No matter who you are or how you grew up, many people get the urge to get away from all the hustle and bustle of life for a little while. Disconnecting from everyday life and heading out into the wilderness can be a very relaxing and rewarding experience. However, without much experience in the outdoors, it can be daunting to take your first steps into the world of camping. There is so much equipment, so many campsites, and so many competing opinions. What is the first step?
5 common mistakes made by first-time campers
Everyone has a starting point, and no one is without fault. We have all made an embarrassing mistake or two while camping and have lived to tell the tale. Before you jump in, make sure to avoid these major mistakes that a lot of new campers make as they try out their new hobby.
1. Not researching where you are going
Anywhere you go whether camping or not, it is important to read up on what is to be expected when you arrive. In the age of the internet when everything is so readily available, this should not be an issue. There are a few key things you are going to want to check before you even book at a camp area or campground.
- Availability of camp-sites (sometimes these can be booked months in advance)
- Expected weather conditions
- What type of facilities will be available
- Activities to do in the area
- Are pets allowed?
- How to store food when you are there (especially if in the backcountry)
This is just a short sample of things you may want to know about where you are headed. Regulations and rules can vary widely from National Parks to private camp areas. It is important to look into the specific regulations of the place you plan to be camping. Spontaneity is fun, but an unprepared trip can turn what might have been fun into a boring or dangerous escapade.
When I went camping as a child, my brother and I would sometimes have competitions to see who could last the longest without showering. Looking back, that is rather gross. However, people who do not camp often may not realize that it is a whole different ball game in nature. You do not need to shower every day. You are going to spend most of your days outside hiking, biking, paddling, or other adventures and those do not require a freshly shampooed head.
Keep in mind that you are there to spend time in nature. You do not need every pair of shoes, every device, and every sweatshirt you have. Many things can be re-worn (especially sweatshirts and pants) as long as nothing terrible happened to them.
Going into your trip with this mindset can really help you minimize packing large amounts of clothing and toiletries, and can really help leave room for things that are truly needed.
3. Not bringing enough light
When you live in the city, suburbs, or even a small town, it can be easy to forget that it gets dark at night. I mean REALLY dark. Let’s say you live in the suburbs. All the lights are off in your house and property, chances are there are a few street lights around. No street lights? Normally, you can still see the “glow” of the nearest city or suburban center from the residual lights of businesses and buildings.
When you are out in the wilderness, 50 or more miles from any major suburban center, it gets very dark. More so than many are used to. Because of this, people do not bring lanterns or flashlights to help them get around. The flashlight on your phone is useful, but not a long term viable option for many campsites without electricity. You will thank me when you get up to use the bathroom at night and do not have to rely on your nose to guide you there more than your eyes.
4. Buying for price instead of quality
In can be daunting when looking at all of the available camping equipment online or in stores. There is a wide variety of things that look practically the same to a beginner. The range of prices can be so great, that it can be tempting to plan to “go cheap until you are sure you like it”, because you are not even 100% sure you want to get into camping yet! This is a huge mistake. When lying in a tent out in the wilderness, you want to be able to rely on it to keep out rain and critters. The last thing you want is to wake up in a pool of water or snuggling a raccoon. Buying some quality equipment is important for an enjoyable experience.
My suggestion is to try and borrow equipment from family and friends before purchasing your own, but if that is not an option, do not buy the cheapest thing you can find! You will end up with a bad experience or gear that you will have to repurchase again year after year.
5. Arrive late to the campground
There have been few times more stressful for my family than arriving late to the campground. Everyone is tired, it is dark (see point 3), we don’t know where the bathrooms are, and the only thing we want to do is go to bed. But we have to set up camp. This is a huge stressor that can be easily avoided by simply planning your time better and arriving at the camp area with enough daylight to set up and settle in. This will lead to a much more enjoyable first night and get your adventure started off on the right foot.
Choose a camp area and style
Camping is an extremely fun and relaxing hobby. Many people like to camp and hike because it helps them connect with nature. Now that we have taken a look at what you are NOT going to do, let’s start talking about what are the best ways to start camping as a beginner.
There are a lot of different types of camp areas to choose from. There are kid friendly, dog friendly, RV friendly, backcountry, front country, developed, rustic, and everything in between. Make sure you do your research and know what you are getting yourself into. “Campground” does not mean the same thing everywhere you go, even within your own local area. It is important to check online, on the phone, or in person so you know what type of campground it is.
When someone says "camping" this is the style of camping is what most people think of. There is a wide variety of tent camping. Some choose to go into more backwoods area, taking only what they can carry on their back. This tends to be more rustic camping with limited supplies. Many tent campers are equally happy backing their car into a predesignated campsite and setting up their tent mere feet away from their Subaru. It really all depends on what you will have fun doing and what the group you are going with can handle.
Keep in mind that a larger tent is not always a better tent. If you are unsure about what tent is good for you, check out this guide on how to pick the best one to suit your needs.
This type of camping is going to be a bit less rustic and may be an easier transition for those uninitiated into camping. Recreational Vehicles often come with a small kitchenette, lighting, beds, and a lot of the other comforts of home. Some of the bigger and more expensive trailers come with bathrooms and air conditioning.
If this is a route you decide to take, there is a plethora of options available for you to rent a RV. Even an "Airbnb" style where you can borrow an RV from someone who is not using theirs. There are so many RV parks it can sometimes be overwhelming. For your first trip, I would advise staying close to home and seeing how the group likes the new adventure!
Some may look down on this as "not real camping". In reality, there is no right or wrong way to camp, it is just important that everyone is having a good time in the great outdoors.
Important camp gear
There are lots of important things that need to be brought while camping, some things are evident and some things are not. I have put together this list of important camp gear that you need to have no matter where you are going.
A lot of campgrounds that are more developed will have running water nearby and a community bathroom. Many campsites come with a picnic table, room for a tent, and a place to park your car nearby (or on the site). None of these things are guaranteed and it is important to do research to know what the site is like.
If it is your first time camping, you may not have the equipment necessary to go on your camping adventure. That is ok though. It may be better for you to try it out before you invest money anyway. Try and find a friend who has some of this equipment and borrow it on a weekend they may not be using it. If you do not have an outdoorsy friend, or your outdoorsy friend is very possessive of their things, then it is possible to rent the needed equipment at many outdoor retailers.
- Tent – Tents are a staple in every camping trip. Unless you are going with some experienced people who know how to appropriately camp without one (eg. Hammocks) you are going to need one of these. Nearly all tents come with “person limit”. There are 2 person tents, 3 person, and can get as high as 15 or above. In general, go with one person more than will actually be sleeping in the tent. So a couple will want a 3 person tent, a family of four may want a 5 or 6 person tent. They tend to rate these as if people are sleeping like sardines. If you are camping with your family and have a particularly squirrely bunch, it would be advisable to go 2 people higher than what is suggested by the manufacturer (i.e. 4 people will want a 6 person tent).
- Camp stove – It is fun to cook over an open fire while camping, but this is often impractical and can be highly frustrating. Sometimes, it is even illegal to start fires depending on where you are. I suggest everyone tries it at least once per trip (regulations permitting), but for more practical cooking, a camp stove will be essential. Do not forget fuel too! Often camp stoves run on propane and if that is forgotten, you are going to have some very cold meals or a drive of shame to the nearest retailers.
- Lighting – Campsites do not have street lights or their own illumination. You will need to bring your own. Flashlights, lanterns, and headlamps will all come in handy depending on the task. You are going to want at least one lantern and a few flashlights (I tend to bring one per person, although some would call this overkill).
- First aid kit – The worst time to realize you need a first aid kit is when you need it. Always prepare ahead and make sure to have a first aid kit in your camp gear. You can find many good first aid kits online or in store. Double check your kit to see if it has the useful emergency handbook to help you through situations that you may not be familiar with. It can help save your life!
- Sleeping bag and sleeping pad – A good place to start when looking at sleeping bags is the temperature rating. If you are planning on going in the summer, a fair weather camping bag is all you need. If you are considering camping in the fall or spring, you may want to consider a one on the warmer side. A sleeping pad is not only there to provide comfort, but also to help prevent you from losing body heat through the ground. Big air mattresses are a route that a lot of beginners want to head down, but because of their lack of insulation, they tend to lose more heat than you might expect. If you do prefer to be off of the ground, consider a cot instead.
A lot of gear can vary widely depending on where you are going and what time of year you are going. You may need to tweak the suggestions made on this list to accommodate for any circumstances you know about the terrain, wildlife, weather, and regulations.
What to eat while camping
One thing that can be challenging for some is not being able to plan last second what you will be eating that evening. When camping, you need to plan out nearly all of your meals ahead of time, or at least have a very good idea. What you bring is what you have to eat. There are lots of freeze-dried meals you can buy at outdoor retailers. These are usually intended for more hardcore backpackers and I would not personally suggest those as a first choice when you are early in your camping career. I suggest bringing easy to make food in boxes or even fresh food (as long as it is stored properly). My family also loves having lots of snacks including s’mores, pretzels, and other things that do not need to be refrigerated.
For coffee lovers, you can purchase coffee bags (they look just like tea bags) at many major retailers. These are usually easier to prepare in the mornings than traditional coffee pots or percolators and are my first choice.
An important staple to bring while camping is food that can keep for a long while without refrigeration (unless you are camping in an RV). This goes beyond canned and freeze dried goods. Breads, pastas, any type of grains all can make excellent choices for your camping adventure. Just ensure they are all packed in such a way that bugs and critters cannot get into them. Nothing like having to end a trip early due to short food supply.
For breakfast, try some type of oatmeal or granola. At lunch a simple sandwich. For dinner some type of pasta or anything that can be grilled over a fire. I am a pretty easy person to please. If you have picky eaters, you can look for some great camping recipes online. There are nearly ENDLESS resources on camping food options.
Pro tip: Some eggs do not have to be refrigerated. It depends on where you get it so make sure to ask the vendor if you are unsure.
Perishable food can be brought on a camping trip, but need a little more care (This will not be a problem for most RV campers).
For most camping trips that are 3 days or less, packing all perishable food items in a well insulated cooler should be fine. Just ensure that your food stays at a low enough temperature to keep it fresh. Meat is one of those things that if you are unsure if it is safe to eat, it should be avoided. Food poisoning is bad, food poisoning out in the wild is worse.
What to wear
A big stressor for people who are learning how to camp can be what to wear while out in the wild. If this camping trip is among one of your first times going out, I highly suggest you do not spend a lot of money on "camp clothes". Just bring things that you would be okay with theoretically not making it back home (it will, but it is just a good mindset to have while packing). Keep in mind, while camping, you are going to be doing a lot of outdoorsy activities where you are not going to want to worry about getting your clothes dirty. Bring clothes that you won’t mind getting a little dirt on or may even take a little damage0. You may want to avoid cotton, especially, if you are going during a colder season, because if it gets wet, the fabric tends to sap out heat from your body.
Always come prepared though. Nights can get chilly no matter where you are and what time of year. At least one light jacket or sweatshirt and one pair of long pants are advisable. At night, it can be very fun to go out and look at the stars. You will definitely want another layer with you.
The last thing you will want to consider is a trusty pair of shoes that will be usable for hiking, walking, running, or just about anything else you may be doing on your trip. A pair of waterproof flip flops are a good idea as well for any late night bathroom runs or (if your campground has it) showers.
For those who are still unsure, I made a list below of essential gear. Again, I really do not think someone should purchase expensive new clothing to go camping. Bring what you can, and if camping turns out to be for you, add to your wardrobe as necessary!
Here is a list of essential camping clothing you will want to make sure you bring:
- Hiking boots or shoes you can hike in
- Water shoes or flip flops
- Sweatpants or long underwear
- Jeans or Cargo Khakis (Something that can get dirty)
- Quick drying shirts
- Quick drying shorts
- Rain jacket/poncho
What to do while camping
So now you know how to prepare, but what do people do while camping? It can be fun for people to plan, pack, drive into the woods, then set up, but.... what's next? The list of things to do while you are out camping can vary A LOT depending on where you are and what type of camping you are doing.
Hiking is most likely one of the first things that comes to your mind for what to do while camping. It is a great activity that can get your heart pumping and help get you to some beautiful views that may be off the beaten path. Hiking really is not too complicated, especially in areas that have well defined trails. Just pick a direction and go! Many state and national parks will have signs or maps on the more well defined trails to ensure that you do not get lost. In any case, it is always important to let someone know where you are going and how long you expect to be gone. That way if the worst were to happen, someone knows how to find you!
As a kid, I would camp with my Uncle every single summer. He would always be gone in the mornings because he would get up way before us, head down to the lake, and do some fly fishing. Now whenever I go camping, I can't help but bring my pole along as well.
You do not need to be as early a riser as my Uncle. I have caught many fish at 10am and had just as much fun.
If you are lucky enough to be near a body of water try swimming, canoeing, or kayaking! Make sure to check local regulations first. Many places will have a nearby canoe rental, especially along rivers. This is another family tradition of mine, we will go to any nearby lake and spend long hours swimming and canoeing on the waters.
Yard or Card Games
This is one that is pretty dependent on what type of camping you are doing. Obviously any backpacking would make it hard to bring corn hole out into the wilderness, but if your car will not be too far from your campsite, it is always a good idea to throw in a fun outdoor game. My Uncle is famous for bringing a badminton net and rackets (surprisingly compact!).
Card games fit anywhere and are a huge hit with my family. Everyone is always willing to sit around the table (or ground) and play another round of rummy. Always a huge hit with my family and often a hit with families we have camped with.
Something about laying in a bed suspended between two trees is so relaxing. It is hard to explain to someone who has never done it. However, there is nothing like sitting in a hammock next to a body of water with nothing but time!
Both an event in itself and highly practical for cooking or warmth. A campfire has a way of making you feel comfortable and tends to bring the best stories out of people. Check your local regulations to make sure that fires are allowed, sometimes in the summers (especially in the western part of the US) they can be limited or prohibited.
Do your research
It would be impossible for me to cover every possible activity to do while camping. It depends on the people you are with and where you will be camping! Check your local park with any unique activities or suggested things to do. Part of the fun is the adventure of trying something new, so don't rule anything out!
Have fun and ask questions
Camping is one of the best ways to disconnect from day-to-day life and relax. Something about being in nature really calms many people and can be a great way to de-stress and have fun with the family. While preparing for your first camping trip, do not get wound up. Things will probably go wrong, but that is part of the fun (and tend to make the best stories).
Do not be afraid to ask others for help and suggestions. As you learn and build experience through trial and error, you will begin to understand what your family enjoys and adapt your preparation appropriately. Eventually, you may build a new tradition that will influence your family for many years to come.