Your Guide to Planning the Perfect Camping Weekend

It’s all about preparation.

By Jenn Rose Smith
s'mores hand pies recipe

Thanks to Instagram, camping has never looked easier. It’s just you lounging in so many layered J. Crew socks holding a speckled mug by the fire, right? What most people don’t know is that those picture perfect moments are made possible by one thing and one thing only: preparation. I can attest — I’ve always loved the idea of camping, but didn’t grow up in a camping family — and I’ve spent the last decade learning things the hard way. In my experience, it’s the work you do before you hit the road that affects about 90% of how your trip will play out. Read on to discover exactly how you can prepare to have your own perfect camping weekend, then kick back and relax by the fire.

Research the best times to visit campsites, and make your reservations WELL in advance of the high season. 

The day you wake up and realize that perfect camping weather is upon you… there’s a good chance it’s already too late to get a reservation at campsites in your area. Try and think at least three to four months out when making reservations at State and National Parks. And if you’re really clever you’ll make two reservations for two different weekends, that way you have a back up if the first weekend is rained out.

Choose which type of campsite is right for you.

The three main options are hike-in, drive-in, and sites with pre-existing shelters (aka “glamping“). For beginners, drive-in is a nice option. You’ll still get to pitch your own tent and build a fire (if the park permits it), while typically having access to working restrooms. Most parks have hiking trails, and if you choose a drive-in site you can enjoy those hikes while carrying limited gear with you.

Check the weather the day of your trip…

One of the most disastrous camping experiences I ever had was due to ignoring a forecast that predicted a 40 degree overnight drop in temperature. Not only did we end up spending the night in a sketchy motel, I was sick for weeks after. Moral of the story? Massive temperature drops, rain, snow, sleet, hail, heat waves, etc. are NOT to be ignored. Perfect camping weekends tend to go hand in hand with decent weather. Don’t be afraid to reschedule your trip if the weather looks really iffy. It will be worth it in the end!

… and dress for it.

Once you’ve decided the weather is a go, be sure and pack appropriate clothing for temperature shifts and unexpected precipitation.

Make sure you arrive with enough daylight left to set up camp and build your fire.

Another shameful memory on my personal camping blooper reel involves trying to set up a tent after dark in The Grand Canyon. In the snow. Pitching tents and building fires can be fun challenges… when you can see what’s around you. Know what time the sun sets, and arrive at least three hours in advance!

Check in with the park rangers, and heed all warnings. 

Check in with the rangers on your way into the park, and be sure to heed any and all warnings regarding things like fire bans, poison ivy, snakes, fire ants, etc. I’ll never forget coming face to face with a rattlesnake while hiking in central Texas!

Keep food and drink plans simple.

The best camping recipes are easy to make and require minimal cleanup or dishes. Personally, I’ve always liked recipes you can eat out of foil or a tin cup. For a more ambitious menu, check out these fun camping recipe ideas on Bon Appetit.

Keep food and trash away from the tent.

Unless you secretly want to be woken up by a raccoon, bear, or other foraging creature, it’s a good idea to keep all food and trash bags away from your sleeping area. If you’re car camping, you can store food in the car and hang a trash bag from a tree limb a good distance from your tent.

Bring plenty of water!

You’re probably not going to forget to bring your bottle of wine or flask of tequila (or whatever your particular poison is…) but you definitely do NOT want to wake up parched in a tent with no water in sight. Bring more water than you think you’ll need — you may end up using it to wash your hands, brush your teeth, rinse dishes, etc. I like to buy the cheap gallon jugs at gas stations.

Be prepared to unplug.

Many parks and hiking trails will be out of range for your phone, so be prepared to use paper maps or screenshots of maps and recipes while you’re off grid.

Bring a few chairs and blankets, and whatever music options you may want for around the fire.

Sitting around a campfire is always more fun if someone has a guitar or bluetooth speaker, and you can comfortably sit on a blanket, cooler, or chair.

Oh! And don’t forget these crucial items:

A flashlight, bug spray, band-aids, an extra pair of comfortable shoes, socks, towel, sunscreen, and hand soap. Happy camping.