Hopeless campers have no idea what they’re doing.
Photo: Elizabeth Werth

There comes a time in every race fan’s life when they have to make a crucial decision. Do I spend an obscene amount of money on a hotel and commute to the track somehow, or do I strip away all the conveniences of modern life and camp? Sometimes, though, roughing it in the campsite is the only way to go. If you must, here is what to do.

(Welcome to the Race Car Survival Guide, a series where we outline all the tips and tricks that will help you make it through a race weekend intact. Whether you’re heading to your first race and are totally lost or are a veteran just checking out how other race fans do it, this is for you.)

I do not like extended periods of camping. It’s not that I’m not an outdoors person—I just like being able to shower off the day’s filth and fall asleep in a nice, quiet, dark climate-controlled room after a long day at the track. But I hate spending unnecessary money more than I hate being sticky when I go to bed, so I find myself camping at the track more often than not.

Despite my aversion to the whole concept of camping, I’ve managed to not only endure the process multiple times—I’ve even managed to embrace the fun of camping after a lot of miserable trial-and-error. And now I’m here to share the wealth of knowledge with the rest of the world.

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Bring an Air Mattress (Seriously, Yes)

This will be the sole thing that transforms your race weekend camping experience. Air mattresses are quite literally the only reason I even keep camping.

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Sleeping on the ground sucks. Sleeping on a thin padded mat still sucks. Trying to use forty blankets to pad your tent sucks. I thought I was just destined to constantly be miserable while trying to sleep at the track. Then my mom suggested I borrow one of the family air mattresses, and I haven’t looked back since.

Here’s the deal. You can’t just show up to the track with an air mattress. You’re going to need to strategize. You’re going to need something to inflate said air mattress, which you are not going to want to do with a measly fucking bike pump or your lungs (trust me). Buy a cigarette lighter adapter. I have this one and love it to death. If you don’t have a car, ask a neighbor if you can borrow theirs and swap a beer for their troubles.

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Your air mattress will keep you elevated on a beautiful cloud of comfort. If it rains and some moisture leaks into the tent, it’ll pool up under the mattress, not under your body. And if the temperatures drop, the cold from the ground won’t seep into your bones quite so badly. You literally cannot lose.

Pitch Your Tent Ahead of Time

Pictured: E.A. Blackstock struggling singlehandedly with a tent because her friend showed up with a broken arm and could not help.

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The first time I ever pitched a tent was at the campsite at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. It was well past midnight. There was not a single light to be found. No one around us spoke English and therefore could not understand our cries for help. Do not let the track be your first experience with pitching a tent.

Find some space at home and do it there first. That way you’ll know how to do it, can double-check that all the bits are actually there, and can then pack it back up and somehow fit it all back in your tent bag. The most important thing here is that you won’t look like a fucking chump when you get to the track, which is, truly, essential. Never let anyone know you’re an amateur.

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Clean Your Dirty Self

Most self-respecting track campsites have shower stalls scattered around for you to use. Some, however, do not. And no, you filthy animals, a lack of a shower does not entitle you to walk around gross as hell all weekend!

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You never know—you might end up riding in a van with future Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi smelling like someone spilled a brewery on your pants.

Please, for the love of all that’s holy, bring some goddamn baby wipes and do not forget your deodorant. I love the dudes I camp with, but by day four of standing in the sun with ‘em, everyone’s smelly and practically indistinguishable under their thick layers of sweat, sunscreen grease, and dirt. You will feel so much better with just a baby wipe bath, and it doesn’t even take that long!

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This is doubly important if you’re going to be having tent sex. Nobody needs a UTI. Clean your junk.

Protect Your Stuff

Usually when I’m camping at the track, I have valuables with me. It’s kinda hard to avoid traveling without my wallet and passport, and I almost always need to have my laptop for work or school. People will tell you, “uhh, just don’t camp with important stuff,” as if I was planning on bringing my family heirlooms with me.

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I’ve found that most people at the track are pretty respectful about other people’s property. It is very unlikely that you will get looted. But if you still want to protect your shit, there are some easy things you can do.

Hint: not this.

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Keep all the important stuff locked in the car. Don’t just leave shit in your tent. The tent is the most easily accessible point in your entire site, so try to refrain from using that as your place to store all of your money.

If you don’t have a vehicle with you (which sounds strange, but yes, I have in fact taxied to the track before (it sucks a big one so try to avoid that)), tent locks are a thing that exist. Invest in one.

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Set Up By a Bathroom

If you have the opportunity to actually select your individual campsite, scope out one near the bathroom. This sounds sensible, but if track camping isn’t divvied up into specific spots, you’re probably just going to set up wherever if you arrive in the middle of the night or right before track action starts.

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This is a foolish maneuver! Find the bathroom, goddammit.

When you are partaking in a long night of drinking alcohol, you’re very likely going to need to use the bathroom multiple times. Everything is less awful and bad if you only have to walk, say, two minutes to the bathroom instead of fifteen. Need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night? It’s right there. Have the skies opened up and started dousing the region with torrential rain, and all that water noise makes you need to pee? Good news. The bathroom is a stone’s throw away.

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The Luxuries

If you’re camping at a track, you’re probably there for one of two reasons. Either this is a play to save you the most possible money, or you’re planning on treating this like a drunken Fourth of July bash in your backyard. As in: you’re either traveling light, or you’re traveling fun.

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Technically, you don’t need anything but a tent (and in my case, an air mattress, because I love myself) to make it through a race weekend. But it’s gonna be slightly more difficult to fully enjoy yourself if you don’t bring anything else!

These luxury items include: folding chairs, a vessel on which to cook food, a vessel in which to keep food cool, and a pop-up.

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These are the first things to go when you need to pack light. If you’re camping at a flyaway race, forget it. But if you’re taking the car, these little things are godsends. Being able to have a seat? A way to protect you from rain and sun? Things to eat? It’s life-changing. It took me far too long to realize how much more bearable life is when you’re not living off the bare necessities.

The in-between stage, when I had learned the beauty of a camp stove but had not quite embraced the folding chair life.

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The best way to pull this off is to split up duties among friends, if you are one of those people who actually has friends. When I camp with my husband, he’s responsible for the tent, air mattress, and camp stove. I bring the folding chairs, pillows and blankets, and cooler. We’re usually accompanied by other folks who bring a pop-up. It makes for a more enjoyable and cost-effective weekend for everyone involved.

(Just don’t forget to bring utensils to cook with.)

How the Fuck Am I Supposed to Sleep?

Campsites are notoriously Party City. You do not truly understand hell until you’re jetlagged and sore from a long-ass day of traveling to Austria, crammed in a two-person tent with three other people, and keen to take a delicious snooze before waking up bright and early for track activity—only to discover that you’ve set up camp next to the fellas who are playing club remixes of Avril Lavigne’s entire discography on their wall of speakers well until the sun starts to peek over the horizon.

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I have been to very few campsites where there’s not a party raging well into the night. Anticipate this. Embrace this. And bring some earplugs.

Earplugs are important for protecting your hearing when you’re sitting trackside anyway, but they’re going to be a blessed savior when your body is crying for the sweet release of a temporary death while everyone around you is still rip-roarin’ ready to go. They’re probably not going to guard you from all the noise, but they’ll at least dampen it enough to make it bearable.

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First Aid

You never know where the night may lead.

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It is a very good idea to bring a basic first aid kit with you. Bandaids, sunscreen, alcohol pads, ibuprofen, whatever medications you need, etc. You are drunk and sleeping on the ground. You may be talked into some drunken midnight shenanigans, such as climbing onto the corrugated roof of a concession stand or jumping fences and Armco barriers to get on the track. You’ll hate yourself less if you can clean the shit out of your skinned knees.

A note: make sure you know your limits and plan accordingly. I get very bad heat exhaustion if I’m outdoors in the heat for multiple days at a time. By race day of the 6 Hours of the Glen last year, my legs were so swollen and itchy that I kept taking dunks in the biggest cooler we had and dumping cool water on a towel I had over my legs to make it bearable.

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If you’re prone to pneumonia from wet conditions or burn very easily, come prepared. I never do! I hate myself for it every time I have to shame-facedly wander the campsite with my little tin cup, begging someone to spare some ibuprofen and sunscreen! Be smarter than me!

That’s all we have for this edition of our Race Car Survival Guide! If you have any tips of your own or an idea for a blog you’d like to see, let us know in the comments or email me at ewerth [at] jalopnik [dot] com!