Camping Survival Tips For The Novice

Elvis Elvis

To the inexperienced the term “camping survival” may sound foreboding. Survive? I need a guide to survive? No worries. Camping is really fun and easy. Our intent is to give you some tips, help you head out prepared, and reduce anxiety.

Anytime you try something for the first time it’s natural to be apprehensive. If that’s you, then you’re at the right place. If you’re a camping buff, then you might still find our camping survival checklist useful. Either way, we encourage you to be prepared before you set out.

There are basically six camping survival concerns that can be remembered with the acronym PLEASE:

  1. Personal Items
  2. Location and Amenities
  3. Eating and Cooking
  4. Attire or Clothing
  5. Sleeping Arrangements
  6. Emergency Preparation

Personal Items
Most of these items can be taken from your bathroom or vanity and added to a travel bag. Smaller or lighter versions may also be available. Please note that these items are really optional but for some these things will make camping survival possible.

Toothbrush and Toothpaste: Easy to forget, so put it on your checklist. You may also want mouthwash.

Towels: Lots of campgrounds offer bathrooms with showers and sinks.

Soap and Shampoo: If you use bar soap, be sure to buy a plastic soap holder. Small shampoo bottles can be purchased at regular grocery or drug stores.

Shaving Cream and Razor: Battery-operated electric razors are easier to use, but it’s a preference issue.

Deodorant: Just because you’re roughing it, doesn’t mean you can’t be civilized.

Toilet Paper: If you don’t have a bathroom there, you’ll want to bring your own. Take a ziplock bag and pack it out, or buy the biodegradeable kind.

Small Shovel: Again, if they don’t have a bathroom…

Glasses: Glasses are easier to use than contacts, but go with what you prefer. Sunglasses with UV protection are always part of camping survival, especially in the snow. The reflective qualities of snow along with a bright sunny day can actually cause eye damage.

Sunscreen and Lip Balm: Protect your skin. Most of us aren’t used to being outside that much. Camping survival includes protection from sunburn and heat stroke.

Insect Repellent: Bugs love the outdoors even more than we do. Beware of mosquitoes as they can carry disease.

Camping Survival Tips For The Novice

Location and Amenities
The biggest decision is where you want to go camping. If this is your first time, it’s quite possible that someone has already chosen the place for you. You could be going with friends, a church group, or maybe you heard about a campground and wanted to visit.

A modern campground is certainly the way to ease yourself into camping. And with all those other people around it almost renders the term “camping survival” unapplicable. Quite often they will have community bathrooms with showers. Each campsite will have its own water spigot and possibly even electrical outlets. Your car will be right there at the site with you too.

In case you’re thinking it’s just like a hotel…it’s not. There is still something special about waking up in the great outdoors, even with some modern amenities. Throw in some hiking trails, a river or lake, possibly organized activities, and you’ve got a great vacation, even if it’s just for the weekend.

If it’s up to you to choose a campground facility, make sure you consider what type of amenities and activities you want available. Distance is also an important part of the equation, remembering that you may be tired on the trip back home. And of course the greatest issue is scenery. What type of environment are you going for?

There are a lot of choices, but don’t worry about making the wrong choice. You can always try another place next time.

Eating and Cooking
All meals will have to be planned in advance. Keep the menu simple and it won’t be a big deal. Start by listing all the meals you’ll need. Then write down what you’d like at each meal. List all your ingredients and go shopping.

Keep in mind that you won’t have a refrigerator. A cooler with ice can keep foods cold for over a day, but don’t expect heat-sensitive perishables to last longer than a weekend.

Hot foods that can be cooked in a single pot work well. Camp stoves come with two burners, so keep that in the equation. Fancy meals are probably not what you want to fuss with, especially because cooking times vary with elevation and equipment.

Canned food is fine if you’re doing simple camping. If you’re backpacking or carrying your gear a long distance to the campsite, you may not want to go this route. The weight quickly adds up, and you have to pack out the empty cans too.

Dried foods are great, just remember you need water. Modern campsites will have a spigot, so getting water is no problem at all. If you’re going a little more rugged, you either need to pack it in, or find a source of fresh water to use. Remember to boil any fresh water, and it’s best to filter it or add iodine drops.

Prepare to have a gallon of water per person per day. If you won’t have access to running water this becomes a top priority in camping survival.

Take some snack items too. Granola bars and trail mix are perfect for such outings.

This is also your opportunity to have traditional camping food! Bring the hot cocoa mix and mugs. Get long metal skewers and roast marshmallows and hot dogs over the campfire. Make smores out of graham crackers, marshmallows, and a chocolate bar. This is all part of the fun.

Think about all the utensils, pots, and pans that you will need. If it’s a lot, consider changing some of your meals. Most camping cookware is lightweight aluminum. You will also need plates, bowls, and cups for each person. Or you can get a simple mess kit and set of flatware.

You’ll also need water bottles for when you go hiking. They are an essential part of camping survival. Kids will love a traditional canteen.

Don’t forget that you need to be able to clean everything. Some will get a couple rubber tubs, one for soapy water and one to rinse. But believe it or not, rubbing dirt is a good way to clean most dishes.

Don’t forget to bring extra fuel for the campstove. Propane stoves are easy to use, inexpensive, and generally well built.

Attire or Clothing
Don’t worry, you probably don’t need to go out and buy a new wardrobe. Most of us already have perfectly fine apparel for the outdoors. There may be a few items you will want to pick-up. So we’ll discuss the basics of camping survival wear.

Of course, if you’re doing a particular type of camping, you may need specialty gear. If you’ll be snow camping think Goretex. If it’s summer camp think swimsuit. But the following will cover general application.

Underwear: Regular underwear is great. Long underwear is only necessary if you’ll be in below freezing conditions. Sports bras may be better than regular for some. And briefs generally do better than boxers.

Shoes: If you’ll be doing any hiking get some lightweight boots. You might do fine with sneakers, but you will be better protected with boots. Even flat terrains have rocks, holes, branches, and crevaces that can twist your ankle. Hi-Tec boots are a good quality, light weight, and inexpensive brand. Remember to wear the appropriate socks when trying them on at the store.

Socks: Cotton socks are fine for general camping survival. If you plan to do serious hiking you may want to wear two pairs. The pair next to your feet should wisk perspiration away from the skin; polypropylene does this. The outer socks should keep you warm even when wet; wool is the top choice.

Pants: Jeans are rugged but heavy – they’re okay. Khakis work well, but show wear and tear easily. Cargo pants are handy with their extra pockets. There are even convertible pants that change into shorts by way of zippers in the legs. Most choices will work out fine.

Shirts: T-shirts are fine. But think about layering. Even in the summer it can get chilly in the evening. Flannel and denim button shirts work great for layering. And at least 1 long sleeve shirt should be taken; they help with sun protection and mosquitoes, as well as warmth.

Hat: Beanies or ski caps are a good choice. They keep the heat in and can be worn comfortably in bed. A wide-brimmed hat is great during the day to protect your face and neck from the sun. For desert camping you may consider a ball cap with a bandana safety-pinned around the back and sides; this works great at safeguarding your skin.

Bandana: Speaking of bandanas…having a couple is a great idea. They come in handy all the time.

Jacket: This all depends on the climate and expected temperature. In a lot of camping situations, simple layering is all you need. But if you need a jacket get one that will repel water – no need to get soaked.

Poncho: A poncho is also a good idea for the rain. You can use an umbrella if you like, but ponchos free up your hands and can protect a backpack better. It’s a good idea to get one in a bright color like orange, so that if you get lost you can also use it to be more easily spotted.

Sleeping Arrangements
How you get through the night has a lot to do with how you fair in camping survival. Your location and seasonal climate will determine a lot about your sleeping arrangements. If you’re headed for a cabin, then there’s no concern about a tent. Otherwise, you probably want a tent, although it’s not always necessary.

Tents are great for providing shelter from the wind, rain, and snow. They also provide visual privacy, but don’t expect them to muffle your conversations much. They tend to be easy to set up and only take a few minutes of time.

When choosing a tent the first question is: How many people? If you have children think about whether you want them in with you, or if they’re old enough for their own tent. Usually by 8, they’re perfectly fine in a different tent. The smallest of tents will hold just 1 person. But large tents may have 2 or 3 rooms and house 6-8 people, possibly more.

The next issue is the type or style of tent. You probably won’t see an old army pup tent anymore. The most common style is the dome tent. They’re easy to set up, do well in wind and rain, and come in all sizes. Cabin tents are nice for families, but take a little more time to set up.

In addition to these, there are backpacking tents which are lighter and more expensive. You don’t need one unless you plan to carry all your gear on your back (not a likely part of camping survival). A bivouac (or bivy) may refer to a backpacking tent, or may be a sleeping bag with a built in shelter around the head.

Most tents today come with shock-corded poles. They are sectional poles with a cord running down the middle so there’s no guessing about which sections go together. A typical dome tent has two poles which cross each other in the middle of the “roof”. These poles have some give to them, so they absorb winds well. Your tent is actually more likely to blow away then to fall down.

Stakes (included with the tent) are used to hold the tent to the ground. However, in hard soil you may need a hammer to get the stake in. Putting 5-pound rocks in the corners, or throwing your gear in the tent may work just as well.

When you go to select a tent be sure to inquire about the vents and a rain fly. Better tents have lots of meshed vents, including: a screen door, rear window, and ceiling area. A rain fly is also helpful for providing better protection against precipitation.

Having a tarp to go underneath the tent is another good idea. Tent floors are usually not very rugged, so using a tarp helps protect the tent. If the weather is nice you may opt to forget the tent and just use the tarp so you can see the stars. Or perhaps string up another tarp to provide some protection from above.

Whichever way you go, you of course need your sleeping bag! For camping purposes, you generally want a synthetic hollofil bag or down feathers. Down is very comfortable and warm and it rolls up into a compact bag. Synthetics are lightweight, do well when wet, and are less expensive. They are also bulky.

Sleeping bags are rated by temperature protection. Find out the expected low temperatures for where you’ll be and select an appropriate bag. Keep in mind that even deserts can drop below freezing. An improper choice may not be an issue of camping survival but certainly of a good night’s rest.

Bag style or design makes a big difference too. (I don’t mean fashion here, but you do have color choices.) A mummy bag has a hood that surrounds your head so only your face is exposed; this keeps the body much warmer. Some bags have pillow pockets so you can add some extra comfort. Collars on some bags will reduce heat loss around the shoulders. Even zippers can play a part in keeping you warm; so check for a fold of material on the inside of the zipper. You may also want one that unzips at both ends to allow your feet to breathe.

Finally, you will want some padding under the sleeping bag. You can buy rolled foam (cheap), inflatable pads (pricey), or even bring a blow-up mattress (overkill). Before setting up the tent, you should clear the area of small rocks and twigs. Even with pads, a small pebble can interrupt a good night’s rest.

Emergency Preparation
These are items that you should have on hand for camping survival in case of an emergency. You could go gung-ho with a generator, but we’ll just cover the basics. We also list items that you will need for general use.

Flashlight: Each person should have their own simple flashlight. Keep it near your sleeping bag in case you need to get up during the night. Shake or crank style are recommended; batteries not only go dead, but cost more in the long run.

Lantern: These are nice to have and illumine large areas better than flashlights (although you could buy a combo). Propane lanterns are a little hard to light sometimes, but are much nicer than a flourescent bulb.

Knife: A pocket knife can come in handy for all sorts of things. Get a folding blade with a locking mechanism and a sheath. Children should be instructed on safe handling procedures and by 8 years old should be able to wield them responsibly. It is also important to keep it sharp; you are much more likely to have an accident with a dull knife than a sharp one.

Whistle: If you’re ever lost the urgency of camping survival goes way up. To call for help a whistle will travel farther than your voice. It also takes less energy than yelling. If you are lost, stay put and use 3 blasts to signal search crews. The rescue workers will respond with 2 blasts. Signal back and forth until they have made visual contact.

Signal Mirror: Another camping survival item used when you are lost is a mirror. Reflect sunlight towards search and rescue. They may be in a helicopter or airplane, or you may see them on foot but too far for sound.

First Aid Kit: You should carry a first aid kit in your car anyhow, but we list it now just in case. Also, we recommend adding moleskin for use with blisters.

Emergency Blanket: Also called space blankets, they are lightweight and thin. They are also inexpensive and are probably the size of your fist. Take it with you whenever you go hiking for added camping survival protection.

Compass and Map: A lot of people take a compass without a map, but the value of the compass increases dramatically with a topographical map. If you get lost, you can use them to find your way to safety. Note – if you’re not sure how to use them your odds of camping survival are actually better if you stay put and let experts find you.

Matches: If you need to start a fire be sure to clear the area of twigs and brush and don’t set up underneath a tree branch. Your matches are best if they are waterproof and kept in a water proof container. We also recommend taking a simple lighter as they are much easier to use.

Cell Phone: Nowadays cell phones even work at a lot of campgrounds.

Personal Location Beacon: Okay, these aren’t basic, but deserve a note. Personal location beacons are very expensive, but if you have the means they are the ultimate camping survival device when you are lost. Using satellite technology your approximate location will be known by search and rescue within minutes.

Camping Survival Checklist
Here is our basic camping survival checklist:

Personal Items

  • Toothbrush and Toothpaste
  • Towels
  • Soap and Shampoo
  • Shaving Cream and Razor
  • Deodorant
  • Toilet Paper
  • Small Shovel
  • Glasses
  • Sunscreen and Lip Balm
  • Insect Repellent

Eating and Cooking

  • Water
  • Food for Meals
  • Food for Snacks
  • Campstove
  • Fuel
  • Matches and/or Lighter
  • Pots and Pans
  • Mess Kit (or Plates, Bowls, Cups)
  • Water Bottles or Canteens
  • Flatware/Utensils
  • Clean Up Materials
  • Large Trash Bags
  • Zip Lock Bags

Attire or Clothing

  • Underwear
  • Shoes/Boots
  • Socks
  • Pants
  • Shirts
  • Hats
  • Jacket
  • Poncho
  • Bandana

Sleeping Arrangements

  • Tent
  • Tarps
  • Sleeping Bags
  • Sleeping Pads

Emergency Preparation

  • Flashlight
  • Lantern
  • Knife
  • Whistle
  • Signal Mirror
  • First Aid Kit
  • Emergency Blanket
  • Compass and Map
  • Cell Phone
  • Personal Location Beacon


  • Camera
  • Pens
  • Journal/Books
  • Games
  • Binoculars
  • Alarm Clock