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Camping can be a nourishing, bonding experience with your friends, family, Mother Nature, or all three. In 2018, 41.67 million happy campers packed up their stuff and headed into the wilderness for a day or 2.
However, it can just as easily turn into a nightmare involving portable-stove-nuked sausages, collapsing tents, and invading bears from which you can’t really wake up. Luckily there are many steps you can take to nail camping (or tent peg it?) ahead of time and grab yourself a wholesome, outdoor experience.
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 memory foam mattress when there’s a sleeping bag?)
We compiled the camping Dos and Don’ts for a safe, comfortable, and exciting experience with Mother Nature. Here’s how to fully enjoy the Greatist Outdoors!
To ensure a stint with nature that’s memorable for the right reasons and keeps you out of harm’s way, follow the guide below — perfect for any neck of the woods.
Figure out what to bring based on how much room you have, your mode of transport, and the amount of time you’ll be gone. If you’re hiking to the campsite, be mindful about the weight and bulk of what you’re carrying. Nobody wants to schlep a 50-pound pack up a mountain.
This checklist from Montgomery Country Parks should help you stick to the absolute essentials and leave the fancy extras for when you next go camping in a car.
Pick your pack
Choose a backpack based on the length of your trek and the length of your spine. Manufacturers list the volume of their packs in liters. Multi-day packs are 60 to 80 liters, and these are perfect for 2- to 5-day hikes.
If you’re driving to day hikes from a base camp location, a small day pack will be more than enough for daily provisions and supplies to tide you over while you’re out and about.
Don’t forget the tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad (for extra cushion!), and pillow. Being an adventurer doesn’t mean waking up with a crick in your neck.
The size of the tent (🍆) depends on how many people are squeezing in. It’s also sensible to make sure it’s weather resistant, because… well, you’re going to meet some weather, aren’t you?
A lightweight 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 a winter camping spree is in the cards, go with a mountaineering tent that can withstand harsh weather conditions.
Unless you’re planning to subsist on PB&J sandwiches alone, pack these in your car to bring to your designated campsite:
- some charcoal (for campsite grills)
- fire starters
- a propane stove
- cups, bowls, and plates
Always check to see if the site allows campfires, and use fire rings if they’re available. Keep sand and water nearby in case the fire needs to be put out quickly.
Be as rugged as you like, you’ve still got to eat. Great food options for camping include:
- granola bars
- peanut butter
- beef jerky
- canned beans and soups (check the infamous scene from “Blazing Saddles” for the real benefits of canned beans around a campfire).
- trail mix
- drink powders
- coffee and tea
They’re perfect for packing light, 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 use purification tablets if collecting fluids from a fresh water source (they’re available online). Research recommends a daily intake of 3,000 milliliters for males and 2,200 for females.
Dress for success
Cotton is great for staying cool in the ‘burbs, but it’s not your friend in the woods.
Grab the gadgets
No, we’re not talking about your kids bringing their iPads. There’s a few essential tools that can make camping safer, easier, and more worry-free, including:
Obviously you’re going to get dirty in the woods. However, bringing the following basics will help you stay hygienic. You know how judgmental wood elves can be.
- toilet paper
- Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Backpackin’ Book (If you’re headed where there are no flushable toilets, you’ll want to give this a read, trust us.)
Bonus hygiene tips include:
- Using baby wipes to get rid of dirt (but make sure you pack them out with you, don’t bury them!).
- Always carry hand sanitizer (pretty much a necessity in a COVID-19 world anyway).
- Use your camp soap to wash your hair.
- Bring garbage bags to separate clean and dirty clothes (you can also use one to line your entire backpack if you’re hiking in the rain).
While these seem relatively obvious, you don’t want to be the reason everyone in the group has to wipe their ass on the nearest thistle.
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
- an EpiPen for any people in the group with severe allergies
- any other personal medications and physical aids
Learn more about what to look for in a sunscreen.
Add some extras
Camping shouldn’t just be safe — you know you’re allowed to have actual fun,right?
The following can make your trip a complete experience:
- a camera
- a set of binoculars
- maps (pack ’em a ziplock so you can navigate no matter the weather)
- books or field guides (like the audubon field guides)
- a folding chair
- a drinks (read: beer) cooler
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.
To work out whether the experience of a particular park is for you, find out what amenities they provide. Most sites have grills, and some offer showers. Others even provide WiFi.
Remember to call ahead and reserve a spot, especially in the summer. Ask about wildlife (“Would we be able to spot a chipmunk and some pleasant-mannered, rare birds rather than bears, please?”) and watch out for campgrounds that are at high altitudes — these may cause altitude sickness.
Set up camp
Pick a place that’s close enough to running water for easy access when cleaning dishes, showering, and filling up water bottles. But be mindful of regulations that specifically prohibit camping within a certain distance of streams/rivers, which many areas — such as the White Mountains of New Hampshire — enforce.
Play it safe
Yes, we know you want to look like a badass. But we can’t all be Bear Grylls. Following the tips listed above should make any camping experience smooth sailing. However, remember that it’s best to camp with others, so that 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 for any 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.
Wear high socks, use insect repellent, and avoid high grass to keep ticks away. If a tick bites, 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!
Being in an area that had a large tick population greatly increases the risk of Lyme disease, which they pass on in their bites. If you notice a red rash in the shape of
Beware of bears
I mean, you can’t really be mad. They were there first.
As for fending off our furry friends, make sure the campsite is clean and remove all food from the tent. Bear in mind (lol) that most species don’t actually attack. But they’re also not likely to cuddle you back if you approach them.
In the unlikely event a black bear enters a campsite, remember they’re generally timid, so be aggressive and make noise, or fight back with sticks, rocks, trekking poles, — whatever you have on hand — if it attacks.
Having bear spray with you (and reviewing how to use it before you head out on your camping trip) is also highly recommended.
Grizzly bears perceive humans as a threat, so do not make any sudden movements. Curl up in fetal position and play dead.
Break trash down and take it home with you if there’s no on-site garbage
Most importantly, leave the campsite as you found it!
Throw away any trash (which might mean bringing it home with you), make sure the fire is out, and pack your gear into a backpack, trunk, or RV.
Don’t be the asshole who leaves trash everywhere.
Forget stress balls and screaming into pillows: Just being in the presence of plants can be therapeutic.
And camping isn’t only the perfect way to get outdoors — it can provide a massive health boost for kids.
(If you’re still in doubt, here’s 11 life lessons one of our writers learned while camping in the woods.)
Trekking to a campsite with the sun beating down provides a healthy dose of vitamin D (never forget that sunscreen though). Plus, walking is a lower-impact exercise that can help you burn off some of those campfire S’mores.
Embracing your inner Yogi Bear may help reduce stress. Serotonin is a feel-good chemical that may circulate more when you’re outdoors, boosting your mood.