Introduction: Camping Tips and Tricks

Picture of Camping Tips and Tricks

For over 30 years my family has been making annual trips to Vermont to go camping in the late Fall.  Over the years it has grown from being just four of us (my Mom, Dad, Sister, and me) to over a dozen people, family and close friends. 

I know a lot of people on instructables are into backpack camping, so they have to be careful about the weight of what they are bringing since they have to carry it in and out. 

Odds are these tips won't be of much help to you. 

Our annual trip is by no means considered lightweight.  But we bring the things that make the camping trip fun and comfortable.

updates to step 3 and step 4
added step 7

update to step 4

update to step 4

added a link to the recipe for Mom's Beef Stew in step 4

Step 1: Lean-to Tarp

Picture of Lean-to Tarp

The state park has really nice Lean-to sites available.  A Lean-to is really nice for getting you up off the ground and providing protection from the elements.  The only down side is that the entire front side is open to the elements.

For years we would nail a tarp up to the front of the lean to using the grommets on the tarp.  If it was nice out we would string the tarp out to make an awning over the picnic table (we would move the table over to in front of the lean-to).

If the weather got really nasty, or if we were turning in for the night, we would drop the tarp down to cover the front of the lean to.  The tarp helps to retain heat, as well as keeping out any nasty weather.

A few years ago we picked up a 10' square pop up tent.  Since We started using that over the table, we have not needed to use the tarp as an awning.

In order to make it easier to get in an out of the lean-to during the day I came up with a new way of setting up the tarp.

By stringing a length of rope across the front of the lean-to and inserting shower curtain rings into each of the grommets in the tarp.  It makes it very easy to slide the tarp off to one side during the day so it is out of the way, and then slide it back into place at night.

Step 2: Propane

Picture of Propane

For the past few years we have been using a coleman propane stove.  Before that we used a coleman dual fuel stove.  If you are still using a dual fuel stove, go spend the cash and try a propane stove.  You won't regret your purchase.

Propane in bulk (20lb) works out to be much cheaper than in the individual 1lb containers.  Around where I live a 20lb refill is about 17 bucks, the 1lb cylinders usually sell for between 2-4 dollars each depending on if you can find them on sale or not. 

This year I got a propane tree.  It connects to a 20lb propane tank, and it has a nozzle at the top of the tree that is great for attaching a propane powered lantern, as well as the ability to add two hoses to run two additional propane powered items(more if you get a splitter). 

Depending on what meal we are making will determine if we have the stoves, grills, or a combination of the two hooked up to the tree.  one of the nice things about using the larger tank to run the cooking is you don't have to worry about running out in the middle of cooking a meal, or deal with the tank icing up the way the smaller ones do if you use them for long periods of time.

**good advice**  You do not want to leave propane pressurized in the rubber hose.  It will cause the rubber to release an oil that will gunk up you propane devices.  When you are done using the propane shut the tank off first and let the device burn off the propane that is in the hose.  Once the flame goes out it is safe to turn the device control knob to the off position

The one pound cylinders are really nice for portability (lanterns) so we keep a few on hand, but the bulk of our propane is distributed from the large tank. 

Step 3: Keeping the Critters Out

Picture of Keeping the Critters Out

Our minivan is full of people for the trip up so that doesn't leave a whole lot of space for our camping gear and clothes.  Fortunately we have a hard shell roof luggage rack.  

In order to keep the racoons and other critters from pillaging our food stores while we sleep, our luggage shell double as our pantry for any of our non perishable food stuffs.

To date the racoons have not figured out how to undo the latches ... someday ... maybe ... but so far they lack the technology.

**words of wisdom** the pantry will only keep the critters away from the food if you remember to put the food away before you fall asleep for the night.  My family still teases me about the time I got woken up by the sound of rustling out on the picnic table and I got up in time to see Mr. Racoon making off with the last of my delicious apple cider donuts.  :(


If you don't have access to a cargo rack like this you can just as easily use a lidded storage tote as a pantry.  If you do that I would recommend you either store the tote in your vehicle at night, or find some way to secure the lid (bungee cords might do the trick). 

Step 4: Easy Meals

Picture of Easy Meals

My mom is a whiz when it comes to pre-packing meals for a camping trip.  It is really nice to be able to get back to camp after a long day of exploring the woods, and not have to listen to a concerto of tummy rumbles while you wait for a meal to be prepared. 

stew (recipe now included .. see update #3) (stay tuned for a separate instructable dedicated to Mom's Beef Stew)

I'm convinced that at least one of my friends comes camping just to get to have some of the stew my mom brings each year.  Even the kids that are picky eaters in our group come back for seconds.

The stew is made before we leave for the trip and is one of the few foodstuffs we bring with us (after we get camp set up we will run into town to get the groceries we will need.).  Then all that needs doing is to reheat and serve. 


If you are fond of homemade pancake batter rather than the boxed mixes, put together your dry ingredients in one container and the wet ingredients in another at home, so all you have to do is mix the ingredients and you are good to go. 


The kids love roasting hotdogs over the campfire almost as much as making Smores.


Campfire roasted apples

Core an apple and slice it into wedges (some people like to peel them to but i don't). 
Arrange the apple slices on a piece of aluminum foil big enough to wrap the whole apple up.
sprinkle ground cinnamon on each of the wedges.
assemble the wedges to reform the apple.
tuck a pat of butter down into the hole where the apple core used to be.
wrap the apple in the foil tightly.
place the wrapped apple onto a good bed of coals.
sit impatiently as the apple sizzles inside the foil. (the longer you leave it on the more the apple cooks and the softer it gets)
take the foil wrapped apple off the coals, unwrap, enjoy the warm buttered cinnamon-appley goodness

Biscuits on a stick

I was going to describe baking biscuits on a stick over the campfire but there are already 'Ibles done on the topic so I will just refer you to them since they are very well done


Better than an Ice Pack

Smithmetalcraft sent me the following message:
"This is an idea that a friend gave me. Thought you might like it. Prepare you favourite marinade and place your steaks (or whatever) with the marinating goodies into an appropriate sized Ziploc. Let it sit in the fridge over night, then throw it in the freezer. When you head out camping just throw it in your cooler with your other cooler stuff. When you get to where your going you have your first dinner, ready to cook, and saved a little on ice. Take care, Randy"

I have done the same thing in the past only instead of steak I have used frozen soup.  Whenever we have a ham I like to make a big batch of split pea and ham soup.  I make enough that some of it has to be frozen.  So whatever is not getting immediately eaten is packed up in Ziploc bags and laid flat in the freezer so it freezes into a nice smooth bag shaped block.  

Keep it cold a little longer

Over the years I have collected more reusable Ice packs than I typically use for one cooler. 
If you are going to pack food into the cooler that needs to be kept cold, before you put anything into the cooler take your filled ice trays and any excess cold packs you have and set them into the cooler and close the lid. 
The longer you leave them in the more they will cool down the interior of the cooler.  Once you have the inside of the cooler cooled down take out the ice trays (careful not to spill the water) and spare ice packs and return them to the freezer to resolidify. 
Put in you food and whatever ice packs you are going to use.  Now you food doesn't have to do the work of cooling down the cooler so it should stay frozen a while longer.


and now by popular demand ...

Mom’s Beef Stew

2 lbs beef stew, cut in 2” pieces
1 – 2 Tbsp Olive oil (you may need more)
1 quart water*
2 cups chunked potatoes
2 cups chunked carrots
1 package baby bella mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus)
1 – 2 onions, sliced to your preference
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
3 – 4 bay leaves
1 Tbsp sugar

Optional ingredients
1 cup red wine
marrow bones

*Personally, I cook several marrow bones (6-8) in 1 ½ - 2 qts water with some onion, celery & carrot for about an hour. Then I strain the solids out and use the broth in place of the water.

I pan-fry (in olive oil) separately the onions and then the mushrooms and set aside.

Dredge the stew meat in flour that has 1-2 tsps of ground black pepper added to it. Brown thoroughly in olive oil.

Cover with broth, add Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves & sugar. If you decide to include the red wine you would add it in here. 

Simmer for 45 minutes.

Add the carrots and potatoes and cook for about 30-45 minutes.

Thicken broth with a roux (1.5 -2 tbsp of butter and flour per cup of liquid)

Add mushrooms and onions.

---I tailor the amount of meat and vegetables for the number of people I will be serving. (4 lbs meat, 6-8 lg potatoes & 1 – 1 ½ lbs carrots for 14 people)

Step 5: Safety Items

Picture of Safety Items

I like to load up on glo-sticks when they go on sale (after halloween is a great time to get these cheap) and toss them into my camping tote.  The kids love to play with them when it gets dark, and it helps you keep track of them as they run around chasing each other.

Whistles are a great safety device.  It is a very distinct sound that travels well.  Everyone in the group should have one.  If someone has a problem a few short blasts on the whistle will get everyone's attention.  (thankfully we have never had the need to use ours, and hopefully never do)

Common sense.  axes, hatchets, machetes, saws, pretty much anything sharper than a rubber ball.  If you bring these things with you, make sure they are stored safely when not in use.  Nothing ruins a camping trip faster than having to take someone to the ER for stitches.

Step 6: Other Stuff, That You Never Think About

Picture of Other Stuff, That You Never Think About

clothesline and clothespins - A good strong cord or rope strung between trees will do for drying towels and clothes that got wet.  remembering to pack about a dozen clothespins will help keep things on the line while they dry.

babywipes - these things clean up EVERYTHING!!!  I am a firm believer that whoever it was that invented them needs an award.

bag up a set of clothes - if you are planning to make any stops on the way home, it is nice to have a set of clothes that don't stink like campfire when you "return to civilization"

walkie-talkies - because you don't always get good cell phone reception in the mountains it is nice to have a set of walkie-talkies to maintain contact when you are not all together.  You can get a decent pair of walkie-talkies for less than 30 bucks.  The ones we have are listed as having a 2 mile range.

Spares - Spares of  what?  anything consumable.  Mantles for your lantern, batteries for your flashlights and walkie-talkies, flashlights in case one or more gets lost or broken(especially if your little kids are prone to get a hold of them).

Wet weather gear - Ponchos don't take up a lot of space, but you will be very upset if the weather turns wet and snotty and you forget to pack one for everybody. 

fire starters - It never hurts to have more than one way to start a fire (light, matches, fire stick, etc).  For almost as long as I can remember I have been in charge of the campfire.  I had to get the wood, get the fire going, and keep it going.  My dad used to challenge me to build my fire smart so that all it took was one match to get it going.  I still like to make at least one "one match" fire on each trip to keep in practice, but for most of the fires I will use a starter stick rather than fuss with gathering up a lot of kindling.  The fire starters basically amount to a miniaturized duraflame log.  Just light it and it will burn for quite a while to get your small and medium sized wood to catch and start your big logs burning.  The fancy ones even come with one end tipped with a matchhead-like substance so all you have to do it strike it on the box and Viola .. you have fire.

water container - it is really depressing to get your camp set up and then realizing that the nearest water source is a few hundred yards away and the biggest container you have is a medium sized saucepan. 

Zip ties - second only to the almighty Duct Tape, zip ties have hundreds of uses and don't take up a lot of space.

Step 7: Lantern Modifications

Picture of Lantern Modifications

This is a lantern I use for fishing at night, but the modifications can be very useful while camping too.

I removed the top of the lantern and inserted a piece of aluminum foil inside the globe covering about 1/4 of the globe.  It is wrapped just under the bottom and over the top of the globe so that when the top is screwed back on the foil is held firmly in place.
The foil does several things. 
            1) It acts as a reflector. 
            2) It helps to focus the light directionally. 
            3) It blocks out part of the globe so that when the lantern is hung up it isn't blinding us.

I bought this lantern at a yard sale a few years ago.  Since it does not have a functioning electronic ignition, I opted for the cheap and easy fix. 
I tethered a lighter to it so I had a way to light it without having to worry about misplacing the lighter (usually into someone's pocket after they light a smoke ... not naming names .. y'all know who you are hehe) or forgetting to bring a lighter in the first place.
The tether is just some butchers twine tied to the lantern and the lighter and some grip tape wrapped around the lighter and twine to keep it where it belongs.


rvenlos (author)2015-04-06

Purel hand sanitizer makes a great fire starter. To prove this fill a metal spoon with it and light it.
The flame is blue and hard to see in daylight but hot.

henryjon (author)2014-10-28

The blog
is good enough I again n again read this.

pekberg (author)2014-08-23

If at all possible, fill your cooler in the order you plan to use it, first meal after arrival on top, an so on... pre-pack to smaller bags if needed for easier layering. Put frozen half-litre disposable water bottles in your cooler if you have excess space. They'll help cool things down and you can always use some fresh water...

thegreatkoua (author)2014-06-09

great tips

Lorddrake (author)thegreatkoua2014-06-10

Glad you found them helpful.

medievalpirate (author)2012-04-15

Another cheap fire starter is to use pine cones, send the kids out to find them, then store in a plastic bag. Use two or three along with some screwed up newspaper under your kindling... the only thing your paying for then are the matches.

never use pinecones in a open pit of any kind, even if they are dry. They pop and create embers. I used to ignore this rule until I saw a rather larger ember pop and fly off over our heads and onto the ground. The ground began to smoke. Nothing bad came from it, but from then on I no longer use them. This isn't just me, it's part of camping guides.

Lorddrake (author)medievalpirate2012-04-15

never tried pine cones before. guess we have a new experiment for this years camping trip :)

Galonii (author)Lorddrake2013-01-24

we use pinecones dipped in wax to start our fireplace.

Lorddrake (author)Galonii2013-01-25

how long will a wax dipped cone burn for?

medievalpirate (author)Lorddrake2012-04-16

No problem, may have to share a recipe or two with you guys. They are full blown camp cooking, none of this starting it at home and then reheating onsite...

Lorddrake (author)medievalpirate2012-04-16

sounds good. I will have to post some new camp cooking recipes too.

Professor_How (author)2013-12-25

Lots of great ideas, obviously born from experience. :)

Lorddrake (author)Professor_How2013-12-25

Thank you, many happy years of experiences :)

Ricardo Furioso (author)2013-07-03

Thank you.

InvictusLupus (author)2013-06-06

Easy Meals
Where were you staying?

Lorddrake (author)InvictusLupus2013-06-06

The photos of the campground that are posted in this IBLE are from Emerald Lake State Park in Vermont

Lorddrake (author)2013-03-01

glad I could help. have a safe and happy camping trip.

Ugifer (author)2013-01-10

You trick of cooling down the cooler is interesting - when we used to go away, my mother had one cooler of just frozen stuff. She would pack it the night before and put the whole cooler, with the lid off, in the freezer! That way, everything, including the cooler is at -20'C when you start out!

colectron (author)2012-11-22

firestarters...dryer lint should be cotton...poly does'nt work well...Also corn chips such as fritos works well...any greasy chips ...thanks fot tips....

Lorddrake (author)colectron2012-11-23

corn chips make great firestarters, each one will burn for almost a minute. and that is just the regular sized ones, I will have to get a bag of the scoops fritos to test burn time.

lucek (author)2012-10-05

One I do is if I'm going to have a tarp for exstra some rain shelter (which I do when ever I can) I use the rope from that as a close line. Might as well. You already have it strung up.

LstTxn2 (author)2012-07-25

All great camping tips. Like you we car camp - more like truck camp, but if we want it, it's there.
Some of our favorite items are our cast iron cookware. We use them at almost every meal. I have posted a couple of our recipes.

One for cooking a roast in the ground (in a dutch oven)

and one for easy to make peach cobbler in a dutch oven

I am going to be using your mother's stew recipe ... thanks for the tips and look forward to many more.

weirdwizard (author)2012-06-25

I have an awesome book on camping recipies. I am in girl scouts and I think you could get it from a local girl scout store.(trust me, they do exist) or you could probably find it on amazon or something.Its called cooking on a stick.

tim_n (author)2012-05-21

Many thanks for the link and compliments :)

Lorddrake (author)tim_n2012-05-21

not a problem. I'm glad you had the instructable made .. it saved me from having to type out all that info hehe.

making campfire twists is one of the highlights of the evening for the kids (and most of the adults too)

sconner1 (author)2012-04-24

I used rinsed out box wine bags for water.
They collapse and take less space as they get used up Plus have a dispenser cap already built in.

Lorddrake (author)sconner12012-04-24

I didn't know that you could refill the bags that come in the wine boxes. are they difficult to open up?

sconner1 (author)Lorddrake2012-04-29

Take the bag out and the dispenser cap either unscrews or pops off with a flat screwdriver. I forget which, it's been a while. There may be brands where there's no cap or it doesn't come off. Look around.

sconner1 (author)2012-04-24

Dryer lint and a flint/steel is all you need.

Or steel wool and a 9V battery can be fun.

Newspaper, rolled into a rod, tied with bits of twine, cut to 1-2" lengths and dipped in paraffin wax will light even slightly damp kindling.

leonal (author)2011-09-08

Bears have been known to break windows or rip doors off hinges. If you're in bear country, use bear boxes if available or string your stuff up in a tree if not. Most cars prevent very little challenge to a motivated bear.

Lorddrake (author)leonal2011-09-08

interesting. I never heard of a bear box before. I did a quick search and found a webpage on REI's website (outdoor apparel company) talking about bear boxes and why you should use them.

apparently stringing your food up in a tree is not a foolproof method of keeping it safe any more (tricksy bears) .. but something is better than nothing.

I knew food would attract animals but I was unaware that they are also attracted to such things as soaps, detergents, cans of soda, and pans used for cooking.

Thankfully we have not had to deal with bears where we go, but I can not stress enough that it pays to plan ahead and know about the area you plan on going camping at.

camp safe everyone.

de0509 (author)Lorddrake2012-04-14

solution number #2. get a gun license and a gun XD. just kidding. Now that bears have been mentioned I wont ever feel safe in the forests.....

In the south, Bears aren't to big of a problem. Camp bears (raccoon) can figure out about anything you do to hide food. Check out BSA Scouts sites for ideas.

youbaka1 (author)2012-02-07

hey is that on long island that campsite i think i recognize it

Lorddrake (author)youbaka12012-02-08

no it isn't. all the campsite shots are from Emerald Lake State Park in Vermont.

killersquirel11 (author)2011-08-21

Knowing knots can help make those last-minute improvisations possible.

The ones which anyone who goes camping should know:
Taut-Line Hitch:  A slip knot that stays in place until you adjust it
Square Knot:  Good for securing items, but tension on the wrong pair of ends will turn it into a double-half hitch
Trucker's Hitch:  Good for when you need a really tight line.  Basically a pulley system.  According to the linked website, it offers a ~1.6:1 mechanical advantage after friction is taken into account.

Not as necessary, but still useful:
Square lashing and clove hitches can be used to improvise many implements for around the camp (although round lashing can be used for making a tripod).

My personal fire starter is birch bark.  It's quite common where I go camping, so I don't even have to remember to pack anything special.
I also seem to remember reading a few instructables about fire starters a while back.  Many of them seem to use some combination of dryer lint, wood chips, and wax to make something that lights easily, lasts long, and lights damp.

great list of essential knots, although i am suprised you didn't list the bowline knot (granted it is part of the truckers hitch, but it is an important knot in and of itself)

thanks for the great comment.

I listed the knots that I tend to use. I don't know why, but I've never really used the bowline.

I also do the trucker's hitch a bit different than anywhere I've found online. The starter knot is a simple slip knot, and I finish it off with a few half hitches. As long as you are careful to make the free end be the one that controls the size of the loop, you gain a bit more mechanical advantage. Granted the trucker's hitch already tends to be good enough to snap some flavors of twine....

One other thing that I forgot is a good way to store rope. Something like this: (It's called a butterfly coil in case youtube decides to be stupid)

That's awesome, Thanks!

AllenInks (author)2011-08-21

Re: fire starters: Have you tried cotton balls soaked in Petroleum Jelly ( such as Vasoline brand)? Put one on a small bit of tinfoil, and light it. It burns for several minutes, and is nearly windproof. The tin foil reflects heat, but more importantly, retains the petroleum jelly after it melts into oil, so the cotton fibers act as a wick for the oil, like a candle, so it burs much longer.

you can carry several with bits if tin foil in a leak-proof container, such as a waterproof containersold to hold matches for camping. load each cotton ball, presoaked in petroleum jelly, with an individual patch of tinfoil, say 2.5 inches in diameter, in the middle of a respective u-shaped bit of string, so that each cotton ball and folded tin foil base can be retrieved by pulling the ends of the associated length of sting. all the string ends are kept near the mouth of the container as you pack in the balls.

jimbru (author)AllenInks2011-08-28

About firestarters; I have noticed that a lot of contributers from the US seem to be relying on them. I am a bit surprised as a bit of woodcraft would suffice.

In my scout corps we teach the scouts from age 10 and up to make fires without firestarters in normal conditions. (Normal would mean temperatures from -15 to +30 degrees Celsius, from sunshine to light rain and not too much wind, probably less than 6 m/s, when they can do this and from about age 13 we challange them with more severe weather conditions)

They get a small axe, a knife and 3 matches for the firestarting to get the merit badge. Of course there is some other requisites for getting the badge, like knowing where to find kindling and wood, types of wood and their qualities and a number of types of fires for different uses. We have seen that after they learn this they take pride in knowing how to make a fire and doesn't need any firestarters.

What will you do if you use up your firestarters? What if you loose them? When you don't practice your skills you'll loose them too. :-)

Keep camping and start your fires "naturally".

Happy trails, Jim

Lorddrake (author)jimbru2011-08-28

Thanks for the input Jim.

Counting on a fire starter as your sole method of making a fire can definitely have its drawbacks.

Knowing how to make a fire several different ways, but using a fire starter because it is easier is a different story.

I agree with you that if you don't keep practicing your skills you will have problems when you are in a situation that you need them. That is why I make sure to practice making a "one match fire" at least once each camping trip.

Next year's camping trip I will start teaching my oldest how to build and light a fire properly, and as the little ones get older they will learn too.

You can never have too many practical skills in your repertoire.

mkslocomb (author)Lorddrake2011-10-31

just to add that cheap note... my first time camping, my dad did buy a firelog, we cut it into eight pieces, ziploc baggied them and ta-da... really inexpensive fire starters ( i think my dad didn't believe i could actually start a fire ?!?!) also, newspaper wadded loosely works well.

Lorddrake (author)AllenInks2011-08-21

that is a really good idea .. I will have to try that. Thanks.

geppetto425 (author)2011-08-21

After breaking the glass on our propane lantern I found a replacement made of a durable metal screen that still let's plenty of light out! In stock at your favorite camping store.... the tinfoil is a great idea. So are headlamps, our scouts love those.

tjesse (author)geppetto4252011-09-09

dang, I just trashed a lantern because the glass was to expensive. Now I know that screen works.

Lorddrake (author)geppetto4252011-08-22

When I got my lantern I also got a hard plastic travel case with it, and that case does a great job of protecting the lantern. As a matter of fact I have been using the same mantles in the lantern for the past 6 years because they were intact and undamaged (until I dug my gear out of storage to shoot the pics for the ible and broke a mantle while setting up shots.. guess i'll be replacing them this year lol)

I have not used a screen on a lanterrn before. Is there any difference in light output or problems with wind if you use a screen?

headlamps are awesome. I love having a hands-free light.

Mrballeng (author)2011-08-31

Any room in that mini van for 1 extra person? (like me). Thanks for taking the time to post this.

Lorddrake (author)Mrballeng2011-08-31

sure .. we will wedge you in back with the kids.

--awww. don't frown at me like that

you can keep them entertained the whole ride up.

--why do you look like you are about to cry?

It is only 7 hours each way.

--hey wait .. come back ..

hey hunny, come see how fast Mrballeng can run.

About This Instructable




Bio: Jack-of-all trades, master of some. I would probably be much more modest if it wasn't for these delusions of granduer that I suffer from.
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