Ah, camping. It’s a lot easier to fantasize about than it is to figure out how to plan the perfect camping trip, am I right?
I used to think camping was simple. Boy, was I wrong!
Ross and I have spent countless hours researching, contemplating, planning, and testing out gear for our trips.
We sure have a lot of fun doing it, but it can definitely get overwhelming and time consuming.
Now that we have several trips under our belts, we can safely say that we’ve learned a thing or two about how to plan a camping trip you’ll be sure to remember forever.
It’s not rocket science, but it does take some effort to research what you can realistically expect and what you’re most interested in getting out of it.
Here’s what we do when we plan our camping trips.
Do some brainstorming about the type of camping trip you want to take
Are you a “weekend car camping” kind of camper, or a “backpacking through the rugged mountains” kind of camper?
You probably have at least a vague idea of what kind of trip you’re looking to take, but it’s important to start with defining the style of trip you’re going for.
Check this out: 7 different types of camping (and their pros and cons)
Consider what you want to see and what you want to do.
Do you want to be traveling most of the time, or would you rather hang out at a basecamp?
Is this an adventurous trip where you’re willing to work hard, or would you rather just relax most of the time?
This is something we always ask ourselves in the beginning, because the both of us want to be mentally prepared for what’s to come.
If I know I’m going to be slogging a canoe through a swampy bog every day of our trip in order to get to our next campsite, then I know I’ll need the kind of mindset that is ready to work and willing to be challenged.
Research various camping destinations you’re interested in visiting
Once you know the style of camping trip you want to take, it’s time to look at possible destinations. Consider variables like:
- How many days you’re going for
- How far you’re willing to drive or travel
- What you’re most interested in seeing and doing
- Amenities you may want to take advantage of
- The popularity of the destination and the season you’re planning on going (a.k.a. the potential for busy crowds)
Start by searching online or asking people you know if they’ve been there before.
It’s always best to get first-hand information from people who’ve actually camped at the places you’re considering.
In your online research, look for blog posts, forum threads, YouTube videos, and location-specific reviews to get a feel for what the destination is like.
You might actually find that a specific place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, even if it’s extremely popular.
Create a list of pros and cons for each camping destination you’re considering
If you’ve got multiple camp destinations you’re interested in visiting, it’s worth making a list of pros and cons each one.
This will help you to narrow down your choices and make a final decision.
Some things you may want to consider include:
- How easy or hard it is to get there
- How many people the campsite can accommodate
- Campground or backcountry features (beaches, trails, rivers, waterfalls, rocky cliffs, views, natural landmarks, water access, equipment rental services, etc.)
- Campsite features (size, privacy, waterfront or water access, outhouse/privy access, distance from parking lot, etc.)
- The type of terrain (mountainous, forested, swampy, etc.)
- Types and level of difficulty for various activities (hiking, biking, kayaking, etc.)
- Potential for wildlife encounters
- Your budget in relation to the cost of services
- The time of year you’re going
If you’re going with other people, make sure you have a conversation about what they’re hoping to get out of the trip.
Someone who says, “I want to go on a nature hike every day,” might conflict with someone who wants to relax by the campfire all day long, so it’s better to figure those things out earlier on in the planning process rather than wasting precious time trying to decide what to do when you’re actually there.
Cut down your list of attractive camping destinations until you’ve settled on one
If you have five camping destinations you’re looking at visiting, consider the sacrifices you’re willing to make for the things you actually want to do and see.
Put a star beside the list items that you really, really want to do, see, or enjoy. Put an X beside anything you feel neutral about or don’t really care for.
If there’s a really big negative about a specific destination, circle it—it could turn out to be a dealbreaker later on when you’ve had more time to think about it.
If there’s something you’re not looking forward to doing (like driving several hours), but you’re willing to do it to make the trip work, put a checkmark beside it.
Now, considering the the things you are and aren’t willing to sacrifice, cut your list down to three camping destinations.
Then, cut one more. You should have two to decide between.
If you have to, go back to doing more research to help you make your decision.
Sometimes, you really just need to watch a video on YouTube of someone’s experience, or read a blog post review to get a better feel of what you can expect.
We often find that we can’t get everything we want from the destinations we choose for our camping trips.
There are just so many places to go and things to do, you’re bound to have to sacrifice certain things and endure certain challenges or inconveniences—no matter where you decide to go.
Familiarize yourself with your camping destination’s rules and regulations
Every camping designation (national park, provincial park, state park, etc.) has their own set of rules and regulations that you’ll need to know before your trip.
For example, there may be restrictions on how many people can occupy a campsite at any one time, or how many vehicles are allowed in the parking lot.
You might not be able to have a campfire, or be limited in the type of fire you can have.
There might be rules about bringing glass bottles and cans, and many parks enforce no-fly zones for drone users.
Search online for the name of your destination plus the terms “rules and regulations.”
Ross and I tend to favour backcountry camping in Ontario Parks, which has has a Reservation Rules and Regulations page we always make sure to abide by.
We also make sure to look up the park we plan to visit to check the park rules that are specific to that particular park.
Knowing the rules will help keep you from getting fined, booted from your campsite, or having to leave the park altogether.
Likewise, being respectful of the rules will help to keep the park clean and free from litter, and preserve the natural beauty for future visitors.
Research and create a list of equipment and gear you’ll need for your camping trip
Unless you’re a survivalist camper, you’re going to need some gear for your trip.
Start by making a list of all the items you’ll need and how many of each item you’ll need. This should include:
- Sleeping gear
- First-aid kit
- Miscellaneous equipment and gear (portable camp chairs, clothing line rope, matches, insect repellent, sunscreen, headlamps, etc.)
- Activity equipment and gear (paddles for canoeing, fishing rods for fishing, etc.)
Tip: Be careful not to overpack.
You need to be honest with yourself and figure out what’s not worth bringing on your trip.
You’ll also need to think about how you’re going to transport your gear.
If you’re going car camping, all of your gear can go in the car.
If you’re canoeing or hiking to your campsite, you’ll need to think about how you’re going to carry everything—including the weight of everything.
Check your current equipment and gear to make sure they’re in good condition
Once you have your list of equipment and gear ready to go, take inventory of what you already have.
Check to see if anything needs to be repaired or replaced before using it again.
It’s especially important to inspect things like your tent and sleeping gear for tears or holes to prevent water front getting through, or cold air seeping in.
You may also need to test certain pieces of gear before your trip.
For example, make sure your camping stove works properly and has a full tank of propane before you head out.
Same goes for anything that uses fuel, batteries, or chargers—like headlamps, lanterns, air mattress pumps, and more.
Lastly, make sure everything is clean and ready to go.
You don’t want to be arriving at camp only to find that you forgot to soak and wash your big cooking pot before planning on cooking up a hearty stew for dinner!
If necessary, plan to purchase (or rent) any remaining equipment or gear you might need
When it comes to camping, we tend to find that we just never have enough stuff.
And even if we already have something, sometimes it’s just worth upgrading to a version of it that’s better.
If you need to order a really essential piece of equipment or gear online, make sure you do it weeks ahead of time so it has time to arrive at your door before your trip.
Likewise, if you know you need something, but you need to properly research various types and brands to make an informed decision, make sure you give yourself enough time for that too.
If you don’t have the budget to buy something in particular, or you only need it on a one-time basis for a particular trip, you can always check to see if there’s an outfitter near your camping destination.
These are usually businesses that cater to campers and offer things like camping equipment rentals, canoe and kayak rentals, fishing gear rentals, and more.
Book your campsite and other trip-related services, like lodging, transportation, and equipment rentals
You’ve done a lot of planning already, and now it’s time to seal the deal! Let’s start the booking process.
The first thing you’ll probably want to do is book your campsite.
You can usually do this online, and it’s a good idea to reserve as far in advance as possible—especially if you’re going during the height of the camping season or on a long weekend.
Booking your campsite might be all you need to do, but in some cases, you may require more services.
For instance, you may need to book a shuttle service from the outfitter to get you to a particular location in the frontcountry or backcountry campground.
If you’re driving quite a distance, you might even want to consider going in the evening and staying at a lodge or hotel that first night so you can get a head start during your first full day.
For a backcountry canoe camping trip we took last summer, we had to book a float plane to take us to the lake we wanted, and then we had to book it again to pick us up.
This just goes to show that, depending on the logistics of your camping trip, you may have more to book than just your campsite alone!
If camping in a group, assign each person appropriate responsibilities
While it’s always a good idea for everyone to be somewhat familiar with the basics of camping—like how to set up a tent, how to start a fire, etc.—it’s especially important when you’re looking at how to plan a group camping trip.
When everyone knows what their responsibilities are, it can make for a much smoother trip.
This is especially true when it comes to food.
If every person knows they’re responsible for providing and cooking one meal for everyone during the trip, you can cut down on unnecessary food weight and potential spoilage.
It also disperses the burden of cooking so that no one person is stuck doing it for every meal.
The same goes for other duties, like setting up camp, packing up camp, stoking the fire, and doing the dishes.
If everyone is assigned a task, it’ll help make sure things nobody wastes time wondering what to do, struggling with tasks they don’t know how to do, or feeling resentful that they’ve been burdened with doing too much work.
Plan out the itinerary for your camping trip
Your itinerary is basically the daily schedule for your camping trip.
This typically includes:
- Departure time
- Estimated travel time
- Estimated arrival time
- Stops along the way
- Daily activities
- Rest or “open” periods
While it’s not necessary to plan out every single minute of your trip, it can be helpful to have a general idea of what you want to do each day—including how many hours you think you might want to spend doing everything.
This will help you make sure you don’t miss anything important, and it’ll also help everyone in your group know what to expect.
You might also want to plan for unexpected delays due to travel and weather.
For instance, if you’re expecting rain on a certain day, consider how that might affect your planned activities.
It’s also important to be realistic about time.
We like to give ourselves more time than we think we need so that we don’t feel rushed or anxious about getting to the next item on our itinerary.
But, at the same time, you don’t want to feel like you have to see every attraction or squeeze in every activity possible.
This is why it’s also really important to plan your itinerary so that it’s flexible, including opportunities for rest periods and open time slots where you can do anything you want.
Your itinerary is just a guideline, after all—not a set of rules!
Make sure everyone attending the camping trip is familiar with the itinerary
Everyone should have a copy of the finalized itinerary, and ideally be involved in the initial planning of it.
This way, everyone is likely to be happy with the final version.
Getting everyone up to speed on the itinerary also makes it more likely that they’ll be ready on time for departure.
It will also help everyone understand what they need to bring in terms of personal equipment, gear, and clothing that best matches the type of trip and activities you have planned.
Create a meal plan for your camping trip
Food is a big deal when it comes to camping, making it one of the most important things to plan out well ahead of time.
If you want, you can assign the meal planning to someone specific so they can determine who’s cooking what, and when.
Consider breakfasts, lunches, dinners, desserts, and snacks in terms of convenience, time it takes to prep/cook, portability, and shelf life.
Staying nourished while camping is a different kind of experience, so it’s important to be thoughtful about your food choices.
Some things to keep in mind while you’re creating your meal plan:
- If there are any dietary restrictions, make sure to accommodate for them.
- How much time do you want to spend cooking each day?
- How many ingredients will you need, and how much weight and space will they take?
- Which meals will you need to cook over a fire?
- How much should you realistically bring, without having too little or too much leftover?
- What food items are most likely to spoil first, and therefore should be eaten earlier on in the trip?
- What can you do to store food safely and prevent spoilage?
- Will you need any specialized cookware or equipment?
Create backup plans, safety plans, and “worst case scenario” plans for your camping trip
You can never be too safe when it comes to camping.
Lack of planning, lack of awareness, and overconfidence is what leads people to get lost, injured, sick, stuck in bad weather, or just upset with how the trip is going.
That’s why it’s important to have backup plans for all of the potential scenarios that could ruin your trip.
This includes things like how you’ll get back to civilization if you need to, how you’ll handle an emergency situation, and what you’ll do if someone gets injured or sick.
In addition, it can be helpful to have a “worst case scenario” plan in place.
This is the plan you’ll put into action if something goes very wrong and you’re forced to cut your trip short.
For example, we typically always have a shortcut route planned for the longer backcountry canoe camping trips we do, just in case the weather is bad or something happens that compromises our health and safety.
Things you’ll want to consider bringing to keep yourself safe during your camping trip include:
- A really good first-aid kit
- A small repair kit for your tent, clothing, canoe, etc.
- Medication (painkillers, antihistamines, antacids, etc.)
- Extra lighters, matches, and batteries
- Warm clothing
- Rainwear and rain tarps
- Bug protection
- Fireproof gloves
- A properly sharpened axe and/or saw
- A compass and a hardcopy of a map
- Proper footwear designed for the terrain
- Bear spray, bear bangs, and/or bear hangs for your food
- The most up-to-date weather forecast you can get
- Extra water filtration systems (such as dissolving tablets)
- A satellite-enabled personal locator beacon
Keep all of your trip planning documents together in one place that’s ideally waterproof
It’s easiest to keep all of your important planning documents in one place where you can access them easily if you need to.
This way, if something happens and you have to change your plans on the fly, you’ll have everything you need right there with you.
Likewise, if you get stopped by any park officials or conservation authorities, you’ll know exactly where your permit and/or appropriate licenses are.
We use a waterproof map case to keep all of our lists, permits, maps, itinerary, meal plans, fishing licenses, and any other documentation we might need.
Start checking the weather forecast a few days up to about a week before your camping trip
You’re never made more aware of the weather until you’re forced to live directly in it.
To help with the planning process and to get a better idea of how your itinerary might actually play out, start looking at the weather forecast up to about a week before you plan on going on your trip.
This will help you get a general idea of what the weather is like at your destination at different points in time, how the forecast might change over the course of your trip, and what you can do to prepare for potential bad weather.
It can also help you decide on extra clothing items to bring, rain tarps, dry bags, and other pieces of equipment that may be waterproof, insulated, or otherwise designed to withstand the elements.
Important: You’ll also want to check for potential fire bans in the area you’re camping in.
For instance, Ontario Parks has a dedicated page for alerts, which include fire bans, in each provincial park.
I recommend googling the name of the park or area you’re camping in plus the word “fire ban” to see what comes up.
If you still can’t find anything, consider calling the park’s head office or the town to find out more information.
A fire ban will mean that you won’t be able to have a campfire and you’ll need to do all of your cooking on a fuel stove.
Gather and pack all of your equipment, gear, clothing, and food well ahead of time
You really don’t want to start packing up all of your stuff an hour before your departure time.
Not only is it a rushed and stressful way to start your trip, but you’re more likely to forget things or leave something important behind.
Plus, if you’re driving a long way to your destination, the last thing you want to do is have to stop along the way to pick up supplies.
This can add extra time and expense to your trip, and it’s just not necessary if you plan ahead and pack everything you need in advance.
If you’re going on a very intense and length trip, you may need to start gathering all of your equipment, gear, clothing, and food up to two weeks ahead of time.
If you’re going for a casual weekend trip, however, you’re probably fine to pack the night before you head out.
Just make sure to give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to pack, because I guarantee it will be more than you think.
Doing at least part of it days ahead of time will also give you the opportunity to think about what you can leave behind to avoid bringing unnecessary items, and what you might be forgetting or overlooking as being essential (like extra matches, extra underwear, etc).
Tell someone else where you’re going, just in case
Finally, the last thing you need to do is tell a friend or family member exactly where you’re going, when you’re going, for how long, and when you’ll be back.
Even if you’re going frontcountry camping where there are tons of other people, it’s important to let others know your whereabouts in case something happens and you don’t check in when you’re supposed to.
It’s even more important to do this when you’re planning to visit more remote or backcountry areas just in case something does happen.
Worst case scenario, if something does happen and authorities have to be called in to find you, they’ll at least have a general idea of where to start looking.
If you’re traveling throughout your trip instead of staying at basecamp, make sure you give someone your itinerary, ideally with the specific campsites you plan to stay at—or at least the general areas (lakes, rivers, trails) you plan to camp around.
This way, if something does happen, that person will be able to direct emergency services in a more concentrated area where you were expected to have been.
Now that you know how to plan the perfect camping trip, there’s nothing stopping you from getting out there and enjoying all that nature has to offer.
Just remember to take the time to do your research, make a list of what you need, and pack everything well in advance.
With a bit of planning and organization, your trip is sure to be a success!
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).