Camping in the Midwest

Camping in the Midwest: What You'll Need, What You'll Want

Here's what you might need (and want!) for camping in the Midwest.

When most people think of the Midwestern United States, they don't really think of fabulous camping. There are no mountains, just a few National Parks, and a sort of "seem one, seen them all" feel to the various states of Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and the others that make up the Midwest.

Those are all great states for stuff having to do with the outdoors, but most are associated with hunting or fishing rather than camping. But actually, the Midwest is a hidden gem when it comes to sleeping outdoors. Today we're going to tell you what you need to make your camping trip here a success.

This is what you'll need, and what you'll likely want, on a trip up here.

A good tent

Camping in the Midwest

Travis Smola

You can probably skip past this part if you're planning to come here with a travel trailer or other recreational vehicle that you plan to simply park at the nearest RV park, National Forest, or State Park Campground. There is certainly no shortage of places like that with full-service hookups for anyone who doesn't want to rough it.

But for those that do, a good tent is a must. The weather in the Midwest can shift on a dime. Here in Michigan, we like to joke that you can experience all four seasons in an afternoon. Especially if you're hanging out near one of the Great Lakes. That lakeside near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore may be gorgeous during the day. At night it may turn freezing cold due to the ever-shifting weather conditions off Lake Michigan. A sandy beach can quickly become a winter wonderland at certain times of the year.

A good waterproof tent that stakes down well and has a good rainfly is a must. I always put my rainfly on, because even if the weather is calling for clear skies, you never know what it'll bring. A sudden Midwestern downpour can quickly turn a tent into a water park if you're not prepared.

A heater and fan (Yes, both!)

Camping in the Midwest

Travis Smola

Most people who come to camp in the Midwest come during the summer months and if you're utilizing RV sites, it's not a bad idea to have both in camp. You may think you're good with just a fan in Indiana Dunes State Park in July. But trust me, I've camped in the Midwest my whole life. If your camping site offers electricity, take advantage of it. For RV camping enthusiasts, it is much easier to deal with the elements here in the Midwest.

For campers looking for a tenting getaway, it is best to be prepared. I'll never forget the time I went camping in Mackinaw City, Michigan in June and woke up freezing in the middle of the night. I thought I was safe from cold weather at that time of the year, but it was just the opposite. So, if you have the room, bring them both.

A good backpack (around 45L)

Camping in the Midwest

Travis Smola

There aren't a ton of opportunities for backcountry-style camping in the Midwest. In most instances you can get by with a backpack of around 45L, because most campsites aren't more than a day down the hiking trails.

There are exceptions of course. You might want a bigger bag for Isle Royale National Park located in a remote part of Lake Superior.

But for a simple two-or-three-day jaunt in a recreation area in Missouri or hike to the primitive sites in Ohio's Hocking Hills State Park? You should be good with a 45L bag. You're seldom going to be too far from civilization, but you don't want to be under-prepared either.

Don't underestimate the Midwest. The camping here can be as easy or as rough as you make it, depending on your decisions. Make sure you make the right ones.

Multiple pairs of footwear

We don't really have any mountains in the Midwest, unless you count the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan's U.P., or the Black Hills in South Dakota. Otherwise, the steepest terrain you'll likely encounter is some sand dunes. And if you're counting Kansas and Nebraska as part of the Midwest, as some do, you'll notice most of it is flat.

But we do have a variety of different terrain conditions that can destroy footwear. Michigan is very wet and it's easy to soak a pair of hiking boots or shoes here, even on the bike trails. You don't want to come camping with just a pair of sandals. One cold night will have you running to the nearest Wal-Mart for a proper pair of shoes.

If you're going to do miles of hiking, don't skimp just because our terrain is mostly flat.

I usually take water shoes, hiking boots, and pair of tennis shoes with me when I camp, because I never know what the situation will dictate when I wake up each morning.

A boat and fishing gear

Camping in the Midwest

Travis Smola

Boating in the Midwest is second to none. It doesn't matter if you're camping in Ohio along the shore of Lake Erie, or settled into a quiet spot on one of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes. We have a lot of water here, and having a boat, kayak, or canoe while camping will help you enjoy it even more.

We have world-class fishing here in the Midwest, too, in case you didn't know. What better way to enjoy a camp dinner than eating something you caught fresh from the nearest lake or stream?

Oh, and for the kids who always complain about having to have a swimming pool on vacation, no worries, places like Ludington State Park offer both Great Lakes and nearby rivers to jump in and cool off on those hot summer days.

Rain gear and extra clothes

Have I pounded it into your head enough about how quickly the weather changes here? No? Well, here's another recommendation, especially if you are planning a backpacking trip to some remote tent sites.

Bring rain gear, even if the forecast is clear. Seriously, the weather forecasters are terrible, just like they are everywhere else. It's better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it, I always say.

I also highly recommend that hikers, biking, and kayaking enthusiasts keep that extra clothing in a dry bag for when you need it. You'll thank me later.

A warm sleeping bag

The Midwest can be deceptive. It can be a perfect 75 degrees during the day, and then freezing cold at night.

I play it safe and bring the warmest sleeping bag I possibly can. Worst case scenario, I end up sleeping on top of it because it's too warm. But if it's the other way around, I'm glad I have it on a cold night.

Bug spray

This is a biggie. I love camping in Northern Michigan in June and July, but holy cow are the bugs vicious that time of year! They can and they will eat you up. And it's not just those months either.

I once camped in Wisconsin in mid-August and wasn't sure if I was going to make it home alive the mosquitoes were so vicious. So, bug spray, citronella candles, anti-bug lanterns and more are all essentials. I have had similar experiences in places like Iowa and Illinois. Trust me, if you don't bring them, you'll be wishing you did.

It is much easier to enjoy the natural beauty of places like Devil's Lake or the Missouri River while canoeing when you are not getting carted away by bird-sized bloodsuckers. We are only slightly exaggerating the size of these pests. 


The Midwest isn't nearly as wild and remote as, say, the Rocky Mountains. But just because our natural areas are smaller is no reason to let your guard down.

It's very easy to get turned around in any wooded area. Don't come into a hike-in camping trip over-confident just because it's the Midwest. Every year, people underestimate places like Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes and must be rescued because they didn't realize what a challenge hiking those dunes can be.

So, don't take things for granted. Make sure you have a good map and compass or GPS unit to help you find your way out if you get turned around. I use a Garmin 62s myself these days. Whatever you use, make sure it has good topo maps!

A sense of adventure

Camping in the Midwest

Travis Smola

Sure, the Midwest doesn't have huge mountain ranges or spectacular gorges like many western states. But there is a lot to see and experience on a camping trip here for those willing to seek out and discover them.

Whether that is a trip down the miles of trails or a simple camping/fishing trip on the banks of the Mississippi River, you are sure to find some outdoor memories to last a lifetime in the Midwest!

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For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels