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How to Plan a Last-Minute Camping Trip

If you want to know how to plan more last-minute camping trips, then you came to the right place. Camping is a fantastic opportunity to spend time outdoors and connect with nature. While many campgrounds allow you to make reservations in advance, sometimes you just want to get out and go. It’s totally possible to plan a last-minute camping trip, but it requires some strategy and BTS planning to pull it off seamlessly. 

I’m a big fan of planning last-minute camping trips (that’s how I was able to camp 65 nights last year!). In fact, it’s pretty rare that I plan a camping trip in advance (i.e. make campground reservations). I prefer to be spontaneous and flexible, so I can go where I want based on my mood and weather. These 6 tips are designed to help you get out of your house and on the road for a last-minute camping trip as quickly and efficiently as possible.

A woman and black dog sitting in an REI half dome 1 plus tent while on a last-minute camping trip in the mountains in Colorado.

1. Keep Your Gear Organized & Ready to Go

The number one way to get out on a last-minute camping trip is to make sure that your gear is clean, organized, and ready to go. Whether you’re planning to sleep in your car, in a tent, or in an RV or trailer, it’s important to keep your camping gear organized so you can grab it and go when you need it.

If you have a dedicated gear room or storage area, keep camping gear organized in clear boxes or on hooks, so you can easily see the gear you need. For gear that you can’t easily see, create labels so you know what’s inside. You can create a kitchen box, hygiene box, misc. box, etc.

Optimize Your Rig

Upgrading to a camping trailer from camping in a tent has been a huge game changer for my husband and I in terms of being able to take last-minute camping trips. Now our bed, kitchen, bathroom, and miscellaneous camping gear are always packed up and ready to go. It’s also easier to set up camp after dark, which allows us to get out of town late and maximize our last-minute camping trips.

Don’t Forget to Unpack

Another tip for keeping your gear organized is to be proactive about unpacking and cleaning gear when you get home from camping. This way your gear will be clean and ready to go on your next trip. Trust me, you’ll be grateful you did this!

Looking out of an open tent at a red rock formation while camping in Valley of the Gods in Utah.

2. Know Where to Go to Find a Last-Minute Campsite

One of the biggest keys to taking a last-minute camping trip is knowing where to go. In many areas campground reservations can book up months in advance, making planning a last-minute trip challenging. Most people go camping on the weekend, so if you can swing a trip during the week this will increase your odds at finding a last-minute campsite.

If you typically stay in campgrounds that require reservations you can set alerts for cancellations on I’ve also gotten really lucky with last-minute camping reservations in national parks by logging in the night before to see if there were any sites available. That’s what I did to score a last-minute camping reservation in Yosemite National Park last fall!

Your best bet for finding a last minute campsite is going to be dispersed camping. This is a popular way to camp in the United States, particularly in the West where there’s an abundance of public land managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and U.S. Forest Service where dispersed camping is typically permitted. Dispersed camping is essentially camping outside of a developed campground, which means you need to be fully self-sufficient (although some areas have designated sites for dispersed camping).

I personally prefer dispersed camping over staying in a campground because oftentimes you have more privacy and a better opportunity to connect with nature. If you’re dispersed camping it’s extra important to practice Leave No Trace, which includes having a plan for human waste, since facilities won’t be available.

Woman sitting on a camp chair in front of a fire with snow covered mountains in the distance while camping in Telluride, Colorado.

Tips For Dispersed Camping

  1. Know before you go. I always recommend checking the land management agency website for the area where you’re planning to camp to see if there are any special considerations or restrictions. In some areas, like Crested Butte, camping is restricted to designated sites.
  2. Good campsites are found, not made. When it comes to choosing a campsite, look for a site that has previously been camped in before. Many popular areas have well-established campsites that can often be identified by a parking area and fire pit (although just because there’s a fire pit there doesn’t mean it’s legal to have a campfire!).
  3. Pack it in, pack it out. The number one rule of dispersed camping is to pack everything that you bring with you out. The most common trash that I find at dispersed campsites are tiny things like bottle caps and wrappers. Make sure you do a final sweep through camp before you leave to make sure you didn’t leave anything behind.
  4. Practice campfire safety. It’s incredibly important to practice fire safety if you choose to have a campfire. Always check for fire bans or restrictions before starting a fire. Keep fires small and contained, and make sure you have water to put it out. Make sure the fire is out completely before leaving, which means stirring the ashes and making sure they are cool to the touch.

A safari style tent and dog bed in front of a desert butte.

3. Camp During the Off-Season

If you live in an area where camping is limited or extremely popular, then you may need to wait until the off-season to be able to go on last-minute camping trips. In general, there will be fewer people around which not only makes it easier to find a site, but it also makes the overall camping experience more enjoyable.

Traveling during the off-season is also a great way to avoid crowds in popular national parks and on the trail if you’re planning to go hiking or mountain biking during your camping trip. Be aware, campgrounds close during the winter in many areas, so make sure that you research dates of operation while doing location research.

A tent in an otherwise empty campground with a snow-covered mountain in the background.
“Camping season” typically lasts from Memorial Day through Labor Day in most areas of the U.S.

4. Make a Plan For Food

To avoid wasting time and stressing about what you’re going to eat throughout the weekend, make a general plan for food before your trip. Are you going to pack groceries? If so, do you need to go to the store? Are you planning on eating out? What’s available in the vicinity of where you’re camping?

There’s nothing worse than pulling into camp and realizing you didn’t pack enough food for your trip. Making a plan for how and what you’re going to eat ahead of time will allow you to be more efficient in getting out the door on a last-minute camping trip.

HOT TIP: If you’re leaving later in the day (for example, on a Friday afternoon after work), grab a pizza on your way out of town. That way you have an easy meal for dinner and leftovers for lunch the next day!

Pancakes cooking on a griddle on top of a green camp stove with a 23Zero kitchen organizer attached to a trailer behind it while in the desert.

5. Leave After Work

If you want to make the most of your last-minute camping trip, then I recommend leaving after work instead of in the morning, if possible. My husband and I typically go camping on the weekend due to our work schedules. We’ve found that leaving on a Friday afternoon instead of Saturday morning allows us to pack in more adventures and comfortably travel a little further from home.

Photo of a campsite at night with stars shining.

6. Schedule Appointments & Do Chores During the Week

If you want to go on more last-minute weekend camping trips then you’re going to need to free up your schedule on the weekend. Of course, everyone’s schedule is going to be different so you may need to experiment to find what works best for your family, but knocking out appointments and major chores during the week gives you room for last-minute adventures. I also like to plan at least one weekend per month to stay home and knock out some bigger chores, like yard work and deep cleaning.

A Hiker Trailer sitting in the desert.

My Favorite Camping Gear to Pack a Last-Minute Camping Trip

Here are some of my favorite pieces of camping gear to help make it easier for you to execute last minute camping trips. This isn’t an exhaustive list of camping gear to pack, but the items I included will help make your camping trip more fun and easier to execute!

If you purchase an item from the links included in this section I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Affiliate links allow me to continue providing free content to you!

A camp set up in the desert at night with a fire.

Camp Chairs

A good camp chair is a must for any car camping trip. My husband and I have been using these REI camp chairs for a couple of years now. They’re perfect for outdoor concerts, camping trips, and working outside (I’m actually sitting in one as I write this!). Most traditional camping chairs don’t have a lot of support, so I like that these have a solid back and bottom.

REI Padded Lawn Chair | $89.95

Water Container & Faucet

It’s important to pack water for your last-minute camping trip, especially if you’re not camping in a  developed campground where reliable water is available. While you don’t need anything fancy, this water jug and faucet combo from Dometic is my favorite piece of bougie camping gear. This definitely falls under the category of “luxury” camping gear, but it’s been really convenient to have in the back of our trailer. Both pieces of gear are currently on sale for the REI anniversary sale.

Dometic GO Hydration Water Jug (11 Liter) | $70

Dometic GO Hydration Water Faucet | $100

String Lights

The easiest way to set a cozy vibe at camp is to hang up some string lights. There are a lot of string light options out there, but I like the MPOWERED Luci String Light because it’s solar powered, can be used to charge your phone, and has durable lights that hold up to the elements.  

MPOWERED Luci String Lights | $54.95

National Parks Board Game

I got this game as a gift from my sister-in-law last year and I have quickly become obsessed. It’s rated 10+ and requires some strategy in addition to an element of chance. It’s a really fun game to play around the campfire.

The game has a lot of moving pieces, so if you aren’t camping in a campsite with a picnic table available, make sure you pack a camp table.

PARKS Keymaster Games | $49.99

A man sitting at camp in the desert surrounded by camping gear.

I hope these help make it easier for you to go on more weekend and last-minute camping trips! If you have any questions about planning a last-minute camping trip, let me know in the comments.

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