Car Camping Tips, Tricks, and Faves

Hi everyone! A few weeks ago I went on my first camping trip of the year and thought it would be a great time to share a post all about car camping. Even though I haven't been going for very long (I went on my first trip four years ago), Dan and I have been on a few trips every year since then. While I still have a lot to learn and have still only been car camping (so far!), I wanted to share some of the tips and tricks I've learned along the way, as well as some of my favorites spots near Pittsburgh, and the gear/food that I recommend.

Car Camping Tips

Tip 1 - Freeze bottles of water

When I first started camping, I would buy bags of ice at the store to keep in my cooler and keep food cold. This didn't work well for me because when the ice would melt it would just leak everywhere and ruin most of the food! I heard a tip to freeze a bottle of water instead (or big juice containers) and this completely changed the game. As long as the bottle is closed all the way, the only leakage you'll get is from condensation, and once the water is melted you'll have some fresh water to use! Plus- since the block of ice from the bottle will be bigger than the little pieces in bagged ice, it will melt slower and keep everything cold for longer.

Tip 2 - Bring a tarp

For some reason, every single time I go camping it rains. Sometimes it's a short shower, and other times (like my most recent trip) it pours the entire time. I quickly learned that bringing a tarp can help in many areas and is one of the most versatile items you can bring. I've used it to protect firewood, as a "front porch" at the entrance of my tent, or over top of my tent for extra protection. 

Tip 3 - Have a camp kit with all the necessities

It seems like there are so many random things that you need for camping, and the last thing you want is to forget something important when you're in the middle of nowhere and it's the middle of the night. So- after my first trip, I kept all of my camping gear together and just grab it when I'm leaving for a trip. It's also really handy to have a container that I can just throw in the car! Now I don't have to dig around my house when we're heading out to camping, and always know I have everything I'll need.

Tip 4 - Replace the tent stakes!

This is another tip that I've read from other campers and has made a HUGE difference. The stakes that come with tents are super thin and bend easily, so when you're trying to pound them into the ground they can be really frustrating. I just got a cheap set of thick plastic ones from Walmart that have made a massive difference, and now I want to get even more! Bonus tip- add a mallet or small hammer to your camp kit to easily pound the stakes into the ground. So much easier than using a rock or the palm of your hand (been there- won't do that again).

Camping Spots

Raccoon Creek State Park

camping raccoon creek state park

This park has a pretty large camping area, with a few different loops. We stayed in the pet loop since we brought Selma, and we were really in the middle of nowhere! Our spot was pretty isolated and we sat off the road quite a bit which was nice for some privacy. To hike and explore during the day, we would have to drive since we were pretty far from any trail heads. 

camping raccoon creek state park

There are a ton of hiking options, a wildflower reserve, and a lake with boat rentals.

Pymatuning State Park 

camping pymatuning state park

There are a few different campgrounds around a huge lake that straddles Pennsylvania and Ohio. The fun thing about this park was that it's near Conneaut Lake and a few small towns, so when we didn't feel like hanging around the campsite we could explore a bit! I especially loved visiting Mortals Key Brewing and Voodoo Brewery.

pymatuning state park

The main attraction of this campsite is definitely the lake. It's HUGE and was a lot of fun kayaking or even walking along the shore at sunset. There's not a ton of hiking options, but was a fun and chill campground.

Breakneck Campground

breakneck campground review

This is not a state park and is privately owned by the Cheeseman family (who owns a huge farm near Mcconnell's Mill). This was definitely the most unique spot that we've camped in- a number of the campsites sit over the Slippery Rock gorge and have wooden decks to set up your tent. It was such a gorgeous spot and fun to have a different kind of set up than we were used to! We had to call in to make reservations and paid in cash when we arrived, so if you're looking for an online experience this wouldn't be for you- but the owners are super nice and it was easy so don't let that scare you away!

camping near pittsburgh

The location can't be beat either- we could walk to Mcconnell's Mill and had a ton of hiking options from our site, and also drove to Moraine to kayak. There wasn't a camp store but lots of places around (although they did sell firewood).

Rickett's Glen State Park

ricketts glen camping

We went here on our most recent trip, and even though it's a pretty long drive from Pittsburgh I think it's well worth it. The main attraction is the waterfall hike (as well as a few other trails) which is incredible! There is also a large lake, with modern cabins right along the shore if tent camping isn't your thing. This campground also had what I think are the nicest bathrooms of any of the places that we've stayed at. 

ricketts glen hike

One thing to note- there is no camp store at this campground. We had to drive a few miles away to get firewood.

Favorite Gear

North Face Stormbreak 2 Tent - We've used this tent since we started camping (you can see it in all of the pictures above) and it's held up extremely well. We never get wet while we're inside, and even though it's just for two people it feels spacious inside. There are also lots of pockets and loops all over for storage, and it sets up / comes now quickly and easily.

Camp Chairs - Honestly these are one of the best purchases that I've made. Not only do we love them for camping, but we bring them everywhere. Friends' houses, backyard bonfires, the park- they work everywhere you need a portable chair. These are so comfortable, easy to set up, have lots of storage, and double cup holders in different sizes.

Folding Table - We got this after a few trips and it's honestly made a huge difference! We use it for so many things and it's the perfect size and easy to pack up. I even use this at home when I want to work outside.

Hammock straps - One of my favorite things to do while we camp is to set up a hammock, have a beer in one hand and my Kindle in another. I got this hammock in a giveaway (I'm not sure what brand it is, but it's just a basic hammock that folds into a tiny pouch), but the straps are the real star. These make it super easy to set up anywhere that you have two trees! It feels very sturdy and is easy enough to do by yourself. Highly recommend!

Baby Boom - This is our bluetooth speaker, and I think the quality and sound is great for the price. I never use it too loud to annoy our camping neighbors, but I like using this to listen to music while I'm reading. The battery life is great as well!

Backpack - I got this backpack originally for run-commuting to work, but it works great for hiking. It's pretty small but fits in all the essentials. It's also super comfortable and can be buckled in if you want more support.

Hiking Boots - I absolutely love these hiking boots- while we were hiking at Rickett's Glen they got absolutely soaked and kept my feel completely dry for a few hours. They have a very sturdy base which makes me feel confident while hiking in rocky areas, and also have good ankle support.

Cooking gear - Like I mentioned above, I have a camping kit with all of my gear for our trips. I got this basic set of utensils, plates and cups which works fine, as well as a cast iron skillet. My favorite item is this little stainless steel cooking set which I use for boiling water for everything from ramen to tea. It's so small but makes a huge difference!

Battery Pack - I love having a battery pack all of the time, but it especially comes in handy when camping. When fully charged, it can recharge my phone a few times from 0%, and does it very quickly as well. I have two of these (and each one can charge two devices at a time), which last us for an entire camping trip with no issues.

Food Ideas

One of the best parts of camping (besides being in nature) is all of the fun foods you can try! I definitely treat myself with some less-than-healthy foods and also try to keep the meals as easy as possible. Here are a few of my favorites, for different parts of the day.

Breakfast - Baked Goods, Coffee, Fruit

camping food ideas vegetarian

On our most recent camping trip, I tried Trader Joe's Instant Coffee- this particular one comes with cream and sugar in the packet. I'm not usually a fan of instant coffee but this one was delicious!! I also like to keep things as easy as possible and bring some kind of baked good (usually homemade, but this time I was lazy and got muffins from Trader Joes) and some kind of fruit.

Hiking - Dried Fruit, Granola Bars or Balls

hiking food ideas vegetarian

When we're heading out for a hike, I like to throw in a variety of snacks into my backpack (along with water of course) to keep me fueled up. Some of my favorite things to bring are dried fruit- mango is my favorite- gummy candy, and some kind of granola bar or ball. I tried the Frooze Ball on the last trip and they were delicious and filling!

Lunch - Cheese Plate

camping food ideas vegetarian

To be honest, I don't like to have huge meals when I'm camping (or in real life). I'm much more of a grazer and like to have little snacks throughout the day! So- cheese plates are one of my favorite things to bring. I get a variety of snacky items that would fit on a charcuterie board, and just grab whatever I'm in the mood for throughout the day. Everything in the picture above is highly recommended, especially the chocolate covered pretzels and the everything-but-the-bagel nuts.

Dinner - Campfire Nachos

camping nachos

This is one of my favorite recipes- I've tried to replicate it at home but for some reason it only tastes good while camping! It's a very simple recipe and easy to adapt for your tastes, but you basically just layer nacho ingredients in a cast iron, add some taco sauce, and heat over the fire until everything melts together into a delicious and ooey-gooey treat. My favorite toppings to use are red onions, black beans, black olives, cheese, and bell peppers. Once the cheese melts, I add in cilantro and avocado and enjoy!

Dessert - S'mores (Duh!)

camping food ideas vegetarian dessert

Can you even say that you went camping if you don't make s'mores? On one of our trips last year, I brought a few different types of cookies and chocolates to try more unique varieties. My favorite was the fudge stripe cookie with marshmallow- delicious!

Do you like to camp?
What am I missing in my list?!


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