Camping is a great way to unplug from the hectic modern world and reconnect with nature and our friends and loved ones. Good planning will help you be prepared for your trip so you can spend your down time having fun rather than agonizing over what you forgot to pack.
This article is a start to finish look at the kinds of things to ask yourself to plan a great camping trip that you will remember for years to come. After years of experience, I have refined my process to the following basic steps:
- Decide what style of camping and activities you want to explore.
- Find and book a campsite that matches your needs.
- Put some thought and care into packing for your camping trip.
What Kind of Camping is Right for You?
There are so many different styles of camping trips from hardcore roughing it with minimal gear to luxury style cabin rentals. Clearly, the latter is more beginner friendly, but there is a great middle of the road choice for a first trip: car-side camping.
If you or your family is new to camping, but you still want that outdoor vibe at camp, car-side camping offers the benefits of experiencing nature without having to pack the perfect backpack, or give up amenities like chairs, bathrooms and showers.
Plus, you can over pack and totally get away with it since you won’t have to haul gear too far from the car. I highly recommend this style of camping for those new to camping. If your first camping trip is a hit, you can start to up-the-ante towards more roughneck camping for future outings.
If you are looking for a more adventurous deep-woods experience, look for sites that offer primitive camping options that let you hit the trail and find a site in a private and secluded location off the beaten path. Note that this often requires a permit, so do some research in advance to understand the procedures.
Regardless of your style of camping, thinking through the following questions will help you identify the destination that is going to fit everyone in your group’s wish list and guide the next steps in the planning process.
- What activities do you want to do on your camping trip? Fishing, boating, hiking, sun tanning?
- Does anyone in your group have special needs?
- Do you need to avoid certain peak allergy seasons?
- What are the weather conditions in that part of the country for that time of year?
- How far do you want to travel?
- How much roughing it do you want to do?
- What kind of amenities are you not willing to do without?
- What kind of cooking do you want to do?
Locating and Booking a Site
One of the best resources out there for planning and booking a campsite for a trip is the Reserve America system which handles the reservations for many of the federally managed campsites. It includes access to information and booking on over 1,700 locations in the United States.
If you already know the state that you want to visit on your camping trip, then each of the states has their own National Park Service websites so that you can browse what is available.
If you have a clear idea of a destination, then make sure to check out private campgrounds near the location as well. Sometimes these may meet your needs and provide better amenities or more reasonable rates. Check out KOA for access to the largest network of privately owned campgrounds in the country.
If you want to plan a camping trip around hiking, be sure to check AllTrails.com for an excellent source of trails, trail maps, reviews from other hikers and tips that can help you know what to expect. The sign up is free and they also have an app.
It is important that if you are unfamiliar with a campground, regardless of how you book, that you make a call and talk to the staff to verify some information before booking. It is not unusual for websites to sometimes have out of date information, or a lack of detail on amenities.
Before finalizing your arrangements, make sure you know the answers to the following questions to help you with your planning:
- What recreational opportunities are at/near the location and are there additional costs?
- What housing options are there? Campsites, cabins, RV hookups, primitive camping?
- What facilities are provided on location? Bathrooms, showers, barbeques, pavilions, running water, electricity?
- What are the policies on firewood?
- What are the pet policies both in the campground and at recreation areas?
- If there is water, are there swimming areas, boat rentals, fishing areas?
- How close are grocery’s and/or gear supply stores to your destination?
National Park Pass
If you are planning to visit one or more National Park areas in the United States on your camping trip, it may be worth considering the America the Beautiful Pass for National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands.
While you may still need to pay for a campsite or cabin, this pass will cover entrance fees, land use fees and standard amenity fees for everyone in your car (up to 4 adults). These fees can add up. Although you may find it is not worth it for a single trip, the pass will quickly pay for itself within a few uses, especially for families.
Make a List
Think about the activities you are planning, the members of your group and any special needs they may have, pet needs, and site amenities (or lack thereof) in order to craft a strong packing list.
Consider using one of the sample packing lists I have put together for different kinds of camping:
Before actually starting to pack, the most efficient plan is to assemble everything into one place first, especially if it is your first trip. Try to do this at least a few days in advance (for non-perishable items) so that it will be obvious if you require additional tubs, containers or bags for packing your gear.
If you are tent camping or backpacking, you probably want to get your gear out for a check up to a few weeks in advance. Tents need regular seam sealing for optimum performance in the rain. Some gear may need cleaning or replaced. Checking your gear in advance gives you time for last minute purchases or repairs.
An additional advantage to getting everything in one place before packing is that you can eyeball the size of everything you are packing to make sure it is reasonable for your trip.
Are you packing a lot of gear you don’t need? Is there going to be room in your vehicle for everything you are planning to take? Do you really want to carry this item two miles to your campsite?
Packing food comes with its own special challenges. Be sure to check my guide on how to keep food cold while camping for great ideas on planning food.
When planning food, be sure to be thinking about as much shelf stable food to cook on your campout as possible, saving space in your cooler. Examples include pasta, dried beans, potatoes, onions, most whole fruits and snacks such as breakfast bars and crackers.
Since keeping food cold can be a challenge while camping, the first big meals to cook should be planned around items that need to be kept refrigerated, shifting to more shelf stable choices for later in the trip.
Before you get in the car to head for adventures unknown, it is a good idea to have some maps printed of your destination campground, trails, recreation areas and land. Most of the time there will be staff at the location that can help you with pre-printed maps. However, if you arrive late in the day you may miss them. You will be glad you have back up maps for finding your site and the nearby amenities.
Sometimes cell phone coverage is spotty in the wild areas leading up to camping sites. Having some hand written directions or notes about nearby shops may be a good idea as well.
Revisit and Refine
Keep your camping list and revisit it when you return from your trip and make some notes (additions and subtractions) that you would have done differently and then pack it with the camping stuff for next time. This way, over time, you will develop a strong list that is specific to your needs.