Essential Camper Checklist- Camping for Beginners!

Camper with Wheat Twins Inside Pop-Up

Our home away from home.  The 6 of us (and sometimes our greyhound!) are a tight squeeze in a pop-up camper, but the bonding and the memories for a lifetime are priceless.  

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my sense put in order.”  

–  John Burroughs 

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I grew up camping with my family nearly every weekend, as a kid.  I’ve been primitive tent camping, on occasion, and done campers and RVs of every size.  I love a nice hotel, but I’m perfectly happy & at home camping, too.  But, know before you go.  Camper camping isn’t something you can do without some knowledge and a plan.  This is the Essential Camper Checklist everyone needs for better & organized camping.  Our lovely friends, Perry & Kasia, shared some of these and showed us the ropes when we bought our 1st pop-up camper from them.  Whether it’s your 1st time, or your 100th, a good checklist won’t let you down!  You’ll do it over and over.  You’ve got it in your head.  But, missing one little step in the process can be a safety issue and cause you headache later.  It’s easy to get distracted and miss something, especially setting up in dark or pouring rain.  If you lend your camper out or have your kids or someone helping you set up, a list will help make sure it’s done efficiently and right.

1. Planning Your Camping Trip:

  • Find your campground based on your needs, location, rules & reviews.  Reading reviews helped us avoid dirty & poorly managed campgrounds.  We knew to bring ant spray to one with an infestation & reviews warned us about the worst campground we ever stayed (lesson learned!)  You’ll also be amazed at how many campgrounds are within a short drive to many major US cities making for cheap accommodations.  The more you save, the more you’ll get to travel!    
  • Make reservations early-  Some campgrounds will sell out months early, particularly around holidays like July 4th and summer and fall weekends.  Some will even require reservations the year before, or at the very start of the reservations season.  
  • Know the length of your camper and the electric amps used. You can usually sort the available spots based on your needs- electric hookup, water hookup, camper size.
  • Look at the online map for a prime spot for your family (close to the restrooms & shower house?, isolated? Near the playground? Biggest lot? Easy in & out? Water view?)
  • Know the amenities– Most have a picnic table & fire ring at each site. Many have a flat asphalt pad to park.  Some have playgrounds, pools & bounce pillows.  Many have shower houses for non RVers.  Some sell meals, some have craft classes, some have a camp store for essentials.  Most sell firewood and forbid you to bring your own (to avoid insect & tree disease).  There are a variety of options that may be available.  Know what you’re looking for & what to expect.
  • Consider a discount program– If you’re going to be camping a lot, it may pay to buy a KOA or Good Sam membership and use their sites. Check out the price (of membership & their campgrounds), amenities & locations to determine if this is something you’re interested in.  KOA certified sites can be popular (crowded), but are generally clean & have extra amenities.  Generally a little higher than a mom & pop campground, but the cleanliness, consistently high quality standards & extra amenities can make up for it, if that’s important to you.  Both have a helpful websites, discounts, & a nationwide US directory of their campgrounds & offerings.         
Kids camping outside camper

Ready to relax.  Camping is a 2nd home for us.  The 1st thing he ditched are his shoes before we’ve even finished setting up the camper! 

2. Pre-Camping Essential Camper Checklist:

  • Make sure your vehicle is capable & rated to pull/ haul your camper’s size.  Otherwise, you could burn out your transmission.  Your camper will have a sticker on the outside with its weight.  You’ll have to figure in the estimated weight of the stuff you’re bringing, too.  In your vehicle, there will be a sticker on one of the doors showing its total towing capacity.  You can find the info online, too.  
  • Check your tire pressure
  • Check your tire wear
  • Run water through all the water lines to rinse out winterizing chemicals and in summer, gets rid of stagnant water.  After you turn off the water supply, turn the faucets back on to drain water & moisture from the pipes. 
  • Fill up your water holding tank(s), if you don’t have water hookup at the camping site.  Consider filling it even if you do.  We found a leak in our full tank at the campground.  You’ll quickly use up all your clean, few bath towels cleaning a heavy leak, while waiting for the tank to drain out.  No fun, trust me.  Besides, you are used to your water’s taste.  Other states/ regions can have vastly different water taste & quality.    
  • Turn on the water pump to make sure it pressurizes correctly.
  • Check that the tank and hoses don’t leak.
  • Turn off the water pump and unplug the outside water supply.  Then turn on the sink faucets and leave them on, so if there is any water in the lines, it can work its way out. 
  • Attach electricity to the camper for a couple hours to make sure the refrigerator gets cold.
  • Turn on the A/C and heat to make sure they’re working.
  • Check all of the inside and outside lights to make sure they’re all working
  • Clean the camper- Though we always clean the camper before storing it away, it usually needs a little refresh, before we go, again.  Somehow, you’ll find dead bugs or random specks of dirt after opening it up. 
  • Take the camper outside, open the windows, and let it air out the day before. Mist it with a scented freshener, if you like. 
  • Pack the camper- You’re packing a 2nd home, here. You’ll be eating, sleeping, cooking, bathing, and lounging in your camper.  You have a kitchen to stock.  Dining, eating, cleaning, camper tools & gear, entertainment, comfort, clothes for a variety of temps & weather, toileting, and bathing items to bring.  I’ll be posting a full article on everything you need to pack and bring, coming soon! 
  • Secure things for the trip- Unless there is room for it in the cabinets and closets, we pack our food & gear in totes and put them on the floor.  Even in cabinets, things will jostle, slide, jump & bump around on the drive.  Anything on the table or counters can be a moving missile during turns, stops, bumps & speed changes.  Make sure everything is secure and put away, or stored on the floor. 
  • On the day of your trip, plug in the electricity for a couple of hours to get your refrigerator cold for transporting your groceries.  
  • Check propane tanks to make sure they’re filled
  • Replace the batteries on your smoke & carbon monoxide detectors.  Check your flashlights & lamps, too.
  • Grease the ball on your truck hitch with a light amount of axle grease or vegetable oil, before attaching camper.  This keeps it from being rusty, which would make it very noisy during travel & grinds down your ball hitch.
  • Hitch the camper to your vehicle.  The top of the tongue on the front of your camper will tell you what size ball hitch you need for your vehicle.
  • Check the brake lights, turn signals & hazard lights, after connecting camper to your truck
Wheat girl outside at campground

The kids named the woods behind us Monkey Kingdom.  They have a great time climbing trees and exploring the woods like I used to as a kid!  

3. At the Campground:

  • At the campground (if available) or local camp store, buy ice & firewood.  You typically aren’t allowed to bring your own firewood.  
  • Check in at the front desk or station when entering.  You’ll get a parking tag with the dates of your camping and a map of the campground with the location of your site, the roads, shower house & restrooms, playground, trails, waterways, etc…  If you come in at night, check in 1st thing in the morning.
  • Clear the area where you’ll set up your camper of sticks, logs, bricks, etc… ]

4. Outside Set-up Essential Camper Checklist:

  • Parking your camper as level as possible. This matters.  A lot.  Otherwise, things will be sliding around the counters, someone will feel like they’re sleeping on a heavy slant, and it could be a safety issue.  It’s bad for your tires, your refrigerator, and the structure of your camper to park it unevenly. 
  • Chock the wheels so you don’t roll away! There’s a lot of movement in a camper with people inside and when jacking it up.
  • Take it off the hitch and pull the vehicle forward, out of the way.
  •  Level it with jacks and blocks.  Many campers come with jacks built in, but Bill prefers using bottle jacks for ease and choosing placement.  We use jack stands and wood blocks.  Bigger campers may benefit from leveling blocks.  Virtually all campers have 2 bubble levels on the outside to check.  
  • If you’re setting up a pop-up, no one is allowed inside until the outside corner braces are secured with the safety brackets.  It’s not unheard of for the lift cables to break.  Ours broke as Bill cranked up the ceiling the 1st time we camped in it.  The roof of the camper went from 3/4 up to dropped flat in a fraction of a second.  If someone had been in the camper as he finished cranking it up, the weight of the roof crashing down would have killed them.  Keep kids and everyone out.  Be patient until everything is safe and secure.    
  • Attach your electric cord to the electric hook-up (if available)
  • Remove fresh water toilet cassette (small tank) and fill with water from the outside spicket (if available).
  • Attach your water hose (white hose= fresh water, potable hose) to the water spicket (if available).  Leave the water OFF till we bleed the lines, later.
  • Hook up your sewage hose (if available).  Adding sewage line sloping hose supports will help it to properly empty.
  • Pull out awning, if applicable, and tie it down to secure in wind.
  • Bring your outdoor camp gear (like your lawn chairs) outside to make room indoors.  
  • Move your picnic table over near your awning sitting area.

5. Inside Set-Up Essential Camper Checklist

  • Turn on the main breaker on the electric panel
  • Make it comfortable– Either open your windows, or turn on your heat or AC, if you need it.
  • If there is NO on-site water available, turn OFF the faucets & turn on the water pump switch.  The pump turns off when it’s pressurized and on when the pressure is low.
  • If you DO have water hook-up on site, turn ON all of the faucets.  Turn on the outside water spicket so that you can bleed the air out of the pipes.
  • Turn off the sink faucets once you’ve leaked the air & flushed the lines.  
  • Light your pilot light or turn on the anode for the Water heater
  • Flush the toilet to add some water to the toilet holding tank.  Pour & flush some sanitizing chemicals, too.
  • Shut off the stove valves & connect the stove to the gas hose.  
  • Turn on propane bottles.
  • Crack open the stove valves to bleed off the air
  • Sweep out the floor and put down your rugs.  It’s helpful, even if you’re leaving your shoes outside.  Camping breeds dirt between the woods, hiking, sand, eating and playing outside, etc…  
  • Lay out your large outdoor mat/ tarp and a scrubbie rug outside the door.
  • Have everyone make their beds with fresh sheets & blankets. Especially so for our pop-up where we can’t leave the beds made up and have to take them down every time we change locations.  Set your individual duffle bags of clothes & affects at the foot of your bed.
  • Set-up house- Arrange & organize what you brought for easy flow: pop-up hamper by the bath or beds, soap at the sinks, shower caddy at bath, towels at bath and kitchen, food on the kitchen counter.  Your vehicle can be storage, too.
Wheats playing Quirkle inside camper while camping

Quirkle (game)–  a family camper favorite!  Great, fun game for any age and have kept us occupied and having fun during multiple rain-outs. 

6. Tear down- Getting Ready to Leave:

  • Make sure your campfire’s out.  Pour water and throw dirt over any coals.
  • Pick up any trash.  Leave your campsite clean for the next people.
  • After done with water & electricity inside (use the restroom, wash hands, clean up), turn on the water faucets.  Then go outside and turn off the on site water.  Disconnect the water hose from the spicket and lay on ground.  This will help siphon the water out of the lines.  Leave the faucets on for any residual moisture or water to bleed out.
  • Shut off water pump
  • Turn off electric at main breaker panel
  • Disconnect electric cord from on site power and push cord into camper to coil & be stored.  
  • Shut off the propane tanks and bleed the lines
  • Open and drain the water holding tank
  • Disconnect the sewage line, if applicable
  • Shake out inside & outside rugs outside and fold up to store (wash when home).
  • Take the trash bag outside.
  • Pack everything securely, including outside sitting area items.
  • Roll up the awning
  • Push in the outside door steps 
  • Remove jack stands & leveling blocks
  • Attach the camper to your vehicle hitch
  • Remove the wheel chocks and store in camper storage cubby
  • Attach the chains & criss cross them for double assurance if it comes off the hitch, so you don’t have a runaway camper
  • Connect the lights to the vehicle and make sure the brakes, turn lights, outside lights, and hazard lights are working
  • Bag up all of your trash and either walk it up to the trash, usually towards the front of the campground, or throw it on top of your vehicle & discard at front.
  • Empty your Septic tank at the campground’s waste disposal station if wasn’t at your site.  It’s usually located near the campground exit.  They have a water sprayer to rinse it out, too.  
  • Here is where Bill gets a shower at the bathhouse!  After the work of taking down a pop-up, you’ll be sweaty.  After emptying the sewage, ick!  He saves this for very last.  
  • Check out with the front office/ desk.
  • When you get home and have unpacked, give the camper a thorough cleaning before you put it up for storage
  • Don’t forget to take the groceries & leftovers out of the refrigerator!

Now relax outside.  Play a game.  Start a fire.  Pack a picnic and go for a hike.  Get your dose of nature that you’ve been craving.  Other essential camper and tent camping guide articles are coming very soon! 

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About me

Once Upon a Wheat

Terri & Bill Wheat

Hey, there! I’m Terri & my husband Bill and I have 4 kids (2 boys & twin girls + a pup!) and we’ve been traveling since our kids were little. At this mid point in my journey, I’m trying to shove as much as I can into this precious gift of life and squeeze all the joy and growth and learning I can out of it. Making memories that matter, building a life of joy & meaning, actively pursuing my greatest potential. I have a zest for life, for learning, for growth & I want to give you the resources & inspiration to have better vacations and get more from your life!

Essential Camper Checklist- Ready to Camp!

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Essential Camper Checklist- Ready to Camp!