For first-time campers, spending the night outdoors means a lot of planning, including figuring out what to bring. The following are tips from startup experts.
Choose your camp style
Camping comes in many varieties, from car camping, which means you drive to a campsite and pitch a tent, to overnight backpacking, where you bring everything on foot.
Starter-friendly, car camping allows travelers to bring things like coolers and camp chairs, and most campgrounds maintain restrooms.
“My advice for a first-time camper is to take small steps,” says Alyssa Ravasio, the founder and chief executive of Hipcamp, which lists campsites on private land such as farms and ranches. “Try for a night or two. Go somewhere closer to home. And make sure the amenities that are important to you are there, like a bathroom or a shower.”
Make reservations in advance
Like hotels, many campsites can be booked online. Reserve your spot in advance, especially during peak seasons. In New Hampshire State Parksfor example, reservations open 30 days in advance with only a few campsites held for the day of arrival.
The federal website Recreation.gov offers campsite reservations with many government agencies, including the National Park Service.
If you intend to camp at a popular national park, plan ahead and familiarize yourself with its booking rules, which are not standard, by searching the park’s website or Recreation.gov. Campsites at Upper Pines Campground in Yosemite National Park in California, for example, is available five months in advance. In contrast, the sites on South Campground in Zion National Park in Utah can be booked up to 14 days prior to arrival.
If national park sites are booked, look for nearby state parks or alternative campgrounds. Hipcamp offers maps showing public lands, including national parks, and many places to camp around them.
Commercial campgrounds like COO may offer amenities such as swimming pools or basketball courts. Websites like ReserveAmerica.com make finding both public and private campgrounds easy. Booking platforms like Hipcamp, the Dyrt and Pitchup.com are great places to find off-the-beaten-track options or private properties.
If a campground is booked, set one up alert with Dyrt, which will text you when a site becomes available. The service starts at $9 for non-members.
Rent camping basics
When it comes to basic equipment, rent before you buy.
“With tents, it’s worth noting that a four-person tent won’t comfortably fit four men in reality,” says Dan Yates, the founder of Pitchup.com, noting that tent sizes are not luggage is considered. He recommends choosing a tent sized for two more people than will sleep in it.
Sleeping bags, rated for outdoor temperatures, are also often available for rent. Most guides recommend adding a sleeping pad or mat.
“We can tackle almost anything during the day if we get a good night’s sleep,” says Gary Elbert, who designs camping trips for REI Adventures. “If I’m investing money in one thing, it’s a sleeping kit.”
Plan the kitchen
By car, avoid buying special cooking equipment and pack small pots, pans, plates and utensils from home. If you don’t want to cook over an open fire, rent a camp stove.
Food storage advice depends on where you camp. If there are no bears, storing food overnight in your car deters animals like raccoons. In bear country, follow campground requirements and use provided food storage safes. Depending on the location, the National Park Service recommends storing food in a locked car during the day only with food containers or food storage such as coolers covered and the windows closed.
Water is a basic survival need. In its guide to what to bring, the National Park Service recommends two liters of drinking water per person a day and more if you are in hot areas. The Green Mountain Cluba nonprofit that manages 500 miles of trails in Vermont, recommends adding two quarts for cooking and another two for putting out a campfire.
“Most developed front country campgrounds will have potable water sources, so be sure to check before you go,” says Emily Mosher, the manager of visitor services for the Green Mountain Club.
Pack for trouble
Pack and wear layers to account for temperature changes from day to night, and remember rain gear or a water-resistant outer layer. Avoid cotton, which absorbs water, including sweat, and dries slowly.
Carry a headlamp, which allows you to do things hands-free in the dark like unzipping your tent. A utility knife or multi-tool device helps with chores. A first-aid kit should be stocked with bandages, antiseptic wipes and pain relievers.
To account for no or low connectivity, carry paper maps or download maps that you can check offline.
It’s not all defensive packing. Don’t forget cards, books and games.
Practice fire safety
One of the great joys of camping is sitting around a campfire. Campers should check with park or campground authorities to make sure fires are permitted; in drought conditions they are often prohibited.
Only burn wood purchased or provided locally — firewood from other areas risks carrying invasive insects or diseases.
There are several ways to make fire, such as scope this guide from KOA. Using the basic structure of the tepee or cone, lean small sticks on a bundle of starter such as dry grass or birch tree bark. When the tinder ignites and the sticks catch fire, add larger sticks, reaching the logs.
The most important step in breaking camp is to make sure your fire is out. According to the Department of the Interior, almost nine out of 10 wildfires is caused by people.
When you have a fire going, make “campfire soup” by soaking the fire pit in water and stirring it with a stick so it reaches all the coals. The lips should be cool enough to handle before you leave.
Leave no trace
Collect all trash and throw it away or take it home. Filter the gray water used for washing dishes and drain the water at the collection points.
The nonprofit conservation organization Leave No Trace offers a free 45-minute online tutorial on safe and eco-friendly camping basics.
Outdoor enthusiasts in historically marginalized communities have created organizations that encourage hiking and camping with events, trips and how-to videos. Find educational resources at Black Folks Camp Too, Latinos Outside and the Venture Out ProjectBesides others.