Essential No. 1: Shelter
Some folks love RV camping, with all the comforts of a home on wheels, including electricity and running water. Others prefer rudimentary shelters made of branches and broad leaves. And then some folks enjoy slinging a hammock up and sleeping under the stars.
Find a Good Spot
Start by finding a level spot that is free of tree roots and ledge. Remove any downed branches and loose rocks, as these can damage your tent and are mighty uncomfortable.
Whether you are car camping or backpacking, it makes sense to carry along some ground cover for under your tent. Most tent manufacturers produce footprints for their model, although, plastic sheeting or a Mylar blanket can work equally well. This keeps the tent base dry and free of dirt and abrasions or tears.
For sleeping, pack thin foam, or similar, pads to be placed under your sleeping bag for padding and insulation for a more comfortable nights sleep. You can read our review of the best backpacking sleeping pad on the market. Alternatively, if you are car camping consider investing in some foldable camping cots.
Set your tent up well away from dead trees, you do not want to be underneath a dead branch should it decided to join you in your tent while you are sleeping. Under the cover of healthy trees is fine.
Have the door of your tent facing away from the fire so that you don’t fill the tent up with smoke every time you go in and out of it.
Be sure to keep your tent door zipped up at all times to keep insects and critters out.
Choose the Right Tent
Car Camping Tents
The beautiful thing about having vehicle space to pack your camping gear is that you can bring bigger items. You can easily pack a spacious family camping tent in the back of your car. A larger tent will provide plenty of space and a comfortable place to hang out and store gear if the weather turns ugly. If the tent is tall enough, such as a dome tent, you may be able to change clothes without sitting or lying down.
Consider a tent that has a double door with a vestibule. The great thing about a vestibule is that you can take off your dirty boots and shoes and store them right in the vestibule where they can stay dry. That also means less dirt gets inside the sleeping area of the tent.
Choose a tent that has a rain fly to place over the top. This will ensure that the inside stays dry and that the water is directed away from the door and ventilation panels.
While the larger tents are excellent for the roominess they offer, these are generally designed only for milder weather camping. The material is often lightweight for ease of putting the tent up. Together with the height and lightweight fabrics, larger tents do not do well in windy conditions.
There is something to be said for staying warm via shared body heat. Warm air rises, so your tall tent will not stay as toasty inside as the smaller 1 or 2 person tents. If the temperatures are prone to dropping significantly at night, you might want to consider packing a couple of smaller two person tents designated just for sleeping.
Backpack Camping Tents
If you are hiking and carrying everything you need for survival on your back, then choosing a smaller, lightweight tent is the way to go. Of course, the design and material all depend on the weather conditions you are going to encounter. So, check the forecast before you purchase your tent.
Basic backpacking tents are available in 3 and 4 season versions. A 3 season tent is perfect for milder temperatures and cold nights. These tents have a little more ventilation and are lightweight. 4 season tents are designed to withstand heavy snowfall for camping in cold weather. The better ones have double fabric walls. Both versions sit lower to the ground than the larger tents discussed in the car camping tent section.
When backpacking, the tent you carry will be designed primarily for sleeping, storing your pack, and keeping insects and rain out.
Weight matters. This tent will likely be placed at the head of your pack, just above your shoulder. A lighter tent/pack will equate to better balance while hiking.
Essential No. 2: Fire
One of the best parts of camping is having a fire to cook over, warm you up, and keep biting bugs away. Many campsites come with stone fire pits that you can prop your feet up on. Others have separate grills for cooking. If you are backpacking, you will likely want to bring along a small, single burner camp stove for boiling water and heating food up.
First, check with the campground to see if the site you are going to has a fire pit or at least some rocks so that you can fashion one yourself.
You should pack enough dry wood to last for your entire trip. That would be approximately 10 to 12 logs per day, depending on the log size. Your campsite might have wood available on the ground or for sale. Call the park or campground to find out because hauling a lot of wood takes up gear space.
Further reading: Learn how to build a fire correctly.
You will need fire starters, tinder, or kindling to get a flame going. Fire starters are available in most hardware stores. Fatwood works well to start both wood and charcoal fires. Candles and dryer lint, and even Doritos work pretty well as kindling. What you don’t want to use in an open pit is paper, as this can get taken by the wind and could spark an accidental fire elsewhere.
Matches are great, but they must be kept in a waterproof container, such as a plastic baggie. A better tool is a lighter. The butane filled ones with a handle and long nozzle are the safest.
If cooking over a pit, you will do well to bring along a metal grate and cast iron cookware. A Dutch oven can go directly into the coals for even cooking. A great trick for easy cleanup of cast iron is to coat the bottom and sides of the pot or skillet with soap. The soot will stick to the soap and not the pan (1).
Other items you will want to bring along for your fire include a hand shovel for preparing the pit and for putting the fire out with dirt, as well as a poker to move burning logs around. Fireproof gloves aren’t a bad idea either. Be mindful of putting the fire out before your retire. Use dirt or water to accomplish this. Never leave a fire unattended.
If you are lucky enough to have a grill on site, all you need is the charcoal and a flame. You can purchase individual bags of briquettes for single fires, where you just light the bag. The problem with these is that they have chemicals in them that give off a strange odor. If you don’t mind the chemicals than these small bags are convenient.
If you want to bring your own charcoal grill, some portable ones will get the job done.
A charcoal chimney and clean charred wood or briquettes produce a more natural cooking source for the grill. To see how to build a fire with a charcoal chimney, take a look at this video from About.com below.
Alternatively, you can bring a camp cook stove that is fueled by liquid gas. These have to sit on a level surface for safety reasons. They also need a windshield, so the surface area for the pots can become limited. Still, these are great for boiling water or making a pan of eggs in the morning if you don’t want to take the time to start a fire. This makes sense if you have early activities, like a hike, planned.
Camp Stoves for Backpackers
Making a fire along a trail is sometimes restricted for safety reasons. And, you would be entirely reliant on finding dry wood. For this reason, it makes sense to invest in a single burner camp stove.
There are camp stoves available in all sizes and shapes. Some use sterno, while others use fuel canisters. The single burner camp stoves are ideal for backpacking. They fold up and pack easily. Many of them are just a burner that attaches right to the top of the fuel canister that you can place a small pan on top of.
With the small canister camp stoves, there are sometimes issues with keeping the flame from extinguishing in windy conditions. Carrying some aluminum foil with you can remedy that problem by forming it into a wind barrier or shield. Some stoves are equipped with windshields.
Remember to carry matches in a plastic baggie or a lighter.
Essential No. 3: Food
Cooking with fire is so primal and feels a bit liberating. The flavor that smoke infuses into the food is just so unique and delicious. Most people love the smell of a barbecue, even if there isn’t any animal protein. Grilled and blistered vegetables are a great option.
If traveling by car, your options are pretty much wide open with coolers for storage. If backpacking, you will have some limitations on what you can and can’t carry, and how to pack and preserve your meal choices. The one thing that is universally a hurdle is keeping things cold with ice, as ice eventually melts.
Food Tips for Car Camping
You can grill, and you can cook in a pot in the fire or on a camp stove. That is all well and good until it comes time to clean up. Remember that you can also cook in packets of aluminum foil with no cleanup (although, remember to take dispose of the foil responsibly). It is wise to plan out your meals before you leave home so that you are only using the grill, one pot, and some foil. This is a fairly good rule to stick with, especially for dinners. Cleaning up in a creek in the dark is not fun.
Do a little research for successful campfire recipes that require less clean up. Some innovative campfire recipes can be found at Six Sisters Stuff. And, prepare whatever you can ahead of time at home that will keep well. This could include chili, cornbread, roasted chicken, hard boiled eggs, or dips for chips, as suggestions.
Further reading: For more inspiration check out our campfire dinners ideas.
A trick to keeping things longer in your cooler is to fill a plastic milk bottle with water and freeze it. Then, place it in your cooler. A solid block of ice will take longer to melt than ice cubes or ice packs. Plus, you will have extra water to use when it does melt.
Another good idea is to freeze your animal proteins. They will last longer on the road. You can cook them as they defrost. This could give you a couple of extra day’s worth of meals. Store your dairy in with the frozen proteins to keep it from spoiling.
Choose fresh fruits and vegetables that don’t need to be refrigerated. Bananas, apples, lemons, bell peppers, potatoes, carrots, onions, and corn on the cob will keep well for a few days, if not longer.
Make use of your home pantry staples. Here is a list of pantry items that are easy to prepare and will incorporate well into meal options or eaten as snacks.
- Boxed pasta and canned sauce
- Canned beans
- Nut butters and crackers
- Tinned fish
- Instant oatmeal
- Fruit roll-ups
- Granola bars
- Minute rice
- Instant coffee packets and tea bags
- Mustard and Catsup
- Oil and vinegar
And of course, remember to bring the makings for s’mores, especially if you are camping with kids.
For plates and utensils, you may do well with disposable products. However, you will need to bring garbage bags, and you will need to haul it all out with you. Otherwise, pack plastic plates, bowls, cups, and utensils that you are ok with washing after every meal. To-go mugs will work for coffee, tea, and hot cocoa.
Store uneaten or opened food in your car so as not to invite animals and insects to your site.
Food Tips for Backpacking
Backpackers have an entire world of dehydrated food options to choose from. While that may not sound appetizing, many advances have been made in this category of meal resources. You might want to head to your camping store, or online, and try a few of these before you head out to your expedition, as they are a little bit costly or alternatively check out our guide to backpacking foods.
Take a stroll down the aisles of the bulk and dehydrated food sections in your health food market, and you will see many options for organic dried food items. These are lightweight and can be nutritious.
A basic list to start with for backpacking is:
- Instant hot cereal
- Dried fruit
- Trail mix
- Fruit leather
- Dehydrated vegetables
- Tuna and salmon foil packets
- Mustard packets
- Ramen noodles
- Instant soup packets
- Individual servings of nut butters
- Instant coffee, tea bags, and cocoa
- Electrolyte packets for water
You can also bring fresh foods with you. They won’t last forever, but they will provide some nutrition for the first few days.
You can freeze cubes of meat, like beef tenderloin, in plastic wrap. Then, wrap it with newspaper and then with aluminum foil. It will keep in your pack for almost 24 hours. Small, tart granny smith or lady apples, lemons, and tangerines do well placed in the outside net pockets of a backpack.
Remember to pack a small cooking vessel that can also be used as your bowl and cup.
There are pocket knife style utensils that fold up neatly. These have a knife, a spoon, and a fork that fold back into the handle. That really should be all that you need.
Essential No. 4: Water
Water is your most precious commodity when camping. You simply must have it for staying hydrated, for cleaning yourself, brushing your teeth, and for washing cookware and utensils. There are many ways to carry and store water for your excursion. It is also important to know how to make use of natural water supplies, such as creeks, rivers, and freshwater lakes.
Bringing Water with You
If you have the luxury of a vehicle, then just fill jugs with tap water and bring them along. Also, freeze some water to use for your cooler, as mentioned above. You can purchase spring water in 3 to 5-gallon dispensing jugs with spouts that work nicely perched on the edge of a picnic table.
If you are backpacking, you will do well with a pack that has a bladder or reservoir built into it to carry water. This device comes with a tube that you can place in your mouth to hydrate while hiking without having to stop to unpack your bag. You will need to refill this frequently, as it doesn’t hold more than approximately 50 ounces of water.
Dealing with Fresh Water Sources
It is imperative that you know the condition of any fresh water source before attempting to drink it. Fresh water can have bacteria, acid rain, and agricultural runoff in it. The bacteria can be dealt with by boiling the water properly – bring the water to rolling boil for a minute or two.
Acid rain and pesticides are not so easy to get rid of. The CDC recommends purifying water with common chlorine bleach. A ratio of two drops of bleach (5-6% Sodium Hypochlorite) per quart of water should do the trick (make sure and use an unscented variety). Simply mix the bleach in the water, mix and wait for about 30 minutes.
There are purification and filtration systems that you can bring along on your trip. The top choices include gravity flow filters and water treatment drops. Gravity flow filters seem to be the filter of choice for both car campers and backpackers. Some compact models fold up neatly to fit in a pack. Potable water treatment drops are easy to use and to carry. They come in tiny bottles and can treat large quantities of water.
Water for Personal Hygiene
There is nothing more arresting than dunking yourself in a freezing cold stream or lake to get cleaned up in the morning. Yes, you likely smell of campfire smoke or you are dirty from hiking. But, staying stinky and dirty might be better than dealing with bracingly cold water. You may just opt to go with the funkiness and clean up when you get home. That works if everyone is on the same page.
Or, you could bring along a solar shower bag and some microfiber travel towels. A solar shower bag works by absorbing the heat from the sun to warm the water. Once warmed, the water is released by gravity to give you a shower, albeit a short one. These bags are small enough to fit in a backpack but might take up more space than you want. Remember to pack a bathing suit, or similar, as there won’t be any shower door to hide you from your neighbors.
For brushing your teeth and daily face washing, just use your bottled or backpack water. Don’t rinse your mouth with stream or lake water and risk the chance of ingesting harmful bacteria, acids, or pesticides.
To prevent losing your whole bar of soap while washing, consider shaving it into small strips with a regular potato peeler, meaning you have one strip per wash. Even better, bring along some biodegradable soap specifically made for camping.
Nature will call, so bring some biodegradable toilet paper and a cathole trowel. Make a small hole in the ground first, go, and bury the evidence. Always be mindful of poison ivy when doing this and always be mindful “to go” at least 200 feet away from any standing water.
No. 5: (Not So Essential) Additional Tips
Collapsible chairs made of metal and waterproof fabric can make sitting around the camp fire more relaxing than sitting on the ground or a picnic bench. Get them with cup holders.
Sleeping comfortably is necessary. For car camping, you can bring inflatable air mattresses that keep you off the ground and make it feel like you are sleeping on a bed.
Backpackers will do well with either foam pads or by placing clothing beneath a sleeping bag. Use the sleeping bag pouch, stuffed with clothing, like your pillow.
Make sure you choose sleeping bags that are appropriate for the forecasted weather conditions.
If the weather is forecast to be super warm then taking a portable camping fan with you may help alleviate any sweaty discomfort.
Skin Protection and First Aid
Packing a backcountry first aid kit is essential for all campers. The bare necessities in it should be:
- Band aids and bandages
- Gauze pads or a roll
- Ace bandage
- Sterile wipes
- Antibiotic ointment
- Burn ointment
- Anti-itch cream
- Safety pins
- Snake venom remedy
- Any necessary prescription medications
Insect repellent will be needed. You can purchase many varieties at sporting goods stores. You can also make your own with essential oils that are safe to use on humans and pets. Do not get it inside yours or your pet’s eyes, nose, and mouth. A recipe can be found at Aromaweb.
Sunscreen is a must if you plan on doing a lot of well-exposed hiking or swimming. Hats, long sleeved shirts and pants, dry socks, waterproof shoes, and a rain poncho or large trash bag will make life so much nicer if it there are too many bugs for the repellent to keep away from you or the weather takes a turn for the worse.
Camping with Kids
Safety is your first rule when camping with kids. Before you even hit the road or the trail, teach them about safety around an open fire.
Pack Velcro strapped shoes, if possible, so they don’t risk tripping over untied laces that get snagged by a root or a branch. Also, make sure they understand that they need to follow the trail when hiking.
There won’t be a TV, so plan plenty of activities, and bring some games. Allow them to bring a favorite small stuffed animal to snuggle with when it is really dark at night.
Respect Your Neighbors
RV campgrounds sometimes have a reputation for being noisy. This isn’t true for all of them. Many have noise restrictions. Tent and trail camping generally attract those who are looking for some peace and quiet. Be mindful of other campers by not bringing along a noisy boom box.
Be gentle with your lighting as well. Tabletop battery powered lanterns are generally fine at campsites. Do not to use your car high beams to light up the site.
Both car campers and backpackers can see quite well around the campsite at night with a headlamp.
Be sure that you bring some plastic garbage bags. These are not just for garbage. They can be used for dirty laundry and for keeping clothes and boots dry. Do use them to carry your trash out. Leave your campsite clean and debris free when you depart.
Remember to put your fire completely out.
When You Get Home
A good practice when you return home is to unpack your tent and let it completely dry out in the sun. This will help prevent mold and odors, help preserve the fabric, and keep the seams clean. After it dries, consider resealing the seams with a fluid that you can purchase at your camping supply store.
If you wash your down sleeping bag, place it in the dryer with a couple of tennis balls. This will help the down to disperse evenly.
Recondition your leather boots with something like mink oil to moisturize them keep them water resistant.
Restock your first aid kit and toiletries kit for your next trip.
Replace batteries in your flashlights, lanterns, and headband lights, if needed. Always have extra on hand.
Further Reading & Resources
- Camping 101 for Beginners
- Cajuncastiron.com’s information on protecting cast iron cookware
- Sixsistersstuff.com’s campfire recipes
- Modernsurvivalblog.com’s bleach to water ratio for purification
- Aromaweb.com’s essential oil insect repellent recipe
- Campingfieldguide.com’s list of activities and games for kids
- Howcast.com’s tent basics
- Survivaltopics.com’s facts about water safety
- Campfieldguide.com’s camping checklist
If you know of any further tips or hacks that you feel deserve a mention then please drop us a note in the comments below!!