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How to Plan a Spontaneous Camping Trip with Your Dog

How to Plan a Spontaneous Camping Trip with Your Dog

One of the main reasons we enjoy camping trips so much, aside from our love of sleeping outdoors snuggled in our sleeping bags in the tent, is because they are almost always dog-friendly. Most campgrounds welcome dogs and, unlike hotels, rarely have pet fees.

Unless we are camping with a large group of friends or over a long weekend holiday, we don’t generally spend a lot of time planning camping trips. More often than not, the idea hits us late in the week, or even on Friday when we’re done working for the day.

All you need to head off for a spontaneous overnight excursion is a bit of organization. In this guide, we share our best tips to help you collect your gear and hit the road for an overnight outdoor adventure just about any time the idea strikes.

Sora in the tent

Finding Last Minute Dog-Friendly Camping

There are a couple tricks to finding good camping spots at the last minute. The first and most important is simply to avoid popular campgrounds that require planning months in advance.

We learned our lesson one summer trying to find camping along the Oregon Coast. After being shut out of several full campgrounds, we ventured inland and discovered Mary’s Peak near Corvallis. In the end, we were glad to have not found anything on the coast, because we practically had the campground to ourselves.

National Parks are another place we avoid for the very reason that they are not very dog-friendly and attract large crowds. Yes, some allow dogs on limited trails, but for us, it’s not worth the entry fee if we can’t really see what the park has to offer. 

National Forest & BLM Lands

Since we prefer to camp away from others and we always bring our dogs, we generally opt for National Forest and BLM lands. You can often even get away with visiting some of the more remote areas on a whim even during busy weekends, if you’re open to a longer road trip.

The majority of the 440 million acres of these public lands are largely dog-friendly. One huge bonus is that once you’re away from the crowds, many permit dogs to roam off leash. However, it’s important to be aware of trail dangers like rattlesnakes and bears depending on where you are visiting.

Public lands generally require minimal fees for staying in established campgrounds.  Keep in mind that they tend to have more rustic campsites if you manage to find a campground. So, plan for a more backcountry camping experience. That means there is likely no running water, toilets, trash, picnic tables, or other facilities.

A second bonus is that it’s easy to camp for free on most National Forest and BLM lands, provided you follow these rules:

  • Camp outside of established campgrounds
  • Most observe a 14-day limit to staying in one location, some permit longer periods

What you get in return is a quiet place to sleep, all to yourself and you don’t have to hear the neighbors playing their terrible music until 11 pm. Please keep in mind that you must be extra diligent about your responsibilities to Leave No Trace

Here are a couple planning resources to get you started:

County & State Parks

Depending on where you live, lesser known or more remote county and state parks may also have last-minute availability. A perk with camping in a developed camping area is that they tend to offer a variety of activities to do during your stay.

State parks tend to be more popular with families and louder groups, I’ve found, so we opt for smaller ones that may not attract the same crowds.

Buy an Annual Parks Pass

Consider purchasing an annual parks pass for the region in which you live so that you never have to think about where you can go based on fees. If you have the pass, then you can just show up and not worry about doing the research or stopping along the way to find a place that sells the permits.

REI carries park passes for several areas throughout the country. If you live in Washington or northern Oregon for example, you’ll definitely want a Northwest Forest Pass and possibly a Discover Pass.

Create an Ongoing List of Camping Spots

I still love physical hiking guide books. I pour through them to find and note hikes that I want to do. They contain information that would take me hours to find were I to search on my own online. Guide books also point out nearby camping spots and places to imbibe after a long day outdoors in nature. Most importantly, they allow me to create a list of places I want to go, so when we decide we’d like to go on a last-minute camping trip, we have something to which we can refer.

Another great place to get ideas is on social media. I know, I know social media has ruined nature for everyone. Except that’s not always true. When a friend posts a photo in some beautiful area and I want to make a note to travel there someday, I reach with a direct message and ask if they will divulge the location. If I have a relationship with the person, more often than not, they are happy to share.

I save the photo to a folder called “Places to Visit” on my Instagram account, so I can easily refer back to the location and remember the account to look up the information later.

Regional Facebook groups are also goldmines for off the beaten path camping spots located near the activities you want to do. I am a member of several different ones all over the world and have found incredible value in the collective knowledge.

Paddle boarding with a dog.

Planning your Camping Trip Based on Outdoor Recreation Activities

Before selecting your campsite destination, decide what you want to do nearby. If you want to paddleboard or kayak, look for camping near lakes and rivers and know how far you will have to carry your board or boat to the water. Prefer to set up house near running or hiking trails? Do your research to find some epic trails. We use our favorite mapping tool Maps.ME to find trails near camping spots. I bookmark them directly on the app so I remember where they are.

If you need ideas for activities, I created the 52-Week Adventure Dog Challenge for this very purpose!

Keep Your Camping Gear Organized

Locating and packing up all of your gear before going on a trip can take a lot of time and deter you from getting out into the wild too easily.

We store all of our camping gear in Rubbermaid 14-gallon Ruffneck Totes. One contains all of the dog gear, another the human gear, and third our camp stove and other cooking gear. 

Not only does this keep us organized and ready to hit the road when the fancy strikes, it also prevents the likelihood of forgetting some crucial item. All that is left to do is pack the dog food and plan a trip to the grocery store for our own meals.

I’ve even done an overnight backpacking trip on a whim. I was able to leave around 2pm simply because I had all of my gear already organized and ready to go. All I had to do was transfer it from the bin to my backpack and head out the door.

Check out the go-to dog camping gear items that we always bring on any trip.

Meal Planning

The part that requires the most time for impromptu camping trips is food. If you need some easy meal ideas, you can try some of the recipes I’ve created for Fresh off the Grid (among the hundreds of others they have available on their site). 

It’s a good idea to plan your meals before you leave the house so that you don’t experience deer in headlights syndrome when you arrive at the grocery store. Create a list and stick to it so that you can be in and out of the store and on your way to your destination.

My favorite camping meals are soups because they require just one pot, little attention, and there are often leftovers the following day.

Plan a spontaneous camping trip with your dog.