Camping 101: How to Gear Up for a Summer Outdoors

Adventure
Camping and tent under the pine forest in sunset at Pang-ung, pine forest park
sarote pruksachat / Moment / Getty Images

Looking to sleep under the stars this summer? Getting out for a camping trip is easier than you might think, but you’ll want to be prepared. Here are a few guidelines for your first night in the great outdoors.

Getting Gear

Expense can often be a deterrent to getting outdoors. Luckily, it’s possible to get outdoor gear cheaply, or even rent the big-ticket items, like tents or camp stoves. Outdoors Geek offers individual rental items, or packages for specific trips, like their Family Camping rental package, starting at $334 for 3 days’ worth of camping material for a family of four. You can even purchase the gear afterwards if you choose. Most major outdoor retailers like REI also offer gear rentals, along with many smaller, independent outdoor stores.

If you’re planning for multiple trips, it might be worth investing in new or used gear. Check out Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Craigslist, and local yard sales for great deals on tents, sleeping bags, and other outdoor essentials. Many outdoor retailers also sell lightly used gear for a fraction of the price.

Picking a Site

When picking the perfect campsite location, your choices can be boiled down into two major categories: designated camping and dispersed camping. Designated camping sites are those made specifically for camping, and often require reservations and fees. They often have certain amenities, like picnic tables, toilets, running water, trash cans, or even electricity. Many campgrounds get quite busy during the peak summer season, so make sure to book a space in advance.  

Dispersed camping can be a much more isolated, remote experience, and might require a terrain-friendly vehicle or hiking out to the site.  You’ll need to be more comfortable out in nature without amenities, but camping outside of designated campgrounds frees you from both the crowds and the fees (unless you’re inside a State or National Park with entry fees). Many National Park Service lands have restrictions on camping to protect resources and wildlife, although dispersed camping is allowed in some areas, along with National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands. Check the park’s website or with a ranger before setting up camp.

The Dyrt has a service for a yearly fee to find good dispersed camping sites, and apps like Hipcamp and AllStays help you locate both designated and dispersed camping sites. Keep in mind that cell phone service is often spotty in these areas, so have directions to your destination saved on your phone and prepare accordingly.

Campsite Essentials

To set up a safe, comfortable sleeping arrangement, you’ll need a few basic necessities, including a tent (with a footprint, rain fly, and supplies for staking it), and sleeping bags and pads.

Before buying (or renting) a tent, decide which size is best for you: two people can sleep just fine in a two-person tent, but for more space to spread out, a three-person might be a better bet. Similarly, for a family of four, a six-person tent leaves plenty of extra room for belongings (and any furry friends that may join). Practice setting up the tent at home first, and make sure you have a correctly-sized footprint, which provides a barrier between the tent and the ground and prevents moisture from seeping through the floor. Alternatively, set up a cozy bed in the back of your car. For ventilation during the warm summer months, open up a sunroof or window and cover with a cheap piece of mesh, secured with a piece of tape. Or, bring a packable hammock to hang between two trees (although you might want to buy a mosquito net to fit it).

Warm bedding is a must on any camping excursion. Sleeping pads are crucial for comfort, and the best also prevent the loss of body heat from the cold ground beneath you. Check the temperature ratings for your chosen sleeping bag, and make sure they’ll be adequate for the weather. Bring along a camping pillow, or simply stuff your sleeping bag sack with extra clothing for a DIY pillow. Blankets are good for extra layering on especially cold nights, like these packable ones from Rumpl.

Food and Cooking

Camping doesn’t require fancy culinary skills or equipment, but it does require some planning. Make a meal plan ahead of time, and always bring at least one extra days’ worth of food just in case.

You might be perfectly happy with just packaged snacks and easy items – veggies and hummus, chips and salsa, granola bars, pre-made sandwiches, etc. – that can be kept in a cooler, but if you’re planning a longer camping trip, you’ll likely need to do some cooking. Try to plan meals that are easy and require minimal work, and do whatever prep work you can beforehand. Dehydrated foods – which you can make yourself or purchase as pre-made meals – are usually the easiest option, requiring only boiled water to prepare.

To enjoy a hot meal, you’ll need to come prepared with a way to cook it. Standard propane camp stoves are reliable, large, and great for big groups of people. They’re rather bulky, a you’ll need to attach a propane tank, so they’re better for trips that don’t require hiking far from the car. Canister stoves are very small and light, which makes them ideal for backpacking and camping alike, like the popular JetBoil stove systems. The pressurized isobutane and propane gas in their small canisters is easy to transport, but they’re harder to use when cooking for a large group, or balancing more than a small pan (they’re really meant for boiling water). Liquid fuel backpacking stoves are a little bulkier than canister stoves, and the fuel is harder to store long-term between trips, but they’re still good for cold-weather camping.

Think about the other items you’ll need as well: dishware and silverware, spatulas, potholders, kitchen towels, cutting boards and knives, soap and sponges for cleaning up (non-toxic soap is ideal), can openers, and folding chairs for enjoying your meal.

Other Essentials

Water

An adequate water supply is vital to any camping trip. Two gallons per person per day is a good rule of thumb, including water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. Bring large water canisters or individual, refillable jugs for each person, always airing on the side of too much rather than too little. A simple water filtration system is also good to have on hand for emergencies.

Clothing

Pack an outfit for every day with extra layers, including a few extra pairs of socks. Choose lightweight but warm items, and rain gear in the event of bad weather. Bring good shoes for hiking or other outdoor activities, as well as a casual pair to wear around the campsite.

Lighting

It’s dark out there in the wild! Bring lanterns and flashlights to light up the campsite, as well as extra batteries. Some solar-powered lights are great as well, but bring a battery-powered alternative as a backup.

Toiletries and Medical Supplies

You might not be able to do your entire skincare routine in the wilderness, but bring the essentials, including toothbrushes and toothpaste, hand sanitizer and soap, and prescription medications.  Always bring a well-stocked first aid kit too, and make sure you’re prepared to use its contents. Don’t forget toilet paper and a trowel if there are no bathrooms (and all used toilet paper needs to be carried out with you or thrown away at the camp site).

Fire Safety

Climate change has made many areas of the United States – particularly the West and Southwest – hotter and drier, including in many National Parks, heightening the risk of wildfires. Make sure you read up on the fire regulations where you are staying, and determine whether campfires are allowed. Only make campfires if you are confident in your ability to keep it contained and can completely extinguish it before you leave. Before packing out, douse the fire with water, then stir the ashes, breaking apart the embers, and douse again. Repeat until there are no remaining embers and the fire is completely extinguished. Stay away from overhanging branches and don’t use any extra stimulants or inputs, like gasoline.

Wildlife Safety

Before heading to a campsite, look up wildlife concerns in the area and things that visitors should be aware of.

Proper food storage is crucial to preventing bear encounters in the wild. Bears are attracted to anything with a scent, which includes toothpaste, soap, and even scented lip balm. Some campsites have bear-proof boxes for visitors to store their food, but at a dispersed campsite, you’ll need to bring adequate equipment. Check what the area rangers require/recommend for bear safety, which will usually include bear bags or canisters. Keep food packed away in the car during the day – even if you’re only stepping away for a few minutes – and at night, store all food and smelly items in bear bags or bear canisters at least 100 yards from your campsite. Put pans or other items on top that will clang when knocked over to alert you to the presence bears. Hanging food on high, sturdy tree limbs out of reach of bears is also an option, but is more labor-intensive.

Leave No Trace

Otherwise known as LNT, apply Leave No Trance principals to any outdoor adventure. When camping, hiking, or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors, we are entering delicate – and often protected – ecosystems. Always leave campsites in the same condition (or better) than when you arrived, carrying out everything you came in with, including food scraps, toilet paper, and trash.  

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