Camping for Beginners: 11 First Time Camping Tips

In this guide to camping for beginners, I cover 11 of the most important first time camping tips to keep in mind.
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Camping for Beginners: First Time Camping Tips

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Humans are funny creatures. Yes, we have shoes and rockets and fancy smartphones. But inside even the most civilized of us, there’s still a trace of something older. The first people on the earth were probably nomadic hunters who made their camp wherever they could find food.

And even today, there’s still a part of us that longs to get back to the forest.

Camping can be a great way to de-stress from modern life. Separated from all the trappings of society, you can focus on living a simpler existence.

Some campsites don’t even get phone reception so that you can cut yourself off entirely from the modern world. Or as much as you want to, anyway.

Camping has come a long way from our distant ancestors. These days, you can choose anything from a primitive spot in the heart of the wilderness to a more organized campground with showers, laundry, a swimming pool, and WiFi. Thanks to this variety, camping really is for everyone.

If you’re looking to get into camping, there’s never been a better time. Once you see all the products that are out there, it may feel like you have a lot to learn. Don’t worry—camping for beginners can be simple.

Here are some first time camping tips to help you get started:

1. Do Your Research

No one likes homework. But your first time camping experience may set the tone for all the others to come. So you want it to be a pleasant experience. The best way to ensure that happens is to research a little bit before you go.

No, you don’t have to write a doctoral thesis on your local campgrounds. But it is a good idea to put some time into choosing your destination.

The internet is a valuable resource for this. Check out campgrounds near you and read the reviews. You’ll learn a lot from the experiences of other guests. Photos can also be extremely helpful in letting you know what to expect.

Furthermore, keep in mind that campsites can vary widely in their general vibe as well as their facilities. Some are family-friendly resorts. Others are more for a party crowd. And some are designed more for peace in nature.

Do your research to learn what local campgrounds have to offer and make your decision based on the kind of trip you’re hoping to have. Familiarize yourself with the campground rules such as quiet time, whether they allow recreational vehicles, whether they allow alcohol, their pet policy, and other factors.

And think about what facilities you need. If you’re going for a long time, showers can be an absolute luxury, but may not be necessary for a day or two. Can you handle a pit toilet, or do you need one that flushes? These are all factors that can affect your first camping trip.

2. Create a Checklist

For some people, packing for a camping trip is a part of the fun. For others, it’s a tedious chore to be gotten over with as quickly as possible. But no matter what your attitude towards packing is, it’s something you need to do. Part of the camping experience is relying on yourself and what you brought with you.

The best way to make sure you don’t forget something you need is to make a list. As you pack each item, you can check it off the list and move onto the next one. For maximum efficiency, separate your list into separate sections. Some equipment is must-have and should be kept somewhere easy to get. Coffee lovers should definitely have a French press travel mug on hand.

Other stuff falls into the category of luxuries and can be packed down at the bottom of the bag, where you can retrieve it in your own time.

Every camper and every camping trip is different, but here are some suggestions for the necessities you should bring with you no matter where you’re going.

  • A paper map of the area – your phone may not work out in the woods.
  • A compass.
  • Multiple flashlights and extra batteries for them.
  • A knife.
  • Some rope.
  • Candles or a lantern.
  • A tent.
  • A sleeping bag.

3. Get Familiar With Your Gear

If this is your first camping trip, you may have bought a bunch of shiny new gear. And while it may look all pretty as you unpack it, chances are you’re not familiar with what you have.

The last thing you want is to be trying to set up a tent you’ve never unpacked before on a windy day or in the heart of a storm. But these are the kind of things that can happen when you go camping. Before you leave, try setting up your tent in your backyard or living room so that you know how it’s done.

Other than that, take out some time to master using other necessary gears, especially the lanterns and flashlights, so that you won’t find yourself stuck in the dark while camping. Don’t forget that the nights are much darker outside of the city than they are under the streetlights.

If you want to be extra prepared, you could even spend a night camping in your backyard as a practice run. If anything goes wrong, you can retreat to the house. Sure, the neighbors might stare. But you’ll be the one laughing when you master the art of camping without even leaving your neighborhood.

First Time Camping

4. Choose the Right Tent

Your choice of a tent is one decision that will make a significant impact on how much fun you can have on your camping trip. After all, it’s going to be your temporary home while you’re on your adventure.

Most of the tents are usually rated according to how many people they will hold. However, it’s a good idea to be a little bit skeptical about that figure.

A four-person tent, for instance, is based on the concept of four people sleeping on narrow mats squished up against each other. When you factor in all the gear you’ll be bringing with you, it’s a good idea always to buy a tent bigger than what you think you’ll need.

The extra space you get can allow you to bring things like air mattresses that can greatly add to the comfort of any camping trip.

You should also think about the height of your tent. This is especially true if you’re tall. But no matter what height you are, having an extra headspace is never a bad idea. Not only does it provides you a greater feeling of space and helps avoid feeling claustrophobic, but it’s advantageous to be able to stand up inside your tent. That way, you can change your clothes quickly and in privacy without having to struggle while lying down.

Nothing sours a camping trip like being squashed together into a small space. You get enough of that in the city. Bringing a bigger tent than you think you need will allow you to experience the sense of space that camping has to offer.

5. Arrive Early at the Campsite

On a summer weekend, the highways out of the city are often clogged with people heading out to camp in the parks. It’s tempting to join them. After all, you want to maximize the time you spend camping. However, arriving too late at the campsite is a rookie mistake.

For one thing, setting up a tent in the dark is approximately 1000 times more complicated than setting up in daylight. Flashlights can only do so much. And while you’re struggling and probably cursing in the dark, you may well annoy your campsite neighbors with the noise you’re making.

Finally, not all campsites take reservations. If you’re at a place that offers sites on a first-come, first-served basis, the early you get there, the better your chances of getting a site.

If you’re going camping for the weekend, consider taking an extra day off work to arrive there early on Friday. If that’s not possible, it might be better to spend Friday night at home and head to your campsite early on Saturday morning. That way, you can get set up and established in the daylight.

Getting to the site during the day also allows you to stop in at the campsite office and familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations, plus the location of toilets, showers, and any other facilities.

6. Pay Attention to Plants

For those of us who live in cities, plants are mostly ornamental. They are there to break up the concrete monotony of the urban environment and maybe provide a little shade. We often don’t pay too much attention to them.

Out in the forest, it’s a different story. Poison oak, poison ivy, stinging nettles, and even some species of mushrooms can quickly ruin your trip if you come into contact with them. Just brushing up against some of these species is enough to give you a nasty rash.

Before you go on your trip, learn a little bit about some of the less friendly plants you can expect at your campsite. And learn how to identify them. Often, if the campground has an office, it will be able to give you more information about the local flora.

7. Don’t Rely on the Campfire

The campfire is an essential part of the camping experience. Nothing warms the heart as well as the body quite like the roaring flames of a real fire.

But building a fire is a skill and one you are unlikely to have mastered by the time you go on your first camping trip. Besides, fires can be affected by weather, availability of wood, and other factors that are outside of your control. Even if you get that fire going, you don’t have much control over how much heat it puts out. For all of these reasons, cooking over a campfire, as romantic as it may seem, is a lot more complicated than it sounds.

You’re far better off, bringing a small camp stove with you to cook your meals. Save the fire for the atmosphere and for cooking s’mores and other treats for dessert. Let a proper camping stove deal with the main meal.

8. Plan Your Meals

Even if you do bring a stove, it’s still a good idea to think carefully about what kind of food you want to bring on your trip. You don’t want to be weighed down by a bunch of unnecessary utensils for an eight-course meal you’re never going to make.

Think about how many meals you need to make and how we people need to feed. Don’t bring more than you have to. And resist the temptation to live off chips and junk food while you’re camping. You can always bring better food options by placing them in a camping fridge for your trip. Although it may seem difficult, your body will thank you for trying to maintain at least a somewhat healthy diet.

First Time Camping Tips

9. Pack the Right Clothes

Camping isn’t a fashion show. And while someone’s bound to have met the love of their life on a camping trip, that’s not really what camping is for. Leave the ball gown and three-piece suits at home and concentrate on comfort.

Camping can be a dirty business, so make sure to bring clothes that still look okay when they’re not as clean as they could be. Remember that even in warm weather, nights can get cold, so you’ll be glad of a lightweight jacket.

And be aware that even the best weather forecast can’t be relied on entirely. Rain can pop up at almost any time, so bring a rain jacket and pick clothes that will dry quickly. A hat is also a good idea since it can protect you from both sun and rain and even help you to stay warm if not get chilly.

Also, don’t forget about your shoes. Often, these can be the most crucial aspect of your camping clothes. Go for comfortable, sturdy shoes such as hiking boots or trail runners that will protect you on uneven ground.

And last but not least, bring waterproof socks that will always keep your feet warm and dry.

10. Take Care of Your Waste

Being able to explore the wilderness is a privilege. And with that privilege comes certain obligations. The forest belongs to us all, and even more so to the creatures that inhabit it full-time. It’s important to follow the seven Leave No Trace principles. In a nutshell, the only trace of your presence you should leave when your camping trip is finally over is your footprints.

Pack all your garbage out with you and bring it back to the city so you can dispose of it properly. There’s nothing worse than showing up at a campsite to find the previous occupants left it looking like a garbage dump. Keep the backcountry pristine so that others can enjoy it too.

And even while you’re still on your trip, don’t leave your garbage lying around. Waste, especially food scraps, attract animals. And depending on where you’re going camping, some of those animals can cause big problems. Bears can be dangerous, especially once they learn to associate humans with food. So if you’re not eating or cooking your food, keep it locked away in your vehicle or in bear-proof lockers if the campsite has them.

11. Stay Close to Home

Don’t listen to the hard-core campers who insist that if you’re not on a windswept ridge of a mountain with no humans around, you’re not really camping. On your first trip, keep it simple. Stay close to home.

After all, you don’t know if camping is really for you. On top of that, when you are camping for the first time there are numerous chances that something might go wrong. Maybe your tent may collapse in the middle of the night. Maybe a rainstorm may sweep through and soak all of your clothing. If you’re only a few hours’ drive from home, you can always pull the plug on your camping trip and head back to civilization if things get rough.

Even if nothing goes wrong, there’s a comfort in knowing you could make it home quickly if you had to. Often, that knowledge by itself is enough to help you relax and enjoy your camping trip the way you should.

Final Verdict

The first time you try anything new can be intimidating. Like any popular hobby, camping comes with its own rules, its own jargon, and a massive range of gear and accessories. It’s easy to be put off by all the unknowns.

Remember that humans were made to live this way. We were camping before anybody thought of central heating or Netflix. And it’s exactly this back-to-basics simplicity that gives camping its appeal.

Away from the noise and crowds of the city, a camping trip allows you to experience nature firsthand. Getting back into the wild is the absolute best way to reconnect with the wild part of yourself. The part that doesn’t worry about work or the mortgage or the funny noise the car is making.

Camping is supposed to be fun. And done right, it is. But preparation is the key to making sure you enjoy your first time camping. Often, that starts with learning the rules and packing right.

If possible, I advise you to arrange your first camping trip with friends who’ve camped before. After all, nothing teaches like experience.

And if anything does go wrong, just remember that’s all part of the experience. Being able to adapt to and overcome your circumstances is the most confidence-building thing in the world.

Camping can give you an enormous feeling of accomplishment as you triumph over the elements in the wilderness. Plus, it’s a really fun way to spend the weekend!

Jeremy Scott Foster
Jeremy Scott Foster
Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today. You can read more about Jeremy at his bio.

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