Plan a Camping Trip!
by Jeff Day
Done right, camping is as relaxing as a walk in the park. Done wrong, it’s an unmitigated disaster. The difference comes down to buying and bringing the right equipment for the weather and setting.
If you’re looking at camping as a way to get into backpacking, start with what’s described here then gradually pare back until it all fits in your pack. You want to carry a maximum of 40 pounds.
If it’s a family outing, buy things that are a bit roomier and don’t worry about weight. Plan ahead so your kids have plenty to do, but let them plan their own schedule.
Step 1 Pick a location
The National Park Service and most states have Web sites that tell you about their campgrounds’ facilities, typical temperatures and area attractions. You can usually make a reservation online, and you should. Pick a place near home for your first trip and plan to arrive when it’s still light out — putting a tent up for the first time when it’s dark is no fun.
Once you get the hang of camping, the routine is the same almost everywhere, so branch out. If you’ve got kids, look for a campground with swimming and nature trails. Also look for a nearby town where you can take your children for other fun if they get bored or it starts raining. Check the weather before you go.
Step 2 Don’t pack what you don’t need
Leave your electronics at home; playing video games on your iPhone isn’t exactly getting back to nature. Men, forget your razor and shaving cream. A weekend beard is good for whatever ails you. Women, leave your makeup at home. You’re better looking than you think.
You don’t need a hatchet, ax or a saw, either. It’s illegal to cut down live trees in state and federal parks. Gather loose sticks for your firewood or buy firewood at the campsite.
Make a list of everything you want to take and then gather your gear in a central location near the door. Pack your car only after making sure you have everything you need to have fun and stay safe at camp.
Step 3 Pack your shelter
Tent. If you’ve got kids, get a large family-style tent with ample floor space and enough headroom to let you stand up. If you’re looking at camping as a way to move into backpacking, invest in a good, lightweight backpacking tent. Whatever you get, look for a double-wall tent — the kind with a rain fly. The double tent walls let out water vapor so it won’t condense on the wall. The rain fly goes over the outside of the tent and is waterproof to keep you dry.
Sleeping bag. Get a warm one. Sleeping bags are rated for temperature ranges, and it’s colder out there than you think. Get a fiberfill mummy bag that’s rated into the 40s. Down gives you the same warmth for less weight, but down is useless once it gets wet. Count on everything getting wet at least once.
Sleeping mat. The bottom of your sleeping bag doesn’t keep out cold from the ground. At the minimum, get a closed-cell foam pad made for backpacking. Open cell foam collapses under pressure and loses its insulating value. For more comfort, get a self-inflating mat. Open the valve, and the jacket fills with air. Close the valve, and you have a combination air mattress/foam mat.
Step 4 Pack your appliances
You may find that you’re packing more than you did for your first apartment, but unlike the campsite, the apartment came with a stove and fridge.
Lantern. Gas, propane or electric lanterns all provide general lighting around your campsite equally well.
Flashlight. A regular flashlight is fine. Smaller ones mounted on headbands are great for backpacking but tend to get lost in larger tents filled with family gear.
Camp stove. You can get away without one, but it’s really tough not to burn pancakes, or even hot dogs, when you’re cooking over a fire. If you’re going to cook over a fire anyway, pack self-lighting charcoal.
Cell phone. Take your cell phone for emergencies, but leave it in your car once you arrive at your campsite.
Rope. Bring, at the very least, a clothesline.
Cooler. Put a few slugs of ice in your picnic cooler and keep your perishables in it.
Chairs. Fabric chairs that roll up and stuff into a sack are easiest to pack.
Step 5 Pack your kitchen
Cooking at camp requires more equipment than almost any other thing you expect to do. Once you gather all your camp kitchen supplies, keep them in a large plastic storage container.
Matches. Get wooden, strike-anywhere matches. Keep them in a small plastic kitchen container and store them in your larger container. Rip the abrasive strip on the original box and put the strike strip in the match container, too.
Table settings. “Unbreakable” is the rule of the day. You want plates, bowls, cups, knives, forks and spoons.
Pots and pans. What you need depends on what you’re cooking. A pot large enough to heat dishwater and a pot large enough to cook oatmeal constitute the bare minimum. Other items nice to have at camp include a small coffee pot, a medium-sized pot and a frying pan or griddle. Cooking utensils: A can opener and sharp knife are essential. Cooking spoon, spatula and tongs make camp cooks’ lives easier.
Wash basin and dish detergent. Pack a small container of dish detergent and a plastic basin that’s just big enough to hold your largest pot.
Dish cloth, hotpot gloves, dishtowel, paper towels. You want all four, especially the paper towels.
Water containers. Pack a water container for hauling water from the campground’s central water source. Collapsible ones pack easily. Take along quart water bottles for everyone, too.
Salt and pepper shakers. Get small, durable, watertight containers for each.
Hand sanitizer. You can use dish soap to wash your hands at camp, but sanitizer is easier, works better for cleaning around cuts and scrapes, and doubles as a fire starter.
Step 6 Pack your food
Food takes up a lot of room, so only take what you need. Choose easy-to-prepare meals. Plan on a lunch that you can take to the lake or on a nature hike.
Staples include milk, juice, powdered drinks, eggs, butter, cooking oil, bacon, pancake batter and syrup, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, sugar and bread. Pack peanut butter and jelly or lunchmeat and cheese for lunch. For dinner, hot dogs or hamburgers are always hits. One-pot meals are easy to cook and filling. Try stews, tuna casserole, macaroni and cheese with hot dogs, rice dishes or spaghetti — which actually requires two pots. Take along a couple of cans or envelopes of soup for cold, rainy days. For dessert take things that are easy to pack, like cookies, fruit or instant pudding.
Pack food that doesn’t fit into the cooler in boxes or milk-style crates. Always put your food and the cooler in your car overnight. Food left outdoors attracts bears, raccoons, bears, mice and bears. Never eat in your tent. The smell of a few crumbs has driven more than one critter to claw its way in for a visit.
Step 7 Pack your clothes and personal equipment
Dress in layers for warmth, and add or subtract layers as the temperature changes. Wool and synthetic clothing stays warm when wet. Cotton clothes do not. Pack at least one change of clothes.
Clothing. Pack long pants, shorts, underwear, a T-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a bandana, a hat with a brim and a swimsuit. Pack at least one pair of extra socks — wool is an especially good idea here.
Footwear. Sneakers work for your campsite. Take broken-in boots for hiking. Pack flip-flops for the shower. Camp showers are notoriously prone to athlete’s foot.
Warmth. Pack a lightweight wool sweater or fleece, a heavier wool jacket or fleece, and a fiberfill vest. Pack a rain jacket to keep you dry in the rain and for extra warmth in the cold. You may want to toss in an old coat, too.
Personal gear. Take sunglasses, a towel and a pocketknife or multi-tool. Pack a watch for yourself and one for the kids, so that you can tell them to be back in 15 minutes and back it up.
Compass. Grab a map of the park while you’re at the campground office, too.
Whistle. Bring one for everybody in your family or group so you can call to each other if someone gets lost.
Daypack. Everyone except for the smallest kids should have a daypack and be responsible for carrying their own water, jacket and other gear during hikes. Let little ones pack a favorite toy and a small water bottle and have an adult carry the rest of the children’s stuff.
Step 8 Pack your medicine cabinet
Safety and health are as important at camp as at home. Only bring as much of each as you need.
Sunscreen/bug dope. Get a combination of the two to save space.
First aid kit. You don’t need a field hospital. If someone gets badly hurt, get them to town. To handle minor injuries or illnesses, you need to pack bandages; butterfly bandages; gauze pads; tape; alcohol wipes for cleaning wounds; antibiotic ointment; cotton swabs; tweezers; aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen; antacids; antidiarrheal; and lip balm.
Apply a thin, fleecy pad called moleskin over hot spots on your feet that feel like they may become blisters. Petroleum jelly is the only cure for chaffing after a long hike. A needle and thread may come in handy, and these sewing supplies won’t get lost if you pack them in your first aid kit. Pack everything a small, watertight kitchen container.
Personal hygiene. You need toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, soap/shampoo, comb/brush, toothbrush and toothpaste.
Step 9 Pack some entertainment
You must take a camera. Everything else is optional, but plan on having something to do when you’re just hanging around. Pack binoculars for bird watching or spotting craters on the moon. If you’re near water, why not bring your fishing rod, reel and tackle? Pack a book on tree identification so you can start to learn about your surroundings. In the evening, you may want to play cards or a board game under the lantern.
Step 10 Pack the car