The Beginner’s Guide to a Successful (and Fun!) Camping Trip This Summer

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I didn’t grow up camping. I can never tell if my dad is joking when he says, “Why would you sleep in a tent when you have a roof and four walls?” (I don’t think he is.) But after a month-long backpacking trip in Idaho the summer before high school, I fell in love with it. I took every opportunity I could to go backpacking, including once taking a Greyhound bus to Yosemite by myself when I was too young for a drivers license. (Side note: I’m still not entirely sure how I got my parents to sign-off on that one…) These days, I do a lot more car camping than backpacking since there are so many gorgeous spots so close to L.A.. Through the past several years, and a lot of trial and error, Jonah and I have perfected our car camping game, which means exerting minimal effort to ensure we’re happy, comfortable, and well-fed.This summer, it’s our goal to camp or backpack twice a month, which means having prep and set-up down to a science. Here are my tips for making the most of camping this summer:

Not to sound like a boy scout, but camping often takes place in remote areas. It’s essential to be prepared, not only for your comfort, but also for your safety. Review weather ahead of time, including the day-of, so you can be sure you’ll be warm (which is so important, I’m dedicating an entire point to it below), dry, fed, and safe. Take bear warnings and precautions seriously. If it’s your first time camping, consider camping somewhere walking distance to a residential neighborhood or other tents in case things go wrong, and trust your gut. I also always bring bear spray (in an easily accessible place) and a first aid kit with me.

A few years ago, I went camping in Joshua Tree. It was nearly a hundred degrees during the day, so I left my tent at home, opting instead to sleep under the stars in a flimsy sleeping bag. Wrong decision. The temperature dropped to 30° F, and I spent the entire night doing squats (which are amazing for warming up) to avoid freezing. Ever since that experience, I’m a nut about keeping warm. I invested in a proper sleeping bag that goes down to 20° F, and always bring a beanie and more layers than I think I’ll need. On a typical trip (say, 70° F during the day and 40° F at night), I’ll usually wear leggings and a tank as a base layer, then layer on a thin long-sleeve and sweatshirt, with a Patagonia fleece, Northface jacket, and beanie close-by, should I need it. I also always bring hand warmers, just in case even that isn’t enough.

Plastic bins are truly the easiest way to access things once you’re in the wild, then store gear when you aren’t using it. Here’s what I bring:

1. A larger bin for food. Whatever food doesn’t need to go in a cooler goes in a plastic bin, along with cookwear (see below for specifics). And of course follow bear and raccoon precautions with food storage. Seriously. I once left just a six-pack of beer out, and they shotgunned every can empty.
2. A larger bin for clothes. I generally pack my clothes in a plastic, water-proof container so that I can access it easily and keep it outside of my tent at night.
3. A small bin as a “nightstand.” I keep everything I want to easily access at night in a small bin to avoid the frustration of not being able to find something like a sleeping mask when it’s time for bed. It includes a flashlight, headlamp, extra beanie, sleeping mask, book, hand warmers, and bear spray. It’s also where I’ll put my phone if I bring it.
4. A cooler. I bring one of two coolers camping, depending on the number of people I’m going with: Either a comically large one that fits perfectly in my hatchback or a tiny one that’s only big enough for the essentials.

As tempting as it is to drop your stuff and head out on a hike, set up your tent the second you arrive. Trust me: The last thing you want to be doing is setting up a tent in the dark! Set out your sleeping pad and pillow, put a few layers at the bottom of your sleeping bag for easy access, and place a full bottle of water and your “nightstand bin” by your pillow (and make sure your head is facing up-hill!). Here’s a link to the easy-to-setup tent we love.

If you’re car camping, you might as well bring your pillow from home! It’s a small luxury that makes all the difference, and is so much better than a camping pillow or a rolled-up sweatshirt.

Every time we go camping, we bring a few luxuries we scored at REI. I’m a huge fan of this Yeti Colster for beer and La Croix, and we set up this table with these lightweight camping chairs for playing easy-to-pack games like Hive and Banagrams. We also sometimes bring Port, which is the perfect drink to sip by the campfire.

Cooking is a thousand times easier when you have access to a countertop and sink, so prepare as much as possible before you go camping! Here’s what I usually make for a weekend trip, and how I make it camping-friendly:

Dinner 1 – Tequila-Lime Chicken and Vegetable Kebabs: Follow this recipe, but build the kebabs at home before you leave for camping (I usually make them the night before). Store them in a 12″ disposable aluminum cake pan, then make the sauce in advance and put it in a mason jar. Once you’re camping, fire up the grill, add a bit more olive oil on top, then grill them to your heart’s content.
Dinner 2 – Burgers: Honestly, burgers are the easiest camping food, especially if you’re going with a big group. We bring Beyond Burgers, cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomatoes (slice these ahead of time at home), buns, and make this sauce in advance (I never make a burger without it, it’s amazing).
Dessert – Stewed Apples: If you cut your apples in advance, this is the easiest camping dessert, and you can cook it in a skillet or Jet Boil turned down way low. Sprinkle some store-bought granola on top and you’ll feel like you’re eating homemade apple pie (I also do this at home, with vanilla ice cream on top!). We also always bring a bag of these cookies, since they’re substantial enough to bring as a snack on the trail (and they’re delicious).
Breakfast – Oatmeal: Cooking while camping is all about minimal cooking, so I usually boil water to add to oatmeal cups. It’s so nice to have something warm first thing in the morning.
Lunch – Sandwiches: Keep it simple! Throw mayonnaise, cold cuts, sprouts, and sliced cheese in the cooler and make sandwiches each day-or, better yet, make them in advance and bring them pre-made in Stasher bags to save you the effort.

Here’s a checklist of items I bring for an average car camping trip:

– Cooler (we get ice on the way)
– Dish towels
– Roll of paper towels
– Portable grill (we love this one)
– Trash bags
– Extra propane
– Tongs for grilling
– A ton of water (I fill up these)
– Cutting board and knife
– Jet Boil
– Extra olive oil
– Camping bowl and cutlery set for each person
– A portable mug per person
– A reusable plastic, stemless wine glass per person
– A reusable water bottle per person
– Firewood (if a fire is permitted)

This should go without saying, but leave the campsite better than when you found it! Bring a bag you can put trash into when you hike, and pack everything up so the next person to walk the trail or camp can enjoy it in its full natural beauty!