Hipcamp Journal

Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide


So you want to take 50 of your best friends camping? That’s awesome. Taking to the wilderness with all of your favorite people is one of the most fun and rewarding things you can do. Doing this kind of trip successfully requires some careful planning and a good bit of work, however I will tell you from experience that it IS worth the effort, every time.


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Adam Bennett


This year marked the 8th year in a row I have helped organize and execute a Memorial Day camping trip for pretty much everyone I know. Our numbers have been growing steadily every year—this year we are 75 strong. This experience, plus a myriad of other slightly less aggressive group camping excursions, has taught me valuable lessons that I am pleased to share with you.

Please keep in mind that the type of trip I am writing this guide for is all inclusive. One person, or group, is doing the planning and acquiring the site, food, communal gear etc. Your friends/guests just need to bring their personal camping/sleeping/eating gear. Doing trips this way provides a couple notable advantages:

  1. It makes it easy for your friends, no matter their experience level,
  2. It ensures that you don’t have any major busts in campsite selection, and
  3. You get much better buying power when doing shared meals.

Sure it’s easier to just book a campsite, invite a bunch of friends, and have everyone fend for themselves, and this can work fine for smaller trips. It can be divisive however and makes the classic camping blunders more likely. Meals can’t be cooked or eaten together; tents can flood (this can happen no matter how you plan the trip, but you can mitigate, see “SHELTER” below), some people might come unprepared and lead to shortage of food, or worse, beer...

Everyone is going to do their own thing during the day; some will hike, some will search out the local water features, some will nap in their hammocks, but when the sun goes down and dinner time rolls around, everyone should gather together to share the meal and stories of the day. There are few things cooler than seeing all your friends sitting at the table(s) together eating, laughing, sharing and enjoying each other’s company.

OK, there are 5 main things you need to do right to be successful (there’s actually more, but for simplicity’s sake let’s keep it to 5 categories). These 5 things you must get right, or at least mostly right, are:

  1. Assemble the right TEAM
  2. Calculate quantities and costs with a SPREADSHEET
  3. Pick the perfect LOCATION
  4. Make sure you have appropriate SHELTER
  5. Bring and cook enough FOOD

Also for the sake of this article let’s define “successful” as everyone staying mostly dry, nobody starves, no run-ins with the LAW or the MAN, and everybody has fun and wants to go on your trip again next year...


1. TEAM

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Photo by Dominic Cacciatore

Possibly the most important component to a successful large group trip is having a small group of dedicated friends to plan and execute. Unless you own a big truck and have a lot of free time, you’re going to need help gathering the supplies (Costco runs, Big 5, etc.) and transporting everything to your campsite. Split up the responsibilities into logical categories; e.g. Andrew is in charge of beer, Cara’s bringing the canopies, Joe handles the Costco run, etc.

2. SPREADSHEET

I have a spreadsheet we developed for the first Mem Day trip 8 years ago. It’s gone through many revisions and updates, and is an INVALUABLE tool for successful planning. You need to keep close track of who’s coming so you can calculate quantities. It’s also very helpful for figuring out the total cost of food, developing budgets, and keeping to them when you’re shopping. I like printing out a copy and bringing it to the store with me, checking off items and updating the cost per item as we go. I’ve found for a long weekend (3 nights) that $40-$50 per person should be sufficient for food, booze, and campsite. You can scale that however you like, and it will fluctuate depending on your campsite costs and group size, but $40/ea is a good place to start.

View, and make a copy of my spreadsheet for your own use!

3. LOCATION

The earlier you book the campsite, the better selection you will have. For 50 or more people, if you are even somewhat picky in your campsite selection (you should be, it makes all the difference) book 6 months in advance. Most Federal and CA state parks allow you to book 6 months from your arrival date. Popular weekends at the best campsites often book on the same day the reservation becomes available, and cancellation fees are usually pretty minimal, so be proactive!


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Brandon Sampson Photography


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Dominic Cacciatore


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Photo by Dominic Cacciatore


Also, know your group! If your friends are rowdy and will be loud after 10:00PM (typical campground quiet hours) consider group sites that aren’t part of larger campgrounds. There are many sites that are fantastic and basically campgrounds unto themselves. Rangers are typically kind, reasonable people, and will only come shut you down if you are (or could be) disturbing other parties. I have had multiple Rangers tell me that if we had booked the entire campground or if the other site was empty that they wouldn’t have bothered us at all.


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Photo by Adam Bennett


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Brandon Sampson Photography


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Dominic Cacciatore

Pick your location carefully. I always look at:

  1. Privacy: My friends are rowdy, so I make sure our site is as isolated as can be.
  2. Proximity to Water: Self-explanatory, why wouldn’t you want to be close to lakes, rivers, etc.?
  3. Driving Distance: 4 hours from your biggest concentration of friends is a good range to get the heck away from society without committing to days in the car. We are REALLY lucky here in the Bay that there are so many fantastic campsites in this range.
  4. Climate: Make sure everyone is aware of and prepares for all weather possibilities. I have had friends show up to campsites at 7000’ elevation, in May, with nothing more than hammer-pants PJ’s and light sweatshirts.
  5. Amenities: When bringing 50 or so people, you are inevitably going to get some less experienced campers. Make sure your site has bathrooms and running water.

For finding and booking your campsite, unfortunately you still have to jump through some hoops. I use Hipcamp, reserveamerica.com, and recreation.gov to find and book my sites. Hipcamp shows me the most photos and best variety of sites available since they pull from more than state and federal databases, but you still have to go through the gov contractor’s website to book. Additionally, Goog Earth is a GREAT tool for checking out the topography and landscape of sites once you have a few on the shortlist.

4. FOOD

Feeding 50 for a few days takes a massive quantity of food, but the combined buying power of a large group allows you to provide gourmet meals for minimal cost. Costco is key. You can also look into local commercial markets for bulk items. There’s a commercial produce market in the warehouse area of Jack London Square that will sell you cases of veggies for a fraction of what you’d pay at the store. I am continually surprised how easily, and how well, you can feed people with this method. For $50/person I can provide three square meals a day, all the beer you can drink, and the campsite, for three days and three nights. That’s $16/person/day for everything; try to spend less than that on your average weekend in the City!


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Photo by Dominic Cacciatore


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Dominic Cacciatore


You need to thoughtfully choose your meals. Again, knowing your crew is crucial. I always provide a vegetarian option; with some meals this is pretty easy to incorporate without changing the whole menu. For really large groups I recommend meals that you can cook on a charcoal BBQ or in one or two large pots (“Big Pot” method).

Some of our dinner favorites include pasta with red sauce, chili, tacos, tri-tip or sausage sandwiches with peppers, baked taters (tin foil and into the fire!) and roasted vegetables, big salads, etc.

You likely will have plenty of helping hands chopping and prepping, especially if you leave the keg in the kitchen area, so don’t be daunted by large amounts of prep work. Focus on simple meals with a smallish number of ingredients, and if you’re getting really savvy, try to plan so you can use some of the same ingredients for multiple meals. Dinner is most commonly the meal where everyone eats together. I’ve found that lunches and breakfasts are best handled by providing a range of options and letting people assemble and cook for themselves. People’s routines, schedules, and tastes vary widely for these two meals, so it’s good to provide a variety of options, from fruit to cold cuts to eggs.


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Photo by Adam Bennett



Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Dominic Cacciatore


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Adam Bennett

Transporting and storing all this food can be a challenge; small covered trailers or SUV’s dedicated to this cause make it easy to keep your pantry protected from squirrels, rain, insects, etc. Just make sure the guy with the keys doesn’t disappear for a few hours in the middle of the day…


5. SHELTER

One of the basic human needs is shelter, but we don’t often think about it until we’re outside for an extended period. The important thing is keeping everyone dry and comfortable. Know the experience level of your group. If you are going somewhere with the potential for rain/snow, make sure it is EXTREMELY obvious to your crew that they will need a good tent with a rainfly, extra tarps and rope, boots, jackets, and extra socks (socks count as shelter).


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Photo via Adam Bennett


That said, someone is going to forget their stuff (I forgot my sleeping bag the first Mem Day trip…remembered everything else though!) so I recommend bringing a “Party Tent”. We used my parents’ old 8-person tent for many years; it was an invaluable safe haven whenever someone’s tent flooded or they forgot/broke their gear. We’ve since graduated/upgraded to a “Party Teepee” (see photo). Also if you’re expecting rain it may be a good idea to walk through the campground and make sure no one’s set up their tent in a dry creekbed…friends don’t let friends pitch in shallow depressions.


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Dominic Cacciatore


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Adam Bennett


Big Group Camping: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Photo by Adam Bennett

Conclusion

So to recap, there are 5 big things to think about when planning your trip.

1. Make sure you have a TEAM of friends to help you go to the store and transport your food and gear to your campsite.

2. Know how many people are coming and calculate your food and drink quantities and costs with a SPREADSHEET.

3. Use all the interweb tools to choose a LOCATION that is appropriate to your group’s size and temperament.

4. Provide simple “Big Pot” or grillable meals that will accommodate and satiate everybody. Shop for your FOOD at Costco or local commercial markets. Keep your pantry in an enclosed space to protect it from rain and critters.

5. Look out for you less experienced campers and bring some backup SHELTER, just in case.

Covering these basics of big group camping will help to ensure everybody stays dry, stays fed, and enjoys themselves. Every group and every campsite is different, so over time you’ll find out what works best for you. Being in charge of a large trip can be stressful and a lot of work, but if you plan properly and have a good team to execute, you’ll find that once at the campsite everything gets taken care of and you can enjoy yourself along with your guests.

A truly successful trip is one where everybody pitches in, has fun, and feels like they were an essential part of something larger than themselves. It’s an experience you’re helping to facilitate, and doing it well allows your friends to enjoy themselves, each other, and the wilderness without worry or hardship. I hope these tips will be helpful; have fun out there!


C:\Users\cacciatored\Dropbox\Hipcamp Article\Teepee Magic.jpg

Photo by Brandon Sampson Photography

Title photo by Brandon Simpson Photography

Words by Dominic Cacciatore

Dominic is an unreasonably lucky Bay Area native, construction enthusiast, and lover of the outdoors and his beautiful black guitar, Veronica. He can be found cooking Italian food for his family (which is HUGE) and bugging out to the woods at every opportunity.

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