations, toilets/showers, and other points of interest. These are all things to consider when you’re selecting your site! If you’re in a tent, you’re going to need to bring water to your campsite. If you prefer smaller containers, you might not mind the walk if further from a water pump. If you have a larger container, perhaps consider a closer site or the possibility you may have to use your car to transport a full water container back to your site. Do you have small kids? If so, you’ll probably want to be closer to the bathrooms for night-time potty runs! If not, maybe you don’t mind a short walk to the toilet or bathhouse. Remember, if you’re close, you’ll likely deal with more people walking close to your site!
Some campgrounds will have tent pads – designated areas, usually a little elevated, where you place your tent – and others will not. The nice thing about tent pads is they’re usually composed of a pretty soft material for comfy sleeping, and if they are elevated, you may stay a little drier (in a weather event). The bad thing about tent pads is depending on their size, they may limit the size tent you can bring! Make sure to check if your site has tent pads and what size! If you bring an 8-person tent for a 4-person tent pad… it’s going to be an uncomfortable night for everyone!
Some campgrounds may have an online interactive map, and sometimes they even have a picture of each site! This is super helpful! There are a lot of other things to consider when choosing your site! Is it level? No one likes to sleep at an angle. Is it at the bottom of a hill? One time, in South Dakota, we took the last campsite available… it was at the bottom of a hill. It stormed that night and the water rushing down that hill nearly swept our tent away! Are there trees at the campsite? Do they give you privacy from neighbors? Will they give you a nice shady spot to hang out in summer or a nice sunny spot to warm up in winter? How big is the site? Is there enough room for the size tent you’d like to bring? Is there electricity? (Frankly, I don’t like electricity at my sites when I camp – it helps me unplug. But there are campsites with electrical hook-ups available if you’d prefer.)
Some campgrounds may not have photos or provide site-specific information. You may be able to find reviews of the campgrounds online where people have posted information about certain sites, or unfortunately, sometimes you just have to pick and cross your fingers! But learn all you can from the map or other resources before making your selection. And remember, private campgrounds are likely to have smaller, less private campsites than public campgrounds, but they’re also more likely to have electricity and be closer to water/toilets than many public campsites. You can use this list from Explore Minnesota to find the right campground for you and then go to their website. You may be able to make a reservation online or you may have to call the park to reserve a site.
Gear: Of course, for this option, you’re going to have to have a tent and all your own bedding. Your “bed” options range from just straight up sleeping on the ground (definitely not recommended if you’re car camping!), to a sleeping pad, to an air mattress or a cot. Cots can take up quite a bit of room in the tent and/or car. If you choose an air mattress, I’d recommend getting one with a pump, unless you want to spend a whole day blowing up your bed. Remember, if you have an electric pump, you’re going to need a site with electricity or a car adapter to run your pump via your car. My most favorite luxury of car camping is my favorite pillow – so don’t forget yours!
The most important piece of gear when you’re tent camping is… your tent! Honestly, the tent options are overwhelming. If you’re car camping, the weight of your tent doesn’t matter so much, so don’t feel like you have to spend a lot more money for a lightweight tent. The biggest thing to consider is size – how many people are going to sleep in there? For comfortable sleeping, I’d recommend one fewer person than the tent says it can hold. If you’re going to use air mattresses or cots, make sure your tent can fit the beds you’re bringing! If you don’t have one, and you’re not sure you want to buy one just yet, consider asking friends and/or family to borrow one. If your tent is new, borrowed, or hasn’t been used in a while, it’s a good idea to do a test run ahead of time. Make sure you know how to set it up and it has all the parts – poles, stakes, rainfly, etc. It never hurts to bring along a few extra stakes, just in case! If the tent doesn’t come with a ground tarp, make sure to bring an extra tarp to put underneath the tent to help keep you dry.
If you’re super not sure how you feel about camping, consider trying one of the Minnesota State Park’s “I Can Camp” programs! These one or two night programs are a fantastic way to get your toes wet in regards to camping. The parks supply you with tents, air mattresses, cooking equipment and all the gear you need, except your sleeping bag! Not only that, but they also have staff available to provide instruction on setting up your tent, cooking over the fire, and many of the other ins and outs of camping! These programs are affordable, starting at only $60, and are offered all summer long at state parks all over Minnesota!
Camping in Cabins
If you’re still not sure camping is for you, think about starting out in a camping cabin. You get many of the benefits of camping, without having to deal with a tent and tent “beds”.
Public Campgrounds: Many of our state parks have rustic camper cabins, which are essentially a bunk house. They range from $55-$70 per night. Most of them are heated for year round use and have a screened-in porch on the front, and many of them have electricity, but make sure to double check – each park’s cabins are a little different! None of them have running water/plumbing or kitchens, so you’ll still need to use the campground’s water pumps, showers, toilets, & campfire rings/grills. Again, make sure to consult the map of the facilities to decide which location may be best for you. Also, none of them have bedding, so you’ll still need to bring your own sleeping bags/sheets/blankets/pillows etc. For more information or to make a reservation, click here. A few of our state parks also have other lodging options, such as multiple room guest houses within the park.
Private Campgrounds – I won’t delve too far into this, but there is a large variety of cabins offered at private campgrounds, ranging from a rustic bunkhouse to fully-equipped cabins with electricity, plumbing, kitchens, air conditioning and more. Personally, I feel like if there is AC and kitchens involved, we’ve wandered far out of the realm of camping. Find out where you want to go and then look for campgrounds/resorts in that area.
Camping in a Yurt
A handful of our state parks also offer yurts to sleep in! Yurts are insulated canvas tents on an elevated platform. Just like the state park cabins, they have bunk beds inside. They have wood stoves and can be used all year round. They don’t have electricity, running water, or kitchens, so bring your own bedding and be prepared to use the campgrounds facilities.
What You Need to Car Camp
No matter if you’re sleeping in a tent, cabin, or yurt, if you’re in a public campground, you’re going to need some gear.
For Sleep – Bedding is discussed in each section above, but remember, even if you’re in a cabin or yurt at a campground, you need to bring your own bedding. Make sure your sleeping bag is appropriately rated for the temperatures you’ll be camping in. If not, bring extra blankets!
For Lighting – No matter which option you choose, make sure to bring along some flashlights, headlamps and/or lanterns. Headlamps are great because they leave your hands free to do work around the campsite. Extra batteries are a must! Personally, I LOVE my solar inflatable lantern. I never have to worry about batteries or gas, and plus, it can go swimming with us!
For Hungry Tummies – Cooking gear somewhat comes down to preference. Nearly all campsites have a fire pit and grate or a grill to use. I LOVE cooking over the fire and will choose that option every time. If I’m car camping, I like to use cast iron, since I don’t have to carry it far. Some folks prefer to use gas grills to cook, saving the fires for marshmallow roasting and campfire stories. Either way, don’t forget pliers to grab hot things from the fire/stove. Decide what you’re going to eat and the way you want to cook it. You might need pots, pans, bowls, spoons/spatulas, roasting forks, or other tools – the options are endless! But s’mores are pretty much a must for a true camping experience. Don’t forget trash bags, a dish bin, soap, a sponge, and dish towels!
For Food – With no refrigerators, you’re going to need to keep your food cool another way. Most campgrounds sell ice somewhere on site, so you can replenish the ice in your cooler. They’ll also sell campfire wood on site. I personally favor totes as a way to store
dry food, plates, cups, utensils, etc. Don’t forget your matches and/or lighter! We’ll discuss some favorite campfire meals in another blog post, but Pinterest also has tons of great ideas!
For Lounging – Again, car camping allows the luxuries of bringing additional seating options. Most campsites will have a picnic table. You can bring camp chairs, sun shades, screen tents, or, my personal favorite, a hammock to increase the comfort of your time to relax!
For Fun – One of the best parts about camping, in my opinion, is the down time! Bring a good book, a journal, coloring/painting materials, and/or a deck of cards/other games. I challenge you to go screen-free! So many of the benefits of camping come from being unplugged and taking time away from our screens.
For You – Remember, you’re going camping! It’s okay to wear the same thing over, don’t over pack! It’s just more things you might potentially leave somewhere. Decide on some activities you might do and pack accordingly (do you need swimsuits/towels? Bikes? Fishing equipment? Hiking shoes?). Pack in layers – even in the summer, it can get cool at night. I always leave a dry set of clothes in the car, just in case the stuff in the tent gets wet unexpectedly. Don’t forget medications, your toiletries, towels, sunscreen, and bug spray!
For Safety – Pack a basic first aid kit to deal with minor injuries at your campsite. An ice pack, band-aids, and burn cream are a must!
Come back later this month to read about wilderness camping, RV camping, and camp safety, plus our favorite over-the-fire recipes and ghost stories for campfire!