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Everything you need to know to start camping safely, successfully and enjoyably.
The great outdoors are, well, great — it's right there in the name. And there are myriad ways to enjoy them, ranging from quick picnics to day hikes and more.
But if you really want to immerse yourself in the landscape and soak up all there is to see outside the confines of civilization, you're going to want to try out camping. While that might seem absurdly obvious to some, how to go about camping — especially for those that have never done it on their own — is a different beast entirely.
To embark on your first-ever camping trip, there are a few things you'll need to know: some tips and tricks to get you through and at least a measure of forewarnings you'll want to heed. That, in short, is exactly why we're here today.
This guide will teach you some valuable lessons that will aid you in successfully, safely and enjoyably partaking in your very first (or second or third) camping trip. That way, you can truly learn what it means to be a happy camper.
No one — not even the most experienced outdoorsman — should ever attempt to go camping without some measure of planning. A good plan could make the difference between a fun, relaxing, enjoyable trip and potential disaster and even, in some cases, death.
Luckily, there are a few quick and simple points you'll want to address (like a checklist) to ensure you're really ready to head out into the wilderness.
Go in a Group: The buddy system can be a lifesaver. Going camping with friends and/or family can help make the trek both more enjoyable (who doesn't love sharing experiences) and much safer, as you and your crew can watch each other's backs. Plus, you can utilize one another's skills on an as-needed basis and even learn from one another.
Learn the Area: Getting preacquainted with a campground can help you avoid numerous pitfalls. Some things you'll want to familiarizing yourself with before you head out: the types of terrain, any potentially dangerous local plant and animal life (and what to do if you should come into contact with them), landmark orientation (how to get into the park, how to get out, where the closest ranger stations are, how to know where you are, etc.), and, importantly, where the water sources are.
Establish a Meeting Point: Should anyone in your group become lost or disoriented, it's important everyone is on the same page about where to meet up in the case you get separated. Pro tip: choose a landmark you can easily find from multiple vantage points. Furthermore, you can use this meeting point and an agreed-upon timeframe to know if and/or when it's time to seek out emergency services, like Search and Rescue.
Prepare for Emergencies: Even famous survivalists like Bear Grylls and Les Stroud know that preparation is everything in the great outdoors. You might not expect to find yourself caught in an emergency, but you'll be exceedingly thankful if you prepare for one and misfortune does head your way. Pack a first-aid kit, learn some basic survival skills (like how to build shelter, how to dress wounds and how to find water), bring along emergency rations and a personal water filter.
Tell Someone Your Whereabouts: This is perhaps the most crucial step of all. Technology might be your friend, but it isn't a reliable backup plan in the great outdoors. If you're going to be headed out for a day or two (or longer), let someone reliable in your life know where you are going and for how long. You might even want to establish times to contact said person. This way, if you don't come back or you're a no-show on making contact, this person can call the authorities to get emergency responders to seek you out and potentially save your life and the lives of those with you.
Presumably, this is your very first camping trip (or near to it). With that in mind, we've got a few pointers on picking your campsite (both the general area and your individual site).
These include general suggestions to make your trip more enjoyable, safety-oriented recommendations, dire suggestions that could actually save your life and some information on how to be a good outdoors person and campsite neighbor.
Stick with Traffic: A lot of people use camping as a means of getting away from the hustle and bustle of the civilized world. While that might sound great, we'd suggest newbies pick a campsite that's closer to the highly-trafficked areas of your local State and/or National Park. Not only will this give you better access to help, should you need it, but it will also put your potentially closer to other things you might want and/or need, like bathrooms, trailheads and even the parking lot (in case you need to make a quick getaway). Save the more adventurous spots for when you have more experience and knowledge.
Seek Level Ground: Large, flat, brush- and rock-free surfaces are the best landing spot for your tent. It will make setup, breaking down, sleeping and even getting in and out much simpler and more enjoyable overall. If you're at a numbered site, you'll probably find plenty of level ground, but this is still useful information. You might also want to consider the orientation of the sun in relation to your tent, take into account the shade of trees and more. Furthermore, if you put up your tent and don't love the spot you picked, you can always move it.
Watch for Hazards: There are a lot of things to look out for in the wild, like thorny and/or poisonous plant life, animal tracks and droppings, potentially dangerous cliffs and hillsides (rock slides and avalanches are some of the scariest disasters one might be faced with), unstable trees, etc. You can't control nature, but you can look out for things that might cause you harm while you enjoy the great outdoors. Use your best judgment and try to be aware of your surroundings, even after you've planted your stakes.
Keep Clear of Waterways: If you're at an established, numbered campsite, this might not be of tremendous import, but it's still useful to know. Rivers and streams might look safe and a good distance away from your tent, but a surprise downpour could cause the levels to rise and might have the potential to sweep you away. We recommend staying a good distance from any riverbeds, basins and the like. If you can, stick with higher ground. Even dry lakebeds can flood in the right (or wrong) circumstances.
Keep Tabs on Your Waste: Nature doesn't have a janitorial staff. And it definitely isn't the Park Rangers' job to clean up after you. If you're going to enjoy the great outdoors, act responsibly. This means leaving your campsite as clean (or, ideally, cleaner) as when you found it. Anything that isn't obviously biodegradable should be packed away and taken with you when you leave. Anything that can biodegrade (like feces) should be buried far from the campground itself (both to save others from stepping in it and to keep wildlife away from the site).
There are a lot of ways to go camping, and they're not all good. Being underprepared, for instance, could make your trip extremely uncomfortable or even dangerous (sleeping under the stars without any shelter might seem romantic, but you'll also be exposed to the elements and wildlife).
Rather than let discomfort or danger befall you, there are a few pieces of gear you'll want to ensure you have before you leave for your trip. We've outlined the most important ones below.
Remember, this is just a sample of the most essential gear you'll want to have on hand. There are plenty of other pieces you might want to have with you to make your trek more comfortable and enjoyable. You'll also have to decide how much you're willing to haul to the campsite and make some decisions regarding what you can leave behind. Every person and every trip is different, so try to be flexible — just not with the bare necessities.
Camping Tent: Easily the most important piece of camping gear, your tent is the temporary shelter that will keep you out of inclement weather and at least partially protected from the whims of local wildlife. You'll use it to sleep, change, lounge and maybe a lot more.
Our biggest piece of advice when buying your first tent: get one that's easy to put up and practice in your home or backyard or even a park before you ever go camping. There are few things worse than watching the sun drop when you haven't even put up your tent yet.
Sleeping Bag: Your tent will keep you sheltered, but it's your sleeping bag that will keep you cozy and warm. And trust us ... you're going to want one, as temperatures can drop to dangerous levels in the wilderness at night, even during the summer. Just make sure, at least for your first trip, that you have a sleeping bag that's rated for the temperatures you may encounter (check the forecast, to be sure).
Sleeping Pad: Sleeping bags might seem like enough to keep you comfy and warm but they're not always going to keep those rocks and that terrain from digging into your spine. Pair one with a sleeping pad and you could sleep like a baby, even in the deepest, darkest forest.
Camping Pillow: Worst case scenario, you can probably do without a camping pillow. But if you're worried about comfort, you'll definitely want to pick up a packable one. They'll keep your head off the cold, rocky ground a lot better than just a sleeping bag and pad alone.
Water Bottle: In the hottest parts of the world, it's possible for a person to die from dehydration in a matter of minutes. However, it's also very possible to succumb to it even in freezing conditions. Bottom line: you're going to want to bring along a sturdy water bottle and you're going to want to keep it full of that ever-important element we call H2O so you can stay hydrated at all times, especially after times of exertion, like a hike.
Cooler: You're going to want something in which you can keep your cold food cold, but coolers can also be used to keep your food (and its smells) out of the paws, mouths and noses of local wildlife. Furthermore, coolers are handy as an extra seat or table (if they're hard-sided) for when you need it.
Illumination: There are numerous kinds of portable lights you can bring camping, ranging from simple flashlights to headlamps (which keep your hands free). There are even camping-ready, solar-powered string lights to illuminate your whole campground. In this case, we suggest just bringing at least one of these, preferably one that's very portable and has decent battery life. The dark can be dangerous and hazardous even for the most weathered outdoor expert.
First-Aid Kit: It's a rookie mistake to think you won't need your first-aid kit. Even a simple one with some alcohol wipes and bandages is better than nothing, but we suggest opting for something a little more fully-loaded and made for outdoor usage. You might not need it, but you'll be forever thankful to have one if you do.
Toilet Paper (Biodegradable): Hopefully, it's obvious that you should bring toilet paper along with you on your trip. Even if there are bathrooms available, you're never going to know if they're well-stocked until it's too late. Also important: make sure your toilet paper was made to quickly biodegrade, as you're not going to want to pack it with the rest of your garbage once you've used it.
Extra Socks: Do not underestimate the importance of a good pair of socks — and always bring extra! They're a great defense against blisters; they'll keep your feet dry and warm; they can be repurposed into mittens if you find yourself unexpectedly cold and so much more. Always bring extra socks. Always.
Even if you're camping at a highly-trafficked, near-to-the-city campground, it's important to remember that these areas are still wild — meaning there are potential dangers all around.
Know, too, that risks change with your location — both the camping area you choose and your larger locale. For instance, Alaska experiences frightening snowstorms and has large predators (like bears and wolves), but the state has no snakes of which to speak, venomous or otherwise, nor does it have poisonous plant life like poison ivy or oak.
Always familiarize yourself with the local dangers, but here are some of the more common hazards to account for.
Animals: Most places you're likely to camp will have at least one major predatory animal, sometimes a few, and at least one or two smaller ones you'll want to watch out for (those that may be dangerous in defending themselves, like snakes or certain arachnids). Knowing what to do should you encounter one could be paramount to your survival. Read up on the local wildlife, especially from a reputable source (the National Parks Service is a great place to start), long before you start packing those bags.
Plants: Thankfully, avoiding plants that might cause you harm is a good deal less strenuous and stressful than avoiding dangerous wildlife. However, you'll still want to know what to watch out for — like what poison oak leaves, with their signature rounded triple-leaf spread, look like compared to other leaves — to ensure you're giving those dangerous plants a wide berth.
And while we'd hope you don't find yourself in a survival situation, it can be indispensable to know which plants are edible and which might kill you if you ingest them. A good rule to follow: if you're not 100 percent sure it's safe to eat, just don't.
Natural Hazards: Cliffs are easy to fall off of; caves are easy to get lost in; raging rapids are easy to drown in; etc. Knowing the terrain you're entering, like knowing the local flora and fauna, could end up saving your life. Furthermore, knowing the possible risks, like rockslides or avalanches, and how to respond should you be faced with one, is similarly of great import.
Weather: Technically, we could suggest that this counts as a natural hazard. But it's so vital to know the weather patterns of a campground (or any outdoor space, for that matter), that it deserves its own call-out.
Places prone to seemingly random downpours, for instance, likely have a risk of flash flooding, which could sweep you and your entire campsite away never to be seen again. Pay attention to the weather before, during, and even as you're making your exit. Learn what to do in the case of a weather disaster or just avoid the trip altogether if the forecast looks questionable.
If there's one thing you take away from your experiences in the great outdoors, it should be the knowledge that these spaces are not our property. We share them with one another and we share them with the larger planet, its flora and fauna and the like. And that means that each of us have a responsibility to take care of these shared spaces as much as we can.
It's with that in mind that we wanted to leave you with a few bits of advice about how you should leave your campsite (and all other outdoor spaces you enjoy) once the time comes to head back to civilization.
Clean Up Your Trash: Random plastic garbage — mostly from food wrappers — is a huge problem in the great outdoors. It doesn't biodegrade for potentially hundreds if not thousands of years. In that time, it can clog up waterways; trap, choke, maim or kill wildlife; and it makes our shared outdoor spaces a lot uglier.
However, all of these things are preventable (to a degree) by simply cleaning up your trash and disposing of it properly. Sure, most of that trash may just end up in a dump (and there are plenty of folks trying to figure out how to deal with that), but better there than in your favorite lake, forest, beach or mountain range.
Put Out Your Fires: Anyone who has been near the West Coast over the course of the last few years should know just how incredibly dangerous and damaging forest fires can be. In the U.S., over seven million acres burn annually. And many of those fires are caused by humans. Make sure any campfires and, even more importantly, all the embers from those fires are completely extinguished. If you're not going to do it out of the goodness in your own heart, do it to avoid the potential millions of dollars in penalty fines.
Go the Extra Mile: Most people aren't monsters who leave behind heaping piles of garbage and start forest fires. But a lot of us are also happy doing the bare minimum. We'd like to challenge you, however, as an outdoors person to go the extra mile where you can. Do not simply clean up after yourself; clean up more refuse than you make.
What do you get out of all this altruism? Well, there's the satisfaction you're doing more than your part to maintain these spaces. There's also the knowledge that, by doing just a bit more, you're helping protect these locales for the next visitor (perhaps even yourself, the next time you venture out).
You might think it a thankless job, but you'll want to remember this advice the next time you hit the trails, head to the beach, scale a mountaintop, shred the slopes, zip-line through the canopy or whatever other activities you enjoy in the great outdoors.