Photo: khomlyak

How To Plan a Car Camping Trip

The seeds of camping success are sown in the planning process.

Spend the time before departure to properly get your gear dialed, schedule outlined, and campsite expectations calibrated. Use this guide to get the party, err camping trip, started.

1. Determine Your Destination 

Use websites and apps like Gaia, Alltrails, Recreation.gov, and Hipcamp for location inspiration and to reserve popular or federally run campgrounds ahead of time. 

Read reviews and look through photos from other campers to find the right campsite setting for your needs. Decide if you’re looking for an established campground with amenities like showers or bathrooms, a site far or close to other campers, dispersed areas to camp on public lands, or campgrounds closer to highway exits (more on that next).

Map out your route to see how long the drive will take. Use this knowledge to plan your departure and estimate your return.

2. Pick Your Campground

There are a few categories of campgrounds (and sites within them). The main ones are: private, public, and primitive (aka dispersed camping areas and sites). Understand their differences before you start packing.  

Private campgrounds and their amenities will vary depending on the host. On one end of the spectrum, you could book a glamping experience with a yurt and catered breakfast; on the other end, you could rough it alone in a secluded cove. Private campgrounds should have websites with detailed lists of what’s provided in terms of infrastructure like a picnic table, restrooms, potable water, firewood. Knowing what’s already available can help dictate your packing needs. Pro tip: Apps and websites like Hipcamp can help you sort through the thousands of private campground options in the U.S. with user reviews and photos.

National, state park and county-run public campgrounds will also vary depending on location (check websites for specifics), but almost all are equipped with the following basics: restrooms, tables and grills or fire rings at each individual site, and parking spaces. Some have potable water spigots and showers; others have wood platforms for tents and/or gazebo-like rain shelters. Trash receptacles will vary, but if you’re able to take out your trash with you, do that to reduce the park’s load. Depending on fire restrictions and the camp host (a person stationed at a given campsite whose job it is to welcome, educate, and help campers), the campground may have firewood for sale, too. 

Dispersed camping refers to camping outside of an established campground where there won't be any amenities. Follow Leave No Trace (LNT) principles when searching for your spot: Set up over 100 feet from waterways, trails, the road; don’t block wildlife from access to water; don’t crush vegetation; be a good fire steward by building your own fire ring to help contain flyaway sparks, and by only lighting a fire if it’s allowed in the area; and before departing, ensure the site is even more clear of human traces than when you found it.

3. Do Some Final Research

Amenities will vary campground to campground—a little advance knowledge will go a long way:

Fees

How much you pay might depend on how old you are, how long your stay is, and the time of year (on-season vs. off-season). If you don’t reserve your campground ahead of time, bring enough cash to pay on-site. You might also want quarters for pay-as-you-wash showers. 

Road Conditions

Don’t expect pavement to lead you to every campsite. Some dirt roads can be tough on vehicles with lower ground clearance and that aren’t equipped with all-wheel or four-wheel drive capabilities. Use maps, websites, and apps like Google Earth or Gaia to determine road type and conditions—not to mention the weather forecast as dirt roads might become impassable after recent rain.

Pets

Check to make sure they’re allowed at your campground. Obey all posted rules, like leashing your pet and cleaning up their waste.

Vehicle and Tent Limits

Many sites will limit the number of tents or cars allowed, so if you’re camping with a group, check to make sure you’ll all be allowed in one site. Designated “group sites” will offer extra parking and tent spaces. 

Stay Limits

Most federal lands have a 14-day stay limit at campgrounds and dispersed sites. If you’re on a long trip, ensure you’re not overstaying your welcome in specific spots. 

Photo: Gudellaphoto

4. Pack

Check and double-check you’ve got everything you need. Here’s a basic list of what to pack:

Campsite Needs:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag
  • Camp pillow 
  • Clothes to sleep in
  • Camp chair or hammock

Personal Needs

  • Clothes and footwear: appropriate to the weather. Add layers for the night and early mornings.
  • Hygiene: toothbrush and toothpaste, face and body wipes, hand sanitizer
  • Electronic devices and their chargers: headlamp, satellite communicator (if needed), camp lights, GPS watch, phone

Cooking

  • Food. Count how many people are camping with you, and how many meals you need to prepare, then calculate the amount of food you need to bring for each meal.
  • Water. Use a campground’s website to determine if potable (drinkable) water sources are available. You can also look on maps for streams and nearby water bodies, but make sure they are running or in-season. If you’ll need to treat the water (if it’s not potable), bring water purification gear like iodine tabs, a filter, or a pot for boiling water. Another option is to bring enough water from home to drink and cook with.
  • Stove, pots, cutting and stirring utensils
  • Bowls, plates, cups, eating utensils
  • Coffee- or tea-making accessories
  • Eco-friendly cleaning supplies
  • Trash, recycling, and compost bags or containers
  • Camp table, if picnic table is not available

5. Final Check

Check the weather for your destination during the dates of your trip. This helps ensure you pack the right equipment, or gives you time to reschedule for a better weather window.

Download all the apps that you’ll need for your camping trip. Apps like Gaia GPS provide navigation assistance while driving to your campground and when hiking trails nearby.

Create a contingency plan. Every good plan has backup and bail options, so research and identify some Plan Bs in the event that the campground you targeted is full. In the case of an emergency, write down a local rescue or assistance number (if available) that you can dial (in addition to 911). 

Inform someone of your itinerary. Identify a point person (who is not on your trip) that could help coordinate or relay information in the case of emergency. They can help alert emergency services in the case you don’t return from your camping trip after a predetermined point in time. 

6. Drive and Arrive 

For popular campgrounds (especially in national parks), reserve your site ahead of time if possible—some popular locations might even have a lottery system that opens months in advance of camping season. Set an alarm on your phone or put the date in your calendar so you can snag campsite reservations as soon as they open online. And if you missed a reservation window, check to see if the campground offers walk-up options (some campgrounds will reserve a small fraction of sites for same-day arrivals). 

If there is no reservation or lottery system, a campground will be first-come, first-served. So, plan to arrive early the day to increase your odds. On holiday or long weekends, consider arriving at popular locations on a Wednesday or Thursday to ensure you secure a spot for the weekend.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.