How to Get Into Camping
Camping & Hiking expert Jessica LaPolla shares a beginner's guide to camping with all the gear you need to start planning your first trip.
Yearning to escape city life? Haven’t camped since you were a kid and have no idea where to start? Not to worry, we are here to walk you through it. Your first time camping should be nothing short of magical, so we are going to go over everything you’ll need to prepare for your trip to make sure it exceeds all of your expectations. Now, before you head out to the woods, you’ll want to make sure you have all of the necessary gear.
Camping gear can be quite expensive, so begin collecting gear a few items at a time until your kit is complete. You can also rent some of the big-ticket items (tent, sleeping bags) to save money. Here is a comprehensive checklist of everything you’ll need to pack for your first camping trip:
You’ll need to decide on what type of camping you’re doing first, and go from there. Are you going the traditional tent route, or do you want to take a swing at hammock camping? (pun intended). If you have an SUV or truck, there are also overlander-type tents that will give you a tent camping experience, on top of your vehicle. Tents can come in all different shapes and sizes, so think about how many people will be joining you in your shelter. Keep in mind, a four-person tent can fit four people, but you will probably be cramped. If you want more space and don't mind a heavier tent, consider sizing up. Tents are rated by seasons, with most tents rated to 2-3 seasons, which should be perfect for most of your camping endeavors.
To make sure you stay warm and cozy, select sleeping bags with a temperature rating of at least 10 degrees below what the predicted lowest temperature will be. Down sleeping bags are generally warmer than synthetic bags but can be damaged if they become too wet. The water can ruin the down and the bags will lose their ability to insulate. Synthetic bags are a more affordable option and hold up better in wet environments, so consider when and where you’ll be camping the most before choosing your sleeping bag.
Whether you are hammock camping or tent camping, you’ll want a little extra support for your body while you sleep. Many types of foam and air pads exist, but not all are created equally. Some have extra insulation and padding, while others are more basic. Choose an air pad/mattress for ultimate comfort (this is one of my favorites... ) and place a closed-cell foam pad underneath for added insulation and warmth. If camping in a large tent, feel free to bring a full-sized inflatable mattress from home to sleep on and a pump to inflate it.
Stove, fuel, and cookware
Unless you’re planning on driving into town for all of your hot meals, bring a camp stove, fuel, and cookware with you to enjoy a cozy dinner around the campfire and a hot cup of coffee in the morning. Try a stovetop coffee maker for the perfect cup of joe before departing camp. Feel free to bring a few items from your kitchen along with paper cups and plates or bowls to save money on cookware. Consider bringing reusable sporks in place of plastic utensils to cut down on plastic waste and to avoid having to bring silverware from home. Bring a pocket knife for multiple uses, including cutting or slicing food.
Before purchasing wood and packing the s'mores supplies, make sure to check local conditions and fire restrictions. Even if the campground you chose has grills or fire pits, you may not necessarily be able to use them, depending on restrictions. National parks and national forests typically have information on wildfires and restrictions on their websites, and most campgrounds will have signs at the entrance detailing current rules.
Make sure you pack out/throw out all of your trash appropriately and bring a sponge and biodegradable camp soap to clean your pots and pans, to avoid having to bring home dirty dishes.
Bring a cooler filled with ice to keep perishables and drinks in, and bring a large plastic container to store pots and pans in. This can also double as a wash bin if you don’t have access to a sink and makes transporting your cookware a breeze.
Make sure you bring plenty of food to fuel your hunger after a long day spent outdoors. If you’re comfortable in the kitchen, feel free to bring ingredients to make something hearty and warm like chili or curry for dinner. If you want something tried and true and easy to make, bring hotdogs, hamburgers, and canned baked beans. For breakfast, bring bagels, oatmeal, or eggs and bacon. Sandwiches or something else easy and filling are a great lunch option. Be sure to meal plan ahead of time to ensure you bring plenty of food for everyone. And don’t forget the s’mores for dessert!
Don’t leave food or trash lying around your campsite where critters can get to it. Place these items in a sealed bin or container for safekeeping and bring a couple of trash bags for easy clean-up. If there are bears in the area you’re camping in, you’ll need to take extra measures to store your food and trash. Campgrounds can be a hotspot for hungry bears, who have been known to break into cabins and cars if they smell something yummy. Protect your food and yourself by bringing bear bags or canisters, or consider hanging your food in a tree if possible, away from your campsite.
Does the campsite you’re staying at have potable water? Make sure to find out before arriving. You might have to pack all of the water you’ll need. Make sure to account for drinking water, along with enough water to cook and clean with.
Bring lots of layers! A T-shirt and shorts may be adequate for hiking during the day, but you’ll want a few extra layers when the sun goes down. Avoid cotton, as it holds onto moisture and can leave you cold and damp. Natural fibers, like wool, are the best as they don’t hold onto odor and will keep you dry and warm. Always bring a rain jacket or waterproof outer layer, even if the weather forecast predicts nothing but sunny skies. Conditions can change at any moment. Bring a pair of hiking boots or trail runners for daytime adventures and a pair of sandals or flip-flops you can walk around camp in and easily slip on and off as needed.
Bring headlamps and lanterns or flashlights for navigating your tent and campsite in the dark and extra batteries for each.
Does the campground have bathrooms? This will determine the type of toiletries you need to bother with. Many campgrounds have showers and toilets, so you may want to bring some travel-sized items like shampoo and soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, as well as a towel. However, you probably don’t need to bring the toilet paper (unless your campsite is a far walk/drive from the bathroom facilities, in which case you may want to bring a roll). If the campsite is more primitive, bring toilet paper in a zip-top bag and bring a separate bag to pack out waste.
Hand sanitizer is great to have around the camp kitchen and after bathroom breaks. Bring extra water for teeth brushing and washing, along with biodegradable soap or shower wipes. For more on staying clean while camping, check out this article. Don’t forget to pack any medications you need, along with a first aid kit, plenty of sunscreen, and insect repellent or bug spray.
Be sure to bring camp chairs with you, as well as fire-starting materials if fires are permitted where you are camping. Some states and regions have restrictions on the type of or origin of firewood, so when in doubt, purchase firewood from the campground or from a local store. Bring a solar charger or battery pack for cell phones, especially if using the GPS or compass on your phone, and cards or games for entertainment.
Other Tips for a Successful Camping Trip
Do plenty of research before your trip on the location you’ll be camping in, the facilities available, and activities in the area. For your first camping trip, choose a location and campground/site with a few modern comforts, such as a restroom and a camp store, to make sure the trip is enjoyable. Check the forecast a few days before your trip and check it again before you leave. If it looks like rain, consider postponing. You want your first camping adventure to be easy and fun, not wet and dreary. And last but not least, get out there and enjoy nature!