Tent camping checklist for Florida
Tent camping in Florida has some unique requirements, mostly related to our weather: Bigger, airy tents; strong sunscreen; unpredictable weather.
These guidelines are for “car campers,” folks who carry their gear in the trunk or the back of the family SUV.
Even experienced Florida campers and RVers will find quite a few useful tips here, so don’t blow it off as a tutorial for beginners.
We would love to hear about your tips and tricks for Florida tent camping in the comments at the bottom of this page. Amaze us with your ideas!
And remember the first rule of camping — if you pack it in, pack it out.
I keep everything in three storage boxes at home: One for tent gear, one for the camp kitchen, and one for recreation gear — plus a cooler. Clothing goes in duffle bags the day before we leave. Everything is organized and ready to go.
At the campsite, keep coolers and food in your vehicle, never in your tent, unless you want uninvited guests to rip your tent to get your stash.
If you are unable to store it in your vehicle, secure your cooler and food with bungee cords and suspend them from a tree when possible. Same goes for your garbage — especially!
If you’ve ever had to forcefully chase an army of aggressive raccoons away from the dinner table, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Been there. Not fun.
The first thing you should do when you arrive at your campsite is set up your tent, and always plan to arrive at least an hour before sunset. Setting up a tent in the dark is a nightmare.
The Florida Tent – The rule of thumb for Florida tents is to get one at least twice the capacity you need. If you are a family of four, your tent should sleep eight.
The reason? Air circulation. It’s hotter in Florida, so your body needs more breathing room.
Make sure your tent has good cross-ventilation, and set it up in a direction that will take advantage of prevailing breezes. If it’s cold, just close the flaps.
- Pack a second tent for the kids. They’ll have more fun, and so will you.
- Self-supporting tents are best in Florida, where many campsites have hard, crushed-shell surfaces, unfriendly to stakes.
- Mesh pockets on tent walls are a nice option for loose change, cell phones, keys, wallets, etc.
- Be patient. Some tents are complicated to set up. Take your time and lay it out before assembling it, and pitch your tent upon arrival at your campsite — in daylight.
Poles – Don’t forget the poles! I forgot once on a wilderness camping trip. Not fun, and my wife never let me live it down.
Stakes (and nylon cord) – Even with a self-supporting tent, bring stakes and nylon cord to tie it off. Bursts of wind are not uncommon in Florida, especially near beaches. For beach camping, bring sand stakes.
Sleeping mat – For minimum setup, self-inflating mattresses are best, but they are not as comfortable as inflatable mattresses. With an inflatable, bring a battery-operated air pump (and test it before you leave for your trip).
Sleeping bag – Bags that zip together give you options, separate or together. On a chilly night, you can share body warmth. But don’t spend a lot of money on high-tech bags. We don’t have temperature changes that require technology.
Battery lamp or flashlight – Inexpensive battery lamps and/or flashlight are all you need. Keep one near the tent door for late-night hikes to the rest room. Propane lamps are OK for outside, but not inside the tent.
The Camp Kitchen
When assembling cooking gear, forget the conveniences of home. Your gear box should include only essential pots, plates and utensils. Use one storage container to combine dry food and kitchen gear. Backpackers favor lightweight all-in-one kits, but car campers have more options.
For plates, pots and cups, enamel cookware is easy to clean with a swipe of a wet rag. Use your cup as a bowl.
Coordinate fuel for stoves and lanterns into either liquid fuel (Coleman gas) or propane, not both. I prefer propane canisters because they are secure and available everywhere.
Avoid glass. It’s dangerous in a campsite.
Camp stove – Most people go for the standard two-burner, liquid-fuel or propane Coleman stove. I like the Coleman propane grill-stove, which has a burner on one side and a grill (alt griddle) on the other.
There are often drought restrictions in Florida that prohibit open fires, including grill fires.
Coleman just came out with a new “All-In-One” camp stove that is outstanding. I just bought one for $99, and love it! It packs small but is large enough to cook a family meal.
Backpackers use a small, lightweight one-burner stove.
Plates, cups, utensils – Enamel-coated dishes are easy to clean. Unbreakable Corel Ware is also a good option. Stainless steel knife, fork and spoon for each person.
Cooking utensils – Often, just a serving spoon will do if you stick to one-pot meals. I also carry a spatula and tongs to flip steaks or fish a burger out of the fire.
Coffee pot – Enamel. Nothing tastes better on a camping trip than a fresh pot of perked coffee. I also know folks who favor a French coffee press.
Pots and Pans – Enamel stock pot and cast-iron frying pan are all you need.
Aluminum foil – The uses are too numerous to mention.
Dish soap – Enamel dishes and pots clean with wipe of a rag. A bar of biodegradable Ivory soap serves multiple uses, including showers, shaving and dish-washing.
Table cloth – Inexpensive plastic-coated tablecloth will do. You don’t know who or what has been on that picnic table.
Keep it simple. One-pot meals are the smart way to camp cooking: stews, soups, pastas and chili are nourishing and filling. Cook what you can ahead of time and freeze in containers. They double as ice in the cooler.
Pasta and jarred sauce are camping staples. (Screw-on caps so you can store unused portions in the cooler.)
Snacks are good. Pepperoni, crackers, cheese. Chips tend to get left around, attracting critters even in daylight.
Avoid cooking meals at dusk or later. Raccoons and bears will come out of the woods. After eating, wash dishes immediately and store trash bags in your vehicle or dispose in critter-proof receptacles.
If you or the kids throw food scraps in the woods, you will get unwelcome visitors. Not smart. If it happens, use it a learning opportunity for your kids.
There is usually a grocery nearby for fresh breads, meat and vegetables. Your cravings will change once you are in the woods.
Dry food – Pack dry foods, such as pastas, rice and cereals, in sealed containers and stash them in your kitchen box.
Perishable food – Keep in the cooler, and secure the cooler in your vehicle or wrap in bungee cords. Never keep a cooler in your tent.
Bottled water – Yes, bring it. Don’t trust water from the campground spigot. And, like your food, store your water out of reach of raccoons. They can smell it, even in a sealed gallon jug.
The Tool Bag
Pocket knife (and pliers) — Essential. A multi-purpose tool should be standard gear.
Bug spray – No-brainer for experienced Florida campers. Heavy on the Deet, but you should only need to spray ankles and the back of the neck if you wear long pants. That should keep ‘em away.
Bear spray – Basically, a small can of pepper spray or Mace that will keep unwelcome bears at bay. Bears are not usually a problem, unless you are careless with your food — or the people who used the campsite before you were careless.
Sunscreen — You are outdoors all the time, and if you paddle a canoe or kayak, the reflection off the water doubles exposure to Florida’s intense sun. Use at least SPF 30, a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt if you have sensitive skin.
Waterproof Seam sealer– Seal the seams of your tent every time you go camping. Keep a tube in your toolbox.
Hatchet (or hammer) – For pounding stakes and splitting firewood.
Tarp – Useful as temporary shelter in a sudden storm, a Florida certainty, and as a ground cover for your tent. Pack one in your canoe, too.
Short hose with nozzle (optional) – For spraying kayaks and bikes. Good for controlling campfires.
Fire extinguisher (optional) – I keep one in my pickup truck in case of camp or car emergency.
Weather radio (optional) – Just a good idea, especially if you are hiking into the back country to a primitive site.
Each to his own, but be practical. Lightweight and casual, and something you don’t mind getting dirty. But also keep in mind that the winter months can put a chill in the air, especially in North Florida, so you may want to add layers, such as a sweatshirt.
Here are a few essentials:
Rain gear – A lightweight parka that packs small, but keep it handy.
Jeans – One pair per person for hiking, keeping bugs off, etc.
Shorts – Two pair. This is Florida.
Long-sleeve Ts – One per person for chilly or buggy nights.
Short-sleeve Ts – Don’t go crazy. T’s wash and rinse easily by hand.
Underwear and socks – Extra is good when you need something dry.
Footwear – Flip-flops for the bathhouse, sneakers or boat shoes, and water shoes for paddlers. Florida’s underlying rock is coral.
Hats and caps – Wide-brim straw hats are smart for summer or beach camping.
Washcloths and towels, and bring your own biodegradable TP just in case the bathhouse runs out. If you’re in the woods, bury it.
A couple of bars of biodegradable Ivory soap is all you need for any purpose, including shaving.
Pack sampler tubes of toothpaste you get from the dentist, a toothbrush for each person and disposable razor.
Almost all campgrounds have a picnic table, and that serves multiple purposes for cooking, eating, lounging, playing board games. But you also might consider:
Folding camp stool – A multi-purpose chair for sitting around the campfire and anywhere else.
Lounge chairs (optional) – Collapsible cloth chairs that pack in a bag, but they take up space.
Hammocks (optional) – Most state and county parks prohibit hammocks because they damage trees. Use non-binding tree straps. No hooks or nails.
Campfires are part of the camping experience, but you usually don’t need to carry firewood. You can buy it near your campground. Stick with hardwood. Soft wood, such as pine, is smoky. Clean-burning Duraflame logs are smartest.
Use dead limbs from the woods, but don’t chop down trees.
Charcoal takes up room. If you do use charcoal, don’t get the self-lighting kind. The infused lighter fluid lends a terrible taste to your food.
Give careful consideration to what you bring. The pile can grow fast.
Bicycles – Bicycles are a necessity for almost any camping trip. There are always trails or campground roads, and they are handy if you have to travel a ways to the bathhouse or just exploring. And the kids stay entertained.
Kayaks and canoes (optional) – Almost every campground with a water feature has a concession or nearby outfitter that will rent kayaks and canoes at a reasonable price. If you bring your own, you need gear: life vests, paddles, water shoes, paddling gloves.
Tubes (optional) – Florida is blessed with beautiful springs, and tubing is allowed at many. Again, rentals are almost always available nearby.
Fishing Gear — A couple of medium-weight rods and a modest tackle box containing hooks, lines, sinkers and a couple of artificial lures will work in salt and freshwater, even in the surf. Don’t forget the license! You don’t need a license if you are a Florida resident under 16 or over 65. A saltwater ‘shoreline’ license is free for residents, but you still need one. You can buy the license over the phone at 888-FISH-FLORIDA and start fishing right away.
Games and books – Board games and a deck of cards are a good idea, and there’s nothing better than a good book to read in the woods. Leave the electronic gadgets home. (Kindles being the exception.) You’re camping!
Horseshoes – A great way to keep the family entertained.
First Aid Kit
A first-aid kit is something many campers forget, but you really need one, especially with kids. It’s easy to get banged up while camping, so it’s essential to have bandages, antiseptic wipes and other goodies in prepackaged kits available in most department stores and outdoor shops.
Bee-sting and snake-bite kits are a real good idea.
Tent camping takes you out into the woods, and medical assistance is never there when you need it.
Check with your campground in advance. Most state parks now allow pets, but it’s likely they’ll be confined to the campground. Many county parks prohibit pets, even in camping areas.
Most county and state parks prohibit alcoholic beverages, although some state parks allow alcohol in camping areas. Alcohol is allowed in federal parks and lands, unless otherwise posted.
The key is discretion. Nobody is going to give you a hard time about a glass of wine with dinner. But be discrete. (Use your all-purpose porcelain cup!) Keep in mind that some public campgrounds reserve the right to inspect your cooler. The penalty is ejection from the campground.
Find a campground
Reservations for campsites at Florida’s state parks and national parks can only be made through ReserveAmerica, so go to their web site and pick a city near where you want to camp. The search engine will return a list of campgrounds, public and private, within a reasonable distance of your destination.
Don’t forget public campgrounds operated by Florida counties… there are more than you might think! Google the county and go to their parks and recreation pages, where you will find a list of their campgrounds. Usually, those reservations need to be made by phone. County campgrounds are often very nice, well-maintained and inexpensive.