Sleeping under the stars sounds simple, and it is – but the journey to get there can feel overwhelmingly complex.
“A lot of people think that to try camping you have to climb a mountain and go deep into the wilderness,” says Clare Arentzen, senior outdoor guide for the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which has a network of hiking trails Accommodation options, including campsites, as well as outdoor programs. “But the best way to start is to start small.”
This back-to-basics approach is an ideal way to discover the magic of camping. One of the most accessible methods is auto camping, which is as simple as driving to a campground, pitching a tent, and settling in for s’mores in a beautiful setting.
“Camping promotes a connection with nature,” says Scott Gediman, who grew up in Yosemite National Park. He has been a ranger at the national park for 32 years, 26 of them in Yosemite. “When you camp, you are completely immersed in nature. They are there for sunset and sunrise, hearing birds singing and seeing animals.”
In Yosemite, Gediman has witnessed the growing popularity of camping. According to the 2022 North American Camping Report sponsored by Kampgrounds of America, 56.9 million US households went camping at least once last year, up from about 42 million in 2019. Of those households, 9.1 million were first-time visitors and 56 percent prefer tent camping .
Are you interested in trying it out? Here are some tips to get you started.
keep it simple
“Especially the first time, simplify as much as possible,” Gediman said. “When you have a location and are comfortable with your gear, you can have peace of mind and worry less so you can focus on having fun and enjoying the surroundings.”
Planning is the key to success. First, set your destinations and itinerary, taking the weather into account. Then select a local campsite for a night or two.
Gediman recommended consulting Recreation.gov, a one-stop shop for all statewide goals and federal-level activities, including more than 113,000 individual sites and more than 4,200 recreation areas that are gateways to national parks, forests, preserves, lakes and more; The Trip Builder tool helps travelers discover places and activities along a route. ReserveAmerica lists nearly 290,000 websites. The Dyrt offers bookings and more than 1 million reviews. Hipcamp, the world’s largest outdoor accommodation provider, offers access to more than 370,000 private and public locations across the United States.
According to Dyrt’s 2022 Camping Report, almost half of the campers had difficulties finding free pitches last year. Many popular campgrounds fill up quickly, even when reservations are opened six months in advance. Plan as early as possible and consider midweek or off-season stays and less frequented parks or private campgrounds. Lotteries, some of which are available at recreation.gov, can give campers the opportunity to reserve particularly competitive spots before traditional booking windows open.
Beginners should avoid scattered campgrounds outside of designated campgrounds often found on US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land. With no services and little to no facilities, these areas require more effort and skill. Instead, choose a developed, established campground that offers amenities such as drinking water, garbage disposal, picnic tables, fire rings, food lockers, and communal toilets. Also, check your destination’s website for required permits for popular hikes and activities.
To keep things simple, stick to the basics and don’t overpack. Autocamping lets you bring a spacious tent, so consider a four-person option if there are two of you. Choose a synthetic three-season sleeping bag that is rated for temperatures that are colder than you expect. Opt for an insulated sleeping pad, not an at-home air mattress. An established campground should have a picnic table, but if not, bring camp chairs and a table. A lantern or headlamp is also essential.
Gediman advised packing clothes in layers, even for the cold and rain (synthetics dries faster than cotton) and making sure your shoes are broken in.
“You could get that deep in the weeds with all the different types of gear, and cost is also a barrier,” said Arentzen, who runs Adventures in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. “But that’s changing as more places start offering rentals and equipment rentals.”
Many of AMC’s lodges, as well as many of its chapters and offices in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, have libraries for borrowing equipment. other outdoor groups and universities do the same. Outfitters like Xscape Pod and Arrive Outdoors ship single items and all-inclusive rental kits, with the latter starting at around $50 a day. REI locations offer similar options, with sets starting at $114 for the first day and $27 for subsequent days for members.
Local swap meets, thrift stores, and REI offer used gear. For new bargains, try REI Outlet and Steep & Cheap. If you buy any items, Arentzen recommends storing them in a box that’s ready to go from the closet to the car.
“It’s so easy to want every piece of equipment, but camping isn’t about the gear,” Gediman said. “It’s a fun opportunity to re-evaluate what you really need.”
what to eat
Plan simple meals ahead and remember to include condiments, cooking oils and utensils. An established camp will allow you to prepare fresh food, so pack any perishables in a cooler with ice. Freeze-dried or dehydrated foods are also available for special dietary needs; Outdoor Herbivore offers plant-based options. Clear plastic containers come in handy for organization and as laundry tubs.
Even if your campsite has a fire ring, a grate may be missing. A one or two burner propane stove is easier to use. (Don’t forget fuel and waterproof matches.) Camping cook sets can be hired or bought cheaply and include pots, pans, plates and cutlery. Also bring a cutting board, aluminum foil, a scouring pad and a towel. Make sure your campsite has drinking water, or bring your own water, even extra.
Make your campsite reptile-proof by keeping it clean and properly storing groceries and scented products like toothpaste in lockers, which are provided in many locations and are especially important in bear country.
Stay safe and comfortable
Before you leave, leave your itinerary with a loved one. A custom map downloaded from Google Maps or an outdoor app like OnX will help navigate even offline in areas without cellular coverage. When you arrive, pitch your tent on level ground away from cooking and campfire areas, and do not pitch under dead trees or branches.
If you’re camping with kids, Gediman suggests getting everyone involved in setting up, preparing food, and getting water. Plan fun activities: take a ranger walk; bring a frisbee, bikes or games; or pack binoculars for respectful spotting of birds and wildlife. Some identification apps, like iNaturalist’s Seek, work offline.
Campgrounds and trails may have pet-specific rules, so check ahead of time and make sure pets can adventure with you. In addition to your own first aid kit, bring food, water, leashes, trash bags, towels, and a pet medical kit.
Getting dirty is part of the fun, but biodegradable soap, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and a towel are essentials alongside your toiletries, sunscreen, bug repellent, and anti-itch cream.
Wherever you pitch your tent, follow the “leave no trace” principles. Avoid trampling on the vegetation and don’t stray off the paths. Follow fire codes, buy local firewood to avoid pests entering an area, and build (and extinguish) a campfire in a suitable area.
Bring reusable water bottles and, if you didn’t rent a set, bring reusable plates and cutlery. Minimize the amount of food packaging that campgrounds have to ship to landfills. Throw trash and gray water in the designated bins and try to leave your storage area better than you found it.
Preparation is important, but spontaneity and patience for the inevitable mishaps will allow you to appreciate your learning curve.
“I still have so many moments and trips that don’t go right, and that’s a big part of what I love about camping,” said Arentzen, who also celebrates the change beginners are experiencing in the great outdoors. “At the beginning of the journey they are filled with fear or trepidation, and by the end they have discovered that they are stronger and more capable than they thought.”