When planning a camping trip, it’s important to take your time. “Be prepared” isn’t just the Boy Scout motto; it’s the foundation of every successful outdoor venture. Being prepared is about more than just having the right gear. It’s about researching the area you plan to visit ahead of time and being aware of potential snags and hazards before they occur. The following tips can help serve as a baseline for most camping trip preps:
- Use a camping checklist when you’re packing to avoid forgetting anything important. (Check out the next section for more details).
- Find out well in advance if you will need a reservation and/or if there is a camping fee at the area you plan on visiting. Be aware of any rules for the campground you’ll be visiting, such as quiet hours at night and rules for pets.
- Find out beforehand whether or not campfires are allowed at the campground and, if so, whether or not you’ll need to bring your own wood. (Not all campgrounds allow wood gathering). Also, most campgrounds only allow fires in designated fire pits or grates.
- Hopefully the weather will be great for your trip, but it doesn't always work out that way. Always bring warm clothing and outerwear, just in case the conditions get cold and rainy.
- If it’s been a while since you’ve used your tent or other gear, do a quick visual inspection for holes or other damage before you leave. Check batteries and fuel levels.
Once you’ve arrived at your camping destination, it’s probably a long drive to the nearest store if you forget something essential. With this in mind, having a camping checklist is a great way to avoid leaving important items behind. Our handy Camping Checklist is a good starting point.
You don’t necessarily need to travel far and wide to find a great camping location. If you don’t have a lot of camping experience, consider keeping it local for your first few trips. It’s also important to spend time researching potential campgrounds beforehand. This will allow you to plan for fun activities like hikes, canoeing or fishing.
After you arrive at your destination, there are several factors to keep in mind when choosing a spot to pitch a tent:
- First, be sure to setup your campsite on high ground, away from any potential flood paths.
- Try to pick a flat, level spot and rid the area of rocks, sticks and other debris before setting up your canopy.
- Natural shade from trees is ideal. If you pitch your tent so that trees are directly to the east, you’ll have a little extra shade in the early morning.
- Always camp in an established campsite and only use established fire pits or grates, if fires are allowed.
Since most camping is done in the mild conditions of late spring, summer and early fall, most campers will be comfortable in a three-season tent. A four-season tent is usually only necessary for winter camping and overnights at very high elevations. Three-season tents from brands like Marmot and Kelty typically include a ventilated tent body with one or two doors and a weather-resistant rain fly, which may include vestibules for gear storage. Some tents come with a footprint, which is basically a fitted ground tarp designed to protect the bottom of your tent. However, not all tents come with a footprint, so you may need to buy one separately or make your own using a tarp. If you buy a new tent, set it up in the backyard at least once before your trip. This will give you an opportunity to make sure all the parts and pieces are there. (Not all tents come with stakes and guy lines, for example). A practice run will also familiarize you with a new tent, making setup faster when you arrive at your camping destination.
For more info on types of tents and tent features, visit our Tent Guide.
When it comes to getting a cozy, restful night’s sleep in the great outdoors, the humble sleeping bag is a warm, lightweight and portable choice. Available in three primary styles (rectangular, semi-rectangular and mummy) sleeping bags from brands like Sierra Designs and Marmot are typically available in regular and long lengths, so be sure to choose the appropriate length for your height. Not sure if you should choose a rectangular bag or a mummy bag? Wondering about temperature ratings? We answer all these questions and more in our Sleeping Bag Guide.
Without a good sleeping pad or air mattress, sleeping outdoors can be pretty uncomfortable. Not only does a sleeping pad provide cushioning and support, it also helps insulate your body from the cold ground. There are many different kinds of sleeping pads, including self-inflating pads, foam pads, synthetic fill pads and inflatable air mattresses. If you chose an air mattress, consider adding a blanket or thin foam pad between the mattress and your sleeping bag for extra insulation. It’s also a good idea to get a repair kit, just in case your air mattress becomes punctured. For more information on types of sleeping pads, R-value (insulation ratings) and more, be sure to visit our Sleeping Pad Guide.
When you’re spending 24 hours or more in the great outdoors, it’s important to dress accordingly. There's always a chance the weather could suddenly change from sunny to rainy at any time, so having good outerwear and footwear is important.
Camp Clothing and Outerwear
Although jeans and a T-shirt are perfect for kicking back around camp, bring comfortable hiking clothing if you plan to do some exploring. Convertible pants are a versatile choice for summer. Hiking shirts are lightweight and breathable. Some models even include built-in UPF sun protection. Since the temperature often drops at night, bring along a warm fleece jacket or sweatshirt also.
Jackets and Ponchos
Always have a jacket or poncho on hand, just in case the weather gets rainy. Most waterproof shells pack down small and take up little space in your daypack. For the best protection, look for a lightweight, waterproof jacket with an adjustable hood, taped seams and a DWR (durable water repellent) coating.
Footwear and Socks
Although a regular pair of sneakers or boots is fine around camp, you’ll want to have a sturdy pair of hiking boots or trail shoes for exploring. If there could be rain and mud, choose footwear with a waterproof breathable membrane like Gore-Tex®. Pack multiple pairs of wool or synthetic socks to avoid blisters and keep your feet happy. Avoid cotton socks. Take a look at our Hiking Footwear Guide for more info.
Depending on the region and time of year, it can get pretty chilly at night. Although an appropriate sleeping bag should keep you toasty enough, it’s still smart to bring along a set of long underwear (i.e. a long-sleeved base layer shirt and bottoms), just in case it gets colder than expected.
All that fresh air and outdoor fun really has a way of working up an appetite. Although camp cooking requires a little more creativity and preparation compared to cooking at home, there is something inherently satisfying about eating tasty grub around a campfire. All you need are a few good recipes, the proper camp cooking gear and the necessary ingredients. Take a look at our Outdoor Cooking Guide for helpful info on campfire cooking, backcountry cooking, food dehydrating and more.
Although preparing meals on a campfire is fun, it can be challenging and time consuming. To speed things up, a camping stove makes quick work of boiling water, simmering soups and preparing hot drinks. Combined with the right camp cookware, a reliable camp stove will provide you with virtually limitless cuisine options in the great outdoors. Basically, if you can cook it on a regular stovetop, chances are you can cook it on a camping stove, just on a smaller scale. Make sure you also bring any plates, bowls, mugs and utensils you’ll need, as well as extra fuel. Check out our Camping Stove Guide for more info.
Looking for a super-simple solution for outdoor eating? Dehydrated and freeze-dried meals from brands like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry make camp cooking simpler than ever. Just add hot water and eat right out of the bag. No prep, no mess. Although freeze-dried and dehydrated camping meals cost a little more than food you make yourself, the convenience and time savings are a big plus.
Telling stories around a glowing campfire and cooking up s’mores are great ways to spend an evening outdoors. However, be sure to check for any fire bans or restrictions with the closest forest service or fire authority before starting a campfire. Always contain your fire in an established fire pit or grate. Keep your campfire small, especially if you’re camping in a wooded area. Keep your fire away from low-hanging tree branches and/or dry brush. Before going to sleep or breaking camp, put out your fire completely by dousing it with water, stirring it with a stick and dousing it one more time. Finally, check to make sure the fire is cold and there are no smoldering coals.
Camping with kids can be an extremely rewarding experience and is something many children really enjoy. Of course, family camping adventures also involve a little extra preparation and planning, especially with very young children. Below are a few simple camping tips to keep in mind:
- If you’ve never been camping with your child before, you can always do a trial run in the backyard before venturing into the great outdoors. This way, if your child gets frightened or has trouble sleeping, you can easily head back inside and try again another time. Once your child is comfortable camping out in the backyard, it should be much less intimidating to go camping elsewhere.
- When camping with young children, it’s usually best to choose a location that isn’t way out in the boonies. This way, if your child gets sick, the journey back to civilization won’t be too far. As kids get older, it will become easier to explore more remote locations.
- Many children’s sleeping bags are only available in a single size or length. If your child’s sleeping bag is a bit too large, stuff a blanket or extra clothing into the bottom of the bag to eliminate any unused space. Since kids don’t generate as much body heat as adults, this will help keep them warmer.
- Pack plenty of snacks and games to make the camping experience fun. Games that don’t require a lot of setup time and don’t have a lot of pieces are best. Consider leaving tablets, portable video games, music players and other electronics at home (except for a phone, of course). Tell stories, play games, explore and enjoy the sounds of nature. “Roughing it” and spending a little time away from technology can make the camping experience much more rewarding.
- Always keep children within eyesight when spending time outdoors. It only takes a moment for a child to wander off and become lost in an unfamiliar place. Explain to children why it’s important to stay close and be careful. Give all children a loud whistle so they can signal for help in an emergency.
Safety should always be a primary consideration when spending time outdoors. The Golden Rule: Always tell several people where you’re going and when you expect to be back. This includes the location you plan to camp and any other locations you plan on exploring, such as hiking trails. Here are a few other things to keep in mind:
Have a Plan
Have a plan for emergency situations. It's a good idea to know where the closest town and hospital are located, just in case. If you plan to do any hiking, make sure you have a map of the area. It’s also a very good idea to familiarize yourself with outdoor navigation so you can avoid getting lost. Check out our Hiking Guide for tips and info on hiking.
Pack a First-Aid Kit
Always bring along a basic first aid kit so you can tend to any potential scrapes, cuts, burns or other minor injuries. Before you leave, make sure your first-aid kit is fully stocked with sterile bandages, gauze, tweezers, antibacterial ointment, anti-itch cream for bug bites and a pain reliever, such as Ibuprofen. For a full list of first aid essentials and info, check out our First Aid Guide.
Use Sun Protection
Always apply sunscreen regularly when spending time outdoors. Using sunblock is particularly important for children. Make sure you have a sufficient SPF rating. If you plan on spending a lot of time in the sun, clothing with a UPF rating is also a good idea. Check out our Sun Protection Guide for more info.
Nothing can ruin a camping trip faster than dehydration. Always pack plenty of water and carry water bottles with you at all times. Be sure children drink plenty of water, especially in the high country. Always bring more water than you think you’ll need for campouts and hikes, or pack a portable water filter or purification tablets as a backup, just in case you become stuck outside longer than expected. Locate nearby water sources on a map (and don’t forget to bring the map with you if you leave camp).
Prepare For Bugs and Plants
Don’t forget to pack a bottle of insect repellent to keep bugs at bay. For the best protection from mosquitoes, ticks and other potentially disease-carrying arthropods, the CDC recommends repellents that contain DEET, Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or IR3535. Make sure your bottle of repellent is mostly full. If not, bring a backup. Check for ticks after hiking or exploring in the woods. Pack an antihistamine cream to treat any bites. Help children identify and avoid hazardous plants like poison ivy, poison oak and cactus. You can also add a calamine lotion and non-prescription hydrocortisone cream to your first aid kit, just in case.
Watch Out For Wildlife
Research and be aware of potential wild animals that could be sharing your camping area, including bears, deer, raccoons, opossums, mice and other critters. Store food in a secure container, such as a locking cooler, bear bag or bear canisters. Never cook or store food in your tent or in the vicinity of your sleeping area. Personal hygiene products like deodorant, toothpastes and soaps can also attract wild animals (even if they’re sealed), so store these with your food, away from your sleeping area. When camping or hiking in bear country, such as Yellowstone or Glacier National Park, always carry bear spray.
The philosophy behind Leave No Trace is an important part of responsible outdoor recreation and environmental stewardship. At its core, the purpose of Leave No Trace is to preserve the stability, integrity and beauty of the outdoor spaces we all share, including trails, lakes, rivers, camping areas, state parks, national forests, BLM areas and national parks. Follow the seven principles outlined below to ensure future enjoyment of camping areas and other outdoor spaces:
- Plan ahead and prepare: Good planning will help ensure a successful trip and minimize impact.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Always stay on the trail (never blaze your own trail) and only camp in designated areas.
- Dispose of trash and waste properly: Pack out all trash and food waste when breaking camp. If there are no designated facilities, dispose of human waste according to guidelines for the area you are camping.
- Leave what you find: Don’t take souvenirs from nature, such as flowers, rocks or artifacts.
- Minimize campfire impacts: Follow regulations for the area you will be, which may include using designated fire pits. Check for fire bans or restrictions before your trip.
- Respect wildlife: Try to avoid disturbing animals in their natural habitat. Never intentionally feed wild animals.
- Be considerate of others: Minimize unnecessary noise. Be unobtrusive and courteous to other campers that may be nearby.
Hopefully you had a great time on your camping trip. After arriving home, it’s a good idea to take a few extra steps in order to ensure that your gear stays in prime condition for many more trips in the future.
Avoiding Mold and Mildew
Make sure to unpack and thoroughly dry out your tent canopy, tent fly, sleeping bags and sleeping pads before storing them. Open them up and lay them in the sun or hang them in the garage until you're certain there's no lingering moisture.
Clean and Organize
Give your camping cookware, utensils and dishes a good scrub in hot, soapy water or run them through the dishwasher. This will ensure you have clean, sparkling cooking gear ready for your next trip. Wash and dry any water bottles and jugs. It’s also a good idea to keep all of your camping cookware organized in one sack or “mess kit.”
There's nothing worse than opening a camping cooler that's been sitting around with remnants of perishables or stagnant water from your last camping trip. Yuck! Always wash out your cooler with hot, soapy water, rinse well and dry thoroughly to avoid lingering odors.