These days, you needn’t endure a trying camping experience. The outdoor industry has long been working to make camping more comfortable, with new, high-tech gear and helpful resources (including hiking apps and equipment rental services) with tips, guides, maps, and more to help anyone access nature. And the young and diverse population driving a nationwide increase in camping has even pushed the boundaries of what it means to sleep outside today, with options like creature comfort-filled safari tents, glamping set-ups, teardrop trailers, and vans.
But if you’re still nervous sleeping outdoors, dealing with dirt, bugs, and other infamous inconveniences, know that there are a few easy things you can do to make your traditional camping trip quite comfortable indeed. Not sure where to start? Use these tips to make camping more comfortable.
1. Choose a good campsite
The fastest way to turn your camping trip from frustrating to fun is choosing the right campsite. To help, use websites like Hipcamp and the Dyrt, which feature well-curated reviews and photos that can give you a good idea of what to expect, like whether the spot is full of gnats or perfectly pleasant; good for tent campers, or better suited for camper vans and trailers. You can also search for sites by amenities, like showers, picnic tables, RV hookups, or—yes—even Wi-Fi, if there are specific luxuries you don’t want to go without.
Also consider what you want to do while camping. Want a fun and educational experience for the kiddos? Campgrounds at state or national parks often offer ranger walks and visitor centers with museums and exhibitions to keep everyone entertained. The sites are often well-developed with trash service, decent bathrooms (sometimes even showers!), and running water that will save you a million tiny hassles in the evening.
If you’re looking to get a group together for a weekend, reduce the organizing stress with a campsite close to home in case noncampers from home just want to join in for a time. Or if you want to hike, kayak, or swim, pick a spot based on its proximity to natural areas you want to explore. Bonus points if you can walk directly to the trailhead or lake from your tent.
Nature is full of surprises—don’t let a bad campsite be one of them.
2. Gear up for a comfortable sleep setup
A good night’s sleep outdoors is all about having the right camping gear. To stay warm and comfortable, you’ll want to pack a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag that’s right for the weather and terrain you’ll be camping in.
Get a tent that’s big enough for you and whomever you’re sharing it with, can stand up to the elements (some cheaper tents, for example, aren’t sturdy enough for strong and sudden wind), and has convenient amenities like inner stash pockets and vents.
REI’s own line of tents, like the Trail Hut 2 ($199, rei.com) are a relatively affordable, durable, and easy to set up option for most camping conditions. For more of a splurge, MSR’s tents, like the two-person Hubba Hubba ($450, backcountry.com) are well-designed to last for years and lightweight enough to work for both car and backcountry camping. Looking for ultimate camping and quality? Consider a tent-and-shelter combo like Japanese brand Snow Peak’s Landlock Ivory ($1,800, snowpeak.com), which features mesh windows, expandable shade panels, and plenty of space for a whole crew of four.
Sleeping pad or cot
Don’t try to get away with sleeping on your old yoga mat—camping mattresses, sleeping pads, and cots are specifically designed to keep you comfortable and, more importantly, create a warm barrier between you and the cold ground. For a comfortable sleep, invest in a good camping mattress, like the lightweight-yet-cushy Alps Mountaineering Velocity Air Bed ($120, backcountry.com).
If you don’t want to sleep on the ground, a lightweight cot like the 5.4-pound Helinox Cot One ($300, rei.com) is an alternative. “Its lightweight aluminum struts support a stretched-fabric cot that hovers 6.5 inches off the ground,” says AFAR contributor Kelly Bastone.
Pick a sleeping bag with the right shape and temperature rating, or lowest temperature at which a sleeper will feel comfortable while in the bag, for your trip. In warmer climates, you may want a roomier rectangle bag with a high temperature rating (30°F or above) while in colder climates, a snug mummy or semi-rectangular bag with a low temperature rating (0–20°F) will keep you cozy.
The North Face One Bag ($289, rei.com) takes the guesswork out of choosing because it has “three interchangeable layers that adapt to varying temperatures: Combine them all for a 5°F rating, zip away the top layer for 20° nights, or remove the cozy middle layer (stuffed with premium 850-fill down) for a warm-weather 40°F bag. The whole system weighs less than four pounds and packs as small as a fireplace log,” recommends Kelly.
If you prefer to stretch out while you sleep, a camping quilt, like the lightweight-yet-warm, 800-fill European goose down Western Mountaineering Cloud 9 Comforter ($320, backcountry.com), can also be a more comfortable alternative to a traditional sleeping bag.
Nothing beats the comfort of a pillow from home. For many, the best thing about car camping (staying at car-accessible campsites rather than hike-to ones) is the ability to bring pillows. And that’s “pillows,” plural. Bring more than one; bring as many as you’d like, then plop your pillows down on your mattress and nestle in the middle of it all.
3. Elevate your camp kitchen
You’re probably already planning to bring the basics, like your bowl, mug, cutlery, and camp stove. However, a small indulgence or two can improve your camp kitchen and the food you cook with it.
To make cooking less of a challenge, bring a cutting board, a good knife, and a portable table if your campsite doesn’t come with a picnic table. Or get a good cooler like the Swiss-army-knife of coolers, the OtterBox Venture 25 ($230, otterbox.com), which includes a built-in cutting board and cup holders.
If you’re a grill enthusiast, play around with a portable charcoal grill like the Takibi Fire & Grill ($320, rei.com), which can also double as a campfire if you’re in a region, like much of the West Coast during fire season, that doesn’t allow them. Planning to cook over a campfire? Breeo Outpost ($119+ breeo.co), a portable grill grate that stakes into the ground, allows you to transform any fire into a ready-to-cook-on grill.
4. Eat better than you do at home
Cooking outside shouldn’t stop you from indulging in delicious food. The key is to treat yourself to high-quality ingredients (and s’mores, of course). Whether you want to break out the camp stove or not, here are some camping meal ideas for your trip:
No-cook camping meals
- Prep a loaded, cold salad before you leave home
- Pack a lavish charcuterie and cheese spread in your cooler, and combine it all with your favorite wine
- Overnight oats with fruit, nut butter, and spices are an excellent no-cook breakfast
Camping meals over a fire pit 0r charcoal grill
- A project meal like paella can become the highlight of your trip
- Spend the evening grilling a variety of vegetables and meats, like eggplants, mushrooms, peppers, and chicken, yakitori style
- Grill a whole fish and serve it over some quick-and-easy couscous or with tortillas as a fish taco
- Go beyond the classic camp hot dog with a pack of chorizo sausages or German brats and sauerkraut
Those unaccustomed to open-fire cooking might want to pick up a copy of The Campout Cookbook, a well-rounded recipe collection and how-to on all the different ways to cook outside, including pointers on using Dutch ovens and cast-iron pans, plus a list of essential outdoor cookware.
Whatever you end up cooking, you’ll need to get creative about leftovers to save precious cooler space. For example, fish tacos for dinner and breakfast huevos rancheros with the leftover tortillas and salsa is an excellent, efficient combination.
Pro tip: Start your evening meal earlier than you think you need to. Adjusting to a new cooking space comes with some run-of-the-mill setbacks, and hangry campers are not happy campers.
5. Bring layers and prepare for cooler nighttime temperatures
Any seasoned camper will preach the importance of layers and waterproof clothing—especially to prepare for a drop in temperatures once the sun goes down, even in the summer.
A cozy hat and jacket are often welcome after the sun sets or while you’re drinking coffee alfresco on misty mornings. Patagonia’s Nano Puff jackets ($199 for men or women on backcountry.com) are a warm but easy-to-pack option for most outdoor adventures.
On cold nights, it can take time for your body heat to warm your sleeping bag, so a pair of wool socks, like those by Darn Tough ($25, backcountry.com), is crucial: By warding off a sometimes painful chill, they’ll help you fall asleep faster, and they’re easily shed when your sleeping bag has reached the perfect temperature.
6. Pack a camp chair or hammock you can lounge in
It’s easy to get tired with all of the work that goes into a camping trip, not to mention the fun activities like hiking, kayaking, swimming, and s’mores-making. So make sure you finish your trip feeling rested, not exhausted, by creating a nice area to lounge in and taking time every day to relax.
Cozy up next to the campfire in a comfortable camp chair, like the spacious and shareable Mesh Love Seat by Kelty ($110, kelty.com), which includes oh-so-essential cup holders for your favorite sundowner beverage. Or lounge in the sun with a hammock, like the Kammok Roo Double Hammock ($79, rei.com), which is big enough for two.
7. Be prepared for dirt, bugs, and weather
You can’t avoid the outdoors while camping, but you can at least prepare for what it may throw your way. To ward off bugs, bring plenty of bug spray or invest in a mosquito repeller like the Thermacell MR300 Portable Mosquito Repeller ($25, rei.com). For hot and sunny conditions, pack your sunscreen and a shade structure if your campsite is very exposed.
No matter when and where you camp, you’ll get dirty. If your campsite doesn’t provide showers, you can invest in an easy-to-use solar powered shower, like the Advanced Elements 5 Gallon Shower ($35, amazon.com). However, a simple pack of wet wipes can go a long way in making you feel refreshed.
This article was originally published in July 2019; it was updated on September 15, 2020, to include current information. Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. AFAR may earn a commission if you buy through our links, which helps support our independent publication.