Sunset from a campsite in Crested Butte Colorado

How To Plan A Camping Trip Like a Pro (+ Camping Gear Checklist)

Share This

The great outdoors is just that, GREAT! Whether you’re tent camping at a campground or looking to get off the beaten path into the backcountry for some wild camping, one thing is sure; a plan is needed to ensure your camping trip goes smoothly!

So how to plan a camping trip? How do beginners start camping? What are the steps to plan a camping trip? Do any of those questions sound like you? We’ve been there.

The planning process can seem overwhelming, especially if you’re a beginner at camping. But no worries! We’ve tent-camped (and RV-camped!) all over the U.S. and abroad.

We’re here to give you our step-by-step process on how to plan a camping trip so it’s the best it can be.

Sound good? Let’s get to it!

How To Plan A Camping Trip – A Step by Step Process


Step 1: When Are You Able To Camp?

Weather and climate is a HUGE thing to consider when camping. This is why we are making it the number one thing to consider when you plan a camping trip.

Weather and climate will dictate what kind of gear you need and the activities you can do during your camping trip.

For instance, if you are tent camping in the summer, the Southern U.S. can be HOT, HUMID, and downright unbearable.

Our rule of thumb when we plan a camping trip is to follow the good weather!

Summers in the mountains have been some of our FAVORITE camping trips to date. While the days can get warm, the nights are cool, making it perfect for campfires and sleeping.

Alternatively, if you are looking to camp in the fall, spring, or even winter months, you could need to beef up your camping gear to ensure your tent, sleeping bag, etc, are rated for the cold temperatures you may encounter.

We can’t stress enough that the time of year you want to take your camping trip could dictate where you can go camp.

Hiking to Havasu Campground

Step 2: Where Are You Camping?

Once you’ve identified the time of year you are going camping, the next to-do on how to plan a camping trip is deciding the place!

Now, this is the part that can seem the most overwhelming when you’re wondering how to plan a camping trip.

Start off by identifying what you want out of your camping trip. For instance:

How long do you want to go camping for?

If you can only go for a weekend, you’ll need to stay close to your house. So what campsites, National Forests, or National Parks are close to home that you can tackle over a weekend?

If you can go for 5+ days, how long do you want to drive to get somewhere? If you can drive 6-10 hours, you have a lot more camping destinations open to you! Or are you willing to fly?!

Identifying how long you can go camping for is an essential first step in determining some places you can access and camp at. Of course, please consider the weather of those places too 🙂

What do you want to do on your camping trip?

Do you want to go white water rafting? Go on an epic hike? Check a few National Parks off your list? See and photograph wildlife?

Identifying “what” you want to do is also an important step we think through when planning a camping trip! The “what you want to do” totally impacts where you can go camping.

For instance, don’t plan your camping trip to Acadia National Park in spring if your dream is to experience the leaves changing colors during fall in New England.

Summers in Colorado, Idaho, California, and Wyoming are amazing! Places that are higher in elevation, like Crested Butte, Telluride, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Taos, are amazing summer camping destinations!

If you are thinking spring or fall, we can’t recommend Utah, Acadia, Arizona, South Dakota, or Asheville enough!

Just triple-check the weather. Further north places can still have snow in spring or early fall!

Step 3: Finding Your Campground or Backcountry Camp

Alright! So you are being mindful of the weather and picked your camping destination; now, where do you camp?!

Well, to keep it simple, you have three options:

  1. Designated campgrounds
  2. Dispersed camping
  3. Backcountry/Wilderness Camping

Wondering what’s the difference between these three? Lots actually. And each option totally depends on your travel style, comfort level, and what you want for your camping trip.

Campsite at Havasu in Arizona

Camping At A Campground

A campground is a designated area with some sort of amenities like a bathhouse, toilets, running water, a campfire ring, a grill, a store that supplies things like wood or food, and an area that can be reserved for tent camping or RV camping, as well as ADA compliant sites.

In addition, making a reservation at a campground allows you to pull your car, travel trailer, or RV right up and into the site. The same is not the case for the last option – which we’ll discuss below.

Now, campgrounds can also have a first-come-first-serve option where reservations cannot be made ahead of time. Rather, you just show up, and if a site is available, it’s yours.

Depending on where you are wanting to camp, some campgrounds are managed by individuals, and some are managed by the government.

For those managed by the government, you can make your camping reservations on For campgrounds managed by individuals, you’ll need to book your camping reservation directly through their website or call.

All of this is to say that NOT all campgrounds are created equal. Campgrounds vary in price per night, cleanliness, and overall amenities offered.

PLEASE BE SURE to read reviews before making any reservations so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

PRO TIP: Each campground has its own set of rules. Some have a limit on how many people can be at one campsite. Some allow dogs; others don’t. Before making ANY RESERVATIONS, be sure you read the campground rules to ensure you can stay in compliance and, above all, the site is right for you, your group, and your pet.

Camping in Dispersed Campsites

Think of this option as the middle ground between options 1 and 3.

Dispersed campsites are sites with little to no services or amenities. You won’t find any dumpsters for trash, toilets, or bathhouses at a dispersed campsite. Meaning whatever you bring with you (trash included), you need to bring out.

Dispersed camping is essentially primitive camping within a National Forest or National Park, and depending on the site, you may be able to pull your vehicle right up, or you may have to walk a distance.

NOTE: When looking to camp in dispersed campsites, understand the drive up may be over very rocky and rough terrain. Read site reviews to understand what you may be getting yourself into and ensure you have a vehicle that can handle the terrain and grade.

Camping underneath a star filled sky in Utah

While still dispersed, you can’t just camp anywhere in the area. There are designated campsites marked for camping use. Some of those sites have a fire ring, while others may not. A fire ring is about the only amenity you’ll get in a dispersed campsite.

How long can you stay at a dispersed campsite?

Typically you can stay anywhere from 10-14 days at the same dispersed campsite for free or a nominal nightly fee. Some dispersed sights may require an overnight camping fee that you deposit into a lock box on-site once you leave.

PRO TIP: Dispersed campsites are first-come-first-serve only, meaning reserving a site is not possible. When looking to camp in dispersed sites, it’s always best to have an alternative dispersed sight or campground in your back pocket in case all sights are taken. We use Campendium, The Dyrt, and Free Roam to find dispersed campsites throughout the U.S.

Camping in The Backcountry (or Wilderness Area)

The most remote of the three camping options are camping in the backcountry or a wilderness area. You’ll have to use a backpack to carry all your belongings in and hike to your desired campsite. Pulling up to your site with your vehicle isn’t really an option.

You will not have a toilet, a fire ring, or any other sort of amenities at all. So whatever you need with you, you have to pack it and carry it. The same goes on your way out. All used toilet paper, food wrappers, and trash has to come out with you.

!REMEMBER to follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles when camping and enjoying this planet of ours. You always want to leave your site better than you found it.

Wild Camping in Idaho's White Cloud Wilderness
But how do you find a backcountry or wilderness campsite?

Research and planning are the TWO musts for finding a backcountry campsite.

There are a few ways to locate a backcountry site:

  1. Google a National Forest or Wilderness Area to locate campsites, and if they have a website, look there to see if any backcountry sites are listed.
  2. Ask a local ranger where some backcountry campsites are located.
  3. Use apps like AllTrails to find some backpacking trip hikes, and from there, you can narrow down a potential campsite after looking at the trail map.
  4. Use a topographical map of the area you’re venturing into to locate a potential campsite.
  5. Hike it and find it. What do we mean by that? As you hike along, be on the lookout for a good campsite. Once you find it, claim it.

PRO TIPS: When choosing a campsite, be at least 200 feet away from any water and the trail. Also, understand that you may need to register and/or have a permit to camp in the backcountry or wilderness areas. Be sure to understand all requirements of the area you want to backcountry camp in before arriving.

Step 4: Reserve Your Campsite ASAP (if applicable)

We’ll say it again…reserve your campsite as soon as you know your camping dates! Especailly if you want to stay in National Parks or nearby popular areas and attractions.

Campsites book up fast! For reference, Yellowstone National Park is known to book out a year in advance. So if you are looking to stay at a campground, making a reservation as soon as you are able is a MUST.

PRP TIP: If you can no longer make your reservation. Please cancel. Don’t be a jerk, and keep your reservation when another person or family could enjoy your campsite!

Step 5: Make Your Packing List (And Meal List!)

Alright! So you’ve identified the time of year you’re camping, where you’re camping, and the kind of campsite you’ll be at. Now it’s time to create that packing list!

By creating a packing list, you’ll clearly see what camping gear you already have or what you may still need to buy or borrow from friends.

Oh, and if you’re staying in bear country, you’ll need bear safety gear, such as:

To help start your camping packing list, download our free checklist below!


Free downloadable camping gear checklist

If you need recommendations on camping gear, check out our essential camping gear here!

As for meal prepping, we highly recommend planning your meal in advance to avoid the back-and-forth trips to the grocery store once you arrive. You want to spend time camping and adventure, right? Plan your meals ahead of time.

Oh, and if you’re camping with a group, collaborate on meals! Even if you just divide and conquer the dinners, having a group dinner in the evenings while camping is always so fun!

Now, for the food. Depending on the kind of camping you’re doing, you have two options:

  1. Freeze-dried meals
  2. Campfire/Campstove meals

Freeze Dried Meals & Camp Cooking

If you want minimal prep, minimal mess, and minimal cleanup, and you’re looking to go as streamlined as possible with your meals, freeze-dried meals are for you!

We love freeze-dried meals, especially while camping in the backcountry. They are easy and lightweight, making them perfect for carrying to your campsite.

Freeze-dried meals only require some hot water (we use a JetBoil Flash Cooking System – you’ll need fuel, too!). Once your water is boiling, add it to the bag and wait anywhere from 15-30 minutes for the meal to cook. Once done, you simply eat from the bag and enjoy!

Some of our favorite freeze-dried meals are:

PRO TIP: We split 3 servings (1.5 servings each) of freeze-dried meals per meal. We found that one serving was not enough food for us. Also, there are loads of other flavors outside of our favorites listed above. Check out more options to try!

Camp Stove or Campfire Cooking

Now, if you’re not backcountry camping and packing light isn’t a worry of yours, lucky you! You can go as fancy or minimal with your camping meals as you want!

Want do we mean by that?

If you are camping at a campground or dispersed campsite where you can drive you’re vehicle up to, no need to pack freeze-dried food – unless you want to 🙂 You can go the traditional grocery route!

There are SO MANY great camping cookbooks out there. So if you need a little inspiration, we recommend trying a cookbook.

You can use a grate to sizzle up your favorite protein and veggies over the open campfire flame or bring a camping stove to cook with. We love our kitchen kit, as it makes camp cooking so easy!

Oh, and be sure you have a durable cooler with you so you don’t let perishables go bad. Regardless of which food route you go, planning and prepping meals ahead of your arrival will save you time and a lot of headaches!

Camping cup in the woods

PRO TIP: If you are in bear country, NEVER EVER leave food (or food trash/waste) in your car or tent. Either hang food from trees (via rope & carabiner), store food in bear-proof canisters, or use the bear boxes provided by the campsite. Never leave food, trash/waste, or remnants lying around.

Step 6: Research What Activities There Are To Do

By this point, you are prepped, reserved, and have your gear ready to pack! Woo-hoo!! You’re almost ready to leave.

Another very important thing to consider is researching what activities, events, hikes, etc., there are to do either in the area you’re staying in or nearby your campsite.

If you are visiting National Parks, consider the following:

  • Some National Parks require permits to enter. Do your research to ensure you have what you need to enter.
  • Check the latest road closures (if any). Like road maintenance in your town, National Park roads also need maintenance, which could affect your route. Visit the National Park website to stay up to date on the latest road closures.
  • Book any activities or tours at a National Park in advance! As we’ve said previously, accommodations and tours book up fast in National Parks. Sites like Viator or Get Your Guide are reputable and great online booking sites where you can find and reserve tours around the world, including our amazing National Parks!
  • Is your dog coming? Ensure you know the pet rules and restrictions of the National Park you’re visiting! Even though places like Grand Teton’s are not the most dog friendly, we still found plenty of fun things to do with Huey! By far, Acadia National Park and Black Canyon of The Gunnison of two of the most dog-friendly National Parks we’ve visited.
  • If you visit more than 3 National Parks in a year, buy a National Parks Pass to save money on park entrance fees.
Sunset at Badlands National Park

Visiting other places outside of National Parks?

Look to see what events are taking place during your visit.

For instance, some mountain towns like Crested Butte have free concerts during the summer! And if you’re visiting Telluride and didn’t do your research, you would not know that the gondolas are free to ride! Or how about Antelope Canyon? Did you know reservations are 100% required?

See! Doing research is an important trip-planning step. And booking tours or activities ahead of time (via Viator or Get Your Guide) secures your fun-filled itinerary of the best things to do in the area you’re visiting!

PRO TIP: If you’re a hiker, apps like AllTrails are perfect for showing you amazing hiking trails in your area. It’s a great planning tool to help you identify the best hikes there are to do for your camping trip!

Summit of Black Elk Peak at Sunset

Step 7: Last-Minute Prep

Do one final check a few days before you leave for your camping trip. And who are we kidding? Sometimes the night before, are we right?! 🙂

  • Download any offline maps, podcasts, and music you need (you never know what reception will be like)
  • Double-check your packing list – make sure you have your medications!
  • Assign roles so you can divide and conquer with setup when you get to camp.
  • Let someone (family/friends) know where you are going and when you are returning.
  • Ensure all your reservation confirmations are easily accessible (we create folders in our g-mail)

PRO TIP: If you don’t want to fly with a lot of camping gear, you can see if a local company or store rents camping gear. Reserve whatever gear you need ahead of time, and pick it up after you leave the airport!

Step 8: Have Fun, But Leave No Trace

Let’s flash forward to your camping trip. Please ensure you follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principals during your camping trip’s beginning, middle, and end.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find (not including trash, pick it up and throw it away)
  5. Minimize campfire impact
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be consideration of other visitors

And, of course, have a freaking blast! You know how to plan a camping trip like a pro now. Enjoy Mother Nature!

How To Plan A Camping Trip – Pin It For Later

How To Plan A Camping Trip Pinterest Pin

For more travel tips, guides, and awesome travel shots, be sure to poke around our site and follow us on Instagram @wanderingstusPinterest, and Facebook. Oh, and if you have any questions, let us know in the comment section. We’re happy to answer. Or, just leave us a positive note!

Happy Travels,

– Lauren & Jesse Stuart (The Stus)

Share This

Similar Posts