Poking sizzling logs in the fire pit while sipping a beer and listening to crickets chirp in the background… camping is the antidote to a busy lifestyle. A necessary escape from the bustle of daily life. And yet camping can seem like another thing on your to-do list, something you struggle to make time for.
You know camping would clear your head after that three-day conference you were forced to sit through. Yet it feels like too big of a deal. You have to pack. And you have to figure out things like where you can find a summer sleeping bag since yours is filled with down feathers, and you would likely die of heatstroke if you tried to use it in August. (Although this rarely happens in high-altitude or desert camping trips, where even summer nights get cold.) And what the heck do you cook?
We’re here to tell you that you can fit camping into your on-the-go lifestyle. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be well on the way to pitching your tent. With a few things always at the ready and these tips, you’ll find that managing a quick camping getaway is painless. And you’ll come back to the office refreshed and ready to sit through another day of meetings. Your hair might still smell like a campfire, but everyone around you will just be jealous.
Keep a go bag .
Packing often causes the most worry. You think, what if I forget the can opener and we can’t eat all night? What if I wake up freezing, or don’t have what I need to start a fire? So keep your basic camping supplies packed and ready to go on short notice. One bag dedicated to camping supplies solves these problems.
Keep one big bag — or more realistically, a plastic storage box — with the gear you’ll need. In your bag, store the following: a backpacking tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, an inflatable pillow (or a soft down pillow that compacts well), a portable set of pots and pans, a small cast-iron skillet, a propane backpacking stove and extra propane, matches, cotton balls covered in vaseline (great fire starter), a small lantern, tin foil, a refillable water bottle, a spatula, a can opener, a mini bottle of dish soap, steel wool, and a quick-drying camp towel.
The above is what you’ll need for car camping. In addition to that, you’ll want a day pack for going on hikes. If you plan on hiking into the campsite, you’ll want these items packed into a backpack. Everything else is optional. Add some clothes, soap, and a toothbrush to the bag, and you’re good to go.
The point of camping is to rough it. Depending on where you’re going, a camp store may also be an option if, for example, you realize you need something like bug spray. Unless you hiked in, but even then you’ll survive.
Keeping a bag packed with essentials makes the entire process smoother since you don’t have to think about whether or not you remembered the can opener. You know it’s there.
Find a campsite on short notice.
It can be stressful if you don’t know where you’re staying for the night. But there are several easy ways to find a campsite one or two days in advance.
First, start with an online search. Look at Recreation.gov or the National Park Service website, which cover campgrounds in larger national or state parks. For smaller, often privately owned campgrounds that don’t appear on these searches, check out Reserve America. Or do a quick Google search for “Campsite Near Me.” You might be surprised how many options appear.
Some campgrounds have groups of sites that are first-come, first-serve. So you can drive up and reserve one on the spot. Smaller campgrounds are less well known and, I’ve found, often less busy. So you’re more likely to be able to score a site.
We recommend following up your online search with a phone call. Ask about availability. I’ve found campground employees or rangers to be knowledgeable about the chances of getting a first-come, first-serve site, and they can offer useful guidance.
Rent extra equipment.
If you don’t have all the gear you need, you have a few options. For one, you can rent. The quickest option is renting through REI. Always call ahead to make sure your local REI has the right item in stock, but you could pick it up the same day. Here’s their list of rental pricing per item. And if you’re an REI member, you’ll save 33 percent on rentals.
If REI is a no-go, try a quick Google search to see if there is a local store near you that rents out equipment. If you’re planning more in advance, try online rentals. Rent seven days ahead of time through Arrive, and the gear will be delivered to your door or directly to the campground. You can mail it back when you’re finished. Another option that takes a little more time is to rent 10 days in advance through Outdoors Geek.
You don’t need everything in the REI catalog to be able to sleep outside. Your clothes don’t have to wick moisture, and your tent doesn’t need to be “super-light.” My dad goes camping with nothing but a tarp and a sheet. While you don’t need to go that rugged, you can probably get by with things you already own or can borrow from a friend. Especially if you’re car camping.
If you don’t have a summer sleeping bag, bring a sheet and a blanket. If you don’t have a sleeping mat, bring a yoga mat. If you don’t own a tent, borrow one or bring a hammock — but also a tarp in case it rains. A sturdy pot from your kitchen works just as well as camping pots, although avoid the ones with plastic handles as they will melt. Cast iron is even better — and cheaper — because you don’t have to scrub all the soot off afterward.
There are so many ways to make camping with what you already own work. Don’t let the stuff hold you back from enjoying the great outdoors.
Cook easy meals.
Cooking over a fire can be intimidating if you’ve never done it. But it’s actually easy. As long as you bring food that’s easy to prepare, you’ll be fine — and you can always pack extra granola bars just in case. Just stop by the grocery store on your way to the site. Here are some go-to suggestions.
Some of these items don’t require refrigeration. For those that do, you can bring a bring a cooler with ice packs if you’re car camping. Items like frozen, pre-cooked sausages double as ice packs and your dinner.
- Apples and oranges — No need to get complicated.
- Instant oatmeal — Heat up some water and you’re good to go. Plus you get to choose your flavor. You could even skirt around having to bring bowls to clean up.
- Egg, sausage, and pepper scramble — If you’re feeling decadent, bring a few eggs, bell peppers, pre-cooked sausage. Slice up some of the cheese and add it as well. Let the sausage and peppers cook until they’re heated, and then add the eggs and cheese. It’s filling and satisfying after spending the night on the ground.
- Tuna sandwiches — Bring a can of tuna, a small container of mayo, and a loaf of bread. As long as you have that can opener, this is a great lunch. (If you prefer to avoid tuna, which is overfished, you could also opt for canned salmon.)
- PB&J — It’s filling and delicious.
- Cheese and crackers — Use the rest of that cheese with crackers. Or just eat it straight.
- Baked beans or canned chili — You can place the opened can on the coals, and it will cook right up. Or stick them in a pot, but that’s more to clean up later.
- Baked potatoes — These are the world’s easiest thing to cook in a fire, although it does take time and a person to watch them. Stab a few holes in your potatoes (they can explode if they don’t have a way to ventilate) and wrap them in tin foil. Place them as close to the coals as you can; a pair of tongs help with this. The potato will cook more quickly in direct flame. Sweet potatoes take about half as long to cook as russet potatoes. Bring a little salt, pepper, and a block of cheese, some pre-cooked bacon if you’re feeling fancy, and you have yourself a nice meal.
- Hot dogs — There’s a reason these are classic. Use a whittled-down stick to cook them over the flames, or put them in a pot. Bring buns and ketchup, or don’t. Any hot food at the end of a day of hiking and setting up camp is welcome, whether it has a lot of flavor or not. If you’re not into beef, you can get turkey or veggie versions, too.
Don’t forget to pick up a gallon or two of drinking water. You can use the water at campgrounds for washing dishes, but it’s not usually potable. Camping is even easier if you’re planning to camp for more than one night. You do all the hard work — like setting up the tent — the first night, and then it’s smooth sailing. The only items on your agenda are to stoke the fire, cook the food, and eat.