How to Plan for Your Very First Camping Trip

New to camping? Don't know where to start? Check out this explainer by camping expert Blair Williams for everything from trip planning advice to gear recs.

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In a world full of chaos, it’s nice to be one with nature, where a tree is a tree. Camping is such a great way to really disconnect from normal life and get in touch with nature's simplicity and beauty. So if you’re thinking of packing up and heading into the wilderness for the first time, here are some tips.

A woman and a dog sit in a white tent and look out at a lake

Find the Right Spot

First and foremost, you’ll need to decide where you want to camp. Do you want to be at a campground close to amenities and other campers? Or would you prefer to do dispersed camping? I think this all depends on your comfort spectrum. Campgrounds require reservations but take less planning and packing. Dispersed camping takes more planning and research, but can be rewarding if you like to experience complete blissfulness and a full nature experience. I prefer dispersed camping because I can disconnect from normal life and not worry about other campers being around. But if you want showers, restrooms, and more comfort, you’ll want to stay at a campground.

Pack the Right Things

Next, make sure you create a checklist! You’ll want to make sure you have everything you need to be prepared! There is nothing worse than getting camp all set up and realizing you don’t have all of your essentials.

I like to organize my list into categories and pack things in groups so that they are easy to find when you arrive at camp. It makes setting camp up much smoother. You’ll want to arrive a couple of hours before dark to give yourself plenty of time, too.

A collection of camping gear, including a lantern, a backpack, binoculars, gloves, and a jacket, sit on the ground outside an orange tent

Sleep System

You'll need a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag.

  • Tents: Sizing is usually based on the amount of people that the tent can sleep, not based on needing room to store your belongings or change clothes. Always get a bigger capacity tent than the amount of people you need to accommodate! I’m a big fan of tents from Nemo and Eureka, and, for more budget friendly options, Coleman! Make sure you choose a 4-season tent if you plan on camping in harsher weather.
  • Sleeping Bag: Sleeping bags are made of two types of material: down any synthetic. Synthetic materials tend to dry out faster if they get wet, although there are some down bags that are made water resistant. I recommend adding 15 degrees to whatever bag you choose. It’s better to be a little warm and release heat than it is to be too cold. Some bags have options for varying temperatures such as removing a layer or ventilation features. I love my Nemo Forte, which has thermo gills that I can release heat with if needed, and an internal pocket for my phone.
  • Sleeping Pad: While an inflatable pad is nice for storage, you run the risk of puncturing it. Pick your battles in cooler weather: air in a mattress underneath you might make you very chilly at night! Foam sleeping pads retain body heat and roll up for storing.
  • Hammock: I love sleeping in a hammock in the spring, summer, and early fall, but winter tends to bring wind underneath you, which can make sleeping a chilly experience. Hammocks can be so comfortable if you sleep in them correctly, and you can rock yourself to sleep like a baby if you want to! It’s very soothing! Pro tip for making hammock sleeping comfortable: you’ll want to lay diagonally so that you lay flatter. If you sleep in a ‘banana like fashion’ your back will likely hurt in the morning! Try out a friend's hammock for a night first if you have never slept in one. This will help you decide if it is right for you.

Cooking

You’ll need to plan for if you want to cook for one to two people or a whole family.

  • Single-Burner Stoves: Coleman makes a great one-burner stove that will boil water for coffee in three or four minutes! It’s great if you plan to cook small meals.
  • Multi-Burner Stoves: Better for groups. You can get great two-burner camp stoves by Coleman. If you want to get fancy with your camp cooking and bake biscuits in the morning, Camp Chef makes a great propane camp oven and stove combo. Don’t forget your fuel!
  • Cooking Utensils: If traveling heavier is not an issue for you, bring pots, pans, spatulas, and the like from home. Plastic silverware and paper plates are great for easy clean up, but make sure you pack out what you packed in! Leave camp the way you found it; littering is not cool! If you plan to bring reusable dishes, Granite Gear makes a travel sink that you can easily clean things up in.
  • Cooler: Instead of filling your cooler with loose ice and letting your food get soggy, I recommend using ice packs and freezing some of your food or a freezing few water bottles. If the weather is hot, I will freeze half of my bottled water. This way it is utilized for ice, and when it melts you have more water supply! This method saves weight and space.

Plan out what you are going to have at meal times, and plan for cooking to take longer than it would at home. Everything is in a different place than you are used to it being when you are at home and camp cooking takes more work. Here are some easy meal ideas to get you started.

Breakfast:

  • Bacon and eggs
  • Sausage and pancakes (you can pre-make your pancake mix at home and store it in a container for convenience)
  • Pita bread with bananas and peanut butter
  • Grits (just add water and cook)
  • If you are a coffee drinker like me, bring instant coffee packets for easy prep

Lunch:

  • Tuna on pita bread (tuna packets are easier to pack out than cans)
  • Summer Sausage with Instant Potatoes
  • Campfire Quesadilla
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly

Dinner:

  • Make BBQ ahead at home and warm over stove or fire and add to a bun
  • Burgers and hotdogs.
  • Campfire Pizza: Use pita bread or tiny pizza crust and add tomato sauce, cheese, and pepperoni.
  • Kabobs: Pre-make at home.
  • Can’t forget about s'mores! (Chefs tip, I like to put reeses on mine!)

A helpful tip for car camping is to put your food and cooking utensils in plastic drawer organizers! This helps to make sure cooking stays simple and bread doesn’t get smashed! Put the containers in your trunk or backseat for easy access. I personally love bringing pita bread because it won’t squish like regular bread and it is versatile for almost any topping at any meal!

A metal grate is set up over a campfire and used to cook food. In the background, two people relax on a hammock

Camp Comfort

Don't forget your bug spray! You can choose a spray with DEET, use a Thermacell, or Sawyer Insect Repellent. I personally like Sawyer Repellent. It’s a spray you can use on your clothes and gear, a minimum of two hours before you leave home. I call it magic in a bottle! It lasts six to eight washes and keeps insects away without having to spray bug spray on your skin!

You’ll want folding chairs for sitting and a table for placing things and cooking.

I have a lantern, headlamp, flashlight, and little lightbulbs to hang on rope or trees surrounding camp! I like string lights to give things a more artsy appearance. You’ll want to bring battery packs to charge your phone and other devices. My favorite is the Rockford Pocket Power and Jump Starter pack. It has a flashlight, SOS signal, and enough juice to charge three mobile devices or jumpstart your car's battery if it dies.

If you are dispersed camping, don’t forget items such as plenty of water, toilet paper, and a shovel. You’ll also want a multi-tool and a knife just in case, plus an axe and fire starter if you plan to light a fire. You can purchase a cowboy shower or use camp wipes for hygiene. Privacy tents, curtains, or tarps are useful for creating barriers. You’ll want to keep a well-stocked first aid kit on hand too. Make sure it’s complete with supplies for insect bites, burns, sprains, cuts, and OTC pain medication.

A person extends a mug towards a lake and mountains. On the ground sits a coffee pot on a camp stove

Safety & Activities

You’ll want to make sure you tell others where you are camping in case of any emergencies or a dead or out-of-service phone. Planning your route and activities ahead and downloading offline maps are helpful too.

If you’re a nature watcher, bring binoculars. I like to bring my journal and sketchbook. Sometimes I think of great ideas I want to write down or see things I want to draw while I am enjoying nature's bliss. Books and card games are nice to have too. When you are packing, try to pack your car with things in the order that you will use them. This way you can easily access the things you need when you get to camp and it creates less headache.

The sun sets over a mountain with trees in the foreground
Photo by Blair Williams

If you need help finding the perfect gear to get you started, reach out to a Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations. I hope you have a wonderful time enjoying nature and what it has to offer! Please be respectful and don’t litter. Be sure to leave camp exactly the way you found it and put out your fire when you leave!

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Written By
Blair W
Camping & Hiking Expert
I grew up going camping and hiking. I am a very detailed planner. I strive to always help give campers with me the best experience by giving them advice on gear and what to bring to be prepared for the wildnerness. I want everyone to be comfortable. I spend lots of time in the mountains and I even s...
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