Originally published April 26, 2021
“Start hauling stuff out of the van, we need to find the tent first.”
“No, I don’t know where the flashlights are!”
“Where is groundsheet?”
“I’m starving – has anyone seen the plates?”
Ah, the sounds of making memories…
Camping season is just around the corner in Canada. A year into the pandemic, camping will be more popular than ever with families who want to safely plan summer vacations and make family memories. Purists might disagree, but camping can encompass everything from comfort camping cabins to backcountry backpacking and everything in between. Many people love to load the RV or the trailer, but there are still some who pack up the car with the tent and its related paraphernalia and head out to sleep on the ground. This story is for those people who love car camping.
Planning a successful camping trip takes the right equipment, a certain amount of planning, and maybe a little luck with Mother Nature. Packing for camping can be daunting, especially if you plan on tenting. Just tenting can be daunting for some people, to be honest; I still need to summon my resolve, but with some tips on how to pack for car camping (we’re assuming you’ll have your vehicle at your campsite), you will set yourself up for success.
Identify Your Needs
What does your family need to enjoy a camping trip? Maybe good coffee is non-negotiable. Do you plan on cooking and if so, do you prefer simple or extravagant meals on vacation? Is packing space at a premium or can you bring a few extras? Some families plan to head out on adventures every day, while others like to pack entertainment for the campground. What about relaxing around a fire? Be sure to check for fire bans and firewood policies. Of course, an overnight or weekend trip might look very different from a week-long vacation far from home. You’ll also pack differently if you’re on the move every couple of nights or if you plan on arriving at the campsite and staying there.
When you pack for tenting, some things are already decided for you, but every family has their own style. How my family of origin tented is quite different from how I camp with my husband and kids now.
There are countless packing lists on the internet for camping, but don’t let them overwhelm you. Start by creating your own lists, based on what you know about your family. Divide the lists into categories: sleeping, eating, cooking, personal, and camping essentials. Then take a look at other lists, like these ones from Canadian Tire or Mountain Equipment Coop and fill in what you missed.
Checking out a few websites for camping hacks can help you refine your lists, too. There are some brilliant ideas out there. I have a friend who tents like it’s her job, and she gives me tips like bringing a yoga mat to put under the kids’ Thermarest mattresses to keep them from sliding around. She also suggests that you’ll stay warmer in smaller tents and if you have older kids, it’s nice to have a little privacy by bringing two small tents. I always pack flip-flops for the showers and a mini-broom for cleaning the tent and friends with small kids would never leave home without splash suits.
Simplify & Evaluate
Once you’ve decided what’s important to you and made your lists, it’s time to determine what you have, what you need to buy, and what you actually need. Many things on your camping list can probably be quickly collected from what you already own and lots of items can pull double duty. Be sure to evaluate any gear you have and be sure the condition is acceptable before you get to the campsite. Does the tent leak? Do the air mattresses hold air? Does your propane stove have propane? The Boy Scouts were on to something; being prepared is the best way to ensure success.
If you need to head out and purchase items on your list, shop small, when possible. Not all sets of plastic dishes are created equal, for example. Some have a much lower profile than others. Or maybe you want to bring a dishpan – consider a collapsible one. It’s easy to get carried away, though, so set a budget!
When you start to organize and actually pack your items, well, that’s when things get real. How to get all your gear into a finite amount of space and know where everything is when you arrive at the campsite is tricky. But it’s possible!
Many serious vehicle campers recommend totes, ideally with lids, so they are stackable. (And labels. Because it just doesn’t matter how many times you tell the kids that the cups are in the blue bin.) Grouping similar items together will make setting up your campsite easier: a bin of sleeping bags or linens, a bin of cookware, and a bin of camping essentials like matches, flashlights, plastic bags, and rope will save you time.
Also, consider how you will organize the tent. With a small tent, you might want to keep a bin of clean clothes in the car and give each kid a “go bag” with their daily items for easier mornings. Keep all your dirty clothes together, so you can quickly transfer everything to the laundry room when you get home. If you have room, use one bin per person in the tent for clothes, separating socks and underwear into bags, so they’re easy to find. A small bin at the head of each person’s sleeping bag is useful to hold personal items, such as a book, glasses, a stuffed animal, or a flashlight for a midnight bathroom visit.
If you’re camping in bear country, you also need to consider how you will manage your food and toiletry items to ensure your site is bear-friendly when you leave or go to sleep. Be sure your food totes and coolers are manageable enough to get back into your vehicle, making sure the vehicle still has room for your people to head out on any daily trips away from the campground. Some people with mini-vans or SUVs like to use plastic drawer units to help organize their food, and they just leave them in the back of the van. Other people I know like to only pack breakfast and lunch, and then eat out for suppers, simplifying the food situation. (Raises hand.)
Go With the Flow
I don’t consider myself to be an unorganized person, but packing for tent camping definitely favours the orderly. As much as my personality just wants to throw a few things in a bag and grab the kids, making a plan helps ensure a more positive vacation. Yes, I know this from experience. But it doesn’t matter how methodical and meticulous you are, sometimes you forget things, the forecast turns, and life just happens. As with all travel, don’t forget to pack your flexibility, your good attitude, and your sense of adventure!
It’s time to hit the road, Canada. Happy (Car) Camping!