So, you’ve decided to go camping! That’s fantastic – and I’m proud of you (even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy). I’ve been going camping for as long as I can remember. I’ve gone to many places, under many different conditions. It can be really rewarding… or not, if you’re not sure what you’re doing! So I’ve decided to put together a simple guide to help you go on your first trip, with as minimal hiccups as possible.

Decide: Tent or no Tent?

“Camping” can mean a variety of different things to different people. For me, it means a tent in a remote location far away from home and other people. For my stepsister it means a giant RV in a local state park where she has easy access to supplies for any emergency. Despite some people’s strong opinions on the subject, both are camping. What really matters is that you’re getting out and doing something in a way that you’re comfortable.

You’ll need to decide what kind is best for you and your family. For us, a tent that is cheap and simple to set up works well. We have an air mattress for the adults, and the Kid sleeps on a yoga mat. We’re too cheap to buy him a real sleeping pad, but even just a yoga mat will protect him from any floor leaks. You don’t need a fancy tent to get by, assuming the weather is good. I’ll be writing a post on choosing the right kind of tent soon, so check back for updates!

If you’re not into the idea of tent camping, I fully recommend renting or borrowing an RV or camper before you decide to buy one. They’re a big investment and if you’re reading this, I can fairly assume you don’t have a lot of experience camping. There’s no way to know what you’ll actually like or need until you’ve done it a few times. You might think all you need is a pop-up camper that’s pretty much a tent-on-wheels, but decide that you hate having to set it up and would rather something closer to an RV. Try before you buy!

Pick a type of site

There’s a huge variety in selection of campsites – more than most people realize! They can range from “nothing but a place to put your tent and park your car” to a campground that has all the same amenities as a hotel, and sometimes more. Are you okay with roughing it? Or do you prefer having a hot shower every day?

We’re roughing it kind of people. We don’t mind digging catholes and skipping a shower (or three) if it means privacy and avoiding other campers. These sites tend to be cheaper or free. However, they’re sometimes limited to tents-only. Tents-only areas of a campground will be designated so. If it’s called “primitive,” that just means they only have pit toilets and a manual water pump. If it’s free (I’ll be writing a post on budget camping soon, so check back if that interests you!), back country, or dispersed camping, there usually isn’t any public water source or toilets in the vicinity. Make sure you bring the necessary provisions.

If you’re looking for something that’s a little bit more of a soft-entry into camping, state and national parks are a great option. Often, they have flushing toilets, hot showers, and picnic tables. On the other hand, you’ll be in a place that looks like a campground and has a lot of other people. Commercial campgrounds are similar. In my opinion, you can almost always depend on a KOA. They’re a great alternative to a hotel. You can find one almost anywhere and they typically have family activities and playgrounds.

Dispersed campsites are usually free and isolated. The coolest places we’ve stayed are the kind with no amenities! That said, while the view is amazing, if you’re not prepared for the conditions (like we weren’t), you’re going to have a really bad experience… like a tent collapsing, scratched glasses, lost and damaged gear, and you’ll end up sleeping in a Walmart parking lot instead.

Know the Rules (and Conditions!)

Different campgrounds have different rules – and you need to know them ahead of time. Most places out west, for example, don’t allow open flames even if they have a fire ring. This is to prevent forest fires during dry seasons. You’ll need to make sure you bring a camp stove or only eat cold food. If you’re planning on taking a pet, make sure the campground allows it. No matter where you go, though, you should be practicing leave no trace. There’s nothing more disgusting than arriving to a campground only to find trash everywhere (true story; there were also bears because of it).

Along the same lines, you need to know what kind of conditions you’re facing. In the wooded areas of Appalachia in the summer, it’s going to be hot, humid, and there will be a million mosquitoes. Bring bug spray or get eaten alive. In the desert of Utah, water will be scarce and the wind will pick up. You’ll need nine-inch sturdy metal pegs and a tent that’s low to the ground. I also don’t recommend wearing your nice prescription glasses (another true story; don’t make the same mistakes as me). On high-elevation mountains, it’s going to be cold during the night even when it’s hot during the day. Sunscreen, sunglasses, and extra blankets will be very welcomed.

Get your gear

A lot of what you need will depend on the environment you’re staying in, the campground, and if you’re taking a tent, RV, or camper. But at the minimum, you’ll need a place to sleep (duh), a place to go to the bathroom (which can mean a few different things), access to water, and a way to eat food. A good rule of thumb is that you need less stuff if you’re going camping in a campground you’re paying for, and more if it’s very inexpensive or free.

Don’t think you need to buy anything expensive or fancy at first. In fact, you should probably start out by borrowing gear. If you don’t know any other campers, you can get most of the necessities at a Super Walmart if you’re in the US. Speaking from experience, cheap gear will get your further than you think. You can invest in fancier things and more of them once you’ve gone camping a few times and discover what you like and don’t like.

Additionally, if you’re like us, you might be restricted because of the space in your vehicle. Space can be a very important consideration when you’re picking out gear. Since we do mostly the inexpensive-or-free type of camping and have a tiny car, I’m writing a post on what gear we take with us, so check back! Similarly, if you want to know what we eat and how we cook, I’m trying to get The Husband to write something on that. I’ll (again) update the post when we have something for you!

Try different things!

Don’t think for a second that because you went camping one way and didn’t like it that you just don’t like camping! Like I said in the beginning of this guide, what “camping” means varies. I never expect to see my stepsister in a tent, and she will probably die before ever seeing me camp in giant RV. A small camper, maybe. At the same time, I also swore I’d never buy a giant air mattress like my mother likes to use. And yet I have and there’s no going back…

My husband and I like to be isolated from society, and that’s why we go camping. Some people want to be close to the trails they’re going to hike over the weekend. Others just want to feel closer to the outdoors while still being close to civilization. All of this is fine – but it will definitely change what kind of camping you do and how much you like it. If being in a busy campground wasn’t something you liked, try dispersed camping. If you didn’t like having to dig catholes and bring your own cooking surface, try a primitive campground. There are endless possibilities!

Have questions? Want more information on a specific topic? Ask in the comments!

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