Your guide to planning a camping trip

by Сашка

How to pick a campsite, what to pack and how to cook over an open fire

When you need to get away from it all, camping can be the best vacation for the job. Whether you’re going bare-bones backpacking, car camping with an arsenal of amenities or full-on glamping — camping can help us unplug, unwind and appreciate nature. It gives us the chance to learn new skills, get to know our National Parks and see wildlife up close (but not too close). And even if you’re only a few miles from home, there’s something restorative about sleeping in the outdoors, even if it just reminds you of how much you love your bed.

Here’s our best advice for planning your adventure, from how to book a campsite to what to pack.

For first-timers, keep it simple

If you’ve never camped before, start with the basics: Pick a campsite based on your needs, borrow some gear and test setting up your tent before you leave. You’ll probably want to start with car camping, which is most approachable. You simply drive to your site, pitch your tent and let nature do the rest. Even though it’s easier to get there, you’ll still reap the benefits of sleeping outdoors.

Find a campsite that fits your needs

There are many ways to find a place to camp — from the government-managed sites on Recreation.gov to sharing-economy options like Hipcamp and Tentrr, which connect campers with landowners and hosts across the country.

For popular destinations or places with limited campsites, you may want to sign up for Campnab, a service that alerts users when a spot in sold-out campsites becomes available.

Figure out what to buy, rent and pack

Once you’ve picked a campsite, you’ll pack according to your adventure. Packing for car camping, for example, looks very different from packing for bike camping where every ounce matters, as Washington Post homepage editor Chris George detailed for us in 2019.

There are also some surprising essentials you might not realize you need until you need them, like scissors or a clothing line. If you’re not sure you want to camp again or are worried about the cost of buying everything you need, consider renting some or all of your gear from companies like Kit Lender or finding used gear on platforms like Facebook Marketplace or Poshmark.

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Skip dehydrated meals

If you’re going on a hardcore trek through the backcountry, you may have to stick with survival basics for food. But if you have the luxury of packing a little more, you can have some amazing meals. Really. All you need is an open fire, maybe a skillet and a game plan.

The key to gourmet success is to plan every meal ahead of your camping trip and, for your sanity, stick to a menu that calls for no more than 10 ingredients or 30 minutes to cook. As you plan those meals (and maybe even cocktails), think of ways you can prep them in advance for easier campsite execution.

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Consider an RV

The pandemic brought a surge in RV rentals and purchases. But if you buy one, be warned: You can’t just hop inside and enjoy the ride. In 2020, reporter Andrea Sachs found out just how challenging driving one for the first time can be. Here’s a guide to planning your first trip.

Try camping beyond summer

Many seasoned campers prefer getting their trips in during the fall versus the busier, hotter summer months. But as temperatures begin to drop, sleeping outside can require different rules and gear.

Kevin Long, CEO of the camping app the Dyrt, says fall camping brings the opportunity to appreciate fall foliage up close, and recommends trips in the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevadas, Northeast, Great Lakes region, and New York and Washington states in early October; the Pacific Northwest and Mid-Atlantic in mid-to-late October; and the South and Southwest in late October, early November.

Use these expert tips on camping during the cooler months.

Take extra safety steps for solo camping

As with any kind of solo travel, camping alone comes with its own risks and challenges. If you’re considering, take these precautions from security experts — and words of encouragement.

The first step is to pick a campsite where you’ll feel safe; you might not want to go somewhere remote where you won’t have cell service, for example.

Before you take off, make sure to tell at least two loved ones where you’re going and your estimated departure and arrival times. Don’t, however, post your plans on social media with your exact whereabouts.

Get in touch with the (super)natural world

Fall is the season for haunted houses, ghost tours and Ouija boards. But for the brave outdoorsy types, it can also be the season for haunted camping. A campsite puts you right out in the elements with the rest of the natural (or supernatural) world, like I did in 2021 when I camped at the filming site of “The Blair Witch Project.”

If the idea of being terrified in the woods sounds right up your alley, check out these eight terrifying campsites.

If you don’t want to rough it, glamp

Sleeping on the ground in the woods isn’t for everyone. Glamping takes a lot of the rough out of roughing it while still giving you the experience of being outdoors. You can find glamping pods and yurts, luxurious canvas tents inspired by African safari camps or more budget-friendly options by searching on Glamping.com, Hipcamp and Campspot. Here are more tips on glamping vs. camping.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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