25 Camping Mistakes that Could Get You Killed (or Really Hate Camping)
Going camping is often romanticized, the perfect communion with Nature, birds singing, your significant other's arm around your shoulders, bears devouring your offspring, flash-flood rushing off with your tent... Wait, what?
Highly unlikely, but theoretically possible.
I don't want to scare you off camping, quite the opposite! But I want to make sure your camping experience is fun and safe so you may want to do it more often. I collected 25 most common mistakes that could make your camping trip into an unpleasant experience or even a severe endangering of human life.
You might wonder if I actually did any of them. Well, duh! I took the wrong gear (too thin sleeping big), too much gear or useless stuff “just in case” more than once.
Disclaimer: This post, in addition to some awesome tips and advice, may contain affiliate links to respected retailers for your convenience. It means that if you buy anything through those links, I receive a tiny commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!
Learn from mine and other campers’ mistakes and make sure you are not guilty of any of them!
Camping mistake #1: Knowing nothing (or very little) about your camping destination
That's a parent mistake that will create more troubles on the way. Knowing about your campsite only that "it's a nice place" is not enough. Being there as a kid is not enough. Seeing its photos on someone's Instagram - is, you guessed it, not enough.
To prepare well - to know what kind of gear you need or what the possible risks are, you need to research your destination correctly. You need to know all about permissions and booking, the campsite's sanitary facilities, how popular is it, possible closure dates, etc.
If you plan on going to a wild camping spot, you need to do even more research. You need to be sure of the legality of such activity, of any possible obstacles or closures of a trail. You must be aware of the terrain, the type of soil, streams or rivers in the area, etc.
Google the place, look at maps, ask rangers, bloggers, friends questions - make sure you know what you are getting yourself into.
Camping mistake #2: Not knowing enough about the trail that takes you there
I assume you hike to your camping place. It might be that the camping is the goal of your adventure or that it's just a way to get through the night to hike again.
If you mainly hike you probably (I hope!) have learned a lot about the trail. But if the camping is the fun part - it might be that your focus was only on the campsite. In such case, it might be a huge disappointment to find out that the trail is much beyond your skills, washed out by recent rainfall, closed for calving season, or too long to reach the campsite before nightfall.
Learn more about the trail and treat it as fun in itself and not just a way to get to the camping spot. Be prepared for the hiking part with appropriate footwear and clothes.
Camping mistake #3: Arriving too late to the campsite
When you arrive at the campsite after nightfall, establishing your camp is really difficult. You can do it with the help of a headlamp, of course, but you can't see all the details well. You might see what is close to you and clear the ground well enough for your tent, but can you know if you are not on a flash flood route? Can you notice widow makers - the dead branches just waiting for a bit of wind to fall on your tent? How can you safely hang a bear bag or collect water from a stream?
Time your hiking well and think about a spot for your tent way before the sunset. Monitor the distance you covered and how much is still left and make a call to go back or find a (different) wild camp if you can't make it to the one you thought of.
Arriving late at an established campsite might not be as dangerous, but it can be truly annoying to fellow campers. Making noises and blinding others with your headlamp won't make you any friends among tired hikers.
Camping mistake #4: Bringing gear you have no idea how to use
If there is any piece of equipment that is new to you - either freshly bought or borrowed, make sure you check it first to see if it works. Pitch your tent in a park or your backyard (or even your living room!), try your new stove or understand what goes where. See if all pieces are accounted for, and nothing needs to be replaced or patched.
Camping mistake #5: Relying on fire for cooking and source of warmth
I'm not a big fan of making fire at all, but some people can't imagine camping without a lovely, crackling fire. But don't rely on it as your only source of fire and warmth. Take a regular gas stove with you and only use fire at established campsites with fire rings ready.
The weather can be rainy and all wood thoroughly soaked.
The idea to rely on fire to keep you warm is a horrible mistake. While in the case of food you might just go hungry, you don't want to be cold (and soaked) with no warm clothes or appropriate sleeping bag to keep you warm.
Camping mistake #6: Forgetting a key piece of equipment
Before you hit the road, check and re-check that you have all you need. Consult a packing list to make the task easier. Learn what the ten essentials are - they are primarily for hiking but should be with you on any camping trip, too.
Some of the most important essentials to never leave behind, are a lamp (a headlamp is best), first-aid kit, a source of fire, food, and water, appropriate clothing.
Check and re-check all your gear to make sure nothing's missing.
Camping mistake #7: Not taking an extra set of warm and dry clothes
It doesn't matter if you are out for a thru-hike or a weekend trip, you always must have extra warm and dry clothes. Still, take more than you need and for a colder night than expected. A down sweater or synthetically insulated jacket wait close to nothing and can fit in any bag.
When you get ready to sleep, change into long dry underwear (synthetic or merino), put warm socks on and - depending on how cold it is, an extra fleece, a hat, a buff or gloves.
Good night sleep is the most critical thing to refresh your body, rest, and be ready for more hiking the next day. If you are cold and miserable, you can't sleep deeply, and you may even get hypothermia.
If you are unsure what kind of insulating jacket you could take, take a look below for some high-quality pieces:
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Camping mistake #8: Underestimating weather
It goes without saying that you should always check the weather forecast. And then - prepare for worse. Take rainproof clothes even if there is no precipitation expected. Take warmer clothes than you think you might need.
Weather in the mountains can change fast. Additionally, when we are tired, we feel colder. If your campsite is in a valley, it might be damp and much more chilled than higher up.
Always pitch your tent in such a way that if a sudden rain and wind comes later on, it keeps protecting you.
It’s worth learning some tips and hacks for bad weather camping. If there is rain or wind in the forecast you don’t have to cancel your trip right away - just learn how to pitch your tent in high winds or when it’s raining. If there is a lot of moisture in the air, check out some tips for minimizing condensation in tents - so it doesn’t rain inside your shelter.
Camping mistake #9: Ignoring Camping & Hiking Etiquette and the Leave No Trace rules
Most of the time when we go on hiking & camping adventures, we meet other hikers. It might be on the trail or at the campsite. To make sure we all enjoy the trip, we should all follow a few rules and tips on how to not be “that a*hole” of someone else’s trip. Most of the rules stem from simple respect and empathy, but sometimes we might not be aware we are doing something wrong. Thinking of others and their experience might curb our own fun (of yelling or loud singing, for example) but can ensure that all enjoy Nature.
No one should head off to the Wild before they learn the basics of Leave No Trace rules. Simple and basic - but crucial for our safety and environment protection. Here are the rules:
No. 1 – Plan ahead and prepare
No. 2 – Travel and camp on durable surfaces
No. 3 – Dispose of waste properly
No. 4 – Minimize campfire impact
No. 5 – Leave what you find
No. 6 – Respect wildlife
No. 7 – Be considerate of other users
Only seven principles but crucial to any backpacker willing to be a responsible and respectful guest in the Outdoors. Read this article on Leave No Trace to learn all the details.
Camping mistake #10: Bringing pets where it's forbidden or not following the related rules
Hiking and camping with your dog can be a fantastic idea, but you must check ahead of time if you can do it. Make sure the destination allows it (most National Parks forbid bringing dogs) and what are the regulations.
Some trails have seasonal closures for dogs - mostly during lambing and calving seasons. Most require constant control on a leash. It is not only lack of proper hiking etiquette to ignore leashing requirement but can be dangerous. Other hikers might be with dogs or be afraid of them. Also, each year there is horrible news of lambs killed by freely running dogs or ewes miscarrying after being scared by them.
You also need to know your dog - is it strong enough to do the trek? Will it bark at every movement around it? Can it sleep quietly in your tent or is there a risk of a sleepless night for all campers?
Camping mistake #11: Picking a wrong camping spot
Picking a correct camping spot is not an easy thing. It’s easier when staying at a campsite but crucial when wild camping. The wrong place can be dangerous and even deadly.
So, what can you do to pick the worst possible spot (and winning the Darwin Award if you are lucky)?
Pitching your tent in the lowest spot in a narrow valley, between two high mountains.
Camping right under trees with old branches
Finding a lovely spot right on animals path to the water
Pitching in a narrow gorge with rains coming
Setting your camp right next to a standing body of water, with muddy (mosquito infested) shores
Camping on the edge of a cliff with gale winds in the forecast
Establishing your camp on the highest possible spot (for the views in the morning) with thunderstorms in the forecast
Check this post to avoid silly mistakes. And stay comfortable and alive.
Take a look at some fantastic choices of lightweight tents below:
Camping mistake #12: Going on a fancy slimming diet
Just to be open here: any dieting for weight loss is a bad idea, they just don't work. But going on a diet when hiking or camping is a really, really bad idea. Your body is a machine that needs its fuel. You will burn more calories that need to be replaced.
Also, having a lovely snack like chocolate, hot cocoa, cookies or such with you can be a great mood booster. Don't deprive yourself while backpacking. Treat your body like it were your best friend.
It’s also better to leave any diet-related experiments for when you are at home. You don’t want to find out your stomach does not agree with something while you are out in the wild (and far from a real toilet).
Camping mistake #13: Going “crazy light"
Cutting down on weight is a good thing: it's easier on your back, and you can do more hiking. There is no sense in carrying too much gear or infinite sets of clothing.
That said, you need to be careful with cutting too much or before you are ready. Going ultra-light should not be a goal in itself but rather a tool in reaching more comfort while hiking. When choosing equipment one should not only consider the weight of it but first of all its fitness to your needs and safety of use.
So what that a thing is ultra-light if it's too flimsy and just doesn't do its job well? What is the use of being happy you cut on weight if it results in freezing in your (ultra-light summer) sleeping bag?
When you choose your gear you have to consider many factors: price, weight, durability, how it fits you, if it's difficult to use, if you actually need it, etc. Weight should not be the most critical factor. Safety and comfort are essential, too.
Camping mistake #14: Blindingly buying whatever is the hottest gear at the moment
I do love the newest shiny object as much as the next hiker. But reason needs to kick in at some point (better sooner than later). Some brand new pieces of gear can be awesome and fantastic but some just a well-done marketing ploy.
It relates to mistake #13 - buying gear without proper consideration of your individual needs. Read reviews to check what others think (I do it all the time) but see who writes them: does that person have skills that are similar to yours, size, budget, experience, etc.? Just because a long-term mountaineering guru uses something, doesn't mean it would suit me well. If you don't know how to use something, it becomes just another really expensive junk.
If you are in the market for a camping shelter, this article can help you choose a shelter that fits your needs.
Sometimes things that are cheaper, more massive, bulkier, etc. might fit your needs better and it's OK. I know I won't ever go fully ultra-light because I need some comfort items to ensure my camping experience is not just safe but also pleasant. I don't want to just "survive" a trip, I want to enjoy it. Which means I invest in items like backpack, boots, sleeping system, but save on things like clothes (I often buy second-hand), or electronics. I know I don't hike in real wild areas, so I decided there is no need to spend a lot of money I don't really have on GPS monitor or personal beacon locator. I also don't need a satellite phone or a hi-tech watch. The trails I choose are pretty safe, and even if I get injured, there are villages or "civilization" not too far away (and I can call mountain rescue if the situation got bad).
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Camping mistake #15: Sleeping naked
There is this myth that sleeping naked (or only in your underwear) is better than fully clothed. Well, it's just a myth. Unless it's sweltering and you sleep with your sleeping bag open and just your undies to not boil, you should sleep in long underwear covering all your skin. This is for your warmth and comfort and also to protect your sleeping bag.
Down sleeping bag can serve you for up to 20 years if you take good care of it. It should not be washed too often - and when we sleep naked, our body's moisture and oils penetrate the sleeping bag. Moisture is easier to get rid off - that's why we should air our down bags as often as possible. But it's much harder to wash our body's oils off it.
Grab a camping pajama with you: synthetic or merino leggings and shirt. Wear a pair of comfy woolen socks and wear a hat and gloves if it's cold. Just in case have a puffy close by so you can put it on if the temperatures drop below comfortable levels.
Are you looking for a good sleeping bag? Below are a few good choices:
Camping mistake #16: Taking an outdated map
Some people hike for generations or inherit maps from their Wild-loving family members. But be very careful about using a map that's more than 15 years old. During such a long time a lot could have changed: new roads, trails re-routed, dams, bridges out of use, etc.
If you have an old map but don't want to buy a new one, make an extra effort to research the trail online. You don't want to get on the path only to find there are closures for tree felling or road was closed after a mud flood ten years before that.
Similar to it is relying on instructions from someone who was in that place years ago. Memory can be weak, or the reality has changed. Always confirm with updated sources. You can call a Park or tourist information, google hiking forums or blogs describing the destination.
Camping mistake #17: Using Fire where there is no need or no experience
You don't need to to have a fire going at all when camping. Really, it's possible. I never do it - I rely on my cooking stove and warm clothes. Fire in the Wild is dangerous, and recent wildfires remind us of the unforgiving element.
But it's not just about the risk of wildfires. Fire is bad for the environment and our health. We shouldn't breathe the smoke in, and it spreads toxic particles around.
Many people who go hiking and camping don't know how to make a fire responsibly, with the least impact and danger to the surroundings. People cut down living branches, or burn dead wood with all the insect and larva residing in it. Some go and leave behind not just an ugly scar of a fire pit but also still-hot embers that just wait for a stronger wind breeze. On the surface it might look like the fire is put off but hot coals can start a fire even days later if the conditions are right.
Camping mistake #18: Not planning water refill carefully
Not planning for a water source on your hike is a grave mistake. When planning your trip, you need to check for rivers, streams, lakes and mountain shelter where you can refill your water. Just because you go into lush forest does not mean there is plenty of natural access water.
If you go into more arid areas, pay even more attention to this. Maps could be misleading: they might show blue lines for rivers, but when you get there, there might be only dry river beds because it's the wrong season or atypically dry weather.
The moment you know what's the water situation like, you know how many bottles you need to take and what kind of water purification system would work best.
For clear water, purification tablets might be enough. But if the water can be murky or there is standing water - regular filter would work better.
When you choose your campsite, it's good to have water access. Don't pitch your tent right at the bank but in a walking distance. It's good to have enough water for dinner but also to have an easy way to clean your dishes after the meal or to clean yourself. Just remember never to pour the dirty water back to the river! Take some, wash your pot, then walk away and spray the grey water in a wide arch away from the water source. Same when you brush your teeth - don’t spit into the river or lake.
Click below to check out some high-quality hydration systems:
Camping mistake #19: Taking regular, heavy or delicate food with you
For a one-day trip or a car camping it’s not much of a problem, but when you plan on hiking for at least a few days, packing cans is not a good idea. Taking food that requires special treatment or long cooking might also not be the best plan. Raw eggs, food which requires refrigeration, and spoils easily or beans and such that need to be cooked for a long time are better left for car camping. Take food that can last for a long time, is light, and cooks fast.
The simplest meals are the ones that just need adding boiling water. You can get the ready-made dehydrated meals, which are easy to make. Unfortunately, they also tend to be expensive. You can prepare your own dehydrated meals or bring other easy to make products. I love oatmeal for breakfast - I make my own mixture. For dinner, I use rice noodles or rice flakes (I’m on a gluten-free diet) with powder soups (with high protein content). Some people like ramen soups with added fat and protein: sausage, hard cheese or such.
Leave those cans at home.
Camping mistake #20: Packing bottled beer or other beverages
Personally, I don’t like taking alcohol with me, just not my thing. But if you love to have a cold beer at night, don’t bring bottles. You have to take everything back with you, and the bottles are heavy. Cans can be squashed and packed small, easing the clean up a bit. And don’t forget to empty them really well, or even rinse with water. You don’t want your clothes and pack smell of beer, do you? Another good option for alcohol like wine or whiskey is to carry them in reusable bottles.
Camping mistake #21: Packing portable grill, a whole set of dishes, many utensils, cutting board, a cast iron skillet…
In short: over packing on the kitchen supplies. Unless you are some kind of cooking whiz and can’t imagine not creating some gourmet camping meals, leave most of that at home. If you camp in a group, you might need a few pieces more but divide them among all of you. You don’t need a few pots and pans - one in the right size is generally enough.
When choosing a gas canister for your trip buy one which size matches your needs. If you go for a weekend camping trip, you don’t need the biggest size “just in case.”
I still can’t believe some people would actually pack an iron skillet, but it happens!
For more advice on choosing the right cooking gear check this article. You may also check out what I use in my backpacking kitchen.
Camping mistake #22: Bringing the wrong gear
Your gear should fit your needs. Sometimes budget limits our choices, but we should do whatever we can, that our equipment matches the conditions, temperatures, terrain, etc.
Bringing a vast and massive car camping tent, bulky cotton sleeping bag, multiple-burner gas stove, summer sleeping bag for cool early spring trip… all of that can make your adventure into a disaster.
You also don’t need a hammer (rocks work fine to stake a tent), big cotton towel (or anything cotton!) or two sets of spare batteries…
Camping mistake #23: Bringing full-sized toiletries, make-up, hair gel, spray deodorant, etc.
Bring only the necessary toiletries in small packages. Grab small plastic bottles made for airplane travel and pour some shampoo or face cleaner into them. You can also use special biodegrading washing liquid that is a body soap, dish soap, and shampoo all in one.
For some women, it’s hard not to take make-up, as we are so pressured to use it. When women don’t put make-up on, they are told they don’t take care of themselves or “let themselves go.” If you always put heavy make-up on, going fresh can be truly liberating and a bit scary. I remember how I wanted to take my mascara at least, as my eyebrows and eyelashes are invisible without it. I left it at home, and I am happy I did. When I came back, I saw my photos with a fresh and bare face, and I was surprised by how good I looked! Since then, I put make-up only when I feel like it - not because I think I have to.
Taking full bottles of shampoo or dishwasher not only adds a lot of weight but creates a risk of spilling it all in your backpack. The ordinary bottles are not made for travel and open quickly. It’s better to take a small container with a secure screw-on lid.
By the way - you don’t really need a dishwasher at all, and it’s better not to use it. Clean your pots with grass, sand, and dirt, it works fantastic and doesn’t release ugly chemicals into the water supply.
Camping mistake #24: Forgetting an insect repellent or sunscreen
Sometimes we are lucky, and we score the perfect camping spot with a light breeze to get rid of all nasty beasties. But we need to prepare for a less desirable situation: when the trip from your tent to a nearby “bathroom bush” is a survival trek through swarms of mosquitoes or midges. Hiking through woods can also mean the risk of meeting one of the most dangerous animals out there: a tick. Getting the Lyme disease is a serious and real risk, and you have to protect yourself from it.
Grab a roll-on insect repellent - spray bottles can leak, and the liquid can damage synthetic fabrics. Roll-on bottles are smaller than the spray bottles, and they usually have a screw-on lid for added protection.
In some cases, it might be a good idea also to carry a head net and wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants.
Protecting yourself from the sun is also crucial. Choosing the correct filter level depends on the season, weather, and your melatonin levels. Grab a high-quality small tub of the screen and have it close-by to use as needed and repeat application during the day.
Camping mistake #25: Not investing in your sleeping system
There is no sense to pretend that backpacking gear is cheap. When we plan to buy camping gear it, we should analyze what we should splurge on, and what we can safely save on.
You can get a cheap spoon (or take an ordinary one from home), pot or low-end stove that’s a bit on the heavier side but still acceptable. But you should not skimp on your sleeping system. Good night sleep is a requirement not just to ensure a fun trip but for the survival. Hypothermia is a real risk when it’s cold, we are tired, and there is moisture in the air. Even when the hypothermia is not a risk, we can have a miserable night of shivering in our cheap “summer” sleeping bag on a thin foam pad which provides no insulation and no protection from the uneven ground.
I still remember back twenty years ago, when I went with a friend for a hike and basic caving adventure. We were to sleep in a cave, and it's known there is a steady 4*C temperature there. So I bought a cheap sleeping bag that was marked as “0*C”. I can’t remember well, but I’m pretty sure it was the extreme side of temperature marking. We were hiking late fall, and we woke up to snow the next day. When my friend saw my bag, he gave me all his warm fleece clothes or I would have been in severe danger.
Research your options, read the information carefully. Read this article for more details about the differences between synthetic and down sleeping bags and how to read the temperature ratings.
When you are about to buy a sleeping mat, check its insulation ratings (set in RV factor). Cold ground can seep all the warmth from you, and it’s crucial you have something that insulates you from it. Additionally, it’s worth having something that provides comfort. Some people can take more, some less. I have fibromyalgia, so I’m extra sensitive to touch, and I can’t sleep on a hard surface or over rocks. I have invested in the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir air pad. I am delighted I did - I slept on the cold ground in Norway or Iceland and felt comfortable.
Recently I also got myself a hiking pillow - an ultralight, tiny thing that provides incredible comfort. As I said - it’s worth finding a balance between going lightweight and personal comfort levels.
I picked a few things for you to help you get some good sleep while camping:
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