Packing for a Camping Trip: How To Do It Right

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I’ll confess that I didn’t start camping in any real way until I got together with my boyfriend seven years ago. Our first weekend trip together involved Vermont, some marital nuptials (not ours), and a pleasantly creaky B&B. Our second, a few weeks later, took us to a campsite upstate on the shore of Mongaup Pond. It seems to be that second trip that stuck, and our life since then could be read as a slow but constant accumulation of camping shit. This reached its apex last summer when we bought this bell tent—the item that signifies the transition to glamping.

(Regular readers of Flung already know of the praises I sing when it comes to the bell tent. You can read about our inaugural trip with it here, and everything I’ve bought for it here. This current article doesn’t specifically address bell tent camping, although everything certainly applies no matter what kind of tent you’re using.)

Some people hike and camp for a week straight, stopping only to drop an insane pack from their backs and set up the tent for the night. There is no advice here for that kind of camping. But if, like me, you’re into packing up the car, rolling right up into the campsite, hunkering down there for a few days and making the whole thing as idyllic as possible, I’ve got some wisdom to share…




Sleeping

I have three suggestions when it comes to optimizing comfort while sleeping in a tent. First, I’ve learned that thin blowup mattresses are superior to thick ones for several reasons: they’re warmer, since there’s less cold air in them; they’re easier to get fully inflated; and they hold their firmness better. The one we have is no longer available, but this one is similar. Note that I would avoid inflatable mattresses with attached pillows. If there’s room in the car, I also bring along our memory foam mattress pad and place it on top of the inflated mattress. This makes for a bed that I swear is as comfortable as our real one at home.

Second, do not under any circumstances overlook the pillow. As long as car space isn’t an issue, I take a real pillow. I also have an inflatable pillow from L.L. Bean as backup, and I’d talk it up more if they still sold it. Even with the inflatable pillow, I bring a pillowcase for it.

Third, sleeping bags suck. For the kind of low-intensity camping I tend to engage in, they are truly not necessary. I roll up to my campsites instead with a real comforter and my Pendleton wool blanket for its incredible warmth. Also, real sheets. It changes everything.

Kitchen and Cooking

We don’t get too fancy with our food at the campsite. We do, however, have a few keys tools that keep us well-fed and well-caffeinated.

Coffee: While making coffee over a campfire is possibly the greatest joy I get on a camping trip, I’ve never felt a need to invest in anything beyond this classic camping percolator. Also, you need metal coffee mugs, this is a nonnegotiable. I started out with the classic blue speckled metal coffee mugs. I still have them, but a couple years ago I also upgraded to these higher-design metal mugs from Italian brand Seletti—they add a dash of quirk to the campsite and I smile every time I look at them. Whatever you choose, make sure they’re made of metal.

Keeping Things Cold: They’re not cheap, but Yeti coolers are the best I’ve ever experienced. We have the small Yeti Hopper–the sun can beat down on this thing all day, and it’s cold contents will not be phased. On a smaller scale, S’well bottles are little miracles–if you like your water cold, these will do the trick over the course of a couple days, even.

Cooking: Writing this is making me wish I’d gotten more creative with my meals at the campsite, but truth be told we have become creatures of habit—eggs and beans in the mornings, burgers at night, and a couple of experiments thrown in for good measure. This frying pan with a folding handle packs well and satisfies most of my cooking needs, although if you’re into more elaborate menus, I’d probably get a saucepan, as well. I also swear by these egg holders, which protect the eggs nicely while they’re sloshing around in the cooler for two days.

As for the grill itself, we’re almost always glad to have brought along a basic grill to place over the campfire. I don’t love the Coleman one that’s for sale everywhere, although it does the trick if you don’t want to spend much. I do like this heavy duty version from Texsport as an alternative. Bring along a large trash bag to store it in–these things get nasty by the end of a weekend.

Dining: I can’t recommend highly enough the all-in-one solution of this picnic backpack, which contains plates, silverware, wine opener, wine glasses and more.

 

What I Wear

Footwear: You don’t need hiking boots at a campsite—unless you are actually planning a hike, in which case bring them along but leave them in the car until you need them. I take my plastic Birkenstocks everywhere, so it’s no surprise that’s they’re also my go-to camping footwear.
Even if it’s cold out, I like to have them handy for those middle-of-the-night bathroom squats. I also like to bring my Nike water shoes—great for walking on lake bottoms or creek beds, canoe outings and muddy paths. (Similar here.)

Also, socks. My feet get so cold so easily. Wearing socks to bed makes sleep go better, every time. I’m partial to Smartwool socks.

Clothing: I want to keep this list short for you: One pair of your most comfortable and casual jeans, one pair of shorts in the summer, one sundress just to remind yourself that you’re civilized. A couple of tank tops and t-shirts. Try to avoid white. Try to avoid underwire bras–wear a sports bra the whole weekend if you want, or no bra, no one will care.

Bring a very warm wool cardigan, because there is nothing better to wear when sitting in front of a warm campfire on a cool night. Bring a hat, because you’ll be sorry if you don’t. Bring leggings: Use them as PJs and maybe leave them on all day, who knows.




Beauty Routine

I don’t have an elaborate beauty routine to begin with, something to keep in mind when I say I don’t alter it significantly when I’m on a camping trip.

Makeup: I forego my usual mascara, but still use blush, because blush makes me look like I’ve got more of an inner enthusiasm for life. I particularly like traveling with Smashbox’s L.A. Lights Blendable Lip and Cheek Color, because there’s no brush necessary, and it’s subtle enough that I don’t look crazy during bright sunny days.

Cleanliness: I get my face clean-ish with toner and a cotton swab instead of twice-daily face washing, although I try (and sometimes fail) to wash my face in the mornings with my usual Dr. Bronner’s. (I don’t really have a specific toner to recommend–I go for the cheap drugstore ones, and they work fine.) As always, I refuse to be alive without Drybar’s Detox Dry Shampoo, the miracle product that enables me to probably not shower over the course of a weekend. I haven’t stepped foot outside without sun protection on my face in 15 years, and have settled pretty firmly on this Neutrogena face moisturizer with SPF 35.

 

Camp Life

After that initial push to get the tent set up, I generally want to things to be relaxed. Still, I appreciate a well-curated campsite, I can’t help it, which means I’m willing to spend some time arranging and tidying. My tastes bend toward camping gear that is not only functional but also looks good. In other words, I want it to look as little like newfangled high tech camping gear as possible.

Which may help you understand my seating choices. Typical camping chairs are so ugly. If there’s room in the car, I pack up our gorgeous wooden clam chairs that normally live in our back garden. CB2 sells them now, but they charge more than twice as much as what we got them for. Consider yourself warned. If you’ve got less room, this Helinox chair is less hideous than most–and it swivels!

I have five of these battery-powered LED string lights. They’re tiny and they do everything for the aesthetics of a campsite at night.

On the most practical note–bring one headlamp per person. And bring some of those bungee cords with the hooks on each end. They always come in handy for something or other.

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Sarah is the founder and editor of Flung, the author of Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, and a widely published travel and culture writer. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.