Camping Tips: A Beginners Guide to their First Trip
Occasionally, the thought of leaving behind our common amenities for a camping trip in the great outdoors may be a bit overwhelming and challenging to our comfort zone. As with any project, a bit of preparation, planning, and understanding can make all the difference in optimizing the most enjoyable experience. That is why we are sharing this camping guide with you. Within this Beginners Guide to Camping you will find:
- What is the difference between car camping and backcountry camping?
- Who should you camp with?
- Where should you take a camping trip?
- Essential camping gear and descriptions for each.
- What food should you eat on a camping trip?
- What clothes to pack for your camping trip?
- How to stay dry when camping in the rain.
- Tips for cold weather camping.
- A list of camping activities to do around the campsite.
- A general list of guidelines to follow while camping.
Getting started might be a bit intimidating, but just remember, once you’ve got all the basics down, and the necessary camping gear, you’ll be building memories upon memories of incredible camping adventures.
The two main types of camping:
Generally, camping can be broken down into two main categories: car camping and backpacking.
Car camping in its most basic form is sleeping in a tent while keeping your gear accessible in a nearby car. This style of camping is common in established campgrounds that typically have bathroom facilities and potable water available. Check out your local state parks, forest reserves, or national parks to see what services are available at their campgrounds.
Backcountry camping usually involves hiking several miles into the wilderness with all your gear strapped to your back. This style of camping typically requires some experience and knowledge of your intended destination, though it doesn’t mean beginners must stay away. Getting out into the backcountry normally leads to amazing scenery and unforgettable memories.
You may be asking--who should I camp with?
If you are completely new to camping, it would be best to go with a friend or family member who has experience. One of the easiest ways to learn about the outdoors is to have someone show you. You could also consider joining with other solo travelers on a group camping and hiking trip, where the outfitter supplies a majority of the gear.
- Camping with friends. Camping can help you build and strengthen friendships, you’ll have a chance to talk and visit without distraction. Friends tend to bring out the best times in our life.
- Camping with family. Planning a family camping trip can really bring a family together, deepening familial bonds while getting in touch with nature. It’s a healthy activity that will provide plenty of opportunities for bonding.
- Solo camping. Camping by yourself allows you to make all the decisions and create the flow all on your own. You can take this opportunity to practice meditation, write in a journal, or simply observe the natural world around you free of distraction.
- Camping with a group. By joining an organized camping trip with a professional outfitter, you will be provided with a majority of the basic camping supplies. These trips also are led by professional guides with the knowledge of the outdoors and First Aid skills. An extra benefit is you may meet other people on the trip that you can organize future camping trips with once you’ve learned the basics of camping.
Where and when should I camp?
One of the great things about taking a camping trip is that you won’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a plane ticket. Even for those of us that live in the bigger metropolitan cities, chances are you can access an open forest or sandy shoreline to pitch that tent within a short drive.
As you begin your search of camping destinations, consider these factors first:
- Would you like to go car camping or backcountry camping?
- Would you like to camp in a lake region, near a river, in a forest, or on the beach?
- How far would you like to travel from your home?
- What is the weather like in your chosen destination?
- Is the camping destination seasonal or open year-round?
Research campgrounds in the area that you want to visit. Check for local, state, and national parks in that region. You can also consider camping at privately-owned campgrounds, such as the nationally franchised Kamprounds of America (KOA).
Check out our list of Top 20 USA Camping Destinations for your First Trip for more ideas on where to go camping.
Essential Camping Gear
Whether you are heading out into the remote wilderness or camping at a local park, there is essential camping gear that you need. These include the basics such as something to sleep in, something to cook and eat with, and though often overlooked, lighting is an essential part of camping. Here is a general list of must-have camping gear:
Tent: There are several types of tents to choose from. Basic tent designs are dome, cabin, A-frame, and tunnel tents. If you are looking for a backpacking tent, then you will want to consider purchasing a lightweight tent since you will be carrying the weight.
- Dome tents are a traditional and popular design, common for 2 and 4 person tents. Dome tents are typically tall in the center but the walls are more sloped which reduces space.
- Cabin tents are designed with near-vertical walls to maximize overall peak height making them ideal for campers who like to stand up in their tent. These tents resemble more of an actual room and often come with windows. Cabin tents are common for 4 or more people, and provide plenty of room.
- Tunnel tents are generally easier to set up and take down. They have a uniform arch that requires the support of guidelines for optimal performance.
- Pop-up tents are becoming more popular due to their ease of setup. Some of these can be set up in a matter of seconds by simply removing the tent from it’s storage back and watching the tent “pop out”.
Further Reading: Tent Buying Guide: How to Choose Your First Camping Tent
Sleeping bag and pad: It’s important to get a good night’s sleep and choosing the right sleeping bag will play a big role in how comfortable you are. The two main styles are mummy bag and rectangular bag. Then you will have to choose from down or synthetic insulation, and whether you need a 2, 3, or 4-season sleeping bag.
- A mummy bag is shaped to hug the body with a narrow spot around the footbed, keeping the heat within the bag close to your body.
- A rectangular bag is wider at the feet for those who move around during the night, allowing a more comfortable sleep for those who like space.
- Down insulation is created from goose or duck feathers and is known as nature’s best insulation, which makes this material perfect for well-insulated sleeping bags. Keep in mind that down padding is not waterproof on it’s own.
- Synthetic insulation provides good cover and is easy to dry, clean and maintain. Moisture does not impact the insulating power meaning you can still sleep comfortably even if the sleeping bag gets wet.
- A sleeping pad or camping mat will provide some extra protection and add more comfort when sleeping on the ground. These can help make a huge difference in whether or not you get a good night’s sleep.
Cookware (stove, pots, pans, bowls, utensils, lighter or waterproof matches, etc.): Portable gas stoves come in all shapes and sizes. Small, lightweight stoves are great for backcountry camping but a classic double burner stove will do just fine for cooking eggs in the morning and boiling soup in the evening. We suggest purchasing utensils specifically designed for camping because they are lightweight, durable, and easy to clean.
Lighting (flashlight, lantern, headlamp): Headlamps are great to have around the campsite because it allows your hands to be free while doing camp chores, they are great for reading at night, and headlamps are typically small and versatile. Lanterns are also useful because they tend to illuminate more light and can be hung above picnic tables during mealtime.
Utility knife: Such as Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman.
First aid kit: Perhaps the most important thing to have in your camping gear as there’s no telling what may happen. A simple kit with bandaids, gauze, antiseptic cream, scissors, tweezers, and over-the-counter pain meds is adequate. Though you can purchase a professional organized ready-to-go first aid kit.
Trash bags: Disposing of your garbage properly is one of the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace.
Outside these main items, the rest of the gear just increases your comfort and enjoyment of the trip. These items also vary according to the style of camping you will be doing. For example, if you plan to hike multiple miles up a mountain, you’ll want to limit your weight as much as possible. However, if your vehicle is accessible from your campsite, then it’s never a bad idea to overestimate what you might need. Other common camping equipment can include:
- Camping furniture (chairs, folding table)
- Cooler or containers to store food
- Cast iron skillet
- Washbasins to clean your cooking and eating utensils
- Camping ax or hatchet
- Additional tarps for rain or sun shelter
- Additional blankets
- Music speakers (remember to be respectful with noise levels)
Not to be forgotten are the other everyday items that any camper “should have” but aren’t always considered camping gear. These often include:
- Mosquito repellent
What should I eat while camping?
Let’s face it, food is an essential part of everyday life, and a good camping meal can make or break your camping experience. These simple camp meals are commonplace at a campsite: macaroni and cheese, rice and beans, instant noodles, and oatmeal. Depending on your budget, you can also splurge for dehydrated meals where you just need to add warm water. But with proper preparation and a little planning, you can easily master a gourmet camping meal.
Many campers tend to overpack food when going on a camping trip. To ensure that this doesn’t happen to you, make a list of what you will need for each meal. For example, for a weekend trip, you need a meal for Friday night arrival, Saturday breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Sunday breakfast if you are leaving in the morning. Be as specific as possible and get everyone in on the planning process.
Further Reading: Camping Menu: Easy Meal Ideas for Every Camping Trip
Here is what to consider when planning your camp meals:
- Nutrition: It’s important to keep your meals on the healthy side, ensuring that you’re getting the proper nutrition for vigorous activities like hiking. Adding dried fruits and nuts to your meal plan will help get proteins and complex carbohydrates into your system.
- Taste: If it doesn’t taste good, then you aren’t going to enjoy it. Bring spices and sauces to add some flavor to your meals.
- Weight and size: This is especially important if you are hiking to your campsite, as you will be carrying your food in your backpack. Even if you are car camping, bulky packages take up space. Divide up food into plastic baggies and portion out your meals beforehand. Don’t forget to remove extra packaging to save weight and space, such as removing the box from your granola bars before packing them.
- Preparation: Consider how much time goes into your meal. After an active day, you may just want a quick and easy meal. If you have a time-consuming meal, you may not have the energy to make it worthwhile. Be sure to pack some meals that simply require “add-boiled-water” like rice or pasta.
- Fuel/propane: If cooking time is long, then you’ll burn lots of fuel. You want to check cooking times on meals and check that it corresponds with the amount of fuel you bring along with you.
What kinds of food should you bring camping?
You will want to take along food that keeps well without refrigeration. Powdered milk is a common staple at the campsite, so are pasta, grains, and bread. Other common non-perishable foods are:
- Granola, cereal, oatmeal
- Canned meats (tuna, salmon, chicken)
- Nuts and seeds (peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, macadamias)
- Pancake mix
- Instant rice
Certain perishable foods are also a good source for creating a healthy and nutritious camp meal. If you are car camping, you will be able to bring along a cooler to keep these items fresh, whether you have ice or not. A few common perishable foods are:
- Fruits such as bananas, apples, and oranges
- Grapes (store in a sturdy container to prevent from being squashed)
- Vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, and peppers
- Fresh meats or quick cook meats like bacon or hot dogs (only if you have access to ice)
One of the easiest ways to battle hunger while hiking, camping, and backpacking is to pack freeze-dried foods. These packages are lightweight and taste great, provide plenty of nutrition, are typically easy to prepare, and best of all, come in a variety of flavors. Yes, they are more expensive than other options, but the convenience is worth the extra price. Mountainhouse, Campers Pantry, and Backcountry Cuisine are a few of the top-rated brands specializing in pre-made camping meals. However, if you find you really love camping, you might decide to invest in a food dehydrator and prepare your own dehydrated meals for cheaper options.
When you’re hanging around the campsite, you will most likely be snacking throughout the day. If you are car camping, you can easily stock up on any normal snacks that can be purchased at a local grocery store. However, these are not always the best in terms of health and nutrition. Some favorite hiking and camping snacks are:
- GORP (granola, oats, raisins, peanuts); aka “trail mix”
- Celery sticks dipped in peanut butter
- Dried fruit or fruit leather (store-bought or make your own at home)
- Popcorn (which can be made fresh at the campsite as a cool activity)
- Pre-made salsa (stored in a sturdy container)
Water while camping
Perhaps the most important resource you will need while camping is water. Water is the number one liquid to be consuming when camping. Also, remember that you will be using water to cook and clean with. Be sure to pack enough for the entirety of your trip and perhaps a little extra.
Wondering how much water to bring camping? A common rule of thumb is one gallon of water per person for each day of camping.
If fresh drinking water is not available at your campsite, there are ways for you to make most water safe to drink. Here are a few methods that you can choose:
- Boiling water (make sure it boils for a complete minute)
- Use water purification tablets such as iodine and chlorine (not recommended for those with thyroid issues and pregnant women)
- Use water filtration systems such as the Katadyn Hiker Microfilter
Clothes for camping
The clothes you will need for camping will depend on multiple factors, such as whether you are car camping or hiking into the backcountry, the weather in the region you are camping, what season it is, and of course, your personal preference for comfort.
Proper camping clothing keeps you protected from the elements of nature, such as weather conditions and insect bites, maintains body temperature, and helps keep you dry. Quick-drying materials like nylon and polyester are preferred over cotton. Cotton gets cold when wet, where wool and fleece will keep you warm. Wool that is sustainably harvested is the most eco-friendly option because it does not contain plastic. Mesh provides ventilation in hats and jackets, and leggings are more breathable than denim. If you are concerned with the discomfort of polyester, then opt for a cotton-polyester blend that combines all the useful qualities of durability, comfort, quick-drying and allows air to flow.
Layering your clothing is the best way to be prepared for the elements. The layer closest to your skin should be made of breathable material and wicks water away from your skin. The next layer should be of a material that is lightweight and allows air to circulate. If camping in cooler temperatures wear a water-resistant vented jacket as the topmost layer. You may not need to layer on the bottom, but if you are in cooler weather consider wearing long underwear made from wool. A great option is to wear hiking pants that can zip off the lower portion of the legs, thus creating shorts. It’s important to remember that pants do serve as protection from insect bites or thorny bushes around the campsite.
When it comes to footwear, a decent pair of hiking boots or sneakers is necessary for daily activities. But, you will want to bring along more comfortable footwear to wear around the campsite when you are relaxing. You won’t want to be miserable in uncomfortable footwear when sitting around a campfire. It is recommended that your footwear protects your toes. Always be mindful of how much skin is exposed, since you may be cooking with boiling water and stoking hot coals around the campfire. Crocs or Keens are two common styles of popular campsite footwear.
A few common camp clothing accessories to include in your packing are:
- Beanie or sleeping cap (helps keep you warm at night)
- Gloves (for warmth or work-related tasks around the campsite)
Insider clothing tip: always keep a clean, comfortable set of clothes and socks for sleeping in your tent. Try not to wear these around the campsite or as cooking smells may attach to the clothing. You don’t want to attract wildlife to your sleeping area.
How to stay dry in the rain while camping
Perhaps the weather forecast changed for the weekend you planned to go camping or a freak rain store comes through unexpectedly. The good thing is, rain does not have to ruin your camping trip. Following these tips for camping in the rain will ensure you enjoy your camping experience.
Pack Extra Tarps: Tarps come in handy during any type of weather on a camping trip. If a rainstorm does invite itself to your camping weekend, then having an extra tarp will be a blessing. Tarps can be used to cover supplies, create an additional shelter area, or as an extra layer to the bottom of your tent. You can even hang a tarp over your tent as another layer of protection from the rain.
Tighten Guidelines on Your Tent: Tension on your tent will prevent water from pooling on the surface on your rainfly, allowing for proper dispersal.
Pack a Bivy Bag: Putting your sleeping bag inside a bivy sack will keep you warm and dry when the ground gets wet and cold. The extra layer of insulation will also prevent your bag from getting wet if any water gets in your tent.
Create an Outdoor Living Space: If you are expecting rain, then use an additional tarp or a pop-up canopy to set up a dry-zone. This common area can serve as the “living room” to prep food, lounge, and hang out with your friends. This will also prevent people in your group from just hunkering down in their private tents when it is raining.
Set Up a Clothesline: Just don’t throw your wet clothes in a ball in the corner of your tent. Create an area where you can hang your wet clothes before going to sleep. String up the clothesline under a tarp or inside your tent’s vestibule. Additionally, placing damp clothes at the bottom of your sleeping bag helps them dry quicker overnight.
Make the Most of Ziploc Bags: If you know there is a chance of rain, then plan ahead and store important items such as clothing, medicine, or electronics in ziploc bags. This extra layer of protection will limit the likelihood of any additional problems from the rain.
Keep Dry Wood Under Your Car: If you don’t have a tarp to cover the fire wood, store wood under your car. Ensuring that you have dry wood is a priority if you want to have a campfire.
Choose the Right Campsite: Finding a suitable location to pitch your tent is one of the first things you’ll do when arriving at the campground. If the weather is calling for rain, you will want an area at higher elevation since water runs downhill. You don’t want to pitch your tent in an area that will puddle easily. Though not ideal, a slightly sloped area will help decrease the chances of a water puddling under your tent.
Be Mindful of Your Tent’s Door: Placing the door of your tent opposite the direction the wind will lessen the chance of rain coming in when you open the tent door.
Keep Power Food Handy: When we get wet, we tend to get cold. Our bodies need extra calories to stay warm. Pack foods that are high in carbs such as nuts, sunflower seeds, beans, and raisins. Let’s not forget the power of a nice mug of hot chocolate to warm us up at the campsite.
Pack a Few Old Newspapers: Dry newspaper can be placed inside your wet shoes to speed up the drying process; the newspaper will help suck out the moisture. Newspapers also work well for getting a fire started if you're having trouble finding dry kindling.
Stay Positive: Like any activity, the more positive you are the better the experience will be. Keep a good attitude and don’t let the rain ruin your camping trip. Enjoy the sounds of nature from a different perspective. Also, break out your camera, rain does wonderful things to the forest.
Quick tips for cold weather camping
Just in case the weather forecast changes for your weekend camping trip, we want to offer a few basic tips for keeping warm on a cold night in a tent.
Get off the Ground: Sleeping on a cold ground causes our body temperature to drop. Be sure to use a sleeping mat or an inflatable mattress under your sleeping bag. Add an extra blanket underneath you, not just on top of you. You can also use your sleeping mat to sit on when hanging around the campfire to stay warm.
Pack Fire Starters: Starting a fire can be a slow process, especially for beginner campers. Bringing along easy-to-use and waterproof fire starters will help you get the campfire going to warm you up.
Make Use of Extra Clothes: Other than wearing extra layers to keep you warm, pack unworn clothes into the bottom of your sleeping back to increase insulation. This reduces the amount of space in your bag, which better traps your body heat.
Eat Food for Warmth: Increase your calorie intake to keep your body warm. So snacking often and eating hearty meals provides your body with the fuel it needs to generate heat. High-fat and high-protein foods burn slower than high-carb meals, and keep you sustained longer throughout the night.
Fill a Bottle with Hot Water: Holding the bottle of water water or tea close to your tummy or between your legs will really heat you up, but be careful—the bottle will initially be quite hot.
Position your Tent for Early Morning Sun: We all know how great it is to feel that warm morning sun on our face. When you pitch your tent pay attention to where the sun will rise and if there are any trees blocking the sunshine.
Pee When You Need To Pee: Staying hydrated will keep you comfortable throughout the day but will lead to an increase in bathroom trips, especially at night. Extra fluids in your body actually keep your cool so going to the bathroom will actually warm you up. So, if you need to go at night, don’t wait, just go. It will prevent the rest of your body from cooling more and you will sleep better during the rest of the night.
Further Reading: 9 Winter Hiking Tips for Your Next Cold Weather Adventure
Activities to do while camping
Camping activities don’t just include collecting firewood, cooking, eating, and cleaning. Sure a majority of your time may be spent simply relaxing and enjoying nature, but if you are camping with friends and family you may need some activities to keep everyone entertained.
Here are some camping activities that you can do around the campsite:
- Conversation Games are a great way to get to know one another. Some common games are: Never Have I Ever, Two Truths and a Lie, Would You Rather.
- Classic Games are your traditional card games, board games, and the like. These include: Charades, Slapjack, Bullshit, Spoons, Spades, Taboo, Scattergories.
- Explore the surrounding areas of your campsite. No matter how many times you've been camping, you are sure to be entertained by the natural environment. Climb a tree, wade in a nearby stream, look for signs of wildlife; the possibilities are endless. Perhaps bring binoculars along and go bird watching or search for frogs at night with a flashlight.
- Active games allow you to burn off energy in a fun and exciting way. Play Capture the Flag, release your inner child with a game of Hide and Seek, or set up a slackline.
- Whittling is a great pastime for those who want to be creative and craft something. Consider carving your own walking stick or wooden utensils to be used around the campsite.
- Stargazing is one of the most rewarding and relaxing activities when camping. Most campsites are far enough away from light pollution, allowing the stars to illuminate the night sky. Lay down, relax, and simply enjoy the quietness. For additional learning, print out a star map (or download an app on your phone) and start spotting constellations.
- Read a book or write in a journal. Take advantage of this downtime and bury your nose in a cool novel. Reflect on your experience or jot down notes in a journal about your current state of mind.
- Practice photography. Get creative with your camera and learn about different exposures and nighttime settings. You can get some really cool photographs with the night sky and the light of the campfire.
- Storytelling and singalongs are a great way to bond with friends. Bring a musical instrument or share your favorite scary story around the campfire.
Camping guidelines all campers should follow
Whether hiking and camping in National Parks or overnighting in a private campground, we as travelers must do our best to preserve the locations we visit. Fortunately, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has formulated 7 Principles that provide an easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors. These principles can be applied anywhere - from remote wilderness areas to local parks, to Under30Experiences hiking and camping trips.
Some common guidelines that all campers should follow are as follows:
- Always plan ahead
- Always prepare
- Camp and travel on durable surfaces such as rock, sand, gravel, and dry grasses
- Always dispose of waste in proper containers or pack out all your waste
- Leave your campsite the way you found it or better if possible
- Minimize camp impact by camping on established campsites and walking only on trails
- Be respectful of wildlife, and never fed or attempt to touch wild animals
- Respect other campers and visitors
Following the unspoken rules of camping, including respecting both the natural environment and fellow travelers, will help ensure you not only have a great experience but that you will be playing your part in helping others enjoy a similar experience.
As we close this beginner’s guide to camping we want to share a few additional guidelines, more of the “Dos and Don’ts” of camping:
- Don’t be overly ambitious. If you step too far out of your comfort zone, you may end up having a disastrous experience and never gain the courage to give camping a second try. Keep it simple on your first trip. Maybe even camp out in your backyard for a night.
- Do allow enough time to set up and breakdown camp. Arrive early to your camping destination with enough daylight to organize everything properly. On the flip side, no need to rush home on the final day. Enjoy the scenery and take in all that you can before returning to your normal daily grind.
- Don’t expect the comforts of home. Some camping locations may lack the facilities you prefer. To avoid complaints and disappointment, try to be more positive. Think of practical solutions to make your camping experience an enjoyable one.
- Do check the campsite policies and facilities. Never bring things that are not allowed into the campsite such as alcohol or pets, and don’t build a fire if it is prohibited.
- Don’t keep busy with your smartphone. Our attachment to our tech devices should be left at home. You come out to nature to get away from it all. Leave the phone in the car and put it on silent or turn it off.
- Do explore the area and take advantage of the natural resources nearby. Turnover logs and look for critters, skip stones in the lake, climb a tree, or bushwhack up the mountain. Let the adventurer in you come out!
Now head out and explore on your own camping trip!
With the information and tips found in this camping guide, it’s time to plan your own camping adventure. The first time may not go as smoothly as planned but with the right mindset and preparation, odds are you will enjoy your camping experience.
Find a campground of your liking nearby, visit an outfitter to get you sorted with camping gear, make a list of the camping food you will need, notify someone of where your camping destination, and off you go! We hope this guide will aid you in creating that enjoyable camping experience you are looking for.
And oh yeah, once you level up from beginner to expert, be sure to share your knowledge with others, so they too can learn to love camping.
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