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There’s a reason why millions of people head to the great outdoors to sleep under the stars — camping can be the perfect way to unplug (literally and figuratively) from life’s daily challenges. Escaping from traffic jams, email alerts, the onslaught of daily news, and the same four walls of our home even for a day or two can do wonders for our mood. And of course, sitting around a campfire and toasting marshmallows isn’t a bad way to pass the time. If you’re looking to plan a (safe and socially distant) camping trip, we’ve outlined five easy steps to making it memorable and stress-free.
Step 1: Consider Who Is Going Camping
If it’s just you and an energetic adult companion who can hike 10 miles each day and subsist on dehydrated meals, you’ll plan a much different camping trip than if you’re taking children or grandparents. And if you’re bringing your four-legged companion, research the location to ensure it is truly dog-friendly: Many national parks allow dogs in the campgrounds, but not on hiking trails (or left unattended while you hike).
Consider each person’s energy and ability levels and plan accordingly. For example, young children often grow tired or bored on long hikes or during unproductive fishing jaunts — a better bet might be campsites with kid-friendly activities such as a playground or a beach.
Step 2: Pinpoint the Ideal Location
You have plenty of options for places to camp: local, state, and national parks; private campgrounds; state recreation areas; state and national forests; and Bureau of Land Management sites. If you’re just getting started, you’ll probably want to choose a location that offers a few amenities such as picnic tables; restrooms; fire pits or grills; and a camp host or park ranger services. Factor in any activities you want to do, such as fishing, kayaking, swimming, or mountain biking.
Plan to arrive during daylight so you have plenty of time to get settled — making a meal or setting up a tent in the dark is challenging even for seasoned campers. Factor in travel, too: You might be surprised to find out how much time it takes to load your vehicle, drive to your destination, and set up camp. For this reason, you may want to choose a location relatively close to home. That way, if inclement weather or other events make the trip unendurable, you can always bail out and head home.
Step 3: Remember to Make a Reservation
Many campgrounds take reservations and fill up weeks or months in advance. If you're not planning that far ahead, you should still try to make a reservation, especially if you’re camping over a busy summer weekend. To do so, check the campground’s website or contact the governing body such as the local ranger station. Another helpful place to look is Reserveamerica.com and Recreation.gov; both offer reservations for thousands of campsites nationwide, with maps and detailed descriptions.
If you can’t reserve a site, look for campgrounds that are first come, first served. Another option to consider is dispersed camping sites, which are in areas where camping is permitted, but there are no marked sites or amenities of any kind. Alternatively, camp in the fall, winter, or spring, when campgrounds are less busy.
Step 4: Gear Up
If you go to your nearest sporting goods store, you’ll likely find an overwhelming supply of camping gear — but don’t feel like you need to drop a wad of cash to enjoy the outdoors. If you’re new to camping, it’s better to rent or borrow some gear or buy it used. Many recreational outfitters rent camping equipment such as backpacks, tents, stoves, sleeping bags, chairs, lanterns, and coolers.
Backpack camping, where you carry everything into a remote area, is an entirely different experience than car camping. It requires very lightweight specialized gear, careful meal planning, and a water source. Car camping is an excellent place to start because you don’t need specialized equipment or a way to filter water. Here is a list of the essential items you’ll need to be comfortable and safe for a car camping trip:
A Tent on the Larger Side
If you decide to rent or buy a tent, opt for a slightly bigger one (or even bigger) than you think you might need. A tent that says it sleeps three people can be pretty tight even with just two, especially when you add clothes, pets, and other gear. Also, consider your environment — if it’s likely to rain or get chilly, you might end up spending extra time inside your tent. A tent tall enough to stand in (or sit on camp chairs in) makes a far more comfortable place to hang out if you can’t be outside. And having multiple entrances can make nocturnal bathroom visits easier since you’re not trying to step over sleeping campers in the dark.
Tip: Practice setting up the tent at home first. It’s also well worth the extra money to invest in better tent stakes. The stakes that come with most tents are usually a little flimsy and may easily bend or break.
Sleeping Bags and Pads
It can feel surprisingly cool when you’re sleeping outdoors, so even during the summer months you’ll need a sleeping bag. Most sleeping bags are rated for three seasons and will keep you comfortable in everything but the coldest temperatures. You might be tempted to forego a sleeping pad, but you may regret it if you do: Pressing your spine, hip, and shoulder bones into the hard, cold ground usually results in a miserable night’s sleep and soreness the next day. Some campers even bring cots or air mattresses (which inflate using a car pump) to ensure a more comfortable night’s sleep.
A Tarp (or Two)
A large plastic tarp (larger than your tent bottom) is a low-cost investment that can do wonders for your comfort. Spread it before you pitch your tent and wrap the excess material around the tent’s edges. The tarp will prevent sharp rocks and twigs from tearing holes in the tent bottom, and it'll also keep the tent floor dry if it rains. A second tarp can come in handy to spread across your picnic table and supplies if it rains or dew falls overnight. Depending on your campsite, you can also suspend one between trees or poles to create shade.
Folding Camp Chairs
Even if your campsite has a picnic table, having a more comfortable chair to kick back in will elevate your camping comfort. In many places, tables are situated near but not right next to grills or fire pits, so if it's cool, you can place your chair in a cozy warm spot closer to the heat. And if it’s a little breezy and campfire smoke is blowing in your face, having a chair gives you more flexibility. During the day, you can also move your chair into shade or closer to a scenic stream or lake.
Multiple Light Sources
It can get surprisingly dark when you’re away from streetlights and glowing buildings, and one of the mistakes many beginner campers make is having insufficient lighting. Fortunately, portable lighting technology has evolved exponentially in recent decades, and LED lanterns come in a variety of sizes. It’s helpful to have a few — at least one for your picnic table or dining area, and another to hang inside your tent. Some offer different brightness and hue settings, such as a dim nightlight feature. For individual use, give each camper an LED headlamp instead of a cumbersome flashlight, and keep an extra headlamp or two inside your tent for nocturnal bathroom breaks.
Tip: Some lighting is rechargeable, so make sure it’s fully charged before you leave home and carry extra batteries for battery-operated lights.
Cooking and Cleaning Supplies
You could eat cold sandwiches and cereal for every meal, but having a way to heat or cook food will significantly improve your camping experience. You can make a wide variety of meals on a two-burner camp stove. Even a single burner stove is enough to heat soup or water for coffee and hot chocolate. You can also make delicious, gourmet dishes with cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens that go over fire pits or charcoal grills. Sites such as Freshoffthegrid.com and 50campfires.com list dozens of car camping recipes.
You’ll need durable pots, utensils, sharp knives, a can opener, aluminum foil, and unbreakable dishes. Washing and sanitizing cutting boards and dishes can be a little challenging while camping, so consider using disposable and recyclable items. Bring biodegradable soap, hand towels, and two washtubs (one for washing, the other for rinsing). A container of disinfecting wipes can be helpful to have on hand too.
For the food itself, you’ll need an adequately sized cooler to keep perishables cold. Freeze as many foods as possible ahead of time; doing so will reduce the amount of ice you need and prolongs the cold temps. Tip: Always keep your cooler in the shade. And store all of your food and your cooler inside your locked car at night or whenever you leave your campsite. Raccoons and bears are surprisingly adept at getting into food containers!
Other Useful Camping Gear
Having some additional gear can go a long way toward ensuring you’ll enjoy your first camping adventure, and that you’ll want to do it again. Here are a few more items to consider:
Camp shower: Going camping means getting dirty, but you don’t have to live without a quick shower: For about $20, you can buy a five-gallon camp shower that you fill and place in the sun to heat during the day, then hang from a tree and use to rinse off.
Campfire supplies: Bring a shovel, matches, and a small ax or saw for cutting firewood. Throw in a few campfire starter sticks in case the wood is damp.
Plastic storage bins: Pack your camping supplies into plastic storage bins so they’re ready to go each time. Be sure to replenish supplies after each trip.
Mallet or hammer: Once you’ve struggled to pound tent stakes into hard ground, you’ll know why having a mallet is worth the investment. Prying them loose when you’re breaking down the site is also much easier with a hammer.
Toilet paper: Even if your campground has restrooms or vault toilets, you should bring your own paper since they tend to run out. Bring hand sanitizer or wipes for the same reason.
Odds and ends: A tablecloth with clips, plastic trash bags, a portable coffee maker, extra cord, duct tape, a small broom and dustpan, a few games, and a grill rack can also be helpful.
Step 5: Plan Your Meals
Another mistake beginner campers often make is inadequate meal planning. Unlike at home, when you can run out and pick up a forgotten essential or make do with something from your freezer, you won’t have much (if any) flexibility in many camping areas. Until you get the hang of cooking outdoors, it’s best to aim for simplicity.
Simplicity doesn’t mean boring — it just means prepping and seasoning foods as much as possible at home. Dishes such as chili, skillet meals, and pasta can be prepped, cooked, and seasoned at home, frozen, and just reheated. Pre-beaten eggs, tortillas, salsa, and cheese make for quick and easy breakfast burritos. Instead of deli meat, which must be kept very cold to avoid spoilage, bring soft packs of nut butter or tuna (look for pre-seasoned ones) to use in sandwiches.
Another tip: Rather than lug along multiple condiments and spices, bring a single container of multipurpose seasoning and a flavored sandwich spread. And instead of burgers, opt for precooked sausages like bratwurst that only need a few minutes to reheat.
Look for foods that can work in multiple meals, too. For example, leftover breakfast tortillas and cheese are great with chili, and sausage buns can be used instead of bread for sandwiches. And don’t forget marshmallows — you can toast them over a camp stove if you can’t make a campfire!