Camping / Resources

Tent camping: The essentials checklist


Tent camping checklist for Florida

Tent camping at Suwannee Music Park

Tent camping in Suwannee (Photo/Alfonso Surroca)

Every once in awhile, I come back to this checklist and revise it based on new experiences.  You will be doing the same with your list.

Tent camping in Florida has some unique requirements, most related to our weather: Airy tents; strong sunscreen; insects and gators; unpredictable weather.

These guidelines are intended for “car campers,” who drive up to their campsite. Many tent sites are primitive, meaning there’s no water or electric.

Your tips and tricks for Florida tent camping are welcome in the comments below.

The Basics

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.  Sleeping bags are in stuff sacks; clothing goes in duffle bags the day before we leave. Everything is organized and ready to go. Don’t wait until the day you leave or you will forget something.

After arriving at your campground, do not leave coolers and food boxes unattended, and thoroughly clean up after every meal. When you leave your campsite, store coolers, garbage bags and food in your vehicle, or dangle them on ropes from tree limbs, out of reach. Never leave water, food or garbage in your tent. The critters will tear your tent apart to get their dinner.

Tent Gear

Arrive at your campsite in daylight, and set up your tent immediately. Setting up a tent in the dark can be a nightmare.

Campsite at Orange County's Moss Park

Campsite at Orange County’s Moss Park

The Florida Tent – The rule of thumb for Florida tents is to get one at least twice the capacity you need. Couples should have a tent that sleeps at least four. If you are a family of four, your tent should sleep eight.  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 possible, select a site near water, where breezes are best, and in the shade.

  • 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 out all your gear before assembling it.

Canopy and/or Tarp — When natural shade is in short supply, a canopy will create shade. A canopy will also disperse rain, but be wary of high winds. Place it over your tent to keep the tent cooler. Tarps can be used as canopies and/or as a ground cloth for your tent.

Poles and Stakes – Before leaving home, make sure your stakes and poles are packed with your tent. I once forgot my poles while camping in the Ten Thousand Islands and had to improvise.  Include nylon cords in your tent gear to tie off your tent and prepare for the unexpected burst of wind. You should have two kinds of stakes, round metal stakes for hard ground (bring a hammer) and sand spikes with ridges that grip.

Sleeping mat or cots – For minimum setup, self-inflating mattresses are best, but they are not as comfortable as inflatable mattresses. With an inflatable, don’t forget the battery-operated air pump (and test it before you leave for your trip). Cots are ideal, if you have room, because they allow air to circulate around your body, not just over it.

Sleeping bag – Don’t spend a lot of money on high-tech, below-zero bags. Lightweight bags will do. Bring extra blankets in winter and spring, just in case the temperatures drop suddenly at night.

Lanterns and flashlights – Keep a flashlight next to the tent door for late-night hikes to the rest room to avoid fumbling around in the dark. Everybody knows where it is. The rule for lanterns: Propane or gas lamps stay outside, and battery lanterns 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 leeway.

Bring one plate and large cup per person. The cup can be used as a bowl. Enamel is best because it cleans easily. One fork and one spoon per person. Use an all-purpose jackknife to cut your food.

By all means, avoid glass. It’s dangerous in a campsite.

Camp stove – There are a lot of options these days, but propane stoves are probably the best choice. Use propane for your lanterns, as well, so you’re not carrying multiple fuels. You don’t want to rely on open fires or grills. There are often drought restrictions in Florida that prohibit open fires. I have a Coleman All In One propane stove, which nests a grill, griddle and cooktop, and it packs small. Backpackers use a small, lightweight backpacker stove.

GSI Outdoors Enamel Cookware Set

GSI Outdoors Enamel Cookware Set

Plates, cups, utensils – Enamel camping 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 carry a spatula and tongs to flip steaks or fish a burger out of the fire.

Coffee pot – Enamel coffee pot. Nothing tastes better on a camping trip than a fresh pot of perked coffee. A French press is another good option.

Pots and Pans – An enamel stock pot and cast-iron skillet 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 – Vinyl tablecloths are inexpensive. You don’t know who or what has been on that picnic table.

Paper plates, towels, napkins? — Suit yourself, but remember that it’s garbage after one use. I leave the paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils at home, but paper towels have multiple uses when car camping. Reusable cotton cloths are best for backpackers.

Food

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.

Hot Tip! Avoid cooking meals at dusk or later. Raccoons and bears will come out of the woods. Wash dishes immediately and store trash bags in your vehicle or dispose in critter-proof receptacles after every meal.

If you or the kids throw food scraps in the woods, you will get unwelcome visitors. Not smart. If it happens, consider it a teaching moment 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 when not in use. Never, ever keep food or garbage in your tent.

Garbage bags — Most campgrounds have bear-proof garbage containers, but hang you garbage bag from a tree when primitive camping.

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-tool should be standard gear.

Bug spray – Avon Skin-So-Soft works pretty well, but if you want something tougher, get a bug spray that is heavy on the Deet. 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. You are more likely to encounter bears in north and central areas of the state.

Sunscreen — You are outdoors in the Florida sun, 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 and wear 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.

Camp Clothing

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, breathable and waterproof rain jacket that packs small. Mine is Gore-Tex from LL Bean, and it weighs 12 ounces. It also makes a good windbreaker.

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.

Personal items

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.

Camp Furniture

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 camp stool for sitting around the campfire and anywhere else.

Lounge chairs (optional) – Collapsible cloth chairs that pack in a bag, but keep in mind that 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.

Firewood/Charcoal

Campfires are part of the camping experience, but you usually don’t need to carry firewood. You should be able to 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 adds a terrible taste to your food.

Toys

Give careful consideration to what you bring. The pile can grow fast.

Blue Spring State Park

Blue Spring State Park kayak and canoe concession

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.

Hiking -- A good hiking stick is invaluable for Florida’s terrain, and water-resistant hiking footwear is smart thinking. Heavy hiking boots are impractical for Florida.

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 great idea, and there’s nothing better than a good book to read in the woods. Fill up your Kindle
with fresh reading material before you leave home.

Horseshoes – A great way to keep the family entertained.

First Aid Kit

Tent camping takes you out into the woods, and medical assistance is never there when you need it.

A first-aid kit is something many campers forget, but you really should have 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 smart addition for your first-aid kit.

Pets

Check with your campground in advance. Most campgrounds, including state parks, allow pets. But it’s likely they’ll be confined to the campground. Many county parks prohibit pets, even in camping areas.

Alcohol

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.

County-operated campgrounds can be found throughout the state. Google the county of destination and go to their parks and recreation pages, where you will find a list of their campgrounds. County campgrounds are often very nice, well-maintained and inexpensive, as low as $10 per night.

Related articles on Florida Rambler

Backpacking — The gear you need

Boat and Beach Camping Checklist

Kayak Camping: Sharkchow’s checklist

Useful apps for camping and kayaking

Florida Rambler’s Camping Archive

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8 Comments

  1. Bob good tips, don’t forget a good hiking stick. I have used the same hiking stick for about 10 years now. I don’t go camping or backing without it.

  2. Sarah Rossio says:

    Thanks for the article-very good info. I’d only like to add-don’t forget the Hershey’s chocolate, graham crackers and marshmallows!! :)

  3. Pretty good article about covering all your bases with Florida summer camping. I would like to add to this list:

    - SHADE. You may get a camping spot without a tree, and you will suffer the extreme sun. Get a portable awning. The bigger the better, one that is rain resistant and can be tied down in case of wind. Preferably keep your picnic table in the shade.

    - FANS. In most tents, air circulation is reduced. Get a medium-sized fan that can work with batteries and with electricity.

    - HEAVY-DUTY STAKES. There are some that look like a huge nail (as opposed to the light wire ones). Your grounds may be rock-hard.

  4. Hello Bob I like your article on the camping and you have everything manageable, I always went camping in up State NY, and in Washington State I know alot about camping and I am plaining on have the people from work here in Miami to camp out the old way, Trying to get a few groups I need prices for June looking Forward to have fun with family and friends.

    • Hi Anna,
      Camping “the old way” from June until mid-October in South Florida can be unpleasantly humid, so be forewarned. Prices for state and national parks remain the same year around. You might consider bringing a new-fangled fan if you have an electric hookup. If not, make sure the tent windows take advantage of whatever breeze you can get. Have fun!

  5. Shelly Cook says:

    Hi! Thank you for all the information on Florida beach camping, RV camping and what to pack! I’m taking a 12 year old, a 13 year old and a 14 year old on our first RV trip to Florida. Even though I once lived in Jacksonville and am somewhat familiar with the panhandle, I’m really not that familiar with the central Florida area, or with RV camping in general. You’ve been a great help in planning what is sure to be a wonderful vacation.

  6. THANKS! WE’VE NEVER CAMPED BEFORE SO THIS LIST WILL SAVE ME A LOT OF HEADACHES & RESEARCHING!

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