by Mountain House May 05, 2016

Hit the Woods: Planning a Weekend Car-Camping Getaway

A weekend camping getaway’s just the antidote for workday stress. Virtually anywhere you are, there’s likely to be some sort of campground within hollering distance, whether it's in a county park or a Bureau of Land Management recreation site. A couple of days spent under the stars gives you the primal recharge you need to hit the ground running Monday. (Or maybe call in “sick” to extend your quality time in the woods. Just saying.)

A little planning and preparation go a long way toward making a short-but-sweet campground respite as fun and rejuvenating as it should be. Here we’ve compiled a weekend camping checklist for frontcountry adventures—a walk-through to get you thinking about the essentials. (Keep an eye out for forthcoming posts on organizing for longer car-camping expeditions and backpacking.)

Preparing For Your Trip

Even a two- or three-day jaunt close to home demands some advance planning. Saving packing till the night before—or, worse yet, the morning of—ramps up the stress and makes it more likely you’ll forget an item (or three) in the rush.

So allow yourself some wiggle room. Sit down with this weekend camping-trip checklist and adjust it accordingly for your specific needs—and the special demands of your destination. After all, a primitive Forest Service campground far down a remote, rut-gouged backroad and a decked-out RV resort along the highway are different beasts entirely.

Packing’s made easier by doing a little bit here and there. Besides the chaos it creates, last-minute prep for camping gives you precious little time to replace or repair gear, or track down that headlamp you haven’t seen since last summer. Start getting organized a few weeks out, and you’ll be able to inventory and restock supplies with plenty of time to spare.

Nowadays, many campgrounds on public lands take reservations; some even require them, at least during peak season. Confirm whether you need to reserve a site and acquaint yourself with the process. Having some backup dates and campgrounds in mind gives you the most flexibility.

Hygiene & Personal Care

Unless you’re going all Grizzly Adams for the weekend, don’t forget those everyday toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, soap/shampoo, and a towel for washing up—or drying off after a dip in the lake.

Clothing

Although the clothing you bring along depends greatly on the season, it’s always smart to prepare for the worst, elements-wise. Even when you’re car camping in a developed campground, the weather’s nothing to play around with. Bring extra layers and make sure raingear’s part of your on-the-go wardrobe.

For footwear, tote a couple of options: hiking boots for the trail, sneakers or sandals for campsite lounging.

Cooking

Food can make or break a camping trip—that’s our take here at Mountain House, anyway. There’s nothing like cooking and dining outdoors, and, furthermore, being out in the wilds seems to inspire an especially hearty (and happy) appetite.

A big part of putting together a two- or three-day camping checklist, then, is planning out meals. You can’t ask for more convenient options than Mountain House meals: We’ve got you covered, dawn to dusk, with breakfasts, entrées, sides, and those all-important desserts. (You’ve got to keep up morale, after all.)

Whether you’re cooking on a campstove or over a campfire, remember that the campsite kitchen’s generally best suited for quick, simple meals pulled off with few pots and pans—another reason our readymade packages are such a plus.

You’ll want to-go lunch fixings if you plan on exploring during the day, as well as high-energy snacks for trailside power-ups: crackers, cheese, fruit, nuts, chocolate, etc. And don’t forget coffee or tea for lazy campsite mornings (or sunrise forays to the mountaintop).

If you’re using a campstove, test it out before the trip to verify it’s still operational, and make sure you’ve brought along enough fuel (including reserve canisters). Fire-starting tools—matches, lighters, flint—aren’t just useful for sparking a cookfire; they’re also essential emergency supplies.

A cooler’s a handy-dandy car-camping accessory, but you needn’t haul an overlarge model; a small one generally does the trick for one or two people weekending it.

Developed campgrounds typically offer water (though not always in the off-season); primitive Forest Service or BLM facilities may not. Bring along a large water canister if you won’t have an on-site supply as well as your portable vessel of choice for hydrating while hiking, cycling, or paddling. Water filters or purification tablets—other staples of a wilderness emergency kit—may be needed in the boondocks.

Medical Necessities

A first-aid kit’s critical for any trip—heck, even if you’re motel-hopping. Double-check before heading out that it’s fully stocked, and replenish bandages and ointments as necessary.

Make certain you’ve got along any prescriptions or other desired medications; if they’re truly vital, have extras on hand. The same goes for glasses or contact lenses: Backups can save cutting your weekend in the woods short over a ripped contact or spectacles that decided to nosedive into the river.

Miscellaneous

Even for frontcountry retreats, pack emergency essentials: fire starters, emergency signaling tools (flares, a whistle, a mirror); a knife and/or multitool (plenty useful in all sorts of non-emergency situations, too); extra clothing, water, and food (Mountain House's two-day emergency food supply's an option); paracord or other nylon rope; and additional blankets and bedding.

If you’re primitive camping and a pit toilet’s unavailable, you’ll definitely want along the requisite “roughing-it” tools for answering Mother Nature’s call—a hand shovel, for one thing. Remember to abide by Leave-No-Trace principles when you’re taking care of business. Emergency cash comes in handy, meanwhile, if you find yourself short on firewood or campsite funds.

Camping Equipment

Confirm your camping gear’s complete and fully functional before leaving home. If you’ve got a brand-new tent, practice setting it up in the backyard so you know you’re way around it when you arrive at the campsite. (Pitching a tent after dark’s never fun, but all the more so if you don’t know how the rainfly works—especially if it’s raining, for good measure.) A tarp or a model-specific tent footprint buffers your tent’s bottom and keeps you drier during rainy nights.

A good sleeping bag’s essential—nothing to skimp on. Make sure it’s got a reasonable temperature rating for the climates and seasons you intend to use it in. Sleeping rolls, air mattresses, and pillows are entirely matters of personal preference, but make sure you’ve got what you need to be comfortable.

Even for a car-camping weekend, a backpack’s great to have along for dayhikes. A pack cover (just about essential for backpacking) keeps your belongings dry while you’re hoofing it.

Depending on the campground type, you may have a picnic table available, but don’t forget folding chairs for cozying up around the fire. (They’re also useful for strategically propping garments to dry in a campsite’s migrating sunbeams.)

Gadgets

In the 21st century, half the fun of a camping trip is getting away from electronic and digital distractions, but there’s no question some gadgets are useful to have along. In terms of safety, items such as a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), a SPOT Satellite GPS unit, a two-way radio, and a weather radio deliver peace of mind for potential contingency scenarios. You’ll also need a headlamp and/or flashlights with extra batteries; bring along a crank-operated light as backup. Other useful gizmos include solar chargers, watches with alarms, and cameras (with extra memory and batteries).

To-Do Before You Leave

Rounding out this weekend camping-trip checklist, here are a few important tasks to carry out before beelining for the campground:
  • Notify friends/family of your plans. Share the dates you’ll be gone and the campground you’ll be staying at. This way somebody back home knows where you are and when you’re expected back.
  • Make sure your vehicle's in good working order. And pack the essentials for a road emergency—spare tire, jack, jumper cables, etc.—in case you run into trouble en route.
  • Prepare maps. Don’t just rely on your smartphone map app to navigate on a camping trip. Especially for more remote campgrounds, an up-to-date map showing forest roads in detail can keep you from getting turned around on those often-confusing, often-hairy backwoods tracks. Large-scale topo maps are important if you intend to do much hiking. Before your trip, download maps to a GPS unit and print out paper copies.
  • Ready gadgetry. Charge and/or replace batteries in electronic devices, and backup and delete your camera’s old pictures so you’ve got plenty of room for new ones. There’s nothing worse than discovering your camera's too full to take a photo when the family’s posing in front of that giant sequoia, or a black bear’s cavorting through the subalpine meadow.
Be a bit systematic about preparation, and you’ll be able to devote all your energy to enjoying your weekend car-camping odyssey to the fullest! And don't forget to stock up on Mountain House meals: We make it simple as can be to cover your edible bases.

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