I’m lucky: My first time tent camping was when I was just about 5 years old. Since I was so young when I went camping, I didn’t have to do any of the planning but still got introduced to the ins-and-outs of sleeping outdoors.
But I understand how overwhelming it can be to plan a camping trip.
The first time I took my daughter (she was 3 then), I felt like I had to relearn everything. And, yes, I was nervous about all the things that could “go wrong.”
Once we got out into nature though, all my anxiety melted away. We had a fantastic time. Even a bee sting didn’t ruin the joy of being surrounded by nature and away from the distractions of “real” life.
As a veteran camper, here’s my advice to anyone going tent camping for the first time. Trust me – it’s not as difficult as you’d imagine and the planning is definitely worth it!
- Types of Camping
- Choosing Where to Go
- When to Go
- What to Bring (Checklist)
- Before You Go
- Setting Up Camp
- Essential Skills
Types of Camping
What is camping? Some people equate “camping” with RVs whereas others do it as part of thru-hiking. There’s no right or wrong way to go camping!
When looking for camping tips, it is very helpful to know the terminology. Otherwise you might end up with advice or gear that doesn’t suit your needs.
This means that you take a car to the campground. Since you don’t have to carry the gear yourself, you have a lot more flexibility to bring “luxury” items like chairs, tables, and coolers.
Wild camping simply means camping outside of a campground. I currently live in Serbia, where the wild camping laws are very permissive. If you are in the States, camping in National or State parks generally requires a fee or a permit.
Finding a place to go wild camping can be a bit difficult – especially if you don’t know the area well. You’ll probably have to look at satellite and contour maps for wild places (and learn the local laws so you don’t end up getting arrested!).
But there is no reason that wild camping has to be somewhere far-flung. You could go camping in a local woods, pond, creak, etc. The nature might not be “spectacular” like in a National Park, but you still get a great experience.
I personally think this is a great way to go camping for the first time. You could even ask a local landowner if you can camp on their property.
There is a higher learning curve for wild camping. You’ll need to know more of the camping skills (more on these later).
Put all the gear you need in your pack and head out to a destination. Backpacking tends to be more hiking-intensive than camping. Since you are carrying everything you need in your pack – and also carrying everything out of camp too – gear weight really matters.
A subset of backpacking is “ultralight backpacking.” This basically means that you are carrying minimal weight and gear. Ultralight gear is usually very expensive. If you are just getting started, I wouldn’t recommend going the UL route.
Thru-hiking is when you start at one end of a trail and hike all the way through it. It’s common to spend weeks or months on the trail. To make it happen, the US and Canada has a cool mail-drop system. Most thru-hikers I know are more into accumulating vistas than doing camping activities like making a fire.
Choosing Where to Go
When deciding where to go camping the first time, there are two things you need to consider:
1. What type of scenery do you want?
Would you prefer your first camping trip to be on a mountain, beach, desert, or forest? Each of these landscapes can provide a great experience.
However, some places might have a higher learning curve. For example, in high mountains, you’ll need better gear to stay warm and might need to worry about wild animals like bears and snakes.
Tip: For your first camping trip, don’t go too far away – especially if you have kids. You don’t want to deal with the stress of a long trip when trying something new!
2. What type of experience do you want?
Do you want to have fun activities like canoeing, biking, and volleyball at camp? Then your best option is a family-oriented or “glamping” type of campground. Just don’t expect much nature!
Would you prefer a more natural experience? The chance to connect with nature? Then you’ll need to choose your campground more carefully – such as going to a State or National Park. Or you might choose to go wild camping instead.
Note that campgrounds vary drastically, but they usually have amenities like bathrooms, showers, electricity hookups, potable water, and maybe even a store (in case you forgot something). Some luxury or “glamping” campgrounds offer lots of activities for kids and adults alike. Read this article on how to choose a campground before you go!
- Have many amenities, like electric hookups, WiFi, and stores
- Don’t have to bring as much gear
- There are staff on site in case you need help
- Don’t offer a very “natural” experience
- Could have annoying neighbors
- Amenities vary drastically
- Can be very expensive
State and National Park Campgrounds:
- Offer a more natural experience
- Usually have basic amenities
- Close to spectacular natural attractions
- Rangers are available for assistance
- Usually need to book well in advance
- Tend to have stricter rules, such as not permitting campfires
- Can be difficult to get to
- The most natural experience
- Flexibility to choose your campsite
- Requires a lot of planning
- Higher learning curve
- No one to help if something goes wrong
- May be illegal
When to Go
Weather obviously plays a huge part in how your camping trip goes. Ideally, you take your first trip in summer or early fall (unless you are going to the desert, then you’ll want to go in winter!). It will be warm enough for you to be outside without high-tech gear. Plus, rain isn’t as likely as it is in the spring.
The downside of going camping in summer is that it can be crowded. It’s hard to get peace and calm when there are a dozen families with screaming children at the campground! Rates tend to get much higher during summer. Also, annoying insects like mosquitoes are at their worst in summer.
For these reasons, I prefer to go camping in early fall. The insects aren’t out of control. The leaves are beautiful. The crowds have dissipated. Yet it is still warm enough that I don’t need tons of gear.
Avoid school holidays:
If you absolutely must go during a school holiday, then avoid the popular destinations (like the Grand Canyon or Smoky Mountains). There are plenty of great but lesser-known National Parks where it won’t be as crowded.
Beware of temperature drops!
Once you get into any elevation, the temperature will drop quickly – especially at night. You can wear short sleeves on a mountain during the day and need a thick jacket + hat at night. As a general rule, you will lose 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet of elevation (when there is no fog/clouds/rain).
For example, Balsam Mountain Campground in the Smoky Mountains is located at 5,310 feet. Nearby Knoxville is only 885 feet high. That means the temperature at camp can be 23 degrees F cooler at camp than in Knoxville! Yes, it will be cold at night – even in summer!
To learn more, I suggest reading How Cold Is Too Cold for Tent Camping
What to Bring?
I am a minimalist camper – I bring only the essentials. This allows me to connect with nature. It also keeps my pack weight down (I don’t have a car so some backpacking is usually involved to get to camp!).
Not everyone likes this minimalist approach to camping though. So, here is a list of the absolute essentials plus a list of optional camping gear.
Must-Have Camping Gear List:
- Tent (ground tarp, tent, rain fly, poles, stakes, tent ropes)
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Backpack for day trips
- Flashlights or headlamps
- First aid kit (see checklist here)
- Bug spray
- Waterproof matches and/or lighter
- Map and compass or GPS location device
- Lots of plastic bags for trash and dirty items
- Multitool (like a Leatherman)
- Clothing that can be layered
- Rain jacket
- Hiking boots or sneakers
- Camp sandals or slippers
- Hat with a brim
- Laundry bag
- Stove + fuel (see options here)
- Mess kit (plates, utensils, cups)
- Cutting board and knife
- Cooking pot/pans (see my top picks here)
- Spatula, cooking spoons
- Non-perishable meals
- Can opener (if bringing canned foods)
- Sponge + biodegradable dish soap
- Salt, spices, herbs, small bottle of cooking oil
- Coffee and tea (read how to make camping coffee here)
*See this post for camping meal ideas
- Toothbrush and paste
- Small washcloth
- Biodegradable soap
- Sun block
- Shower sandals (for campground bathroom – they can be gross!)
- Baby wipes
- Hair brush/comb
- Feminine items (I use a Diva Cup)
Optional Camping Gear:
Survival Items/Gear that May Be Required
- Water filter (I use the Sawyer Mini)
- Survival knife
- Bear bag
- Bear spray
- Rope (great for hanging a laundry line and much more!)
- Extra batteries
- Solar charger (see options here)
- Guide book
- Fire extinguisher
- Tarp + rope (for making a sun or rain shelter)
- Camp chairs
- Camp table
- Camping shower
- Wash bowl
- Picnic blanket
- Fire starters
- Entertainment (deck of cards, book, etc.)
- Activity items (bikes, fishing poles, badminton rackets…)
Items NOT to Bring Camping
It is easy to overpack when going camping the first time. While it may be tempting to go the “better safe than sorry” route with gear, having too much gear will stress you out. You’ll probably end up fiddling with gear (or organizing it) instead of enjoying the nature around you.
There are also some items which simply should never be brought camping. You can read in detail about these do-not-bring items here.
Some items never to bring include:
- Perfumed or scented items – unless you like being chased around by bees all day!
- An axe: Why is this always included on camping lists? You should NOT chop down branches or trees. Aside from being against the “leave no trace” philosophy, wick (green) wood doesn’t burn. It smokes!
- Glass or ceramic items: They will break!
- Electronics – devices like radios will ruin the natural experience of camping. Even if you don’t mind, your camping neighbor might!
Before You Go
The most important thing to do before you go is TEST YOUR TENT. This is especially important if it is a new tent that you’ve never put up before.
You don’t want to get to camp and end up wrestling with the damn thing for 2+ hours! Not only will you make a fool of yourself, but you might not set it up properly. Then, when a midnight shower hits, you get wet and end up sleeping in the car.
Practice setting up the tent in your backyard or living room. Make sure that everything is there (ground tarp, stakes, rain fly, poles).
In addition to testing your tent, you’ll also need to test:
- Headlamps and lanterns
- Inflatable sleeping pads
- Camp stoves
- Navigation systems
- Any devices, such as solar chargers
Setting Up Camp
Most people think about comfort first when choosing a campsite – like finding an area which is flat and free of rocks. But safety should be the first concern.
Every year, there is a story about someone who died while camping because a tree limb fell on their tent (like this tragic story).
There’s also the risk of getting struck by lightning while camping (as in the case of this man who died) and flash flooding.
The sad thing is that most of these camping deaths are completely avoidable. You just need to follow some general safety rules when setting up camp.
Steps to (Safely) Set Up Camp
- Are there any dead tree limbs overhead? These can fall on you can KILL you. This is so common that the trees even have a name – WINDOWMAKER TREES. Do not pitch your tent under a dead tree limb. The signs aren’t always so obvious though. So, please read this article about How to Spot a Windowmaker Tree
- Is the campsite below a ledge/overhang? Those rocky ledges and overhangs can provide shelter against wind. However, if it rains, the water will come flooding down on your tent. There’s a hilarious episode of Curious George where this happens. 🙂 You can download it here
- Is there a risk of rocks falling on you? Don’t set up camp at the base of a cliff where there is a risk of falling rocks. How can you tell? If there are lots of smashed rocks nearby, then there’s a risk of one falling again soon!
- Will the campsite flood? The campsite might be dry now, but what will it look like if it rains? Avoid natural hollows and ravines in the land. Likewise, you don’t want to be too close to a river or the beach. The tides can rise quickly and flood you.
- Stay off of bare hilltops: If your tent is the only thing on top of a hill, then you are inviting a lightning strike.
- Are you in a canyon? NEVER camp in a canyon. If it rains, flash flooding WILL start quickly!
*Note that campsites at campgrounds are generally very safe. These precautions are more for wild camping.
The images below are from Parks Victoria and show trees that fell on campsites. Luckily no one got hurt!
When Camping in Bear Country:
There are special precautions you need to take when camping in areas with bears. The National Parks Services recommends:
- Keep 200 feet between a cooking space and sleeping space.
- Always store food at least 200 feet from your sleeping space.
- Do not sleep in clothes used during cooking.
- Check park regulations for proper food storage; many parks require a bear box or bag.
For more on this, read How to Hang a Bear bag.
Essential Camping Skills
If you want to have a great first time camping, you should read up on some essential skills. Start with these:
How to Make a Fire:
Campfires aren’t allowed in many campgrounds because of forest fire risk. If a campfire is allowed, you’ll still need to make sure you are lighting it and putting it out safely.
There are other aspects of making a campfire too – like ensuring that you get a good-burning fire (instead of just a bunch of smoke!).
Camping and Rain:
Yes, camping can still be fun in the rain! You just need to be prepared. Read this article on what to do if it rains while camping.
Staying Warm inside a Tent:
Just because you have a sleeping bag rated to -30F, it doesn’t mean that you’ll actually be warm in it! For example, down sleeping bags must be fluffed in order to provide insulating value.
While you are unlikely to see any dangerous animals in most, you still need to know which precautions to take.
Planning a Hike:
If you plan on doing some hiking while camping, you’ll need a good navigation system. I just use a map and compass. A lot of people prefer GPS navigation systems, especially if their orienteering skills aren’t so great.
To make sure everything goes smoothly, read:
- How to navigate with a map and compass
- Calculate how long a hike will take
- How much water to bring hiking
- Hiking checklist
There are a lot of ways to cook meals while camping. The simplest option is to get a liquid fuel camping stove. You can use it to cook meals from non-perishable foods (pasta with instant sauces is a favorite).
You can also buy gadgets for cooking food over a campfire. This is trickier than you’d imagine – especially since you’ll have to build a campfire for each meal. However, it can also be a lot of fun.
Leave No Trace:
Always follow the philosophy of “Leave No Trace” when in nature. There should be absolutely no sign that you were there after you’ve packed up and left (though admittedly fire rings often remain, and the grass under the tent stays squished).
A big part of Leave No Trace is knowing how to go to the bathroom outdoors. It drives me crazy how often I find little pieces of toilet paper on the edge of the trails. When an outhouse isn’t available, you are supposed to dig a cathole!
At a campground, you’ll have trash bins and probably a septic system, so you won’t have to worry about a lot of this. But, if you are wild camping or backpacking, make sure you know how to keep nature clean!
- How to go to the bathroom in the woods
- Leave No Trace Principles
- How to dispose of trash when camping
- Backcountry dishwashing etiquette
- Disposing of biodegradable soap in the backcountry
- Guide to zero waste camping
Are you ready to go camping? Let us know how your first trip went in the comments section below!