5 Steps to Plan the Perfect Camping Trip

As the weather improves in spring, it’s time to start thinking about getting out into the woods and connecting with nature!

Growing up, camping trips were a summer staple. The smell of citronella burning, my whole family would pack into our epic five person tent each night. My brothers and father were in charge of most of the laborious aspects like setting up the tents and making a fire. Unfortunately, I didn’t really grow into my deep love of the outdoors and camping until I moved to California many years later. But looking back, those times in the woods still make me smile.

Now that my eyes have been opened to the joys of being in the woods, smelling like campfire, getting a little dirty, and stargazing at night, I feel the need to share with others how easy it is to experience this joy too. I’m not sure what it is about going back to basics and living outside for a few nights, but it makes you feel self-sufficient and helps you forget some of the trivialities of your day-to-day life. I wouldn’t want to live outdoors all the time, but a healthy dose of exposure has surely expanded my mind and enriched my life. And I hope it does the same for you!

If you are new to camping, here are the 5 steps you should take to have an epic camping trip - car camping specifically. I’ll get into backpacking another time, since it’s a very different experience!

  1. Book a campsite, early (and often!).

I find it helps to just get stuff on the calendar, especially if you live somewhere with a lot of popular campsites and they fill up quickly. Some campsites are first-come first-serve, meaning no reservations are available, but they still fill up quickly. For land owned and operated by the National Park Service, book through Reserve America. Each state operates their own sites for State, County, and Regional parks. Finally, there are private services that offer campgrounds like HipCamp.

Car camping is the best!

2. Plan how many people you want to invite on your camping trip, or go it alone!

Most campsites allow for 6 campers, 2-3 tents, and 1-2 cars. You can often check out the site online in advance to get a sense of it. All campsites are different and some might be more comfortable for a large group than others. You can also consider booking adjoining sites!

Main chairs

3. Make sure you have the right gear.

If you don’t own already or aren’t ready to take the plunge to invest in the gear, you can rent from outfitters like REI. If you are student, many Universities will rent out gear from the sports or wilderness centers for cheap or even free. At the bare minimum, ideally you will bring:

  • A tent to sleep in

  • A sleeping bag to keep you warm at night

  • A mat or blankets to insulate you from the (usually very cold) ground

  • Something to cook food on/with. You could cook over a fire for all your meals however a) this take a lot of firewood b) a lot of time c) depending on conditions (i.e rain, high wind, etc) might be quite challenging. I think it’s advisable to bring a backup gas grill or water boiler.

  • Cutlery and dish-ware for aforementioned cooking and eating.

  • Headlamps, flashlights, or other lamps for when it gets dark.

I would argue pretty much everything else on the market is a ‘nice-to-have’ instead of a ‘must-have’. There are a lot of fun/cute/amusing gadgets you can start collecting for camping purposes (imagine mini spice sets and double sleeping bags, for example!).

Camping chairs are definitely a big ‘nice to have’.

4. Plan out your meals.

It helps, especially if you go in a group, to plan out meals in advance so that you don’t show up to camp with no food or too much food! Without refrigeration, your food might spoil fast so it’s best to have your meals thought through. Sometimes it is easier to pre-prepare certain ingredients that would either take a long time or require a lot of utensils/cutting boards/etc at home beforehand. Pre-chopped veggies to roast on the fire is a good example. There are a lot of delicious meals you can prepare while camping, and you don’t have to eat backpacking freeze-dried food! When friends and I get together to camp, we usually have a google sheet going with all the food and other items we plan to bring so we can coordinate. Some of my favorite go-to meals include:

My ideal camping meal.

  • Mac-and-Chili (buy cans of chili and make macaroni and cheese with boiling water)

  • Taco night (tortillas, veggies, fake veggie meat, cheese, salsa, chips)

  • Bar-B-Q (hot dogs, baked beans, burgers, etc)

  • Roasted vegetables and instant rice

Don’t forget to pack ingredients for s’mores!

5. How do you plan to enjoy your weekend?

Finally, you have all the things you need, it’s time to think about how you will spend your time! If you have never camped before, I highly recommend just relaxing in camp. There are few things better than waking up to the sounds of birds, slowly preparing a breakfast, lounging and reading and playing some music and just enjoying being outside. Bring card or board games to help enjoy the passage of time as well. If there is a vista point nearby or a hike, those would be great options too!

Nothing better than a gathering of friends in the woods.

I hope this list of steps to take to execute a fun and nature filled weekend camping trip are helpful. If you have further suggestions, leave them in the comments below!