Every year, more than 30 million Americans leave the comfort of their homes to sleep in a tent, RV, or simply under the stars. There are lots of reasons to rough it on a good-old fashioned camping trip, from physical health benefits to stress relief. (Who needs a Tempur-Pedic mattress when there’s a sleeping bag?) In order for a safe, comfortable, and exciting experience with Mother Nature, learn all the camping dos and don’ts to fully enjoy the Great Outdoors!
Nature-Made — The Need-to-Know
Forget stress balls and screaming into pillows: Just being in the presence of plants can be therapeutic. The word’s biophilia, the term for humans’ desire to connect with nature Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being? Grinde, B, Patil, G.G. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2009 September; 6(9): 2332–2343.. (Yep, it’s science!) And camping isn't only the perfect way to get outdoors; it can also be great for our health Using nature and outdoor activity to improve children's health. McCurdy, L.E., Winterbottom, K.E., Mehta, S.S., et al. National Environmental Education Foundation, Washington, DC. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, 2010 May;40(5):102-17. Going outdoors daily predicts long-term functional and health benefits among ambulatory older people. Jacobs, J.M., Cohen, A., Hammerman-Rozenberg, R., et al. Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, Israel. Journal of Aging and Health, 2008 Apr;20(3):259-72.. (Also Check Out: 11 Life Lessons I Learned from Camping in the Woods) Trekking to a campsite with the sun beating down provides a healthy dose of vitamin D, plus walking is a lower-impact exercise that may help burn off some of those campfire S’mores. Embracing that inner Yogi Bear may help reduce stress, too: Levels of serotonin naturally rise when we’re outdoors, which can help improve mood How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Young, S.N. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 2007 November; 32(6): 394–399. Randomized trial of physical exercise alone or combined with bright light on mood and health-related quality of life. Partonen, T., Leppämäki S, Hurme, J., et al. Department of Psychiatry, University of Helsinki, Finland. Psychological Medicine, 1998 Nov;28(6):1359-64.. Who said only five-star hotels were relaxing? Check out these pro tips before hitting the trail for a comfy, relaxing, and fun outdoor experience.
Now Camp It Out — Your Action Plan
To ensure a memorable stint with nature and stay out of harm’s way, follow the guide below — perfect for any neck of the woods!
- Gear up: Figure out what to bring based on how much room you have and how long you’ll be gone. If hiking to the campsite, be mindful about weight and bulk — nobody wants to schlep a 50-pound pack up a mountain! Stick to absolute essentials and leave the fancy extras for car camping.
- Pick your pack: Choose a backpack based on how long the trek will be. The volume of the pack is measured in liters. Multi-day packs are 60 to 80 liters and are perfect for two- to five-day hikes. If you're driving in and doing day hikes from one base camp location, a small day pack is large enough for daily provisions and supplies.
- Sleep well: Don't forget the tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad (for extra cushion!), and pillow. The size of the tent depends on how many people are squeezing in. And make sure that thing’s weather resistant. A light-weight “three-season” tent is made for spring, summer, and fall conditions — designed to keep people dry during light snow or rain while keeping the bugs out! If camping in the winter, go with a mountaineering tent that can withstand harsher weather conditions.
- Fire up: Unless you're planning to subsist on PB&J sandwiches alone, bring along some charcoal (for campsite grills), fire starters, wood, newspaper, matches, propane stove, skillet, pot, utensils, and cups/bowls/plates. Always check to see if the site allows campfires, and use fire rings if available. Keep sand and water nearby in case the fire needs to be put out quickly.
- Chow down: Granola bars, peanut butter, beef jerky, canned beans and soup, trail mix, drink powders, and coffee and tea are all great camping food options. They're perfect for pack, won’t spoil, and don't require any cooking. Keep an empty water bottle on hand, too. Use the tap provided at the campsite to fill ‘er up — or boil and/or use purification tablets if collecting from a fresh body of water. Try to drink at least 16 ounces of water every hour while doing high-intensity outdoor activities.
- Dress for success: Cotton is great for staying cool in the 'burbs, but it's not your friend in the woods. Instead, choose moisture-wicking clothes and synthetic or wool socks to keep the bod dry and sweat-free. Don't forget to pack raingear, a sun hat, hiking boots, and a swimsuit just in case.
- Grab the gadgets: No, we're not talking about video games. A flashlight (or headlamp or lantern), extra batteries, a multi-tool, and phone charger (for emergencies) all make camping much safer and easier.
- Keep clean: Obviously you're going to get dirty in the woods, but bring soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, and toilet paper to stay as clean as possible. Bonus tips: Use baby wipes to get rid of dirt, always carry hand sanitizer, try soap to wash hair, and bring garbage bags to separate clean and dirty clothes!
- Stay safe: Safety is no joke, especially if camping in a remote area. Every camping group should bring along a well-stocked first-aid kit, creams for blisters, After Bite, sunscreen, and any other personal medications.
- Add some extras: Bringing along a camera, set of binoculars, maps, books, folding chair, cooler, and chapstick makes any trip in the woods much more enjoyable. For even more ideas, check out these expert suggestions!
- Pick a place: After everything’s packed up, the next step is figuring out where to park that tent! There are tons of campgrounds to choose from, like national parks, state parks, and other campsites around the country. Find out what amenities are provided; most sites have grills, and some have showers and even wifi! Remember to call ahead and reserve a spot, especially in the summer. Ask about wildlife (I want to spot a chipmunk, but not a bear, please!) and watch out for campgrounds that are at high altitudes — this may cause altitude sickness.
- Set up camp: Once at the campsite, find level ground to pitch the tent. Set it up (some extra hands will help!) and make sure to use a tent cover in case of rain. Pick a place that’s close enough to running water for easy access when cleaning dishes, showering, and filling up water bottles. And remember: Keep food out of the tent! Place it in bear food boxes or hanging bear bags if the campsite recommends doing so.
- Play it safe: Following the tips listed above should make any camping experience smooth sailing, but remember that it’s best to camp with others so someone can always call for help in an emergency. With common sense, the right equipment, and a positive attitude, Mother Nature will quickly become your second home.
- Proceed with caution: Camping often involves some rough terrain, so make sure to wear good hiking boots to avoid sprains and strains. Slip on the right socks and shoes to avoid blisters, and keep a first-aid kit on hand incase there are some cuts and scrapes along the way.
- Stay safe in the sun: Slather on the sunscreen, and wear a hat and sunglasses to keep the sun out. Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, too.
- Avoid ticks: Wear high socks, use insect repellent, and avoid high grass to keep ticks away. If a tick attacks, carefully pull it out with tweezers, making sure not to squeeze or crush the bug. Disinfect the area with soap and wash your hands immediately after!
- Beware of bears: As for fending off our furry friends, make sure the campsite’s clean and remove all food from the tent. Keep in mind most bears don’t actually attack. In the unlikely event a black bear enters a campsite, remember they are generally timid, so be aggressive and make noise, or fight back with sticks and rocks if it attacks. Grizzly bears perceive humans as a threat, so do not make any sudden movements. Curl up in the fetal position and play dead.
- Break it down: Most importantly, leave the campsite as you found it! Throw away any trash (that might mean bringing it home with you), make sure the fire is out, and pack your gear into a backpack, trunk, or RV.
Now you're all set to hit the trails as a happy camper! Do you have any memorable camping experiences? Share your stories below!