Thursday, June 9, 2016

Planning short camping trips

We made a goal last year to get out on more camping trips and we've been doing fairly well. At this stage in our lives, car camping is the best fit for us, vacation-wise. It's inexpensive (even our fancy tent only cost us about what we would have spent on a weekend in Palm Springs), we can bring the dog, and there are tons of destinations close enough that we don't have to squander precious vacation days. We'd both like to do more backpacking type trips, but since we have a slightly elderly and arthritic dog who won't hike for more than 15 minutes at a time, that is unlikely to happen in the near future. So we're just focusing on perfecting our car camping skills.

packed car

So the bad news about short camping trips is that you have to pack almost as much stuff for one night as you would for a week. You still need almost all the same equipment, just less food and clothing.

The good news is that if you're car camping, you can make the packing process pretty easy on yourself. The main thing is to stop worrying about maximum efficiency. We don't bother cramming sleeping bags into stuff sacks or neatly packing everything up. We just dump it all into bins. We have two dedicated camping bins in our closet that store almost all our camping stuff and a short list of extras that need to get tossed in before we leave (chairs, tent, food, pillows). All in all, we can get the car loaded and be out the door in less than 30 minutes if we mean business, and that includes dragging everything out and throwing some clothes in a duffel. For these one night trips we keep the food super simple and routine, which means we know exactly what we need. We just do scrambled eggs + sausage + coffee for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, hot dogs for dinner, s'mores for dessert. I have a set grocery list and know exactly what I need to pull out of the fridge and what we'll stop and pick up as we leave town. We're considering testing out some fancier meals for summer, when the days are so much longer that I'm willing to use some of the precious daylight hours cooking.

My top tips for short camping trips: 
1. Store your camping equipment in bins that it can be transported in
2. Keep everything together and easily accessible (yes, it is a little annoying that the entire floor of my closet is covered in camping equipment, but it makes it easy to pull out)
3. Keep the meal planning really simple and don't stress about it because almost anything will taste delicious after a long hike

I still don't consider myself an expert, and almost every time we go out I make a few notes about something else that would be useful to have, but here are the essentials we've been using lately.

Sleeping arrangements
- Tent + tent footprint - we were a bit angsty about moving up to a larger tent but it's hands down the best decision we've made in regards to camping. We have the REI Kingdom 4 and while it isn't enormous compared to some on the market, it feels HUGE to us. As the name implies, it can sleep four, and it's tall enough that we can stand up in it. We have last year's version and the new 2016 model has had some changes (no interior divider, less mesh), so be aware it looks different. We got the footprint that is specifically made for the tent, although you can always just use some heavy weight plastic cut to size. Ours has two "rooms" so we usually sleep in one and use the front for luggage, dog dishes, etc.
- Sleeping pads - we have some old Therm-a-rests that work fine. I'm tempted to get an air mattress but so far that is a step too far.
- Sleeping bags - we're in the process of getting a double sleeping bag right now. I've had the same sleeping bag since I was 8 and it's time to replace it. It's been tough because most stores don't have the doubles in stock so you have to order one online to check it out in person. Luckily REI has amazing customer service, so we're doing just that and I know it won't be too big a pain. I'll report back if we find something great. Also, for warm weather trips (like beach camping) we'll sometimes just bring a set of sheets and a down comforter to go over the sleeping pads. This is my favorite way to camp, but make sure you check the expected nighttime lows before you do it.
- Pillows - we just bring our regular pillows, but we have pillowcases that we just use for camping.

Light sources
- Headlamps - there are a million different varieties, but we've had good luck with the Petzel brand.
- Lantern - we have a beautiful old propane Coleman lantern that belonged to my dad but I'm always afraid I'll break the glass. We got a modern replacement which is much less elegant, but serves the same function.

Camp kitchen
- Camp stove - we inherited an old Coleman stove and it works fine but it is showing its age and I definitely have looked longingly at the Camp Chef stoves. Maybe someday.
- Coffee and/or tea set up  - we've experimented with different options, but so far the french press seems to be the easiest. We have an old stovetop kettle (which can also go on the fire if there is a grate) and we also have this portable grinder that we keep with our camping gear, but you can always pre-grind, clearly.
- Mess kits - Mess kits are great because you can cook in them and eat out of them. For a short trip with just the two of us, we could get by with just these. There are some crazy fancy mess kits out there that you can drool over, but we have our old ones from the 80s and they are going strong and should run under $20 (similar at REI). Our cooking bin has a few extra things for when we camp in groups (larger pot that holds about four cups of liquid, larger skillet, aluminum two-burner griddle, some plates and bowls and utensils) but we don't get those things out on these short trips. Of course, you don't need a mess kit, you can always just toss a couple plates, some utensils and a saucepan in your bin and call it good, but it won't look as cute and it'll take up a little more space.
- Small stuff - pot holders, salt and pepper, a roll of paper towels, matches, a spatula, long skewers for roasting things.

Note - I don't wash dishes on overnight camping trips, I just toss them in a bag and do it at home. But for longer trips, you need a small bin for dishwater and a bottle of campsuds. (Seriously tempted by this cute option - REI is so dangerous. Every time we go in there we come out convinced we need a million clever new things)

Food storage
We have gotten by for many short camping trips with nothing more than our beloved Trader Joe's insulated blue bags (we have two of them and they do heavy duty in our house all the time, not just for camping). They hold plenty, and will keep ice cold for at least a day. However, with summer coming, we're accepting the necessity of a cooler - they're just so bulky and annoying! For now, we pack our cold food in a very small cooler and also take both our Trader Joe's bags. One is usually empty and ends up with dirty dishes in it. We might have to upgrade to a larger cooler for longer trips. We saw this cooler bag at REI the other weekend and it was pretty great, but holy sticker shock!

- Sharp camping knife in a holder 
- Towels - I always toss a couple small workout towels in the bin for drying off our hands (most campgrounds will not have paper towels) or whatever else comes up. Obviously you'd need larger towels if you intended to shower.
- Hand soap - even nice campground bathrooms are unlikely to have soap
- Camp chairs - we have really crappy chairs that we got in a last minute panic when we realized we didn't have chairs and we were heading out to camp. I'd recommend getting something better. We're having a hard time buying new ones since these technically work, they just suck.

Long lead - for the campsite
- Bowls for food and water
Puffer vest - helpful if it gets cold, although Circe is not a huge fan
Light up collar - not necessary but makes it easy to keep an eye on your pup in pitch dark (note - we make sure Circe is always within a few feet of us at night because she's small enough that a large coyote could snatch her up, so the collar is really nice)

Whew. It sounds like a lot, but I swear it packs up quickly. If you're a first time camper, you could pack ready made meals in tupperware and ditch the entire camp kitchen set up, which would simplify things considerably.

Experienced campers - tips? Anything I missed? Favorite not-entirely-necessary-but-now-feels-necessary gadget from REI?

kitchen toolkit

Not necessary, but the above photo is how we store some of the smaller kitchen accessories. It belonged to my parents and it's just a toolbox from Home Depot. It's nice to keep all the small stuff together in one place.

circe spot

Critical to our car loading considerations - Circe likes a nice empty spot in the backseat for her nest (although she usually then decides to perch precariously on top of the bins or insist on sitting in someone's lap).

And because this post isn't long enough already ...

Sample timeline for our typical one night camping trip (assumes check in is at 2pm, but we'll get out the door earlier if they'll allow early check in):

9:30 am - get up leisurely, eat breakfast, pack clothes, toss bins in the car, grab food out of the fridge, shower. Stop at grocery store for ice and the rest of our list, hit the road by ~ 11am.
~11 am - ~ 2 pm - drive to campsite, possibly stop in cute town on the way if one is available. If we get there too early to check in, we'll park in day parking and explore, but most places are okay letting you in a teeny bit early.
~ 2 pm - Eat lunch, set up camp quickly, hike (or nap, then hike, depending on how tiring the week has been).
~6 pm - Happy hour, fire building, dinner cooking, fireside sitting = evening.

~8:00 am - breakfast
~9:00 am - morning hike
11:00 am - back to camp an hour before check out so that we have plenty of time to break down and pack lunch for the road.
12:00 pm - hit the road.
~3:00 pm - We're usually home by early afternoon and then one of us immediately throws Circe in the tub for a much needed bath while the other person empties the car, washes the dishes and puts away the camping bins. Critical - once we get home we don't stop moving until everything is taken care of (usually takes an hour or so to get everything done, including showers for the humans). That way we can get back to work on Monday without the house being a disaster zone.
~4:30 pm - freshly showered happy hour at home while catching up on Instagram

I'm not saying it's restful, exactly, but now that we have the routine down it feels easy and it is incredibly refreshing. Being out in nature even just for the one night seems to hit a reset button for me.


  1. Thank you for writing this post - it has come at just the right time! My husband and I are flying home today after a year of traveling and are planning on going on short camping trips instead of holidays for a few years while we build up our savings again. These tips are really helpful.

    I have been reading your blog for years and never commented before but since I am commenting now, I also wanted to say a quick thanks for your budgeting posts because it introduced me to the needs/wants/save idea which has revolutionised my budget, and also your Athens tips. We ended up visiting the city on a whim last year and loved it some much we went back for a full week a few months later and visited a couple of the places you mentioned like aegina. I still dream of the gyros and the baklava...

    1. Awww, thanks Jasmin! So glad that it's been useful for you.

  2. I’ve never backpacked, I am strictly a car-camping person and I love it! In the summer, my MO is to swim, hike, etc,and keep meals simple, but fall camping is strictly relaxing, just cooking and reading or poker all day. Last year we didn’t even leave the site for one trip, honestly we just wanted to get out of the house, and it was so relaxing. Three things things had us cross the border into “glamping”: an air mattress (complete with regular bed sheets), excellent food, and string lights for the interior of our tent (it makes getting ready for bed in the dark 100x easier. Also great for reading in bed!). We stick with eggs and sausage in the morning too, but we’ll also bring peppers and potatoes for home fries. Lunches are still an afterthought, sandwiches, or salami, cheese and fruit, or tomato soup and grilled cheeses if it’s cold. Our favorite dinners are pork chops or kebabs, and we always bring corn on the cob because it’s an easy and delicious side that takes like zero time. We’ve even prepped them at home by buttering and seasoning them, then wrapping in tin foil so they can just go on the grill when we get there.

    We’ve actually gotten away with not getting a camp stove, we use a Lodge combo cooker and dutch oven we got as a wedding present, but I’m thinking of just buying the stove. Coffee would be so much easier!

    We are also using insulated bags right now (one is that blue TJ’s bag to be exact!), but I know we need a cooler. I’ve considered this ( but it might be more trouble than it’s worth? It’s collapsible but still, I live in a studio, there’s only so many more things I can fit in my storage unit, aka the trunk of our car.

    1. So funny! We ordered that exact cooler during the memorial day sale and just received it last night. We obviously haven't used it yet, but I have to say that at first glance neither of us was super impressed with it. It does collapse, which is the main selling point for us, but the sides are very short, so when it really isn't very big even when expanded. I'm also wondering if it's going to be a pain to clean/dry out, because the sides are supported with semi-soft inserts.

      We'll test it out soon and I'll let you know how it works! We're basically doing anything to avoid an actual cooler. They just take up so much space!

      So impressed with your cooking! I think we're going to experiment more this summer/fall. I have to say that having the stove is really nice, and has come in handy especially in CA, since some of the campgrounds are strict "no open fire" lately due to the drought, but they generally always allow camp stoves. The Coleman one is fairly inexpensive and doesn't take up much room (but it is one more thing you have to store/lug!).

    2. I want to love it, but have always stopped short of buying it because of the issues you mentioned, also, it seems difficult to carry when packed full of food. Can't wait for your review!

  3. Love this post, and have been so inspired by your one night camping trips! We grew up car camping all the time, and my dad was a former river guide who organized 2 week river trips for huge groups (30 people, tons of kids) of our friends every summer. My happiest memories! I laugh as I camp now bc the menus on those trips were so gourmet! We're much less ambitious and meals in a campground are still the very tastiest. We aim for minimal dishes too -oatmeal or yogurt for breakfast, PB sandwiches (or just granola bars, jerkey and trail mix) for lunch, one pot dinners. My fav camp meal is curry lentils - chopped onions browned in oil or butter, add lentils, can of tomatoes, water and/or coconut milk, curry powder, sometimes red potatoes+peas+carrots, simmer until everything is done. With rice if we're up for two pots, with grilled naan if we're not.

    RE a double sleeping bag - a lot of nice sleeping bags now will zip together. My husband and I have the North Face Cat's Meow (chosen obviously for the name) and his would zip into a double if mine weren't 10 years older. We love our ThermaRests and for me they are vastly more comfortable than an air mattress. If you want to splurge on luxury, my dad got me something called a Paco Pad - - so I could camp while pregnant. Totally unnecessary but it's pretty amazing!

    1. Same here! I remember big group camping trips when we were kids and people were making fancy appetizers and much more elaborate dinners. With just the two of us it seems like a lot of work, and food is so good while camping that even a regular hot dog tastes amazing at the end of a day.

      We've thought about getting singles that can be zipped together (same deal here - my sleeping bag is sooo old that it predates that technology) but our friends recently got a double and can't stop raving about it, so we're curious. We tried one out this weekend and it was a big fat failure, because we didn't realize that it's not compatible with our thermarests and needs different sleeping pads. We don't want to get new sleeping pads + a new sleeping bag, so we're back to the drawing board.

      Those Paco Pads look cool - are they just more cushy than thermarests? Sooo tempted to get one for the dog ... anything that might encourage her not to lie directly on the dirt at the campsite would be nice.

    2. They are much much more cushy than a ThermaRest - the least expensive version is probably 2-3 inches of cushion without being inflated. They also are sturdier, square and because of the plastic used less slippery than a ThermaRest. I think sharing a ThermaRest in a double bag would be...logistically challenging, whereas I think two Paco pads next to each other would stay in one place. They are heavy and take up a lot of space, so I was hesitant to commit to storing them until pregnancy discomfort made the decision easier! Our dog would still chose dirt though :-)

  4. We lived in Seattle for almost a decade and camped as often as we could - both car camping and light backpacking trips. Years ago I adopted your "keep it all in a bin" practice, which is A++ and was particularly helpful when we moved across the country, sometimes camping (with a cat) on the drive across.

    We had an old Coleman stove that worked heavy camp duty for years, for the two of us and for larger groups (it was left as a long term loan with a camping friend on the west coast), but also have this lightweight backpacking stove that has been an awesome backup stove. Even on car camping trips, we'd bring both to have the extra burner for heating water while the Coleman fried eggs and bacon or whatever.

    We also invested in a double sleeping bag a few years ago, and love it so much that we even took it on at least one backpacking trip (insane choice, but so cozy). Ours is the kind that's actually two singles that zip together to make the double, and they're slightly mummy shaped, so as a single bag they're still a warm option. We got it/them from REI long enough ago that there's not a comparable version online - but you're right, the REI customer service is the tits - worth testing some options at home. I'll be curious to see what you settle on!

    One other tool that's proven useful is a Hori Hori knife. Serves as a spade for helping get posts or tent spikes into too-hard ground (or for digging a hole in the woods, if there's no campsite bathroom...), has a basic saw edge that's great for cutting down kindling, and is just kind of great to have a simple sturdy tool around to dig or bang or cut as needed.

    1. That knife looks great! D really, really, really wants a hatchet for kindling, even though we have a small saw somewhere and about three different camping knives that belonged to my dad (but we seem to only ever use the one we both favorite - isn't that always how it goes?).

      Another vote for the singles that zip together! What do you do if your feet get hot? Can you unzip a bit at the bottom? One of the features I keep looking for in the double bags is that they have small side zippers for your feet. I'm worried that with two people (and probably a dog, if we're being honest) in one bag we'll get overheated.

    2. Valid concern, especially southern CA camping. Our bags don't have that option; we can unzip either side, from the top, to kick out a leg, but that's it.

      The knife is awesome! Mine has also consistently served its intended purpose as a gardening tool - now fire-escape-gardening in BK, but it's the only tool I need, here.

      If you're going for serious kindling or small logs, a small folding camp hatchet wouldn't be a bad idea, but this guy can saw and whack up smaller bits well enough.

  5. Thank you, Rachel!!! The bin and toolbox idea is so simple, yet so perfect! I am also obsessed with REI. I don't go there often, but when I do, I'm amazed at all the innovation and want to just live out in the wilderness. But then I remember who I am lol. Your posts are always so useful and thoughtful, and this is no exception.

    1. REI is so much fun, and I always want everything!

  6. I love this list! We keep all our camping stuff in bins but we should be a bit more organized and I love your approach. This weekend we're heading state-side to visit my Seattle friend and pick up our REI tent (quarterdome 3 that we bought during their recent sale - wished it was the kingdom,'s lightweight and a serious upgrade from our halfdome 2, it will be roomy!). I can't wait to do more comfortable camping this summer! My friend recommends REI's lightweight camp chairs - they are $$ - but they're small, packable and comfortable.

    1. Yay for tent upgrades! Hope it leads to lots of comfortable summer camping.

      I sit in those REI chairs every time we go and I love them. The frugal part of me feels like we just have to tough it out with these not-great chairs until they fall apart. Of course, that'll probably mean that our $10 Walmart chairs last for the next 20 years.

  7. Rachel,
    I don't have any suggestions or specific comments (I honestly feel like you've got it covered!) but I just wanted to chime in and say how much I enjoy your blog (been reading for years without commenting) and your very thoughtful, stylish and pragmatic take on all things! My husband and I spend much of each summer car-camping across Oregon (we live in Portland) and did an extended camp trip in our van for our honeymoon. We registered at REI and got some stuff that we wouldn't buy for ourselves but end up using on almost every trip - an ENO Hammock (perfect for cozy campsite reading) and camping (stainless) wine glasses. Someday I hope to camp down in your area -- your pics are so beautiful, so different than here. Just wanted to say how much I enjoy your posts!

  8. Rachel - I haven't ever considered myself a camper (LA, city-girl for ever?), but your post is quite convincing. I might feel the urge to go on a camping trip now, which means my camp-loving boyfriend is going to be shocked/excited to hear about this revelation, so thank you.

  9. Thank you for your thorough post on car camping! I'm going to consolidate into bins and motivate the hubby to get back into camping.

  10. Long time reader, first time commenter. Your blog continues to help me learn how to be a better novice adult.
    Some suggestions:
    Basic first aid kit, either purchased if you find one you like or assembled if you do not.
    Small square-ish plastic pan scraper. I know REI sells these, but so do stores like crate and barrel. I like being able to remove most leftover solids before taking the pan home to wash as there is a little less mess.
    Spare toilet paper. Just in case.

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  14. I saved this post when you first published it, and now I'm going to put it to use as we prepare to get back into short camping trips this summer! If you ever want to post your grocery list, I'd love to see it! We're doing a last minute one night trip next weekend. :)

  15. Great! This is just what I need. I'll be going on a camping with my family and the family dog we love so much and this will definitely come in handy. Though I agree with what Monica said there, it would be great if you shared your grocery list. I might as well print this. Thanks!

  16. This is great! We just upgraded from the REI Hobbitat 4 to the Kingdom 6- it literally just came in the mail. We have two little girls, so long backpacking is out of the question for us too. We have a Lodge Cast Iron Camping Dutch Oven and it is AMAZING. You'd love it.

  17. This is great! We just upgraded from the REI Hobbitat 4 to the Kingdom 6- it literally just came in the mail. We have two little girls, so long backpacking is out of the question for us too. We have a Lodge Cast Iron Camping Dutch Oven and it is AMAZING. You'd love it.

  18. I love this! Very detailed and the perfect guide to packing everything! I always forget so much when we go camping haha Thanks for sharing!
    xx Annie

  19. this is so helpful! i am so new to camping but sisi adores it and i'm trying to make it a bigger part of our lives. even short jaunts to o'neill park and whatnot. i find that the prep for camping is so overwhelming for me (packign for the kids, too!) but when i get there, i get to chill and joe goes to work with setting up the site. then i come home and i have to clean it all up. your tips will be super helpful for us. xoxo

  20. this is so helpful! i am so new to camping but sisi adores it and i'm trying to make it a bigger part of our lives. even short jaunts to o'neill park and whatnot. i find that the prep for camping is so overwhelming for me (packign for the kids, too!) but when i get there, i get to chill and joe goes to work with setting up the site. then i come home and i have to clean it all up. your tips will be super helpful for us. xoxo

  21. This is such a thoughtful and well-laid-out plan for overnight camping. I've always been a bit terrified that outdoors=dirty for days/dehydrated ...but you make it seem very doable and fun and not overwhelming.


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