Pack Your Bags : Van Camping

Hey there, we’re gearing (pun intended) up for a summer of travel and thought it would be fun to do a series of posts that focus on our gear. We aren’t highlighting the latest line of ultra-light-weight this or that. As you’ll see in this post, what’s important to us is getting out the door, so we try to keep the gear simple, functional, and relatively inexpensive.  I’m kicking off the series with the essentials that Calder and I keep at the ready for our road trip and van-camping adventures. Check back this afternoon and Sarah will share what’s in her camping pack!


Calder and I love a good road trip. Alex? Not so much, but we’re working on him. Cash? He’s our primary co-pilot and sticks to the van like glue the moment he sees us start to pack.

We always travel in the Eurovan (I married into a family of VW camper van lovers and was easily converted). Have you seen one of these vans up close? The most basic VW van has a back seat that folds down into a bed and a table that flips up. A van with a pop-top (like ours) has a second bed up top. Want even more luxury? You can get a van with a stove, sink, fridge, and extra cabinets for storage!

Van (or car) camping is so easy because you don’t have the weight issues you do when backpacking. Of course, space is still an issue, and it’s all a matter of balancing the creature comforts you want to take along with how easily you want to be able to move around the vehicle. That balancing act is something I’m always struggling with, but after a few years, I have really honed my “necessities”.  Today I’m not going to focus on every little thing we pack, because at a certain point it’s just a matter of personal preference. And I’m assuming that you’ll remember your phone and a charger. Rather, if you haven’t done much car camping, the ideas below are meant to help get you get out the door.


Here’s what we pack for a weekend trip:

  • start with a good dog-friend.
  • clothes. Less is more! I finally had to admit that I can go on a  camping trip and wear the same comfortable yoga pants the entire weekend. Take enough underwear and comfortable shoes, but from there it’s up to you.
  • sleeping gear. Here we argue on the side of more is more. I can sleep anywhere, but Calder loves a cush bed, so I won’t complain! We start with two extra large and thick thermarests (way too big for a backpacking trip) that are put on top of the van’s lower bed. If it’s summer this is topped with a fitted and flat sheet and then a light to medium duvet depending upon night temps. If it’s winter we travel with two extra thick down comforters, and we sleep between them. The bed is then topped with three-four pillows, two of which are extra large to give us the support we want for sitting up in bed.  We’ll often leave the bed down while on the road, it’s so much easier than making it every night, and Cash likes to take advantage of it during the drive!


  • fun for the campsite. The sky’s the limit here. Cards, music, books, knitting. We throw in some extra gear to deck out the campsite. A couple of comfortable folding camp chairs, a plastic outdoor rug, towels for swimming and showering.
  • fun for the road. We never leave home without a good audio book or two, podcasts, and music. Have you tried an audio book yet? If you get one with a good story and narrator, you’ll be hooked. Sometimes we just pick a new book that we’ve been wanting to read/hear, other times we pick a book that fits the trip. We always borrow these from our local library. When traveling to Savannah a couple months ago, we listed to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. There was no better way to set the scene!
  • cooking gear. The star of this post is the one canvas bag that is always packed and at the ready in our garage. In the bag we keep: a camping stove, small pot and pan, spatula, lighter, cutting board and sharp knife, silverware for two (picked up at a thrift store), bowls, french press and enamel mugs, can opener, wine opener (priorities), foil (great for storage and foil-pack cooking over an open fire), paper towels, a SteriPEN, and a leatherman. With that gear you can cook just about anything you pick up at a market.


  •  an atlas. It’s so easy to rely on our phones and GPS for directions, but it’s so much fun to look at and hold an actual map while on the road! We have an atlas that shows all state parks and both public and some private campgrounds, making it a great resource as we plan that day’s drive. It’s also a convenient way to see what other cities and sites are along our route if we’re looking for a diversion or two.
  • extra treats. When we take road trips over the holidays to visit family, we like to add some holiday cheer to the van. One year it was a wreath on the grill, another year it was battery-powered christmas lights hanging in the windows.


I think of that list as our starting point. Throw in some tasty food and plenty of water, and you’re good to go!

I asked Calder if I was missing anything and decided it was best to quote him directly:

Start with a clean car, good music, audiobooks, and a little 
blanket in case some people are colder than others. Add monster 
(the energy drink), loose fitting clothes, flip flops, crazy 
sunglass, and pimpin' car decorations.

It really is that easy. Keep it simple and fun. If you go on a weekend trip and forget something on the list above, I’m sure you’ll survive without it. If you’re going to be on the road longer, you can always drive to a store.

So tell me, am I missing anything? What are your road trip and car-camping essentials?


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