Edited by: Jessica Merritt
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Whether camping means going off the grid or glamping, you’ll need a solid packing list. And what you pack can depend on when you plan to camp and which campground you plan to visit.
Summer days at a state park may require bug spray and breathable sleeping bags, while a fall outing in the desert calls for layers and thermal gear to deal with warm daytime temperatures and frigid nights. Always make sure to pack for the right climate range for the location you plan on setting up camp at.
Camping Trip Packing Tips and Advice
Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or it’s your first time heading out for a weekend getaway, packing for some time in the great outdoors can be daunting. This guide can give you peace of mind by helping you ensure you don’t forget any necessities and that you’re prepared for anything.
Check the Weather
Weather can be unpredictable. There can be a cold snap in July or rain in the forecast for December when you might typically expect snow. That uncertainty is further amplified if you’re going somewhere new. Since camping involves spending a lot of time outside, always check the weather a few times before heading out.
You’ll also want to ensure your gear is adequate for the weather. Invest in a nylon tent with waterproof stitching for all-weather camping. Since it’s breathable, you won’t have to worry about overheating in the summer, and it will also keep out any cold evening chills.
That same advice also applies to sleeping bags, though you might also want to double-check the temperature limits for a bag.
Consider Trip Length
Dedicated campers often head out for a week or more. But 2- to 3-day camping trips are common because camping is an easy and fun way to spend long weekends throughout the year.
Your packing list won’t change much, no matter how long you’re away. You’ll just need to make sure you bring enough socks, underwear, layers, and food to last however long you’ll be camping, preferably with some spares in case of an emergency.
Make Your Reservations
Since campgrounds are specifically zoned with safety in mind, it’s not recommended, and sometimes even illegal, to camp in non-designated areas. While you can sometimes get lucky and find a campground with empty sites on a whim, making reservations ahead of time is much better.
When choosing your campground, check the on-site amenities and what’s in the area. For example, some grounds have showers, general stores, or food lockers, while others offer the bare minimum for a more rustic experience.
Plan the Drive
You’ll most likely have to drive to your camping destination, so make sure you plan your route, especially if you’re going to another city or state.
Look at the different course options available to you and find out if there are any special road conditions you should be aware of. For example, some roads might require all-weather tires or snow chains at certain times of the year, while other routes might have stretches prone to bumper-to-bumper traffic.
If you’re facing a drive that’s an hour or more, or if you’re going to be camping with young children, try to get an idea of what rest areas and gas stations you’ll encounter along the way. That way, you know when to plan restroom or snack breaks and where to fill up your car if running low on gas.
Get Your Car Road Ready
Don’t wait until the last minute to ensure your car is ready for a lengthy drive, especially if you’ll be further than a few miles away from home. There are a few things to check before driving to your campsite:
- Check your oil. Make sure you have enough and that you don’t need a change.
- Check your car battery. If you’ve noticed some trouble getting the battery to turn over when you start your car, consider getting a new one, and at the very least, make sure you have jumper cables, just in case.
- Check your tire pressure. If one or more are low, top them up with air before hitting the road.
- Consider changing your tires to suit the driving conditions. For example, you might need tires for off-roading or snowy weather depending on where you’re going.
- Check your headlights, brakes, filters, and emergency supplies. For your own safety, make sure you have a spare tire or a patch kit, and test out your high beams, headlights, fog lights, and hazards.
- You might also want to consider taking your car to your mechanic to get your brakes and engine glanced at to make sure everything is in top shape.
Make a Packing List Early
It’s tempting to wait until the last minute to pack, but that puts you at risk of over or underpacking. A few minutes of research can be a huge help.
Once you’ve checked the weather and made your reservations, list the types of clothing and gear you’ll want to bring with you. Making that list early allows you to review your belongings and ensure you have what you’ll need. If you find out you’re missing something essential, you have time to get it before you’re set to hit the road.Hot Tip:
Some general things you can always count on needing are sunscreen, a reliable backpack, a canteen, a mess kit, and bug spray.
Choose the Right Gear
The ideal camping gear will be durable enough to withstand most expected weather conditions and last multiple years of use. It will also be compact and lightweight since you might have to hike with your equipment. However, the specifics for what supplies you should use will depend on the sort of camper you are and what trips you plan on taking.
Hiking and camping backpacks tend to be ergonomically designed, with thick padded straps to distribute weight. They also usually have straps and clips to attach a bed roll and a water bottle. Many tents also come with a carrying bag. These bags are usually long and relatively narrow, making them easy to store and less bulky to carry.
Purchase Travel-sized Items
In most cases, you’ll probably be driving to your camping destination, which can be comforting when it comes to packing. However, no matter your trip, you’ll still have relatively limited space.
You don’t have to forgo bringing your favorite shower soap, shampoo, mouthwash, or skincare products. However, getting full-size versions can take up a lot of room in your bags and add extra weight and bulk.
A simple workaround to ensure everything fits in a single toiletry bag is to bring travel-sized products. If your favorite brands don’t make travel items, you can create your own by bringing reusable containers. Remember, unlike hotels, most campgrounds won’t supply toiletries, so you’ll need to pack everything from shower gel to deodorant and toilet paper.
What Electronics Should I Take?
If you’re planning a camping trip, you probably intend to spend a lot of time outside. However, you probably won’t leave all your tech behind.
You’ll want to ensure you’re entertained while driving to your site. A tablet or e-reader with pre-downloaded books, shows, or movies, can help occupy your time on the road. Ensure you bring charging cords and a car charger with a USB port to keep your tech charged.
You might also want to bring a camera with you. While it’s true that most phones, even non-smartphones, have a built-in camera, having a separate digital camera will help preserve the battery without sacrificing capturing your camping fun.Hot Tip:
You might also want to invest in a portable battery so none of your electronics die on you.
Most people don’t think about travel insurance when it comes to camping. However, it’s still worth considering. Depending on your campground’s reservation and cancellation policies and the length of your trip, travel insurance can give you peace of mind if you have to cancel or change your plans.
You should also consider travel insurance if you’re flying to your camping destination. That’s especially true if you’re camping in another country that your regular insurance might not cover. It’s also a good idea to take out an insurance plan on any valuable items you’ll bring, including your electronics and camping gear.
Even last-minute camping trips involve some administrative organization. To save yourself any travel headaches, have any documents you need close at hand.
As a general rule, make sure you bring the following:
- A photo ID, like a driver’s license, and photocopies in case you lose them.
- A print-out copy of any reservation information you might have.
- Your health and travel insurance information.
- Emergency contact information.
- The contact information and address of your campsite.
- Any vital health information like allergies, medications you or your travel companions take, dietary requirements, and medical conditions.
- Multiple forms of payment like credit and debit cards and cash.
Keep Your Travel Documents Safe
You probably won’t have many travel documents to look after on a camping trip, but if you receive digital confirmations for your campsite, park entry passes, or any other reservations, ensure you have multiple accessible copies.Hot Tip:
Print hard copies, save screenshots to your phone or tablet, and save any emails you receive.
Cash and Credit Cards
Most campsites will be equipped to take credit or debit cards, but smaller or older grounds might prefer cash for on-site payments. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to carry some physical cash with you if there are bank or tech problems that might make card payments difficult.
If you’re traveling out of state, make sure you also contact your bank or credit card provider to let them know you’ll be traveling to avoid any charges you make being flagged as fraudulent.
Keep Your Personal Details Close for Emergencies
On a day-to-day basis, it’s perfectly fine to have all your essential information on your phone or synced to your different online accounts.
However, when camping, it’s best to have a hard copy of your contact information, emergency contact names and numbers, and all critical medical and dietary information. Keep these papers together in a protective sleeve you can quickly get to in case your phone dies or loses signal.
Packing Your Luggage
Packing is one of the most exciting parts of the planning process. Avoid the usual pitfalls campers face and follow these tips so you can pack like a pro every time.
Lay It All Out
Before putting anything in your bag, lay out absolutely everything you want to bring. Having a visual helps you take stock of your packing list. You’ll be able to see if anything is missing or if you’ve overpacked in some areas.
If you’ve made any changes to the packing list you’ve already created, rewrite it to reflect your current essentials to avoid any confusion later.
In general, for a 3-day summer trip, you should pack the following:
- 1 waterproof jacket
- 3 pairs of breathable socks
- 4 lightweight tops
- 1 sun hat or baseball cap
- 1 pair of long, breathable, and comfortable pants
Folding vs. Rolling — Which Method Is Best?
How you pack can affect how efficiently you use your space.
Folding vs. Rolling
Folding is best at home as it helps prevent wrinkles. However, rolling is a space-saver. In most cases, you probably won’t need freshly pressed clothes while camping. Or you can get away with packing wrinkle-resistant clothing.
Roof Box Considerations
Roof boxes are great options for taking a small car, having bulky gear, or traveling with a larger group in a single vehicle. They’re usually sturdy and weather-proof, so you can drive in any climate without worrying about damaging your belongings.
If you’re a first-time or occasional camper, you can make do with a backpack or duffle bag before investing in a roof box. This might limit space in your car, though, if you don’t strap your luggage to the roof of your vehicle.
Bring a Laundry Bag
Unless you’re planning a 1-night trip, having a laundry bag can help ensure you don’t mix your dirty clothes with your clean items. Any spare bag to throw your dirty clothes in will be helpful, but if you can, go the extra mile and pick a water and leak-proof option. This is especially helpful if hiking, swimming, or rain is in the forecast.
Prepare for Emergencies
Most campgrounds have on-site first aid kits, but they are often just at the front of the grounds, which isn’t always helpful. Pack a small first-aid kit to take care of any minor injuries immediately.
A few things to make sure you have on hand are:
- Multiple adhesive bandages of different sizes
- A small bottle of rubbing alcohol and/or hydrogen peroxide
- Cotton balls
- Gauze and bandage tape
- A small bottle of aspirin or ibuprofen
- Antibacterial cream or gel
Each campground will have its rules to follow, which should be available on its website or by phone. Some important information you should find out before you camp is:
- How large is each site, and what are any tent size restrictions?
- Is firewood available on-site?
- Are pets allowed?
- Is cooking on-site allowed?
- What are the operating times to set up or tear down your campsite?
- What wildlife is in the area? (Are there raccoons, bears, or bobcats around?)
Plan Your Activities
Plan what you’ll do while on your camping trip to ensure you don’t get bored. Consult what the campground has available, for example, if there are hiking trails or swimming and fishing areas.
To add variety to your days, you can bring things to keep yourself entertained, like puzzles, games, or even a frisbee if it’s allowed. Many also work as backup options if rain or other weather conditions change your plans.
Keep Your Essentials Close By
If you need to get to a change of clothes or any medication, digging through all your belongings is annoying. Keep all your essential items in easy-to-access places, like in a day bag or a designated compartment in your backpack.
Some things to keep close at hand:
- Cash and cards
- Meaningful or expensive items like wedding rings or smartwatches.
Most campgrounds allow on-site cooking. In many cases, bringing or preparing your food will be essential. Here are a few things to consider when meal planning for your camping trip.
What Food Should I Bring?
Bringing mostly dry or non-perishable items will reduce food waste. Cereal, crackers, bread, peanut butter, and canned protein like tuna are favorites as they don’t require cooking. You can also bring food cooked over a fire, like rice, soup, or beans.Hot Tip:
Frozen foods, meat, or fresh fish aren’t recommended unless you eat them shortly after purchase.
Cook Ahead or On-site?
There are pros and cons to cooking ahead or cooking at your campground.
Preparing your food ahead of time has its advantages. For one, since you’re making things in your kitchen, you have more control over spices and portions.
You’ll also have more freedom with the food you prepare since you can use refrigerated or frozen ingredients you might not have at camp. However, in most cases, you’ll need to keep your meals temperature-controlled to keep them from spoiling. That means you’ll have to bring a good cooler.
Cooking at your campground means you can bring shelf-stable items. That can cut down on food waste.
The drawback is you’re limited in what you can cook as you won’t have a full kitchen, and you’ll likely have minimal ingredients and refrigeration. It can also be a hassle if you forget to pack an ingredient or utensil you need. If a grocery store is nearby, you can pick up perishable items to cook the same day, but that’s not always guaranteed.
Even when it comes to food, you must pack efficiently so you can get everything you need for your trip to fit in the space you have available. If you’re packing food you prepared ahead of time or food that doesn’t have a sealed package, you’ll need air-tight food containers or bags. This will help keep out moisture and maintain the freshness of your food.
You can find containers in various materials, but plastic, silicone, or aluminum are the most durable. You should consider vacuum-sealing items like herbs, spices, dry ingredients, dried fruits, and lunch meats. Not only does this remove air to preserve food quality, but it also makes them more compact so you can pack more food in less space.
You’ll also want to use temperature-controlled storage options. Insulated coolers will help keep your food chilled, and they’re designed to keep out heat even after any ice packs have melted.
Pick the Right Travel Cooler
Hundreds of coolers are on the market, so it can be easy to assume they’re all the same or be daunted by the number of choices available.
Your ideal camping cooler will depend on your needs, but there are a few characteristics you should keep in mind:
- Coolers with wheels tend to be larger as they’re easier to move around.
- Coolers with shoulder straps allow you to be more hands-free if you carry a lot of gear or want to feel less encumbered.
- Coolers with carrying handles are usually the smallest. They’re best for short outings, picnics, or if you have a few items to keep cool.
- Hard coolers are the most common. They’re often insulated with foam and have an exterior made of HDPE or LLDPE plastics which are higher quality and less prone to cracking or breaking down over time. They tend to keep out the heat but require ice or ice packs to control the temperature.
- Soft coolers are usually made of nylon and mylar with foam insulation. These materials make them lighter and easier to carry. It also allows them to both keep cool items chilled and heated items warm.
You can find options small enough for lunch boxes or large enough to hold over 100 quarts worth of food. Before deciding on a size, here are a few things to consider:
- How many people do you plan to camp with?
- How long are your camping trips going to be?
- Do you plan on using the cooler for other occasions?
- How much food do you plan on preparing?
Keep Your Food Safe
Depending on where you camp, raccoons, deer, or even bears can smell you and what you eat from a mile away. So you need to have a plan to keep your food safe.
What To Do:
- If the campground you’re staying at has food storage containers, use them. These containers are specially designed to keep bears out.
- If there are no on-site storage options, suspend all your food and cooking supplies from a tree at least 12 feet off the ground. Ideally, suspend your food between trees so climbing raccoons and bears still can’t reach it.
- Invest in bear-resistant containers to store food in.
- Use packaged food that doesn’t require cooking when possible.
- Dispose of all your trash in on-site bear-proof trash cans, or follow the food storage tips above.
What Not To Do:
- Don’t cook near your tent to avoid attracting bears.
- Don’t eat in your tent or sleeping bag.
- Don’t keep food in your car or in an unattended area.
What To Pack In Your Day Bag
No matter where you set up camp, you probably won’t spend your entire trip in and around your tent. So, having a day bag for short excursions already prepped is a good idea, so you can just grab it and head out on an adventure.
Here are a few essentials no day bag is complete without:
- Make sure you have a jacket packed in your bag, no matter the temperature. A waterproof windbreaker is a good option, but anything you can throw on will work if the temperature drops or it starts raining.
- A full water bottle is a must, especially when you’re not sure if water fountains are available.
- Sunscreen that you can reapply every 2 to 3 hours, even if it’s cloudy.
- Lip balm to protect your lips from getting chapped.
- A first-aid kit. You can buy one that’s premade or assemble a small one yourself with some bandages and antiseptic.
- A portable phone charger in case of emergencies since you’ll probably be bringing your phone.
- A packed lunch or snacks like granola bars or trail mix.
- Your general essentials like your ID, medications, and contact information.
If you plan on going swimming, bring a towel and some spare clothes and a bag to put your wet suit in.Hot Tip:
Another good thing to have on hand if you’re hiking or exploring is a physical map of the area you can refer back to.
Apps for Camping Trips
Camping is a rustic activity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use the wonders of technology to your advantage. You can download multiple apps to make a good trip even better. All apps recommended below are available for Android and iOS devices.
There are hundreds of KOA campsites all over the country, and this handy app lets you see all of them. You can search for available sites, check the local weather, and consult campground rules and information all from 1 app. It even syncs with virtually all navigation apps to help you reach your desired location.
AllTrails is one of the most comprehensive hiking apps currently available. Its database has access to over 200,000 trail maps which can be filtered to suit your needs. You can choose between hiking or biking trails, dog-friendly options, and narrow your search by length and difficulty level.
Though no one likes to think about it, a lot can happen while hiking, so it’s best to be prepared in case of injury. This is an official American Red Cross app that’s full of advice and tips on what to do in case of accidents or emergencies. It even has quizzes you can do to test your knowledge.
Having a glove compartment full of maps is a thing of the past, but trusting mobile navigation apps can be risky. Maps.me is a happy medium. All its maps are digital, which can save space, but it doesn’t rely on cell reception or internet access to work. Before heading out, download the map you need, and you’re all set.
The Dyrt is a camping database that gets its information directly from its users. You can use the app to reserve your campsite, but it can also be used to see your options. You can narrow your search by budget, date, or type of camping since it covers everything from laying a sleeping bag under the stars to “glamping” and RV camping.
How To Prepare Your House Before You Leave
Before heading off on your camping adventure, ensure your home is in order. Whether you’re leaving for 1 night or 10, you will want your home to be as organized as possible when you return.
- Get Rid of Expiring Foods: Anything that might spoil while you’re gone should be eaten or tossed before you leave.
- Take Out the Trash: Removing your garbage will ensure your house smells fresh.
- Unplug Electronics: In case of a power surge, you’ll want to ensure your computers and other tech are unplugged. Alternatively, you can use surge protectors or turn things off at the socket.
- Avoid an “Empty” Looking House: If you’re worried about intruders, invest in timers for your lights and television to make your home look lived in. You should also temporarily pause your mail or have someone you trust pick it up while you’re gone if your trip is longer than a few days.
- Get a House Sitter: If you have pets or plants, have someone you trust to come by to check on them. They can also ensure the power hasn’t gone out and everything is in order.
- Let People Know: Make sure you leave a copy of all your travel information with someone you trust in case of emergencies. You should also let your bank, credit card, and even insurance company know you’ll be in a new location.
Camping trips have the potential to be a lot of fun. Unsurprisingly, it’s many people’s favorite way to spend their vacation. However, a lot of planning goes into these trips, from finding the right site to packing light without forgetting anything.
Use our handy packing list, expert tips, and a few helpful apps to help your camping adventure go smoothly so that you can relax and have a great time.
Featured Image Credit: Jack Sloop via Unsplash
Frequently Asked Questions
In general, a 2- or 3-night camping trip is considered ideal for most people. However, the exact length will depend on the amenities offered by your campground, the weather, and your comfort. Shorter trips also require less packing and prep than longer ones.
One of the most essential rules of camping is to leave your campsite better than how you found it. That means camping in established places, making sure to take all your trash with you, and completely putting out any campfires that were set.
Not everyone will enjoy themselves while camping. People who dislike the outdoors or need indoor comforts won’t have as much fun. However, campgrounds can provide diverse amenities, and there are ways to add some luxuries, like using a camper.
Never leave a campfire unattended, and make sure you put it out before you go to sleep and before you leave. And don’t take campground rules lightly, as established rules are generally for your safety and comfort.
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