Camping is one of the most incredible outdoor activities for people of all ages and activity levels. Whether you are a seasoned camper or a couch potato, camping is a wonderful way to connect with nature and get outside.
Whether you want a low-key escape in a fully furnished cabin in the mountains or a hands-on primitive adventure in the wilderness, you will need to learn the ins and outs of camping. Even the most daring explorer had to start somewhere.
As an experienced camper and former wilderness guide, I have helped many first-timers learn to navigate the woods and camp comfortably.
To prepare for your first camping trip, you will need to know the basics.
Read on to learn about the different ways to camp, the equipment you will need, what to pack, what kind of food you can prepare, what to expect on your trip, and more.
Camping 101: Different Types of Camping
When thinking of camping, your mind may go to pitching a tent in the middle of the woods and rubbing two sticks together while hoping for sparks to start a fire. However, there are other ways to camp.
Let’s review the different types of camping trips you can embark on.
This type of camping is not what usually comes to mind when you are considering spending some time in the woods. Luxury camping is the easiest way to embark on an outdoor adventure without the challenges of traditional camping.
Within this category, there are a few options for camping in style.
The first way is camping indoors by reserving lodging. You can rent a cabin or lodge. This camping option will allow you to spend your time outside during the day while sleeping inside.
Camping cabins typically feature all the basics you would expect at home. It means that you can cook your meals in a traditional kitchen, use the bathroom and shower as you usually would, and sleep in a bed rather than in a sleeping bag outside.
The advantage to camping in a cabin on your first outing is that anybody can do it. You don’t have to purchase specialized camping gear, battle the elements, or learn how to set up a campsite. You can still have fun without the stress of building fires and cooking on a propane grill or camp stove.
Another luxury camping option is known as “glamping.” Glamping is an alternative form of camping that involves enjoying nature while retaining access to creature comforts.
You can purchase or rent a unique luxury glamping tent or book a stay in a deluxe cabin. Two unique “glamping” tents are safari tents and yurts. Safari tents are large house-like tents, and yurts are circular. Both may feature electricity, running water, furniture, and more amenities. Sometimes you even have internet access.
Glamping and cabin lodging are types of camping that anyone can enjoy. You don’t have to pack as much, and you can stay comfortable.
This type of camping is a good option for beginners who are not confident in their camping abilities but still want to try it out. It’s also suitable for those with disabilities or physical limitations who need access to a real bed and proper shelter.
Recreational Vehicles, or RVs, are vehicles designed for travel and camping that have some of the amenities of a home.
When most people think of RVs, they think of motorhomes. These are large self-contained vehicles with electricity, sleeping quarters, a bathroom, and they usually have cooking equipment or a kitchenette. You can purchase a motorhome or rent one.
Motorhomes are not the only RVs you can choose from.
A camper is usually a trailer that resembles an RV, except you tow it behind your vehicle. There are also pop-up campers, which is a trailer that folds out into a tent. Pop-up campers are roomy on the inside when assembled but compact for travel.
Another option is the truck camper. These attach to the bed of a pickup truck and are smaller than some other types of campers.
Most campgrounds offer sites with RV hookups. “RV hookups” means that the campsite will provide sewer, water, and electricity.
The sewer hookup is essential. As mentioned, RVs usually have a bathroom, so having a sewer hose and somewhere to dump your waste is a must for obvious reasons.
In addition to campsites, there are also RV parks that may offer even more amenities. You could have access to cable TV, WiFi, phone, laundry facilities, and recreation centers.
Camping in an RV can be very similar to camping in a cabin because of the amenities and luxuries you have. You also have more freedom since your sleeping quarters are mobile.
If you are looking for an experience that is closer to traditional tent camping, you can attempt what is called “dry camping.” This form of camping means that you camp with an RV but do not have access to utility hookups.
You may have an indoor shelter and bed when dry camping, but you will not have power, sewer, or running water.
A significant advantage of dry campsites is that they are less expensive than RV sites with full hookups. Another advantage is that you still have the experience of “roughing it,” which is the main point of camping for many people.
Camping in a motorhome or camper can be excellent for beginners wary of sleeping in a tent but don’t want to rent a fully furnished cabin.
Car camping can mean two different things. You’ll either get the whole experience of camping without a tent. Instead, you will sleep in your car or van. There are also specialized “rooftop” tents that attach to the roof of your car, truck, or van to provide an elevated sleeping quarter.
The other type of car camping also means that you load all of your camping equipment into your car and set up your camp next to your vehicle.
The significant advantage of car camping is that you do not have to unpack your vehicle at the campsite. Everything you need is inside your car, and if you want to travel to a different campground or location or even just switch campsites, you can do so easily.
Car camping might be even more convenient when you drive a van. Vans are roomier and can accommodate more passengers. Many vans even have seats that fold down to give you a larger, more comfortable space to sleep.
The previously mentioned rooftop tents come in a variety of styles and sizes. There is an option for every budget and comfort level, from compact to luxurious. This unique option combines traditional camping with car camping, plus you get the fun of climbing a ladder to go to bed.
Car camping is not necessarily for everyone, but it is easy enough and recommendable for beginner campers, who should have no problem enjoying their first overnight outing in nature.
By far the most popular form of camping, tent camping is what you probably have had in mind this whole time.
If you decide not to try an alternative form of camping, this is your best bet. Tent camping is the way we traditionally spend our time outdoors. Whether you are going solo or planning an outing for the whole family, it’s a great activity.
Traditional camping involves sleeping in a tent outside, usually in the woods or at a commercial campground. You typically cook your meals over an open fire, a grill, or camping equipment.
When camping in a tent, you have to account for the weather. When you review the packing guide below, make sure you pay special attention to the things you may need to keep warm or cool, depending on the climate and time of year.
Traditional campsites usually consist of a parking space for your vehicle, space to pitch your tent, a fire pit or a grill, and other amenities depending on the campground.
Most campgrounds have community bathrooms and shower buildings in a central location. You may have to bring toilet paper. You will need toiletries and a towel.
Traditional camping is a fun and relaxing way to enjoy nature alone or with friends and family. Many campgrounds are located in the mountains or the forest and may contain hiking or biking trails, lakes for swimming and boating, or other fun, adventurous activities. There’s plenty that you can do to enjoy yourself while camping this way.
Since tent camping is the most common form of camping, the majority of this comprehensive guide will focus on this experience. If you are camping another way, make sure that you adapt the equipment and tips so that they are appropriate for your outing.
Primitive camping is similar to tent camping but is more intense and brings a bit more of a challenge.
With primitive camping, you will not be at a traditional campsite with amenities. You will choose a site in the wilderness for your adventure.
You may still choose to sleep in a tent, but many primitive campers simply sleep on a camping mat or sleeping bag under the stars, or they build a simple lean-to or other structure for shelter.
When attempting primitive camping, the idea is to rely on your surroundings as much as possible. You don’t have running water, power, or the other small luxuries you will find at a campsite.
One of those luxuries that you may take for granted is a bathroom. When primitive camping, you will “do your business” outdoors. In this case, make sure to pack everything you will need to be comfortable and clean, like a dedicated bathroom trowel (for digging an outdoor toilet), toilet paper, soap, and hand sanitizer.
Before trying this type of camping, make sure that you are familiar with building and maintaining a fire safely. You will cook your meals this way since you won’t have the grill that you’ll typically find at campsites.
You may also choose to bring camping equipment like propane-fueled camping stoves or battery-powered gadgets when primitive camping, but most people prefer to go “all-in” and camp without any power.
One crucial thing to remember is to bring enough water and a high-quality camping cooler. Camping coolers keep ice frozen longer than regular coolers, so it is a safer way to store your food and leftovers during your trip. The last thing you want while in the middle of nowhere is to come down with food poisoning from unsafe food temperatures.
Primitive camping is not advisable for beginners. You should get your feet wet with regular tent camping at a campsite first before moving up to the next level. However, if you want to attempt this kind of camping, you will find many valuable tips in our guide.
Alternative Forms of Camping
It would take all day to thoroughly review all the different ways you can camp. Some of the lesser-known alternative forms of camping are:
- Backpacking/bike camping: This is when you carry your tent or hammock and all of your equipment with you (usually on your back) and travel on foot or by bike. When it is time to stop to rest, eat, or sleep for the night, you have everything you need with you.
- Survival camping: This is similar to primitive camping, except you will not pack food or comfort items. You will rely entirely on the land. Survival camping is challenging and only for people experienced with the outdoors. You will find food by hunting or gathering, create a shelter with only materials found in your surroundings, and build fires from scratch. Survival camping can be dangerous, but it is rewarding.
- Backyard camping: Backyard camping is similar to tent camping or primitive camping, with the difference being that you are in the comfort of your backyard. If necessary, you can return to your home within seconds. Backyard camping is an excellent option for a trial run or for a camping adventure with small children since you will be in a safe and controlled environment.
- Historical camping: This is a fun form of camping that involves recreating camping and outdoor survival from a specific historical era. Campers will use historical equipment and supplies. The goal of historical camping is for campers to learn, have fun, and share a challenge through historical reenactment.
When to Camp
Camping is possible at any time of year. The dates that you choose for your trip will rely on a few factors:
- Your comfort in various types of weather
- Your experience level
- The climate where you live (or where you intend to camp)
- The kind of outing you desire
Best Time to Camp
Typically, most people decide to camp during the spring or early fall. These two seasons tend to provide the most pleasant weather. The heat of summer has not kicked in yet, or temperatures are just starting to go down.
You are less likely to experience damaging side effects from the sun, like sunburn, sun poisoning, or heat stroke. Our bodies use more energy in the heat, so if you are camping in cooler weather, you can have more fun on your outing because you won’t be wasting as much energy trying to stay cool.
Depending on the area you live in, you may find that mosquitoes are more prevalent in the spring, so you might choose to camp in the fall to avoid them. However, in some locations, mosquitoes are unavoidable whenever there is warm weather, so this may not be a consideration at all while planning your trip.
Camping during the winter is an extreme option for adventurous people. It involves camping during colder weather, which can be dangerous and is also less comfortable. It may be snowing during your trip, which will create further challenges. You also face the threat of extreme winter weather events, like blizzards or ice on the ground.
To camp in the winter, you must ensure that you have done the necessary preparation. You will need appropriate clothing to stay warm and comfortable in the cold, and you will need insulation for your tent and extra blankets for the night. You may want to bring a portable heater for nighttime and emergencies.
Since the presence of snow means that you could be getting wet and putting yourself at risk of illness, you must pack extra clothes and make sure to have a durable, warm, and waterproof outer layer.
Winter camping is only for those risk-loving campers who have experience being outdoors in different types of weather.
When to Avoid Camping
There are times when you should avoid camping unless you are very experienced or a professional. Some people enjoy the thrill of putting their lives at risk and surviving in the elements, but this is not the best decision for beginners.
You should not attempt your first camping trip in the extreme summer heat. This period usually occurs in July, which is historically the hottest month of the year in the US. Depending on the climate where you intend to camp, this could be very dangerous.
Be sure to check the weather before your trip. If you anticipate dangerous temperatures, either stay home or plan to spend the hottest hours of the day safely in your tent or out of the sun. Bring plenty of water and dress in cool layers that will provide skin protection. Of course, pack sunscreen and do not forget to reapply often.
Beginners also should not camp during potentially dangerous weather events. These could include heat advisories, heavy rain, or other life-threatening events like hurricanes or tornadoes.
Rain during a camping trip does not constitute an emergency, but make sure to bring an umbrella, poncho, or other protective gear. You do not want to spend your whole trip soaking wet. Make sure to protect your equipment and spare clothes from the elements as well.
Once you have decided to start planning your camping trip, you need to ensure you have the appropriate equipment.
There’s a wide range of camping equipment available, and it can be overwhelming to make decisions while shopping for your trip.
It’s essential to bring everything you will need for a successful trip. If you don’t have the right equipment, you could compromise your camping trip. It might be difficult to find a cooking pot or sleeping bag if you’re already in the mountains!
Tent and Sleeping Gear
A few considerations go into choosing the right tent for a beginner. You will want to choose a tent that is easy to set up. You must also think about how many people it has to accommodate if it can withstand bad weather, how heavy it is, or how small it folds up in case you have to carry it.
There are many tent options on the market, from one-person tents, teepees, and other simple options to large ten-person tents. These may require assembly with fold-out poles and fabric, or you can purchase an easy-to-use pop-up tent.
Whatever kind of tent you choose, make sure that it is durable and that it can withstand wind and rain.
Other gear you will need for your tent includes:
- Sleeping bag: Each person will need a comfortable sleeping bag.
- Sleeping pad or camping mat: While not a necessity, many people prefer to use a camping mat under their sleeping bag for added padding and comfort. It is a must-have item if the ground is rocky or uneven.
- Air mattress or cot: Instead of a camping mat and sleeping bag, you may choose to sleep on a blow-up air mattress or elevated cot. These can be more comfortable options. If you opt for an air mattress, be sure it’s easy to blow up, or you have a power source for the pump. Also, be sure to pack a repair kit in case of holes. You will still need a sleeping bag or blanket.
- Camping pillow: Surprisingly, many people forget to pack a pillow when camping. There are several types of camping pillows, including fabric pillows and inflatable ones. If you forget, you can always use your laundry bag and spare clothes to support your head.
- Mosquito netting: If you need protection from bugs, make sure your tent has insect screens, or be sure to purchase mosquito netting to hang around your sleeping area. There is nothing worse than waking up to itchy bug bites!
When packing clothes for your camping trip, make sure to consider the time of year and the weather.
Dress in layers. This way, when you are warm, dirty, or get wet, you can remove clothing, and if you are cold or in full sun, you can put more on.
You must pack clothing that is good for outdoor activities. Suitable clothing will typically be lightweight, comfortable, easy to pack and carry, and water-resistant.
You will not be washing your clothes, so choose odor-resistant fabrics that will quickly dry if they get wet. Some materials with anti-odor technology can help keep you comfortable on your outing.
How many changes of clothes you need depends on the length of your trip and other considerations. Since you will be dressing in layers, you will likely change the inner layers daily and wear the outer layers more than once. Make sure that you pack extra clothing in case something comes up unexpectedly.
Here is a sample list of items you should bring. This list may change depending on the season and the activities you wish you participate in during your trip.
- Rain gear: This includes rain boots, a water-resistant jacket, poncho, and umbrella.
- Clothing: Lightweight long-sleeve shirts, tops, undershirts, and jackets for layering.
- Socks and underwear: Make sure to pack extra!
- Swimwear: Don’t forget your swimsuit or trunks. You will want sandals or flip-flops to wear near the water.
- Sun protection: A hat, sunglasses, and a light jacket to cover your arms.
- Shoes: Be prepared for various activities. You may need hiking boots and comfortable sneakers.
- Winter clothing: If you are camping in cold weather, bring thermal layers, gloves, scarves, a beanie or toboggan, a heavy coat with insulation, thick socks, and warm pants.
While spending time outdoors, you don’t have to “rough it” to the extent that you are not taking care of yourself. Many people forget to pack essential hygiene items, which could make the trip very difficult. Make sure you remember the items you will need to care for your body and use the restroom.
- Toilet paper
- Hand sanitizer
- Female hygiene supplies, if applicable.
- Soap (preferably biodegradable soap if you will not be near plumbing)
- Medications that you may need
- Shampoo and conditioner: Some campers often skip packing these to save space and simply wash their hair with water.
- Optional toiletries like face wash or lotion
Other hygiene items to remember are sunscreen and protection from bugs. It can be insect repellant spray, an insect-repelling bracelet, long-sleeved clothing, or other items that will keep mosquitoes away.
Remember to bring a quick-dry towel that you can reuse after each shower. You may also want to pack baby wipes. These are a convenient way to freshen up quickly.
It’s essential to be prepared for any situation while camping. You must have a first-aid kit, as it will help you in case there is an injury or emergency.
Some of these items may not apply depending on your location, climate, nearby wildlife, activities, or campground. However, here are some essential items you might need to have on hand.
- Band-aids for minor nicks and cuts
- Antiseptic or alcohol wipes
- Butterfly bandages or adhesive wound-closure bandages in case of more significant cuts
- Gauze pads and sterile pads
- Medical tape
- Ibuprofen or other over-the-counter pain relief medication
- Blister pads
- Anti-itch ointment or other insect sting treatment
- An over-the-counter antihistamine to treat mild allergic reactions to insect bites and plants
- An EpiPen or other emergency medication if a member of your party has a severe allergy
- Tweezers for splinters
- Safety pins
- Manual or easy to read first-aid information cards in case of emergency
- Wraps or splints to immobilize injuries
- Sunburn relief gel or spray
- Cotton swabs
- Antibiotic ointment
- Emergency heat blanket in case of hypothermia or shock
- Snakebite kit
You may choose to make your first-aid kit larger or smaller. The items you will need depend on your situation and the area in which you will be camping. Just make sure that you are always prepared for an emergency.
One of the best parts of camping is eating meals that you prepare and cook outside, either over a fire or a camping grill. There are some essential items that you will need to make sure that you have a smooth experience preparing meals for your party.
- Camping stove: You can purchase a one or two-burner stove. These are usually propane-fueled, so make sure to bring enough fuel. Some campsites have a grill that you can cook over instead, so you will have to remember charcoal to cook over if you opt not to bring a stove.
- Pots and pans: Select metal pots and pans that promote even heating. You may want to choose ones that are easy to clean up.
- Utensils for cooking
- Dishes and utensils for eating: You will need plates, bowls, forks, knives, and spoons. You can also bring sporks or three-in-one eating utensils to save space.
- Cutting board: If you are preparing meals from scratch, don’t forget a cutting board to slice meats and veggies on.
- Sharp knife: This is very important when preparing meals. You don’t want to find yourself stuck without any way to cut your food.
- Cooler: A camping cooler is different from regular coolers. It has greater insulation and can keep ice frozen longer, meaning that your perishable foods (like meat, fruits, and vegetables) can stay at a safe temperature throughout your trip. You may want one with a built-in thermometer so you can monitor food temperatures.
- Water container: You will want to bring fresh water in a large, airtight container that will keep it free from contamination.
- Camp sink/washing bin: A large bin to wash dishes in will make cleaning after meals more manageable and convenient.
- Sponge or scrubber
There are other necessities you will need for your outing.
- Lighting: Bring lanterns or flashlights. Don’t forget extra batteries or fuel.
- Repair kits for your tent and camping pad/air mattress
- Saw or ax for cutting firewood, or firewood
- Small broom and dustpan
- Portable solar or battery power sources
- Navigation tools (like a compass)
- Bags, sacks, or plastic bins to store items and keep them dry and away from animals
Some things you may consider bringing on your trip are below:
- Star chart or astronomy handbook
- Books/other reading material
- Notebook and writing utensils
- Music player with headphones and spare power source
- Games and toys
- Gear for animals (like dogs) if you bring them along
Don’t forget your important personal items for convenience and emergencies:
- Credit card or cash
- Identification, such as driver’s license or ID card
- Cellphone with a charged portable power source for emergencies
- Campsite reservation confirmation, if needed
What Kind of Food to Prepare While Camping
Many people struggle with deciding what kinds of meals to prepare while camping.
You can cook anything outside that you can cook inside, such as meats and vegetables. As long as you safely store your food so that it does not reach unsafe temperatures, you can prepare gourmet meals in the wilderness.
When packing for your trip, make a meal plan. Decide what food you will cook and which ingredients and equipment you will need. Pack accordingly, and remember to follow your meal plan while camping.
You can cook using the grill or camping stove, or you can roast food over an open campfire. You can even use heavy-bottomed pans with long handles to cook food over the flame that you would usually cook on a burner.
Some great options for camping meals include hot dogs roasted over the fire (make sure to bring roasting forks), eggs, hamburgers, and even steaks. You can have cooked or raw vegetables on the side. Many people enjoy placing foil-wrapped potatoes at the base of a campfire for delicious baked potatoes. You have many great meal options when cooking outside.
Don’t forget to bring supplies for s’mores! For this classic campfire treat, you will need roasting forks or long sticks, marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars.
You will need airtight containers and a camping cooler for food storage. You want to ensure that your food or leftovers are always safely stored.
In addition to your planned meals, bring snacks and spare ready-to-eat meals that do not require cooking. Doing this will save you in case of time constraints or if something comes up. You may not be able to start a fire, or you might encounter an emergency.
Before Your Trip
Going on your first camping trip can be intimidating, and you might be wondering how to prepare for your trip. Here are some easy steps to follow:
- Read this guide for answers to most of your questions as a first-time camper.
- Write down and research any questions you still have. Leave no stone unturned.
- Review the guidelines of your campground. Make sure you know the rules and what to expect.
- Visit the site if possible to see what it’s like, learn the layout, plan your activities, and answer any additional questions that may come up before you embark on this adventure.
- Plan your trip and decide what you are doing each day. You don’t have to have your itinerary planned to the minute, but it is wise to have a general idea of how each day will go so that you can pack all of the right items.
Setting Up Your Campsite
When you first arrive at your campsite, you will first check-in. You may have to show your reservation confirmation or provide personal information before you can proceed to your site.
Once you arrive, survey the area and make sure you are familiar with the location of any emergency services.
After that, the first thing you will do is put up your tent (or hook up your RV, get your cabin ready, whatever applies to your situation).
Next, set up a cooking area. Make sure everything is ready ahead of time so that when it’s time to cook, you can do so with little stress.
Finally, scope out the bathroom and shower area. You will want to know where it is and how long it takes to get there from your campsite.
Now, you are ready to enjoy your trip! Relax with your family or friends, go for a hike, take a nap, or find an exciting activity to do.
If you’re wondering what there is to do on a camping trip, let’s go over that next.
There are lots of fun things that you can do while on a camping trip. If you are curious about the various recreational activities available, read on for some ideas.
Remember that some activities require you to pack equipment, so be prepared.
You can go hiking on nature trails, mountains, and in the woods. If you are bringing bikes, you can explore mountain biking trails.
If there is a body of water and you plan on fishing, check for licensing regulations in the area. Pack fishing equipment, research the type of fish available, and bring the appropriate bait.
Several water activities are available on many campgrounds. These include the following.
- Pedal boating
- Other activities
Many campgrounds offer trails for horseback riding and local stables where you can pay to ride horses. You may want to look into guided or unguided horse trails.
There are plenty of activities you can do with the whole crew.
If you anticipate playing these games, pack them or check if the site has the necessary items already.
You can play lawn games such as cornhole/beanbag toss, horseshoes, and croquet. You should always pack a ball for a game of catch.
Rainy Day or Indoor Activities
Be sure to pack activities for days when you may be stuck huddled in the tent or inside your cabin because of poor weather. There are also days when you might just be too tired to explore outside. Some fun indoor activities include:
- Board games
- Hobbies you enjoy like knitting/crocheting, etc.
Your Final Day at the Site
When it is time to leave your campsite, pack everything up. Double and triple-check that you don’t leave anything behind.
Once you have packed all of your items, clean up the campsite. Remember the “Leave No Trace” rule when camping. Leave the area where you were camping better than you found it. There should be no evidence that anybody was camping there.
After you have cleaned up and you are sure that you have not left anything behind, it’s time to check out.
Are You Ready for Your First Camping Experience?
Hopefully, this comprehensive guide has given you the confidence that you need to go on your very first camping trip.
You should now be able to plan, book and pack for an adventure. You can meal plan, cook, eat delicious campsite meals, and engage in fun outdoor activities.
Now that you know what you’re doing, the next step is to get out there. It’s time to book your trip!