Camping 101: Planning a Weekend Camping Trip
Updated: Sep 22
First, pick a destination for camping! Check out my article on Camping Trips Near Chicago or research parks near you. Then follow the tips below for an easy camping weekend.
Note that these tips are for camping with your car nearby, not for backpacking to a campsite.
Tips for Booking a Campsite
Pick the campsite grounds- My strategy is to always check the state or National Park campgrounds first. They tend to be surrounded by the best wooded natural areas and will have easily accessible hikes. National and State Park campsites also will book up to 6 or more months in advance and often are full. Beachside campsites are especially popular. If the options in the state or national parks are full, then I will consider privately owned campgrounds.
Research the campground rules-If being able to drink alcohol on the campsite is important to you, check for restrictions. Also, check for restrictions on quiet hours (if you care about them being earlier or later).
Research the campsite amenities- If shower and toilet amenities are important research those in the campsite listings as well. Backcountry campsites often don’t have any nearby at all, and you will have to dig holes. Most other campsites will have showers and toilets. Some will be pit toilets (similar to a porta potty) and some will be flush toilets. Some campsite showers have hot water and some don’t.
Research the campground location- Research the site locations as much as possible. Look for pictures of the actual sites and reviews or even call and ask questions before booking. I once booked a site at a private campground that was not in the woods at all and was by a highway and a cemetery. You want to avoid that scenario!
Strategize your campsite location- Once you have picked a campground, then you will need to pick a site within the campground. Do you want to be close to the bathrooms? Close to a water source? Or as far away from other sites as possible? Try to pick an option accordingly.
Choose your campsite type- Options for campsites may include:
Backcountry/no car sites- This type of site means you park your car and then will have to hike with everything you need on your back. The planning tips below are for car camping and would not work if you backpacked to your site. These sites often have no toilets or showers and you will need to boil water for drinking water.
Car/Drive-in Sites- This means you can park one or two cars directly at the campsite. These sites make it easier to bring food and drinks in a cooler, and other large items like an air mattress. Usually, a bathroom and water source are easily walkable from these ties.
Electric Sites- Electric sites will have an outlet you can plug your phone charger, coffee maker, etc into. Non-electric sites will have no outlets.
RV Sites- an RV site will have electricity and also sometimes water on site. They are usually more expensive sites though.
Advice for Pitching a Tent
Find the highest flat ground on your campsite to pitch your tent on. Do not put your tent at the bottom of a slope or on a slope. Flat ground will make sleeping more comfortable. Higher ground will prevent water from pooling around your tent or leaking into your tent if it rains.
Do not bring firewood from a store in your hometown. To prevent the transfer of various tree diseases and pests many states/campsites don’t allow firewood brought in from other areas. Plan to buy your firewood when you arrive. Most campsites sell it. If the campsite doesn’t sell it, neighbors on the drive in will likely sell it near their driveway. Bring cash for purchasing it.
Be sure to buy dry firewood and then keep it dry throughout the weekend. Put a tarp over your firewood or put it in your car if there's a chance of rain.
What to Pack for a Weekend Camping Trip Tent and Sleeping
Tent with rain cover- Tents without a rain cover have a higher likelihood of leaking rain inside. To prevent your tent from becoming too hot during the day, take the rain cover off on dry days.
Tarp for the ground under the tent- This is optional, but it will help keep the bottom of the tent dry as well.
Mallet- Packing one of these will make it easier to put tent stakes into the ground, especially if the ground is dry and hard.
Sleeping pad- You have a few options for sleeping comfort, depending on your tolerance for sleeping on hard ground:
Sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground with no extra padding
Bring a yoga mat to put under your sleeping bag for a bit of added cushion
Pack a camping sleep pad. Most are compact and fill with air when you roll them out.
Bring an Air mattress and a battery operated pump or a pump that connects to your car.
Headlamp- These are really useful for going to the bathroom late at night and for cooking in the dark. They allow you to be hand’s free. I recommend one that can switch between white or red light like this Black Diamond one. Red light will attract less bugs going in and out of a tent.
Battery Operated Lantern- This is another easy hands free option to set on food tables, hang inside of a tent, etc.
Fold up camping chair- Some campsites will have picnic tables to sit at but most won’t have any seating. You’ll want the chair for sitting around the campfire, etc.
Mosquito Fogger- You can use this to create a fog barrier around the whole campsite each night. It won’t eliminate 100% of bugs, but it will help.
Bug spray or bug bands
Basic Cooking Ingredients
Butter- I like to use spray butter for camping, it’s less messy.
Non-stick cooking spray or olive oil
Coffee or tea
Drybag- This is useful for kayaking, canoeing or tubing or even for getting caught in the rain on a hike. My favorites are the lightweight Sea to Summit dry bags.
Toilet paper- Campground bathrooms will often run out of toilet paper. Packing your own toilet paper is also useful if you want to use the woods for a bathroom. Be sure to properly dispose of it though.
Waterproof hiking shoes or boots- These are great for hiking but also for keeping your feet dry at a wet and muddy campsite.
Battery pack- Packing one of these allows you to charge your phone throughout the weekend when away from your car.
First Aid Kit
Games and Entertainment You will likely have downtime hanging out at the campsite (or in the tent if it rains), so some suggested ideas of games to bring are below
Meal Prep and Serving
Coolers and ice- You will need large coolers full of ice and ice packs if you plan to make all of your meals at the campsite. Also plan to buy ice daily to replenish the ice you started with. If you properly replenish the ice you can keep the food chilled for a weekend trip Most campsites will sell ice.
Serving /mixing spoons and/or tongs
Cutting knife- Bring a knife that has a cover. That way if someone is digging around for stuff in the car you don’t have any accidents.
Bucket, bowl or dishwashing tub for washing dishes (unless you use all disposable)
Ziploc bags (plastic or reusable silicone ones)
French press for coffee- optional!
Portable Butane stove- This is optional if you want to cook on a stove top instead of the fire. It is useful for cooking breakfast in the morning when you are less likely to have a fire going.
Fire starter- You can bring store bought fire starters or lint and vaseline as a fire starter.
Grate to put over the fire pit- Some campsites will have these onsite, but many won’t. If you want to cook burgers, or use a cast iron pan and not put it directly on the fire you will need to bring one of these. They are inexpensive.
Metal S’more sticks- Bring the long extendable ones so you don’t have to put your hand too close to the fire.
Grilling tools- Pack long tongs and a spatula.
Cast iron pan
Pot or tea kettle for hot water
Grilling gloves or oven mitts
Meal planning For a Weekend Camping Trip
**When you pack the food keep in mind that it will be sitting in a cooler with ice and some of the ice will melt. Avoid cardboard containers or any containers that will let water into them.** Breakfast Options
Eggs- I recommend bringing liquid egg beaters in a carton instead of eggs. It prevents a chance of the eggs breaking in the cooler or car and making a mess. You can also bring shredded cheese to add to your egg scrambles. We usually scramble eggs in cast iron over the fire or cook them on a portable butane stove top.
Sausage- Bring pre-cooked or frozen breakfast sausages to lower the risk of the meat going bad. Cook them in a skillet or on skewers over the fire for breakfast.
Bagels- Bagels, cream cheese and peanut butter are an easier option if you don’t have the time to start a fire in the morning or if it’s too hot to have a fire going.
Sandwiches/Wraps- Bring deli meat, lettuce, tomato and wraps or bread to make a lunch that you can pack in a ziploc to bring on a hike. To make it even easier you could make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead.
Pasta Salad- Bring pre-cooked pasta in the cooler. On the day you want to eat pasta salad, add veggies (carrots, cucumber, tomato, peppers, etc) and toss with Italian dressing. We have saved leftover grilled veggies from a kebab night and added them to pasta as well. We will usually eat it out of cups to keep it easy.
Fruit- Apples and bananas are easy for hiking
Vegetables- Carrots are easy to pack in individual bags
Kabobs- You can bring pre cut veggies from home or cut them at the campsite (peppers, mushrooms, onions, zucchini, etc). You can also pre-cut pieces of chicken or steak or cut at them at the site. It is easy to marinate the meat or vegetables in a ziploc bag with olive and seasoning or even a salad dressing. Pre-soak bamboo skewers for at least an hour before packing them for the trip. It will prevent them from burning over the fire. Then when you arrive put the skewers together and cook them on the grate over the fire. Note that it can be hard to tell if chicken is cooked all the way through at night over a fire. Smaller pieces of meat are easier to work with because they will cook quicker.
Hot dogs or sausages- This is the easy option for night one with minimal work. Cook them on a grate over the fire or on metal s'more sticks.
Burgers- We will usually do burgers our second night and buy frozen patties to keep the meat safe in the cooler until night two.
Corn on the cob- Spray the corn with butter and double wrap it with foil. Then you can cook it on the grate over the fire or throw it down near the fire. If you want to serve something different than corn and butter, bring a sauce made at home and cotija cheese to make Mexican street corn (Elote).
Potatoes- Small to medium size potatoes work best because they cook quicker but aren’t so small you lose them in the fire. Add some butter or olive oil and then double wrap them in foil and throw them near the bottom of the fire.
Smore bar- Bring a variety of chocolate for making s’mores. Ghirardelli caramel filled squares are always popular.
Fruit Crumble- Apples, berries or peaches will work to make an easy crumble in the skillet on the rack over the fire. Top the cut up fruit with a mix of oats, butter and brown sugar (you could pre-mix it and home and bring it ready in a bag) and then cook in a skillet.
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