Camping 101: A Guide For Beginners

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.

Tents

The classic camping shelter offers cozy 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 6-9 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 Core 6-person Instant 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 a fair price.

Coleman Sundome 6-Person Dome Tent Navy/Grey
$99.00

The Coleman Tent is designed for quick and easy setup, so you can spend more time enjoying the outdoors. Great for camping in warm weather, this backpacking tent is designed with large windows and a ground vent to help push warm air up and out to keep you comfortable. 

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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 set up your tent and later find a huge pebble right underneath your sleeping bag, you’ll wish you remembered.

Sleeping While Camping

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 decide 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.

INTEX Plus Deluxe Pillow Rest Air Mattress
$30.63

The deluxe version of our Pillow Rest Raised Air Mattress has reached another level of luxury. Engineered with Fiber-Tech Technology, this air mattress provides enhanced comfort, stability, and support.

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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.

Pads and Sleeping Bags

You should look for a three-season sleeping bag, which is suitable to use at any time except during the winter. Like with tents, that are many models that are available, ranging from basic to high-tech. Sleeping bags come with comfort ratings that are based on temperature. Remember that out in the field, night be chilly when you are making your choice. It is a very good idea for you to learn about what overnight temperatures typically are within the area that you are going to be camping in.

We recommend the Coleman Trailhead Cot

Some individuals won’t be comfortable even if they are sleeping on the best sleeping pad around. A great option in this situation is a cot, as long as you have room inside your tent. For car camping, camping cots can fold down into a manageable size and provide you with the closest option to sleeping in a real bed. They even have tent cots available with real tent features, such as a rain fly and mesh windows. Whether you will be sleeping on a cot or in a bag, each camper should have a pillow. Also throw a blanket into the car, just in case you might have a picnic away from your camping site.

Our Recommendation
Coleman 765353 Trailhead II Military Style Camping Cot

Eliminates the discomfort of sleeping on rough or cold ground. Strong cross-bar steel frame. Folds to fit in most car trunks

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Camping Furniture

An often overlooked aspect of going camping is bringing along the appropriate furniture to help set up your campsite. We’re not talking about bringing your living room couch, but remember 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 campsite, although not everyone 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 campfire, or just hang around the campsite 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 campfire out, or if you need to leave the campsite to walk to the bathhouse, or behind a tree. Pick up a LED lantern or two, you’ll be happy you did.  We recommend picking up the Etekcity Camping Lantern.

Etekcity Camping Lantern

Light up the evening sky with Etekcity‘ s Portable Outdoor LED Lantern. It features an omni-directional design and 30 energy saving LED bulbs, yielding 360 degree of high-intensity, long-lasting illuminance.

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Cooking While Camping

Next up is the all import topic of cooking while you’re at the campsite, which brings up to a couple of 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 campsite, 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 a 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 that will save you a TON of time.

Coleman Tabletop 2-in-1 Camping Grill/Stove
$54.95

Sauté veggies while simultaneously grilling chicken with the 2-in-1 Coleman Tabletop Propane Camping Grill/Stove, 2-Burner. 

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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 raccoons or squirrels or bears combing through their leftovers.

Other Camping Essentials

Apart from the items covered above, you need to bring the appropriate clothes, some bug spray, and 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.

Hygiene and Clothes

Usually for camping, regular mild-weather clothing – sweatshirts, t-shirt, cargo shorts, jeans, etc, are fine. If you are planning to go on an ambitious hike or another type of strenuous activity, then having purpose-made outdoor clothing that has things like UV protection, vent, and the quick-drying synthetic fabric is definitely nice. At bedtime, you should always put clean sleepwear on and dirty clothes should be stored inside your car so that it doesn’t attract animals. A good pair of hiking shoes are good to have for long hikes, however, it is fine to wear sneakers if you will mainly be hanging out at your campsite. If there is a place to swim nearby be sure to take your swimming suit along.

Outdoor Comfort and Safety

You can’t avoid insects, but you can manage their impact. Be sure to take insect repellent with you and re-apply it offers, particularly at night, when it is more likely for pests such as mosquitoes to be in the area. Citronella candles and mosquito coils can help to make your campsite not as hospitable for bugs.

We recommend the Gerber Dime multi-tool

Our Pick
Gerber Blades 31-001040 4.25" Red Dime Micro Tool
$14.99 ($7.50 / Count)

This handy tool is lightweight and yet durable as it is made from high quality stainless steel. The Dime also includes a unique blade designed to safely cut and score plastic packaging, and a bottle opener that is permanently exposed for your convenience.

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Having a multi-purpose tool that has a sharp knife blade is a great thing to invest in. You will most likely find many things to use it for at your campsite. A folding saw or hatchet can be very useful for breaking down firewood (just be sure that you know what the regulations are collecting wood in the area where you are going to be camping; frequently you are restricted to only “dead and down” wood and aren’t allowed to cut off limbs or cut down trees). A claw hammer can be handy for driving tent stakes in and also for pulling them out when you are ready to leave camp.

A Few Quick Tips

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 set up 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 breathe in the fresh air.

Patrick

I have been camping and going outdoors for over 15 years! My first experience was when I joined the scouts. There I learned a lot. From building a campfire to set up a really big tent. Then I know this is awesome. Around 2005 I also started Geocaching. This is a lot of fun. And every time we go camping we look at the map to see if there are some nice caches around.

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