For first-time campers, spending the night outside presents a planning wilderness, including figuring out what to bring. The following are tips from experts in getting started.
Choose your camp style
Camping comes in many varieties, from car camping, meaning you drive to a campsite and pitch a tent, to overnight backpacking, in which you carry everything on foot.
Starter-friendly, car camping allows travelers to bring things like coolers and camp chairs, and most campgrounds maintain toilets.
Rental camper vans often come equipped with gear, including bedding, cookware and a camp stove. Companies such as Escape Campervans, Wandervans and Native Campervans rent modified vans that campers sleep in.
“My advice for a first-time camper is take small steps,” said Alyssa Ravasio, the founder and chief executive of Hipcamp, which lists campsites on private land such as farms and ranches. “Try a night or two. Go somewhere closer to home. And make sure the amenities that are important to you, such as a bathroom or shower, are there.”
Reserve in advance
Like hotels, many campsites can be booked online. Reserve your spot in advance, especially in peak seasons. At New Hampshire State Parks, for example, reservations open 30 days in advance with just a few campsites held back for day-of arrivals.
The federal website Recreation.gov offers campsite reservations across many government agencies, including the National Park Service.
If you aim to camp at a popular national park, plan well in advance and get familiar with its booking rules, which are not standardized, by searching park websites or Recreation.gov. Campsites at Upper Pines Campground in Yosemite National Park in California, for example, are available five months in advance. In contrast, sites at South Campground in Zion National Park in Utah are bookable up to 14 days before arrival.
If national park sites are booked, look for nearby state parks or alternative campgrounds. Hipcamp offers maps showing public lands, including national parks, and many places to camp around them.
Commercial campgrounds like KOA may offer amenities such as swimming pools or basketball courts. Websites like ReserveAmerica.com make it easy to find both public and private campgrounds. Booking platforms such as Hipcamp, the Dyrt and Pitchup.com are good places to look for off-the-beaten-path options or privately owned properties.
If a campground is booked, set up an alert with the Dyrt, which will text you if a site becomes available. The service starts at $9 for nonmembers.
Rent camping basics
When it comes to basic gear, rent before you buy.
“With tents it is worth noting that a four-man tent won’t comfortably fit four men in reality,” said Dan Yates, the founder of Pitchup.com, noting that tent sizes don’t account for baggage. He recommends choosing a tent sized for two people more than will be sleeping in it.
Sleeping bags, rated for outside temperatures, are also often available to rent. Most guides recommend adding a sleeping pad or mat.
“We can deal with almost anything during the day if we get a good night’s sleep,” said Gary Elbert, who designs camping trips for REI Adventures. “If I’m investing money in something, it’s a sleeping kit.”
Plan the kitchen
With a vehicle, avoid buying specialty cooking gear and pack small pots, pans, plates and utensils from home. If you don’t want to cook over an open fire, rent a camp stove.
Food storage advice depends on where you camp. Where bears are not present, storing food overnight in your car deters animals such as raccoons. In bear country, follow campground requirements and use provided food storage safes. Depending on the location, the National Park Service recommends storing food in a locked car only during the day with food or food storage containers such as coolers covered and windows closed.
Water is a primary survival need. In its guide on what to bring, the National Park Service recommends two liters of drinking water a person a day and more if you are in hot places. The Green Mountain Club, a nonprofit that manages 500 miles of trails in Vermont, recommends adding two liters for cooking and another two for extinguishing a campfire.
“Most developed front-country campgrounds will have a potable water source, so be sure to check before you go,” said Emily Mosher, the visitor services manager for the Green Mountain Club.
Pack for problems
Pack and dress in layers to account for changes in temperature from day to night, and remember rain gear or a water-repellent outer layer. Avoid cotton, which absorbs water, including perspiration, and is slow to dry.
Bring a headlamp, which allows you to do things hands-free in the dark like unzip your tent. A utility knife or multi-tool device helps with chores. A first-aid kit should be stocked with bandages, antiseptic wipes and pain relievers.
To account for no or low connectivity, bring paper maps or download maps that you can review offline.
It’s not all defensive packing. Don’t forget cards, books and games.
Practice fire safety
One of the great joys of camping is sitting around a campfire. Campers should check with park or campground authorities to ensure fires are permitted; in drought conditions they are often banned.
Only burn wood that has been purchased or provided locally — firewood from other places risks transporting invasive insects or diseases.
There are several ways to build a fire, as covered in this guide from KOA. Using the basic tepee or cone structure, lean small sticks against a bundle of starter such as dry grass or birch tree bark. Once the tinder is ignited and the sticks catch fire, add increasingly larger sticks, working up to logs.
The most important step in breaking camp is to ensure your fire is out. According to the Department of the Interior, almost nine in 10 wildfires are caused by humans.
When you douse a fire, make “campfire soup” by drenching the fire pit in water and stirring it with a stick so that it reaches all the coals. The remains should be cool enough to touch before you leave.
Leave no trace
Collect all garbage and dispose of it or take it home. Strain gray water used to wash dishes and drain the water in collection areas.
The nonprofit conservation organization Leave No Trace offers a free 45-minute online tutorial in safe and eco-friendly camping basics.
Outdoor lovers in historically marginalized communities have created organizations that encourage hiking and camping with events, trips and how-to videos. Look for educational resources at Black Folks Camp Too, Latino Outdoors and the Venture Out Project, among others.