A Beginner’s Guide to Camping

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Some activities are passed on from generation to generation, and camping is surely one of them. For over 100 years, people have camped in national parks, state parks, and beyond to disconnect with the everyday world and reconnect with nature. 

Those that went camping as children now do so as parents and grandparents, passing on an appreciation for the great outdoors to loved ones near and far.

Maybe the idea of camping has always been in the back of your mind. Or maybe it never truly captured your interest until now. Even if you live in a concrete jungle, camping can seize your imagination at any time.

The ideal camping environment will embrace not only proper equipment, backcountry food, and a sky full of stars, but also someone you know that’s camped before. Maybe that someone is a roommate, a friend, a relative, or a partner that knows the ropes and owns a garage full of gear. 

But even if such an individual is nowhere to be found, you can still embark on a camping adventure that’s completely your own. 

You’ll only need to know the fundamentals, and you can buy or rent a few basic pieces of gear along the way. If you find yourself interested in camping for the first time, but also find this rustic means of escape to be a little daunting, have no fear. This beginner’s guide to camping will teach you all you need to know.

The Different Types of Camping

If you thought camping was simply the act of pitching a tent in the middle of the woods, think again. Believe it or not, many different types of camping exist that allow you to spend time in the great outdoors on your terms.

Car Camping

Car camping is one of the most common and popular types of camping, and for good reason. It only involves packing your car to the brim with everything you’ll need — from food to firewood — driving near or far to a campground and setting up your tent next to your car. If you’ve got a car that has extended room in the back, you can even sleep in your vehicle.

The beauty of car camping is that you can bring everything you’ll need without agonizing over weight, supplies, and logistics; at the end of the day, you’re only limited by the size of your vehicle.

 It’s also an inexpensive option that’s ideal for families and those that are new to camping because you aren’t required to purchase nearly as much gear. Campgrounds with car parking are oftentimes very affordable too.

Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping is the process of camping outside of a designated campground. This can mean driving down a National Forest road to find a pullout where you can camp for the night, or backpacking through the mountains before finding a spot to pitch your tent. 

Those that prefer to camp for free often choose dispersed camping because it involves no fees.

If you’re not one for extensive preparation and you don’t mind roughing it, dispersed camping may be just the thing for you. Keep in mind that bathrooms, showers, drinking water, and other campground amenities won’t always be available when dispersed camping, so it’s best to pack everything you’ll need from drinkable water to toilet paper.

Backpacking

Also known as backcountry camping or wilderness camping, backpacking lets you ditch the car so you can camp wherever you please, so long as you’re traversing the terrain by foot. This is the preferred method of camping for those looking to move beyond day hikes and into overnight trips that often negotiate remote terrain.

Backpacking is a truly memorable form of camping that’s rewarding for countless reasons, but it can pose a serious challenge too. 

Everything you’ll need for hiking and camping – such as equipment, food, and shelter – will have to fit into your backpack. The more you add to your pack, the heavier it gets and the more difficult your hike will become. If you’re interested in backpacking for the first time, consult an essential backpacking checklist that will describe everything you need to bring.

Glamping

Glamorous camping, or “glamping” for short, describes a style of camping that makes use of modern amenities and, in some cases, luxurious ones too. 

For instance, if your camping checklist contains things such as a mattress, running water, toilets that flush, or electricity, glamping may be your preferred method of spending time in the great outdoors. 

Think of it as an elevated camping experience that truly brings the comforts of home with you. Whether you’re renting an upscale treehouse in the woods or vacationing in a lavish yurt, glamping comes in many forms that are sure to help you unwind.

how to camp

What to Bring Camping

Think of camping as staying in a primitive cabin, minus the actual cabin. What you need to bring on your camping trip will depend on how you intend to camp, how long you intend to camp, and what to expect from the weather as you become one with nature.

Those that elect to backpack will need lightweight equipment such as a stove, a sleeping bag, a reliable tent, plenty of food, and even a water filtration system. Those that are car camping, on the other hand, can bring more gear that wouldn’t normally fit in a backpack, such as a table, chairs, and a cooler. At the end of the day, these are the essential items you should bring when camping at a designated campground:

  • Tent
  • Steaks
  • Guy Ropes
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Air mattress / Sleeping Pad
  • Pillow
  • Camping Chairs
  • Pop-up Table
  • Torches/ Head Lamp
  • Food & Drink

For an extended list of camping equipment, refer to our full guide that dives deeper into the equipment you should always bring camping.

How to Pack for Camping

When the time comes to pack for your first camping trip, start by determining which method of camping speaks to you. If you intend to car camp, then you can obviously pack more supplies for the trip than you could if you were backpacking.

Once you’ve settled on your preferred method of camping, check the weather to figure out what you’ll need to bring. If the temperatures dip below freezing at night, you’ll need layers and a proper sleeping bag. If the sun is destined to scorch your skin, you’ll need protective clothing and plenty of sunscreen.

As you gather all the gear you’ll need, think first of the essentials. A comfortable camping chair to lounge in sounds like a nice touch, but packing your tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad should come first because these items are essential — and a camping chair isn’t. Always pack what you need to bring, then go back to determine what else can fit in your car or pack.

It can be tempting to bring along all your favorite items, but a conscious camper will attempt to pack light before all else. From hiking shoes to pairs of socks, bring the necessities but don’t try to bring everything you can unless you have the space. 

Glamping allows for additional outfits and gear because many of these items can fit in your vehicle or your cabin, but the same can’t be said for bringing along all that gear when you’re out on the trail.

How to Plan Your Trip and Choose a Campsite

We can simplify the process of planning your camping trip by answering four simple questions.

Where will you go?

Ask yourself what level of amenities you’ll need to be comfortable. Are you looking for picnic tables and public restrooms? Then you’ll want to reserve a spot at a campground by booking one online ahead of time. Doing so is as easy as reserving a hotel room, and you can often enter the campground name into Google Maps and navigate there just as you would any other destination.

Are you looking to leave the crowds behind? Then you’re going to want some form of dispersed campsite that allows you to get away from it all. You can use any number of online tools to find remote camping locations in a national forest, on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, or in various state parks. 

What Do You Need to Bring?

You’ll need to bring the basics that we’ve outlined in greater detail above. A sleeping system, a stove, plates and bowls, utensils, bug spray, headlamps — these are all items that will allow you to enjoy your camping experience in full. Beyond these items, bring what you can fit, but don’t overdo it.

How Will You Get There?

Navigating your way to a popular campground is easy. Finding your own dispersed campsite is a little harder. Whether you’re sleeping in comfort or getting down and dirty, you should have a destination in mind before you leave home. Consult friends, social media, online forums, and Google Earth to find a spot that meets your needs.

If you plan on camping in a dispersed location, locate two or three potential camping spots on a map. That way you don’t arrive at your destination only to find it doesn’t exist or is already occupied. Always have a backup plan! 

What Are the Risks?

Chances are you won’t be attacked by a bear or a pack of wolves, but it’s always smart to keep your campsite clean, store food properly, and keep the snacks out of reach from paws and claws. You’ll also want to bring hand sanitizer that can minimize the risk of cross-contamination between raw foods, using the bathroom, and your mouth.

Tips for Setting Up Your Campsite

Setting up your campsite doesn’t have to give you a headache. To set up a campsite in proper fashion, follow these basic tips:

how to camp

What to Eat While Camping

Cooking up some grub can pose a challenge in the backcountry if you’re used to ovens, microwaves, and McDonald’s. Fortunately for all the foodies out there, eating while camping has never been easier (and more delicious) than it is today.

When it comes to eating while camping, consider bringing a few kitchen essentials to make things easier. These include a cooler to store drinks and perishables, a lighter to get the fire started, a propane stove, utensils, bowls and plates, a cup or mug, cleaning wipes, and trash bags. Every item will get some use whether you’re roasting hotdogs over the fire or digging into some freeze-dried fare.

As far as the actual food that lands on your plate is concerned, options abound. An online search of campsite recipes will yield thousands of results, many of which are healthy and packed with calories to keep your body fueled. 

If gathering ingredients to cook a meal isn’t your cup of tea, head to your local outdoor shop to find prepackaged, freeze-dried, and dehydrated meals that can be whipped up in a matter of minutes. Many of these meals are designated for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even dessert. 

While they’re designed for backpacking – because of their minimal weight – these freeze-dried meals are an ideal option for any type of camping, especially if you’ve been out adventuring all day and don’t feel like cooking when you get back to camp. 

Campsite Etiquette

More commonly known in the outdoor community as Leave No Trace, campsite etiquette is essential whether you’re camping at a public campground or wandering through the backcountry. There are seven basic principles of Leave No Trace that you should be aware of.

Plan Ahead And Prepare

When you choose not to plan ahead, you’re more likely to run into serious problems. Planning ahead means doing research about your destination before you get there. This research includes preparing for extreme weather, repackaging food to minimize waste, visiting a location in small groups to minimize impact, and knowing the rules and regulations for the area you’ll soon visit.

Travel And Camp On Durable Surfaces

It can be tempting to wander off the trail for a better view of a nearby waterfall, but doing so can destroy fragile ecosystems that often go unnoticed. Consider only traveling on ideal surfaces such as established trails, rock, gravel, dry grass, and snow.

Dispose Of Waste Properly

If you pack it in, you need to pack it out. From trash to spilled foods, waste in any form poses a serious threat to the natural environment. If you’re dealing with human waste, dig a cathole at least 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, and cover or disguise the cathole when you’re done.

Leave What You Find

Examine the rocks, the trees, the plants, and the leaves, but refrain from touching anything and be sure to leave anything you find behind. Avoid building structures or holes, and clean your boots and other pieces of gear between trips to minimize the transportation of non-native species to a new region.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Campfires are a classic camping ritual, but they’re also dangerous if utilized irresponsibly. Consider using a lightweight stove for cooking when possible, and keep any fires that you make small in size. Don’t bring firewood from home, and put out a campfire completely when it’s unattended.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Leave the animals alone. Use the zoom lens on your camera to capture animals in all their natural glory, and don’t follow or approach an animal should it decide to migrate elsewhere. Never feed the animals, and avoid bringing your own pets into the outdoors that can disturb wildlife in their own natural habitat.

Be Considerate Of Other Visitors

Believe it or not, others are also heading outdoors in search of peace and tranquility. Avoid loud noises and voices, yield to others on the trail, and keep a watchful eye on pets that may otherwise disturb fellow visitors. Follow the classic phrase “treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Common Camping Mistakes

From picking the wrong size tent to getting close with poison ivy, camping mistakes happen all the time. The best way to avoid these common mistakes is to prepare for your trip in advance, book a campsite ahead of time, and read up on where you’ll be exploring. Some of the more common camping mistakes include:

  • Picking the wrong size tent
  • Coming in contact with poisonous plants
  • Assuming you’ll have a campfire  (the wood may be wet or there may be a burn ban)
  • Forgetting essential items
  • Arriving too late to get a campsite
  • Bringing too much stuff
  • Ignoring wildlife
  • Wearing improper clothing
  • Not planning ahead 
  • Not knowing how to use your gear properly (tent, stove, backpack, etc.)

It’s Time to Get Out There

If you’re gearing up to go camping for the first time, be sure to prepare for the trip ahead. Take some time to work out the details with an experienced camper in your life, and secure all the equipment you’ll need to make the trip a true success. Though you may find yourself a little overwhelmed, just remember that camping is a wonderful experience enjoyed by millions around the world. Soon enough, you too will enjoy this timeless activity for years to come.

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