It’s your first time going car camping; you’re afraid of what’s in the wilderness, overwhelmed with what to do and when to do it, and what in the world do you buy? This feeling is absolutely normal. While there are tons of resources to help you figure things out, the plethora of resources themselves can be paralyzing.
This guide is meant to be a basic guidelines for first-time campers–simplifying the steps make the planning process less daunting.
Step 1: Get the gear
This ranges from the point you start your planning to the day you leave for your trip. I suggest this as the first step, because it takes so much time in gathering items. You can use our Car Camping Basics Checklist as the minimum amount of gear needed for a car camping trip. There are many ways to be creative and add, but I’ll leave that up to you. I’ve had friends bring air mattress, comforter, dutch oven, etc. But remember, the more you bring, the more stuff you have to pack and clean up afterwards.
Step 2: Pick a date
I stress this because the date/season depends on the type of gear you need. While camping in coastal areas in the winter might not necessitate snow gear, there may be more moisture and rain to consider. Some campgrounds are completely closed during the winter months.
Once you’ve decided on a date, look at the typical weather patterns for that time period, and keep an eye out for the weather forecast; I typically use www.wunderground.com.
Step 3: Pick a campsite and reserve it
Based on the typical weather of the date you chose, choose a location where camping is viable. There are several types of agencies that manage campsites and parks, so there is no one agency or website that handle all parks and campgrounds. While we do our best here at NextCampsite to be that one stop shop for locating campsites across agencies and parks, there are thousands of campsites in the United States, and there are only so many hours in the day. But give us time, we will get there.
Recreation.gov is a great source for finding and reserving campsites, beyond what we have on this website, on Federally managed land; it’s a partnership that includes 12 participating Federal agencies.
Check your State and local government websites for their Parks Department to see what available campgrounds are managed by them.
Things to consider when choosing a campsite:
- What recreational activities are available nearby—hiking, canoeing, mountain biking?
- What types of amenities they provide—water, electricity, bathroom types?
- What does the campground permit—fire, pets, etc.?
Tips and Tricks
Pick up the phone
As we all know public lands are not at the forefront of technology, websites can be hard to maneuver to find any useful information. I’m an advocate of always calling the reservation desk or ranger station to get a weather update, and see the possibility of an available campsite if the area is all booked up. Sometimes, you get advice on better places to camp too!
The life changing magic of putting things in their place
Consider getting a roof rack for your car to save on space inside your car. This also eliminates having five people digging through the trunk all at once because access points to gear are located in different areas.
Work out an organizational system that works best for you, whether it’s bringing tupperware, putting everything in labeled boxes, etc. This will make finding things, and cleaning up much easier. I typically have two large storage bins—one for kitchen items, and the other one for shelter and sleeping items.
Nom nom noms
Make sure your food is secured and stored very well. While some campsites in mountainous areas provide bear boxes to store foods, you cannot rely on that option. I once camped in a campground off the coast of Big Sur, and we had to fend off a family of raccoons as dinner was winding down.
To minimize preparing after a long day of hiking and exploring, I would often cut my vegetables and store them in tupperware. That way, I don’t have to cut and peel them at the campsite. I’ll also pre-measure whatever I can and bring them in labeled jars. Also, avoid bringing food that spoils easily, ,or cooking elaborate meals for your first couple of trips.
Bring games or create activities to bring everyone together. The more downtime there is, the more everyone begins to separate.
I recommend getting the group together as soon as possible to lay down ground rules that ensures safety, and that everyone pulls their weight to help out. Suggestions:
- No one goes hiking alone, for safety reasons.
- If someone needs to go somewhere to get something, they must tell someone else in the group.
- Everyone has a job (pitching tent, cooking, cleaning, putting out the fire, etc.)