Avoid the most common camping mistakes and disasters using our foolproof advice
Feed the Bears
Can we truly call ourselves citizens of the planet and keep all that delicious, delicious camping food to ourselves? Isn’t it our responsibility to share our spread with the critters who call the forest home? After all, we’re but visitors in their house; you wouldn’t go to a friend’s dinner party without a bringing a bottle of wine or dessert.
No, but really: Raccoons and rats will be the least of your problems if some local bears get wind of your cooler contents. Bears these days—not only are they super strong, but also they’re remarkably dextrous and savvy at opening most containers, and they’ll stop at nothing if they get a whiff of any foodstuffs. Thoroughly clean up all your mealtime detritus and crumbs, and secure all of your food, garbage, toothpaste, and anything remotely edible in a bear locker before you bed down. Every. Single. Night.
Get a Terrible Night’s Sleep
Sleeping on flat, smooth ground is so overrated. Tossing and turning atop errant tree roots and rocks is the new wellness trend to try; all the top camping influencers are doing it. And have you ever had the experience of lying down and discovering your feet aren’t level with your head? No?! It’s positively dreamy.
No, but really: Upon arrival, scout out your campsite and home in on the flattest possible patch of dirt, clear of any bumps, slopes, or natural debris. That’s where you should pitch your tent.
Bruise up Your Body
Sleeping on the hard, cold ground, with its unforgiving lack of surface integrity, is the true test of one’s fortitude. Why place any so-called “protective” layer between your body and the earth? Aches and pains are the hallmarks of a true wilderness warrior.
No, but really: Camping doesn’t have to be a toughing-it contest. Get some comfy cushioning to ensure a solid stretch of zzzzzz’s and a comfier bod. Splurge on a camping air mattress, or at least use a sleeping pad. If you’re tough enough to snooze without some padding, well, more power to you—but we’ll be right over here, floating on a cloud of golden slumbers inside our tent.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
Serve up the Ultimate Bug Buffet
You’re not living your best life in the outdoors until you’ve been bitten by a bevy of mosquitoes. There’s nothing quite like spending a night at camp incessantly scratching bites that are blossoming all over your body.
No, but really: Pack insect repellent and be sure to spray it on, even atop your clothes, at the two peak buggy times of day: dawn and dusk. Also, if you’re camping near a body of standing water (which is essentially mosquito Coachella), spritz on that bug repellent throughout the day.
Stumble Around in the Dark
A vast night sky brimming with stars is all the light you’ll need past sundown. Need a little extra? That’s what a raging campfire is for. If you’re desperate, a flashlight is useful, especially when you have your hands full with multitasking.
No, but really: Pack a headlamp (or three). Turning yourself into a cyclops of illumination keeps your hands free for important tasks like cleaning up after dinner, making your sleeping setup extra cozy, doing some reading before falling asleep, or finding your way to the restroom (even if that’s just behind the big tree over yonder). Furthermore, a camping lantern is the best nighttime accessory for playing card games at the picnic table or chilling in your tent.
Fail at Fire
Something you don’t need to know before you go? How to build a campfire. You’ll be able to wing it with twigs and scraggly branches you find in the area surrounding your campsite, right? And you probably stashed some matches in your car’s glove compartment last year.
No, but really: Purchase bundles of firewood before you arrive (or at the park headquarters or general store, if your campground has this amenity), pack old newspaper to be reused as kindling, and bring along matches or, better yet, a lighter, which will work even if damp. Also, have a proper campfire building technique in mind (we love the box method, although others swear by the teepee lay) to set yourself up for success.
Let the Elements Mess with You. A Lot.
Who doesn’t want rain to put a literal damper on their time in the outdoors? Soggy sleeping bags and sopping-wet tent floors mean you’ll feel even colder at night, campfires won’t effectively roar, and those meals you worked extra hard to prepare will turn into puddles of mush. And then there are those delightful gusts of wind that just might carry your tent away! Fun times!
No, but really: Even if the forecast calls for clear skies and calm weather overall, don’t omit a tarp to put underneath and a rain fly to drape over your tent, as well as stakes to anchor your tent into the ground. These just-in-case items can save you from a rain and/or wind disaster.
Thomas J. Story
Create a Fire Hazard
Your campfire is just about out; it’s been reduced to gray embers and little wisps of smoke. Do you really need to make sure the embers are fully out? Nature should totally take its course there; you can just walk away.
No, but really (and we can’t emphasize this enough): Yes, you really, really do need to make sure your fire is fully extinguished. Embers might appear to be out, but can potentially keep smoldering for days and if one bad gust of wind carries some of the lighter chunks adrift, a forest fire becomes all the more likely. Given how flammable the ever-dry West has been over the past few years, this is a serious matter. Use this handy guide to make sure your fire is out.
Muck Things Up
Going camping is synonymous with getting dirty, so why even try to maintain some semblance of tidiness or organization? Let chaos rule. Find a leak in your air mattress? Nah, you don’t need to find the duck tape in a hurry to patch things up. Get a scrape on your knee? That first-aid kit is probably around here…somewhere. Dishes don’t need to be fully cleaned at camp; you can just finish the job at home. And your clothes and belongings will likely get grimy anyway, so why make the effort to keep the inside of your tent clean?
No, but really: Even a small bit of effort to keep things organized and semi-clean makes a big difference in your comfort level and sanity at camp. Those big plastic bins of your Container Store dreams are the perfect vessels for stashing all of your camping gear; earmark one for cooking gear and another for other essentials like lights, toiletries and first-aid supplies, and the like. Definitely scrub those pots and pans, because any leftover speck of food is a big neon sign for bears and other critters that flashes, “Eat here!” Keeping excess dirt out of your tent makes you feel just a bit more put together, especially if you aren’t planning to shower at camp—not to mention that once you’ve returned home, it makes the big task of cleaning up all your camping gear that much easier. Always remove shoes just outside your tent and never wear them inside; keep a small hand broom around to sweep leaves, twigs, and other forest debris out to keep things neat. (Check out our complete guide to keeping your campsite clean.)
Leave a Big, Big Trace
That campground is so fragile, so innocent, so lovely to behold—boring! Time to stir things up a bit. You’re only staying for a little while, so who cares about housekeeping in this peaceful patch of earth?
No, but really: Follow the leave-no-trace principles and minimize your impact on nature. First and foremost, pack out what you pack in! In other words, don’t litter and don’t leave anything—and we mean any little thing—behind. Crumbs can attract animals, which becomes a big problem for the next party to camp at your vacated site. Small objects can get ingested by animals and cause health hazards, or simply stay undecomposed on the forest floor for who knows how long. Make sure you bring a few garbage bags with you and secure all refuse in bear lockers overnight. At the end of your camping trip, dump any remaining trash in campground dumpsters; if they’re overflowing or absent, then drive away with your trash bags in tow and find somewhere appropriate to dispose of them.