Don't be intimidated; going camping is simple, almost unbelievably cheap and a lot of fun. Here's a basic guide for first timers with everything you need to know.
This article is inspired by you guys, who've been asking for basic advice. Here that is. Take a read, let me know if you have any questions, then get out there. It's easier than you think it'll be, so long as you take these basic preparations.
Why Go Camping? I've got two speeds when it comes to doing stuff outside. By myself, with one or two experienced friends and often with Wiley, I'll go have gnarly adventures that are equal parts dangerous, exhausting and amazing. Then, because I come back and post a bunch of epic photos on Instagram, I also end up taking a bunch of n00bs on big group trips too, often giving them their first camping experience or helping them get a little further than they've been before.
Often, those group trips take a little encouragement. My friends like the idea of going somewhere pretty, but worry about being uncomfortable, bored or just spending too much money. The way I always explain it to them is to think of going camping like having a barbecue or a dinner party, just somewhere amazingly beautiful. Typically, it's the most quality time we spend together as a group, actually enjoying each other's company instead of shouting over loud music at a bar or party. With no cell service, phones are off, minds are present and the rest of the world just sorta fades away.
What You'll Need: There is going to be a bit of an upfront cost to camping; you do need a few basic things. You can go super cheap and just buy some garbage at WalMart that'll perform just fine on one trip, so long as the weather's good, or spend a little more money on quality stuff that'll last a long time, across many trips and keep you comfortable even if it storms or it's colder than expected.
Let's define some basic parameters for quality gear that's good for car/motorcycle camping and trips that may require you to carry it for very short distances. Big backpacking miles, anything involving travel on water or anything extreme will require a little more gear specialization, but you can totally start with this stuff, develop an idea of the kinds of things you like to do and want to try and scale into a more complete, sophisticated camping gear setup over time.
It's also worth spending some time shopping around, even online. Like clothes, camping gear is subject to fashion, so you can find totally good stuff in last year's colors or patterns with deep discounts.
Sleeping Bag: Here in California, I think a bag rated to 20 degrees Fahrenheit is the most versatile option and will work well for three season camping in colder climes too. Temperature ratings on bags are a little deceptive, giving you an absolute minimum viable temperature. The rule of thumb is to add 10 degrees or so and from that divine the actual comfortable minimum temperature. So, in the real world, that 20 degree bag is comfy down to about freezing and positively toasty if nighttime lows are in the 40s, which is common in most mountains, even at the height of summer.
Down bags pack more warmth in a smaller, lighter package but are typically pricier and lose their ability to insulate capacity if you get them wet. Man made fillers tend to be heavier and don't pack quite as small, but are more affordable and will keep you warm even if you get soaked in a storm.
The Kelty Cosmic Down 20 is a solid combination of value, weight, size and performance. You can often find them on-sale for $80 or less and this is a bag that will work equally well while car camping or even backpacking. Couples might appreciate a two-person bag for nighttime cuddles.
Tent: Like sleeping bags, the number of people listed as a tent's capacity is an absolute extreme. If you need to go light and small and fit two people then yeah, get a two-person tent, but expect to be all up in each other's sleeping business. Add person to the tent size to increase comfort — for two people who want to be comfortable, pick up a three-man tent. If you're going camping with buddies, think about what's going to be a comfortable sleeping situation for you; I prefer my own one-man tent rather than spooning a buddy in a two-man.
You want a dome-style tent with flexible poles, not the A-frame Teddy Roosevelt carried. Eureka hits a good quality/size/weight/weatherproofness-to-price ratio.
"Footprints" protect the tent floor from being torn or cut by stuff on the ground and can help keep the tent's interior dry in a storm. Rather than buy the fancy ones from the manufacturer, I instead cut one to shape from thick plastic sheet. It'll last a few trips and then you can dispose of it.
Sleeping Pad: Absolutely essential, do not go camping without something nice and soft to sleep on. In addition to providing comfort, sleeping pads insulate you from the ground too, helping keep you warm. Splurge on a quality inflatable one like the $50 Therm-A-Rest Trail Lite, you want to be able to sleep comfortably.
Headlamp: It's going to be real dark at night and you'll need to see as you walk around the campsite, cook or do anything else. A cheap LED headlight will handle that better than anything else. No need for anything fancy here.
Lantern: Remember where we said it was going to get dark? It really is. Rather than rely on the campfire to provide enough light to eat dinner and just illuminate the campsite, you're probably going to want a lantern. LED ones are cheap, bright and easy to use. Bonus points for packing a little rope so you can hang it from a tree.
First Aid Kit: Preparing food and walking around in the dark, going hiking and just being outside, you're going to get scrapes, cuts, blisters and whatnot. Make your own first aid kit tailored to your individual needs.
Sunscreen: Wherever you're going, whenever the time of year, pack a big ol' tube of SPF50. You're going to be outside, in the sun for a long time.
Bug Spray: There will be bugs. I like Skin So Soft, which isn't as nasty and chemically as most other stuff. Regardless, don't get it in your eyes, but make sure you get it absolutely everywhere else.
How To Find Camp Sites: Thankfully, our country's proud tradition of doing stuff outdoors means places to go camping are abundant. The easiest way to have a great time on your first camping trip is just to head to your nearest National Park.
You'll need to book your campsite ahead of time. The park's website will show you your various options in terms of sites and it's a good idea to look them up on Yelp too, that'll tell you if there's an awful bug problem or if the toilets are gross. When you have an idea where you want to stay, visit Reserve America and book your site(s).
Organized campsites like these will have toilets, sometimes showers, a source of clean water and most have firewood you can buy as well as metal fire rings with convenient cooking grilles. All you really need to do is show up with your camping equipment and food and have a good time.
Other types of campsites are "dispersed" meaning they're official and my have fire rings and whatnot, but none of the other conveniences or "wilderness camping" which is out in the sticks, all on your own and probably not a great idea for first timers.
Stuff To Do: You'll want to loosely prepare some activities or research options ahead of time, then respond to conditions on the ground when you arrive. Day hikes, nature tours, beaches, fishing, picnics and sports can all make camping much for fun than just sitting around all day. But doing that can be fun too, bring a book.
If you plan on doing a day hike, pack a day pack, water bottle and trail map, as well as comfortable shoes and clothes. Most of the other activities take a little forethought as well, so it's a good idea to have some idea what you're going to be doing ahead of time, or at least what the options are. You may need permits for activities like fishing, or a specific parking pass for trailheads in certain areas. Google can be a big help there.
What to Wear: Spending long periods of time outdoors will expose you more significantly to weather. A 45 degree night is much colder when you're outside in it for long periods than what you're used to walking to the Subway or from taking the dog around the block. Pack warmer clothes than you'll need and you'll be comfortable — wool hat, longjohns, a cozy shirt or sweater and a windproof jacket are good ideas, even during summer months.
Just check the weather reports and prepare accordingly. Boots are always a great idea, but not necessary if you don't already have them. Any footwear should be proven and comfortable. Take extra socks in case the one's you're wearing get wet. Take old clothes that can get dirty and which will take a beating. You're going to get smoky and dirty at the very least.
There's a ton of speciality outdoors gear available, but you likely already have some old clothes lying around that can get the job done. It's just camping, you don't need to prepare for climbing Everest.
Food: Treat it like a two-day long dinner party or barbecue and take food that's easy to prepare over a fire or propane stove. You'll also want a frying pan and a kettle to boil water in for coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Sausages, steaks, cans of beans and similar fire-friendly foods are good for dinner. Make lunch simple and cold — sandwiches you make and pack ahead of time. There is no better breakfast in the world than eggs and bacon, but packets of instant oatmeal are more convenient if you want to get going first thing in the morning. Visit Trader Joes and buy a bunch of snacks, hanging out around a campfire is hungry work. Be sure to keep any perishables in a cooler.
Before going to bed, make sure all foodstuffs and similar are tidied up and packed away. If you're going somewhere with bears, here's advice on how to deal with that but regardless, there will be other critters around who will try to steal your food. Lock it in your car's trunk at night and keep it out of your tent.
What To Do If It Rains: It happens. Check forecasts ahead of time and try and give yourself the best odds of a rain-free weekend, but in a lot of places, those don't exist. Most organized campsites have some sort of covered area where you can cook, hangout or whatever in bad weather. If not, packing a tarp and hanging it from trees or poles can be a good shelter. Heck, even a big tree is pretty good at keeping you dry.
Big storms also happen. If you see one coming, prepare as best possible by packing anything that could blow away into your car, cooler or tent and take a minute to make sure that tent is as secure as possible.
You're big boys and girls, so you know not to stand under a tall tree or on top of a tall hill during a thunderstorm. But, just hanging out in your tent until it blows over should be fine. Sheltering on the lee side of a hill or rock and remembering to pack a rain jacket are also good ideas.
If it rains the whole weekend, just proceed as planned and go have fun. You'll get wet, it's no big deal.
Go Camping: Plan to arrive no-later than mid-afternoon and make setting up camp your first priority. Tents should be pitched, but leave your sleeping pads and bags rolled up until you're ready to get in them. This keeps them dry and safe and keeps critters out. Oh yeah, always keep your tent zipped closed with the zippers at the top. Snakes, foxes, squirrels, bugs, etc etc etc all want to get in there and wreak havoc. For the same reason, keep all food and anything else potentially tasty out of your tent at all times.
It's a good idea to do a dry run with your equipment ahead of time, especially if it's your first time setting up a new tent. Modern ones do get a bit confusing, so read the instructions and set up the tent in your yard, garage or living room. Take this opportunity to liberally coat its floor and rain fly with Sno-Seal Silicone waterproof spray, that's the best there is and it'll waterproof anything, so put it on your boots too.
Be aware that you will likely lose cell phone reception on the way to your camp site, as you enter a remote area and leave highways. Any communication needs should be resolved ahead of time and make sure you know now to navigate to your campsite. Print out directions and reservation information and take it with you to avoid trouble.
Once you're there and once you're set up, just hang out, watch a pretty sunset and relax. You're outside and the only thing that matters now is having a good time. You're going to hit some bumps along the camping road — there's more to it than I can cover in a single article — just treat them as learning experiences and apply common sense and logic and you'll be ok.
Make your first experience easy and short — two days, one night — and build from there. If you think you might like backpacking, try day hikes first. If you want to spend time on the water, rent a canoe for an afternoon and see what that's like. Start small, get used to the outdoors, learn what you do and don't like and just keep growing from there.
Oh, and remember to leave the campsite and any other areas you visit cleaner than how you found them. If we all do that, camping will be more enjoyable for all of us. Pack trashbags!
What are your tips for first time campers? Do you have any camping questions? Nothing's too dumb or basic, just ask in the comments and I'll answer you to the best of my ability.
Top Photo: Srikanth Jandalaya, all others Alex Hodges
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.