This Camping 101 Guide will help you set off on summertime adventures with confidence. Thanks to Alisha McDarris of Terradrift for sharing her helpful camping tips and expertise!
Beach vacays. Jet-setting to faraway lands. Lounging by the pool on a cruise ship deck.
If, for whatever reason, your summer plans don’t include any of these fabulously dreamy getaways, don’t despair! Get creative!
Whether you’re staying close to home, working with a tighter than usual budget, or just want to keep summer travel simple, we’d like to offer a brilliant (and often overlooked) suggestion: camping.
Before I lose half of you who correlate camping with uncomfortable nights spent sleeping on the ground and too many creepy crawlies, hear me out!
Camping is the perfect way to experience that beloved vacay refresh without even having to travel far from home.
Maybe you’ve never considered spending your precious vacation days camping. And maybe the ever-present threat of insects gives you pause.
But fear not!
Here’s your Camping 101 guide so you’ll know what to expect. From choosing a campground to packing the right food, this beginner’s guide to camping will help you feel confident — and happy! — spending more time outdoors.
With the right tools and preparation, spending a few nights — or even a few weeks — in the great outdoors can be a fantastic way to hit the reset button.
And, don’t worry, there are even plenty of ways to take care of the bugs.
Camping 101: Your Introduction to the Outdoors
As an outdoor writer and photographer and the creator of the sustainable travel and adventure blog Terradrift, I am more than happy to offer my camping tips and tricks.
When you go camping for the first time, you might feel overwhelmed and not know what to do. If you still have questions after reading this guide, reach out to the Wanderful community for help and guidance.
So let’s lace up your boots or just slide on your Birkenstocks — this is camping, not backcountry trekking! And let’s talk about how to prepare for a summer camping trip, whether you’re traveling solo, with a partner, or with a vanful of children!
Camping for Beginners: How to Find the Right Campground
For starters in camping 101, pick your destination wisely.
That goes for campgrounds 20 minutes from home as well as across the country. Not every campground will be right for everyone.
I, for one, love primitive campsites that have no amenities other than maybe running water. I like to really rough it when I go camping.
But most people rather enjoy having full bathroom facilities and trash cans. And most first-time campers prefer easy access to a convenience store where they can pick up firewood or new marshmallow roasting sticks when someone accidentally loses one in the flames.
Camping 101 Tip #1:
The key to picking the right campground for you is to decide what sort of experience you want.
- Do you want seclusion and quiet far from street noise, cell phones and other campers? You probably want a walk-in campsite where you’ll be separated from other campers and civilization by at least a short stroll.
- Do you prefer a comfortable bed and running water nearby? Maybe glamping in a safari tent or cabin is right for you.
- Do you want to be able to take a short drive into a nearby town for dinner once or twice? Take proximity to civilization into consideration when booking a campsite.
Likewise, consider what amenities a campground offers.
In the summer, a pool can be a beautiful thing, as can a playground, especially if you have kids.
Some more posh destinations (I’m looking at you KOA) even offer activities, arcades, and crafts designed for families with children in mind.
And while some campgrounds offer shower facilities, others don’t.
So if you would rather not go a week without washing your hair, make sure the campground you’re considering offers facilities so you won’t be scrubbing up under a public spigot.
Next, look beyond the amenities located at the campground itself. What do you want to do while you’re there?
- Do you want to go hiking without driving off-site?
- Looking to spend the whole day lounging on an inflatable in the river?
- Wanting to browse quaint storefronts in nearby towns?
Make sure to take note of what’s around the campground and that it matches up with what you want to spend your time doing. This is a vacation, after all. Enjoy it!
Basic Camping Equipment You’ll Need
After you’ve decided on a campground, you’ll need to pack your car with the right equipment. Of course, that can vary from trip to trip and even depend on when and where you’ll be camping.
But, generally speaking, to get started camping you’ll need the following:
- A tent
- Some sort of stove on which to cook (unless the campground offers charcoal grills at each site)
- Sleep systems for everyone in your party, which is just a fancy way outdoorsy people like to describe what they sleep on/in.
Sleeping systems usually include a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a pillow.
Sleeping pads can be foam or inflatable, but inflatable models tend to be more comfortable and take up less space.
That said, you may even want to opt for an inflatable air mattress for premium comfort. Just make sure it will fit inside your tent and that there will be electricity available to inflate it.
If you do go the air mattress route, you can even use sheets and a blanket instead of a sleeping bag, just like you do at home.
Fun fact: if you’re camping with a significant other, most sleeping bags from the same manufacturer can be zipped together! Alternatively, you can also get yourselves a double bag for extra warmth and snuggles.
But the tent may be the most important piece of equipment.
When car camping (that’s when your car is parked right there at your campsite, so size and weight aren’t an issue), feel free to go by that old adage; “bigger is better.”
Especially if you’re not camping alone, feel free to opt for the largest tent you deem necessary.
This is especially handy if there’s foul weather in the forecast, which may have everyone in your party huddled together in the tent at the same time.
Camping 101 Tip #2:
As a general rule of thumb, get yourself a tent that’s at least meant for one more person than you expect to be sleeping in it.
That means if you’re going solo, get at least a 2-person tent. If there are four of you, opt for at least a 5-person. And if you have kids, don’t feel silly adding even more space so they have some room to move around. Or, better yet, get them their own tent if they’re old enough.
A spacious tent can make a big difference.
If it gets super buggy in the evening or rains the whole day, a tent with a high ceiling that allows you to stand up is ideal. If it’s spacious enough to accommodate a couple of chairs and maybe even a small folding table, it will be a delightful escape, even if it’s just you in there.
Of course, if you prefer a camping vacation where you don’t have to think about much more than how you’ll spend the afternoon, campervan and RV rentals have become increasingly popular.
RVs and campervans offer the opportunity to just load up your family and your personal belongings and go! They typically come with everything you need to cook and clean, plus have TV’s, microwaves, and all the comforts of home…but, you know, on wheels!
Read next: Trekking in Bhutan
Camping Tips for Eating
Chances are, if you’re camping, you’ll be preparing most of your own meals at the campsite. But don’t worry, you’ve got this!
If there’s not a charcoal grill at your site or you’d rather not use it, there are plenty of options for food prep.
Start with a stove of some sort. Maybe that’s a small backpacking stove, a dual-burner fold-up model that runs on propane, or a portable gas, charcoal, or wood-fired grill.
Then, make sure you plan out every meal from the start of your trip to the end. Make sure to plan for plenty of snack times (I find camping often means excessive snacking).
Gather and organize all of your ingredients into boxes and coolers, and then make sure you gather all of the tools you’ll need for every meal.
- Making chili for dinner? Don’t forget a pot and spoon!
- Pasta night? A strainer will be important.
- Oatmeal with sliced bananas for breakfast? Make sure to bring a cutting board and knife.
And then make sure you have utensils (you know, plates and silverware) for everyone in the group!
Of course, no one says you have to cook when you go camping.
I’ve been camping with friends who simply don’t want to bother. They bring pre-packaged sandwiches for lunch, cereal or oat packets for breakfast, and cold pasta dishes or the like for dinner. No cooking required!
In a pinch, if there’s a fire pit and no burn ban in effect where you are camping, you can always cook over the fire! It’s not as fast or precise, but it’ll do. And kids especially love roasting hot dogs (or in my case, veggie dogs) over the fire.
Camping 101 Tip #3:
Burn bans vary by state or region, so be sure to do your research!
Whatever you do, don’t forget the s’mores!
Marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers are essential camping food and I staunchly refuse to spend a night in the great outdoors without them.
I share this tip with anyone and everyone who’s gathered around a campfire with me…
My favorite S’mores Tip: Replace the Hershey’s with a peanut butter cup for a heavenly experience (if you’re not allergic to peanuts, of course)!
Read next: Your Guide to Gluten-Free Road Trips
Concerns About Camping Comfort
For those who are new to camping, comfort is often a concern.
Straight up: nothing can turn someone off of camping faster than a cramped, rainy afternoon spent with too many people in a tent, or a sleepless night rolling around on the ground.
So if you’re new to camping, bring more comfort items than you think you’ll need (you’ll figure out later what you can live without).
Things like folding chairs, hammocks, inflatable loungers and air mattresses go a long way to making your first experience comfier.
Likewise, comforting food and snacks are always welcome at my campsite. This includes snacks I wouldn’t normally partake of because they’re too expensive, sugary, fattening, or generally unhealthy.
When I’m camping, bring on the potato chips and Sour Patch Kids!
The type of shelter you choose can also make a big difference. That can mean tents, yes, but there are also other shelters.
Consider pop-up structures surrounded by mesh to keep the bugs out or even an oversized tarp strung between trees to sit under and avoid either the summer sun or an afternoon shower.
Camping 101 Tip #4:
Don’t forget necessities like sunscreen and bug spray.
You won’t enjoy yourself much if you get sunburned on day one of a five-day camping adventure. That goes double for mosquito bites. So bring plenty of insect repellent.
Sprays are a solid choice, but there are also bands, battery-powered devices, candles and torches that — especially if combined — should do an admirable job of keeping biting pests away.
How to Stay Entertained While Camping
What most frequent campers enjoy so much about camping is the escape it offers.
An escape from mundane day-to-day rituals and activities, but also from the things that consume so much of our free time: Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, email, you name it.
Camping affords the opportunity to slow down and to get back to the simpler pleasures in life: painting, sharing stories around a fire, taking a hike, reading a book, napping in a hammock.
In fact, some of my favorite days ever have involved a hike, followed by reading in a hammock. And that eventually turns into napping in a hammock.
So pick those analog activities that you wish you could do more of back home and bring them camping with you!
Camping 101 Tip #5:
I often set phone restrictions for myself while camping, even if I do have WiFi or data available.
I’m not allowed to check my mail, scroll Facebook, or watch movies. And any Instagram activity must be work-related and is relegated to one or two 15-minute chunks a day.
After all, camping is about you, nature, and the respite you deserve.
That said, feel free to bring along other forms of entertainment, especially if you’re camping with friends or kids.
- Bring board games and card games.
- Look up inventive storytelling exercises and make up spooky tales around the fire.
- Go on a hike or a swim or bring bicycles or roller blades so everyone can take a spin around the campground.
When it’s my husband and me, we like to bring a book and take turns reading chapters to each other in the quiet hours of the evening.
The Crux of Camping: Sit Back and Relax
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, don’t forget to enjoy yourself.
And where camping is concerned, that means relaxing.
It means there are no strict itineraries to keep, no alarm clocks to set. There are no bedtimes or deadlines or doing anything at all that doesn’t strike your fancy.
It means sitting around the fire doing nothing but roasting marshmallows and laughing about memories. It means sleeping in until 10 and spending an entire afternoon doing nothing but reading, or napping, or snacking in an inner tube, a hammock or a lounge chair.
And if you’re lucky enough not to have cell service, you don’t even have to respond to text messages or emails from your mother-in-law, your boss or your clients.
Because camping is all about rest, rejuvenation and escape. It’s about experiencing all the healing powers of the great outdoors as you switch to analog mode and disconnect from the world while you reconnect with nature.
So get out there and enjoy it. And now that you know how to go camping, don’t be surprised if you’re hooked for life.
All images courtesy of the author.
After reading this Camping 101 Guide, do you feel ready to go camping for the first time? Let us know if you have more questions!