Camping 101: Complete Guide for Beginner Campers

This guide has everything you need to know about camping, including some helpful resources as you plan for your first trip.
Camping 101

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One of the many joys in this world comes from spending a night under the stars—there’s really nothing quite like it. From pitching your tent to lighting your campfire, camping is a rewarding experience that can be valuable to anyone with an open mind and a desire to connect with nature.

Camping trips can come in all shapes and sizes, from traditional summer camping with your family tent to survival simulations with self-made shelters. Whether you’re interested in how to set up your first campsite, or you want to learn more about becoming a hardcore bushcrafter, you’re in the right place. This comprehensive guide has everything you need to know about camping.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Things You Should Know

Types of Camping Trips

The very first thing you should know are the various types and styles of camping you can partake in. Each camper is unique and leans toward a specific style or combinations of styles, and you’ll find the one that’s best for you after going on your first few trips.

Here are the styles, their descriptions, and some examples of each:

  • Traditional camping: The old fashioned camping experience remains a staple for many campers. Also referred to as “car camping,” this type of camping trip usually involves pulling your car up to your campsite, unloading your camping kitchen gear, setting up your tent, firing up the campfire and grill, and setting up some folding chairs.
  • Backpacking: If you’re looking to hike on a trail to a campsite and stay overnight, you’ll probably want to plan a backpacking trip. This experience involves loading up your hiking pack with necessary gear, such as a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, small stove, some kitchenware, and anything else you can fit. Backpacking trips can be a range of easy to advanced, depending on the level of challenge you’re looking for, but we recommend starting easy and working your way up.
  • Glamping: A blend of the words “glamor” and “camping,” glamping trips involve setting up or renting elaborate shelters with furniture, TVs, electronics, and even some appliances. It’s like bringing your home to your campsite, and it’s a great option for those who want to spend a night in nature, but aren’t comfortable leaving some of their amenities at their house. Oftentimes, glampers will set up permanent structures outside on their property, and use it as a vacation spot or rent it out to other glampers.
  • Bushcraft survival camping: If you’re looking for a hardcore experience that relies heavily on your outdoor skills, you might be interested in bushcraft. A survival camping trip typically means you bring minimal gear, find your campsite in a remote area, build your own shelter, and hunt or fish for your food. Although usually not a first choice for beginner campers, it can be something that becomes appealing as you gain more experience spending time in the wilderness.
  • Dry camping: This type of trip requires an RV or van, and it’s best for those who aren’t ready to give up the comfort of an air-conditioned home or shelter. You pull up your vehicle to your campsite, hook up to electricity, and enjoy being closer to the outdoors without giving up things like a television, comfortable bed, or a refrigerator.
  • Winter camping: Camping in the winter is it’s own breed of camping, since it requires skill, knowledge, and endurance. The cold can be difficult to live in without the proper expertise to embrace it, but many campers find winter camping rewarding and well worth the extra effort.

Each style comes with its own unique benefits, so trying all of them eventually can make you a well-rounded camper and show you which one is most valuable to you.

Places To Camp

Another thing you should know right off the bat is what kind of places to camp are out there. The last thing you want is to choose a campsite on someone else’s property and face trespassing charges. 

  • Public land: National, state, or local parks that have campsites are owned and managed by the federal or local parks service. They usually require nightly reservation fees to use a campsite—whether it’s at a campground or on a hiking trail—that can typically range from $10–$50 per night. Camping on public land can be an excellent experience, since the parks are usually maintained very well, but we suggest doing some research on parks in your area to be sure you choose the best one for your trip.
  • Private campgrounds: Not all campsites are publicly owned, some private owners have campgrounds on their property that they rent out to campers. They’re usually car campgrounds with shared bathroom facilities where you pull up your car and unload your camping great right at the site.
  • Dispersed campsites: This is the most primitive camping place. It’s a location you choose on your backcountry trip that doesn’t have any facilities or appointed camping spot—it may just be an area of flat ground that made you think, “this could be a good spot to set up my tent for the night.” Although not allowed at all parks, many public parks have designated areas for it. If you’re leaning toward planning a trip at one of these campsites, we recommend checking with the National Park Service to find out more about designated areas in your park, or visit your local park website if you’re planning a trip in a local or state park.

Leave No Trace

One of the most important principles to remember anytime you spend time outside is Leave No Trace, which means leaving nothing behind but your footprint in the nature you’re sleeping in. When we spend time outdoors or in the wilderness, we should always be respectful of the nature that’s sharing its space with us. 

This means minimizing our impact on that environment and disturbing it as little as possible Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace you should remember while going on your trips:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impact
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors
Leave No Trace

Chapter 2: Safety

Temperatures

Before planning your trip, you should always consider the time of year and predicted temperatures. Since you’re staying out in the wilderness, it can be hard to control your environment like you would in your home, so you might want to postpone your trip if it’s too cold or hot.

In general, we wouldn’t recommend camping in temperatures that drop close to or below 40 degrees at night without gear specifically designed for cold camping and proper preparation. If you can’t keep your body warm enough, you run the risk of hypothermia and frostbite, which can both have a significant impact on your health and potentially cause permanent damage to your body.

Recommended resources:

On the flip side of that, hyperthermia is a potential danger when camping or hiking in hot temperatures. Your body can overheat quickly in 90 degree or above temperatures without proper hydration, especially if you’re in the sun. 

So, you may want to hold off on your trip you were planning for the dead of summer until the cooler fall temperatures start to roll in. You should also always bring sunscreen to protect your skin from UV rays.

Trail Dangers

Bringing a first aid kit is just as important as bringing a tent or the clothes on your back, no matter what kind of camping trip you’re going on. However, it can be particularly handy on backpacking or day-hiking trips, since there are a few more potential dangers just from using the trail under your feet.

Always pay attention to where you walk, because the smallest rock or exposed tree root could trip you. Also look out for shrubbery and brush hanging in the trail, since they can cut your skin. 

If you do end up falling or cutting yourself, break out the first aid kit, assess the damage, then patch up the wound as best you can. If the damage seems like it needs medical attention, you shouldn’t be afraid to call off the trip and head back to your car, since you and your fellow travelers’ safety should always come first.

Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

Poison plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, are dangers to anyone traveling in the forest, including hikers and campers. When their oils touch your skin, they can cause annoying and painful rashes and allergic reactions. 

As soon as you think you’ve come into contact with one of these plants, head back to your campsite, grab a wet rag and some soap, and scrub the contacted area as if you’re scrubbing off an oil or grease stain on your skin. This will keep the oil from getting into your system and from spreading to other areas of your body on contact.

Below is a picture of poison ivy, which is one of the most common poisonous plants in the United States.

Poison Ivy

Bears and Other Wildlife

Bears are a common threat to campers spending the night in the woods in many areas in the United States. Whether you’re camping in the Appalachian Mountains and are worried about the Black Bears native to that area, or you’re going on an advanced hiking trip in Alaska and have heard horror-stories about Grizzly Bear sightings, they should always be a safety consideration on your trip.

This means, you should bring bear spray or a blow horn to help scare them away before they get too close to your campsite. You should also bring a bear-proof container that masks the scent of your food and waste.

Additionally, to protect you and your campsite from bears and other wildlife critters, such as raccoons, wolverines, or forest mice, you should put your food, shampoo, and anything with an attractive scent around 200–300 feet away from your campsite and the campsite of nearby campers.

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Chapter 3: What To Bring

Clothing

The following clothing items are must-haves when going on your trip:

  • Underwear
  • Breathable, long-sleeve shirts
  • Light jacket
  • Rain jacket
  • Durable boots for hiking
  • Comfortable night clothes
  • Socks

For extra comfort and protection from certain environments, you might also consider the following:

  • Long johns (in colder climates)
  • A thick coat (in colder climates)
  • Additional layers
  • A bathing suit for swimming
  • Slippers for walking around in standing tents
  • Hat for sun protection
  • Sunglasses

Shelter and Campsite Essentials

Here are some things you should bring for your shelter and general campsite must-haves:

  • Tent
  • Tent stakes
  • Headlamp
  • Flashlight
  • Extra batteries
  • Shower tent
  • Firewood
  • Tablecloth
  • Folding chairs
  • Camping lantern

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Sleep

When prepping for your camping trip, you should bring these items to help you get a good night’s rest:

  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping back
  • Pillow
  • Tent warmer (optional)
  • Extra blankets

Kitchen

Cooking is a necessity, no matter what kind of camping trip you’re planning, so you should consider bringing the following items to prepare meals:

  • Water bottles
  • Water filter or purifier
  • Dish towel
  • Cooking utensils
  • Eating utensils
  • Sponge
  • Bags for trash and recycling
  • Cups and mugs
  • Cutting surface
  • Cooler
  • Kitchen knife
  • Can opener
  • Pots
  • Gas stove
  • Matches, lighter, or fire starter
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Camping grill
  • Frying pan
  • Grill rack for your campfire

Food

The food you choose to bring can vary depending on your preference, but here are some of our recommendations for snacks and general meal ingredients:

  • Protein or nutrition bars
  • Freeze dried packaged meals
  • Ramen noodles packages
  • Sausages or hot dogs
  • Packaged tuna
  • Salad ingredients
  • Rice
  • Cereal and milk
  • Peanut butter and jelly
  • Bread or tortilla wraps
  • Trail mix
  • Peanuts, almonds, or other nuts
  • Canned or dried beans
Camping 101 - Food

Tools

Sometimes as a camper, you’re only as good as the tools you bring. Here are some campsite tools we recommend stashing in your hiking back or car trunk while on your trip:

  • Camping knife
  • Axe or hatchet
  • Folding saw
  • Multitool
  • Camping shovel
  • Camping trowel
  • Firestarter
  • Hammer
  • Paracord or rope

Recommended resources: 

Chapter 4: Planning Your Trip

Choosing a Campsite

Selecting a campsite is a fun part of planning your trip, and it should be one of the first steps you take. Here are some tips for choosing the best campsite based on your type of camping trip:

  • Car camping: These campsites are easy to find in public parks and private campgrounds. Search for places near you or at your vacation destination and set up a reservation.
  • Backpacking: If you’re planning to spend the night on the trail, you’ll likely still need to reserve a campsite. Check the park’s website for information on trail rules and campsite reservations. You may need to check in at the trailhead.
  • Glamping: If glamping interests you the most, you can plan a trip by checking online for glamping resorts with geodesic domes or tent cabins. Your stay in these locations will likely cost more than typical campsites.
  • RV camping: Many car camping campgrounds have access to electricity and open reservations for RVs, pop-ups, or trailers for dry campers. Reserve a spot at one of these sites online or over the phone.

Although you may not have much of a choice for your campsite depending on availability and the amount of open campgrounds in your vacation area, you should be meticulous about picking a spot. Look at the map to see where the campsite is located to be sure you get the view, wind coverage, and shelter that you want for your stay. 

You should also check the campsite rules before continuing your planning, since that can have an impact on your trip. For instance, some campsites don’t allow campfires, so you’ll need to plan around not having a fire for cooking and warmth.

Don't Forget the Weather

Before confirming your reservation, you should double-check the weather prediction for the days of your trip. Rain, snow, or other weather conditions can make or break your trip if you’re not prepared, so you might want to consider postponing if the weather’s going to be bad.

Additionally, if heavy winds are predicted during your trip, you’ll want your campsite to have plenty of wind protection, such as boulders and trees.

Campsite Checklist

We’ve taken the time to compile all of the things you should consider bringing on your trip into the helpful checklist below. Download or print it here to help you plan for your trip and ensure you grab the essentials before heading out on your adventure.

Camping Checklist

Backyard Dry Run

One of our biggest suggestions for new campers is to gather all your campsite gear as if you’re leaving for your trip and perform a dry run setup in your backyard or at a park. This can help you learn how to build your tent, the best places for your sleeping pad and bag inside the tent, and any other setup features that you should know about.

It can relieve the stress and nerves about how to set up your first campsite, and it’s just an all-around exciting activity to put all your new gear together.

Chapter 5: Frequently Asked Questions

Does camping have health benefits?

Yes, camping and hiking can come with lots of health benefits, including improvements to physical health from exercising while on your trip and boosting mental health through the peaceful, instinctual joy of being in nature. Plus, according to the National Park Service, “sleeping under the stars helps you get in touch with your natural circadian rhythms, a foundation for high quality sleep and health.”

Can you camp anywhere outdoors?

No, just because you spot a flat section on the forest floor doesn’t mean you can camp there. Many public parks have designated campsites you must use, unless established as a dispersed camping area. Additionally, you can’t camp on private land without permission from the owner, since that would be considered trespassing.

Is it safe to camp by yourself?

With proper experience and gear, it can be a safe and rewarding experience to camp alone. However, you should always be sure to bring an emergency communication device that uses a GPS signal to reach rescue services in case something happens and you need help.

What do you eat while camping?

When planning your food for your camping trip, you should consider dry or canned snacks and meals that are easy to prepare, such as tuna, nuts, cereal, granola, beans, rice, and bread. Simple meals that just need hot water to prepare are also ideal camping meal options, since you can easily boil water over your campfire or camping stove.

What are risks to consider while camping?

You should always consider the wildlife around you as a potential risk to your safety. Stay alert to your surroundings and bring bear spray or a blow horn in case a bear or other critter gets too close. You should also consider unexpected, extreme temperatures as a potential risk on your camping trip. If you’re not prepared for an especially cold night, you could end up with hypothermia or frostbite.

What is the most important thing to bring on a camping trip?

While there are lots of things you should consider bringing on your trip, the most essential items include a first aid kit, a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a camping knife, plenty of water, nourishing food, clothes, and a flashlight.

Can you camp in the winter?

Yes, with the proper experience, gear, and preparation, you can camp in the winter. In fact, many advanced or expert campers adore cold camping for its rewarding challenge.

What do you do if it starts raining on your camping trip?

If it starts raining on your camping trip, quickly gather the food you had exposed to ensure it doesn’t get ruined, then wait out the rain in your tent. If it starts to come through your tent’s waterproof material, you can use blanks and towels to wipe up the leaking water. It’s important to keep your sleeping bag and extra clothes as dry as possible.

Chapter 6: Summary

Although there’s a lot to know about camping, don’t let the amount of information intimidate you. The most important thing is that you get out there. It’s okay to be a little unprepared on your first time. As long as you have the essentials and keep a good attitude, you’ll have a great time and be on your way to becoming an expert.

Before you leave, here are some of the most important takeaways from this guide:

  • Respect the wildlife while you’re on your trip and follow the principles of Leave No Trace
  • Be aware of safety concerns, such as extreme temperatures as well as wildlife dangers, and always bring a first aid kit
  • Always bring the essentials to keep you safe and comfortable on your trip
  • Plan your trip in detail in advance to avoid any unexpected problems
  • Keep track of what to bring on your trip with a camping checklist
  • Set up your campsite in your backyard as a dry run before your first trip to give you a feel for how everything works and if you need any more gear

If you’re looking for more camping or hiking advice, read some of the following articles and guides: