Camping 101: The Ultimate Guide to Camping for Beginners

Camping is not just one activity but an umbrella term encompassing various approaches to spending time outdoors. From the modern comforts of “glamping” to the rugged solitude of backcountry camping, there’s a style for everyone. Part 1 of this article delves into the various types of camping, their pros and cons, and what you might need for each. Part 2 dives into details of “Car Tent Camping,” the most common and beginner-friendly type of camping.

Part 1: Types of Camping

Car Tent Camping

Car tent camping is the most commonly recognized form of camping, involving driving to a designated campsite, often within a public campsite facility, and setting up a tent. Sites usually offer basic amenities like water, fire pits, and communal restrooms.

Pros: Easy for beginners, family-friendly, and usually safe with moderate preparation.

Cons: Can be crowded, has a limited sense of solitude, and is less adventurous.

Gear: Tent, sleeping bag, cooking stove or grill, basic survival kit.

RV Camping

Campers travel in a motorhome or camper trailer in RV (Recreational Vehicle) camping. Many RV parks offer electric hookups, Wi-Fi, and other modern conveniences.

Pros: Comfortable, accessible for all ages, and easy to travel to multiple sites.

Cons: Expensive initial cost, not as “close to nature,” can be challenging to navigate certain terrains.

Gear: RV, RV-specific appliances, potentially a generator, and standard camping gear for outdoor activities.

Backpacking

Backpacking involves hiking into the wilderness carrying all that you’ll need for your trip on your back. This type of camping usually takes place far from roads and facilities.

Pros: Solitude, close to nature, physically challenging and rewarding.

Cons: Requires thorough planning and preparation, physically demanding, potential for danger is higher.

Gear: Lightweight tent or hammock, lightweight sleeping bag and pad, portable stove, water purification, multi-day food supply, a first-aid kit, and large enough backpack.

Glamping

Short for “Glamorous Camping,” glamping offers the joys of being close to nature without sacrificing modern amenities like electricity, beds, and sometimes even Wi-Fi.

Pros: Comfortable, great for those hesitant about traditional camping, often unique accommodations like treehouses or yurts.

Cons: It can be expensive, not as immersive, and availability can be limited.

Gear: Depends on the venue. Usually, accommodations and basic amenities are provided.

Canoe/Kayak Camping

Kayak camping involves paddling to a campsite only accessible by water. You carry your camping supplies in your boat and camp along riverbanks or lakeshores.

Pros: Solitude, unique experience, an additional element of challenge and adventure.

Cons: Requires boating skills, limited gear capacity, and can be physically demanding.

Gear: Canoe or kayak, paddles, life vests, waterproof bags, and lightweight camping gear.

Survivalist Camping

Survivalist camping is an extreme form of camping where you head into the wilderness with minimal gear, intending to procure your food and shelter with the skills you possess.

Pros: Ultimate form of immersion in nature, honing survival skills.

Cons: Potentially dangerous, requires extensive knowledge and experience, physically and mentally demanding.

Gear: Survival kit including a knife, fire starter, water purification, and emergency supplies.

Winter Camping

As the name suggests, winter camping is conducted in winter conditions, often involving snowshoeing or cross-country skiing to the campsite. Specialized cold-weather gear is a must.

Pros: Solitude, beautiful snow-covered landscapes, unique challenges.

Cons: Cold temperatures, increased risk of danger, specialized gear required.

Gear: Four-season tent, winter-rated sleeping bag, snow gear, avalanche safety gear.

Bikepacking

Similar to backpacking but with the aid of a bicycle. Great for covering longer distances and carrying more gear than traditional backpacking.

Pros: Increased range, the adventure of mixing cycling and camping, carry more weight than backpacking.

Cons: It requires good physical fitness, complex logistics, and bike maintenance skills are required.

Gear: Bike, panniers or saddlebags, lightweight camping gear, bike repair kit.

Conclusion

The type of camping you choose will depend on your interests, skills, and what you hope to get out of the experience. Whether you’re looking for a comfortable weekend getaway or a challenging wilderness adventure, there’s a type of camping out there for everyone.

Part 2: Car Tent Camping

Car tent camping involves using your vehicle as part of your camping setup. Unlike backpacking/backcountry camping, where everything you need must be carried on your back, or RV camping, which comes with amenities, car tent camping means you can bring more equipment and supplies since your car serves as your storage and transportation. Typically, the tent is pitched next to, or sometimes even attached to, the vehicle.

Advantages of Car Tent Camping

  • Convenience: Your car acts as a storage unit, making storing and accessing your belongings more accessible.
  • Cost-Effective: Compared to RV camping or staying at a hotel, this is a budget-friendly option.
  • Comfort: You can bring more amenities than you would with backpacking, like larger tents, cooking gear, and mattresses.
  • Accessibility: Great for families with young kids or anyone who prefers not to hike long distances to a campsite.

Planning Your Trip

Choose the Right Location

  • Campgrounds vs. Primitive Sites: While campgrounds offer amenities like toilets, showers, on-site electrical outlets, and sometimes even Wi-Fi, primitive or dispersed camping sites give you solitude and a more rugged experience. I recommend state park-managed campgrounds with bathroom complexes in their campsite loop for beginners. We have booked electric and non-electric sites, but always with a bathroom complex in our loop. We have young kids, so we try to be as close to the bathroom complex as possible.
  • Regulations: Always research any restrictions or requirements for camping in your chosen area. Most managed state/national park campgrounds require an advanced booking. On popular destinations or during peak seasons, they may also require minimum days of booking. Many campgrounds, for example, Maryland State Park campgrounds, do not allow alcohol on the premises and have restrictions on which sites can be used with pets. Many state parks also do not allow inter-state firewood transportation, so you will need to source your firewood from the camp store.

Make a Checklist

From cooking gear to bug spray, making a list ensures you don’t forget anything crucial. Essentials often include:

  • Tent and its components
  • Sleeping bags and pads or air mattresses
  • Cooking gear and food supplies
  • Clothing suitable for all weather conditions
  • Navigation tools like maps or GPS
  • First Aid Kit and bug spray
  • Light sources: flashlights, lanterns, etc.
  • Cutting tools: knife, saw, axe, etc.
  • Cordage: paracord, banklines, etc

The Gear

Choosing a Tent

  • Size: Pick a tent that offers enough space for everyone. A “four-person tent” may be cramped for four adults plus gear. However, it is generally okay for two adults and two kids. It is always better to consult experts at an outdoor fitter store like REI on the gear you might need based on the number of occupants and the place you are going. However, if you know what you are looking for, then the Facebook marketplace is an excellent option to score some used gear cheaply. I bought my one and four-person tents from the Facebook marketplace that were barely used and a quarter of the price.
  • Weather: Your tent should be appropriate for the seasons you’ll be camping in, and this is where you need to spend more time researching or taking expert advice. Even if your tent is spacious enough for you and the gear, it may not hold even for 15 minutes in a downpour or get blown away easily. My one-person tent by Alps Mountaineering is sturdy enough to take a beating. However, my four-person Coleman Sundome budget tent gives away within 15 mins in a downpour. I still use it but with an additional tarp on it.
  • Ease of Setup: As a beginner, you might prefer a tent that’s easy to set up. But avoid buying those unbranded, easy-to-set-up pop-up tents from Amazon. They are cheaply made and flimsy and would not stand the slightest change in the weather.

Sleeping Essentials

  • Sleeping Bag: Choose one that’s suited for the climate. For a beginner camper, a three-season sleeping bag is ideal. It will allow you to camp from Spring to Fall in most places. You can get sleeping bags either with synthetic or down-filling material. Synthetic bas are cheaper, bulkier, but would still work when wet. Down sleeping bags are more expensive and lighter but usually are not as effective when wet unless the down is treated with water repellents. I have a Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 20° Sleeping Bag, which is a synthetic bag, but it’s only slightly heavier than an REI down bag, much cheaper, and is rated for three seasons. So, for three seasons of car camping, I have no complaints.
  • Sleeping Pad or Air Mattress: Essential for insulation and cushioning as you should never sleep directly on the tent floor. First, it’s not comfortable. Second, the campgrounds are colder than you might expect, removing all the warmth the sleeping bag provides.

Cooking and Food Storage

  • Stove: A simple propane/butane stove often works well for beginners. If you are with family, then go for a double-burner stove. Coleman has several models to suit your budget. Ozark Trail, a budget brand from Walmart, can also be a good beginner choice.
  • Cooler: Keeps perishables safe. Again, Coleman is a good budget option. The size of the cooler depends upon the number of people and meals that require the ingredients to be kept cold. We have a basic Coleman 70 qt cooler that I bought used from the Facebook marketplace, which serves us well for two nights. We usually keep eggs, bacon, milk (for the baby), frozen meats, soda, and juices in the cooler. For Ice, we freeze 300 ml plastic water bottles to form the bottom layer and put ice cubes in several zip-lock bags for the top. We also use reusable ice packs instead of ice cubes to avoid liquid spills once the ice melts. The advantage of using frozen water bottles is that there is no spillover after the ice melts, and you have drinkable water to use.
  • Cookware: Basic pots, pans, and utensils are usually sufficient. For car camping, you do not need those high-end lightweight titanium cookware. We took our home cookware when we went on our first camping. However, over time, we have made a separate set of stainless steel and cast iron cookware dedicated to camping, always stored in our camping tote. We use reusable plastic plates, cups, and cutlery – we avoid one-time use of paper plates or cups to minimize the trash. However, if you are a first-time camper, it might be overwhelming to organize, cook, and clean your cookware in the camp bathroom/wash station, so carrying a few paper plates, cups, and plastic utensils might be more manageable.

Tools, Light, and Fire Source

  • Cutting Tools: You must have a knife in your kitchen set. However, having a camp/bushcraft knife, such as a fixed blade full tang knife, is helpful in various situations like processing firewood, clearing vegetation, cutting cordage, etc.
  • Cordage: Your tent should come with guy lines along with stakes. However, if you also carry a tarp as an extra layer over your tent or cover the dining area, you would need additional cordage. Paracords are the most popular type of cordage used in camping. Inexpensive generic paracords from Dollar Tree are more than enough for non-load-bearing tasks such as hanging a tarp or clothesline.
  • Flashlights and Lanterns: Campgrounds become pitch dark on a moonless night. Therefore, a dedicated flashlight is essential to move around your campsite or go to the bathroom complex. I prefer headlamps over handheld flashlights. I also bring a battery-operated or oil lantern for the general illumination of the campsite.
  • Fire Source: In your kitchen set, you must have a lighter for your propane stove. However, an alternative source, such as waterproof matches or a ferro rod, can be used as a backup.

Setting Up Your Campsite

Tent Placement

  • Level Ground: Look for a flat and moisture-free area for your tent. If you are in a state park-managed campground, they usually have a tent pad filled with stone dust, which is good for keeping dry and providing a level surface. You can check if your campsite has a tent pad or know while making a booking. I have pitched tents on both tent pads and the ground and now I prefer tent pads. They can take in a lot of rain without getting muddy, making it cleaner to pack up the tent without spending too much time scrapping off the sticky goo.
  • Safety: Ensure you’re not too close to a cliff edge, river, or other potential hazards. Again, if you are in a state park-managed campground, the campsites are designed to keep these things in mind. However, I try not to be very close to the river to avoid insects and water animals crawling in our campsite and avoiding the danger of kids running into the water.
  • Distance: Keep a safe distance from your car’s exhaust to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning and the fire ring. You may need to run your car if you want to use it to charge your cell phones or use a pump to inflate your sleeping pad, etc. And sparklings from the campfire can burn a hole in your tent if not setting the whole thing on fire.

Kitchen Area

  • Fire Safety: For the same reason as keeping your tent away from the fire ring, keep the cooking area away from the tent.
  • Accessibility: It should be easily accessible but not so close that it attracts animals to your sleeping area. It should not be tricky in a state park as the campsites are small and everything is within accessible range. However, since the picnic table – where you would probably set up your kitchen – is not too far from your tent, keeping it clean all the time is essential not to attract animals to your site.

General Tips

  • Footprint: Consider laying a tarp under your tent for extra protection from moisture. You can buy a footprint specific to your tent model. However, they are expensive, and if you have a budget tent, then probably not worth it. I use cheap utility tarps from Dollar Tree as my tent footprint. They form an extra layer of moisture protection and prevent my tent from getting excessively dirty. And since they are cheap, I can throw them away if they get damaged or too dirty to bring back home.
  • Tent Stakes: Ensure they are securely in the ground to handle wind. I always stake down my tent even if there is no wind. You never know when the weather might change and blow away your tent.
  • Storage: Use your car for secure storage, but remember to keep food in animal-proof containers in an area with wildlife.

Safety Measures

  • Follow Campfire Rules: If campfires are allowed, use established fire rings and always have water and a shovel on hand.
  • First Aid: Always have a basic First Aid Kit with enough supplies for the group.
  • Prescription Medication: Don’t forget to take your prescription medication.
  • Insects Repellent: Always carry an insect repellent that you can apply on your skin. Read the dosage strength before leaving home, especially for children. We also carry an alternative, such as citronella candles and mosquito-repellent coils, to burn in the dining and hangout area.
  • Wildlife: Store food, trash, and scented items such as toiletries properly to avoid attracting unwanted guests. While car camping, your car is the best place to store such items before you hit the hay at night.
  • Leave No Trace: Follow the Leave No Trace principles to keep nature as pristine as you found it.

Packing Up

  • Check for Leftovers: Make sure you’re not leaving anything behind.
  • Garbage: Always take your trash with you or dispose of it in designated areas. Most campgrounds have large trash bins at the exit.
  • Site Condition: Aim to leave the site in as good or better condition than you found it.

Final Thoughts

Car tent camping can be an exciting and enjoyable way to connect with nature. The convenience of having a car nearby offers a camping experience that merges the best of comfort and the outdoors. Whether you are a solo adventurer or a family looking to spend quality time together, this guide should help you prepare for your first car tent camping trip.

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