Camping is a well-loved summer activity of many people. Even those who steer away from the outdoors now have the option of “glamping”, a perfect mix of adventure of tent-camping and the luxury of a hotel. Regardless of how ‘outdoorsy’ you are, there is a camping option for you. From the most rugged to the most pampered, find out my best camping tips to prepare for your next trip.
Post originally published on August 2, 2017. Most recently updated on July 28, 2020.
CAMPING TIPS: BEFORE YOU GO
While camping may seem like an easy, simple vacation, there is just as much prep involved in getting ready. Sometimes more!
In-State vs. Out-of-State
Most state-operated campgrounds offer discounted rates for residents within the state. For examples, most New York State Park campgrounds offer basic sites for $20-$25 per night for NY residents. Not from New York? You’ll need to pay an extra $5 per night.
Rules about Boats & Firewood
In order to keep campsites as natural as possible, most campgrounds have rules in place about what is and isn’t allowed. Using pieces of fallen trees to start a fire? Okay. Cutting down a health tree to cook your dinner? Not so much.
It’s generally discouraged to bring your own firewood to a campsite not near you, because it’s not treated. That means it’s could be carrying little critters or disease, both of which may not be native to the area. The last thing you want to do is spread problems for the flora and fauna!
If you’re boat has been in water that has invasive algae or other harmful substances, it needs to be thoroughly cleaned. Again, this is to prevent invasive species from spreading.
CAMPING TIPS: WHAT TO BRING
I know this blog is dedicated to saving you money on your travels, and you can get some great deals on tents. But my advice here is to do your research before investing in a tent. The last thing you want when you are out in the woods is to have a rain storm, your tent starts leaking, and you wake up in a flood! So if you’re going to spend a few extra dollars on your camping gear, this is the place to do so.
Another thing to keep in mind is tent-size. NEVER believe that the number of people listed on the product will sleep comfortably in that tent. It’s usually comfortable for about half as many as are listed. My husband and I are big fans of the Coleman brand, and we LOVE our new tent. It says it sleeps 7, but we like that it’s a bit spacious for the two of us and our dog bed. If you need something a little smaller, it’s also available in a 4-person size.
An air mattress
You don’t want to sleep right on the ground – trust me, I’ve been there. Not cool. You also don’t want a mattress that will deflate while you’re sleeping – been there too. Do yourself a favor and get a quality air mattress; I recommend a double-high for a better night’s sleep. Also, be sure that it includes an air pump or know if you need to purchase one separately. Some of these hook up to a car outlet, while others use batteries. Make sure you’re prepared either way!
Good camping chairs
One of my best camping tips? Quality camp chairs are not overrated. I love mine and keep it in the back of my car almost all-year long. It’s great for concerts, picnics, and road trips! The best camp chairs are the ones made of mesh backing (for quick drying) and have arms with cup holders. They’re even better when they’re lightweight and fold up into a nice carrying case. Get yourself one. Or better yet, two.
A flashlight or lantern
It’s going to get dark; and there is no electricity out in the woods! Yes, I know your cell phone has a flashlight, which is great for emergencies… But why waste the battery on your phone when you can get a cheap, great light for your tent and campsite? The best bet is to have a light that you can hook or hang somewhere. That way you don’t have to hold it, and you get the best amount of light from it – like this one!
A cooler (don’t forget the ice!)
It should be a given that you will need a cooler if you are planning to bring perishable food. As far as ice goes, the best thing you can do is to refill milk jugs or juice bottles (the large ones) and freeze them before your trip. It’s both free and super effective. The large blocks of ice in the jugs will thaw much slower than bagged ice from the store, so your food will last much longer. If the ice does melt in the bottles, you’ll have extra water to drink! Plan your meals in advance to make sure you bring enough food. And yes, it is possible to pack only food that doesn’t require a cooler.
A portable kitchen
This one is for the more serious and/or longer term campers. If you plan on cooking meals – not over the fire, invest in a portable camping stove. You can even get a set of camping dishes in a mesh bag – the best for washing and drying outside! An unused kitty litter pan makes for a great ‘sink’ for washing your dishes after you eat, and 5-gallon flexible water jugs are a great way to store extra water for cleaning. We affectionately call ours the ‘blobs’.
A candle lighter & an old newspaper
If you’re out camping, you’re going to want to build fires each night – both to keep warm and to cook food. Besides, how else are you going to roast your s’mores? The best things to bring to help start your fires are a candle lighter (it has a longer reach and is easier to use than matches) and some old newspaper (to help catch the wood on fire). Dryer lint is also a great fire starter.
Seasoned campers know that dry wood is best – so if it’s rained lately, you may want to purchase precut wood at a nearby stand. If you can scavenge for wood, that is best; look for fallen tree branches or dead trees that you can take from – NOT living trees! Green wood will not burn well. If it is going to rain, store your logs under a tarp or some kind of covering to keep them dry. As far as building the fire goes? My favorite method has always been the teepee.
Other helpful camping gear
Some other basic necessities you should pack (besides your personal belongings) include: hand sanitizer, sun screen and bug spray, a sleeping bag AND a warm blanket and pillow, paper towels, trash bags… More experienced and long-term campers will find benefit in a pop-up canopy, a rake (for clearing the site), a shovel (for digging a trench around your tent in case of rain), a pocket knife, plastic tarps, and rope.
MORE IMPORTANT CAMPING TIPS
NEVER leave your food out when you’re not around.
…Or any other intriguingly scented objects.) I have personally witnessed bears slashing their claws through stainless steel coolers because people had left food out at their site overnight. Put all of your food in the car! And if you encounter a bear, make loud noises (bang pots and pans) to scare it away. Remember to be extra cautious if you see a cub, because mama is not far behind.
Make sure your dogs are ready.
If you are bringing your dog(s), make sure he/she is up-to-date on all vaccinations, is registered, and has flea/tick medicine. Bring paperwork with you in case a park ranger asks for proof.
Choose a campsite that fits your needs and camping experience.
The cheapest sites offer the bare minimum: an open space on the ground, a fire pit, and an outhouse if you’re lucky. That means no running water and no electricity.
Mid-level sites are located near bathrooms connected to a sewer system, and some have running water and/or electricity at the site.
The most expensive sites – more for the ‘glampers’ out there – have cabins or elaborate tents with furniture.
Find what’s best for you! State parks (like Green Lakes) are a personal favorite and usually offer a variety of options.