Alli Harvey: Reconsidering the joys of car camping

Alli Harvey

Car camping has the allure of something that is easy.

Every time I plan to car camp, I imagine my journey will go as follows: I will get into my car. I will drive it to the place I want to be for the night. I will sleep in that spot, either in the back of my car or in a tent that I pitch in a matter of minutes. I will rise in the morning refreshed and at peace with the rhythms of nature, ready to climb mountains and achieve yoga poses.

In reality, the word "destroyed" best describes my appearance after a night of car camping. My eyes are puffy, my hair is a mop of stringiness and static, and I haven't bothered to change out of my drawstring polar fleece pants before stumbling out into the world for coffee. In the middle of the night I thought it would be helpful to regulate my temperature by wearing a down vest. I am still wearing that down vest -- but nothing underneath. My upper arms gleam white as Alaska snow under the moonlight. Tiny feathers from my vest cling to my polar fleece pants.

Car camping. It's not a good look on anyone.

Yet, I love it.

I used to think car camping was for people of weak composition or character. Not that I grew up backpacking -- absolutely the opposite. My dad took my sister and I car camping every summer growing up. He made a fire and relished silence; my sister and I brought friends and relished playing pranks on one another. My father called me recently, with my sister listening in, to ask if I had ever laced brownies with Ex-Lax and fed them to her on a camping trip. I am 99 percent sure I did not do this, but she loudly insisted I did.

Memories. That's what all those wonderful campfire nights are for.

When I started getting into backpacking, I saw a stark difference between the kind of camping I'd done growing up and backpacking. Backpacking meant I had to stuff everything I'd need in an enormous pack and walk up hill until I was too tired to take another step. This is the stuff that real character is made of, I thought, as bruises formed on top of bruises and blisters on existing blisters.

After surviving my first backpacking trip, I sneered at the car camping experiences of my childhood, thinking about those tiny plots of campground, each site with its own marker, picnic bench and spigot with something gross living in the mesh underneath. What an easy way to get outside, I thought derisively.

Exactly, I think now.

The thing about car camping is that even though it seems easy, it has its own complications -- complications which in hindsight I have to applaud my dad for getting through despite his two bickering daughters.

These complications include but are not limited to:

Finding a place to sleep. One of the allures of car camping is the idea of just hitting the open road and pulling over to sleep when I'm ready. By and large, I can do that -- but it's not always super comfortable. When I've found myself pulled over next to a bright street lamp or on an awkwardly residential feeling street, I often decide to keep driving and find that better spot. Sometimes it's the easiest thing in the world to find a campsite or somewhere to just park the car and camp out. Other times, it's less clear: maybe the campground is closed or unplowed, or maybe it's dark and hard to see exactly where I am. Other times, proximity to a real bathroom is worth driving for. I have driven around (and around) looking for a good spot to camp, all the while knowing how ridiculous the search is because there is probably something right under my nose.

Inclines. Once I've found a good spot and set up, I will lay with my head on my pillow in one direction, gaze up, and try to think like a level. Then I will move around to the exact opposite position, feet where my head was, and wonder if I can feel blood rushing to my head. It seems there is a root knuckling its way up from the earth somewhere far beneath the buoyancy of the sleeping pad I spent five minutes inflating. I move back around to the first position to see if it does, indeed, feel more level. Or maybe I should have set the tent up rotated 90 degrees from where it is now?

Condensation. This phenomenon happens when temperatures outside drop overnight, while I create a little microclimate of tropical humidity inside with my snoring. It creates a kind of sogginess on the inside of my tent or car. It is gross, and I am convinced it is what causes my eyes to be puffy in the morning (maybe also the inclines).

The best part about car camping is always waking up. Yes, I feel destroyed. Yes, maybe it rained overnight, or my boots are cold and I have to pull them on.

But the simple feeling of fresh air blasting in after all that condensation; the knowledge that I did it -- I camped, I did not run screaming for the nearest hotel -- and the wonderful knowledge that somewhere, somehow there will be coffee (hot, black, steaming coffee) in my near future, makes everything come together.

That is why, despite the fact that I end up shuffling around in polar fleece pants, destroyed by car camping each and every time I do it, I continue to car camp. It's tricking myself outside by telling myself it'll be convenient, followed by gratitude for fresh air and creature comforts.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.


Daily News correspondent