The Beginner’s Guide to Camping
There are a million ways to go camping, and all of them are a different flavor of fun. While deluxe options exist like glamping (Pinterest-worthy teepee tents!) and van camping (string lights sold separately), we’ll focus here on good old-fashioned tent camping. Tent camping comes in two main varieties: car camping, in which you drive up to your campsite, and backpacking, in which you hoof it on a trail for hours or days with all your supplies on your back.
We’ll give a quick overview on camping here, and don’t fret when the suggested gear lists seem long. That’s what Geartrade is for—you can snap up nearly everything UnNew and gentle on the budget.
All about car camping:
If you’re a beginner, we highly recommend starting with car camping. Even if you have your sights set on backpacking, start with a good car camp outing to practice using your gear and packing your pack. If you’re car camping, you can, of course, bring more stuff than you would for backpacking.
Start by choosing a destination. If you’re a newbie, you’ll do best at a developed campground, which you can find either on National Forest Land or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands too. For a small fee, you can have a site with nice little amenities like bathrooms, water spigots, fire rings, and trash cans. Most developed campgrounds let you reserve a camp spot, which is always a good idea if you can. A quick Google search will direct you to the right reservation webpage, and if all the spots are taken for your chosen timeframe, they may still allow a certain number of walk-up reservations that are available first-come first-served. In that case, try arriving as early in the day as possible so you can snag a spot.
Now, start stocking up on the gear you’ll need. There’s no need to get the fanciest version of anything, and UnNew will do just fine.
- Tent: This is perhaps the most obvious item, and certainly not one to forget! If you’re tent-shopping, keep in mind that the sizes (two-man, three-man, etc.) are usually a bit ambitious and will feel cramped if you pack that many people in. Buy a little bigger than you’ll need if possible, and look for a tent that’s simple to set up and doesn’t have too many components. We have a nice buyer’s guide here.
- Sleeping bag, pad, and pillow: Check the usual weather for your destination and choose a sleeping bag that’s rated accordingly. Since you’re car camping, you can bring a cushy sleeping pad, but keep in mind that the super-bulky oversized ones are awful to pack. If you can, opt for an inflatable one that’s easy to pack. You can read our entire sleeping bag buying guide here!
- If fire is permitted, firewood and starter: Make certain fires are allowed in your campground, and if they are, make sure you use an established fire pit and completely put it out before you leave it unattended. (That means not one spark is left!) Now that we’ve gotten that PSA out of the way, pack firewood, matches, and fire starter (or newspaper or cardboard scraps) to make it easy to light. In many areas, you’re allowed to gather dead wood from the ground to burn in your fire, but you’re never supposed to cut live branches off a tree. So just plan ahead.
- Camp kitchen: This can be over-the-top elaborate or very simple depending on your style. Camp cooking tables, cooksets, dishes, stoves, and dishwashing stations are all available in varying degrees of fanciness. You can always simplify by setting your stove on a (stable!) rock, eating off burnable paper plates, preparing a super-simple recipe, and doing dishes in the pot you cooked in. Be sure to use biodegradable soap that won’t hurt the environment.
- Easy food: Plan your breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks to be filling and simple. Cooking in camp is much easier if you did prep work ahead of time, portioning out ingredients and pre-chopping everything. Meals can be exceptionally simple (instant oatmeal, frozen burritos warmed up on the fire coals, pasta with canned sauce, etc.) or as complex as you like. Just keep in mind that if you’re being active all day, hiking or whatnot, you’ll probably want more calories than you usually do. If you’re going to be out for several days without access to additional ice for your cooler, plan accordingly—bring fewer perishables and fill your cooler with more ice than usual at the outset. And don’t forget a trash bag and paper towels.
- Camp chairs: Many developed campgrounds have picnic tables, but if you want any fireside seating, a camp chair per person is always a great call. Long evenings hanging out sipping beers, playing card games, or passing the guitar around are much more comfortable if everyone has a place to sit.
- Lighting: On the simplest end of the spectrum, use headlamps. Or, if you’re feeling snazzy, throw down for a couple of good lanterns, which are available battery-powered or solar-powered.
- Bathroom essentials: If you’re in a developed campground, there’s probably a bathroom, but they certainly don’t all have sinks, so hand sanitizer is a good idea. You can plan on washing your face and brushing your teeth using water from a water bottle.
- First aid kit: Scratches, cuts, bug bites, and burns do happen, so be sure to pack your first aid kit. We have a thorough guide here.
How to adjust for backpacking:
If you’ll be carrying all your gear, clothes, and food on your back for a couple days or more, all of a sudden, lightweight and compressible gear gets very desirable. Fortunately, we’ve penned a proper Backpacking 101 guide to get you through the packing-list needs and a few beginner-friendly how-to’s.
Backpacking is a fun puzzle in which you balance the task of lightening up your gear, figuring out how to fit it all into a pack, planning an adventure, and thinking through the logistics of hiking, eating, and sleeping. You’ll want to make sure your fitness level is in a solid place for trekking along with a heavy pack. (Or make sure your mileage plans are very very modest!)
There’s nothing more rewarding than getting off the grid, toting everything you need to survive. So, as you learn how to camp, go ahead and dream up some of the places you’d like to backpack if that’s your thing. Then let us know how it went!
And, as always, you can find just about everything you need for all varieties of camping right here on Geartrade.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.
Do you have Summer Hike & Camp gear? Tents, sleeping bags, bikes, and bike gear is in top demand right now. If you have perfectly usable gear gathering dust, list it and sell it. And, whenever you’re in the market for gear that’s in great shape and costs a fraction of new, we’ve got it. May the circle of gear life continue.
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