Camping has long been one of the world's most popular recreational activities, with an estimated 33.7 million campers in the U.S. alone [source: Sutter]. Camping has become even more popular in the wake of global economic difficulty, with recent increases in National Park visits and tent sales [sources: Sutter and OIA]. The American way of camping -- taking a trip by car and spending a few days in natural surroundings, sleeping in a tent or trailer -- was popularized by Henry Ford and his group of fellow travelers. Calling themselves "The Vagabonds," the group included Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and other luminaries of the early 20th century [source: Henry Ford Estate]. Their adventures were closely followed by the media of the day, helping instill a love for weekend adventure in many American families.
Getting organized for a camping trip can be a daunting task -- especially if it's your first time. There's a lot to pack, and if you don't pack correctly you'll end up missing crucial items, overloading your car, or damaging your gear. How can you remember everything you need, fit it all in your car, avoid going over the weight limit on your trailer -- and avoid driving yourself crazy so you can still have fun on your trip? It just takes a little preparation and planning. These five tips will help you get organized so that even the biggest camping trip goes smoothly.
Make a List
Camping requires a lot of stuff. You need clothes, toiletries, cooking gear, food and your tent -- it seems like a never-ending list. The hardest part about packing for your trip is remembering all the items you might need. The only way to make sure you get them all is to make a checklist.
Make your list on your computer and save it. That way you can print out a fresh list for every trip. Organize the list into related categories, like food and cooking, clothes, tent gear, first aid and medical, and entertainment. You might have separate sections of the list for different types of trips, or for different seasons. You won't need the swim trunks for the fall backpacking trip, and you won't need the tent stakes if you're camping in a trailer.
There are a lot of sample lists on camping websites that can get you started, but you'll definitely want to customize your list. Your entertainment section, for example, might include a baseball and a pair of baseball gloves or a pile of comic books. Some people enjoying cooking elaborate meals over a grill or camp fire, and need all the utensils to make it happen. Others get by on hot dogs and beer.
When it's time to pack, use the list as a guide as you gather everything together. Then, check each thing off the list when you actually pack it. That avoids the, "I set the pillows on the kitchen table, didn't you pack them?" problem. Then it's easy to scan down the list and see what you still need.
It's tempting to pack everything you might possibly need in a variety of unlikely situations on your camping trip. Even experienced campers succumb to "packing creep," a phenomenon in which you add small items to your camping loadout over the course of several years, only to one day realize that your camping gear has grown out of control.
If you're a rookie camper or a veteran looking to do a gear purge, take a close look at the things you want to bring. Do you really need them? How you been bringing them along for years and never once used them?
Most campers can get by with fewer clothing items than they bring with them. You definitely want clean socks and underwear for every day of the trip, plus spares, but you really only need one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts, one hooded sweatshirt and a couple of T-shirts. They might smell a little funky by the end of the trip, but so will everyone else. If it's a long trip, you may have access to laundry facilities; in fact, many state and national parks offer coin-operated laundry rooms.
Some items are a matter of preference. If you're OK with cooking all your meals over the camp fire, you can save a lot of weight and space by leaving the propane grill or stove at home. Some campers enjoy sleeping in a sleeping bag on the hard ground – others need an air mattress or foam pad. Go over your camping list and evaluate everything on it before it's time to pack. Keep in mind that you may have to make compromises, especially if you have a large family.
Even with a list, packing for a camping trip can involve a bewildering number of items. Instead of tracking down every last thing each time you camp, pack your gear into modular "kits" that hold all the gear in a certain category. It's much easier to pack your first aid box and check off "First Aid Box" on your camping list, than it is to find bandages, antiseptic, aspirin, allergy medication and all the other small items you'd need. You can have a box that holds all your cooking gear, one for the tent and related equipment, and another that stores blankets and sleeping bags.
Pack your kits into sealable plastic containers -- you can find large plastic bins at home improvement stores, and smaller sizes at department stores. Plastic containers let you store your gear in the garage or basement over the winter without having to worry about them getting damp. Make sure they seal tightly, or critters might get into them (especially if they'll be holding any food items or things that smell like food, while camping). Obviously you only want to pack non-perishable items in your kits between trips.
Modular camping kits can make packing a snap. The key is to keep them well-stocked. Don't raid a kit for a flashlight without replacing it, and make sure medical supplies haven't expired or run out.
Practice Your Setup
Whether you're tent camping or camping in luxury in a 40-foot (12.2-meter) motor home, you need to know how to set up your camp site. What's the worst place to learn how to set up? At your camp site. You might be running late and arrive in the dark. You might need extra tent stakes. Better to learn in your own back yard or driveway than hundreds of miles away from home.
Whenever you buy a new tent, roll it out and set it up in your yard. Then you'll see which parts go where and how everything fits together without the stress of trying to learn it all on the first day of your trip. This also gives you a chance to put seam sealer on the seams of your tent -- even the most watertight tent benefits from a dose of seam sealer. Practice your full set-up, from your ground cloth to any extra tarps you erect to block wind or rain.
If you've got a more advanced camping set up, like a trailer or a motor home, you'll want to practice that, too. How do you crank down the stabilizers to level the trailer? How do you turn on the air-conditioning? Which valves operate the sewage tank, and which operates the gray water tank? How can you refill the fresh water tank? Some of these processes can be complicated until you've done them a few times, so a driveway dry run is crucial.
Don't Forget the Essentials
There are a few crucial items that come in handy on every camping trip, but you might not think to bring them along. Not only are these items super useful, they also serve more than one function, which helps you pack lighter.
- Tarps. You can never have enough tarps on a camping trip. Lay one down on the ground to keep your tent dry. Even if it never rains, moisture in the ground can seep into your tent. Suspend one between two trees to act as an impromptu (albeit noisy) wind break. Throw a spare one over the picnic table to keep your gear dry when that unexpected rain storm blows in.
- Rope. It comes in very handy when you're hanging tarps, tying down tents or hanging clothes up to dry.
- Garbage bags. Large, sturdy garbage bags will serve many purposes. Of course, you can keep garbage in them (you don't want to leave any behind). They also work as improvised rain coats (just cut holes for your head and arms) and semi-waterproof storage in a pinch. Just don't leave your garbage out at night, or you'll attract attention from critters.
- Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda. If you bring your dogs camping, this is a must. It might be unlikely that your dog ever gets sprayed by a skunk while camping, but if it does happen and you're unprepared, it will be a disaster (imagine the car ride home). A tomato soup bath may mask the smell, but a solution of peroxide and baking soda is the best way to eliminate it. Just don't mix the solution beforehand -- it's the chemical reaction that strips away the oil from the skunk musk. A bottle of peroxide and a box of baking soda won't take up much space in your camping gear.
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- Lewis, David L. "The Illustrious Vagabonds" Henry Ford Estate. ( Jan. 26, 2012.) http://www.henryfordestate.org/vagabonds.htm
- Outdoor Industry Association. "Tent camping outpaces overall growth at national park service in 2009." (Jan. 27, 2012.) http://oia.informz.net/admin31/content/template.asp?sid=18135&ptid=437&brandid=3041&uid=756712708&mi=683686
- Sutter, John D. "In a slump, camping comes into vogue." CNN, March 26, 2009. (Jan. 30, 2012.) http://articles.cnn.com/2009-03-26/travel/camping.economy_1_camping-tent-state-park-directors?_s=PM:TRAVEL