Camping Made Easy: Expert Tips On Taking the Plunge

wanderlust and relax in nature with camping tent and backpack on top of mountain on spring and summer season

Camping for the first time can be intimidating. You may not know where to go, what to bring, or how to stay safe outdoors. These what-ifs often keep would-be campers stuck at home. Luckily, your first camping trip does not need to be scary. Fear not, because you can enjoy camping made easy.

Select a Location

Illuminated camping tent under starry sky

Before you acquire any camping gear, plan activities, or take time off, consider where you want to camp. Different locations offer varying levels of comfort.

  • If you are a newbie, start with improved-site camping, sometimes called car camping. This involves staying in an established campground, often with paved roads and open facilities. Amenities are abundant, but improved campsites generally charge a usage fee.
  • Check ahead and learn about the campsite. Find out if it offers facilities, potable water, a dump site, and food storage.
  • Learn the site's rules and requirements. Some campgrounds require a minimum length of stay or prohibit certain types of vehicles.
  • Avoid campsites located far from home, at least for your first trip.

Cheat Tip

If possible, look for campsites in the off-season and book a site well ahead of your stay. Do some research and pick dates when fewer campers are likely to be present. Avoiding the crowds can greatly increase your enjoyment.

Check the Weather

family stuck in their tent during a rainy day

Staying outdoors with minimal shelter changes your perspective on weather. A pleasant rain may lull you to sleep at home, but a pounding downpour hitting your tent at 3 a.m. may keep you up all night.

  • Check ahead for inclement weather. Look up wind conditions as well as daytime and nighttime temperature projections. Daytime temperatures often drop quickly as night sets in. Even moderate rain and wind can greatly impact your safety and comfort.
  • Avoid camping in the rain, extreme wind, or during a heatwave for your first trip out-of-doors. If you are inexperienced, snow camping is likely out of the question.
  • Have a backup plan. If conditions are difficult or dangerous, be prepared before you go, or be ready to reschedule your trip. Always notify friends and family of your location, as well as departure and return dates, even if you are staying in a well-established campground.

Cheat Tip

Know your temperature limits. Nighttime temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit are often too cold for new campers. Daytime temperatures above roughly 95 degrees are bordering on dangerous for first-timers.

Plan Ahead

A woman watching sunrise from a tent.

A little forethought and consideration make all the difference when it comes to camping. The good news is, you don't need a lot of gear to get started. A few essentials and the means to transport them to your campsite are all you require.

Cheat Tip

Sleeping comfortably is extremely important, especially if you are new to camping. Poor sleep is likely to leave you miserable the following day. If you are camping with family and have the space, consider an inflatable full-sized mattress. As long as you bring a portable automatic pump that can operate on your car's 12--volt outlet-which may require an adapter--using an inflatable allows you to sleep without sacrificing comfort.

Pick the Right Spot

Tent Camping Under a Pinon Tree in the Desert

Some campsites require you to choose your site ahead of time when making your reservation, sight unseen. Sometimes, you can view sites online to help you decide. If you are allowed to pick when you arrive, you need to evaluate a prospective site's merits and flaws.

  • Learn to read a potential campsite. Is natural shade available at the site? How flat are areas where you might pitch a tent? Is the ground clear of debris?
  • Before you set your heart on a spot, take note of your possible neighbors. A large group of rowdy college students next door might leave you less than comfortable during your stay.
  • Check the fire pit, if one is available, and take care to make sure any remaining coals are cool.
  • If possible, select a site close to amenities and restroom facilities.
  • Consider how a campsite's character will change over the course of a day. Where will sunlight fall in the morning and evening? Remember to check estimated sunrise time. In many places, the sun may appear quite early during certain parts of the year. Your otherwise idyllic camp might become intolerable when bright morning sunshine wakes you up around 5 a.m.
  • Try to imagine how rainfall will impact a campsite. Never camp or pitch a tent in a dry gully or stream bed. If a storm encroaches, your camp may be washed away. Stay on the high ground. Even if it isn't raining where you are camped, rainfall up-country can quickly lead to wet conditions. Understand that flash floods occur rapidly, often without warning, and are very dangerous.

Cheat Tip

It is often tempting to pick a spot with an epic view. However, if conditions turn windy, you may regret not selecting a site with natural shelter from gusty conditions. An exposed bluff might offer amazing views, but the campsite just up the canyon, surrounded by large boulders and foliage, provides more protection from the elements.

Set Up Camp

Two men setting up their campsite

Now is not the time to settle in and relax. First, unpack and get to work. The faster you pitch camp, the faster you can relax. The basics of camp setup are straightforward. Make sure to set up your tent first, while you have daylight. Then you can focus on prepping your camp for the rest of your stay.

Cheat Tip

Always stake out your tent. This may seem like an unnecessary chore when you are tired and there is no breeze. However, waking up in the middle of the night to gale force winds blowing your tent down, and having to fix it, is very unpleasant. Also, many tents come with relatively ineffective stakes, so consider upgrading to better ones. Practice pitching your tent under controlled conditions at home at least once before you head out.

Make Camp Cozy

Parents cheers over a glass of red wine while camping

This is not strictly necessary, but adding a personal touch helps make camp feel like home.

  • Attach small LED lights near the base of your tent's guide lines. Turn these on at night to prevent tripping over your lines.
  • Bring a floor mat to place outside your tent's entrance. This helps keep dirt and debris out of your sleeping space.
  • A pop-up canopy offers shade during the day, and some protection from rain. Remember to stake it down. You can purchase netting or sunshades to enhance a canopy's protective qualities.
  • Although not essential, camping patio mats designed for use outdoors add a level of comfort to your site. These are not too expensive, but can be large and difficult to pack. Mats are especially nice for families with young children who play on the ground.
  • At campsites with sturdy trees or designated posts, a hammock is an excellent luxury. Though not always practical, swinging lazily while reading a book can be very relaxing. Most pack into a small footprint, as well.

Cheat Tip

Purchase a few solar-powered, collapsible LED lanterns. Inflatable models are available, as are string lights and traditional camping lantern designs. These charge in sunlight and add functional yet attractive, soft light when the sun goes down.

Prep Meals Like a Pro

man cooking on turist stove nearby campervan in mounatins

The most important aspect of dinning in camp is planning ahead. When camping in an established site with amenities, your options expand tremendously. Making a delicious meal doesn't have to be difficult, either.

  • Prepackaged foods, dry items, canned goods, and snacks all make excellent camp fare. If you don't plan on heating water or food over a flame, it is feasible to get by on cold items and pre-prepped foods. Eating granola and energy bars in the morning, making peanut-butter-and-jelly or cold cut sandwiches for lunch, and ending your day with a can of cold precooked beans is perfectly fine.
  • Pack dry items and prepackaged foods that don't require refrigeration in a simple plastic bin. Don't forget the salt and pepper.
  • You might become bored with cold meals and crackers. Luckily, it isn't necessary to prepare a three-course meal under the stars to enjoy very well made camp fare. The secret is organization. Decide on meals you would like to eat, then prepare and sort ingredients and equipment before you leave home.
  • Bring a reliable, sturdy cooler large enough to store perishable items.
  • Plan your meal schedule. Cut up any vegetables and place them in Ziplock bags. Remove all meat and fish from store packaging, and repackage them in sealed bags, organizing by meal order.
  • Never mix meats in the same bag. Ideally, you should vacuum seal and freeze meat and fish beforehand, and transport them frozen until you are ready to thaw and eat them. If you can precook dishes, this makes serving at your campsite very easy.
  • A reliable gas camp stove is an indispensable piece of cookware. Propane stoves are best. It is possible to cook over an open fire, but this presents many challenges, especially for first-time campers. Also, there are many systems for camp cooking to consider.

Cheat Tip

You can look like a pro with this simple preparation method for scrambled eggs. At home, prepare eggs in a bowl according to your favorite recipe. Pour the mixture into a clean, empty plastic water bottle. Cap the bottle, and store it in your fridge or cooler until you are ready to cook. Heat up a non-stick pan, spray it with some olive oil or butter, and pour your scrambled egg mixture in. Add some chopped, precooked ham or bacon, diced tomatoes and a little cheese into the mix, and impress your family and friends.

Wildlife Awareness

Bear Invading Campground

Wild animals are often what turns many would-be campers off the idea of staying outdoors entirely. This doesn't need to be the case. Most wild animals are far more likely to avoid you than attack.

  • Properly store and secure all food and anything that smells like food, including toiletries, cookware and utensils, and even lip balm. If your campground provides bear boxes, use them. Dispose of all trash in appropriate, secured containers.
  • Bears are your biggest concern. Several species have ranges across North America, and all come equipped with an extremely acute sense of smell. Improperly storing food endangers your life and the life of any bear that wanders into your camp. Never store food, cookware, utensils, cups, or personal hygiene items in your tent, at any time. Water is OK, but that's it. Smells linger, and you are inviting disaster.
  • When food storage options are limited, you must tie out and secure all foods and cookware in a tree at least 100 yards from camp. Hang your bear box or bag a minimum of 10 feet away from the tree trunk and 15 feet off the ground. Never invite wildlife into your campsite.
  • Understand that bears are extremely intelligent. They are known to check cars for coolers and food wrappers, and many know how to operate door handles. Follow all camp guidelines and rules of food storage, lock your doors, and cover up any containers kept in your car with a blanket.
  • Even in areas where no bears are present, properly secure all food items. Many small critters will attempt to access anything you haven't locked in your car, or in appropriately secured containers. Raccoons, wild hogs, coyotes, squirrels, rats, and birds-among many others-are known to steal camp food. You may harm their chances of survival by teaching them to rely on humans for their meals.

Cheat Tip

Insects are the most annoying-and potentially dangerous-wildlife. Mosquitos, ticks, chiggers, and flies are all known camp pests. Bring quality bug spray with you. Use it liberally on clothing and skin. Wear head nets and thick clothing when appropriate. Tuck your pants into your socks while hiking, and perform thorough tick checks after every excursion. Learn how to remove ticks with tweezers, head and all, before you travel. Bugs are attracted to light and the smell of food. A canopy with bug netting makes mealtime much more enjoyable.

Make It Fun for the Whole Family

Family camping

Once your camp is comfortable, it's time to think about recreation. Planning is your best friend, especially if you have children with you.

  • It is easy to park kids in front of their favorite screens, but that defeats the purpose of taking them for a trip outdoors. Bring your favorite board games, a pack of playing cards, and outdoors sports equipment to keep them occupied.
  • Do some research on local plants, and spend time on a nature hike helping kids identify local flora. This serves a dual purpose. You can help kids stay safe if they know how to spot dangerous or toxic plants. Poison oak and poison ivy are two of the most pervasive and annoying plants you should know how to recognize, but many other species are important to avoid, as well.
  • Research local wildlife, and take kids on a hike to see what animals they can find. This helps make them aware of their nature neighbors while camping, and is a source of extreme excitement. Teach children why they must never feed, provoke, harass, or interfere with wildlife. It is so tempting to feed young squirrels and birds, but you only harm them by doing so.
  • Bring extra trash bags and a trash picker tool. Walk around and help clean up camp, then ask kids to help. This may seem like a chore, but children often enjoy practicing conservation.

Cheat Tip

Space permitting, makeshift Frisbee golf and bocce ball setups are extremely fun to play in and around camp. Start a match with enthusiasm, and watch your young charges squeal with delight. Print out and practice new card game rules for when the weather won't cooperate. Keep kids occupied, and they won't want to leave.

Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints

This famous quote, attributed to Chief Seattle, encapsulates the ethic of leave-no-trace camping. Treat wild spaces with respect. Tread lightly, and clean up after yourself. Leave your campsite in a better state than when you found it. If you can do this, you are on your way to becoming a welcomed member of any campsite you visit.

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Camping Made Easy: Expert Tips On Taking the Plunge