How to Get Ready for a Camping Trip
Planning and packing for a camping trip can be a little daunting. These ideas will help.
Get outside this summer. Better yet: sleep outside! Even if it’s just for one night, a camping trip is an affordable adventure that – good or bad – you’ll likely remember for some time and you may end up with a funny story to tell. Most all kids love to go camping – new places to explore, new activities to try and license to get dirty. Not to mention, it’s healthy for them (and you) to be away from a screen and out in the fresh air.
What to Bring
Getting prepared and packed for a camping trip can be a bit stressful. You can’t always predict what you’ll need and the thought of forgetting some key piece of equipment can be scary. Fear not, there are plenty of checklists out there to help you make sure you have all the essentials. REI has a huge list of checklists for what to pack for different types of camping and what you should bring to certain national parks. Here's a family camping checklist from the blog Beyond the Tent that includes items to bring for kids.
Are you a first time camper and don’t want to invest in all that equipment for what might be a one-time experience? Many state parks – Georgia, Pennsylvania, Idaho to name a few – offer First Time Camper programs. You can rent a tent and basic camping equipment, and the rangers will even help you set it up. Pennsylvania only charges $20 a night! To be eligible for the Georgia and Pennsylvania programs, you have to have never camped in any of their state parks before, if they find you in their database, you’re out. Even if you have been camping before, this is a great option if you’re flying to that area and don’t want to lug camping equipment on a plane, and it’s certainly cheaper than paying airline baggage fees.
The wonderful thing about car camping is you can over pack. What you bring is only limited to the size of your car. So bring all the extra rain ponchos, pillows and snacks that you can.
What to Bring for the Kids
If you’re worried about keeping the kids safely occupied on a camping trip, don’t. There are plenty of things you can do to keep them from whining that they’re bored. Bring the bikes for one, since campgrounds are usually a safe place to bike and many have designated bike trails. If your kids are biking around the campground, they’re likely to meet other kids on bikes and maybe make some new friends. Fishing doesn’t have to be complicated. One time we camped next to a small stream, and my boys spent hours catching little crayfish and guppies. They caught their prey with a couple of tiny fishing nets and placed them in a plastic shoebox-size container. I sat on my lounge chair by the stream and had a relaxing time watching them.
Scavenger hunts are also a great kids' activity. Many campgrounds and state parks offer geocaching programs. If there's nothing like that where you're going, make a scavenger list before you leave home, include things like: Find 10 different types of leaves. How many different types of critters did you spot? How many different types of campers and RVs did you see?
Teens love portable hammocks. They'll enjoy finding new spots to hang around and chill out. If you're not bringing bikes, skateboards will keep older kids occupied.
In case it rains and you’re stuck inside the tent, bring along a deck of cards or a board game. You can of course, bring some electronics, but limiting the playing time is not a bad idea.
Also, don’t forget to bring glow sticks, bug catchers and water toys.
If it’s a tight budget that’s holding you back, find another excuse. If you want to hit the open road, there are ways you can do so for little money. State and national parks are usually the cheapest places to camp, but you can camp for free on some public land and national forests. Check out the U.S. Bureau of Land Management website to find exact locales. You may only have a primitive toilet, but you’ll have more cash in your pocket.
1. Plan Ahead
While it's true that nothing can prepare you for living out of a backpack other than actually doing it, planning never hurt anyone. Research routes and trails, scour the internet for other peoples experiences, and look for tips on what to see and do where you're going. And most importantly, check the weather!
2. Do a Test Run
There's nothing worse than being well into a long hike and realizing that you left an important piece of gear back home. Pack your bag and head out for a day hike as if it were the real thing. Set up your tent, cook a meal, and see what pieces of gear you wish you had brought and which should have been left at home. If you are new to backpacking don’t be afraid to over pack a little, it’s better to have something and not need it than the other way around.
3. Bring Good Footwear
Tennis shoes will do for shorter less intense hikes, but if you plan on doing strenuous or multi-day outings, invest in a good pair of hiking boots. They may cost a lot up front, but your feet will thank you in the long run. Be sure to allow yourself some time to break in new boots before hitting the trail.
4. Get the Right Size Backpack
People always say, "if you have the space, you'll fill it", this adage goes for backpacks too. With sizes ranging from 30L all the way up to 75L, bigger is better doesn't apply, especially when thinking about your back. If you're doing an extended trail (such as the Appalachian or PCT) then the larger end of the spectrum may be what you need to fit everything when away from civilization. If you're sticking to weekend overnighters it's probably best to get something a bit smaller, it will force you to only carry what you absolutely need.
5. Appropriate Sleeping Gear
If there is one place where you should invest your money it’s in a sleeping bag and pad. A good night's sleep is invaluable when you’re putting in a lot of miles on the trail and the best way to achieve that is with a pad to keep you off the hard ground and a sleeping bag that is best suited to the lowest temperature you might encounter.
6. Have Enough Light
Most of us rely on our cell phones when we need a flashlight from time to time, but out in the woods you’ll something a little more powerful. A headlamp is important for those times you roll into camp after dark or those mornings when you want to be on the trail before the sun rises.
7. Plan Your Meals
You may not be able to cook gourmet meals just because of the sheer weight that would add to your pack, but you can still eat well. Bring a small stove to heat water for foods such as noodles and oatmeal or prepackaged freeze-dried meals. There are even some harder cheeses that can last a few days without refrigeration. Be sure to pack trail mix, jerky and granola bars to get you through the long days.
8. Bring Back-Up Water Filteration
Plastic bottles are great but look into lighter packable options that can be rolled when empty as to not take up valuable bag space. Be sure to plan water refill stops during your trip or if there are no places to refill look into iodine drops, chlorine tablets, or a water purification system that will allow you to safely drink water from a natural source.
10. Let Someone Know
An often forgotten aspect of backing is the chance that something could go wrong. Most of us go into a trip with nothing but visions of beautiful sunrises, amazing mountain vistas and a chance to escape from the modern world of cell phones and computers; but the possibility of injury or getting lost is always there. Before you head off on the trail let someone know where you are hiking and your estimated homecoming. Although they may not be right there to help you if something does go wrong, they can certainly expedite a rescue if that's what it comes to.
If you’re ready for a bigger adventure, try backcountry camping. Leave the car in the parking lot and hike back into the forest to a shelter and campsite. A lot of national parks, state parks and national forests can accommodate backcountry campers. Shelters and campsites can range from just a clearing in the woods to an elaborate lean-to with bunks and fireplaces. Because you’re hauling everything on your back, backwoods camping takes more careful planning. You’ll need some special equipment, some of which can cost a pretty penny. See if you can borrow from friends or check out some secondhand sites like Gear Trade.
Located in Marfa, Texas, El Cosmico is an eclectic 21-acre spread where the accommodations include restored vintage trailers, tepees, safari tents and a 22-foot yurt. You can also choose to pitch your own tent on the campgrounds for $30. This 1946 Imperial Mansion includes king-sized and twin beds, a full kitchen and a cedar deck. Trailers start at $120.
After you spend the day exploring Marfa, settle in to your very own time capsule via a 1951 Kozy Coach caravan. This 27-footer is outfitted with a full-bed, an outdoor-shower and AC, both of which you’ll appreciate during the summer months. We personally ga-ga for the Buster Bluth hand chair that adorns the cedar plank deck, the perfect perch for catching the storied Marfa Lights.
Conestoga Ranch sits on the northern border of Utah just below Wyoming and Idaho and enjoys majestic mountain views and recreation on Bear Lake. It’s also where you can hang up your spurs and sleep in a covered wagon. There’s room for as many as six or bring a group of friends and form your own settlers party. Couples wagons start at around $110.
Indoor Campground in Germany
Throw out all your preconceived notions of Eastern European architecture and stark minimalism and say hello to BaseCamp Bonn, a youth hostel in Bonn, Germany. Located in a warehouse the size of an airplane hangar, the indoor campground is made up of a wacky assortment of themed caravans (The Oprah, the Drag Queen), Airstreams and other “oddities” where one can rest their head. It’s also got a common picnic area and snack bar.
Ground Control to Major Bonn
Out of the creative mind of a movie set designer came BaseCamp Bonn, the giant indoor campground/youth hostel with 16 wildly themed vintage caravans, two-night sleepers, two Airstreams and what they call “oddities,” like this tent atop a Trabant. It’s like being on one kooky Sid & Marty Krofft adventure (millennials, look it up) with beds and coffee and alcohol. Sign us up. Trips start at roughly $45 a night.
The Thorny Mountain Fire Tower in West Virginia’s Seneca State Park is one of the closest places to heaven you’ll ever find. It sits at one of the state’s highest points and one must climb 69 steep steps to get there. Relax on the catwalk; enjoy the misty taste of moonshine and drift off to sleep. Rates are a calming $75 a night.
Ruby's Inn at Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park is made up of eight large tepees with plenty of room for the Lone Ranger, Tonto, Silver and Scout because there’s nothing in them, not even electricity. So bring your gear and seven other friends. At $62 a night, that’s about $8 pp. For that price, you can pick up the first round at Ebenezer’s Barn & Grill located just steps from your bivouac.
The Shady Dell
Set your alarm to wake up in kitsch heaven, which is apparently located in the tiny town of Bisbee, AZ. The Shady Dell trailer park is made up of nine fully-restored vintage caravans and one cherry-red 1947 Chris Craft yacht. So, pack your poodle skirt, but not Fifi. Not pets allowed. Rates start at $85 a night and for that price you can afford a dog sitter and a quick trip to nearby Mexico for supplies.
Kevin Costner danced with wolves; well, you can sleep with squirrels. Located in the North Georgia Mountains, Unicoi State Park offers campers offers a unique way to sleep amongst nature via 16 raised and covered platforms. Keep in mind that you’ll commune with nature and your neighbors. Bring appropriate camping gear, earplugs and three other birds as each nest sleeps 4.
Located on a stretch of pristine land between the hills of North Devon, UK and above the Atlantic Ocean is Loveland Farms with its five geometric domes ($138 a night). Each raised pod is equipped to meet your basic needs including a unique “eco loo.” Once you’ve stopped gaping at it, head down to the beach. Dogs are welcome in the pod.
Long lost brother of Sam, Yosemite Yurts is fast becoming the hottest attraction at the Yosemite Lakes RV park. The five electrified yurts have a full-size futon and a bunk bed with a full lower bed outfitted with linens. There’s also a microwave, a mini fridge and a coffeemaker. No reason to go too extreme, is there? You’ll pay a little extra for your comforts with prices starting at $149.
Dirty Back Roads
There are no tin roofs rusted at Kate’s Lazy Desert – that’s because they’re all fully restored aluminum Airstreams. The eponymously named haven of kitsch is located in the Mojave High Desert five miles from Joshua Tree National Park. Your hostess is, of course, Kate Pierson of the B52s though don’t expect her to bring you towels, a scorpion on your pillow, that’s another thing. Rates start at $175; desert critters at no charge.
In a Van Down by the River
At Sun Lotus Yoga Retreat on Vancouver Island, you’re invited to commune with nature, others and sleep in a bus. There are also tepees and covered outdoor sleeping pads as well, but the converted “hippie” bus fascinates us. Situated amongst lush flowers and a lovely paddling lake, it has a sleeping loft and full living area down below. Namaste and beep, beep. Prices vary according to your spiritual needs.
Get Yer Rocks Off
Yurtle and his friends like to mosey on down to Turtle Rock Hollow rustic 43-acre camping resort located in the middle of Upstate New York on the south end of Honeoye Lake. Christened Hiawatha by the owners, an 18-foot tepee is one of TRH’s main attractions. This tall fellow sleeps 6-7 adults on the raised floor. Bring your sleeping bag and tuck in for the night after campfire Kumbaya. $70 for four and pet turtles, pet rocks and dogs allowed.
Cover Your Wagons
Not only is Rancho Oso RV & Camping Resort located on 300+ acres near Santa Barbara, but there are also covered wagons, safari tents, tepees that start at $79 a night. There’s mini golf, hiking trails, 30 horse corrals, a pool, campfires and plenty to keep everyone in the family out of trouble. So, get along little doggies; pets are welcome in most of the structures.
With its wildly inventive and creative upcycling, this converted double decker bus would be less about camping/roughing; however, it’s located in the woods of East Sussex. Relatively close to the hip town of Brighton, it lies in southern England on the English Channel. The Big Green Bus sleeps six in three separate bedrooms and boasts a wood-fired hot tub and fire pit. Rates are roughly $231 a night and pets can hop on and hop off.
Sleep Like the Lorax
Want to really get away from it all? Why not sleep in a tree? The guides at the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute in Eugene will help guide you on your climb up some of Willamette National Forest’s 200-foot Douglas-firs and red alders. We suggest that when considering sleeping in a tree, think about waking up in said tree.
Want the ability to sleep anywhere? Over a river? No problem. At the remotest of beaches? You got it. All you need is three trees as an anchor, a little chutzpah and around $450 for the Tentsile tent. It was designed as the tree house you can take anywhere.
Way up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits LeConte Lodge, which is a unique place to sleep for many reasons. The lodge sits at an elevation of approximately 6,400 feet making it the highest public lodge in the eastern U.S. and it is the only permanent structure where one can sleep in the Great Smoky Mountains.
There are no roads leading up to LeConte Lodge. To stay in one of the historic log cabins you'll have to hike. There a five trails to chose from, the shortest is a steep, but beautiful 5.5 miles. Llamas are used to carry fresh supplies to the lodge three times a week. You can't catch a ride, but when you get to the top, you can enjoy the food and wine that the llamas trekked up the mountain.
Perhaps it's not budget keeping you from experiencing the great outdoors, but comfort. Maybe camping isn’t your thing. There are several ways you can get close to nature without sleeping on the ground. Vintage travel-trailer parks are popping up all over the country. Roughly the same price as a mid-range hotel, these campgrounds rent refurbished campers that are most often equipped with all the amenities. You can stay in a refurbished 1970s Airstream or 1950s Caravan, pick your decade.
There are also campgrounds that rent more unusual structures like covered wagons, furnished teepees, yurts and domes. I recently stayed in a yurt on a lake in a Georgia state park. It was a bit more expensive than bringing my own tent, but a whole lot easier and we were still able to have a good family camping experience. A yurt is a round tent with a wood frame and a wood floor. The yurt had electricity, but no plumbing. Ours was equipped with bunk beds and a couple of fans to make sleeping fairly comfortable.
If your idea of camping includes thousands of other people and a multi-day line-up of music, take a look at our handy music-fest checklist. And find other tips that will help you plan and navigate from this stage to that stage.