How to Set Up a Comfortable Campsite

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Picture of campsite setup with tent, cots, chairs and tables.

The goal: Create a campsite that mirrors the comfort and organization of your own home.

Achieving this largely hinges on:

  1. Appropriate gear.
  2. Advance preparation.
  3. Maintaining good habits in camp.

This article's tips, gleaned mostly from REI staff, promote the idea that more organization results in less roughing it.


Layout/Shelter, Furniture and Lighting

You have lots of gear choices when you go car camping. To help keep things manageable, focus first on your site's layout and shelter, furniture and lighting. This video explains why.



Organizing Camp Gear at Home

Use a gear checklist from the REI Expert Advice library to make sure you leave nothing vital behind. These will help you prepare for a camping trip:

Printing tip: Use the "printer-friendly version" link at the top of each list.


Examine gear that has been sitting in storage. It's better to discover any missing pieces while you're still home. Example: Look inside the tent stuff sack; are the stakes inside? Is your utensil assortment complete? Did you restock first-aid items used on your last trip?

Bringing kids? Give 'em each a duffel. Make it a different color per child. The duffels serve as their stash spots for toys and personal take-alongs. Encourage them to always return items to their duffel so things don't get lost. Keep it to 1 duffel per kid; doing so prevents them from bringing too much stuff.

Involve kids in prep work. Create a checklist for your kids, present it to them (with their duffel) and ask them to collect and pack their things a day or more ahead of your departure day. Set a motivational example by doing some advance work yourself at the same time.

Learn additional kid-oriented tips in the REI Expert Advice article Camping with Kids.

Create a trip-ready gear tote. "The key to our camping organization is a well-stocked "camp box." We repurposed a multiple compartment plastic tool box. Each May we fill it with plates, pans, towels, utensils, flashlights, matches, scrub pads and other items, then just grab it for each trip." (from Greg Polkinghorn, REI)

Gear tote, part 2: "When car camping, compartmentalize your gear. Think of items from your home that you need and organize them according to "rooms." For instance, create a camp box just for the kitchen. For the bedroom, take that big storage sack that comes with most sleeping bags and use it to carry your sleeping bag (after you put it in a stuff sack), a pillow, your pad or mattress and, if there's room, your clothes. Bring some dry storage items, like plastic bags, for things that get wet. They can be useful for the trip home." (from Sherry Cady-Treder, REI)

Pack strategically: Light sources (headlamps and flashlights), the tent, rainwear, insulation and insect repellent should not be packed too deeply inside your rig. Packing these items where you can access them quickly keeps you prepared for surprises.


Establishing Camp

Unpack systematically. Shelter comes first. Select a good tent site (flat, vegetation-free, shaded, wind-buffered, with good drainage) and promptly set up your tent.

Keep essentials handy. Place a headlamp or flashlight in a pocket soon after you arrive in camp. Also be aware of the location of your rainwear, insulation layers and insect repellent. If you need them in a hurry, you want to know where to find them pronto.

Make things predictable. Establish fixed locations for important items. "The forks and spoons are in the blue tub." "Flashlights go in the green stuff sack."

Practice mindfulness. Remind campmates to always return items to their established locations so others can find them. If you're especially industrious, create a reference list of where-to-find-it locations. Tape it someplace obvious.

Keep everyone oriented. Make sure your crew, particularly kids, remember your campsite's location. Help everyone memorize the site number or point out landmarks ("We're 4 sites from the amphitheater") to help them recall its location. Write the number down on cards and hand them to everyone.

Designate a key-keeper. "To avoid lost keys or accidentally getting locked out of your vehicle, one adult should take responsibility for always holding the vehicle keys. If more than 1 adult is along, bring an extra set so each adult has access to the vehicle. Keep keys in a secure pocket so they don't get lost in the tent or sink to the bottom of a pack." (from Lynne Christiansen, REI)

Carry water in water containers. It's a good policy to travel with a gallon in your rig. In case your site is far from a water faucet or pump, it's handy to have a multigallon storage container, ideally with a spigot.

Do not leave food unattended. Bears and raccoons can strike swiftly. So can deer and gray jays. It's never wise to reserve a campsite by setting a cooler on a picnic table and then leaving the site. "Critters are out there, but they're not really interested in you. It's the food they want. Anything you can do to keep food odors concealed in air-tight containers is ideal. I've seen the bears in Yosemite rip cars apart for a cooler or donut box left in the back seat." (from Sherry Cady-Treder, REI)

Bring plenty of lights. "Every person in camp gets a headlamp. Have different colors available for each person. Kids feel more in control if they have their own light source. I've also found headlamps are less likely to get lost by kids if they are worn like a necklace when not in use. Just establish the rules before it gets dark: No shining the light in someone else's eyes." (from Lori Boyer, REI)

Get everyone involved in setup. "We engage the kids in choosing the placement for the tent and an area for an outdoor kitchen or storage area. We figure if the kids think of the camp kind of like an outdoor home, they will help pick up after themselves and put things back where they belong." (from Kristen Lloyd, REI)

Bring the right tools. "In campgrounds we sleep on air mattresses. Blowing up 4 mattresses is a pain, so I bring a high volume/low pressure pump used for air beds that works great. Just be careful not to overinflate." (from Steve Nagode, REI)

Improvise. "For car camping, we bring those big plastic laundry detergent buckets with handles. They are great for toting around, making sand castles at the beach, as containers for food waste, turn them over and they transform into chairs! They stack nicely, too, to save room. (from Liza Tewell, REI)

Be practical. "Use a wire coat hanger for hanging a roll of paper towels. Use tablecloth clips to keep the tablecloth from blowing away in the wind. (from Kristen Lloyd, REI)


Keeping Organized in Camp

Adapt cheerfully. Your surroundings are new and your routines are scrambled: "The bathroom is no longer a just few steps away the way it is at home; it's 6 campsites down on Loop A. Hey, it gets cold fast at night. It's sure dark out here." Stay positive. Living life on nature's terms is part of the allure of camping. Everything gets easier after the first night. Know that your advance preparation will pay dividends.

Stay tidy. Sweep debris out of your tent whenever the opportunity arises. Start clean, stay clean, feel clean. Doing so minimizes abrasion on your tent floor.

Kitchen tip. "Use separate coolers for beverages and food, since the beverage cooler gets opened more often. Bring well-organized meal plans from home, too. They're very helpful." (from Heather Martin, REI)

Add homey touches: "Set a piece of artificial grass or indoor-outdoor carpet front of the tent door. Ask people to remove shoes before entering the tent to keep dirt out. If the site does not have showers, we rig a sun shower in a tree and put a tarp around it to create an outdoor shower. We’ve even lined the floor with beach rocks to keep our feet off dirt." (from Kristen Lloyd, REI)

"At night we put a pair of flip-flops for every camper by the tent door for late-night restroom breaks. Be sure to keep a flashlight tucked into the pocket closest near the door, too." (from Liza Tewell, REI)

"We use tent hammocks. Just before sunset I put a glowing light stick in one. This guides us back to the tent after dark and serves as a night light." (from Lori Boyer, REI)

Separate coolers from anything absorbent. "You just never know when that spigot on the cooler will twist open, or 'old trusty' will blow a leak. (from Sherry Cady-Treder, REI)