Multiple marshmallows extended over a camp fire to roast.

Camping for Beginners – A Complete Guide for First-Timers

Camping is one of the best ways to spend a weekend or longer! You can immerse yourself in nature, go solo or in a group, spend time bonding without technology, and enjoy a laid-back getaway or vacation. Particularly in summer, when you can spend your time hiking, swimming, and enjoying the outdoors.

If you’ve been wanting to head out into the wilderness but you have no idea how this camping thing really works, I’ve got you covered in this camping for beginners guide. I was once a newbie camper, not sure I was prepared or thinking of everything I needed to plan.

But once you know what to pack and what to do, you’ll be ready to take on the world. Not to mention, open up possibilities for experiences that can only be had by camping out, like this once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Okavango Delta.

Camping for beginners

Camping 101 – Essential Gear & What to Pack

Deciding what to pack for your camping trip depends very much on the season. In summer, things like sun protection, a swimsuit, and the right hiking clothes to keep you cool are important, while in winter an insulated, waterproof jacket and warm socks take the lead. Packing your bag for a camping trip includes most of your hiking essentials, so this is a good place to start.

The next is gear. There is so much specific gear surrounding camping trips. You could spend a fortune before you even know if camping’s right for you!

To help you avoid this, I’ve put together a list of only the essentials. This camping guide will get you through any trip, without getting into the nice-to-haves like a hammock or a portable shower.

Tent

Camping tent

Even if this is your first time camping, you’re likely to know that a tent is the first thing you pack. Of course, buying a tent is a big purchase. After all, depending on your luck with the weather, the tent you choose can make or break the whole experience.

If you’re really set on camping regularly or at least giving your camping trip the best chance for success, a good quality tent is well worth the money. Shelter from the elements and a comfortable night’s sleep is a must!

You can check for tent deals at Sierra or Steep and Cheap if you’d like to manage the costs until you know for sure camping is something you’ll like. Or consider a camping bundle with a few of the basics all included to get started.

No matter what, just be sure to choose a tent that includes a rain cover. Most tents do, but you’ll want to be sure. There’s nothing worse than soggy or soaked sleeping bags and gear!

Rain covers are specifically designed so that they don’t get bogged down by the water, which could eventually topple your tent. It’s also not something you can add by bringing along a tarp.

Another important thing to think about when choosing your tent is how many people will usually be using it. If you plan on setting out alone most of the time, buy a small single-person tent.

If you’re going with friends or family, consider a two or four-person tent or even something larger. Even if you do camp alone, you may appreciate the extra roominess.

Camping Mattress

This may sound like a luxury buy, and some people can manage without a camping mattress. But even in warm weather, camping without a light mattress is cold, hard, and makes for a moody morning. Personally, I consider it a camping essential!

You can buy a blow-up mattress or a light, compact roll-up pad like I have. Anything really, that puts a bit of distance between you and the ground can really up the comfort level.

Sleeping Bag

Even for those planning to sleep under the stars (yes, that’s another option if your destination is clean, clear, and dry), a sleeping bag is a necessity. What you’ll need differs greatly depending on the kind of weather you’re expecting.

The best option for all-weather camping is probably a regular down-filled 30°F / -1°C sleeping bag. It’s light, cozy, and warm enough for most camping trips.

And if you do plan to do some winter camping, you can get a sleeping bag liner to further insulate. This way, you’re prepared for the cold, but you also don’t have to buy a whole new sleeping bag for the next trip.

Firestarter

One of the best things to do while camping is to make your own fire. Then you get to spend the rest of the evening staying warm, telling scary stories, roasting marshmallows, and keeping the coyotes at bay. (Just kidding about those coyotes…well mostly! 😉 )

If you’re a novice to camping, it’s really easy to forget the little things like waterproof matches or a fire-starter. As fun as it may seem to rub 2 sticks together to create a spark, it’s not as easy it as looks in the movies! (Have you seen Castaway?!)

Of course, you should only make a fire in a safe place, and only if it’s legal and unharmful to the environment you’re in.

Before you hit the road, check your campground’s rules about firewood.

Many campsites will not allow you to bring in your own wood from home. You need to use local firewood sold within 50 miles of your campsite or even from the campgrounds themselves. It helps to prevent new bugs from spreading to a forest where they shouldn’t be.

Campfire Grill & Kettle

campfire cooking

Your basic camping gear should always include a means to cook food and boil water. It’s technically possible to do a 2-day camping trip with nothing that needs to be cooked. But you’ll certainly have more food options and better meals when you’re able to prepare hot food.

If you’ve decided to give dehydrated food a try, a good backpacking kettle is all you need. If you prefer to go the old-fashioned route, bring a pot along from home, or buy a camping pot for a more lightweight option.

If you plan to make your own fires, bring along a lightweight campfire grill. You can also bring along a small gas cooker if fires are illegal where you’re camping, or a camping stove is you just feel more comfortable compared to cooking over an open fire.

Lighting

While a fire goes a long way, a light is still really important. You may want to walk over to the nearby lake and look at the stars, or just stay up a bit in your tent. Feeling around for something you need with no light can be very frustrating!

Not to mention, if you’re out for a hike and return to the campsite later than expected, a light will help you safely find your way along a dark trail and help navigate back to the campsite.

If you’re pressed, you can use your phone’s flashlight. But this isn’t an ideal solution, particularly if you don’t have a portable cellphone charger.

Try to think about your camping plans. If you want to explore the area at night, a headlamp is a non-invasive light source that’ll allow you to keep your hands free. It’s also invaluable when trying to get dressed in a dark tent!

For your camp area, a camping lantern is ideal. I like ones that can be easily used in different places, like on a tabletop and hung inside a tent.

And if you’re in an area with mosquitos, a citronella candle is a helpful light source and a natural repellant. Mosquitos hate the smell of citronella, while most of us humans find it lovely.

Camping Tips to Keep You Comfortable

Camping at night

Now that you know what your camping basics are, you’re almost ready to get packing! These are just some handy camping tips for beginners that will get you thinking about all the fun ins-and-outs of camping.

1. Practice setting up your tent at home before you leave.

If this is your first time camping, you’ll want to learn how to do it while you’re in a comfortable space. You don’t want to start your camping trip not knowing how to put up your tent…not to mention if you’re running late and arrive with just a little remaining daylight!

And if it’s an old tent – borrowed or bought second-hand – it may be missing a piece or two. It’s far better to know what’s missing before you’re out in the wilderness so that you can replace it and avoid the panic of having a tent that doesn’t really work.

2. Bring a hammer or mallet.

Knocking tent pegs into the ground can be difficult, and a rock doesn’t quite compare to these handy tools.

3. Remember the dishes, cups, and cutlery.

With the focus on making the actual campfire and packing food, it’s an easy thing to slip your mind! Trust me, eating oatmeal out of a pot with a fork is just a bit frustrating!

Mess kits are convenient and can be used for any kind of meal, but if you’re driving to your camping spot as part of a road-trip rather than hiking to it, you can also bring your normal kitchenware.

No matter what, everyone should have a refillable water bottle to stay hydrated.

4. If you want to have the light on in your tent, be sure to close the flap.

Flying bugs are all over the place in nature, and they’ll all be attracted to your tent – which isn’t much fun when it’s time to go to sleep. Of course, the citronella candle and some bug spray will help with this. But confused bugs will still come flying.

ProTip: You can also spray your tent, camping furniture, and clothes with Permethrin before your trip. Once dry, it’s odorless and repels bugs like mosquitoes for up to 6 washings. I used it while camping in Africa and came home without a single bug bite!

5. When nature calls…

If you’re camping in nature and there are no camping facilities, be sure to walk quite far from your tent to relieve yourself. Especially if you’re spending a few days in one place.

6. Pack extra food and store it properly.

Being outdoors, whether you’re hiking or relaxing lakeside will make you hungrier than you think! Be sure to pack plenty of staples to cook easy meals and snacks for the time in between.

Prioritize protein snacks like nuts and hard-boiled eggs, fruits (dried or fresh), easy-to-open canned goods like tuna fish, and meals that don’t need a ton of ingredients. Pasta with black beans and grated cheese is one of my camping favorites!

And don’t forget lightweight extras like teabags. They make warm water taste so much better, keep you hydrated, and are quick to prepare on chilly mornings.

Just be sure all food is stored in air-tight containers and locked away or tied from a tree branch to keep the animals away at night. And, never store or eat food inside a tent. Bears don’t care you’re sleeping. They just want the good stuff they smell.

7. Pack spare socks and underwear.

Even if you think you have enough, pack one more pair. They’re so light and small that it isn’t inconvenient. And if anything goes wrong while you’re camping (like being rained out), your base layer is the most important in keeping you warm and comfortable.

8. Bring along a card games.

It’s such a small thing to fit into your pocket or bag, and you can have so much fun with them while warming up by the fire, nestled in your tent, or even at the lakeside.

Other games can get a bit tricky, with numerous small pieces to lose, and paper parts that can blow off in the wind. While cards are paper too, they tend to be a little heavier, and a pack is so cheap, it’s not hard to replace.

Aside from regular playing cards, some of my favorite family-friendly card games are Exploding Kittens, Uno, Skip-Bo, and classic favorites like Go Fish and Old Maid.

For solo campers, a Kindle is the best way to store plenty of books to read! Just be sure to bring a portable charger that can power up all your devices without needing a charge for days.

Ready for Your First Time Camping?

camping sunrise

Now that you know what you need to go camping, you’re ready for the great outdoors! This beginner’s guide to camping can be adapted to suit every kind of camping trip. Whether you’re going on a multi-day hiking trip through the untamed wilderness or a weekend trip to the local camping grounds.

If you enjoy hiking, you’re sure to love spending more time out in nature. I know there’s more gear involved, but if you stick to these basics, you’ll be ready to give it a try.

Are you planning your first camping trip?

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