Since moving back to the US my wife and I have gone camping more than either of us had camped in the previous spans of our lifetimes. (Well, maybe not quite, but it sounds better like that, doesn’t it? I think I’d gone camping 5 or 6 times prior to July 2016 and have gone 4 times since then.)
I did not grow up in what I would consider an “outdoorsy” family by any stretch of the imagination, but the first vacation that I can recall was a camping vacation. I think that was probably due to budget more than any kind of love of the outdoors. (We’ll get to that, but it’s actually a great reason to go camping.) By the age of 13 or so my parents bought a small vacation cottage and I stopped going camping altogether until my late 20s.
As I got older camping wasn’t on my radar as a form of travel or recreation. I didn’t have friends who camped (or even traveled much at all) and I thought it was for a different kind of person. Not for me, anyway. When I was about 20 or so I remember hearing about a couple I knew who went camping for their honeymoon and thinking, “ugh, why would anybody do that?!” Now I think it’s probably a more fun and memorable honeymoon than most people have and I love hearing about people doing “alternative” honeymoons (or weddings, for that matter).
I think part of my feelings about camping stemmed from a feeling of intimidation. I grew up on, and relied on, TV, the internet and easy access to clean water and flush toilets. I didn’t like hardship. The outdoors? Camping? You mean to tell me I need to start a fire and make food on the ground, on a tree stump, or on a picnic table? And I have to spend all day outside? After I’m done being outside for every waking moment I get to sleep inside a box made of fabric instead of in my comfortable bed in my heated/air-conditioned home? Oh, ok, you’ve gone off the rails, no thank you.
It wasn’t until I joined CouchSurfing back in 2007 (I’m no longer a member) and I met a bunch of fun, adventurous folks that I learned I actually like camping. On my first CouchSurfing camp trip we packed 10 people in 3 canoes for a 3-day trip down the Withlacoochee River. We camped a little too close for comfort to alligators. I got bitten by a few ticks. (I don’t recommend.) There was nowhere to shower or wash (I was too afraid to swim with the gators; others weren’t!). But it was a great time and I went on another camping trip with the same group a year later.
That was what you might call wild or backcountry camping. Find a spot somewhere on BLM or park land that’s big enough for tents and make camp. The fun part of wild camping is that you’re completely on your own. You won’t spot other people because you won’t be near a campground or civilization. No facilities except what you bring with you. You ever dig a hole and poop in the woods? It really makes you feel alive. Like you can do anything. That all is maybe also the not-so-fun part of wild camping. No judgment if you feel like that because I’m still too intimidated to wild camp on my own. Although I promise wild camping is actually a good time I prefer a little more luxury.
Anyway, as much fun as I learned that camping could be I stopped going camping because in 2009 I got rid of almost everything and began traveling with just a small backpack.
But then, as mentioned, my wife and I moved to the US last year.
Within a week of arriving in the US we went on a camping trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes in northern Michigan and I remembered, “oh, right, camping is a fun travel option.” A couple months later, instead of staying at one of the expensive hotels near Niagara Falls, we camped at Niagara Falls State Park for 4 nights. (It’s nearly 20 miles north of the falls, but it’s a beautiful park. Would stay again.) On the way back from Niagara we camped at a small state park in Ohio on the banks of Lake Erie.
Since moving to North Carolina we’d been planning on camping because there are so many nice places within a 2-4 hour drive, but I didn’t get around to buying a tent until 3 weeks ago. (Every camping trip previous to moving to NC was with borrowed gear.) Since then we’ve camped at Carolina Beach State Park and Morrow Mountain State Park.
All that to say I’m not some kind of outdoorsman and I barely know what I’m doing. Thankfully, there is really not all that much to know.
Also, I think it’s more useful to learn from other beginners for something like this because experts are too, here’s that word again, intimidating. Bear Grylls seems like a cool guy and all, and I’m impressed as anybody that he could drink his own piss without vomiting, but he’s so far out of my element that I wouldn’t learn anything watching him.
Also, an expert is probably going to recommend a lot of stuff you don’t need.
Interestingly, you probably already have most of what you need to go camping! And the stuff you don’t have will cost under $250. Maybe a lot less, depending on how you shop and what you want. Think of it like this: for the cost of one or two nights in a hotel you can buy all the gear you’ll need for camping for at least the next few years. Assuming you take care of your gear you’ve probably got a decade of use ahead of you.
But before we get to all that, I haven’t made the case for just why I like camping so much.
Why camping is joyful
- Camping makes you appreciate all the luxuries you’ve got at home. You might think you appreciate them, but you’ll appreciate them on another level once you’ve been completely cut off for X number of days.
- My wife and I love hiking. We go hiking most weekends. Nothing intense. Usually 5-10 miles or so. And you know what makes hiking more fun? Sleeping near hiking trails. Many (most?) state and national parks have both hiking trails and campgrounds, so it’s a perfect combination for us.
- It’s economical. Nightly camping fees vary widely, but it’s usually $15-$25 per night (free for wild/backcountry camping) for one camp site, which is often enough for 2 tents and 6 people. To be fair, it’s cheaper to stay at home than to camp, so it’s not like you’re saving money. I mean it’s an economical way to travel and have some fun. Anyway, with your fee you’ll usually have access to showers, flush toilets, your own fire pit, your own picnic table, and park rangers (in case you have questions or emergencies). If you’ve never camped or stayed in a hostel this will be uncomfortable for you at first, but lucky you. Being temporarily uncomfortable makes life better. You’ll appreciate the luxuries of home even more than the rest of us!
- Simplicity. Camping makes me remember that I don’t need much to have a good time.
- It feels good to rely on yourself more than usual. Even if you’re camping in a luxurious campground (read: most campgrounds) you’ve still got to set up your own home, clean up after yourself, and cook your own meals. There is no Chipotle around the corner and your weekly cleaner is not going to be there to clean up your mess. The more you love luxury the more I think you’ll actually appreciate the whole camping experience.
- You get to sleep outside! There is very little you can do as an adult that will make you feel like a kid again. Camping checks that box.
- Camp fires.
- It breaks your routine. What do you do most weekends? What do you do when you have Friday or Monday off, making a long weekend? Camping is something fun to do to break your routine.
- It’s perfect for introverts and extraverts alike. Camping is accommodating.
There is surely more good stuff about camping that I haven’t thought of, but let’s move on to …
The Beginner’s Guide To Tent Camping!
As I mentioned earlier, you already probably have most of what you need to go camping, because you don’t need much to have a good time. I’ll split this up into necessities and nice-to-haves. I’ll also mention what we have, plan to have, or would like to have. (Amazon affiliate links where relevant.) And, of course, I’ll show you how easy it is to find and book campsites.
Necessities You May Not Have Yet
- Tent. Obviously. While any tent will do you’ll probably like some more than others. This is why it actually helps to be able to borrow gear for your first trip. Ask around. You probably know someone that has gear and will be happy to lend it to you. You’ll quickly find out what you do and don’t like. But maybe I can help here anyway. Are you tall and/or a little lazy? Then do what I did and get an Instant Cabin tent. These things really live up to the hype. The first time we set ours up it took 15-20 minutes. Now it takes less than a minute to get the tent up and another 5 minutes or so to get the rainfly set up and to stake everything down.
We have the Bushnell Shield Series 11′ x 9′ Instant Cabin tent and love it. It’s 6 feet tall at the center, which means I can’t stand up in it, but it’s better than a lot of other tents that are even shorter. Although this tent is rated for 6 people, I find it’s the perfect size for the two of us and our bags, with room to move around. It will only sleep 6 if you’re all using camping mats instead of inflatable mattresses. I also like that this tent has big windows on all four sides, and it has a floor level screened air vent.This tent was really difficult to get back into its carrying bag (a common complaint in reviews), but I figured it out. I bought two bungee cords from the dollar store, and wrapped them around the tent/rainfly before putting it all in the bag. This made the bag much easier to zip up and now I’m able to get a nice bundle. I put the rainfly pole in its bag strapped onto the top of the tent bag instead of putting it inside. See photo:
Note: if you want to save even more money buy a regular (meaning, not instant) tent. They cost a good $50 less and they really only take an extra 10-20 minutes to set up.
- Tarp. A tarp is a cheap way to protect the bottom of your tent. It also helps keep your tent clean, making it easier to pack up. Maybe not a necessity, but it’s so cheap I’m saying it is.
How to use: Lay your tarp down. Build your tent on top of it. You should get a tarp the size of the base of your tent or a little smaller. Bigger than the base of your tent is not better, because if it rains you’ll be sleeping in a puddle. The tarp I already had was 9′ x 7′ but I’ll pick up a slightly bigger one the next time I’m at Harbor Freight.You can find small tarps at the dollar store, and they’re sometimes even free at Harbor Freight (sign up for their coupons).
Price: under $10
- Air mattress or camping pad. We have this cheap Intex queen size air mattress from Amazon. Including the hand pump it was under $20 (it’s $24 at time of writing this). That said, I dislike air mattresses and we will probably transition to camping pads instead. If you like to sleep on something soft then you’ll probably like an air mattress more than a camping pad.
Price: under $25
- First Aid Kit. Truth be told you probably won’t need more than a bottle of hydrogen peroxide,
rubbing alcohol, and bandaids if you’ll be at an established campground. But first aid kits are so cheap you might as well get one. We have a $10 kit from Walmart. I also bring hydrogen peroxide, ibuprofen, and generic benadryl (because I have bad tree/weed pollen allergies).
Price: under $10
- Stove. Unless you’re going to cook over the fire pit, of course. We have the $15 Ozark Trail Single Burner Propane stove from Walmart (again, use TopCashback or eBates to save at least $10 on your first purchase) and love it. Propane bottles are cheap ($5 or less), are widely available at Walmart and other stores and campground offices, and they last for quite some time.
That’s about it for things you probably need to buy! All told, less than $200.
Necessities You May Already Have
You might not have all of this stuff, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you have most of it.
- Bedsheets/blankets or sleeping bags. We currently use bedsheets/blankets that we already had, but we’ll buy sleeping bags when it starts getting colder. Price: probably free.
- Toiletries. You probably won’t need toilet paper since most campgrounds have daily cleaning/replenishment, but maybe take one roll just in case. I also bring a roll of paper towels, a box of tissues, a package of wet wipes, and hand sanitizer. Other than that bring whatever you’d bring on any vacation.
- Flip flops. For showering/beach. $1 at Walmart. For the past year I’ve been using the “disposable” flip flops they give you at Niagara Falls, but they’re finally falling apart. Also, I stepped on a rusty screw last weekend and it pierced my heel so maybe I should have something with a stronger sole?
- Towels. For showering/beach. I like my quick dry camping towel that I’ve had since 2011. My wife takes a regular bath towel. And we also take beach towels.
- Foldable camping or beach chairs. Not necessarily a necessity, but I’m listing it here because they’re more comfortable than picnic tables to sit on and not all campgrounds will include a picnic table with your campsite. You can pick these up for $20-$30 each.
- Trash bags (or small plastic shopping bags). So you don’t have to make 35 trips to the camp’s garbage bins.
- Rope. So you can hang up your towels to dry between two trees. Buy it at the dollar store, Harbor Freight, or Walmart. Or you might already have some.
- Knife, box cutter, or utility knife. For cutting rope and other stuff. I usually forget my knife — a butterfly knife I bought when I was 17, which I guess is illegal to carry? Well, at least guns are illegal as well! /s — but I have my dollar store utility knife, which gets the job done.
- Flashlights. You can get free flashlights with purchase from the aforementioned Harbor Freight. I have one of their 27 LED Portable Worklights, which has a pop out hook so it’s perfect to hang from the loop on the ceiling of your tent. It’s $3.99 when it’s not free. I also have a Fenix e05 that I bought in 2011. It’s still going strong! Lastly, we just purchased this under $15 combo tent light/fan because after our Carolina Beach trip where it was nearly 90F at night and sleeping was rough we thought we should have some luxury. The light is great, but we didn’t use the fan on our last trip so we’ll see if that was worth it.Buy either rechargeable batteries or go to the dollar store. Batteries are ridiculously cheap there. (I have both rechargeable and wasteful batteries.) Price: you probably already have, but $15 or less.
- Pots/pans. We used to take just one pot, but now we take two. We use one for cooking and one for boiling water for coffee/tea/oatmeal. If we had a tea kettle we’d use that instead, but a pot works just fine. Price: you’ve already got them.
- Cups/bowls/utensils. We bring both wasteful (read: disposable) and regular. Do whatever feels right for you.Note: the Contigo AutoSeal is the best insulated coffee bottle I’ve ever used. My wife uses it daily and we bring it camping and on our weekend hikes.
- Lighter or matches. You’ve gotta start that fire somehow! BTW, I’m a longtime camp fire failure, but let me save you from being one: when you get to your campsite walk around and gather lots of dry leaves or twigs. Throw them in the middle of your fire pit. When you’re ready for a camp fire light them up and wait until they’re burning nicely. Keep adding more twigs and small branches. Once those are going strong finally add your real firewood (which you purchase for $4 or $5 from the camp host or park office or gather from vacant campsites or the surrounding woods). I always transitioned far too quickly from twigs to big firewood and it would take forever to get the fire going. A little patience goes a long way.
- Water. We bring our refillable water bottles as well as store-bought water bottles. Soon I’ll buy a 5 gallon jug because that will make trips to the water spigot easier.
- Food. We keep it simple. Canned beans. Canned soups. Side dish rice/pasta (like the Knorr brand; $1 each or so). Oatmeal. Clif bars and other junk foods. Coffee/tea. We love good coffee so we take our AeroPress. No reason you can’t have an amazing cup of coffee in the morning!
Nice To Have, But Not Necessary
- Headlamp. We don’t have them, but have used them and they’re much more convenient than flashlights. We’ll buy some eventually when they’re on sale somewhere.
- Broom or hand vac. Your tent’s gonna get some dirt inside no matter what you do. I have a Ryobi One+ hand vac. I bought it for the car (since I already had three One+ batteries for my power tools) and it’s great for camping as well. If I didn’t have this I’d buy a broom and dust pan from the dollar store.
- Fire starter. These are little bricks of fuel that are easy to light and stay lit for about 5 minutes. They’re sold in the outdoor section of Walmart and probably at your camp office. It makes starting your camp fire much easier, but it also feels like less of an accomplishment. That said, I have some and used them until I finally figured out how to be patient with my fire. They’re also good for starting fires in wet environs.
- Cooler. We’ll probably get one eventually so we can bring along veggie dogs and other foods that should stay cool.
- Hatchet or hand saw or hammer or combination of two or just a hatchet. A hatchet or hammer will make staking down your tent easier, but you can just as easily use your foot, a piece of wood, or a rock. A hatchet or hand saw is nice to have if you want to chop your own wood. Don’t cut down live trees or branches! It’s illegal and there are lots of fallen trees/branches all over the place. You can also raid your neighbors after they checkout of the campground. I always buy one bundle of wood from the camp host the first night and then try to scavenge for subsequent nights. I didn’t bring a saw until our most recent trip and it came in really handy. Our neighbors scavenged a small dead tree and then checked out. It took me about an hour to saw it into manageable pieces and carry it to our fire pit, but it was worth it. I used an old cheap small hand saw (like what they sell at the dollar store) which wasn’t easy, but I got paid (by not spending money on fire wood) to work out. (Next time I’ll take my better hand saw, or maybe even my battery powered jigsaw.)
The reality is there are a lot of nice-to-haves so I’ll stop there. You can make camping as rustic or luxurious as you like. I like it somewhere in the middle.
“Wait, that’s all well and good, Karol, but where do I find/book campgrounds?”
If you’re looking for something close then Google “state park near me” and “national park near me” to find the closest of those near you. Or just scroll around on Google Maps until you find big spots of green. That’s probably a state or national park.
To book campsites:
- Recreation.gov – Search and book Federal campsites here.
- ReserveAmerica.com – Search and book State campsites here.
You don’t need to book campsites ahead of time, but if you’re planning on camping during a national holiday it’ll be your best bet. Campgrounds fill up fast during holidays.
I’d also suggest heading to your local library and picking up a book on tent camping and/or hiking trails in your state. Here in North Carolina I’ve made use of The Best In Tent Camping: The Carolinas by Johnny Molloy and North Carolina Hiking Trails by Allen de Hart.
“OK, got it. Now what the &$#! am I supposed to do while I’m camping, huh?”
You can do anything you want! Go hiking! Go swimming! Read a book! Nap! Whittle! Relax! Breathe!
To be honest, I know camping seems boring to a lot of people and it seems like there isn’t much to do, but the time flies. There is always a trail to explore and a fire to build and enjoy. It’s easy to spend a whole day doing nothing more than that and still feel incredibly fulfilled.
I’m not saying you need to go camping, but even if you think you won’t like it I think you’ll appreciate it so maybe you should try it. Particularly if you haven’t been camping since you were young and/or prefer expensive dinners and fancy hotels on your travels. If you’ve pampered yourself into wimpiness and stubbornness you need it more than you probably know.