These camping tips will show you how to camp like a champ
Most people hit their favorite campground for a 3 day weekend. A smaller percentage camp for a week or more at a time. But you don’t have to sacrifice comfort for adventure in the great outdoors if you know how to camp like a champ. It helps to know the difference between essential camping gear and luxuries.
Camping is a great way to maximize your opportunities for adventure. A comfortable basecamp is the perfect place to prepare for day hikes. But it helps to know how to hike like a seasoned hiker. We wrote a wildly popular guide called How to hike: 8 steps to become a badass day hiker that will help you become the best hiker possible.
ESSENTIAL #1: Shelter
Your shelter is your safe haven in any campground. It’s where you will lay your head each night and where you’ll retreat during nasty weather. It’s also home base during your camping adventure so comfort should be a top priority. Ensuring that your shelter delivers a comfortable experience requires more than just a big tent.
Select a campsite
- Be aware of widow makers. Dead trees can fall at any time and ruin a perfect camping trip. Downed limbs and debris around the site can be a good indicator of what’s to come.
- If you’re a walk-in (meaning that you arrive at the campground without a reserved site), be sure to survey the landscape. Nothing ruins a great camping weekend like loud neighbors. Know camping etiquette and expect it from your campground neighbors. Don’t be the one that pisses off their campmates.
- Many campgrounds have picnic tables and firepits. Look for campsites with a bit of tree cover (healthy trees of course – see previous bullet) which could be beneficial in a light rain.
- Know the general wind direction. Nobody wants to be sucking down the neighbor’s campfire smoke all night. Look for sites that are upwind whenever possible.
- Determine where the sun will rise and set. A site with tree cover may block some of the early morning sun. A nice sunset view could be equally rewarding so think it through.
- Choose a tent size that fits your needs. Be careful not to go overboard; larger tents typically require more effort to put up and break down.
- Smaller tents provide more flexibility for placement on a specific campsite than larger ones. Options for where to place the tent are good to have.
- Consider the wind direction. Placing your tent downwind from your campfire could make for a smoky night’s sleep.
- Double doors on a tent can be a real plus. If you’re using the fly, the vestibules can be used for gear storage. Less gear in the tent, more room for movement. Plus, the added storage that vestibules provide could allow you to choose a smaller tent to get the job done.
- Your favorite shelter may be a hammock. Hammocks offer a unique option for solo campers and are versatile enough for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. Hammocks can also be effective in minimizing your footprint or where space is limited.
Dial in your sleep system
- Go traditional and choose a good sleeping bag and pad system that fits your body and the conditions. A combo like the Big Agnes down sleeping bag with an integrated pad sleeve is perfect for side sleepers. Learning how to camp using your lightweight backpacking system can save you some hard earned duckets.
- Many camping families prefer to use inflatable mattresses instead of pads. In warmer weather, an inflatable mattress is a perfect compliment to a Teton Sports double sleeping bag or for families that still have little campers that are more comfortable sleeping with mom or dad.
- Like to sleep above the ground? Then consider a cot system and a larger tent. Though they require more room, cots paired with pads and a sleeping bag can make for a wonderful night’s sleep. Cots typically breakdown and stow in a small 3 foot long carrying case.
- Hammock camping can be bliss if you can dial in your sleep system with the right top quilt an insulating pador bottom quilt.
- Consider sleeping bags designed specifically for children. The science is simple and your kids will be more comfortable in a children’s bag than in your old spare bag.
With a sound sleep system, an adequate tent, and the proper site selection you are prepared for any conditions that mother nature throws at you.
Camping tips for creating the perfect campsite and shelter:
- Do a quick campground audit at the end of each trip to make notes about the campsite you used, list the ones that might be better for next trip, and document the campsites to avoid. This is especially useful for campgrounds that you plan to revisit later in the season.
- An old area rug is a great way to add a bit of comfort to your tent. It helps to manage dirt and feels great on the feet at bedtime.
- Spice up the tent with rope lights. Simply wrap them through the pole structure on the outside of the tent but under the fly. A small power pack will do the trick and the ambient light is perfect for putting the kids down before adult time commences.
- Water bottles filled with either cold or hot water are a great way to boost comfort in your sleeping bag. Fill your favorite Nalgene bottle with hot water right before you turn in. Place it in the bag with you near your feet or snuggled in where you need it. You can even drop it in your bag 15 minutes before you climb in. Never slide into a cold bag again!
- If you’re using a smaller backpacking tent for a solo outing, consider taking a cot anyway. Many 2 person tents will fit nicely on top of the cot. No one ever said the cot had to go inside!
- Gear Review: ENO Doublenest Hammock…
- Gear Review: Maggiolina AirLand Roof Top Tent
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- Tips for winter camping
ESSENTIAL #2: Fire
Nothing comforts campers more than a good camp fire at the end of a long day on the trail. But planning your fires, particularly the wood and tools required to sustain a good rager, is often what gives campers trouble. Too little and you go a night without fire. Too much and you have to load it up at the end of the weekend and take it home. Those that know how to camp like a champ eliminate as much of the guess work as possible.
Know your burn rate
- 12-14 logs (split sections of course) will provide enough wood for cooking dinner in cast iron and fueling a comfortable fire until midnight
- Lighter, dry wood will burn faster than hardwoods so take that into account
- Take enough extra wood for an unplanned bonus day to cover any contingencies – sell it off to other campers in lieu of taking it home
Every scenario is different. Camping in colder climates means you could be stoking a fire all day and most of the night. In the desert southwest, campers may only burn a fire in the evening hours after returning to camp. The key is to count logs and know how long a stack will last you.
- A folding military inspired shovel is great for moving coals, adjusting logs in the pit, and covering the smoldering fire with dirt when you leave
- A poker – a handy branch makes a good poker and who can resist making necessary “adjustments” to the fire all evening long
- Rocks make a great decorative surround for the standard issue rolled steel firepit ring. It can also be built as a buffer to keep inquisitive little ones away from the fire. The bonus – kids love to help gather the rocks!
- For those that enjoy dutch oven cooking, a steel grate with 4-5 inch legs is a perfect tool. Place it inside the firepit ring directly over the coals. It can support a dutch oven or coffee pot and can even be used to sear steaks if that’s your thing!
- Fire resistant gloves (I use a pair of Ove Gloves – an infomercial special!) come in handy when moving grates or cast iron
Learn to start a fire effortlessly
- Cotton balls with a smear of petroleum jelly make great fire starters. Store them in a plastic resealable bag for easy access and to minimize the mess.
- Fill cardboard toilet paper rolls with dryer lint for a fire made easy
- Place small balls of dryer lint in the spots of an old egg carton and cover each with wax to make 12 individual fire starters.
- Fire starter sticks can also be purchased in the section of the grocery store where you find charcoal
- Establish piles of wood when you set up camp in graduated sizes. Having a tinder pile to get things started and a pile of thin slat wood can make the process much easier especially in breezy conditions.
Practice fire safety with kids
- Firepits get hot to the touch almost instantly. Use rocks to surround the firepit. It makes the pit look great (style points!) and creates a bit of distance between kids and the flame.
- Explain the process of fire building to your kids so they understand what you’re doing and how it all works. Giving them an activity like collecting tinder can make them feel included.
- Establish a “one poker” rule. Kids will want to poke the fire but that can be avoided when the poker is in the hands of an adult.
- Consider what your children are wearing. Some synthetic garments can be dangerous when exposed to an open flame.
Camping tips for building the perfect campfire:
- Work on your wood pile as soon as you’ve set up your shelter. Create piles by size ranging from kindling to big logs. This makes building the first fire of the day a breeze.
- Take multiple fire starting methods with you on every trip. Some may work better than others in certain conditions.
- Smooth rocks placed along the outside of the firepit ring can be useful for heating hands, feet, or low back while you lounge in your favorite camp chair or useful in “preheating” your sleeping bag.
ESSENTIAL #3: Food
Everyone knows one of the highlights of camping is enjoying a great meal in a natural setting. Cooking on an open flame gives meals a rustic touch and reminds us of simpler times. But just because you’re cooking in the wild doesn’t mean you have to settle for simple dishes. Learn how to camp like a champ by elevating your camp cuisine.
Plan a killer camping menu
- Utilize shelf stable options when you can to save on valuable cooler space. You can use canned items and still win top chef at the campground.
- Modify recipes, when possible, to allow for one pot preparation. No one likes clean up duty.
- Be mindful of prep times for each meal. It’s wise to have meals that have a few quick steps for nights where fun trumped cooking and you find yourself back at camp later than expected.
- Look for recipes that have actually been made in a camp setting. Campfire recipes have already been adapted to the rustic conditions that camp chefs have to work with.
Select the proper cookware
- Learn to use, care for, and love cast iron. It’s durable, versatile, and provides the perfect cooking surface for camping.
- Multi-tools aren’t just for the backpackers in the crowd. Look for cooking utensils that can meet a variety of uses.
- Think about your consumption for things like spices. Don’t pack more than you will need.
- Forget your non-stick pans. When used over a campfire, those types of pans can release toxic chemicals.
- Everything gets hot near the campfire, so be sure to have protective gloves to move pots and pans around.
- Use a dutch oven lid lifter to make one pot meals easier to manage.
- Invest in a badass stove like the Camp Chef Pro 90. Look for something that gives you control over the flame and heat as well as the flexibility to use a variety of skillets, dutch ovens, griddles, and pots.
- You can make meal time easier in camp by prepping ingredients at home. Chop, dice, measure, and mix what you can in the comfort of your home kitchen.
- Prepping at home allows you to pack and transport just what you need for each meal. Make notes after each trip to adjust your recipes so that the next trip will be spot on.
- Break meals down into several servings. In camp, you can cook all servings or just what you need if the number of people you are feeding changes.
Cook with coals
- Start your fire on one side of the firepit and add wood on the open side. This will gradually move the fire from one side of the firepit to the other revealing a perfect bed of coals to cook on.
- Ballpark the temperature. Place the dutch oven in the coals and then hold your hand over it at the level of the sides. Count backwards by 50 starting at 550 (550, 500, 450) until you have to remove your hand. That will give you an approximate temperature produced by your coals.
Keep it cold with block ice
- Block ice melts much slower than cubes. For weekend camping trips, load your cooler with one block of ice, your food and drinks, and fill the remaining space with cube ice.
- Don’t drain the water until it no longer keeps the food cold. Even though some of the ice has melted, the water will help to keep the temp of the cooler lower.
Make clean up a breeze
- Use one storage bin for washables – the plates, utensils, and cups that need to be washed. Doing this at home is easy and all items can be repacked once they are clean.
- Keep a few garbage bags in your camping kit for use at the campsite. Most campgrounds have dumpsters onsite and all of your garbage can be discarded when you check out at the end of the trip.
- Make a game out of clean up. Give the kids the task of finding any debris at the campsite that doesn’t belong. Kids love scavenger hunts!
Camping tips for elevating your camp cuisine:
- Create a storage plan. Use storage containers that hold all of your camping gear. Putting specific pieces of gear in the same container each time makes it easy to break down camp and even easier to find what you need while you are there. Label the containers or use various colors to differentiate them.
- Consider meals that use common ingredients so that you can minimize the number of ingredients that you have to bring. For example, last night’s left over baked potatoes make killer home fries today.
- Organize your camp kitchen before you begin cooking. Professional chefs refer to this as “mise en place” which simply means putting in place. Your camp meals will come together more smoothly if you stage the utensils, cookware, and ingredients before you begin cooking.
- Using eye droppers and straws to make DIY containers for things like spices, hot sauce, or oils.
- You may not know it yet, but you need the Camp Chef Pro 90 Camp Stove
ESSENTIAL #4: Water
After a big day on the trail, there is nothing better than returning to camp and taking that first gulp of cold water. Well, a beer might trump that! But water has to factor into the equation somewhere. Hydration is key to a long weekend of adventure not to mention the countless other uses that water has in camp. Consider how to effectively organize and store water in camp so that you can get to exactly what you need when you need it.
- Gallon jugs. It’s simple and easy for campers that grab water on the way out.
- 2 gallon container with spout. More volume and a useful spout make these store bought containers useful in camp for filling cups, bottles, and hydration bladders.
- Collapsible water carriers. There are a variety of options here ranging from a 2 gallon container to a 20 liter water bucket.
- Igloo style water cooler. These 5 gallon coolers are a fixture at nearly every Little League baseball park and very useful for camping.
- Water bottles. Available in a variety of forms including squeeze bottles, travel mugs, and insulated stainless steel models.
- Hydration bladders. This is the most versatile option for campers that plan to be on the trail during the day and in camp at night. Pressurized bladders also serve other purposes too.
- Water bags. There are a ton of options for water bags, but the base design is the same for most. They can fit into a pack, be left on a picnic table, or hung from a tree branch. Water bags are not that expensive and are designed to withstand the elements.
Filtration, Treatment & Purification
- Handheld pump filters. The longtime standard for camping and backpacking users, handheld pump filters are generally easy to use but do contain moving parts that can wear or break.
- Gravity flow filters. Our filter of choice, gravity flow filters are dead simple to use and have no moving parts. These filters tend to be more expensive and can be tricky to use with small water sources.
- Squeeze filters. The new kid on the block, squeeze filters are very mobile and contain no moving parts. These are best for individual use and not for groups.
- Ultraviolet sterilizers. SteriPen made this method of sterilization famous. They’re easy to use but are battery powered. UV-C light rays are used to destroy 99.99% of protozoa, bacteria, and viruses.
- Drops. Water treatment drops are literally a lifesaver in developing countries. They’re also useful for group camping because they are lightweight, easy to use, and can be used to treat large volumes of water.
Camping tips for managing water and hydration:
- Create several watering stations. It’s good practice to have tap water in a central location for washing up and it should be close to the cooking station. Another station for refilling drinking water is good idea.
- A stream or river next to your campsite is a luxury. Use a mesh laundry bag with a drawstring to hold drinks in the water by staking it to the bank and letting the bag drift as it will. The drinks will match the temperature of the running water.
- Chip away at the block ice in your cooler as your trip winds down. It can be used to cool drinks in bottles or your hydration bladder.
- Always pack water enhancers. These electrolyte heavy tablets and powders can help to rehydrate you and also add flavor to your water.
- Trail Sherpa hosted the Hydration Summit in June 2012 and there is a mountain of information about hydration and the trail on the website.
- Avex Sport makes the best stainless steel water bottles and travel mugs – read our 5 start review here
BONUS CAMPING TIPS: 9 ways to make your campsite more comfortable
At the end of the day, it’s nice to return to camp and enjoy a great meal, a campfire, and the company of others. But learning how to camp in ultimate comfort can take years of trial and error. So we thought we would offer up some of our best tips to help you accelerate your learning curve and get you camping like a champ on your next outing.
- Don’t let money get in the way of a great camping adventure. There are a number of ways to maximize each dollar and ensure that you’re getting the most bang for your buck when purchasing camping equipment. Tent camping on a budget is certainly possible.
- Use tent rope to create a clothes line between two trees. It’s a perfect way to dry wet clothes and hang coats or boots. It also doubles as part of a quick shelter when combined with a tarp and poles. It could be useful for protecting the things on a picnic table when unexpected afternoon showers appear out of nowhere.
- Create various zones at your campsite for eating, washing, lounging, and first aid. Organizing camp ensures that everything has a place and can be found when needed.
- Compression bags are your friend. They are perfect for sleeping bags, clothing, and pillows because they compress the contents down to save valuable space. Stuff a compression bag with extra clothing to make a pretty comfy pillow too!
- Most campgrounds have quiet time, but small battery powered speakers are a perfect mood setter. Just drop in the iPod and enjoy tunes next to the campfire. Recharge the batteries with a solar recharging unit like the Guide 10 from GoalZero.
- Explore the various options for flooring in your tent. Your feet will thank you after a long day. An old area rug is perfect or try something more creative like this modular foam flooring option.
- Plan ahead. A last minute scurry to pack and head out the door may not ruin your trip but it can make it stressful before you ever reach the campground.
- Bring an extra headlamp to set the mood. Loop the headlamp around a Nalgene bottle or a gallon jug with the light facing into the middle. It creates a very cool nightlight and looks great with different color bottles. Blue is a favorite with our family.
- Nothing is more uncomfortable in camp than unhappy little campers. Keep the kids engaged with games and activities that appeal specifically to them. Check out these Top 5 Non-Essential Camping Essentials for Kids.