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9 Tips You Should Know Before Going Camping

Roof top tent on car in mountain valley at dusk

Camping in the great outdoors, there’s nothing quite like spending time in nature to help you relax and unwind, it’s the perfect place to spend quality time, whether you’re alone or with family and friends.

When you’re camping you want the best experience possible and knowing a few things ahead of time will help make your trip a memorable one.

But what should you know before going camping? Every camping trip involves a few key factors either when preparing for your trip or after arriving at your camping destination here are a few things to know:

  1. Picking the perfect campsite
  2. Make a camping checklist
  3. Plan and prep your meals at home
  4. How to pick and pack a cooler
  5. Campfire safety
  6. Camp cooking options
  7. Camping with your dog
  8. Keep a clean campsite
  9. Observing the wildlife

1. Picking the perfect campsite

One of the first things that you should do when planning a camping trip is to research the campsites availability and the amenities offered or lack thereof in the area you are planning on camping. Make the wrong choices and you could quickly become an unhappy camper.

Picking the perfect camping site will differ depending upon the type of camping you plan on doing. Primitive camping, tent camping, van camping and RV camping are different styles of camping with different needs to take into account.

The following list will give you some basic ideas of requirements to consider when picking a camping site that satisfies your particular needs. Whether you are primitive camping without any amenities to established campgrounds with electric, water and restrooms these considerations will help you have a better experience.

Hard level ground
Camping fees
Pet regulations
Campfire guidelines
Restroom facilities
Educational activities
Shade trees
Overhead hazards

There are a lot of details to review and think about when picking the perfect campsite. Doing campsite research and planning ahead of time will increase your odds at finding that perfect location.

For a greater in-depth analysis of various camping factors check out our post; How Do You Pick the Perfect Van Camping Site? here.

2. Make a camping checklist

Planning and preparation is the key to any successful stress free camping trip. A checklist is totally optional, however without one you’ll likely find that after you set up camp you didn’t bring everything you needed to.

There are several benefits in having a camping checklist, first it will help ensure you don’t forget any important items. You don’t want to be one of those campers who after weeks of planning had a less that enjoyable camping trip because of some forgotten items.

Packing the right supplies and equipment will differ depending on what camping activity you are planning and the duration of your stay. From a three day family tent camping adventure to an extended road trip in a van camper or RV, a checklist will help you organize and prioritize everything you will need for your outing.

Another benefit of a checklist is that it does double duty as a shopping list for any items you need to purchase. You can download our basic camping checklist here, it’s not an exhaustive list – but it does cover the necessities – so depending on your camping style just add any items for your particular needs.

Camping checklist

3. Plan and prep your meals at home

Take the time to plan and prepare your daily camp menu. Camp cooking especially for a family can sometimes be challenging and time consuming. So unless you’re an experienced camp cook, the goal here is to have great tasting food with the least amount of hassle possible while preparing the meal.

Don’t make an overly complicated menu; cooking at camp is not the time to try those fancy gourmet meals you’ve been thinking about. However, on the other hand keep the menu too simple and everyone will quickly become weary of flame charred hot dogs.

When preparing meals ahead of time use plastic containers with lids, plastic zip bags and other storage containers that are leak proof to prevent a mess. Also attach a label to each container with its contents for quick identification at camp.

  • Pre-cut meats and marinate them, then place in plastic zip bags and freeze.
  • Freeze any items you can ahead of time, they will last longer plus they will help keep the cooler cold longer.
  • Chop vegetables and grate block cheese or buy grated cheese and place in plastic zip bags or plastic containers and refrigerate.
  • Take eggs along without the worry of breaking by cracking and whisking ahead of time, store them in the refrigerator in clean plastic bottles.
  • Take non-perishable foods like dried pasta, beans and rice.
  • Pack a variety of canned vegetables, meats and fruits.
  • Prepare individual foil packets ahead of time and refrigerate. Be sure to use a double layer of heavy duty foil. If you’re using any pasta or rice in the foil packet be sure to pre-cook it.
  • Dehydrated foods like instant potatoes, dried fruit, powdered eggs and milk, oatmeal packets, ready to eat items, candy bars, nuts, seeds, jerky, trail mix and popcorn are great options to add to your camp food list.

Compiling a menu might seem a little inconvenient at first, but having a meal plan will pay off in the end. You will have more time to spend with family and friends and enjoy the adventure.

Nine camping tips infographic

Other Posts of Interest

4. How to pick and pack a cooler

If you’re buying a new cooler or considering upgrading your old one and want a high end cooler, look for one that has been rotomolded, rotomolding is a production process used by manufacturers to shape plastic materials into useful items.

During the cooler manufacturing process a consistent layer of plastic, free of imperfections is formed over thick insulation, the thicker the insulation the longer the items inside stay cold.

This process produces a cooler with fewer stress points which makes them very durable, long lasting and able to handle a great deal of camping abuse.

Some models are bear resistant and are IGBC certified (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.) A synthetic rubber lid gasket helps keep odors and cold air from seeping out.

These high end coolers are costly compared to the standard type cooler. But, are they worth the extra money? That depends on your budget, type of camping you do and how often you use the cooler. Read our post on the cooler we chose here.

Packing a cooler seems like a no-brainer, just pour in some ice, add the food, a little more ice on top and your ready to hit the road. That might work for a bit, but most likely you’ll end up with soggy, squashed and potentially contaminated food.

Before you plan on using your cooler, if you haven’t already done so give the cooler a quick wipe down with soap and warm water to clean it. After that place some ice inside the cooler, close the lid and pre-chill the cooler for at least several hours. Then right before you’re ready to pack the cooler empty and discard the contents.

Block ice, ice cubes or refreezable ice packs, they all have their uses. Block ice has a larger mass than ice cubes and doesn’t melt as fast. Ice cubes can be used to fill in spaces between your food items and good quality non-toxic refreezable ice packs can help keep the cooler cold without contributing any water to the cooler.

Begin by placing the ice blocks, cubes or ice packs whichever you prefer in the bottom of the cooler, then place your frozen items on top of that and cover with a towel.

Then add the items you want chilled but not frozen next. As you pack keep your food organized and try fitting everything in tightly together filling the cooler to capacity. If there are any voids between items fill them in with ice cubes.

Once you arrive at your campsite keep the cooler in the shade and be sure the lid is completely closed after each opening. Try to minimize the amount of time the cooler is open to reduce the amount of cold air loss. Packing a separate smaller cooler with beverages helps reduce the number of times the main cooler is opened.

5. Campfire safety

At some point in your camping trip you’ll probably want or need to start a campfire either for the ambience of relaxing around a roaring fire or the necessity of cooking meals for a hungry family.

When you start a fire you are responsible for that fire until it’s safely put out. If a fire should get away from you and do damage, you could be liable for a lot of costly expenses.

With that in mind, always keep safety first. Check with the campground manager or the ranger office for any current fire information and recommendations and always practice good campfire management.

  • Be familiar with the fire regulations of the area you’re in, be sure there are no burn bans in effect.
  • When possible always use an existing fire ring or pit to build your fire.
  • If no fire ring or pit is available and campfires are allowed, find an open area; be sure the area above where you want the pit is clear of any obstacles.
  • Clean a ten foot area around the pit area of anything that could burn, and then dig a fire pit about six inches to a foot deep. When finished digging, circle the pit with rocks, but never use river rocks, trapped water within the rock can cause it to explode when heated.
  • Build your fire using local wood only, usually available at the campground office or at nearby stores. By bringing firewood from another area you could inadvertently introduce unwanted insects into the forest.
  • If you gather wood from your camping area, only pickup dead wood that has fallen to the ground, don’t cut or break off tree branches. Collect wood no bigger than the size of your forearm.
  • Never leave a campfire unattended and avoid unwanted injuries by keeping careful watch of young children and pets.
  • Should your fire start to burn out of control, keep a bucket of water nearby to douse the flames or use a shovel to cover flames with dirt.
  • When you’re ready to leave dump plenty of water on the fire, stir it with a shovel or stick and pour on more water until the hissing sound stops. Be sure everything is cold to the touch before leaving.
  • If you dug a pit take anything you built apart, return the soil and rocks to their original location and pickup any trash before you leave.

6. Camp cooking options

For me food prepared over an open fire seems to always taste better. I remember family outings when we made nighttime snowmobile excursions back into the forest where we would build a campfire, roast hot dogs, cook hamburgers and drink hot chocolate.

Cheeseburgers and hotdogs on camp grill

A campfire is where we come together to eat, where memories are made and where family and friendship bonds are strengthened. Fabulous meals can be prepared over a campfire’s hot coals in a number of different ways.

  • Portable campfire grill – these compact metal grills set directly over the campfire coals, they have folding legs for easy storage and some models allow food to be grilled directly on the metal grid. Their flat surface is ideal for coking in a frying pan, Dutch oven or heating the coffee pot.
  • Cast iron frying pans and griddles – work great on any grill surface that holds them above the coals. Properly seasoned cast iron pans develop a non-stick coating that’s perfect for cooking, frying, grilling and sautéing.
  • Cast iron Dutch oven – Dutch ovens come in various sizes, they cook well with lump charcoal and briquettes and with the use of a metal cooking tripod you can hang the oven above the coals. They’re heavy but great for cooking a variety of one pot meals.
  • Stainless steel cookware – cast iron is heavy, so if you want lighter pots and pans then stainless steel would be a good choice. When cooking over a campfire I personally would avoid any pans that have a non-stick cooking surface or any plastic parts that could melt.
  • Foil packets – are a simple and effective cooking method. Use heavy duty foil and double up on the foil when making. Cook on a grill or place on or in the white coals at the edge of the campfire.
  • Pie irons, hot dog roasters and skewers – fun for the whole family. Everyone enjoys this simplistic and straightforward manner of cooking. What could be better than charred hot dogs, mountain pies and of course S’mores? No matter how you prepare the meal it’s better when cooked over a campfire.

Campfire cooking is a great option, but what do you do if there is no fire ring, a fire ban is in effect, no firewood is available, it’s raining or there’s no time to build a fire?

When unforeseen circumstances or weather conditions prohibit building a campfire are you confined to eating cold food? There’s no problem if you have a van camper or RV with a built in kitchen, but what about the rest of us?

Fortunately a good alternative would be a portable propane camping stove, there’s nothing complicated here they work similar to your gas stove at home.

Most common models have one or two fully adjustable burners giving full temperature control when cooking. They use those small green propane canisters and some have adapters available for hooking up a larger twenty gallon tank.

This type of stove is for car or van camping where weight is not a problem. It’s definitely not for the backpacker or primitive camper. They’re much too big, awkward and heavy to carry for any distance.

Weight is of utmost importance when backpacking and there are a number of lightweight, dependable stoves specifically designed for that purpose. They’re small with a single burner and a simple valve to control the flame.

7. Camping with your dog

Camping with your dog can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience for both you and your dog. However you will have to do some extra planning prior to heading off on your camping trip.

Schedule an examination with your veterinarian prior to your trip to determine if your dog is physically fit. Check to be sure all your dog’s vaccinations are up to date; some camping areas will not allow any pets without the proper vaccinations.

Most areas require that dogs be leashed at all times to avoid any potential aggressive behavior toward people and animals, a situation that could quickly get out of hand. With a little preparation and planning there’s no reason to leave your trusty companion behind.

  • Pet friendly campsite – be sure the destination you have selected allows pets. You don’t want to arrive at your campsite and learn pets are not allowed. Before you go call or check online for their pet rules and regulations.
  • Get tags for your dog – if you don’t already have a tag on your dogs’ collar get one. Your dog is an important member of your family and you certainly don’t want to lose them, so make sure you have a tag with your name and cell phone number on it.
  • Pack food and water bowls – when packing the dog food don’t forget to grab the bowls, if regular bowls take up too much space opt for a set of collapsible ones.
  • Tick collars and sprays – dogs are susceptible to tick bites and can carry ticks into your tent, van camper or RV, so be sure to include tick treatments on your list. Just like you have to check your family for ticks when being in the great outdoors you must also remember to check your dog.
  • Leash – your dog loves to be unleashed and run free, but when camping you should retain control of your dog at all times. Dogs are curious and that curiosity could lead them to your neighbor’s campsite, where they may not be wanted. Make sure you pack a leash when camping.
  • Dog bed – just like you like to be comfortable in bed the same applies to your dog. After a long day of playing and running in the outdoors your dog will be tired so be sure to give your dog a comfy place to relax.
  • Dog treats – be sure to take along some treats for your dog that you can easily carry in a backpack to supply him with an energy boost while you are out hiking or around the campsite.
  • Doggy waste bags – when you are out camping and walking your dog sooner or later it’s time for a call of nature and it’s your responsibility to dispose of the poop left by your dog even if it’s in a remote area. You have a couple of options to accomplish that task, use doggy waste bags to pick it up and take it with you or dig a hole six to eight inches deep and bury it at least 200 feet from any water.

Dogs are important members of the family but you must be courteous to others who are camping. Keep your dog under control, don’t allow your dog to bark continuously disturbing others and don’t leave your dog unsupervised at anytime.

8. Keep a clean campsite

While you’re camping it’s important to keep your campsite clean, suppose you arrive at your destination only to find that the previous campers neglected to cleanup, there are pieces of plastic, cans, broken glass and food scraps scattered about.

Maybe you’ve already had this experience, it’s not somewhere you would want to camp. A clean campsite serves several purposes first, it’s good campsite courtesy to leave your site clean and tidy by disposing of refuse properly.

Bottles and debris in campfire pit

Bring along heavy duty garbage bags to contain any camp refuse until you have a proper place to dispose of it. Many camping areas have designated areas to dispose of trash.

Second, animals have a keen sense of smell, so after each meal clean up any food scraps that may have fallen to the ground, this will help keep from attracting unwanted wild animals to your campsite and adjacent campsites.

A confrontation with an aggressive animal that has been attracted to the camping area by the smell of food is not something you or your camping neighbors want.

If you’re camping anywhere in bear country always use bear resistant food containers, the campsite’s metal food lockers if available or a high quality bear resistant cooler equipped with a lock for food storage.

In some areas food hangs, as a way of protecting food is no longer legal. Food hangs or better known as bear bags is a method of suspending food from a tree limb five feet down from the limb, five feet from the tree trunk and twelve feet off the ground.

This method works well for small animals, but the only proven way of stopping bears from getting your food is bear canisters. Check the area you’ll be camping for the rules and regulations on the use of food hangs.

9. Observing the wildlife

Camping provides an opportunity to observe animals in their natural habitat, whether you’re out actively exploring the great outdoors or just relaxing at camp.

The potential to observe wildlife in their natural habitat is part of the attraction of being outdoors. Seeing and photographing animals is something the whole family can participate in.

  • While camping it’s everyone’s responsibility to respect the variety of animals that live there. Whenever you encounter wildlife don’t disturb them and keep your personal safety and the safety of those with you in mind.
  • An encounter with a potentially dangerous animal is unlikely, but it could happen. Be prepared by learning what animals reside in your camping area and educate yourself on what to do if you unexpectedly come face to face with one.
  • It’s perfectly natural to be curious, but avoid getting to close to wildlife, use a spotting scope or binoculars to observe from a distance. Read about the binoculars we selected and why here.
  • When taking pictures don’t try to sneak closer to get the perfect shot, instead use a telephoto lens and stay at a safe distance. I know you really want to, but resist the temptation of taking a wild animal selfie.
  • Don’t try to touch, pet or pick up wildlife. Some animals appear cute and cuddly, but even the most innocent looking animal can scratch and bite.
  • If you come upon any animal that doesn’t try to get away from you, appears dull and awkward or acts aggressive, especially raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes, beware of that animal it could possibly be sick or diseased.
  • Depending upon your location and time of year you could come across a snake. Most snakes are non-venomous, but unless you can clearly identify the snake, treat all snakes with respect and don’t bother them, even a non-venomous snake can inflict a painful bite.


Camping is an addicting pastime, a return to a simpler lifestyle, a reprieve from everyday stress, if only momentarily. It’s a time to hike the mountains, boat in the lakes and rivers, walk the shorelines and enjoy the impressive beauty of nature.

Camping in the United States and Canada has grown in popularity over the past few years, with increased interest in various types of camping. Popular camping types are backpacking, tenting, car camping, van camping, RVing and glamping. Whatever your style from newbies to veterans make plans to get out there and enjoy the adventure.

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The western part of the country draws me with its mountains, deserts, and red rock vistas. Still, there are numerous other wonders I'm ready to explore., from Maine's rugged coast to California's Big Sur cliffs and everywhere between.