The phrases car camp or car camping, are not mine. They are borrowed from another party as I always just called it sleeping in the car. I like car camping better.
I’ve written several times over the years, how when I was on nature photography trips via automobile (truck, suv, van etc.), I would car camp or use my car as a motel room, along the way. I am speaking primarily about the times when I was traveling alone, but I did it a few times with friends as well. I have also traveled many times in a motor home and they are great for a group of people. For what I do, a smallish vehicle that can get you into small places, and do so while remaining fairly unnoticed, is essential.
When I say car camping, I am not speaking of actual camping trips, where I camped next to my car. I love camping outdoors, and have done so with and without a tent. I’ve done so next to my car or truck, and I’ve hiked into the wilderness to camp as well. I’ve camped alone and with others. Actually my camping began at about four years of age with my family. Throughout my childhood, my friends and I would take turns camping in each other’s backyards, both with and without a tent.
When every trip I took, became completely centered on photography, I actually stopped what I call true camping for many years. Far too much time is spent when you are true or pure camping, setting up and taking down, searching for firewood, making and extinguishing fires, and cooking and cleaning. Not enough time for scouting and photography. In the 2,000s, on my trips to northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, I once again began actual camping and did so on photography trips. These trips were all in autumn, and I was in national and state forests to photograph the autumn landscape, as well as any macros and wildlife I could find. Most of my photography would take place within 10 miles of any given campsite. On one occasion in the Nicolet National Forest, I did use a remote site. I had to pack in all my gear, including cameras.
Car camping is as much a lifestyle as it is a functional necessity. There is nothing like waking up in the very vehicle that will take you down the road. It just “feels” right. You feel free and much like a vagabond. At times I would wake up at 3 a.m., and realize that I need to visit the restroom (tree), and soon after, just decide to fire up the car and head off down that road and into the darkness. On other occasions car camping allowed me to be right where I wanted to be when the light was right. A legitimate campsite, or a motel room does not always provide that possibility. Of course, honesty must prevail and the biggest reason to car camp, is to avoid the costs of motels/hotels/cabins/cottages. It makes it financially possible for those who like me, are of humble means, to make more trips and longer trips.
I have car camped in the wilderness (as far as you can get with your vehicle), in the country, in suburbia and even in the city. I’ve stayed in the parking lots of truck stops, waysides/rest areas (where allowed), hospitals (always open), restaurants, churches, large motor inns and abandon farms and ranches. In rural areas or if I am near wilderness areas, I often simply park and sleep at the side of the road.
I do augment my time car camping with stays in motels. Sometimes the car camping is the small part of a trip, and sometimes the motel stays are the small part. It can be nice to have a shower and bed. That being said, I manage to clean up along the road.
I bring with me soap and shampoo, towels, one small and one bath or beach. I have cleaned up in many gas station restrooms and rest stops. Several times in rural areas I have found small county parks with old-fashioned wells with hand pumps, and that became my clean-up area. I am a private sort of person but what ya gonna do when every time I get my shirt off, here comes a car full of sweet little old ladies to take a break and stretch their legs. I am afraid that far too much of America has had an opportunity to watch me take a sponge bath.
On my final trip to Colorado, I did some of my most memorable car camping. On one occasion as it began to get dark, I drove my rental car off the two lane high mountain road I was on, and onto to a dirt road, only to find it getting steeper with every 100 feet. I finally decided common sense should win this one and began to turn around when as it tends to happen, Ma Nature made a request of me. I stopped the car and got out and then I could hear it. The most beautiful song in the world, a mountain waterfall. I have camped (by foot) deep in those mountains and slept peacefully next to water falls before….so who knows? I found the vernal (or seasonal) waterfall around the next bend. I did sleep in the car that night but with the windows open being lulled to sleep by that beautiful music.
On another night it was getting late and I decided to simply pull over on the small paved road I was on and sleep while parked on the wide shoulder/pull off area. I began to assemble my supper which was packed in a cooler with some of those blue ice packs which I refroze in the fridge/freezer that occupied the cabin I slept in the night before. After assembling a sandwich, I grabbed my bottle of juice and decided to head for the trees to kick back and eat. I hadn’t taken two steps when my all of my senses (hearing yes, but mostly smell and instinct) told me there was a river rapids down below. I ate my supper while leaning against a tree, whilst Ma Nature once again sang her sweet song. That’s it I decided! I would stay parked where I was, but I would sleep down by the stream. I grabbed my sleeping bag and my trusty Walmart throw pillow which had done a great job on this trip of (as usual) doubling as a window pod for my 500mm lens, and a resting spot for my head. I watched a female Mule Deer browse across the water, and then a Pine Marten spotted me and headed in the other direction.
Anytime you sleep by yourself, outdoors in a mountain wilderness, you are going to wake from time to time to see whether that rustling of leaves is a Mountain Lion, a Black Bear, or maybe a not so welcome back country mountain man. Of course it might also be a combination of a light breeze and my imagination. It was always the latter, and in between those little disturbances, that river rapids kept my eyes closed and my mind at rest just as surely as a beautiful lullaby does for a baby. In many ways, that rapids actually was a lullaby for a baby……me.
I wouldn’t trade those years of car camping (the first time was with my parents as we headed to Yellowstone) for anything. I do however realize, that there are inherent dangers to the practice, and they are probably worse today than they once were, and they are always bigger for women. On a few occasions I took some risks and I cannot in good conscience recommend them to others. On the other hand, common sense goes a long ways, and will often provide safety, even in seemingly dangerous situations. If you cannot afford all the expenses for that trip, or you want to be “there” when the light is beautiful, making your vehicle your home on wheels is the way to go.
The relevance to the pictures below, is that they were made after a night of car camping, or a reasonable facsimile there of.
I was traveling through the autumn wonder of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula one day in 2003 and I remembered the beauty I had recorded at Bond Falls State Park several years earlier, on more than one occasion. On those occasions (throughout the 1990s) I was working with film, but this trip was one of my first with digital cameras. Of course when I first began digital photography in 2003, I always had film cameras with me as well..
I was 10 miles from the park but it was 12 noon and the light was hideous. I made the decision to head downwards and spend sunset with Lake Michigan, which was only fair because I had spent sunrise with Lake Superior. After my excursion to the second “great lake”, I began to think about where to stay. I remembered passing a gorgeous rest and kayak/canoe launch area on a river which sat invisible from the road ( I had stopped there to brush my teeth, so to speak), and thought I would check it out for a peaceful night of car camping. I had previously on that same trip both tent camped in Wisconsin, and stayed in motels. I arrived at my spot in pitch darkness which reminded me of how locations that were drop dead beautiful in the daytime, could be ominous and downright scary in the black of night.
It turned out to be a peaceful night of deep sleep and as the sky began to lighten I was reminded why I found this place so beautiful. I began my journey to Bond Falls. I had a semi-cool bottle of half consumed soda and to my delight, two cinnamon rolls left from the night before for breakfast. I marveled that the cinnamon rolls had slipped my memory and survived the night.
The first image below was made with a digital camera and the second is a medium format film picture that has since been copied with a digital camera.
I had driven all night to reach the Smoky Mts. of Tennessee, and approached the park in darkness. It would be two days before my pal Ron would be there so I knew the next two days would be just me and the mountains, and rivers, and flowers and so on. The question was, did I want to leave the park and find a motel when it would be light in a few hours? The answer was no. It is against the rules of almost all national (and state) parks to just pull in and sleep. Smoky Mt. N.P. however, has public roads running trough it and there is traffic that travels through without any sort of park stickers, 24 hours a day. I decided to take a chance and I did indeed have a nice sleep. The sun itself awoke me (I was really tired) and just as I was preparing to continue my journey, a reintroduced (to the Smokies) Red Wolf crossed the road in front of me. No chance for a picture but I still hold that memory. I spent the next two days concentrating on a mixture of river and mountain landscapes before Ron would be there. The little harbinger of spring you see below was the first image I made.
That time in the Smokies was not to be my only occasion of car camping illegally in a national park.
Ron and I had been in Wyoming for a while and it was about time to car camp and save a little money. Yellowstone N. P. is big, and we didn’t want to leave and come back, as we had already decided on where our morning shoot would occur. We had rented a cabin the night before and we thought, we just might get away with car camping in Yellowstone if we actually parked in a parking space that was allotted to a cabin. One of course, that had not been rented. We made it to about 2:30 a.m. with brief periods of sleep, as people just kept coming and going. Headlights and voices, headlights and voices. On one occasion somebody came home to the cabin we were in front of, causing me to move the car to another cabin. Finally we gave up and fired up the car and drove out a road which was completely void of traffic. Perfect. We spent the rest of the night sleeping while parked along the road. No problems occurred.
A new day was born and we headed for Lamar Valley as we had already covered most of the rest of Yellowstone. After driving past two illusive Red Foxes and one mamma Black Bear and cub, who were in a tree and surrounded by at least 200 photographers, we finally hit the valley and found three Coyotes within 30 minutes. The images below are of one such animal who was on the hunt while it was still in the golden light of sunrise.
Later that morning, we found this bull Elk and cow.
I have photographed Morgan Falls in Wisconsin in every season during my many visits between 1988, and 2011. On my initial visit I located the falls in the dark with only forestry maps, and zero signs. Not an easy feat back then. I did so after staying in a motel in a town called Park Falls.
On a trip in the fall of 2005 I decided for the first time to car camp. I had tent camped in this area in National Forest campgrounds several times before but I did not want to go through the trouble of setting up and taking down.
About half way between the little road called Highway GG and the falls, I located a seldom used dirt forestry road that had a nice little unblocked fire lane. Perfect. I had food, water and the necessary items to clean up in my trunk. It was still light when I pulled in for the night. I took a hike, made a couple of images, ate dinner, cleaned up thoroughly in a creek, and had a very peaceful night in my car. Occasionally in the early evening I would play a little music, but I soon fell asleep.
I made the drive and the hike to Morgan Falls in the early a.m. and for the first time since I began photographing the falls, I could only photographically envision piecework and abstract style images. Usually I made some sort of all-encompassing type of landscape pictures. It has always seemed to me that the different vision I carried with me to the falls that year, had at least something to do with my night in the car, and the music I had played.
The reason for the blue cast on the water in these images is that, well above the canyon that the falls lives in, there was a sunny blue sky day. That blue light is reflected down onto Moran Falls. I could have corrected this by either adding a warming filter to my lens, or changing the white balance on my camera to full shade. While our eyes (really our brain) tends to correct this for us, I consider it to be not only natural, but the true color. In other words, I like it the way it is.
One of my best (well, sort of) car camping excursions was spent in a very remote area of northwestern Wisconsin.
I had reserved a remote blind/hide from the Wisconsin DNR and drove out to find it the day before I was to use it. The purpose of the photo blind/hide was to observe and photograph Sharp-tailed Grouse as they performed their courtship dance. The drive out and back was a nightmare, as every road seemed to be 6 inches deep in mud. I had a “big boat” rear wheel drive Ford with me on that trip and the chances I would make it in and out again, was risky. I would have to drive the roads in the darkness the next morning as I needed to be in the blind well before sunup. I decided to drive back to the nearest town, buy food and drink, and return to a spot I noticed on the initial trip, that was meant as a hunter’s parking lot. It was a wooded area that sat down below the dirt (mud) road. I would surely not be bothered way back there, and I would be half way to the blind.
I made it back to my car camping spot while there was still plenty of light. I enjoyed my time in this wilderness setting and made some flower pictures to help kill the time until it was dark enough to sleep. I finally settled down for a long spring nap. I am not sure how long I slept but I was awoken to once again “brush my teeth”. I know, it seems like that’s all I do. I realized that it had gotten very cold and a quick check on the car radio told me that it was in the upper 20s F. After “brushing my teeth” I started the car for a little warmth and shut then shut it down and had just gotten to sleep when I heard the loud crack of some repeated rifle fire. I quickly checked out the window and spotted a large dark pickup truck stopped on the road. They drove off. I do not know whether they were trying to scare me (they did), or they were illegally night hunting by shining spotlights for prey. I did not sleep anymore that night.
I drove off about 45 minutes before sunrise to relocate my blind, and had a very nice shoot (with a camera) that morning.
I’ve never truly car camped in Texas, but I have caught my “40 winks” a couple of times on one trip.
I had been driving all night. I was going straight through from Wisconsin to the Texas portion of the Gulf of Mexico. As is normally the case on my photo trips, I was alone. My goal at my first stop in and around Aransas NWR would be of course, wildlife.
I had (finally) made my way around Dallas/Ft. Worth and my eyes were getting weary. It was becoming unsafe to continue. I should stop here for just a moment. I have driven for days at a time, and stayed up for nearly four days. Some people can do that, most cannot. If you get sleepy, stop. That’s just what I did south of Dallas. I managed around 30 minutes of sleep. Feeling rested and refreshed, I was on my way again.
I drove straight into Aransas NWR and made a day of it. When it got to be afternoon I began seriously thinking of a bed, shower, food and sleep. I slowly drove to Rockport, Texas and spotted a nice motel right on the bay. Then I looked at the bay. It was full of Black Skimmers, herons, egrets, ducks, both Brown and White Pelicans and I could even see a breeching Dolphin or two. It was raining lightly and the light was bad, but I had to go to the bay. I quickly secured a room for the night and headed to the bay and made images until darkness fell. Then I went to my room and I fell asleep.
I got up the next morning at sunrise. I headed for Aransas and a state park called Goose Island, and then back to my bay again in Rockport, I had a great day.
I left the Rockport area, stopped at Sana Anna NWR and continued on my way for a very, very long trip through Texas, from east to west. I even managed a (about) 50 mile detour into Mexico. I drove through the western Texas desert in the middle of the night always on guard for the shining eyes of the smallish Texas Whitetail Deer which lives in that desert landscape. Living in Wisconsin, I am used to looking for those eyes but I had never seen anything like this. Finally some mountains. They would keep me awake. As I transversed the mountains in the darkness, and it appeared as though I was descending on the other side, I stopped to check my map and see where my destination, Big Bend N. P. was located. It was about 10 miles ahead. Finally, I could sleep. I had just laid down and began to rest my eyes, and within 20 minutes I could see the sky beginning to lighten in the distance. I started up the car, drove into Big Bend N. P., a place I had never been to before, and located a rock form with some sort of shape to it, set up my equipment and fired away.
I had a great day of wildlife and landscape photography at Big Bend but I began to think of tonight. I drove back out of the park in early afternoon, secured a room at the only motel anywhere in the area, made a couple of quick and very marginal, busy pictures of a Greater Roadrunner, and returned to Big Bend to hike and shoot until sunset.
That evening I appreciated my motel room as much as any I had ever had. No car camping that night.
Many, many years (film again) ago I spent a great week in New Mexico. I had visited New Mexico before. When I lived in Colorado I had been their briefly, and on a trip to Arizona I had crossed her borders. This time I got to know her intimately, and fell deeply in love with her.
Part of the wonder of New Mexico, is the great Native American and Spanish ruins that reside there. I decided this trip would be divided equally between natural and human history.
I had flown into Albuquerque and picked up my rental van, and was off making pictures within the hour. The van was for sleeping if I needed it, and I did use it for that on more than one occasion.
The first time was when I was on my way to the Quarai Ruins, and it got too late for pictures. I chose a nice secluded side road, and pulled off into what once was a (dirt) driveway to a ranch with an adobe house and windmill. Desert in the foreground and mountains in the background. Wonderful! Somewhere in my digital files are copies of the transparencies that I made of the ranch that next morning, but I do not know where. I could feel the presence of the settlers that had built this ranch in the 1800s. It was probably their dream. Their dream was falling down, but after I made my pictures of their home, I had a date with an even older (1600s) historic gem, the Qauri Ruins.
It was winter when I made this trip and I spent a couple of hours at Quarai, with only the ruins and a very nice park ranger who gave me a personal guided tour. She was beyond gracious and when I left, I had made two friends that day. Of course, that was after one of my best nights of car camping.
I’ve shown about a billion (well if feels like it) pictures of White Sands New Mexico on these pages. I got much better at photographing White Sands over the years when I began to reduce her to shadows, textures, lines and form. Just the same, these early pictures tell the story of the white gypsum sands and the plants that lived there. On those first visits, my interest was primarily in the visual relationship that existed between the sand and the plant life. Later it was even less natural history, and more art. The pictures below, were made on film during the same trip as the ruins photos above. The day before, I was photographing wildlife in Bosque del Apache NWR. It was dark when I left Bosque so I parked my van in a secluded location well out in the desert. A perfect day, with a perfect ending, in anticipation of another perfect day tomorrow.
There is no place I have car camped more often than the state of Colorado. Even when I lived there, when my wife and I wanted to spend the night in the mountains, and didn’t feel like carrying everything needed for under the skies or tent camping, or want to spend the money on a hotel, we camped in our car.
The picture below was made in 1986 during my first return to Colorado after moving back to Wisconsin seven years previous. It was actually the first time I had ever visited Great Sand Dunes National Monument (now Park), and I slept in my car in a NWR maybe 20 miles form the park. I loved GSDs immediately and thoroughly enjoyed my hike through the football field sized ice-cold snowmelt river from the mountains. That was followed by spending the rest of the day hiking over the 700 foot high sand dunes, with my tripod and film gear. I was in great shape in those days. I could go for hours. Unfortunately I enjoyed very little good light that day, but I’ll keep the memories anyway, and of my night of car camping in a mountain wildlife refuge.
Below is the vernal waterfall, that I car camped next to in 2007, and alluded to in the earlier part of this, what has become a very long article.
The same trip. I car camped within view of the iconic Maroon Bells. I did the same exact thing back in 1986.
These images were made along the Arkansas River on that same trip after I had (again) spent the night in my car, high in the mountains outside of Leadville, Colorado, one of my favorite towns.
The next two pix were created one morning in the San Juan Range of the Colorado Rockies. This was the morning after the night where I car camped outside of the car next to the mountain river, as I wrote about in the early portions of this post.
Finally, I found this meadow full of wildflowers on a hike I made just after a night of car camping on a deserted mountain road in ( near Rocky Mt. N. P. in (north) Colorado. I created this image and some mountain landscape photos a short ways into a 10 mile (it gets longer every time I tell it) hike, and that hike, and the car camping that preceded it are both ingrained in my memory as if it occurred only yesterday.
I have also car camped in Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and more.
If you’re short on money, want to be at a certain location right at sunrise, or you are short on adventure, try car camping. Be careful, when you are looking for both convenience and adventure. It is not the time to abandon good common sense. In other words, do as I say not as I do.
One of the issues that develops with showing images on the internet, is that everybody has a different screen. From 12-year-old table top PCs, to laptops (in my case there is 8 years difference in the age of the two screens I use to view pictures). Tablets, cell phones and so forth. Over the years as screens got better they made the good pictures look better, and the bad ones look worse (badder?). This latest generation of high-resolution multi color screens, is hard to figure out. The screen on my good laptop will indeed make great pictures look exceptional, and it has the technology to forgive some sorts of noise and distortion. While inherent high ISO/cheap camera noise is shown on this screen in every ugly little detail, it forgives noise from sharpening. The worst part is, for reasons not worth explaining here, I use the old laptop to work on pictures, and then import them via a secondary hard drive into this one. It’s like they are not even the same image, when I look them on one computer and than another. That computer shows sharpening noise in detail.
The reason I bring this up is, it has always bothered me that there are people who look at my pictures, and see something quite different than I do. Of course, conversely, I see your pictures differently than you do. Sometimes I long for the time, when a picture was just a picture.
Have a great day, Wayne