Going camping with friends is pretty much the best thing ever. Scratch that–going camping with friends and our dogs is the best thing ever. But you’re not here for adorable pictures of outdoorsy dogs. (Although fair warning, I’ll probably sneak some in.) You want to know how to plan a camping trip with friends.
I love getting organized with trip planning. (I mean, have you seen my color-coded custom Google Maps?) But while I grew up camping, it was a whole different game when I started going as an adult and could no longer rely on my mom to do all the planning. I felt a bit like I was starting from scratch.
But over the past few years, my husband and I have been going camping with another couple, and we’ve been refining our planning process over time. Combine that with some tips I’ve retained from my childhood camping trips in Maine, and I must say, we’re getting pretty good. We’ve even made it into spreadsheet territory, which I’ll be sharing with you (fo’ free!) in this post.
Whether you’ve never been camping at all, or you haven’t been since you were younger (and weren’t the one responsible for the planning!), keep reading for 5 essential tips for planning a camping trip with friends, plus a customizable camping packing list.
5 Tips for Planning a Camping Trip with Friends
1. Document (and store) everything where you’ll be able to find it again.
We have an email chain with our friends that we resurrect each year, and it makes it really easy to see what we did the previous year. A spreadsheet is also a great idea, which I’ve finally created after a few years of camping trips. Text messages, on the other hand, will be super hard to find among all the other texts you send your friends throughout the year. Your system doesn’t have to be super fancy–just make sure you can reference it easily later on.
BONUS TIP for keeping track of things: Something my mom did when I was growing up was to have a camping journal where she would write things that worked well and all the little stuff we forgot to pack or realized would be helpful (like picnic table clips to keep the tablecloth secure), along with fun memories.
I just started my camping journal this year so I can make notes and then transfer them to our spreadsheet checklist when I’m back on the grid. I packed it away in my camping bin–where I keep camping-only items stored away in the basement until next year.
2. Decide on date and make reservations.
We always share a campsite with our friends since it’s just four of us, but you’ll need to decide if you need more than one campsite. It could be a little trickier to find available sites right next to each other, so try to book far in advance if you need multiple campsites. If your camping trip with friends becomes a regular tradition, you can alternate who picks and books the campsite for each trip.
Typically you’ll need to reserve a campsite at least a few months in advance, but for really popular campgrounds you may need to book close to a year out. But don’t let that deter you from planning a last-minute adventure!
BONUS TIP for finding the perfect campsite: Campground maps aren’t always the best indication of prime campsites, so you can check out TripAdvisor or Google to see if anyone has mentioned campsite numbers in their review. But visiting in person is the best way to find the best spots! Whenever my family visited a new campground, we’d make notes about our campsite in our camping journal (privacy, size, water access, hammock trees), and we would take a drive or walk around the campground to scope out the best spots for next year.
3. Create a camping meal plan and split up the grocery list.
Here’s how we plan meals when camping with our friends for the weekend:
- We cook one breakfast and have cereal and fruit for the other one (because after hiking we’ll probably feel lazy and not want to cook, let’s be honest), and we split up the breakfast ingredients evenly. Cooking a protein-filled breakfast on a day you go hiking is a great idea–we weren’t hungry until late afternoon this year even on a decently challenging hike.
- For lunches, we each bring our own ingredients to make sandwiches that we prefer. If you’re camping with a group of individual friends (rather than couples/families), it would probably make more sense to split up the ingredients so you don’t have 5 loaves of bread and 5 containers of mayonnaise.
- We’re each responsible to plan and cook one dinner–my husband and I take one dinner and the other couple takes the other one.
You’ll just want to make sure you find things that everyone in your group likes, and find out if anyone has food allergies or dietary restrictions. Don’t forget about little stuff like seasonings, butter or oil for cooking, basic cooking supplies, and s’mores ingredients.
Looking for some camping meal ideas? Check out Off the Grid’s one-pot camping meals (some are vegan and/or gluten-free)!
BONUS TIP for meal planning: Cook and chop some ingredients ahead of time if you can. For example, we usually make fried rice over the campfire, but a pot of stuck-on rice isn’t the friendliest thing to clean, so I cook that up at home and bring it in the cooler. If you need to marinate meat, prep that at home and pack the meat in the marinade.
4. Split up the supply packing list for things that will be shared.
If you’re sharing a campsite, everyone doesn’t need to bring their own canopy or picnic table cover, so take stock of what you each already own and create a list from there. It’s super helpful to use a checklist in this process!
Also make sure you plan ahead to stop near the campground for local firewood–it’s important not to bring wood from other areas because this can spread pests and diseases. On our last trip, we kind of left this as an afterthought and were both searching for some stands as the sun was setting, we wanted to get to the campground to set up, and we were trying to call each other with little cell reception.
5. Double check the campground rules.
On our last trip, unfortunately we ran into an unusual rule that we could only have one car on the campsite (despite plenty of room). At other state parts, we’ve always been able to pay a small fee for having an extra car at the site. This was a frustrating and unexpected rule since we both pack food in our cars at night (bears are a concern) and let the dogs sleep in there at night. Now we know–but good to always read through the rules carefully so you’re not surprised by anything.
What to Take Camping
Here are some of the recommended items that we include on our camping packing list! Every time we go camping, we refine this a bit and find things that will be more helpful, but this list is a great place to start.
Clothes and Sleeping
- Dustpan with small broom
- Mat for tent entrance (TIP: If you have a camper, consider making one by fixing artificial turf to a pallet. My dad did this when we were younger, and it worked really well as an “entryway” where we kept all our shoes. We had a canopy that came out from the camper entrance so everything stayed dry, and it kept the inside of the camper much cleaner. We turned it upside down and put it on top of the pop-up camper while traveling.)
- Sleeping bags
- Sleeping pads – A simple self-inflating one works well and is what we use.
- Sleepy mask
- Suitcase/backpack for clothes – This one from Cotopaxi is my favorite for a weekend trip.
- Tent (don’t forget the poles, stakes, rain fly, and footprint to protect the bottom) – Our friends love their Alps Mountaineering Chaos 2 tent, and my husband and I have an older version of this tent from L.L. Bean.
General Camping Supplies
- Small backpack (I love Cotopaxi’s 16L Batac Del Día bag), fanny pack, or hydration bag for hiking
- Bungee cords
- Camp chairs
- Camping journal – What could be more camping than a Moleskine notebook?
- Fire gloves
- Fire starters – newspaper + kindling
- Firewood (buy it local to the campground to avoid spreading pests and diseases)
- Games – Our staples are Dutch Blitz, Phase 10, UNO, Settlers of Catan (make sure you have the expansion pack if you are camping with more than 4 people).
- Lantern / lighting – I’m totally digging these lights from Biolite and have added them to my list to buy for next time!
- Maps / area info
- Marshmallow roasting sticks
- Matches or lighter
- Notepad and pens (for games)
- Pocket knife
- Pop-up canopy – We love this one that our friends have, but full disclosure, we’re seriously thinking about upgrading to something screened in. Because bugs + card games are a bummer.
- Reusable water bottle – This Healthy Human bottle is fantastic for keeping water cold all day. It goes with me pretty much everywhere! (My only gripe is that the small carabiner it comes with didn’t last long.)
- Rope for hammock
- Solar Charger
- Tote bags for miscellaneous stuff
- Trash bags
- Baggies – Let me know your eco alternatives because I’m on the lookout!
- Bottle opener / corkscrew
- Bowls, cups, and plates – Check out this set from Preserve made from recycled yogurt cups.
- Camp Mugs
- Camp Stove and Propane
- Can opener
- Cast iron pan
- Cooler and Ice
- Cutting board
- Deep frying pan
- Dish bins for washing – We have two beverage tubs like these that we use for washing dishes. It makes it really easy to carry dirty dishes to the campground washing station. If it’s a double sink, we put dirty dishes in one and one of the bins in the other for rinsing. The other bin goes on the ground where we put the clean, dry dishes. Another option is a collapsible tub that takes up less space when not in use.
- Dish soap
- Dish sponge / rag
- Dish towels
- Eating utensils
- Folding table
- Food storage containers
- Frying pan
- Grill brush
- Grill skewers
- Grilling rack
- Heavy duty foil
- Knives for steak
- Knives to chop
- Long handled spatula
- Long handled tongs
- Mixing bowls
- Paper towels
- Pot holders
- Pot scraper – One of those little things that seems a little silly at first, but is actually super helpful!
- Slotted spoon
- Small pot for cooking (1.5 quart)
- Tablecloth (vinyl for picnic tables)
- Tablecloth clamps
- Bedding/towels for the car and ground
- Bone or toy
- Collar with tags (contact info + rabies)
- Dog bowls – food and water
- Long tie for the campsite
- Seat cover for the car – This is on our list to buy for next time (plus all the road trips we take with our pup)! Without fail, our dog moves the towels and blankets we place on the seat, so this looks like a fantastic solution.
- Waste pick-up bags
Toiletries, First Aid, and Safety Items
- Backpack, container, or bag to take to the shower
- Bear spray (if in bear country)
- Calamine lotion or After Bite
- Contact solution, case, spare contacts, glasses
- Feminine products
- First aid kit – This first aid kit for people and pets is great if you’re also camping with dogs.
- Hand sanitizer
- Insect repellent
- Pain reliever / medications
- Razor – This one from Preserve is made from recycled yogurt cups (plus, they’re a certified B Corporation, which means they’re guided by socially- and environmentally-focused principles).
- Shampoo, conditioner, soap
- Shower flip-flops
- Toilet paper
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Towels and wash cloths
Of course, you’ll need all your food and drinks as well, which are included in the packing checklist below. For a lot of the miscellaneous kitchen supplies, I recommend checking out the dollar store or a thrift store to keep costs down. We picked up a small pot, some pans, and cooking utensils at a local thrifts store. Better for the environment and your budget!
We try to use as many reusable items as possible (like plates, bowls, utensils, etc), and I’m working on finding alternatives for Ziploc bags as well. I recently came across these biodegradable doggie waste bags, which I’m planning to pick up to replace the plastic ones we’ve been using (I don’t like it, but you gotta use something!).
Customizable Camping Packing Checklist
There’s no one-size-fits-all packing list for camping, so it’s likely that you’ll want to edit this list to suit your group. Whether you’re tenting, backpacking, or RVing, this checklist is a great starting point for what to take camping.
To use this packing list, you’ll need to do 3 simple things:
- Watch the quick videos I created for you below. The first video shows you how this checklist works, and the second shows you how to edit it to work for you.
- Create a free Airtable account.
- Click “copy base” at the bottom of this spreadsheet. This will pull it into your own Airtable account so you can start customizing and using it yourself!
Have you ever been camping with your friends? What tips would you add to this list?