If you’re new to camping and feeling unsure about where to start, you’re in the right place! Many first-timers can easily become overwhelmed while planning their debut adventure. With this beginner’s camping guide, we’ll teach you everything you need to know, from choosing the location of your first camping trip to selecting the right gear and ensuring your safety in the great outdoors. Camping offers a fantastic opportunity to break free from your daily routine and immerse yourself in nature. Let’s jump in!
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A Beginner’s Guide to Camping
For beginners, spending a night in the wilderness may seem overwhelming, but fear not. We’re here to provide you with a comprehensive list of camping tips that will guide you through the process. In this camping guide, you’ll find valuable advice on camp cooking, getting a good night’s sleep, and maintaining cleanliness when you’re camping. While camping is a lifelong learning process and you certainly won’t master it on your first trip, by the end of this post, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge and confidence to venture out safely. Here are the most useful things to know for camping beginners!
Types of Camping
Camping can be generally categorized into a few different types, with the two main ones being car camping and backpack camping. Let’s explore these categories along with glamping, RV camping, and base camping to see which one is right for you.
Car camping involves setting up your campsite near your vehicle and is the most common type of camping. This allows you to conveniently store your supplies and even sleep in your car if desired. Car camping campsites typically provide designated areas, often called tent pads, where you can pitch your tent. These sites may also include amenities such as picnic tables, fire pits, restrooms, shower facilities, and bear lockers for storing food and other items securely.
Glamping and RV Camping
On the other end of the spectrum, glamping and RV camping offer a more luxurious and less rugged camping experience. Glamping, short for glamorous camping, typically involves pre-set campsites where large tents, yurts, or even cabins are ready for your arrival. This can be arranged through platforms like Airbnb, where you can rent out these well-equipped accommodations. Glamping provides a comfortable and stylish camping experience without needing to set up a tent or bring extensive camping gear.
RV camping, as the name suggests, involves sleeping in a recreational vehicle such as a motor home, travel trailer, or camper van. This type of camping offers the convenience of having a mobile home with amenities like beds, a kitchen, and bathroom facilities. Most RV campsites have hookups for electricity and water, so you don’t have to worry about running out.
Tip: Book a campground well in advance, just like you would a hotel. All national park camping reservations are done through Recreation.gov. You can create an account and save your payment preferences, so all you have to do is add a campsite to your cart when the reservation window opens.
Base camping involves carrying your necessary gear in a backpack and hiking a few miles to reach your campsite. This campsite serves as a home base for the duration of your trip. From there, you can embark on day trips and hikes to explore the surrounding area while returning to your base camp each night.
Backpacking takes camping to the next level by incorporating hiking and exploration. During a backpacking trip, you pack up your camping gear in the morning and hike to a new campsite. This allows you to cover a larger area and experience several locations during your trip. Backpacking is particularly suitable for adventures during which it takes more than a day to reach your final destination. Backpackers often use backcountry passes in the national parks. This type of camping is generally reserved for people with ample experience, some survival skills, and professional equipment.
Primitive camping takes place at an established campground that has little to no facilities. While there are designated spots to set up a tent, a primitive campground is unlikely to have restrooms or running water.
Dispersed camping is also referred to as free camping, wild camping, or boondocking. This is where you find your own free site on public lands and camp. Not all parks allow dispersed camping, but it is allowed on Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service lands. This one is best reserved for experienced campers who have survival experience and more professional gear.
Where Should Beginners Camp?
For beginners, it’s recommended to start with camping in your own backyard. This allows you to practice setting up a tent and sleeping outdoors while having the convenience of your home nearby. Backyard camping is a great way to familiarize yourself with the gear and experience of sleeping in a tent before venturing further.
After gaining some confidence from backyard camping, the next step for beginners is car camping. Car camping allows you to bring more supplies and provides shelter in case of rain or other unexpected situations. It still provides the experience of sleeping outdoors in a tent while offering the convenience and security of having a car nearby.
When choosing a location for car camping, traditional campsites such as state parks or national parks and KOA campgrounds are recommended for beginners. These locations typically have park staff or rangers available, running water, bathroom facilities, paved trails, and a community of fellow campers. This provides a supportive and structured environment in which beginners can feel comfortable and learn from experienced campers.
Once you feel comfortable and have gained some experience at traditional campgrounds, you can consider trying dispersed camping. In dispersed camping, you drive to a backcountry location and set up your campsite near your car. This allows for a more secluded and wild camping experience but still provides the security of having your vehicle nearby. It’s important to be well-prepared and knowledgeable about the backcountry environment before attempting dispersed camping.
Tip: For your first trip, I recommend finding close-to-home campgrounds that are within 100 miles, perfect for a 1-2 night camping adventure.
When to Camp
Camping can be done at any time of year with the right gear, but for beginners, moderate temperatures are often more comfortable and manageable. The timing of your camping trip will depend on your location and the specific climate in that area. Generally, spring and fall are considered the best seasons for camping, each offering its own advantages and challenges.
A wonderful time to go camping is in spring when the weather starts to warm up. You’ll be able to enjoy nature coming back to life. One advantage of camping in the spring is that there tend to be fewer insects compared to other seasons. However, keep in mind that temperatures can still be cool, especially at higher elevations. If you plan to camp in the fall, be aware of evening temperatures, which can drop significantly as the season progresses. You also may experience more rain at this time.
While camping in winter can be a unique and rewarding experience, it requires specialized gear and knowledge to stay warm and safe in cold conditions. For first-time campers, winter camping is not recommended unless you live in a very mild climate. When planning your camping trip, it’s important to check the local weather forecast and be prepared for any changes in temperature or weather conditions. To ensure you get a good first impression, postpone your campout if the weather forecast is awful.
Tent Camping Essentials
As a beginner camper, camping gear may seem intimidating, especially when you’re starting from scratch. To make the process easier for you, we’ll provide a step-by-step guide on the right gear you need and the suggested order in which to invest in it.
However, before diving into choosing camping gear, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions:
- Do I plan to share a tent with anyone, including pets? This will help you determine the size and capacity of the tent you need.
- Do I plan on expanding my camping skills and eventually venturing into other types of camping, such as backpacking? This will impact the type of gear you should prioritize, as backpacking gear is generally more lightweight and compact.
Budget tip: To keep your initial investment low, a practical strategy is to consider borrowing or renting the more expensive items, such as the tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads. This allows you to try out different gear without committing to a purchase right away. Many outdoor gear rental companies offer a wide range of camping equipment for rent. As a result, you can try out different brands and models before making a significant investment.
When it comes to camping, a tent is indeed the most crucial piece of equipment to invest in. Once you’ve decided you do like camping and have tried out a few borrowed or rented tents, invest in a high-quality option. For general camping purposes, a three-season tent is suitable—it provides adequate protection during spring, summer, and fall conditions.
When selecting a tent, we recommend opting for a slightly larger size than what you actually need. For instance, if you plan to have two people sleeping in the tent, consider getting a three-person tent. The extra space provided by a larger tent can greatly enhance your comfort and overall camping experience. You’ll have more room to store gear and move around. Plus, you’ll avoid that claustrophobic feeling. Having a larger tent also comes in handy during inclement weather when you may be confined to your tent for extended periods. It allows you to have some extra space to relax, read, or play games, making your camping trip more enjoyable. However, keep in mind that larger tents may be heavier and bulkier to transport. Consider the size and weight of the tent when making your selection, especially if you plan on backpacking or hiking to your campsite.
When choosing a tent, there are a few additional features to consider that can change the game. Checking the tent’s peak height is important if you prefer a tent in which you can stand up comfortably. This feature can make tasks such as getting dressed and moving around inside the tent much easier. Having vestibules outside the tent doors is a convenient feature for storing muddy shoes, wet gear, or other items you don’t want to bring inside the main sleeping area. Tents with multiple doors offer the advantage of easier access, especially when camping with others. Having two doors allows you to enter and exit the tent without disturbing or climbing over tentmates, which can be particularly helpful for late-night bathroom breaks or early-morning departures.
Practice setting up your tent at home before your camping trip. This gives you the opportunity to become familiar with the tent’s assembly process, ensuring a smoother setup at the campsite. It also provides a chance to waterproof the tent before your trip. Give it a couple good coats of a high-quality spray, focusing on the seams. Don’t forget to invest in a properly sized footprint for your tent. A footprint is a ground sheet that goes underneath your tent to provide extra protection for the tent floor. It acts as a barrier against moisture, rocks, and rough terrain, extending the lifespan of your tent.
2. Sleeping Bag
The second most important gear item to invest in is a sleeping bag, which is crucial for keeping you warm and comfortable during camping trips. When selecting a sleeping bag, it’s recommended to choose one that is filled with down insulation, as it provides excellent warmth and compressibility.
Down-filled sleeping bags are highly effective at trapping body heat, making them suitable for colder temperatures. However, it’s important to consider the temperature rating of the sleeping bag and choose one that is appropriate for the expected conditions of your camping trips. The only downside to the down is that it does not do well in wet conditions.
Synthetic insulation is typically made of polyester. The synthetic fill is quick-drying and insulates even if wet (something down struggles to do). It also tends to be less expensive than down insulation, and it’s durable and hypoallergenic. The main problem is it tends to be heavier than the down and doesn’t last as long.
It’s worth considering the size, weight, and packability of the sleeping bag, especially if you plan on backpacking or hiking to your camping destination. Look for a sleeping bag that is lightweight and compressible, which allows for easy transportation and storage.
3. Sleeping Pad
A sleeping pad serves two important purposes: providing cushioning and adding insulation between you and the ground to keep you warm. When selecting a sleeping pad, it’s helpful to consider the pad’s R-value. The R-value measures the insulation and thermal resistance of the pad. As a beginner, a sleeping pad with an R-value of around 2 to 2.5 should be sufficient for most camping conditions.
For tent campers, we recommend choosing an inflatable pad that offers more cushioning. This type of pad provides additional comfort and support for your back while you sleep, ensuring a more restful night. The extra cushioning can make a noticeable difference, especially if you’re camping for multiple nights or you’re on uneven terrain.
It’s worth noting that sleeping pad preferences can vary from person to person. Some individuals prefer a softer pad, while others may prefer a firmer one. It’s a good idea to try out different options and read reviews to find a sleeping pad that suits your personal comfort preferences.
When camping, it’s important to bring your own lighting since campsites typically don’t have built-in lights. A flashlight is a basic option that provides a focused beam of light. It’s suitable for personal use and can come in handy for nighttime bathroom runs.
A headlamp is a versatile lighting solution that allows you to have hands-free lighting. It straps around your head, providing a beam of light wherever you look. This is particularly useful for tasks that require both hands, such as setting up the tent, cooking, or navigating around the campsite in the dark.
A lantern is an excellent choice for ambient lighting in your campsite. It provides a soft, diffused light that illuminates a larger area. Lanterns are great for creating a cozy and well-lit atmosphere for playing games, reading, or simply enjoying the surroundings. There are various options available, including traditional gas-powered lanterns and battery-powered LED lanterns.
5. Camp Stove
A camp stove is an essential item for cooking meals and preparing hot beverages. A classic two-burner propane camp stove is a versatile option that can meet most cooking needs. It allows you to cook multiple dishes simultaneously and provides consistent heat for efficient cooking. Two burners also give you the flexibility to cook breakfast and brew your morning coffee at the same time.
Propane camp stoves are generally affordable and widely available, making them a popular choice for campers. Make sure to bring at least a couple of fuel canisters for your stove, depending on the duration of your camping trip. It’s always a good idea to have extra fuel on hand. Additionally, bring a reliable lighter or matches to ignite the stove. Consider testing the stove at home before your camping trip to ensure you’re familiar with its operation.
6. Food Storage
A cooler is an essential item for keeping your perishable food and beverages cold during your camping trip. If you already have a cooler, it will likely work just fine for your camping needs. Take a look at its capacity to ensure it has enough space to hold your perishable food items and any beverages you want to keep cold.
Check the insulation quality of your cooler to ensure it retains cold temperatures effectively. Some coolers have better insulation properties than others, which can help prolong the cooling duration. If needed, consider investing in ice packs or reusable ice substitutes to help maintain the desired temperature for longer periods.
When it comes to kitchen gear for camping, it’s important to bring everything necessary for food preparation and consumption. Gather pots and pans suitable for cooking meals over a camp stove or fire. Use durable, lightweight plates, cups, a few mugs, and utensils specifically designed for camping. Consider using reusable sporks (combination spoon and fork) to save space and minimize waste. Remember to pack cleaning supplies for washing dishes.
Having a separate washtub for dirty and clean dishes helps keep things organized and hygienic. It’s helpful to pack all your kitchen gear in a large, clear plastic bin with a lid. This makes it easy to store the equipment at home and keeps everything ready for your next camping trip. Additionally, with a transparent bin, you can quickly see the contents—finding everything for your trip won’t have to be too much of a struggle!
8. Camp Chairs
Camp chairs are optional, but having a comfortable place to sit can greatly enhance your camping experience. While picnic tables are available at many campsites, having your own chair gives you the freedom to choose where you want to sit and relax, whether it’s by the campfire, at the lake, or some other scenic spot.
Opting for a camp chair with a mesh design offers certain advantages. Mesh chairs allow water to drain easily, which is helpful if they get wet from rain, sweat, or morning dew.
Optional but enjoyable, if you’re looking for the ultimate relaxation spot, consider bringing a hammock. Hammocks are perfect for afternoon naps or simply lounging and enjoying the outdoors. They provide a comfortable and soothing experience, allowing you to sway and unwind amidst nature.
Before You Leave Home
When preparing for your first camping trip, it’s important to create a “load out” regardless of your experience level. To stay organized, make a physical packing list, and tick off items as you pack them. Lay out all your supplies on the floor, and verify them against your packing list. When loading your car, think strategically. Avoid burying essential items like your tent and water beneath non-essential items. Plan your load so that you can easily access crucial supplies, especially in low-light situations.
Safety is paramount when camping. Choose your location in advance, and familiarize yourself with the route. Keep a paper map as a backup in case of phone battery loss or lack of signal. Make sure you know where to find water, and inform someone of your camping plans, including your expected return. Regardless of the camping style, ensure you have the ten essential items: navigation tools, headlamp, sun protection, first aid kit, knife, fire-starting supplies, shelter, food, water, and clothes. These essentials are also recommended by the National Park Service.
When camping, embrace getting a little dirty, and choose clothing that can withstand outdoor activities. Avoid bringing delicate or high-maintenance clothing items that may not hold up well in the great outdoors. Choose fabrics that are durable, quick-dry, and comfortable. Cotton is generally not recommended for camping attire, especially when it comes to moisture management. Wet cotton can make you feel cold and uncomfortable, even in mild weather. Instead, choose moisture-wicking and quick-drying fabrics like synthetic blends or merino wool, which help regulate body temperature and keep you comfortable.
Even in warm destinations, nighttime temperatures can drop, so it’s important to pack layers. Depending on your area, consider bringing a down coat, long underwear, gloves, a beanie, and warm socks. Layering allows you to adjust your clothing according to temperature changes throughout the day. Pack a lightweight rain jacket or shell to protect you from unexpected showers or inclement weather.
Choose sensible and sturdy shoes that provide support and protection for your feet during outdoor adventures. Look for hiking boots, trail shoes, or hiking sandals that offer traction and durability. Additionally, pack a pair of slip-on shoes or sandals for convenience during midnight bathroom breaks, when using campsite showers, or for relaxing around the campfire.
When packing for your camping trip, include essential items such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, prescription medications, and hygiene products. While you can bring bandages and medicines from home, it’s recommended to have a pre-packaged first aid kit in a compact case so that you’re well prepared for injuries or emergencies.
Protecting yourself from the sun and insects is crucial during outdoor activities. Pack sunscreen with a high SPF to shield your skin from harmful UV rays. Additionally, bring insect repellent to ward off mosquitoes and other biting insects. Consider choosing a repellent with DEET if you will be near water or deep in the woods.
Campground bathrooms may run out of supplies, so it’s best to bring your own hygiene items. Pack soap, toilet paper, and a small towel to ensure you have the essentials for personal hygiene. Keeping your hands clean is important, especially when handling food or after using the restroom. Pack hand sanitizer to maintain proper hygiene in your kitchen area and when access to soap and water is limited.
Meal Planning for Camping
When it comes to camping meals, simplicity is key for a smooth and enjoyable experience. If you’re an accomplished chef, you can certainly get creative with your campfire cooking. However, keep in mind that simple meal preparations are often more convenient while camping.
Consider doing a basic meal plan, even if it’s just outlining the main meals for each day. You have various options for food, including boxed or canned entrees and side dishes, fresh food, or a combination of all. Choose foods that are easy to prepare and require minimal cooking equipment, like hotdogs or hamburgers. Don’t forget to pack plenty of snacks to keep you energized throughout the day, and be sure to bring the fixings for s’mores!
Bring plenty of water or a water bottle with a filter to minimize waste. If coffee or tea is a must-have for you, there are different options to consider. Instant coffee or tea bags are convenient choices that require minimal equipment. Alternatively, you can bring a stovetop percolator or teakettle for a more traditional brewing experience.
Critters at campgrounds are known to raid unattended food and garbage. To prevent unwanted encounters, ensure that you dispose of waste appropriately. Use a bin to store your food, and seal it tightly whenever you’re away from camp. At night, lock the bin in your vehicle for added security. In bear country, be sure to check the local regulations, as there might be designated food lockers or guidelines to follow to prevent bear interactions.
Finally, keep in mind that most campgrounds have set quiet hours. Campers are expected to put out campfires and lights and keep noise levels down after a certain time. Respect these hours. Only set up camp in your area, and avoid walking through the middle of other campsites. When you’re done camping, leave no trace, which means leave the campground as good or better than you found it.
Seizing the chance to spend a night under the starry sky in your tent is an opportunity that should not be missed. With this camping guide, you should now feel confident and ready to embark on your first trip. However, it’s important to keep in mind that expertise is not achieved overnight; it comes with practice. So, embrace the learning process, and know that perfection is a result of continued effort and experience!
Frequently Asked Questions
Camping clothing should be carefully considered. Opt for moisture-wicking and quick-dry clothing, and pick additional layers, like a jacket, rain jacket, beanie, and gloves, for nighttime temperatures.