Beginner’s Guide to Camping

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Are you planning your first ever camping trip? Or maybe you’ve camped before, but it didn’t go as smoothly as you’d like? In this beginner’s guide to camping I’ll teach you everything you need to know to start camping like a pro!

My partner, Tom, and I camp ALL the time. In fact, we spent an entire summer taking our tent all over Oregon and camping nearly every night for 3 months! 

We’ve tried out tons of camping gear, and learned plenty of tips and tricks to make camping more comfortable. I’ll share all our best camping recommendations with you in this article!

Why go camping?

There are so many reasons to give camping a try! Camping allows you to experience nature up close. Everyone should experience sleeping under the stars and waking up with the sunrise.

Camping is also one of the most affordable vacations possible. Campsites are much cheaper than hotel rooms (you can find them as cheap as $5 per night), and when you’re camping you can cook and prepare your own food to avoid eating out.

When you’re out camping you aren’t paying for activities either! You’ll be hiking, swimming, or just swinging in a hammock with a book. All of these activities are free and rewarding.

What are the different types of camping?

Car Camping

Car camping setup in Mexico

This is the most common form of camping in North America. Car camping is super easy for beginners, because you park your car right at your campsite. In this article I will primarily focus on car camping.

Backpacking

Backpacking is a much more advanced camping experience. When you go backpacking you have to carry everything you need on your back, because you are hiking to your campsite. 

Backpacking requires careful attention to the weight of your gear, and in this style of camping people usually only bring the bare necessities.

With that said, backpacking allows you to camp in beautiful, remote areas that are only accessible on foot. I recommend getting comfortable with car camping before diving into backpacking!

Glamping- Easiest for beginners but expensive

Glamping is renting a tent, teepee, cabin, or yurt in a state or privately owned park. 

This is definitely the easiest form of camping for beginners because you usually only need to bring bedding and appropriate clothing with you. 

However, glamping is far more expensive than car camping. In fact, there are some glamping parks that cost more per night than a regular hotel! 

RV Camping- Camping in a vehicle (MANY types)

RV camping is camping inside of a vehicle (RV stands for recreational vehicle). 

The term RV covers a huge range of camping vehicles. Everything from pickup trucks with simple canopies and mattresses thrown in the truck bed to traditional large motorhomes that are basically a house on wheels fall under the term “RV”. 

RV camping is a blast, and we love it. In fact, we love it so much that we lived full time in a Toyota Motorhome for nearly 3 years! If you want to learn more about RV camping start with this article.

Even when we lived in our RV we still went tent camping sometimes! Tent camping is really special, and we always kept our tenting gear with us in the RV.

Where should you go camping?

State and National Parks are ideal for your first camping trips. These parks have well kept campsites that are easy to navigate. State and National Parks also have public bathroom facilities, and some parks even have shower facilities!

Learn about the National Parks and find the one closest to you!

Usually there will be plenty of hiking and activities within walking distance of your campsite in State and National Parks. There will likely be plenty of additional activities within easy driving distance of your campsite as well.

Once you’ve chosen a park that you would like to go camp in you may need to choose a campground (some parks only have one campground). 

Consider the following tips when choosing a campground:

  • Often the larger campgrounds with more modern facilities (flushing toilets and showers, for example) are the loudest and most crowded. If peace and quiet is your priority these campgrounds may not be the best choice for you.
  • If possible, avoid campgrounds that have RV designated sites in the same loop as tent campsites. RV campers tend to be noisier, and stay up later than tent campers. When we’re tent camping we usually avoid campgrounds with RV hookup sites. 
  • If there is a campground with campsites along a river, lake, or ocean, and you can snatch one of those sites, do it! There is nothing like waking up to a waterfront view from your tent, and these are my FAVORITE campsites.

How to choose a campsite

Some campgrounds require online reservations, while many others have first come, first served campsites available. Be sure to check the website for your chosen campground, and reserve in advance if required.

When choosing a campsite consider the following:

  • Does this campground feature any special natural features like a river or lake, or a mountain view? If there are waterfront campsites, or campsites that face the mountain view try to reserve one of those! 
  • Where are the restrooms? You do NOT want to be right next to the restrooms (unless you have mobility issues that require you to be) because the sound of the doors opening and slamming shut will wake you up in the night!
  • Where are the dumpsters/trash receptacles? You do not want to camp near these due to smell and scavenging animals like racoons.
  • If the campground has designated RV campsites, where are they? Try to camp at least a few campsites away from RV sites. 
  • If you are in a first-come, first-served campground (where you don’t reserve in advance online) stop at a few different sites and see which one feels like a good fit. Check to make sure there is a nice, flat area to place your tent.
  • If you are beach camping be VERY aware of the tide lines, and don’t camp (or park) too close to the water. You don’t want to wake up to the ocean coming into your tent!

What to do while you are camping

Camping is a great opportunity to unplug and unwind. Try to put your phone away on your camping trip, and enjoy the opportunity to slow down. 

By putting your phone away, you’ll give yourself a chance to do things you may not do very often at home. The following are some of my favorite things to do while camping.

Read

Bring a good book with you, and spend as much time as you want losing yourself in it.

Hike

Hiking is a great way to get to know the area you’re camping in, and it’s a fun way to get exercise! Most campgrounds will have maps of nearby hiking trails available, and many campgrounds have trailheads right in the campground.

Bicycle

Bring bikes with you and you can ride them around the campground loops, and around the park you’re camped in.

Swim

If you’re camped near a body of water that is safe for swimming then definitely bring swimsuits and go for it! The website for your campground should have information about whether swimming is safe in that area.

Play Games

Bring a deck of cards and some board games on your camping trip. This is an especially good idea if you’re camping with kids!

Make Art

If you like to color, draw, or paint bring art supplies with you on your camping trip. You will likely find inspiration in the nature surrounding you.

You can also make art from fallen leaves, stick, and rocks that you find in the natural areas you’re visiting.

Relax

Doing absolutely nothing is a GREAT way to spend your time camping. Just lay in a hammock and relax!

Stargaze

One of the best parts of getting out of the city or suburbs is the ability to actually see the stars in the sky! If you get a clear night on your trip be sure to spend some time stargazing.

Meditate

I find meditation to be most rewarding when I’m immersed in nature. If you enjoy meditating be sure to make time for it on your camping trip.

Make a campfire

Be sure to check the fire safety regulations for the campground you’re visiting. In some areas campfires are not allowed year round. 

Always make your campfire in the provided fire pit, and always put it out completely before you go to sleep for the night.

If you’ve never built a fire before, I recommend bringing a fire-starter brick or log with you. These are available near the charcoal at the grocery store. Stick these under your wood to get a good fire going with ease.

Do NOT use lighter fluid to start a campfire, as it is very easy to cause an accident, plus lighter fluid doesn’t burn long enough to get a fire going.

Starting a campfire for the first time can be surprisingly tricky, so be sure you come prepared!

When you build a campfire you’ll want to put your fire starter on the bottom, in the space between two parallel pieces of wood, then kindling on top of the fire starter, and then stack another piece of wood on top of, and perpendicular to, the bottom two pieces of wood. 

This formation allows air to flow into the fire which will allow it to get started properly, and it also holds in the heat created by the fire starter and the kindling so that there’s enough heat to get the top log burning properly. 

What to eat while you’re camping

When you’re figuring out a meal plan for your camping trip there are a few questions you should ask yourself. 

Do you plan to cook on a campfire?

Keep in mind that it can be tricky to get a consistent temperature from the fire, so cooking over it is tricky if you don’t have much experience. With that said, hot dogs on sticks over the fire are VERY easy to cook.

Do you plan to cook on a camp stove?

If you plan to cook anything other than hot dogs and marshmallows on your camping trip I highly recommend using a camp stove. 

Do you plan to bring a cooler with perishable food?

We don’t bring many perishable foods on our camping trips because we don’t like to deal with food going bad in our cooler. If you do bring a lot of perishable food be sure to keep a careful eye on it.

Do you want to skip cooking altogether on your camping trip?

This is totally possible, especially on weekend trips. Check out my guide to no cooler, no cook camping food here.

Once you’ve determined your cooking setup (or lack thereof) you can make a menu of meals you want to make while camping.

Whether or not you are cooking, I recommend keeping your meals simple with just a few ingredients. Putting together a fancy meal while camping can be a big hassle. 

If you want to bring a complicated meal I’d recommend pre-making it at home so that you only need to heat it up at your campsite.

Vacuum sealers are awesome for pre-making camping meals. 

For example, you can make fried rice loaded with all kinds of vegetables and protein at home. Vacuum seal it, freeze it, stick it in your cooler, and then at your campsite all you’ll have to do is stick the vacuum sealed pouch in a pot of boiling water. 

Food storage while camping

Pay attention to signs around your campground regarding scavenger animals, and if your campground provides food storage lockers be sure to use them! 

Food storage lockers are provided when scavenger animals are particularly aggressive. Bears and racoons, are usually the biggest culprits when it comes to food theft. 

NEVER bring food into your tent no matter where you’re camping. There are always rodents and small animals who will happily chew a hole in your tent to get at your snacks! 

Keep your food in your car if no food storage lockers are provided.

How to get a good night’s sleep while camping

Sleeping bag in tent with view of mountains

The key to getting a good night’s sleep while camping is to have the right gear, which I’ll cover in the next section. 

Even with the right gear, there are still some important tips to ensure a good night’s sleep while camping. 

  • First, be sure to go to the bathroom right before you go to sleep. At home waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom is no big deal, but when you’re camping it means putting on shoes, a jacket, a headlamp, unzipping the tent, and stumbling through the dark to the restroom.
  • If you’re a light sleeper bring earplugs with you! A tent does not provide any sound insulation, so you will hear everything going on outside your tent- people walking around, animals pitter pattering, trees creaking in the wind, you get the idea. 
  • Put your headlamp right next to you before you go to sleep. This way, if you DO wake up and need to see anything you won’t have to hunt around in the dark for a light.
  • If it’s warm enough, and the sky is clear, leave your rainfly off of your tent so you can stare up at the stars while you fall asleep.

Recommended Camping Gear

Your camping gear can make or break your camping experience!

There are lots of things to consider when choosing each piece of camping gear, and that can be overwhelming when you’ve never even been camping. 

I’ve tested LOTS of camping gear over the years, and here I’ll share the camping gear I recommend for the most comfortable car camping experience. 

Keep in mind that camping gear comes in a WIDE range of prices, and the most expensive gear is not always the best choice! Extremely expensive camping gear often has lots of features that the average car camper will never use. 

Instead, it’s better to invest in the highest quality BASIC gear.

Also, consider getting an REI Co-op membership when you purchase your camping gear. For a one-time $25 member fee you will receive 10% back on all of your purchases forever in the form of an annual dividend. Plus, they have members-only sales and deals that make the membership VERY worthwhile.

We buy nearly all of our camping and outdoor gear from REI because they only sell high quality, tested equipment, they treat their staff well, and the service is great.

The list below is a roundup of all my favorite car camping gear! 

Tent

Choosing the right tent is SO important for a fun camping experience.

You want to be sure your tent can hold up to unexpected changes in weather, and you want it to be comfortable so you get a good night’s sleep!

Marmot Limelight 3 Person Tent

This is my very favorite tent. It is perfect for two people plus a pet, so dog lovers take note!

Tom and I have spent hundreds of nights in this tent, and it is still going strong, so it’s very high quality.

While the Marmot Limelight 3P is rated for three people, it’s a pretty tight squeeze to put three adults in it.

This tent is extremely durable, and does great in any weather you throw at it. I’ve camped in it in thunderstorms, and in high winds, and it stays standing with no leaks.

Another thing I love about it is the shape of the poles. They have a bend in them that creates far more headroom than a regular dome tent.

The bended poles makes the tent feel nice and roomy inside, while still packing down into a small, manageable bag.

This is definitely the tent for you if you are considering backpacking or bicycle touring in the future. It’s lightweight and compact, and can be used for more advanced camping as well as car camping.

If you are planning a solo camping trip you could go for the two person version of this tent.

Sleeping bag

A good quality sleeping bag will allow you a good night’s sleep while you camp, and it’s one of the most important camping items you’ll buy.

It’s a good idea to buy a versatile sleeping bag so that you can use one bag for many different environments.

When it comes to sleeping bags I’ve had the best experiences with North Face brand bags. In fact, my two favorite sleeping bags are both North Face.

North Face Eco-Trail 35 Bag

This bag is going to be ideal for most beginner campers.

The rectangular shape lets you move around inside the sleeping bag, which feels more like sleeping in a bed.

The inside is soft and warm, but it’s still breathable enough that you won’t get sweaty inside it (this is a huge problem in cheaper sleeping bags).

It’s rated to keep you warm in temperatures of 35 degrees Fahrenheit and above. Most beginner campers will not need a sleeping bag rated for lower temperatures than this.

If you are planning to camp in a colder area, or at a colder time of year then you will need a warmer sleeping bag, like the one I share below.

North Face Eco Trail Synthetic 20

If you’re planning to camp where the nighttime lows will dip below freezing then you definitely want to go with a mummy-style sleeping bag that is rated to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mummy-style bags taper with the shape of your body, and have a hood that wraps around your head while you sleep. In very cold temperatures these features are essential, and will keep you warm.

Sleeping Pad

If you want to get good sleep while you’re camping you will need a good sleeping pad!

Air mattresses are cold and uncomfortable, and I don’t recommend them, even for car camping.

A nice alternative to an air mattress is a tri-fold memory foam mattress. This will never spring a leak in the middle of the night, and it will fold up for transport in a car.

Therma-Rest Sleeping Pad

If you want to save space and still get a good night’s sleep then I’d recommend grabbing a Therma-Rest sleeping pad.

These self inflate and pack down tiny so you can easily take them anywhere. They provide insulation from the cold ground, and a comfortable sleeping surface.

Headlamp

Headlamps are a must-have when camping.

A headlamp is just a lightweight flashlight you wear like a hat, and it is FAR superior to a flashlight because you can actually use both your hands while you wear it.

With a headlamp you can easily set up a tent, cook, or read once the sun goes down. All of these tasks are difficult if you’re using a handheld flashlight.

I use the Petzl Tikkina Headlamp, and I love it. The batteries last a really long time, it’s lightweight, and it’s a great value.

Camp chairs

Comfortable camp chairs are an absolute necessity for car camping.

It can be tempting to cheap out on camp chairs, but trust me, that’s a BIG mistake!

Your camp chairs will be the only place you have to sit besides the bed you set up in your tent, so you may spend hours in your camp chair over the course of a weekend.

Cheap camp chairs get uncomfortable FAST, and can easily cause back pain.

There are three camp chairs that I absolutely LOVE. I own all of these chairs, and they are fantastic.

Director’s Chair

This is the very best basic camp chair. The design is very comfortable, with plenty of back support.

Rocker Camp Chair

This is a Director’s Chair that rocks on a hydraulic system!

It’s a bit heavier than the regular Director’s Chair, but it is SO comfortable. I love rocking in this chair with a good book.

Zero Gravity Lounger

This is my absolute favorite camping chair. Tom and I used to only have one of these, and quickly realized we’d need two because we both ALWAYS wanted to sit in it!

This chair is super versatile. You can sit upright, with your legs up just a bit, or you can recline back far enough to take a nap.

Solar Lantern

One of our very favorite camping gadgets is our Luci Solar Lantern.

This inflatable lantern is super lightweight, folds down small, and charges fast in the sunlight.

You get several hours of light off of one charge, so it’s the perfect camping lantern.

Camping Kitchen Set

You can certainly bring cookware from home when you’re car camping, but it’s nice to have lightweight cups, dishes, and silverware.

This Sea to Summit kitchen kit for two people is lightweight, durable, and easy to clean. Plus it packs down easily.

Cooler

This is another area where it’s worth spending a bit more.

Cheap coolers don’t hold ice for very long. They will end up costing you more in the long run, because you’ll be paying to refill the ice so frequently!

Coleman Extreme 70qt Cooler

The Coleman Extreme line of coolers are an excellent value! My Coleman Extreme holds ice for several days in hot weather, even with me going in and out of the cooler to grab drinks.

I’ve used my Coleman Extreme on desert camping trips with 100 degree temperatures, and been very please with its performance.

The 70qt size is great, because it’s big enough that you can load it up with plenty of drinks, and still have some room left for perishable foods.

Camp Stove

A camp stove is a must if you want to do any cooking on your camping trips. Cooking over a campfire is tricky, and it can take a LONG time to get the fire hot enough to actually cook anything.

Coleman makes great camp stoves, and you can purchase the small cans of Coleman fuel with the stove.

One can of fuel should last you for short to medium length camping trips. For a longer trip bring two cans.

All-Purpose Soap

If you’ve never used Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap before, I highly recommend you try it on your camping trip.

This soap can be used for EVERYTHING. Showering, cleaning dishes, even washing your hair! Plus, it’s biodegradable and smells awesome.

Hammock

While this is not required gear, a hammock makes a camping trip extra fun!

Anytime we go camping in the woods we bring our lightweight hammock. It packs down small, and is relatively easy to hang.

Clam Pop-Up Shelter

A pop-up shelter is an awesome addition to your campsite. It provides shade from the sun, a dry spot when it rains, and protection from mosquitoes.

The Clam brand quick set shelter is one of our favorite camping items. It pops up in less than 30 seconds, and it stands up to all kinds of weather.

We’ve taken our Clam shelter to the desert, the ocean, and the forest, and it’s been awesome in all those environments.

Camping Equipment Checklist 

Want a copy of this checklist? Click on the download button below to download the printable camping equipment checklist!

You’re all set for your first camping trip! I’m so excited for you!

If you want tips on camping without a cooler or camp stove check out my guide to no cooler/no cook camping!

Are you interested in RV travel? We spent 3 years living full time in a micro-RV and exploring North America!

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