You’ve bought your tent, figured out how to put it up, and chosen your destination.
Now you need to do your homework, and find out some information about the place you plan to camp, so that you can be sure to take what you need.
Will you have access to grocery stores? If so, you can plan to pack only a day or two worth of meats and perishables and replace as you go. Otherwise, you’ll need to more carefully plan your food. (Often you’ll find a campground store nearby that sells a LOT of essentials that people forget to pack, from salt to spatulas to mustard, but may not carry chicken breasts. These stores are often very pricey too, so unless you have easy access to a regular grocery store, you may want to pack as if you have to take it all yourself.)
What kinds of wildlife are you likely to encounter? If there are bears, you need to plan where you’re going to store your coolers — many times a locked car is recommended. However, in places like Yosemite, it is illegal to store your food (or any item with a smell) in your car — food lockers must be used. Above all, you must not keep food in your tent. The bears may raid your tent, and you cannot rely on your presence inside the tent to keep them out. Humans, food, and bears are a dangerous combination.
Are fires allowed? And are there places provided to build them? If not, you need to make sure you know how to build one safely and keep it contained. And are you allowed to collect firewood? If not, you will need to bring it in if you want a fire. If you are, a hatchet may be handy if you know how to use it.
Is electric service provided nearby? If so, you can take an electric floodlight and other amenities. I’ve seen people bring an electric coffee maker camping! If not, make sure you have lanterns and will be able to keep them fueled (extra batteries, fuel, mantles, etc.).
Are you allowed to bring in a grill, or are grills provided? You’ll need to know if this is a method you can cook your food, and what you need to bring yourself.
Are there sanitary facilities, and if so, what kind? Either way, you may wish to bring tissue. If you’re going completely in the wild, you’ll need something to turn over the soil and should bring biodegradable tissue. You will also want to find out if showers are available. If there are outdoor spigots somewhere, those can come in very handy for cleaning off your equipment as you go.
Speaking of which, you want to find out what kind of access to water you will have, if any. You may wish to bring in your own drinking water anyway, but if you will need water for washing dishes and keeping clean, that will greatly increase the amount of water you’ll need to bring.
How close will you be able to get your vehicle to the campsite? You want to know this before you plan to bring lots of heavy items to your campsite if you’re not going to be able to drive up. Something with wheels might come in handy then.
Make sure you know the procedures for checking in, checking out, payment, any pet policies if you’re bringing your pets, and camp area rules (such as noise curfews).
What sort of temperature variations are you expecting when you plan to be there? Sometimes nighttime temperatures can drop far below daytime temps. Are there any special weather precautions you should be aware of?
Sometimes there are special rules like chain requirements. Even if there are no current icy conditions, you may be required to have chains in your possession (even for a rental car or 4-wheel drive) in some parks. These requirements can be in place as early as September or as late as May. If you don’t have chains when you are required to have them, you may face a stiff penalty and be required to purchase them on the spot (sometimes waiting for a tow truck to deliver them) which can amount to a very high cost.
And it’s a good idea to ask if there is anything else you should know before you come. Some campsites have particular considerations that you won’t realize until you get there. If you know experienced campers who have been there before, they would be a good source. You would also do well to talk to the rangers or other authorities for the campsite … they are usually very interested in making sure everything goes smoothly for everyone.