Camping Checklists are Overrated

Checklists tend to be either too generic or too detailed

Checklists tend to be either too generic or too detailed

If you Google the term camping list right now, you will get just under half-a-million hits. That’s a lot of lists! I’m not a big fan of lists, I suppose they’re fine for things like shopping, where you have a lot of things to do or get and all the things are different each time you go, but I think their utility for camping is greatly overstated.

Like most hobbies and sports, camping is something that becomes more natural with experience, and no list is going to be a shortcut for experience. The problem with lists is that they’re either generic to the point of uselessness, or so detailed that you’re just as likely to overlook something on the list, itself.

Just because you don’t use a list doesn’t mean you have to be unorganized. A lot of experienced campers use storage totes to organize their camping gear. They might have a tote for cooking gear, a tote for sleeping gear, etc. I know a backpacking family that uses totes to store all their gear at home. Each member of the family has their own tote with all of their backpacking gear, which not only makes packing easy and organized, but also makes each family member’s total load easy to judge.

It’s important to realize that no matter what method you use, a camp list, totes, gear layouts, etc., you will forget things. It happens to all of us, including people I know who have been camping a lot longer than I have. Camping experience means learning to deal with adversity and adapt to unforeseen situations, though, so forgetting something is not the end of the world, or even your camping trip.

14 thoughts on “Camping Checklists are Overrated

  1. Great points Roy. We keep our camping stuff in the same area of the house but it would help a lot to use storage bins & totes. We’ll have to try that for this summer. I can see how it would be a lot easier to pack that way.

  2. Thank you so much for this site–I love it. I have spent all morning looking over it. GREAT information. I am a big believer in lists, because I don’t remember very well. I even laminate my packing lists and check them off as I pack. Then I put the list of what is in each tote so I can see at a glance if the first aid is in the bathroom or kids stuff. Thanks again! Keep it up!

  3. I must say I have enjoyed the lists. This will be my first time camping in 13 yrs and 3 kids later,(4 all together), and without my husband.??!!! What am I thinking?

    Thank you for all your info… It has been a great help!

  4. I also use the storage boxes (totes) for my camping gear. I agree that for beginers it is really helpfull to have a list (and I am a list-a-holic, I love making them!) But agree that the more you camp the more personalized your gear becomes for the type of camping that you enjoy. I brought EVERYTHING the first time I went camping for a weekend, including enough food to feed an army! I spent more time worrying about if I had everything I needed, packing, cleaning and organizing than enjoying my time away. Over time I realized my family never camps more than 15 mins from a store and most of our campgrounds have campstores, so if something is really needed that is forgotten its not the end of the world. I can see how if your out in the deep woods that would not be the case though. I now have a mental checklist and try to camp “light and tight” as I call it and I am more realistic about the amount of food needed. That just comes from experience. As for the broom, I cut down a full size dollar store broom so I dont have to use a little hand held one, but it is easier to pack than a full sized one.

  5. I actually use totes out in the garage for storage, too (imagine that?), but two of them are full of old camping gear that we don’t use! I need to make a trip to Goodwill… 🙂

  6. Hey,

    I’m a fan of lists too, but I think googling for a camping list is good for a starter, but will evolve over time. People camping differently. I wouldn’t expect a young couple w/o kids to care about packing boardgames to keep the kids entertained. Camping is a personal experience and you will generate your own list over time. I agree on the organization bit. Tote work out great as do labels. It helps out in case a thunderstorm breaks out and you need to find something quickly.

    Eric’s last blog post..Looking forward

  7. I keep all my gear for car camping in organized totes, including a small note pad to keep track of what I forgot. When I get back home I tape the list to the top of my chuck box, and the next time I won’t forget it. Unless of course I leave said item sitting on the workbench next to the box.

  8. I am a fan of packing in storage bins. I keep all my gear in one area in the attic so it is ready to go… One time we forgot a sleeping bag and had to run and buy one at 10pm from the local supermart. One thing I do want to get to make packing easier is a Personal Organizer from L.L.Bean, it will make trips to the shower a little easier…

    Jim Bradley’s last blog post..Bare Mountain to Military Rd. loop trail – 4.3 Miles

  9. A broom! Yeah, there’s one camping essential that is rarely discussed. We use a little whisk broom for all the dirt and/or sand that the kids (okay, us too) drag in.

    Adam – MRE’s? Wow, you two are really hardcore! 🙂

    This is kind of what I was getting at, though, staying away from the whole “packing and unpacking” thing, by keeping most of your stuff ready to go. I know even for business travel, if I don’t keep the 1qt. zip-lock with all of my travel-size liquids packed, I forget that stuff every time.

  10. I have lists, but I also have my daypack and my backpack 65% ready to go. Food and clothing don’t take too long and I spend a bunch of time going through my everything already in my packs to take stuff out I won’t need on this particular trip. I love my wife, but it’s hard to wait for 3 or 4 hours while she goes through the checklist since I was ready to go in generally under 30 minutes.

    Even with lists I still forget the broom 95% of the time.

  11. I think what you said about putting things in different bins is exactly on point.

    My wife and I have 2 backpacks that carry everything that we need except for food. When we get done with a trip, we go through a ritual “repack” after having washed our camping and hiking clothes and putting everything back together.

    We also have a cooler that sits in the shed and is used exclusively for “camp food” if we are car camping. Most of it is of the freeze dried or MRE variety, so if we havent used it while we were out, it stays right in the cooler till the next trip.

    I think that the fact that hiking and camping is a lifestyle for us, it become second nature and the need for lists ended years ago. We are fortunate enough not to have to bring everyday use items with us, and have everything neatly stored and pre-packed.

    Adam Shake’s last blog post..Barack Obama CBS 60 Minutes Interview Transcript and Video from Nov. 16th, 2008

  12. I’ll bet he didn’t forget the next time 🙂 The inspiration for this post was an older couple that I know, who are avid tent campers and backpackers. The husband does all the packing, and on one trip he forgot to load his wife’s backpack into the car – yikes!

    Though we started with a list early on, what I found was that you get too used to the list, and start mentally checking items off without really putting your hands on them. Kind of a false sense of security, if you will.

  13. Roy, I’m a big fan of comprehensive lists. You can create them as Word documents and edit as needed.

    When I pack for anything I always do as much as I can from memory, and then check the list. There’s almost always something there I forgot.

    Speaking of forgetting, my oldest brother once forgot to bring any sort of rain protection on a backpacking trip to the Warner Mountains in Modoc County–no tarp, no poncho, no nothin’–and then it rained all night long.

    John Soares’s last blog post..Little Smokey the Bear: Improving from 2008 Wildfire Injuries