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Preparing for Desert Car Camping

Yesterday, my friend Jessi and I drove more than 600 miles from Big Bend National Park back home to Houston. It was the only time I’d visited the park in my more than 10 years in Houston, and it was truly spectacular — I can’t believe I waited this long! But more on that another week.

I struggled to prepare for this trip. I knew I’d be camping in the Chihuahuan Desert, but as many times as I have been camping, this was my first time roughing it in such an arid environment. I just wasn’t sure what to expect, but I figured it had something to do with extreme dehydration and mountain lions.

Yet each night of the trip, we’d be primitive car-side camping — meaning we wouldn’t have running water or electricity but would be close to the car — so some luxuries definitely could be afforded.

I ended up packing a hybrid between backpacking and car camping supplies.

Marie’s packing list field guide:

  1. Foam sleeping mat
  2. Cooler for the 9-hour road trip
  3. Osprey Ariel 75 backpack
  4. 5 gallon water container
  5. Osprey Daylite day pack
  6. 3 liter/100 ounce Camelbak reservoir
  7. Binoculars
  8. Polarized sunglasses with UV protection 
  9. Camera
  10. AA and AAA batteries
  11. Travel tripod
  12. Sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack
  13. Big Agnes Copper Spur UL4 tent
  14. Camping bowls
  15. GSI Outdoors kettle
  16. Camping pillow
  17. Waterproof matches
  18. BioLite CampStove (see my review)
  19. Snow Peak titanium sporks
  20. Cooking knife and spatula
  21. Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash (see my post about green camping)
  22. Washable napkins for eating and clean up
  23. Camping trowel (learn how to handle waste on the trail)
  24. Toilet paper
  25. PackTowel UltraLite for drying dishes
  26. Bear bell — Big Bend National Park is black bear country
  27. Headlamp
  28. Hand sanitizer
  29. Bug spray
  30. Coleman lantern
  31. Mug
  32. Cooking pot
  33. Towel for personal use
  34. Sunscreen
  35. Tarp
  36. Clothes, including thick hiking socks
  37. Hat

Not everything made it into the photo, including

  • Trash bag
  • Lantern fuel
  • First aid kit
  • Compass
  • Hiking boots
  • Chacos sandals
  • Toiletries
  • Jacket
  • Poncho
  • Personal identification

I also ended up printing out directions and maps in the event cell service or wifi were unavailable.

Overprepared? Maybe. These are the items I didn’t use.

  • Ariel 75 backpack — although I didn’t expect to. It was just a convenient way to pack my belongings
  • Tripod — just never found occasion
  • BioLite CampStove and matches — only container fuels are allowed in Big Bend, so we only used this stove at a state park on the way there, where a burn ban was not in effect
  • Trowel — by happenstance, I was always close to a proper toilet when I needed to be

On the flip side, here’s what I wish I’d brought.

  • Another pair of pants for the drive home
  • Swimsuit — I didn’t know I’d need it in the desert!

I knew I’d overpacked, but here’s what I used that surprised me.

  • Binoculars — I rarely pulled these out on the trail, but I loved having them at night to see the stars with more clarity

How do you handle packing for a new environment? Would you like to share a packing victory? Leave a comment.

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