Vehicle-Based Camping

By Justin Walker 2 September 2014
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If living like a turtle with the world on your back doesn’t sound like a good time outdoors, then vehicle-based camping is for you. Here’s how to pack up the car, pack up the kids and hit the road with ease.

The master camping plan

WHATEVER TRIP type appeals to you, its success hinges on careful preparation and planning. Start with the basics: how long do you have and how far are you prepared to go? It is very important to remember this is a holiday, not a test of endurance. For a vehicle-based camping adventure, you must take it slow. Anyone can drive for 12 hours straight but that will not benefit you, the driver(s), or your fellow travellers.

Perusing a series of maps focused on the area you’re visiting allows you to get an idea of distance involved, as well as giving you the chance to mark off any side-trips you may want to attempt on the way, and check campsite locations and re-fuelling and re-supplying points. Be generous with the time you allot your trip – there’s no point in allowing only two weeks to get from, say, Sydney to Kakadu National Park. You will spend all your time driving and not have a chance to truly experience the destination.

When planning a big driving holiday, the best bet – for the sake of sanity and safety – is to halve your usual daily-driving estimate. For example, if you are comfortable driving for eight hours a day in “normal” conditions, allow for four hours maximum each day. This will keep you fresh and allow plenty of “stretching” time, as well as the chance to spend more time than you expected at any stopovers. Be sure to allow at least half a day for any side-trip or, better still, make it an overnight stop.

By marking up a rough itinerary on the relevant map, you then have a guide to what distance you’re expecting to drive and, by checking out all the map info, you will also know what you will need to pack, both in regards to clothing and equipment. Photocopying the marked-up map – or writing up an itinerary – is also a pertinent safety precaution. Giving family or friends a copy will ensure that, if anything does go wrong, they will have an idea of where you’d planned to be on any given day.

Of course, these days, you now have the benefit of technology for all parts of the adventure-planning process. Google Earth is brilliant, as are the myriad GPS mapping software programs available on your personal computer or tablet. It is easy to map out an itinerary, then print it out for yourself, as well as email that same itinerary to whoever you wish to have a copy.

In-vehicle GPS units also help keep you on track, with units from brands such as Navman, Magellan, Garmin, Mud Maps and Hema some of the best in the business when it comes to thorough, accurate mapping of Australia (and OS). And most of these brands have apps that run on tablets, allowing you to have a much larger screen on which to check your progress as you travel. Bonus: you – or your children – can add a daily diary (and photos) as you go.


YOUR CHOICE of vehicle will, to some extent, govern where you go – and how much gear you take with you. If you own a sedan or station wagon, you will be limited to sealed and smooth unsealed roads, plus any easily negotiated national park or state forest fire roads. This does not mean you will miss out on seeing some of Australia’s most spectacular country; most parks roads and some forestry tracks are quite easily negotiated with the average front- or rear-wheel drive sedan/station wagon.

For those wanting to explore more remote areas of Australia, a four-wheel drive is the best option. The modern 4X4 handles very much like a normal station wagon and they offer oodles of storage space – and towing capacity if you’re camping with a camper-trailer or caravan – as well as the ability to transport you to some of the Australia’s wildest and least-crowded regions.

Before you even think about turning the key on the first day of your camping adventure, get a qualified mechanic to thoroughly check your vehicle. And make sure you mention that you are heading off on a big camping trip. That way, the mechanic can recommend any repairs or modifications.

Half the fun of vehicle-based family camping is seeing how much – or how little – gear you can take. This calls for a smart – and safe – approach to in-vehicle storage. If you own a station wagon or 4X4, the first thing you need to ensure is that vehicle occupants are protected from the gear you pack in the back. This means fitting a cargo barrier – permanent or temporary – that will keep any loose gear from falling into the passenger area if you have an accident.

Milford Industries make the best barriers and offer permanent and temporary models, which can be removed after your trip. As well as this, you must ensure all your bags/boxes/gear are tied down using your vehicle’s cargo anchor points, found in the back of all wagons and 4X4s. By securing these, plus adding the security of a cargo barrier, you should eliminate any chance of injuries.

If you pack light, you’ll fit more gear in a smaller space, and your vehicle will also lug a lighter load, thus maintaining decent fuel economy over the course of your trip. If you’re keen to budget fuel usage, take your average fuel-consumption figure from general driving, and double it. This may sound like an over-estimation but, if your driving entails lots of highway kilometres, with a vehicle much more heavily laden than normal – or you’re driving a lot on sand – it will allow for this.

Also be aware that as soon as you add a roof-rack, with watercraft (kayaks/canoes), bikes or a luggage container, you will immediately increase your vehicle’s wind resistance, which in turn ups fuel consumption.

Wherever possible store items in boxes. This means you can group your cooking equipment, kids’ toys, spares, camping gear and food into separate marked boxes, making it easier to grab the things you need. In regards to water, ensure you pack plenty but also store it in several containers. That way, if one does burst, you still have plenty of spare water. Another smart tip is to not block out the driver’s view to the rear of the car by jam-packing it with holiday luggage.

The campsite

BEING VEHICLE-BASED means you and your family have the luxury of carrying more “stuff”. Whether it’s a few extra toys, or a mammoth air bed, you can indulge yourselves – as long as you do it sensibly.

If your family camping is tent-based, you will have a much larger tent than when hiking. There are some great models on the market that can fit a family of three or four. These models are available in a variety of configurations, too, ranging from large dome tents with additional “rooms” and annexes, through to tents, such as the Black Wolf Turbo range (pictured above left), which are very quick to set up and, for their size, pack up compactly and are reasonably light. Your tent will be your largest packed item so you need to ensure it will fit – or you can store it on a roof-rack.

When looking for a family tent, concentrate on the build quality;  aluminium poles are a must, as is good quality material. Ripstop canvas is heavier but far more durable than nylon/synthetic. However, canvas does take longer to dry and is heavy when wet, making it difficult to pack up in miserable conditions. But, if treated right, a tent made of ripstop canvas should last for many years.

If you have storage space issues, a nylon/synthetic tent will pack smaller and, if cared for properly, will still do sterling family camping service for years. One other option – and this is dependent on the age of your children – is to have one main tent for mum and dad, and smaller tents (either one- or two-man) for the kids. The youngsters will have great fun setting up a “tent city” and it also gives them some independence and responsibility.

For those after a more permanent arrangement, camper-trailers are becoming increasingly popular. They offer – in most cases – the convenience of a caravan, without the weight and size issues. A decent camper-trailer can start at about $7000, with some models going all the way up to $60k-plus.

But even basic models have oodles of space inside, top-notch quality canvas, plus options such as pull-out gas cookers, food preparation benches, on-board portable fridge/freezer, and awnings for shelter in foul weather, for example. With some models you can start at the base and option up however you please, with everything from an extra fridge or solar panels for power, through to a second battery and inverter to run your laptops/tablets and charge your batteries with.

It all depends on your budget. Setting up each night can be a fun activity for the kids. (Word of advice: practise this at home first!) Most models can be erected in about 15 minutes, meaning more time for the kids to explore their new “home”.

Food, light and power

COOKING EQUIPMENT can be as extravagant as you can fit in the vehicle, too. Multi-burner stoves – and a gas bottle – mean you can replicate any homemade dish. Modern cooking equipment is compact and reliable, with the only caveat being it still pays to take extra gas mantles as they perform double-duty as a spare part for your gas lighting if you opt for that. Other cooking options are steel-plate barbecues, but these can be made redundant in the summer months due to fire bans in national parks and state forests.

Still, they do pack down small and, if you get the chance, there’s nothing quite like cooking food over a fire. (And, yep, marshmallows are mandatory for the younger members of the family.)

Food storage is always the most difficult to figure out when camping. The Esky is still a favourite for short weekend jaunts (or where there is a nearby supply of ice) but, increasingly, portable fridge/freezers are becoming the popular choice. These units range in size from around 30L through to 100L-plus. Obviously, your vehicle’s storage space will govern the fridge size – the best advice is to go as big as you can; it’s surprising how quickly you can fill a fridge/freezer with a week’s worth of camp food.

For a family of four, a 40-litre fridge would be the minimum for a week away from re-supply points. Engel, WAECO and ARB are three of the most popular fridge/freezer brands. Units can run off your main vehicle battery during the day but will need an alternative power source at night in the form of a second, auxiliary battery, or a portable power pack.

If you do opt for a fridge/freezer, as with all your other electrical devices – GPS units, cameras, laptops, tablets – you will need a decent power supply. If you’re not planning on staying at powered campsites, there are a few options: if you have a 4X4, one of the easiest solutions is to install an auxiliary battery in the engine bay, along with extra power outlets in the cargo area.

This will allow you to power/charge your electrical accessories each night. It is worth noting, however, that you will still need to keep the auxiliary battery’s charge up. This is usually taken care of with each day’s driving, as the battery is constantly charged by the vehicle’s main battery. If not, be aware that an auxiliary battery will generally last three to four days (usage dependent) before running flat. Companies such as Piranha, ARB, TJM and Opposite Lock all offer dual-battery solutions for vehicles.

For those station wagon/sedan owners, a portable power pack can provide the same service and works in a very similar way by being charged off the main vehicle battery while driving, with enough “juice” to power most equipment for an overnight (or two) stay.
Camp lighting options are wider than ever. Gas lighting is still the standard but LED (light-emitting diode) camp lighting is encroaching on gas’s domain. The main appeal of LED lighting is its low power draw.

LED lighting is available in single units or as strips, which can be fitted/attached to your vehicle’s tailgate or hung from any high point near your campsite. Visiting any good camping store will allow you to see the wide range of LED lighting options. Gas, however, shouldn’t be dismissed: if you use a gas bottle for your cooking, it can also perform double duty as a lighting power source – and gas lights still throw loads of light, offering excellent bang for your bucks in the illumination department.

Taking the toys

MORE THAN half the fun of vehicle-based camping is its sheer flexibility when it comes to the destination(s) and what you wish to do once there. If you’re a mad-keen sea kayaker, a coastal destination will beckon; if you’re a bushwalker, then a far-distant group of tracks awaits. This all means you’ll need to bring all the gear suited to that destination and its activities. With a vehicle, this is simply sorted by fitting a carrier – or carriers. By fitting bike carriers and/or a roof-rack that can hold your watercraft, you can make the big trip a seriously active one as well.

With the abundance of carrying systems around – Thule is one of the biggest names here – you have no excuse not to load up yours and the kids’ bikes, as well as the canoe, when you head off.

Most carrier systems can be fitted and removed quite easily and quickly at home, so don’t have to be a permanent fixture on your vehicle, and are well made to resist being covered in water, grime and dirt. All systems offer padded holders for your gear to eliminate any chance of incidental damage during transport, and the fun factor return on investment is immense.

No matter what outdoor activity you and your family pursue, you can bet there’s a vehicle-based carrying system for it.

The end game

AS MUCH AS you’d love to stay at that favourite campsite forever, you will at some point have to return home. This invariably means the sad task of packing away all your gear once you’re back. If you are well organised, this can be an easy, even pleasant task: having a place for each element in your vehicle-camping repertoire means what could be an hours’ long drag is done quickly and efficiently.

It is also important to clean all your gear when you get back and store it in its appropriate place. Also remember to update, renew or replace anything you’ve used so that when it comes time for your next camping adventure, it is all ready to go. This “system” approach really does work and, by eliminating that dreaded feeling of having to start from scratch when it comes time for the next trip, you will only be encouraged to pack the vehicle and get out there more often. And that, really, is what it is all about.