There's nothing quite like the fresh air and a night sky full of stars that camping provides: for a great many individuals, an evening spent around a campfire, complete with roasting marshmallows and a few good friends is the greatest escape. More than 22 million Americans participated in some sort of camping, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, in 2014. While some enjoy their camping trips energetic and daring, others choose a more restful and laid back getaway. No matter how you camp, it truly is a wonderful experience.
Your first camping trip can be a project, and it does need a little bit of preparation and some gear to be successful. But it doesn’t need to be expensive or too complex, and once you’ve got the basic tools and know how, you’ll be set for years of making some of the memories possible.
The essence of camping is making a temporary residence in the outside. Most times, your 'house' will be a tent, so we’ll begin there.
The classic camping shelter offers cosy seclusion and shields you from the elements. Tents come in a broad assortment of price ranges and sizes, from high performance, ultra portable shelters for camping to roomy versions that can easily fit 6-10 people or more. Don’t underestimate the size you’ll want; a tent that’s large enough on paper for three grownups might be too full to be comfortable during an all-day rain.
One of our most recommended tents is the Ozark Trail 3 Room Tent - it's a high quality, easy to assemble and disassemble tent that will easily fit three queen sized air mattresses but doesn't break the bank at just about $120.
Most tents sold now are freestanding models. They can be typically straightforward to set up and don’t need staking, although stakes and rope are normally supplied, and using them is advisable in windy or stormy weather. Modern tents typically include a light material with mesh windows, come with a watertight cover referred to as a rain flap, and held by lightweight, flexible posts. The flap can be entirely or partially removed in balmy, clear weather in order to appreciate the view and the breeze.
If you find yourself camping in an open area on a cool night, sleep with the rain flap off - it's a night's sleep you will never forget. That is, if you can stop yourself from staring up into the night's sky long enough to fall asleep.
Pro tip: If you've got a tent that is new, and particularly if it’s your very first time using one, ensure that you set it up at home as a dry run. You may want a backyard campout to learn what you’ll desire for a comfortable rest in camp.
When picking your tent site, try to find level terrain where rain is not likely to flow or collect. Private and public campgrounds typically have their tent sites set suitably. Make sure that the ground is free of rocks and other obstacles before pitching your tent. If you forget to do this before you setup your tent and later find a huge pebble right underneath your sleeping bag, you'll wish you remembered.
This is a topic that many first timers may skip over, assuming they just need a sleeping bag and a pillow. Not so fast.
Just as with tents, you'll come to learn that there are a wide variety of sleeping bags to choose from, from high tech to high function. Most notable though is the temperature rating - you'll want to choose a sleeping bag to match the environment you'll be sleeping in. Believe it or night, you can sleep quite comfortably in 10-20 degree weather provided you buy the appropriate sleeping bag, although as a first timer, we'd suggest you get yourself started with a warmer weather camping trip.
A highly recommended alternative here is an air mattress. While this may border on 'glamping' (glamour camping) for some people, others put their comfort over their pride and choose to sleep nice and comfortably just as if they were home. There are a huge variety of camping air beds as well on the market, most include a battery powered pump or a foot pump to help inflate them.
Our recommendation here would be the Intex Pillow Rest Air Mattress - it's durable, affordable, and comfortable.
Aside from the sleeping bag or air mattress, you'll want to make sure you don't forget a pillow or blanket to sleep with. Some folks also choose to sleep in a sleeping bag, on an air mattress, which gives you the best combination of comfort and warmth.
Pro tip: Bring an extra blanket, it comes in handy if you want to sit on it for a picnic.
An often overlooked aspect of going camping is bringing along the appropriate furniture to help setup your campsite. We're not talking about bringing your living room couch, but remembering to bring a few folding chairs and a small folding table if you have room will be very helpful.
Some of the public campgrounds you will come across do offer a picnic table at each camp site, although not every one does, and most certainly if you're planning a trip in the wilderness outside of an actual campground, then you'll want to bring your own for sure.
When it comes time to sit around the camp fire, or just hang around the camp site in general, a folding chair will be your best friend. Light and compact, most folding chairs will do the job without taking up too much room. We typically recommend the Coleman Quad chair, as it fits the bill for being sturdy, lightweight, compact and affordable.
If you have the room to also bring a small folding table, we suggest it as well. This comes in handy for card games, food preparation and mealtime. You can certainly make do without it but if you have room, bring it.
One other item you want to remember for setting up your campsite is lighting. A lot of people think they'll be fine with their campfire at night but they never think about what happens when they put the camp fire out, or if you need to leave the camp site to walk to the bath house, or behind a tree. Pick up a LED lantern or two, you'll be happy you did. We recommend the picking up the Etekcity LED Lantern 2 pack for under $18
Next up is the all import topic of cooking while you're at the camp site, which brings up to a couple other key bullet points, namely food prep, food storage, and cleaning.
We always recommend doing the food prep before you leave. This helps to minimize the amount of cleaning you have to do at your camp site, and also prevents you from overpacking food. Slice your veggies and marinate your meats before you leave, and pack them together in meals in your cooler. This way you can quickly grab everything you need without having to sift through the entire cooler when it comes time to cook.
When it comes to storage, get yourself a good sized cooler to keep everything in. Freeze as much as possible (hot dogs, hamburgers,etc) this way not only will those food items stay fresh for the duration of your trip, but they'll also help to keep your other items cool by acting as ice packs. We always recommend Yeti coolers just because they're literally build to stand up to bear attacks, but if you're just starting out, then a standard Coleman cooler will do the trick. Most people really don't need the toughness of a Yeti cooler, but hey, why not.
Now, on to cooking.
We always say that everything tastes better when it's cooked over campfire, which is true, however that doesn't always make it the best idea. For most things, you'll find that a portable propane stove is a much, much simpler and quicker way to get things done. You can get a 2 burner Coleman stove for just under $75 that will save you a TON of time.
Cleanup at a campsite can be tricky, if you choose your campground wisely you'll find one that has a nearby bathhouse with a slop sink that makes it super easy to clean up. If not, you can use a portable sink bucket to soap up and rinse off your cutlery and pots.
Pro tip: Pack your camping gear in a plastic tote, then when you get to the campsite, you can use the empty tote to wash your dishes in.
A reminder here - you do not want to be leaving food out when you're not on your campsite, or when you're asleep. Throw out all of your scraps in black bags and take them to a dumpster as soon as you're finished. No one likes to wake up to racoons or squirrels or bears combing through their leftovers.
Apart from the items covered above, you need to bring the appropriate clothes, some bug spray, and a first aid. Other useful items include duct tape, a lighter, a knife or pair of scissors, and a small hatchet. We don't necessarily expect you to be chopping down any trees on your trip but if you get an odd shaped piece of firewood that doesn't quite fit on your fire, it's better to have it and not need it than the other way around.
Also, keep in mind local laws with regard to firewood - a lot of places make it against the law to bring in firewood from the outside to prevent infestations of foreign insects, and at the same time other places heavily restrict you from chopping any live trees and branches, so you're best to double check before you get yourself in some trouble.
There's no need to be too adventurous right from the start. You might want to start small, for example a long weekend, learn what would make a longer trip more pleasurable and to get a sense of the encounter. There's no shame in camping local to get a feel for the experience before you commit to a longer trip.
Give yourself enough time to setup your campsite at a leisurely speed. It’s no fun in the dark, and especially when you’re weary and starving from traveling. Also, leave considerable time on departure day so you don’t feel hurried packing everything back up.
While many campgrounds have cell phone access, others don't. Naturally, many campers find unplugging to be among the most rewarding facets of camping. If you can, we highly recommend it!
Bring food you love, and don't get too inventive. Anything which will keep in your refrigerator will keep in your cooler, so you're free to love eggs, fresh meat, vegetables, etc. Your first camping trip is not the time to experiment with new or complicated recipes though. Keep it simple.
Uncooked foods and leftovers may not survive the trip back home. Attempt to plan for what you're likely to have.
Do consider taking advantage of historic sites and nearby natural resources. Most campgrounds tend to have local attractions nearby if you're up for exploring them, but don't feel pressured to do more than you want to. It's perfectly acceptable to kick your feet up and just breath in the fresh air.
We mentioned a lot of good products here in this article that would be hugely helpful to you on your first camping trip, but we have one more suggestion we think you'll like, getting everything you need for your camping trip for free.
As part of our efforts to spread the word about the many benefits of going camping and encourage more people to get out and camp, we put together what we call our 3 Night Mega Camping Giveaway. It's a pretty epic name, and that's because it's a pretty epic prize pack.
Our giveaway includes all the items you see here, plus a 3 night getaway at the destination of your choosing, and we're giving it all away absolutely free.
If you'd like to register for your chance to win our giveaway grand prize, or just find out more information about what's included or when the winner will be announced, just head over to our giveaway page.
There's no cost to enter, and no strings attached - we just want to see you out there. So what are you waiting for?