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Car camping

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Car camping, Caravanning, RV camping... it goes by names, and the experience varies widely, but the use of motor vehicles to get to a camp site is popular in many parts of the world. Unlike more traditional "walk in" camping or backpacking, car camping allows you to bring more equipment, and focus on enjoying the site, cook-outs, day hikes, and other outdoor activities.

Understand

The character of car camping sites varies greatly. Some are rustic and remote, with bumpy two-track roads leading to sites consisting of nothing more than a partially-cleared patch of ground with a stone-circled fire pit. Others are conveniently located, with paved drives and carefully landscaped sites featuring charcoal grills, picnic tables, and electrical hook-ups, with a playground and swimming pool on the grounds. Either of those might be someone's ideal, but still others may be little more than a grassy field or a glorified parking lot, between a motel and a shopping center, a block from a major highway's exit ramp.

Get Around

This section focuses on car camping in the United States and Canada. See also Renting a motorhome in New Zealand for information about car camping in that country.

There are a multitude of ways to car camp, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

  • Passenger Cars Getting into your own car and heading off on a long road trip has an intrinsic appeal in its simplicity. Unlike larger vehicles, you are probably already familiar with driving your car and know its limitations. For serious camping, though, the limitations of a passenger car are many. Trying to sleep in a parked car seldom results in a restful night's sleep. If you plan to carry a tent with you and camp out, make sure you are camping somewhere it is safe and legal to do so. Setting up a tent on private property or in a town of any size can easily attract unwanted attention. In short, using your car is a great way to take a road trip but seldom in itself a way to "camp".
  • Pickup Truck with Truck Top Truck tops, also known as camper tops, are are hard shells that fit snugly over the bed of a pickup truck. They are relatively inexpensive and can make for ideal car camping -- one or two people can easily sleep in the pickup truck bed enjoying privacy and protection from the elements. Essentially, you can camp anywhere you can park, and most pickup trucks can easily handle dirt roads or other rough conditions that may be present where you want to camp. Truck tops are usually made to your specific model of truck and are available from many after-market truck retailers. Cost can be from $400 to above $1000. You will probably want to buy a truck bed liner as well.
  • Van Conversion Conversion vans are generally 11 passenger vans that have been converted for camping or other uses. They are available both from Ford and GM dealers as origial equipment. VW has also a small van called T5 California [1], equipped with gas cooker, sink and fridge. More commonly, vans are available from after-market van conversion companies. Some people like the ability to design their own conversion van, even going all out to make it luxurious and complete with video systems. On the other hand, few conversion vans have RV amenities like toilets, showers or kitchens, yet the cost (often going well over $50,000) is in the same range as a basic RV.
  • Class C Motorhomes Class C motorhomes are generally the smaller sized RV's. They have a distinctive bed space over the cab, and the largest can sleep up to 8 people. These motorhomes have electrical, LP gas, and water systems.
  • Class A Motorcoach Class A motor coaches are based on a bus or truck chasis. They are generally diesel powered and are the largest RV's available. The most luxurious models in this category can sell for hundreds of thousands or dollars and rival the price and luxury of a house. Simpler models also exist; all will at least have a fridge, water system, electrical, and LP gas.
  • Camping Trailers A variety of options exist if you are willing to tow your camper, ranging from lightweight pop up tent campers to more durable trailers. You will need a trailer hitch and a vehicle capable of towing - any place that sells camping trailers would be happy to explain the capabilities of your vehicle and install an adequate hitch.

Unless you have a CDL and have driven a bus like Stephani do not think that you can easily drive a big RV.

Eat

  • Fast Food It's everywhere, but fast food on a daily basis is seldom nutritous or satisfying.
  • Farmer's Markets Great way to get local produce and meet local folks
  • Supermarkets Cheaper than restaurants.
  • Campground stores Many campgrounds have stores in the campground with ice, firewood, and some canned goods.

Sleep

Some campers just use their vehicle for transportation, pitching a stand-alone tent to sleep in. Some use it to pull a pop-up trailer/tent or use their car or van as part of the tent or shade structure. Some drive large vans or recreational vehicles to sleep in, which may include many of the comforts of home (on a more compact scale). In car camping lingo, "bookdocking" or "dry camping" refers to camping anywhere that RV hookups are not present. How long one can comfortably do this depends on the capacities of your rig's generator, LP gas, water storage, and wastewater tanks.

  • RV Campgrounds are the most obvious place to camp. While amenities vary greatly with location, virtually all will have hookups for water and electricity, as well as grey and black water disposal. Nationwide chains include KOA Kampgrounds [2] and others.
  • State parks. Research ahead to make sure camping and/or RVs are allowed.
  • BLM Land and Federal Wildlife Refuges Most allow overnight camping, just ask the ranger. Great way to bird-watch or spot wildlife at sunrise.
  • Rest Areas. Usually very well patrolled; some areas have rules against overnighting. However in practice these are usually only enforced to keep vagrants, solicitors, etc. away. Police generally let car campers stay overnight.
  • Truck stops. Again ask, but almost always allowed. Eat a meal or buy fuel at the stop. Make sure you are not blocking truck pathways.
  • Parking lots. Use common sense and courtesy here. Many 24-hour Wal-Mart stores informally allow car camping overnight on their parking lots, as do some shopping malls, restaurants, etc. Never stay on a parking lot longer than 12 hours, and try to leave by 9:00am or when regular customers begin to arrive. Do not use awnings or BBQ. Common courtesy says you should buy something at the store where you are parked or eat at the restaurant.
  • Casinos Most casinos allow overnight camping or even have full fledged RV hookups. At casinos with RV parks, ask first inside the casino if they have a coupon or other promotion for RV'ers. Sometimes, you can score a hookup for free.
  • Amusement Parks Great if you plan to go to the amusement park the next day, of dubious value otherwise, and many amusement parks charge for parking. Some also have special areas for RV'ers, call ahead to ask.

Drink

Remember, alcohol and driving do not mix.

Many campgrounds will have drinking water at the site, but you will need to bring your own into primitive sites.

Some campsites have vending machines, perhaps selling soft drinks, snacks, coffee, etc.

Laws regarding alcohol consumption at campgrounds vary greatly; some ban alcohol altogether (either for legal-liability reasons or to placate other campers, such as families with children) while others might have a small bar on the premises. United States campsites can sometimes be strict enough to check your cooler for beer when you arrive.

Work

"Workamping" is an ideal arrangement for those who want to enjoy RV'ing on a full time basis but who need additional income. There are two general types of work opportunities - paid and volunteer. RV parks often have paid jobs for RV'ers, with compensation in the form of a free camping space as well as cash. Make sure you discuss job duties, your interests, and the hours you want to work prior to accepting a job.

Volunteer opportunities also exist - mostly at National or State parks. While the only compensation is usually a free RV hookup, many people report very high satisfaction with these jobs.

Other work possibilities abound for those with "portable" careers - such as writers and artists, as well as for anyone who can do business over the web. For example, there are RVing accountants, dentists, and even a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Cope

You can often, but not always, expect restrooms (of some kind) at any campground, but facilities such as laundry, telephones, showers, etc, depend on the site; you'll want to find out about these before planning a long stay.

Stay safe

Try to arrive at your overnight site well before sundown. Not only is this common courtesy at RV campgrounds, where others may be sleeping, but in the dark you may not notice bad places to camp (such as an area littered with broken glass, or in front of a farm gate).

As much as you might like to believe that anyone who shares your love of the outdoors has good enough character to respect your belongings, you do have to take precautions against theft. Keep money and other such valuables with you whenever that's practical, and locked out of sight in your car when it's not. Don't leave items (even inexpensive ones) sitting out in plain view when you leave the site.

Downtown areas of cities are almost never good places to car camp.


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