The Beginner’s Guide to Camping

Get outside with my beginner's guide to camping - some campgrounds can be crowded like this one!

If you’re looking for a beginner’s guide to camping, you’ve come to the right place! Camping is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in nature, as well as spending time with your family and friends.

Did you know that approximately 40 million people in the US camp every year? Camping for beginners can look pretty intimidating with a lot of knowledge and skills that come into play. Fortunately, there has never been a better time to learn the ropes than now.

Let’s dive into it with the key info for you to enjoy your first camping trip.

Finding where to camp

The first question you need to answer is: where will you be camping? A neat trick to find campsites is by searching “places to camp” in Google. You’ll instantly get suggestions that are geographically close to you.

What kind of camping are you looking for?

This question matters because different campsites offer different amenities, have differing rules, and costs associated with them. For a beginner camper, you probably want to go with a full-fledged campsite that offers showers, bathrooms, etc. Once you have more experience under your belt, you can tackle “primitive” camping. (That’s actually what it’s called)

It’s not uncommon for parks to offer both types.

Primitive camping means that there aren’t amenities like bathrooms, running water, electricity, etc. That means you have to bring all of your supplies, which is a much more daunting way to start camping for a beginner.

What do you need to bring for your first time camping?

Here are the essentials:

  1. Camping clothes (Check out my review of the best shirts for hiking here)
  2. Backpack
  3. Sleeping bag & mattress pad
  4. First-aid kit
  5. Tent (if there is no shelter)
  6. Basic tools (Knife, hammer, fire starter)
  7. A good multi tool (I wrote an article on the best camping multi tools)
  8. Headlamp / Flashlight
  9. Camping cookware
  10. Cooler for food and water storage (Ice to keep any temperature-sensitive food)
  11. Containers for water (Bladder/water bottles)
  12. Seating (optional, but very nice to have)

Notes on how much to pack for your trip

The main difference between reservation and primitive camping is that you need almost all of the same things – just in different quantities. The reason is that when you’re camping at a site with your vehicle close by, you can almost always fall back to a store run if necessary. I would recommend avoiding that at all costs because it takes away from the enjoyment of “getting away” – one of the best thing about camping.

When you’re primitive camping, you might be half a mile away from your vehicle, and depending on the campsite, much farther from a town. It’s a beginner mistake not to pack everything you need in one go, but practice makes perfect.

Now you know what to bring your first time camping, but what is the next step?

Who wouldn't want to wake up to this site when camping?

Setting up your camp for beginners

So by now you’ve packed up all of your camping essentials and are driving up to the campsite. 

Getting your tent ready to go

It’s time to set up camp! Setting up your tent/shelter is priority number one when you first get to camp. 

There’s a major reason why: assembling a tent in the dark sucks. It’s doable, but even with the assistance of a headlamp, it makes everything more complicated than it needs to be. The critical thing here is, making sure you arrive when there’s still enough daylight left in the day to set it up.

I won’t go into how to set up a tent as that’s a topic all of its own. Still, these days, they aren’t too tricky and typically are made very similarly.

What do you do next after the tent?

After the tent is up, you can start to put your sleeping materials (bag and mattress pad) along with the other supplies in there. At this point, it’s mainly up to you what to do next. The most important thing here is that you have shelter ready to go.

You can start breaking in your campsite with fire using a fire pit or surrounded adequately by rocks and away from dry material.  Camping is about having fun and enjoying everything around you. Unless you’re trying to see EVERYTHING in a park, you can take your time and do what you want. There’s no need to adhere to a strict schedule, so do what feels natural. 

How to hit the trails for the first time

I recommend getting a map of the trails at the campsite. Then you have a way to orient yourself and pick where you want to go. You can usually get one online before you even go. Don’t venture off of a trail into the woods. That is a great way to get lost as well as potentially disturbing wildlife that you may not want to wake up!

It’s pretty easy to make the most of the trails. When it comes to camping for beginners, you mostly don’t want to run out of water/snacks when you’re miles away from camp.The other important thing to be aware of is the Leave No Trace philosophy behind camping. LNT applies to everything you do while you’re at a campground.

Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

For more info on each principle, visit lnt.org. I won’t break down each one as I feel that’s a little redundant. The overall goal is to preserve nature for wildlife and future generations.

Simple, right?

It doesn’t take much effort to follow those guidelines correctly, and it goes a long way.

First Time Camping Tips

So we’ve covered your preparation, setting up camp, and how to hit the trails. This beginner’s guide to camping is almost finished, you’re basically ready to go!

There are still some tips for first time campers I’d like to share that might save you a headache or two.

Always be prepared for rain. It’s not camping unless there’s a downpour when you’re out in a tent! Adequate preparation goes a long way to keeping you dry.

  1. Set your tent up on the highest possible part of the land, so water isn’t draining under it.
  2. Don’t skip setting up your rain fly.

Firemaking and other good things to be ready for

Know how to start a fire before you get there. It’s like one of those reality TV survival shows, starting a fire is one of the essential things in the wild. And if you bring a gas-powered stove/heating element, more power to you!

Don’t take dangerous risks when you’re at a park. A lot of times, the nearest hospital is going to be an hour or more away. It can be tempting to scale large rocks, but unless you’re confident that it’s safe, don’t do things like that.

Research the wildlife of the area. Most of the time, you won’t see anything of concern while camping. But when you do, you need to know how to react and how to secure your camp correctly. Also, don’t touch plants that you can’t identify! Seemingly everyone is an expert on Poison oak and other varieties of fauna like that these days. However, this rule has kept me from getting any kind of rash while enjoying nature.

Oh, and a minor thing that may save you a lot of itching: bug spray. Depending on where you are, and the time of year, it may be a feeding frenzy for mosquitoes. A little bug spray will make your experience MUCH more enjoyable!

The most important tip I have is this: have fun. I’ve gone camping with strangers on day one, then a few days later feeling like a group of friends. Whether you’re going with your family, friends, or strangers – make the most of it. Turn your phone off and don’t worry about the time. You might be surprised how fast you get used to the natural flow of things.

This could be what your beginner campsite looks like after you've set up

Covering all the bases for beginner campers

At this point, I’d say this beginner’s guide to camping should have everything you need to have a great first time camping.

I won’t recap everything, but I firmly believe that preparation is the most important thing to do correctly. Everything else will fall into place once you get there, even if the plan isn’t perfectly executed.It’s hard for you to overcome a lack of food or water, though.

As with all things, once you have camped a few times, you will start to know these things instinctively. You’ll probably have your checklist of things to bring once you know the basics.

I hope that this article has been helpful, and you’re now closer to getting out on the trails!