Camping trips are one of the most rewarding ways to enjoy the natural world.
Unlike an afternoon hike at your local park or weekend fishing trip, camping is an immersive experience that lets you get away on an entirely different level. And the experience will also fill you with a sense of satisfaction after you spend a few days being completely self-reliant – you’ll have to satisfy all of your wants and needs on your own.
But while it is easy to decide you want to go on a camping trip, preparing for the trip is a bit more complicated. There are a ton of things you’ll need to consider, gear you’ll have to secure, and skills you’ll need to learn before heading out into the great outdoors.
Don’t worry – we’ll walk you through the basics below. We’ll explain the things you’ll need to decide, teach you how to pick a good destination and outline the skills and gear you’ll need for a good trip.
And to start, you will have to make a few decisions.
Camping means very different things to different people. And while camping is truly a “you do you” kind of activity you can tweak in myriad ways, most trips will fall into one of the following categories:
Just rent an RV, pick out some campgrounds, and have at it.
You’ll conceivably have access to just about any creature comfort you want, and this isn’t even necessarily an “outdoor” activity.
You’ll likely be surrounded by as many people as you are on a daily basis while RV camping – you’ll essentially be a part of a small community during your stay.
There’s nothing wrong with this type of camping, but there are far better places to learn about it, so we won’t be discussing it further.
Car camping is likely the most popular approach among the general public.
To car camp, you simply load up the car with whatever you want and enjoy some time in the great outdoors. You’ll likely be pitching a tent on a designated pad, the fire circle will already be constructed, and you may even have access to running water or bathrooms.
There are places to car camp where you can enjoy a bit of solitude, but there will usually be other campers in the vicinity.
You’ll need a tent, sleeping bag, and some other stuff, but this type of camping isn’t particularly gear intensive. Similarly, you’ll have to learn how to build an easy fire and pitch your tent, but you don’t’ really need any experience to have a good time.
Backpacking with Creature Comforts
Backpacking entails loading everything you’re going to need for the next few days or weeks on your back and heading out into the wilderness.
But some destinations offer some minimal amenities, which can make things a bit easier on those without a great deal of experience.
These places will usually feature preestablished camping sites. You’ll usually find dedicated places to pitch your tent, and some of these places will feature picnic tables, trash receptacles, or bear wires.
This type of camping is still pretty “real,” but these resources will often make things considerably easier. You’ll still see people on occasion while camping in these types of places, but you should be able to enjoy plenty of alone time.
Sometimes called “primitive” camping, this is camping without a net.
You’ll have to traverse rugged terrain, secure safe drinking water, and pack out everything you pack in (except stuff you eat or burn). You may periodically encounter others, but it wouldn’t be unusual to camp for days without seeing any others on particularly remote trails.
Some people without experience may feel comfortable jumping in the deep end and heading into the backcountry right off the bat, but this is probably not wise in most cases.
Things can get dangerous in a hurry when you’re more-or-less alone, miles from help and even farther from decent cell reception.
We’re using this as an umbrella term for everything from camping on a rock face to ultralight, super long-distance hiking through very inhospitable environments.
This kind of camping requires considerable skill and lots of fancy gear, so we’re not going to spend any time talking about it below.
Now that you’ve decided the type of outdoor experience you’re looking for, you get to pick the place. To an extent, your chosen camping style will dictate the location, but there are plenty of car camping places and backcountry trails in most popular camping regions.
Start your search by perusing location-specific websites, message boards, Facebook groups, and the like. Get a couple of ideas and do some basic internet legwork – Google the park, check out the park’s official website, and anything else you may find informative.
Just take your time, as your choice of location will have a big influence on your overall camping experience. Pick a good place, and you’ll likely have a great time and take those inevitable snafus in stride; pick a bad place, and every minor inconvenience will be magnified, and you’ll spend your time waiting to go home.
A few key things you’ll want to consider or investigate include:
- What does the area/trail/campground look like? Does it look fun, or beautiful, or secluded? Does it look like your kids will have plenty of rocks to skip? Will your spouse have a beautiful vista to enjoy with morning coffee? If you can, look for photos left by former visitors – official campsite photos can paint a rosier picture than you’d consider fair.
- What are the nearby towns or cities like? Is the trailhead a mile from a McDonalds, or will you have to load up on provisions at the only general store in the zip code? If you’re camping near a reasonable facsimile of civilization, you don’t have to worry about anything, but be sure to identify a couple of places you can pick up necessities if you’re heading out to the boonies.
- Are there any fees you’ll have to pay? Some parks and campgrounds charge for access or parking, so be sure to get the intel on all this in advance. In some cases, the costs associated with a lengthy camping trip can be more expensive than you’d think.
- How crowded is the location likely to be? Crowds are necessarily a bad thing – camping is a pretty social activity for some. But if you want to “get away,” try to pick spots that are on the second or third tier of popularity. This isn’t always easy to determine, but just know that easily accessed sites within an hour’s walk of landmarks or other attractions (things like waterfalls and overlooks) will be crowded on the weekends.
In addition to picking a camping style and destination, you’ll want to give some thought to the people who’ll be joining you for the adventure.
Most campers probably enjoy the great outdoors as part of a two-person team, and most of these are likely couples. However, you could also go camping with a child or platonic friend and have a great time on the trail.
But whereas couples will generally share a tent, other twosomes may prefer separate sleeping accommodations. This is certainly possible, but it means you’ll both have to carry a tent (assuming you’re backpacking). This means you won’t be able to split up some of the other gear, so you’ll find that you’re both carrying fairly heavy packs.
And if your camping companion is a youngster, you’ll find it necessary to carry quite a bit more weight, as children simply can’t carry very much weight in a pack. This won’t be a big deal if you’re car camping, and in all honesty, car camping is often the best option for camping trips involving youngsters – at least, for the first trip or two.
Group camping trips can be a blast, and they offer a number of benefits smaller parties don’t. For example, you’ll be able to split up all of the communal gear – including things like tools and cookware – among several people, thereby reducing the amount of weight each individual camper will have to carry.
But group size will influence things aside from the way in which you split up gear. For example, the social aspects of a trip will depend heavily on the number of people going.
A trip with your son or daughter will have a very different feel than one involving just you and your spouse.
The duration of your trip is an important factor to consider before you start packing. Not only will your trip duration influence things like the amount of food and clothing you need to bring, it will also influence things like the location you choose.
You don’t, for example, want to drive 8 hours to your destination if you’re only staying for a single night. Conversely, you probably won’t want to spend an entire week in a relatively small park – it would be better to travel a bit farther to reach a camping site that’s farther from the beaten path.
You can certainly go camping for a single night if you like, and this is not a bad idea for nature lovers who’re interested in dipping their toes in the camping waters. A two-day, one-night trip will still let you enjoy food cooked under the stars, a night of serenading crickets and frogs, and the unexplainable optimism that accompanies morning coffee in the forest.
But you will also know that if something goes wrong, you’ll be able to return to the creature comforts of home in a matter of hours. Or, if the kids end up getting cranky, you’ll be able to pull the rip cord pretty quickly, rather than having to endure several days of complaining and crying.
That said, a one-night camping trip entails a ton of prep and effort for a relatively brief payoff. By the time you get your site setup, it’ll be time to cook dinner, you’ll enjoy an hour or two of campfire relaxation, and then it’ll be time for bed. A few hours later, you’ll be waking up, and an hour later, you’ll be packing everything back into the car and heading home.
On the flip side, lengthy camping trips (think five days or more) may prove draining – or even boring – for those who’re new to the activity. You may find yourself dreaming about fast food, your own bed and digital distractions by night three or four. You may also find yourself desperately wanting a hot shower.
And while a little bit of this lust for normal life is fine, too much will just reduce the R&R value of the trip.
Make no mistake: Weeklong camping trips can be life-changing experiences, which you’ll remember for the rest of your life. But they’re best left to campers with some experience; you don’t want to just jump in the deep end from the start. If your trip involves a loop trail, you may not be able to cut things short very easily – you may have to see the entire trip through, despite a desire to tap out early.
Given all of this, two- or three-night tips are generally the sweet spot.
- Aim to reach the trailhead or camping site (if you’re car camping) mid to late afternoon on Friday night, and if at all possible, be pitching your tent while the sun’s still up.
- You can take things easy on night one and wake up raring to go Saturday morning.
- Do all the cool stuff you want to on Saturday (go swimming, get some fishing in, go on a day hike to that beautiful waterfall), and then have a glorious meal and roast marshmallows on Saturday night.
- Sleep in a bit on Sunday if you like, enjoy one last breakfast in the great outdoors, and then pack up and head out.
- Shoot to be home my mid afternoon on Sunday, so you’ve got plenty of time to unpack, unwind and get to bed at a reasonable hour.
If you’re planning on a three-day trip, you’ll essentially just get to enjoy a “second Saturday,” during which you run, jump and play in the wilderness.
Obviously, adopt whatever itinerary you like, but this is a pretty good formula that provides enough time to do some fun stuff, as well as plenty of time for relaxing and recharging your batteries. Typically, you’ll want to camp in a single spot during two- or three-day trips, as the set-up and break-down processes are time consuming tasks that’ll just get in the way of a good time.