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This summer I’ve had the opportunity to go on two different backpacking trips and to also do some car camping. My experiences got me thinking about which one I’d choose if I could only do one: Is one really better than the other? Let’s break down some of the advantages and disadvantages of car camping and backpacking.

Other People

Car Camping: When you’re camping in an established campground you’re likely to run into other campers.  There will be people with kids screeching at 6am nearby; there will be people with RVs running generators at 7an, and there will be folks singing to the moon at midnight.

Backpacking: Your encounters with others will probably be few and far between (unless you’re on a super-popular trail… and even then there will be no generators). There will probably be no bonfires and no car doors slamming at 1 in the morning.

Winner: Backpacking

When car camping you can bring a LOT of stuff.

When car camping you can bring a LOT of stuff.

Food and Drink

Car Camping: When car camping you can bring a case of Fat Tire and steaks if you want. You can whip up a gourmet meal of french toast, bacon, and home fries in the morning. You can kick back with frozen margaritas made in your battery-powered blender at night. If you run out of supplies, chances are there’s a store you can visit in the morning to restock.

Backpacking: Yes, you can create gourmet dehydrated backpacking meals, but a Mountain House “blueberry cheesecake” is still going to look like cream-colored pudding with dried purple dots in it.  Sure, you can make a “camp margarita,” but your supply is rationed to make it through the trip.

Winner: Car Camping

Car camping sites have tent pads - no need to search and search for a flat spot.

Car camping sites have tent pads – no need to search and search for a flat spot.

Gear and Shelter

Car Camping: Pouring down rain? Hop in the car, in the Northface Docking Station rain shelter, in the tent… you’ve got options! Cold? Grab that extra blanket you threw in the car “just in case.” Shoes get wet? I bet you’ve got a spare pair, and dry socks too!

Backpacking: Pouring down rain? Pull on the rain coat and keep hiking… or crawl in the tent. Or put up the tent in the rain and hope you keep it mostly dry. Pants get wet? I hope you’ve got rain pants or a dry sleeping bag to get in to stay warm.

Winner: Car Camping

Scenery

Car Camping: Sure, it’s possible to find a scenic car camping site. But it’s probably only scenic in the direction that isn’t facing another camp site… or the bathroom… or the side of a giant Cruise America RV… or the kid across the way picking his nose…

Backpacking: Views of a 14er right out your tent door? Sure! Want a waterfall view? We can find that. Sunrises and sunsets all to yourself? Absolutely. Elk? Okay, we can do that too.

Winner: Backpacking

Backpacking views are the best.

Backpacking views are the best.

Self-Reliance

Car-Camping: Hey remember that time your diesel truck wouldn’t start after a cold night at 10,000ft and you had to call AAA? Ok, that’s a rare example, but the same point holds true: There are people around to help you when you’re car camping.  There’s a host, or a gas station 15 miles away, or cell service, or a neighbor with a lighter nearby willing to help you get that fire started.

Backpacking: Did your water filter break? I bet you’ve either rigged it to work or created an alternative all on your own.  Backpack strap fail? I bet you fixed that too.  Trail fade out? I’m sure you used your map and compass to figure out where to go. Yes, there are instances when we (the collective “we”)  end up over our heads backpacking and have to call SAR, but most of the time we rely on our wits to get us through tough situations.

Winner: Backpacking

Backpacking means relying on yourself to stay entertained.

Backpacking means relying on yourself to stay entertained.

Well based on this little experiment, it seems backpacking has won the battle.  Of course, If I were to add in “hygiene” the ending would be a tie.  We all know a shower at a campground is a lot better than one in a creek.  Clearly, though, if I had to choose, I’d take dehydrated meals and a rain coat over a gourmet camp meal and a car with heat.  The views and the solitude win every time!

Still, both activities get you out into nature and help you and your family to bond and have great experiences together.  Chances are if you’re car camping you’re hiking, and if you’re hiking maybe you’re thinking that soon you could backpack this same trail together… and I certainly hope that you do!

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# Comments

  • Greg Heil

    While maybe for you and me being self-reliant and having nobody around to help out is a plus in the backpacking column, for others having the ability to call a tow for their pickup truck is a bonus and getting stranded in the wilderness is their worst nightmare 🙂 I think in the end, which one is better is all up to who you are and what you want out of a camping experience.

  • James Tracy

    The real winner? Canoe/Kayak Camping. A big part of it has to do with what bodies of water are close by to you. I’m fortunate enough to live by two larger rivers. The boat allows you to carry more than a backpack, but obviously not as much as a car. It also allows you to get into less accessible places than your car. While you can’t pack as much as a car, it allows you to pack the extras that usually get tossed when backpacking (stuff like a cooler, extra clothes, etc.)

    To me, it’s the best of both worlds. You get to avoid some of the weight/equipment limits of backpacking, but also get to avoid some of the people and amenities that come with campgrounds.

  • sully00

    This makes me laugh at what has happened to me over the last decade. I used to look at car camping as cover for an all weekend party. Backpacking was the only “camping.” Now with 3 elementary school aged kids and having lived through getting hit with a two hour long downpour only minutes after having set up camp in the White Mountains boy has my tune changed. My trip would have been in some peril if we didn’t have a car. I still love the self reliance of carrying everything you need on your back but when time is of the essence car camping at the right spot is great. Here is a vote for boat camping. Sort of like canoe/kayak, which I love, but you need some hearty paddlers to be able to water ski or tube.

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