Slumber Under the Stars: How To Start Camping

Key Points

  • Learning to camp provides mental, physical, and spiritual benefits.

  • Properly plan and prepare before going camping.

  • When learning to camp, first-time campers can obtain good information online and from outdoor specialty stores and park/campsite visitor centers.

Camping has been around as long as humans, which is why so many people want to learn to camp. Pitching camp is no longer necessary for survival. It is more about relaxation and recreation. Still, camping plays a vital role in many people's lives.

Learning to camp for recreation started in the 1880s. It became popular in the 20th century as a way to spend more time outdoors.

Camping traditionally involves setting up a sleeping arrangement, starting a fire, and even foraging or catching meals in the wild. To fully embrace nature's experience, add other outdoor activities like hiking, boating, or birding add to the fun.

Cunningham’s Camp opened in 1894 as the nation's first campground with sites for the public to rent. Other commercial campsites followed.

There are 113,000 government-run campsites in state and national parks. Thousands of commercial campsites, like KOA, are in every state in the U.S. These numbers testify to camping's popularity.

Basic tent camping is still the most well-known and widely used method, though the activity's fashion continues to evolve. Options like RV camping, yurt camping, and glamping cater to even the most high-maintenance individuals.

Many campsites offer themed camping as an additional incentive for people to get outside.

Getting Into Camping

If you are curious about camping but still not sure it is for you, consider researching the topic. Information is available through literature, professionals, and online resources. There are statistics on camping, personal accounts of people's experiences in the outdoors, and tips on camping techniques, supplies, and destinations.

Reddit is an excellent resource for asking specific camping questions or examining other people's questions. Outdoor blogs are good options for finding other people's personal experiences with camping. Local outdoor-oriented social media pages offer updates on camping events and tips in your area.

Couple with fire and camping tent under stars

If you prefer a face-to-face discussion about camping, visit an outdoor store or the visitor center at a state or national park. The individuals at these places can tell you how to prepare for camping and answer your questions as you decide whether camping is right for you.

Perhaps the best way to learn about camping is to ask your friends and family members — or even a stranger at REI — for firsthand information on their camping experiences.

The Benefits of Camping

Theodore Roosevelt once said camping “was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”

The incomparable scenery and memorable experiences make camping a favorite pastime of many. Camping allows everyone to know themselves and the land better.

Aside from the obvious benefits, like fresh air and unmatchable beauty, nature offers emotional, mental, and physical benefits. It allows you to escape daily life's noisy and stressful routines and enjoy the quiet.

It also enables you to reconnect with nature and return to the roots of life. It challenges you and encourages you to rely on your instincts, making you more in tune with yourself.

For some, camping is also a spiritual experience. The quiet of nature is a prime environment for meditation and reflection. Many people, from any religion or spiritual walk, find nature reflects the good in the world. It offers a place to ground yourself and focus on what is essential. Any time spent outdoors is time well spent. It provides an opportunity to learn and expand your understanding of the world.

One of the best ways to learn is by doing. Being in nature and observing what is around you is a great way to familiarize yourself with a place's climate, landscape, plants, and animals. Camping is a more extended experience than other outdoor activities, like walking, running, and sports. It allows you to "get to know" nature by watching exciting changes in the basic transition from day to night and back to day.

All is not fun, games, and stretching out on the ground or in a hammock when you're "in the field." The recreational elements of camping require some physical effort on your part. That improves your physical strength and health.

Setting up camp, gathering supplies, and starting a fire is the "work" part of your outing and physical exertion. Hiking, fishing, boating, horseback riding, and mountain biking are a few examples of the "fun part" of camping.

The options are as limitless as the great outdoors and your imagination.

There's only one catch. You have to leave the house. Okay, two catches. You also need to know what to do when you leave the house.

Things To Consider Before Camping

The first thing to consider when planning a camping trip is your companions. Is it a family trip, a pet-friendly outing, or a romantic getaway? The type of camping trip determines the size and accommodations you need.

Once you know that, decide what kind of camping most appeals to you and your party. Traditional tent camping is popular with many. Others — especially a new camper — may prefer glamping or renting a yurt.

Campsite at sunrise  

When you have decided what kind of camping appeals to you, look into the camping requirements in your state. You may not be aware that several states require people to have permits to camp — much like fishing or hunting permits.

These permits regulate the number of campers in popular outdoor areas to reduce people's impact on the area. The fees acquired through these permits fund the maintenance of the parks.

Not all states require permits because they rely on the parks and campgrounds to regulate camping activity. Research is necessary because obtaining a permit usually requires going to a park or government facility. That said, you can obtain some camping permits online. Check the list of states where camping permits are needed to know if your state falls into that category.

Some states require a special permit for more intensive camping, like bushwhacking. People refer to this as a backcountry camping permit.

This permit allows you to stray from predetermined camp spots and go deeper into the wild. Issuing these permits protects nature from human destruction by limiting the number of people accessing it. These permits allow dedicated, experienced campers to become more fully immersed in nature while protecting it with regulations.

Another factor in your planning is your destination. Research the weather, wildlife, terrain, and attractions of your campsite location. This prevents unpleasant surprises and reminds you to pack everything you need for the adventure.

For example, if you plan to camp near caverns, see if they offer cave camping. Bring appropriate shelter and warm, insulated bedding if you are "roughing it" under the stars in a snow-prone area.

Even after packing, check weather forecasts for rain, snow, intense heat, or other conditions. Pack for possible scenarios.

If you are heading to the Gulf Coast in June, leave the parka in the closet. However, that trip might require insect repellent, sunscreen, a few sets of dry clothes, rain-repellent shelter, and tarps. You might also want to bring a whisk broom to knock off the sand before you enter the tent.

Think of everything you might possibly need. Then think again.

The checklist of essential camping equipment includes:

  • Your shelter (tent, hammock, vehicle, etcetera.)

  • Maps of the area and guides of flora and fauna in that area

  • Sleeping supplies (sleeping bag, air mattress, pillows, plenty of blankets)

  • Appropriate attire (Cool or warm clothes depending on the weather, hiking shoes, swimsuit, a jacket, a brimmed hat)

  • Enough food for the trip, a means to cook it, and utensils to eat it -– though you should be sure to LEAVE NO TRACE and dispose of your waste.

  • Equipment for what you plan to do while you are there (kayak, ropes for climbing, wildlife guides, and binoculars)

  • A first aid/safety kit, sunscreen, and bug repellent

  • Flashlights and fire-starting supplies

  • A means of protecting yourself (mace, a knife, a dog)

  • Plenty of water

Always bring more than enough water, no matter where you stay or what you plan to do.

Campsite under the night sky

Where To Buy Camping Supplies

Some camping supplies are already at your campsite — kindling and firewood, foraged or caught food from the wild, and possibly natural shelters like boulders and caves. Other supplies and equipment — especially recreational gear — you have to bring with you.

Being properly prepared is why planning is paramount. It is better to be over-prepared and not need what you have than to be under-prepared and not have what you need.

What you want to do while camping determines the supplies to bring for your adventure. For activities like kayaking or climbing that require a considerable amount of supplies, your best bet is an outdoor specialty store like Bass Pro Shops or REI. These stores have a broader selection of quality supplies than the average store.

Most big-name grocery stores like Walmart and Target carry basic camping supplies. Essential supplies are also available in smaller outdoor/sporting goods stores. If you find yourself in a pinch while "on safari," try the park's gift shop for those must-have items.

Some public libraries or community groups lend out equipment.

Researching whether a store has what you need is never a bad idea. It saves time, especially if you are close to departure.

Hiring a guide for a hike-intensive outing is a good idea, especially for a beginner. A companion who is an experienced hiker can fill this role if they know the area you intend to explore.

Your buddy's vast experience camping in the Georgia piney woods isn't much good to you when you're lost in Montana's "Big Sky" country.

Some state and national park visitor centers offer guided hikes. Some have themed guided hikes focusing on elk bugling, songbirds, or enjoying a fantastic sunset. Completing a successful camping trip on your own is always rewarding. Having a guide gives you a rest and offers more perspective to the experience.

How To Start Camping

Once you plan your trip and gather the necessary supplies, it is time to embark on your adventure. Throwing yourself into the wilderness can be intimidating if you are unsure where to begin once you get there.

Experienced campers recommend this order of activities to eliminate the hassle and prepare for any eventuality:

1. Check Your Supplies and Plans

Preparation is everything for any trip, but especially when it involves stepping out of familiar routines and comfort zones. Before heading to your destination, recheck the weather and visit the park's website where you are staying for any updates or advisories. Review your equipment to make sure you have everything you need. 

Friends at a campsite

Always let someone back home know your plans, travel route, and where you are staying. If you have car trouble 1,000 miles from your vacation spot, never checked in, or are three hours late getting back to camp from a one-hour mountain hike, your emergency contact information could be life-saving.

2. Locate Your Campsite

Before you set out on your trip, determine the location of the campgrounds where you plan to stay. Since most parks have websites, reserving a camp spot in advance is easy and recommended.

Having a reservation tells you your campsite's location in the complex, provides a selection of spots, and ensures you have a spot nobody else can take. This is a good idea for any time, but almost essential for popular camping holidays like Memorial Day and those beautiful summer, spring, and fall days when so many decide to go outdoors.

If you do not have a reservation, there is usually a check-in station or visitor center where you can select a camp spot.

Once you have a site, familiarize yourself with the area. Most campgrounds have garbage dumpsters, restrooms, and sometimes even showers available. Locate these amenities and note where they are in relation to your spot.

Ending up answering the "call of nature" at 10 p.m. and standing in front of the garbage bin is — well — aggravating at best and embarrassing at worst.

Once you know where everything is, explore the nature around your site. If needed, collect firewood along the way. Use this time to find the fire pit and decide where to set up your tent, chairs, and hammocks.

3. Set Up Camp

After familiarizing yourself with the area, it is time to get to work. Unless you have a scheduled event you have to get to, set up your camp before you start adventuring.

The firepit is the burning heart of a campsite. Some campsites also have a picnic table and grill, usually close to the fire pit.

If the weather is chilly, you may want to put your tent closer to the fire -– but not so close that flames might pose a threat.

To set up your tent, insert the tent poles and apply the stakes. The weather may determine which you do first.

If it is windy, inserting the tent stakes into the loops at the bottom of the tent anchors it to the ground. If the weather is nice, insert the tent poles through the sleeves and ties on the outside walls and then stake the tent down.

Once you have completed this, decide whether to put on the rain fly and unzip the windows. The screens allow you to view the beauty around you and serve as ventilation to keep you comfortable.

Building campfire at campsite

Having your home-away-from-home up and ready means you can hit the trail or drive to the closest vestige of civilization to get in some shopping. Whatever activity you choose, your camp is ready for your return.

Hopefully, you remembered you are not alone in the outdoors. You are a visitor in someone else's — actually, a bunch of someone elses' — home. Always secure food from wildlife and pick up any trash that others or animals may have scattered.

If you are worried about some non-furry critters carrying away your stuff, bring padlocks to secure your items.

4. Start the Adventure

When the camp is ready, start doing what you came there to do. If you arrive early, you have time to get in a few recreational activities. If you get there late, relax and get a good night's sleep to hit it hard in the morning.

Use this moment to be still and appreciate the sounds of the bugs and birds, the visions of the sky above, and the sweet smell of fresh air. If you leave your campsite to explore, be back by sundown or have a reliable light source to avoid getting lost in the dark.

Start the fire with kindling, such as dry grass or a store-bought fire starter. Place these easily combustible materials in the bottom of the fire pit to ignite the wood on top of them. Avoid using fresh or wet wood as fuel because they take much longer to catch fire.

Be careful not to burn plants in the firepit. Some, like poison ivy, can be dangerous if inhaled. It is good to have a field guide on hand to identify plants.

After lighting your kindling/starter, press your index fingers and thumbs together to create a tiny diamond. Blow through the diamond to direct the air at the kindling to strengthen the fire and ignite the wood.

Enjoy the starry sky as night sets in, cook dinner on the grill or open campfire, roast marshmallows, or tell stories. You know, camping stuff.

Be aware of animals. Many are active at night and are "nose-driven." If they smell food, expect a "Hi neighbor" visit. You are the visitor. Don't be a rude and unappreciative houseguest, even to an annoying "host."

Most creatures keep their distance from people. When you are ready to sleep, do not leave any food out.

Check that your fire is well-contained and at a reasonable height. If it is windy, extinguish the fire.

5. Packing Up

When leaving, make sure your fire is out by pouring water or dirt on it. Don't leave if you see any embers or smoke rising from it. The flames are gone, but simmering embers can still set fire to nearby wood, leaves, and grass.

Dispose of your trash. Go one step better and throw away any trash that was there when you arrived.

A good rule of thumb for any camper is to leave a place better than you found it. This ensures the site is ready for the next campers and does not threaten any wildlife passing through.

Carry your trash home or dump it in a campground garbage bin.

When packing, load large items like kayaks, coolers, and chairs first. Next, put up any bedding that is in the tent.

Folding and getting the tent back in its bag can be challenging, especially when alone. Kneeling on it and releasing the air as you fold or roll it makes the job easier.

Family with camping tent

Enjoying Nature

Information is power, and you now have the power to camp.

Camping requires a considerable amount of preparation and accumulating the right equipment. However, it is all worth it when you get out into nature and begin enjoying the experience of it.

Proper preparation means you don't have to sacrifice critical creature comforts to enjoy communing with nature's creatures.

Unleash your inner "wild" by learning more about camping and outdoor supplies and equipment by subscribing to MyOutdoorGear.

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