Here’s The Hesitant Camper’s Guide To Tent Camping
Sleeping on the ground in a triangular fabric structure held together by poles may seem like an untackle-able endeavor for a city-dweller. But fear not urbanites, camping is totally within the realm of possibility for you in your near-future travel adventures. Here are the critical beginner steps to prepping for a night out in the woods.
1. Pick your destination
There are two ways of thinking about your inaugural camping experience. You could choose an easy destination with lots of amenities that will make an overnight in nature much less scary. Or you could go someplace so beautiful and off the beaten path that you won’t even notice the fact you’re alone in the wilderness because it’s so beautiful.
But that’s a personal decision. You can base it on how into camping you are. No matter what, we’re not suggesting you go full backwoods for your first trip. But parks closer to big cities will likely fall into the first category (close bathrooms, easy parking, not many bears), while a big national park is probably the second (not every campsite has a bathroom, trailheads might not have parking lots, there might be bears).
The National Park Service has a website devoted to finding the right park for you, based on your state and favorite activities. There are 156 sites recommended for camping (we’d recommend booking your campsite in advance – the good ones can sell out quick).
2. Choose a tent
Tents are sold by how many people sleep in them. If you want enough room for you and bae, you’ll want a 2 tent. Traveling with five friends? Go for a sixer.
They’re not a cheap piece of gear, so if you’re not planning on making camping your favorite new hobby, consider renting one for the weekend. You can even rent straight from REI, if you want to talk to an expert about your best bet before signing a lease. Our suggestion: Rent a tent from a location near your camping destination to cut down on travel luggage. REI rents out tents in just about every state that has a major outdoorsy draw.
And don’t worry. Putting up a tent is not nearly as hard as they make it look in the sitcoms. In case of failure, there’s always YouTube.
3. Get some sleeping gear
Yes, camping requires you to sleep on the ground. But that doesn’t have to be torture on your back. Years of innovations in the camping marketplace have made tent camping pretty luxurious, between ultra-warm sleeping bags and super squishy air mattresses.
Pro tip: For your first time out, don’t shy away from bringing that full-sized pillow. Your head will thank you.
4. Plan your meals
Enough of the nitty-gritty, let’s talk about what you’re going to cook around your nightly bonfire. Camping food can be super simple, like hot dogs and s’mores cooked on sticks you find in the woods. But you can also get a little more gourmet, with tools like a Dutch oven, cast iron skillet or even just one big pot.
There are some pretty fun gadgets for cooking over an open fire, such as a grate or clever ways to hang a pot. But the most important tip to remember is that flames aren’t usually the best way to cook great food. Flames burn food, coals cook food.
Foodies, get crazy with your campfire mulled wine, and grilled pizzas. Food never tastes better than when it’s made in the great outdoors. But our favorite faux-fancy campfire food is baked potatoes. Literally just wrap a potato (sweet or not) in tin foil and toss it into the coals. Cook for about a half an hour and top with whatever feels right. Could be salt and pepper, could be sauteed onions. You do you, campers.
5. Put your mind at ease
Still worried? Deep breaths. You don’t have to backpack or even go a day without showering on your first camping outing. While some of your lingering questions can only be answered by taking yourself out on a camping test drive, here are a few more worries we can put to rest.
How do I make a fire?
Gone are the days when you have to make your own fire starters and tackle a campfire with only matches. Don’t fall for the internet fads of “start a fire with only sugar.” It doesn’t have to be this way. There are tons of fire starters you can buy that make fires easy.
There’s no precise technique to building the perfect fire (although some people might try to tell you only the log cabin method works, while others swear by a teepee structure). The main trick is to put wood in the path of the flames while still allowing air in.
Start with bark, twigs and small pieces of wood (kindling). Once they’re burning, add bigger pieces, working up to actual logs. Then all you have to do is add more logs. Don’t smother the fire and don’t let it burn out.
Pay attention to fire safety warnings. Due to forest fire risk, some parks don’t allow campfires.
I’m afraid of the dark.
Well, friend, that’s what flashlights are for. And the good news is that when there’s no artificial light around, your body wants to sleep when it’s dark.
One little fear hack: if you wear yourself out hiking, you’ll be so tired once it’s bedtime that you won’t have the energy to be scared.
Also, you’ve never seen stars until you’re in the middle of nowhere at night. It’s worth it, believe us.
Are there bears?
You will probably not see a bear anywhere near your campsite. You probably will see a raccoon. But both animals are drawn to leftover food and garbage, so clean up after yourself around your campsite.
If you are camping in bear country, don’t put yummy smelling things inside your tent. Bears do not want to eat you, but they won’t say no to an easy meal. Anything that smells like food (people food, dog food, soap, trash, etc.) belongs in a food locker – a bear-proof contraption.
Still not convinced?
If camping still seems too rough, maybe rent one of those tricked-out hippy vans. It’s basically an indoor/outdoor hybrid. Baby steps.