I grew up going camping and backpacking several times each year, and my daughter went on her first camping trip when she was 3. But, I realize that this is increasingly become not the norm. One survey found that 80% of Denver school kids had never been to the mountains – and this is city located at the foothills of the mountains!
Visits to national parks are down 25% since 1987, and few people even get out of their cars, nevertheless camp. But, just because you’ve never camped before, it doesn’t mean it is too late to start.
Here is a practical guide about how to get started camping. You will be a pro camper in no time!
Types of Camping
There are now a lot of options for going camping. You can even go “glamping” (some sort of luxury camping). You can also load up an RV and go camping, or rent a bungalow to camp in. But, even though this is probably going to offend some people, I do not consider RVs, cabins, bungalows, etc. to be camping. Here are the options for REAL camping:
This is probably the best option for people new to camping. Basically, you drive to a location which is set up for camping. The facilities can vary significantly, but you can expect:
- Individual campsites, with varying degrees of privacy from the other campsites
- A place to park your car at the campsite
- A fire pit
- Drinking water (usually from faucets somewhere in the campground)
- Toilet and shower facilities
- Other facilities such as electrical outlets, vending machines, stores, restaurants, pools, entertainment areas…
Please do your research when choosing a campground. They vary considerably! Some have really nice clean toilets and showers, whereas others have just an outhouse. Some may have electrical outlets at each campsite, whereas others may not even have lighting in the bathrooms.
Also note that each campground has its own rules. For example, it is common for campgrounds to only permit fires at the designated fire pits. Generators may be prohibited during certain times, if allowed at all.
You will have to pay a fee to camp at a campground. For example, the Bridge Bay campground at Yellowstone charges about $22 per night.
- Access to drinking water
- Other facilities may be available
- Usually secure
- Help available in emergencies
- Must pay
- Facilities can vary considerably
- There will probably be many other campers there, which could mean a lot of noise and lack of privacy
Wild camping means you put up your tent and camp at any place you like! Of course, you can’t just set up camp anywhere. Wild camping is illegal in some places, and it is forbidden in many national parks.
I personally love wild camping because you have the freedom to choose the best spot for your needs, and you are usually alone. If you feel like skinny dipping, you can go for it! If you feel like singing camp songs with your bad voice, you aren’t going to bother anyone.
But you will have to do a considerable amount of research before you wild camp, such scouring topographical maps to see where water sources are and how the terrain is. You will also have to bring EVERYTHING you need. And don’t forget that you’ve got to carry out everything you bring in.
- Can find beautiful places
- Privacy and get away from crowds
- The chance to get really off-the-grid and into the wilderness
- Is free
- Requires more research
- If an accident or emergency occurs, you are probably on your own
- Could get chased away by the landowner
- Must bring ALL your gear
- Must carry out all your trash
- No facilities; must secure your own water and dig a latrine
Here is how I sum up backpacking: You gather all the gear you will need for the trip and pack it into a backpack. Then you drive to a trail head, park the car, and hike several miles until you find a suitable camping spot. You set up camp there, and possibly go on some day trips (with less gear on your back) in the following days.
Since you won’t be able to drive to the campground, you’ve got to carry everything on your back. This may mean that you need more specialized gear, such as lighter-weight sleeping bags and a proper camping stove. Food should be lightweight and easy to cook, such as dehydrated foods or MREs.
If you have never been camping before, I wouldn’t jump into it by going backpacking. First learn the basics and get comfortable in the wilderness. You also need to know your physical abilities, such as how far you can reasonably expect to walk uphill with a pack on your back. Every ounce matters with backpacking, so you also need to know how to pack properly. Read this post about how to cut weight from your backpack.
- Can really get into the wilderness
- It is exhilarating!
- Good exercise
- Don’t have to pay for camping (you may need a permit in some places though)
- Must be in good shape
- Have to carry everything on your back
- If an emergency occurs, you are on your own
- Need to be sure there is a water source available
- Requires more specialized gear
- Must carry trash out with you
- No facilities of any kind
Choosing a Campsite: Important Considerations
Once you’ve decided on what type of camping you want to try, you need to pick a campsite. Don’t take this lightly! Do your research to find out about these important considerations;
Is there water available???
You can only go about 3 days without drinking water, and you also need water for basic hygiene. So you better make sure that you’ve got a water source near your campsite. Remember that streams, ponds, and even rivers can dry up in the summer.
Toilet and shower facilities
If it is your first time camping, you might want to choose a place which has proper toilets and showers. Do your research to see what the facilities are like. Some campsites have downright nasty toilets – you’d be better off digging a latrine!
How easily can you get to the campsite? Can you simply drive up to it? Do you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to drive there? Do you have to walk a great distance to get to the campsite? If it is a campground, are you allowed to park your car next to the campsite or is the parking far from where you will have your tent?
How near is help?
For first timers, I wouldn’t go camping anywhere too far away from civilization. What if an emergency happens and you need first aid or other emergency help? This is why campgrounds are generally best for first time camping trips. They will have staff there (usually 24/7) to help in case of emergencies, and some even have medics nearby.
What wild animals are nearby?
Campgrounds will generally have instructions about what you need to do to stay safe from wild animals. For example, in bear country, campgrounds may provide bear-proof food bins for storing your food. Most will also have secure trash cans to keep raccoons and other critters away. If you are camping in the wild or backpacking though, it is up to you to learn about the wild animals and what precautions need to be taken.
Skills You Need to Know before Going Camping
- How to make a fire
- How to put up a tent
- How to filter/purify water (for wild camping and backpacking)
- How to poop in the woods
- How to keep food safe from wild animals
- What to do if you encounter a wild animal
As you get more familiar with camping, you will gradually learn more skills. And, as you learn these skills, you can start getting more into the wild during your camping trips and learn what real nature feels like!
Camping Gear and Supplies
You can find a complete camping gear and supplies checklist here. No, you don't have to spend a fortune on gear to go camping!
Recommended Reading – How to Choose the Best Survival Tent
Are you ready to go camping? Or, if you are already a pro, how was your first time camping?