So you want to try camping for the first time, but you’re now sure how? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. In 2016, 4.7 million Americans went camping for the first time, so there’s nothing stopping you. Taking up any new hobby can seem intimidating, with so many new things to learn. However, there are plenty of easy ways to get into camping and join a vibrant and active community that always welcomes new members.
It can seem like there’s endless information on what to do and what not to do on your premier camping experience, it’s hard to know where to begin. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide on how to get into camping. Here, we’ve included everything you’ll need to know before setting off into the wilderness, from what you need to bring with you, to the precautions you’ll need to take in bear country. You might find our guide on the best time to buy camping gear is useful at this time, but of course, it’s not necessary to get an entire collection of gear for your first trip. Now, let’s jump in and learn about camping, soon you’ll be ready to take on the backcountry like a pro.
Things you should know before your first camping trip
Before you start thinking about setting up your tent and lighting your first campfire, there are a few things every new camper needs to know. These tips may seem simple, but they can make a big difference to the success of your first backcountry expedition. Before a first-time camping trip, every new adventurer should carefully consider this information.
1. Find a knowledgable camping buddy: Chances are, you know an outdoors enthusiast with a huge collection of camping gear and an even more vast library of knowledge and experience. If possible, it’s a great idea to take your first camping trip with a camping partner who knows what they’re doing. The easiest way to learn about the outdoors is by having someone show you, it’s ideal for new campers to benefit from the experience of more seasoned outdoor enthusiasts. If you can’t camp with an experienced friend or relative, don’t worry, you just might need to do a little extra research.
2. Borrow or rent expensive gear: The same experienced camper who might be able to provide some knowledge may also be able to lend you some equipment. New camping gear can be expensive, especially if you want quality products, and buying all the gear you need for your first trip can mount a serious bill. Instead, borrow or rent the biggest items (like your tent) to save some money, until you’re sure you want to invest in your own gear.
3. Stick to basic equipment: This leads on from our last point; there are endless camping gadgets and high-tech gear available today, but starting off it’s much better to start with only the most basic and vital gear. After you’ve gained some experience, you can start collecting some more specialized equipment.
4. Prioritize quality: If you do end up making camping purchases, make sure you’re investing in durable and high-quality gear, that will last through many more camping trips.
5. Car camping is a great way to start: Instead of charging off into the wilderness with nothing but a sleeping bag and a compass, ease yourself into your first camping trip. Car camping at a well-maintained campground is a safe bet for your first outing, you can research the amenities beforehand, and will be able to make a safe and easy getaway should anything go wrong.
6. Bring plenty of food: In a world that’s increasingly lazy, it’s easy to forget how much energy you use when outdoors. Make sure you bring enough nutritious supplies to fuel your new camper’s appetite.
7. Bring weather-appropriate clothing: You’d be surprised how many first time campers arrive in city clothes and find they aren’t adequate for a camping trip. Make sure you always have enough clothes for the cold and rain, including a spare dry-set in case you get caught in a rainstorm.
8. Pay attention to the weather: If there’s a bad weather forecast on the day you planned your trip, it’s best to postpone. If your first camping experience is wet and miserable, you might be deterred from pursuing a wonderful new hobby by a single bad impression. It’s worth it to wait for a sunny weekend.
9. Leave no trace: To make sure your first camping trip is done the right way, adhere to the leave no trace principles. We’ll explain more about this later in our article, but in short: look after nature while you’re camping, so you and many others can enjoy it for years to come.
Different types of camping
There are as many different ways to camp as there are campers; each outdoor enthusiast has their own method and preference when spending a night in the backcountry. However, there are a few main categories under which most camping trips fall, so we’ll explain them here. Take a look at the options available to you, and see all the different ways in which we can enjoy nature when camping.
Car camping: The most popular way to camp is from your car, most Americans drive to a designated campground with a trunk full of gear and enjoy their camping trips in a pre-established campsite. The main benefit of car camping is the convenience, as you can bring as much heavy and bulky gear as you want and store it all in your vehicle. Most national parks and other outdoor areas have designated car camping areas, where you may need to reserve a campsite before arrival. Car camping is our recommendation if it’s your first time, as there’s a lot more security and it’s easy to just pack up and drive home if necessary.
RV camping: Camping in an RV is the second most popular choice, as many RVer’s enjoy the freedom of being able to sleep anywhere without giving up the convenience of their homes. RVs allow campers to travel all around the country without ever leaving their bedroom, kitchen, or bathroom behind.
Backpacking: Backpacking is your final option when it comes to camping expeditions, where the only things you can bring with you have to be carried on your back. Backpacking is often synonymous with primitive camping, where campers venture into the wilderness to fend for themselves. Primitive or wild campers do so without access to any modern amenities, they simply find a campsite and set up with what they brought. Not all backpacking is primitive camping, as you can backpack in formal campgrounds, but it still means packing all your gear in and out on foot. Because backpacking is heavily self-reliant, we don’t recommend it to first-time campers. It’s much more advisable to go to a campground where staff or park rangers can help out if need be.
What to take on your first camping trip
When deciding what to take with you on your first camping experience, the huge selection of different camping gear can be overwhelming. However, there are a number of basic camping essentials that are vital to take along. Check out our list of the most important items to pack for your first camping trip. As we mentioned already, you might be able to borrow a lot of these items for a friend, saving you a lot of money to just try out a new hobby. If you do buy any equipment, make sure you’re investing in gear that will last.
- Tent: This one’s obvious, but you’ll need a reliable, waterproof shelter to sleep in on your camping trip. If you can, get a larger tent than you need, as the extra room is always invaluable to either give campers more personal space or to store all your gear. As a general rule of thumb, search for a tent made for one more person than your camping party contains (a three-person tent is ideal for a pair of campers). It’s also worth checking a tent’s peak height before purchasing if you want to stand up inside, and additional features like vestibules are always useful to have. We have lots of content available about choosing the best camping tent, for example, our buying guide for the best 2 person tent has plenty of useful information.
- Sleeping bag: Another vital piece of camping equipment is the sleeping bag, your first camping trip probably wouldn’t go very well without one. Consider the climate when you plan to camp; if you only want to go out in the warmer months, a summer sleeping bag should suffice. Otherwise, a 3-season sleeping bag is much more versatile and gives you many more options for use. Unless you’re backpacking, it’s not necessary to get an ultra-efficient (and small) mummy bag. Instead, a rectangular sleeping bag is much more comfortable if you have space in your car.
- Sleeping pad: A decent sleeping pad is another worthwhile camping investment. Not only will it keep you comfortable and protect you from rocks and uneven terrain, but a sleeping mat will insulate your body from the ground, preventing you from becoming too cold in the night. Inflatable sleeping mats make a good choice in this area, or alternatively, if you want to be away from the ground altogether, check out these comfy camping cots.
- Headlamp: It gets seriously dark in the wilderness after sunset, and you’re going to need to find your way around somehow. You’ll need some form of lighting to see what you’re doing, and a headlamp works best because it keeps your hands free. Alternatively, you could use a flashlight, or a lantern is another good option, but you need to bring some form of light source along on your camping trip. Inexpensive LED headlights are perfectly up to the job.
- Stove: Camping stoves are the most common way of cooking food in the backcountry, they’re convenient and easy to transport. Two-burner propane camp stoves are ideal, and easy to find for your first trip, but of course, there are plenty of other options like lightweight backpacking stoves. We recommend using a simple propane camp stove to cook food when you start, as this is a reliable choice. Once you’re a more experienced backcountry chef, you can consider more high-tech gear.
- First aid kit: It’s vital to bring a well-stocked first aid kit on any backcountry adventure. Make sure you’re well prepared for any camp-related accidents; scrapes and blisters can easily be treated by yourself on a camping trip.
- Sunscreen: It’s so important to protect yourself from sun damage while you’re enjoying the great outdoors. Sunscreen is a must-have on every camping trip.
- Bug spray: Although it may not seem that important, a swarm of insects can easily destroy a well-planned camping experience. Be prepared with some bug repellent, so you can avoid any annoying or potentially dangerous bites.
Where to go on your first camping trip
The choices American campers have when picking out a destination are endless. The country is full of national parks, state parks, wildlife areas, and other locations of abundant natural beauty, and almost all of them are open to campers. You can find endless listings of campsites and campgrounds online to make reservations, and there’s more still which operate on a first-come-first-served basis. Besides campgrounds, you could also visit dispersed campsites, or try camping in the wilderness. Once you arrive, you’ll need to know how to choose a campsite.
For your first camping experience, it’s a good idea to do some research and pick out a well-recommended campground. This way, you’ll have the largest chance of a successful trip. Camping in a formal campground means easy access to modern amenities, which will make your first time camping feel easier. Most of the time, there will be a knowledgable staff member or park ranger nearby who will be more than happy to share some advice with a first-time camper. If you need some inspiration, why not have a look at the best campgrounds in Washington state.
Food and cooking on a camping trip
We’ve already established that a camp stove is the best way to prepare your food on a camping trip, but what are you going to cook? On your first camping expedition, take food that’s easy to prepare over a fire or stove. Sausages and steaks are good examples, and instant oatmeal is always an easy and nutritious breakfast. Don’t forget to bring along a kettle too, for tea, coffee, and hot chocolate around the campfire. Boxed and ready meals are other easy options for backcountry cooking, or if you need to save on weight, try some dehydrated backpacking recipes.
How to get water on a camping trip
When you go camping for the first time, it’s best to keep it simple. Sure, there are water purifiers and filters, or you could just boil your water in an attempt to make it safe. However, we’d recommend you just camp somewhere with a safe water source available. Almost all formal campgrounds will have a spigot with potable (drinkable) water, so for your first camping trip, it’s best to stick with the safest option.
What to do if the weather turns
So, you’ve planned your first camping experience to perfection. The location is perfect, you remembered all your gear, and then the worst thing possible happens. Unfortunately, rain is an adversary that campers must face all the time, bad weather is simply a part of the camping experience. All first-time campers should know what to do if the rain starts pouring, so they can keep their gear and themselves dry.
If you’re staying at a campground, most have a covered area for cooking and other activities when the heavens open. Alternatively, bring along a waterproof tarp to hang from trees or poles as a shelter. It’s always handy to carry a spare tarp when camping for situations such as these; having a dry place to wait out the rain is very valuable to a camper.
Staying safe while camping
Our final advice for first-time campers pertains to the most important thing of all; safety. Above all else, the safety of yourself and all your fellow campers should always be your number one priority. We have a comprehensive guide on all you need to know about camping safety, so here we’ll just outline a few important details:
- Storing food in bear country: Always store all food items in a secure container such as a bear locker or can, and far away from where you sleep. Never store food in your tent, and never feed any wildlife.
- Safety and the local wildlife: If you encounter wild animals, respect their space. Never approach a wild animal, larger mammals such as bears and moose can be seriously dangerous to campers who aren’t careful.
- Campfire safety: Campfires are a lot of fun when you’re on a trip to the wilderness, but they can also be incredibly dangerous. If you decide to light a campfire, you must never leave it unattended, and always make sure it’s fully extinguished before vacating your campsite. The subject of campfire safety is a serious one, and every first-time camper needs to know about all campfire safety guidelines before their trip.
- Leave no trace: Following the leave no trace principles is vital to the preservation of our country’s natural landscapes. They’re a set of guidelines which, when followed, prevent campers from damaging the environment they visit. From the proper disposal of toilet paper and waste to the selection of an appropriate campsite, the leave no trace principles can guide us to look after our environment rather than destroying it. It’s of paramount importance that every camper reads and understands the leave no trace principles so that we can all take care of our natural world.
If you want to know how to get into camping, reading this article was a great first step. The best thing a first-time camper can do is learn from the experience of a more seasoned friend or relative, this way it’s easy to borrow the equipment you need as well. You know all the things you need to take on your first camping trip, so all that remains is to pick out a breathtaking location.
Campers should now be well prepared, knowing what actions to take if the weather takes a turn for the worse. Food and water are important, and also hard to forget, so just make sure you’re bringing appropriate backcountry nourishment. The final and most important lessons to take from this guide are the ones pertaining to safety. Camping, especially for your first time, might have more hidden dangers than first appear, so we implore you to carefully absorb all the necessary safety information before setting off.
With that said, we don’t want to overwhelm you. Getting into camping is easy, and first time camping trips usually become fond and valued memories. Camping is a highly accessible and even more rewarding hobby, we believe it’s worth trying for everyone. Why not give this outdoor pursuit a go, and see why camping is such a popular way to spend your spare time.
Bonus tip: Check out this video on picking the perfect campsite, every time!