a camping tent blown over in the wind, one of the more common camping mistakes is not being prepared to improvise

19 Common Camping Mistakes We All Make (and How to Avoid Them)

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Camping will never be a seamless adventure. And while that’s all part of the fun, we still always want our camping trips to be as perfect as possible. We read up on all the tips, hacks, how-to resources, and anything else for ideas on what TO do, but we don’t often get to the what NOT to do. Keep this list of common camping mistakes close by. Reference it before each trip for a quick reminder of how to make your camping adventure as epic as it should be.

Common Camping Mistakes When Planning Your Trip

1. Expecting a Campsite to Be Available

I remember a time when spontaneous camping trips were a thing. There was little to no planning these last minute adventures – just grab your gear and go. 

These days, though, we’re booking campsites 6 months out. And they’re swooped up very quickly. Even first come, first served sites are taken early, especially on weekends and holidays, when campers snag them mid-week. Not reserving a site in advance, or researching how busy the campground can be, can leave you without a site for the night.

How to avoid this camping mistake: The best bet for getting a site at that great campground is to go off-season, while still booking as far in advance as you can. Or take the opportunity to try out a more remote campground that tends to get less traffic.

2. Not Knowing What Type of Camper You Are

Following other campers’ advice on gear can lead you to a more primitive experience that you are comfortable with, or a car packed full of things you don’t care to use. 

If camping to you means big breakfasts cooked over the campfire, you probably don’t need a JetBoil. But if you’re looking to really get away from it all, then the camping ice cream maker (as fun as it is) probably worth adding to your camping gear.

How to avoid this mistake: Having an idea of whether you want the experience of solitude and losing yourself in nature or more of a glamping experience with as many comforts of home will make any camping experience better.

3. Not Making a Checklist

It’s so easy to leave gear at home. Missing gear can range from a slight annoyance to a more primitive camping experience than planned.

Even if you keep all of your camping gear neatly organized and stored away in totes, it’s easy to forget to replace (that borrowed flashlight) or refill (paper towels that are almost out from that last trip) any items temporarily missing from them.

How to avoid: Make a list of all the things you bring camping that you can use for each trip. Mark things off your camping checklist as you pack them into totes or into the car. It’s a surefire way to make sure you always have what you need. 

a camping tent blown over in the wind, a result of a common camping mistake of forgetting necessary gear
I forgot to make sure the tent stakes were packed on this trip. The high winds were no match for the tent – this is one of the common camping mistakes I won’t make again.

4. Forgetting to Bring a Backup Plan for Campfire Meals

We love a good outdoor meal cooked over the campfire. Foil packs (or hobo dinners) and mountain pies are some of our favorite camping meals, but just aren’t going to happen without a campfire. Unplanned events like high winds, damp firewood, or matches left at home can throw a wrench in your dinner plans.

How to avoid this common camping mistake: If you’re not already bringing a camp stove, a single burner propane stove doesn’t take up much room and is a good back up plan for cooking meals. Throw in a few shelf-stable meals that won’t go bad if not used. Try mac-n-cheese, ramen, or canned soups.

5. Not Researching the Campground Rules and Amenities

You can save so much space in your camping gear if you know exactly what you don’t need to bring to the campground. It might mean you can skip out on packing certain camping items – like your dishwashing tubs if there is a dishwashing station on site. Campground regulations like not tying anything to trees means you can unload the slacklines and hammocks from your gear totes.

You can also take advantage of all the campground amenities and activities if you bring the items you do need. Add swimsuits to the list if there is a pool or lake. If you have electricity at your campsite, it might be worth packing an electric heater for chilly nights. Or if you have a walk-in site, you may want to pack up the wagon to haul gear to your site.

How to avoid this common camping mistake: Check the campground website for posted policies, regulations, and amenities. Some things aren’t always stated though, so look for campground reviews online and check reviews on Google for recommendations from others.

6. Not Checking the Weather (and Skipping the Details)

Our first camping trip in Colorado was a bit of a shock to our system. We checked the weather for that 4th of July weekend, and the forecast had perfect days ahead in the high 70s. What we didn’t pay close attention to were the lows. The temps dipped into the 20s overnight and we were terribly unprepared for that. That night was miserable and no one slept well. Fortunately, we were close enough to run home for better gear the next morning, and we salvaged the rest of the trip. 

How to avoid: It’s not always worth the stress and hassle to prepare for everything, but if there is any indication of sweltering heat, bitter cold, or drenching rainstorms, pack up what you need to make your family comfortable and happy. If you hate camping in the heat, pack for temps a little warmer than forecasted – just in case. Same with cold and rain. 

7. Not Preparing for Arrival Time

My perfect camping trip starts with a late afternoon arrival, with plenty of time to leisurely setup camp, cook dinner over a campfire, and have everyone in bed early in preparation for a day of adventure ahead. I don’t think that’s ever happened though. The trip there takes longer than we expect and we arrive after dark. Or we arrive just as the rain starts (when the forecast promised a 0% chance of rain). Setting up camp and making dinner in the dark or the rain is an extra challenge that can add some unwanted frustration.

How to avoid this mistake: Late-night arrivals can make set up a little trickier in the dark, so you’ll want to have headlamps and lanterns easily accessible. If rain is in the forecast, pack your canopy and rain gear where you can grab it without unloading the entire car.

kids using headlamps to play in the dark at a campground
A common camping mistake we all make is to pack away the things we need first. We did it right on this trip with headlamps ready to go.

8. Bringing Firewood From Home

Here in Colorado, we have lost many lodgepole pines to mountain pine beetles. Not only has it had a negative impact on the scenery, but it has also made some areas dangerous with the weakened trees falling and easily catching fire. While the pine beetle infestation isn’t necessarily a direct result of transporting firewood, the result can be similar. Non-native bugs and other infestations brought in on firewood can bring invasive species to areas and have a significant impact. 

How to avoid: Check ahead of time to make sure firewood is sold at the campground – or if downed wood near your campsite can be collected and burned. If not, plan to make a stop at grocery or convenience stores near the campground.

9. Not Carefully Planning Meals

Planning meals for the outdoors takes some effort. If not well planned, ingredients can be forgotten at home, perishable foods can go bad in a cooler of melted ice, or you could end up with no way to cook your meals.

How to avoid this camping mistake: We have a few loose rules when planning our camping meals:

  • simple meals on the day of arrival
  • plan meals with the most perishable ingredients first (like raw meats)
  • freeze what will be used later in the trip (chili, hot dogs, even cheeses freeze well), which will be thawed when ready to use
  • cross reference your meal plan with kitchen and cooking equipment so you have everything you need
  • have a back up plan for when the campfire just doesn’t work out

10. Not Charging or Testing

Solar lights are great because you don’t need to worry about backup batteries. But if night falls and you haven’t charged them, you’re out of luck. Or when something in the gear tote knocks into the flashlight, turns it on and drains the batteries, you’re left without light at the campsite

How to avoid this common camping mistake: Get your solar-powered lighting into the direct sun for a few hours before your trip to make sure you have a full charge on them – or at least enough to get you through the first night. As you’re going through your checklist, do a quick test of battery-powered lights (and other gear) to make sure everything turns on. Even if all your camping essentials get a clean bill of health, they’re not guaranteed to make it through your trip, so pack backups and spares just in case.

11. Not Properly Packing the Cooler Full of Food

Even the best of the best, the highest-end coolers (looking at you, Yeti) won’t keep your food cold for your camping trip if not properly packed. This means a daily run to restock the ice, or end up with lunch meats and veggies floating in cold, melted water. Worse, you risk losing raw meats and other perishable foods that are on the menu for the end of the trip.

How to avoid this camping mistake: There are many ways to keep food cold in your cooler. Keep separate coolers for food and drinks, so the cooler lid stays shut and keeps the cold from escaping. Pre-chilling the cooler with ice is another effective way to keep the cooler at the proper temps. Read more tips on keeping your food cold in the cooler here.

12. Breaking Out the Brand New Gear for the First Time

There are few things better than getting to use your brand new gear on a camping trip. But tearing that package open for the first time on a camping trip can lead to frustration and disappointment. Pitching a tent for the first time at the campground is one of the most common camping mistakes, but we all do it with other gear too. Your new gear could have missing or broken parts, or there may be necessary items that are not included in order to use the gear.

How to avoid: Take a moment to break into your gear before your trip. Turn it on, try it on, or do whatever you need to do to give it a quick test run. Scan through the directions or product information to make sure you’ll have everything you need to enjoy your new gear.

Tents deserve a little more attention though. Take the time to put the tent up before your trip, and do it more than once so you really get the hang of it. The first time you’ll be working along while reading the setup instructions. It’s worth the extra time to set it a few more times, though, to start to commit the setup to memory and work out any other kinks in the process that wasn’t there the first time.

Bonus tip: As you unpack your tent for the first time, take pictures along the way. This will help when repacking, so you can avoid the frustrating process of getting a big tent into what feels like a way-too-small bag.

Common Camping Mistakes at the Campground

13. Luring Wildlife to Your Campsite

It doesn’t take much for wildlife to figure out where the food is. They’re good at detecting it, and they’re good at getting into trash cans, tote boxes, and even cars to find where that smell is coming from. Leaving food where animals and bugs can find it – and easily get to it – puts the wildlife in harm’s way. You may be left with a big mess to clean up, and in some cases, puts you and your family in harm’s way.

How to avoid: Clean and pack up all the food from your campsite and store it in your (locked) car and not your tent. If you don’t dispose of trash in the dumpsters each night, keep that in your car too. This is particularly important in bear country, where you should store anything that has a scent in your car, covered with a blanket.

14. Not Scoping Out the Best Spot for the Tent

Campgrounds with tent pads usually have the work done for you, with a smooth, flat, and sometimes raised surface to pitch your tent. Other times, that’s not the case. Setting up in a low-lying area can set you up for leaks in your tent in the case of rain. In the heat of the summer, avoiding shady spots can trap heat in your tent.

How to avoid this common camping mistake: The best spot for your tent can depend on the weather. If it’s raining, put your tent up on higher ground to prevent flooding. In hot weather, the best place to pitch a tent is under the shade of a tree.

15. Tucking the Tarp Incorrectly

Rainy days or nights can still make great camping weekends – unless the water finds its way into the tent. Once the tent floors, sleeping bags, and clothes get soaked, then all bets are off. Good quality tents and extra waterproofing will help you get ahead of leaks, but if you don’t tuck the ground cloth under the tent correctly, water will pool under the tent where water can slowly seep in.

How to avoid this camping mistake: Ground cloths should be folded completely under the tent floor, making a perfect fit. Fold any extra edges of the tarp down to tuck underneath the tent rather than placing the extra material between the tarp and the tent. This way, water won’t pool under your tent and will keep you dry inside.

16. Not Being Prepared to Improvise

When camping, you always have to expect the unexpected. Whether it’s your trusty camping gear that fails, unexpected weather moves in, or the campground was just not what you expected. Sometimes, campfires just don’t light, the camp store is closed, or you left the can opener on the counter at home.

How to avoid: You can’t prepare for everything in the wilderness, so the only way to avoid this one is to prepare yourself to think creatively and be ready for some problem-solving.

a broken tent part requires creativity to fix - not being ready to improvise is one of the more common camping mistakes
Our tent unexpectedly collapsed on us in the middle of a camping trip. The only option was to get creative, quickly.

17. Not Putting the Campfire Out Completely

This can be a big safety issue, especially in hot, dry weather. After an evening around the campfire and you’re left with just a few smoldering embers, it’s still important to douse the fire with plenty of water. One little spark can pop out of the fire right faster than you’d expect, and start a fire while everyone is fast asleep in their tents or campers.

How to avoid: This is one of the most important common camping mistakes. Have a bucket, jug, or large bottle nearby to fill and use to completely put out the campfire. Even if it looks like it’s completely out, it’s always best to pour water over it, just in case there is a burning ember or two in there.

Common Camping Mistakes to Avoid After Your Trip

18. Not Drying or Airing Out Gear

No one likes breaking camp. The trip is over, and everyone is tired and just wants to get home and into a hot shower. We tend to stuff dirty dishes in totes, shove clothes into any duffel with space in it, and cram the tent and sleeping bags into their stuff sacks. The dishes will get done and the clothes will get unpacked, but we often forget to get the camping gear back out before our next trip.

Over time, this will take a toll on that gear. Even if there was no rain on your trip, moisture from the morning dew on the tent can lead to mildew. Sleeping bags stored in stuff sacks too long will compress the insulating materials and trap any moisture.

How to avoid this common camping mistake: Make an unpacking routine similar to your preparation before a camping trip. Include unpacking your tent and hanging it to dry (indoors works in bad weather at home). Remove sleeping bags from their stuff sacks, and hang them to dry to air out.

19. Not Repairing or Replacing Gear

The flashlight with dead batteries. The broken tent stake. The roll of paper towels with only 4 sheets left. Many of us won’t remember to check these details when we run through our checklist for the next camping trip, and we’ll find ourselves with the same unusable gear again and again.

How to avoid: All of the items that need to be repaired, refilled, or otherwise, maintenance can be packed up in a separate tote or bag when packing up. This way, you’re more likely to remember to take care of them before getting everything reorganized into your camping bins and stored away. If your tent needs a good cleaning, REI has a good guide on getting it done right.

Have you made any of these common camping mistakes? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!


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