Camping Tips: Fly in and Drive

Fly in and drive

Want to go camping but don’t like the idea of driving several days to get there? Save time by flying into the general vicinity of your destination, renting a car and driving a much shorter distance to camp. Doing so will not only cut down on travel time, but also it will give you the flexibility to choose the vehicle that best fits your travel group and trip needs. 

Take it from lifelong camper Bekah Richardson who grew up camping with her parents — often spending days in the car to get to their campsite. “Flying allows you more time at your destination and cuts down on the time it takes to get there,” says Bekah, who, over the past few years, has opted for the “fly in and drive” approach when planning camping vacations with her husband, Chris.

Together, the couple has taken nearly a dozen budget-friendly camping trips to national parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier. On their most recent adventure, the couple flew to Los Angeles, picked up their rental car, and spent a week camping in Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks before catching a show and flying out of Las Vegas.

“My husband’s a recent convert to camping because he incorrectly thought camping always meant backpacking,” she says. Unlike backpacking, camping vacations don’t necessarily mean you have to carry, or fly with, all your gear — nor is “roughing it” always part of the itinerary. Camping getaways do require a bit more planning, “but the reward is greater,” says Bekah. “You can stay within national parks, among nature, wildlife — and create lasting memories.” 

Whether you’re seeking a traditional camping trip or a unique but less-rugged retreat, these tips will help you plan how to fly in and get your vacation started.

Armed with shades, a hat and a small bag, Bekah Richardson enjoys a day hike at Death Valley National Park while leaving most her gear back at the campsite. Photo by Chris Richardson.


Fly in and Camp: Packing Considerations 

As you get ready for your retreat into the wilderness and under the stars, you may find that you already own much of the gear you need. You may discover you don’t even know what you need. Even if you do have gear, you may wonder, how do I get to where I’m vacationing with it? 

Renting Camping Gear Is an Option 

If you don’t already own gear — or would rather not fly with all of it — you may be able to rent what you need upon arrival. Stores like Eastern Mountain Sports and REI offer camping tent rentals as well as a wide variety of rentals like cooking stoves, sleeping bags, pads and even air mattresses. Check the availability and price of these items at a store location near your campground, then determine if it makes more sense to buy in advance or rent when you arrive. 

Tip: If you’re renting a tent, make sure you ask any questions about setup before driving to your campsite. The same thought process applies if you plan to bring your own tent; practice at home so you know how to set it up before you fly. 

Gear Worth Purchasing 

If you are staying in one location, renting a camping stove is an option to consider; however, if you plan to camp at multiple sites or fly with your own cooking gear, the lighter and smaller backpacking stove is worth the investment and much easier to fly with. “These weigh mere ounces and are a fraction of the cost of traditional camping stoves,” says Bekah. “Having lugged my two-burner camping stove around, it is not worth the 10 to 15 pounds it weighs, nor the fact that I had to check an entire additional bag because of its size.”  

TSA permits travelers to carry on or check camping and backpacking stoves so long as they’re empty of all fuel, including fuel vapors and residue. Propane tanks, camping fuel and gel fire starter are strictly prohibited from carry-on and checked baggage. Plan to purchase these items once you’re on the ground at your destination.  

Sleeping bag liners, which are lightweight, easy to pack and washable, are a worthy camping purchase, too. Liners offer an additional layer of hygienity — whether you’re inserting your liner into a sleeping bag rental, or using it in your own sleeping bag while camping in Big Bend National Park. 

Consider acquiring a soft-sided cooler that’s easy to fold up and store in your bag. Soft-sided ice boxes come in a wide variety including ones that sport wheels, a detachable strap, cup holders and even a hard top, which can double as a tray table during meals. If you forget to purchase a cooler in advance, don’t worry. You can pick up a disposable one at a local grocery or big-box store, like Target, upon arrival.

Lastly, headlamps are worth procuring in advance. “They’re more useful, lighter-weight and a better investment than a lantern,” Bekah says. “If each individual has a headlamp, you won’t need a lantern.”

Even in the most remote parks, it’s easy to enjoy a warm meal while camping thanks to small backpacking stoves like this. Photo by Bekah Richardson.


Must-Pack Items 

From socks to sweaters, when it comes to clothes, pack wool. The material is not only breathable and fast-drying, but it also comes in many weights: Wear lightweight wool in the heat of summer and mid- to heavyweight wool when it’s cold. “Wool clothing doesn’t retain body odor, so you can wear it for days without washing,” Bekah says.  

Pack a hat, fast-drying towels and trail or running shoes in addition to your hiking boots — especially if your boots aren’t broken in yet. “Nothing can ruin a hiking adventure more than painful feet,” Bekah says. “And fast-drying travel towels make showering a breeze.” Hang them from a camping bungee cord or in the car to dry.  

You’ll also need a knife and utensils, for cooking and eating. While packing, keep in mind that all sharp objects need to be in your checked suitcase. This includes Swiss Army and cutlery knives (unless they are butter knives or made of plastic), tent spikes, can openers and corkscrews with blades. Sheath or securely wrap any sharp object to prevent potential injuries to bag handlers and inspectors. 

Other car camping essentials include: first-aid kit, bug spray (carry on up to 3.4 ounces or stow in checked luggage), extra batteries (see TSA’s battery safety packing tips), duct tape, paper maps, bottle and can openers, wet wipes, shower shoes (like flip-flops) and chargers. Have appropriate car chargers on hand for any electronics and camp equipment that needs charging, like your phone, camera or air mattress pump. Or reserve car electronics like a GPS navigation system or a TravelTab Enhanced Navigation Device, which comes with unlimited data and is ideal for vacationgoers looking to avoid roaming charges when driving between the U.S. and Canada. 

Lastly, for entertainment, pack a deck of cards and download free audiobooks from your library before departure; choose something the whole family will enjoy to pass the time while driving to your campground. 

After showering, hang your fast-drying towels on a bungee and they’ll be dry and ready to use again by the time lunch rolls around. Photo by Bekah Richardson.


Tips for Flying with Camping Gear

Already own a tent, air mattress, backpacking stove or other gear? Know what you can and cannot carry on and make sure you save room in your carry-on for essential items. 

“Your carry-on item should include necessities that you can not easily replace,” Bekah stresses. “These are things that could ruin your trip if you find yourself without them, like your beloved hiking boots, sunglasses or a camera.” 

You may group your tent into this category, but not all airlines will permit you to carry it on. Check with your carrier before flying. Another approach is to put all sleep-related items — like your tent, tent spikes (wrapped well), sleeping bags and air mattress — in one large duffel bag that you plan to check. Doing this not only frees up space in your carry-on bag, but also allows you to avoid storing a large suitcase; after you unpack the duffel, fold it up and put it back in your rental car. 

Download and print the checklist on the right to help you remember everything you need while packing. 

Food and Supplies 

Don’t assume you have to pack and fly with all of your food — or toiletries, for that matter. Make life easier by picking these up when you arrive. 

Meal Prep and Purchases. Bekah recommends roughly planning your meals before your trip. “Take into consideration items that may need to be in a cooler, and plan those meals for your first one to three days,” she says. “If you will not be able to purchase ice within your camping vicinity, limit perishables past the first day.” 

Check to see if any area grocery or big-box stores have the option to order online and pick up in store. Doing this allows you to plan ahead and saves you time: “You won’t have to worry about forgetting an item last minute or struggling to locate goods in an unfamiliar store,” Bekah says. If you plan to spend your first night at a hotel, services like Shipt or Instacart will deliver supplies to you. 

Food Storage. Make sure you add zip-lock bags and foil to your shopping list to pick up upon arrival. The bags will keep your sandwiches fresh and from getting too smashed in your backpack when hiking, and the foil will allow you to cook over an open fire. Use trash bags or grocery sacks for your food waste. Dispose in one of the many bear-safe dumpsters located throughout national park campgrounds. If you’re backpacking, remember to pack out your trash and leave the area as you found it. 

The National Park Service advises drinking at least two liters of water per day. You’ll also need water to clean and cook. Pack a large collapsible water jug, which will save you space in your luggage while maximizing the amount of water you can keep with you at your campsite. 

In parks that bears frequent, food storage rules are strict. For example, at Yosemite National Park, you may store your food in your car during daylight hours as long as it’s out of sight and all the windows are up; however, all food must be stored in one of the park’s food storage lockers overnight. Bear canisters are required only for overnight hikers in Yosemite. Wherever you're headed, make sure to check with the park in advance for other specifics related to food storage and safety. 

Food Worth Packing. Freeze-dried meals. If you want a hot, home-cooked-style meal and no cleanup, bring these with you on your trip. “All you have to do is boil water and they taste amazing,” says Bekah. “Try the lasagna —  it’s cheesy!” 

Coffee addicts need not forgo a cup of morning joe. If you enjoy it, have it — you’re on vacation, after all! Plan ahead and order an instant coffee that doesn’t trade its flavor for the time it saves brewing. Try Voila’s wide variety of full-bodied roasts, or sip around five of its most flavorful with an order of the Discovery Box. 

Toiletries. Depending on the length of your trip, travel-size bottles may be a bigger hassle than they’re worth. Purchase these items when you land to save yourself the extra packing and to avoid possible leaks or running out of shampoo midtrip. Don’t forget sunscreen, either.  

Make sure to pack enough water and to hydrate so that you can stay healthy and happy while soaking up mountainous desert views like this one in Death Valley National Park. Photo by Bekah Richardson.


Fly in and Camp: Reservations and Resources 

When to Reserve Your Car and Campsite 

Reserve your car as far in advance as possible, and book your vehicle size based on the number of people and bags traveling with you. While larger families may opt for SUV rentals, smaller families could get by with midsize or standard car rentals. “Keep in mind that one to two bags will likely contain only your tent and sleeping bags, so this bag will not occupy your vehicle for long,” Bekah says.  

Many campsites are first-come, first-served. For those who plan to camp the first night, book a campsite that takes reservations. “Even if it is not your preferred campground, you can transition to a different site in the morning,” Bekah says, noting that many popular parks can fill up by 9 a.m. Or stay the first night in a hotel so you do not have to worry about flight delays or potentially setting up your tent in the dark. For your last night, consider booking a hotel near the airport. This will give you a night to get organized and take a warm shower, and returning your rental car the next day will be a cinch. 

Plan to arrive at your campsite during daylight and it will be much easier to set up your tent, as Chris Richardson demonstrates above. Photo by Bekah Richardson.


Factor Camp Resources into Your Planning 

Typically, national and state park campgrounds will include a picnic table, fire ring or grill and a bathroom with a flush or pit toilet. From there, common amenities include potable water, a dish-cleaning station, RV dump stations and hookups, showers, laundry and campground general stores. Use the National Park Service’s and state parks’ websites when selecting a campground that meets your needs. 

After flying into Los Angeles International Airport, the Richardsons picked up their rental car and set up camp at Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Bekah Richardson.


Prefer to get your camping feet wet with a little less planning? Consider staying in a lodge, in tents or teepees with cots, or by going “glamping,” a trend that encompasses a wide variety of glamorous camping vacations. Glamping is a way to see and explore the great outdoors without forgoing some of the amenities that first-time campers may not be as comfortable giving up. Learn more about glamping and then determine where you’ll fly in and camp — or glamp — on your next vacation. 

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About the Author

Lisa Zimmermann is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and native Dallasite who grew up camping in Texas and Oklahoma. She’s previously written for Boston magazine, Boston Home, Boston Weddings, The Dallas Morning News, The Jersey Journal, New England Travel and Atlas Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @lisazimm or Instagram @lzloveslife.