The Virtues of Old-School Car Camping

Backwoods adventure isn't the only way to develop an affinity for the outdoors

Photo by Quinn Read/High Country News

Photo of the author camping on the Washington Coast years ago

When I was a kid, my parents took me camping to instill in me a deep and abiding love of nature's wondrous bounty.

Wait a minute. That doesn't sound right.

How about this? When I was a kid, my parents took me camping to instill in me a deep and abiding sense of our complete inability to afford a proper Hawaiian vacation. Yep, that's more like it.

We camped frequently, but without expensive gear, wilderness expertise or the physical fitness to muster much more than a slow shuffle through our suburban shopping mall.

There was no mountaineering, rafting, bird watching or mushroom identifying. Nuts to you, wilderness elitists, with your $300 parkas, titanium trekking poles and night-vision binoculars. We camped with a radioactive-red station wagon and a cheap plastic tent fit for a family of five.

Still, I loved playing outside all day and drinking hot chocolate by the campfire at night. I loved sharing a tent with my family and trying to fall asleep before my dad's snoring kicked into full gear. I loved testing the edibility of plants on my younger siblings. Most of all, I loved how—for a few days at least—I didn't feel anxious or out of place.

I grew up near the foothills of Washington's Cascades. Mount Rainier loomed over our subdivision. The rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula were just a few hours away. This was primo camping territory. With such pretty scenery to fill my young and impressionable eyeballs, I didn't need to summit a mountain to feel connected to the landscape.

And every one of our camping adventures—however humble—made an impression. Camping inspired my love of the outdoors—and sparked an environmentalist streak that made me, with my awkward and high-strung personality, a real hit with my peers.

My family stopped camping around the time I started high school. Maybe my dad's fuse was a little too short to handle life in the woods with hormone-addled teenagers. Maybe my mom got tired of sweating over a finicky Coleman stove. However, I didn't mind; my discovery of hair dryers and the mall temporarily overshadowed my interest in camping.

The ghosts of camping trips past didn't return until years after my college graduation, when I discovered a cache of my old journals. My childish scribbles revived the conservationist at my core, and I resolved to go to law school. My business card would read: Captain Planet, Esquire.

Yet for many years, my inner camper remained dormant. I went on day hikes. I even took up trail running. But I had become a professional who could afford to take that coveted Hawaiian vacation. I didn't want to camp; I wanted room service and a plush mattress.

So I was surprised when—about the time I turned 30—I started wanting to sleep under the stars again. Perhaps this had something do with the fact that I spent years studying environmental law, but rarely got out into the, you know, environment.

I started camping again. With gusto. First at the established campgrounds I was used to, then at ever more remote backcountry destinations. I spent time with outdoorsy types for whom camping was merely a rest stop on the way to climb a mountain, rock face, frozen waterfall or something equally terrifying.

I was inspired by their feats, but I couldn't escape the feeling that my camping pedigree didn't measure up. I had some wilderness training. My fitness level was much less ... wheezy … than before. And for the first time in my life, I had enough money to buy the fancy gear I'd need to accompany my new outdoor adventurer buddies. But still, I hesitated: Did I really need to keep up with the rugged, ice axe-wielding Joneses?

Don't get me wrong; I thirst for adventure, too. Assuming, of course, that my first aid and cougar-wrestling certifications are current. It's just that, sometimes, I like camping for camping's sake.

I think it's enough to sit by a campfire roasting marshmallows, just as I did as a kid. It's enough to look at the stars and breathe the fresh air. It's enough to cuddle up in a sleeping bag next to my loved ones. And it's enough to know that if I hear anything that sounds even vaguely like a hungry grizzly bear, I can hightail it to my car and drive immediately back to civilization.

Maybe one day I'll own a set of crampons. Or come to appreciate expensive, bulky, figure-obliterating fleece. Or learn to identify which mushroom is most likely to liquefy my brain. But I'm grateful that my family taught me to find peace with nothing more than a tent and a tree.

Now, would you mind helping me get the marshmallow goo out of my ponytail?


This article was originally published by High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.

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