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Fresh air scented with pine needles, evenings around a campfire, and a night sky full of stars: for a great many people, camping is the ultimate getaway. More than 22 million Americans enjoyed some kind of camping in 2014, reports the Outdoor Industry Association. Some like it active and adventurous, others lazy and restful, but all find it restorative for body and spirit. As George Washington Sears wrote under the pen name Nessmuk, in 1891, “We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it.”
A camping trip is a project, and it requires some equipment and preparation to be accomplished enjoyably. But it doesn’t have to be overly complicated or expensive, and once you’ve got the basic gear and know-how, you’ll be set for years of memorable experiences.
Camping can be thought of in two categories: car camping (sometimes called family camping) and backpacking. Since this is Camping 101, we’ll focus on car camping—setting up camp at a site to which you can drive. State and local parks or wildlife agencies often maintain campgrounds, while others are privately owned, from national franchise chains like KOA and Jellystone Park to local mom-and-pop operations. Such campgrounds offer the outdoor experience along with creature comforts, and they’re great venues for your first camping adventure.
The essence of camping is making a temporary home in the outdoors. Most of the time, home will be a tent, so we’ll start there.
The classic camping shelter offers cozy privacy and protects you from insects and the elements. Tents come in a wide variety of sizes and price ranges, from high-performance, ultra-portable shelters for backcountry camping to roomy models easily carried in a car. Don’t underestimate the size you’ll need; a tent that’s big enough on paper for three adults might be crowded in real life, especially during an all-day rain.
Most tents sold today are freestanding models. They are generally simple to set up and don’t require staking, although stakes and cords (known as guy lines) are usually provided, and using them is a good idea in windy or stormy weather. Modern tents usually consist of a light fabric with mesh windows, held aloft by lightweight, flexible poles, and come with a waterproof cover known as a rain fly. The fly can be partly or fully removed in mild, clear weather so you can enjoy the breeze and the view.
"Don’t underestimate the size you’ll need; a tent that’s big enough on paper for three adults might be crowded in real life..."
Some tents come with what’s known as a footprint—a ground cloth that goes between the floor of the tent and the ground. In other cases, the footprint is sold separately. A footprint can extend the life of your tent by protecting its floor from abrasion. It’s designed to be smaller than the floor, to prevent rain from running under the tent and pooling there. It’s an option; some people swear by them, others do not.
If you have a new tent, and especially if it’s your first time using one, make sure to set it up at home at least once as a dry run. You may even want to have a backyard campout to learn what you’ll need for a comfortable rest in camp.
When choosing your tent site, look for flat terrain where rainfall is unlikely to flow or accumulate. Public and private campgrounds usually have their tent sites placed appropriately. Before pitching your tent, make sure the ground is free of rocks and other obstructions. A smooth floor will make life in the tent more enjoyable.
You’ll want what’s known as a three-season sleeping bag, suitable for use anytime except winter. As with tents, many models are available, from high-tech to basic. Sleeping bags have comfort ratings based on temperature—when choosing, keep in mind that nights can be chilly in the field. It’s a good idea to learn about typical overnight temperatures in the area where you’ll be camping.
Fluffy as it may be, a sleeping bag alone won’t ensure a comfortable night’s rest. A sleeping pad will keep you warmer and will cushion your back, shoulders and hips from the unyielding ground. Styles include air mattresses inflated with portable electric pumps; manually inflated models (some have hand or foot operated pumps); foam pads, and self-inflating pads. Your day at camp will be far more enjoyable if you slept well the night before, so a sleeping pad is an excellent investment.
Some people just aren’t comfortable with even the best sleeping pad. A good option in this case—assuming there’s room in the tent—is a cot. Camping cots fold down to a manageable size for car camping and offer the closest thing to sleeping in a bed. There are even tent cots with real tent features, like mesh windows and a rain fly. Whether in a bag or on a cot, you’ll want a pillow for each camper. Throw a blanket in the car, too, in case you want to picnic away from your site.
Everyone likes to sit around a campfire, but hardly anyone likes to sit on the ground for more than a few minutes. Make sure you have a chair or stool for every member of your party. There are many nifty camp chairs and stools on the market today, and some of them pack down as small as a loaf of bread. Since you’re bringing your gear in a vehicle, portability may not be a top concern; then again, camping gear can fill a car trunk quickly, and saving space is often a good idea. But whether your chairs are modern and minimalist or the built-in cup-holder models you bring to your kids’ soccer games, don’t leave home without them.
Many campgrounds provide a picnic table at each campsite, and every camping party uses them extensively. Having a simple folding card table as an auxiliary surface is never a bad idea. At some car-camping sites characterized as “primitive,” which usually consist of little more than a clearing and a fire ring, having your own table is a must. You don’t want to be chopping vegetables on the hood of your car.
A tarp may seem like extra trouble and expense, since you already have a tent. But it’s great to be able to hang a little roof over your camp table for shade and protection from rain. A bulky hardware store tarp will do, but one designed for camping will be easier to pack and set up. You may be able to tie it off on nearby trees (remember to pitch it so that rain will roll off), but a set of poles will give you the ability to put it up anywhere.
Don’t neglect lighting. The campfire has a lovely glow, but you’ll need light in tents, for the cooler, at the camp table, for finding your way to restrooms, etc. Have a flashlight or two at least, and a battery-powered lantern, if possible. Headlamps are handy and great fun for kids.
Campfires are great for roasting marshmallows, but for almost everything else you’ll cook in camp, a camp stove is a better choice. A stable cooktop with a flame you can control makes it much easier to whip up a meal. Most run on propane and are simple to operate. The models that light with a match are less expensive than those with electronic ignition. Single-burner models are available, but the two-burner kind doesn’t cost much more and offers greater versatility (one burner for the coffee, another for the eggs; one for the pasta, the other for the sauce, etc.) There’s no need to make do with a tiny backpacking stove; the standard two-burner propane models usually fold up to about the size of a briefcase and fit in easily with your gear.
Camp cookware should be simple and utilitarian. A frying pan, a generous sauce pan, a spatula, a serving spoon, a chopping knife and an inexpensive cutting board will meet most of your needs. You could bring disposable paper plates and bowls, but since the spirit of camping is to tread lightly on the environment, dinnerware that can be washed and reused seems like a better choice. Simple, inexpensive plastic plates, bowls, and cups are available in most supermarkets and department stores and will work just fine, and you can just grab knives, forks, and spoons from your silverware drawer at home (or get some for next to nothing at a thrift store.) Most campgrounds have running water that can be used for washing up, so bring a small bottle of biodegradable dish soap and a sponge or two. Paper towels are as handy in camp as they are at home, and you may find many uses for aluminum foil.
"You could bring disposable paper plates and bowls, but since the spirit of camping is to tread lightly on the environment..."
It’s good to have some idea what you plan to cook and pack the necessary cookware, utensils, and ingredients accordingly. But unless your thing is serving gourmet meals under the stars, keep it simple, and have some “add-boiling-water” foods like instant oatmeal, soup mix, or pre-packaged camp dinners on hand in case your plans for a fresh-cooked meal hit a snag. Snacks such as granola bars, chips, and cookies are always welcome in camp, and they always seem to taste better outdoors.
Perhaps the nicest aspect of car camping is the ability to bring a nice, big cooler (or two) for food and drinks. A sturdy cooler also does double-duty as another place to sit, so long as the occupant doesn’t mind getting up every time someone wants another beverage. Re-sealable storage bags are handy for keeping things organized on the ice.
Along with keeping your food fresh and your drinks cold, a cooler makes it easy to store provisions in your vehicle, where they’re safer from wildlife. Animals from raccoons to bears know campgrounds are full of food and, in most places, nighttime visits from hungry critters are to be expected. Both animals and campers are safer when human food isn’t available to wildlife. Clean your dishes and cookware promptly after meals, stow your food in a closed cooler in your vehicle, make sure trash is disposed of in appropriate receptacles, and never bring any kind of food into your tent.
Normal mild-weather clothes—jeans, cargo shorts, T-shirts, sweatshirts, etc.—are generally fine for camping. If you’re planning an ambitious hike or other strenuous activity, it’s nice to have purpose-made outdoor garb with features like quick-drying synthetic fabric, vents, and UV protection. You should always change into clean sleepwear at bedtime and store dirty clothes in your car to avoid attracting animals. You may want good hiking shoes for long treks, but if you’ll mostly be hanging around camp, sneakers are fine. Remember to bring swimwear if there’s a place nearby to take a dip.
It’s common for campgrounds to provide bathrooms and showers, and it’s a real treat to freshen up during the course of a weekend in the woods. Naturally, you’ll need towels, soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrush, and shaving gear, if you’re so inclined. If you’ll be car camping in a primitive site, look for biodegradable camp cleaning and toilet products. Make sure to research local rules about washing and relieving yourself near streams, lakes, and other natural features.
Insects can’t be avoided, but their impact can be managed. Make sure to have plenty of your favorite insect repellent and re-apply frequently, especially in the evening, when pests like mosquitoes are more likely to be around. Mosquito coils and citronella candles can make your campsite less hospitable to bugs.
As mentioned earlier, wild animals are a fact of camping life. Never feed, harass, or approach them. If you’re hoping to come home with great photos of local wildlife, plan to use a telephoto lens. Poisonous plants are a common camping hazard; learning ahead of time how to identify and avoid specimens like poison ivy, oak, and sumac can spare you a lot of discomfort. Pack some calamine lotion or medicated cream in case the preventive approach fails.
Most campgrounds are in jurisdictions served by fire and emergency medical services departments, which will respond in the event of serious illness or injury. You should be prepared for scrapes, bruises, and other minor discomforts with a basic first aid kit. And as with any other outdoor activity, sunscreen is a must.
Theoretically, the biggest challenge of camping is making sure you’ve brought everything you need (although camp stores and local markets are happy to sell you anything you’ve forgotten.) There’s no better tool to ensure you’re properly equipped than a checklist. They’re easily found online, from camping supply companies and outdoor enthusiast publications. Examples can be found here, here, and here. Modify the checklist to suit your needs and tastes, and then follow it carefully as you prepare for your trip.
A large plastic storage box, available at most department stores, is a great way to keep your camp cookware in one place. Consider a similar container in the appropriate size for shower and bath needs. Each member of your party can use a duffel, gym bag, or simple backpack for their own clothes and personal items. Your tent and sleeping bags will have their own carry bags or stuff sacks. Coolers are as handy for transport, as well as keeping food fresh and drinks cold.
A multi-purpose tool with a sharp knife blade is an excellent investment; you’ll probably find many uses for it in camp. A hatchet or folding saw is very helpful for breaking firewood down to size (make sure you know the regulations for gathering wood where you’ll be camping; very often you’re restricted to wood that is “dead and down,” and not allowed to cut down trees or cut off limbs.) A claw hammer is useful for driving in tent stakes and pulling them back out when you break camp.
Acquiring and assembling your gear and supplies and packing it all up is, as noted, a project. It’s also part of the fun. For your first camping trip, expect the unexpected, and don’t let unanticipated problems spoil the experience; almost any situation can be resolved at a campground. You’ll learn a lot, and things will go more smoothly next time. And if you’re like most of us, you’ll enjoy camping so much that there will be a next time.
Don’t be overly ambitious. You may want to start small, such as a long weekend, to get a feel for the experience and learn what would make a longer trip more enjoyable.
Do allow enough time to establish your camp at a leisurely pace. It’s no fun in the dark, when you’re hungry and tired from travel. Likewise, leave ample time on departure day so you don’t feel rushed breaking camp.
Don’t plan on being in touch with the outside world. While many campgrounds have cell phone access or even Wi-Fi, others do not. Of course, many campers find unplugging to be one of the most rewarding aspects of camping. Books and magazines, playing cards, and board games can help pass the time when a rainy day keeps everyone in their tents.
Do bring food you enjoy. You don’t have to subsist on granola and instant soup. Anything that will keep in your fridge will keep in your cooler, so you are free to enjoy fresh meat, eggs, vegetables, etc.
Don’t overdo it with food. Leftovers and uncooked foods may not survive the trip back home. Try to plan for what you are likely to consume.
Do consider taking advantage of nearby natural resources, historic sites, and activities. The rural areas where we camp tend to be interesting, as well as beautiful, but don’t feel pressured to do anything but lounge in camp and enjoy the fresh air if that’s what you want to do.