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A beginner’s guide to camping

The author’s setup at the Allen Springs Campground, a U.S. Forest Service site in the Deschutes National Forest near Camp Sherman, Ore. (Photos by Erin E. Williams for The Washington Post)

Sleeping under the stars sounds simple, and it is — but getting there can feel overwhelmingly complex.

“Many people think that to try camping, they have to scale a mountain and go deep into the wilderness,” said Clare Arentzen, a senior outdoor guide for the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which has a network of trails and lodging options including campsites, as well as outdoor programming. “But the best way to begin is to start small.”

This back-to-basics approach is an ideal way to discover camping’s magic. One of the most approachable methods is car camping, which is as easy as driving up to a site, pitching a tent and cozying up for s’mores in a beautiful environment.

“Camping fosters connection with the natural world,” said Scott Gediman, who grew up camping in Yosemite National Park. A National Park ranger for 32 years, he’s spent 26 in Yosemite. “If you’re camping, you’re fully immersed in nature. You’re there for sunset and sunrise, hearing birds sing and seeing animals.”

In Yosemite, Gediman has witnessed camping’s growing popularity. According to the 2022 North American Camping Report sponsored by Kampgrounds of America, 56.9 million U.S. households went camping at least once last year, up from about 42 million in 2019. Of those households, 9.1 million were first-timers, and 56 percent prefer tent camping.

Interested in giving it a shot? Here are some tips to get you started.

Keep it simple

“Especially your first time, simplify as much as you can,” Gediman said. “If you have a site and are familiar with your gear, that’s peace of mind and less to worry about, so you can concentrate on having fun and enjoying the surroundings.”

Planning is the key to success. First, identify your goals and itinerary, keeping weather in mind. Then, select a local campground for one or two nights.

Gediman recommended consulting recreation.gov, a one-stop source for all federal land destinations and activities, including more than 113,000 individual sites and more than 4,200 recreation areas that are gateways to national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, lakes and more; its Trip Builder tool helps travelers discover locations and activities along a route. ReserveAmerica lists nearly 290,000 sites. The Dyrt offers bookings and more than 1 million reviews. Hipcamp, the world’s largest provider of outdoor stays, provides access to more than 370,000 private and public sites in the United States.

According to the Dyrt’s 2022 Camping Report, nearly half of campers experienced difficulty finding availability last year. Many popular campsites book up quickly, even when reservations open six months in advance. Plan as early as possible, and consider midweek or offseason stays and less-visited parks or private campgrounds. Lotteries, some of which are available at recreation.gov, can give campers the chance to reserve especially competitive sites before traditional booking windows open.

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Beginners should avoid dispersed camping spots outside designated campgrounds, which are often found on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land. With no services and little to no facilities, these areas require more effort and skills. Instead, choose a developed, established campground that offers amenities including potable water, trash services, picnic tables, fire rings, food lockers and shared restrooms. Also check your destination’s website for any necessary permits for popular hikes and activities.

Travel light

To keep things easy, stick with the fundamentals, and don’t overpack. Car camping allows you to bring a spacious tent, so consider a four-person option if there’s two of you. Select a synthetic, three-season sleeping bag rated for temperatures that are colder than you anticipate. Opt for an insulated sleeping pad, not a home air mattress. An established campsite should have a picnic table, but if it doesn’t, bring camp chairs and a table. A lantern or headlamp is also essential.

Gediman advised packing layers of clothing, including for cold and rain (synthetics dry faster than cotton), and ensuring that your shoes are broken in.

“You could go so deep into the weeds with all the different kinds of gear, and expense is also a barrier,” said Arentzen, who leads adventures in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. “But that’s changing, since more places are offering gear borrowing and rentals.”

Many of AMC’s lodges, as well as many of its chapters and offices throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, have gear-lending libraries; other outdoor groups and universities do, too. Outfitters including Xscape Pod and Arrive Outdoors ship individual items and all-inclusive rental sets, with the latter’s starting at about $50 per day. REI locations provide similar options, with sets starting at $114 for the first day and $27 for subsequent days for members.

Local swaps, used gear stores and REI offer pre-owned equipment. For new bargains, try REI Outlet and Steep & Cheap. If you purchase any items, Arentzen advises storing them in a box that’s ready to go from the closet to the car.

“It’s so easy to want to get every gadget, but camping isn’t about the gear,” Gediman said. “It’s a fun opportunity to reassess what you really need.”

What to eat

Plan simple meals in advance, making sure to remember any spices, cooking oils and utensils. At an established camp, you can prepare fresh foods, so pack any perishables in a cooler with ice. Freeze-dried or dehydrated foods are available even for specific dietary needs; Outdoor Herbivore offers plant-based options. Clear plastic bins are handy for organization and as wash tubs.

Even if your campsite has a fire ring, it might lack a grate; a one- or two-burner propane stove is easier to use. (Don’t forget fuel and waterproof matches.) Camping cook sets are affordable rentals or purchases, and they include pots, pans, plates and silverware. Also bring a cutting board, aluminum foil, a scrubbing pad and towel. Ensure that your campground has potable water or bring your own, including extra.

Critter-proof your campsite by keeping it clean and properly stashing food and scented products, such as toothpaste, in lockers, which are provided at many sites and are especially crucial in bear country.

Stay safe and comfortable

Before you depart, leave your itinerary with a loved one. A custom map, downloaded from Google Maps or an outdoors app such as OnX, will help navigate even offline for areas that don’t have cell service. When you arrive, set up your tent on level ground, away from cooking and campfire areas, and avoid pitching it under dead trees or branches.

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If you’re camping with children, Gediman suggests involving everyone with setup, food preparation and water procurement. Plan for fun activities: Join a ranger walk; bring a Frisbee, bicycles or games; or pack binoculars for respectfully watching birds and wildlife. Some identification apps, such as Seek by iNaturalist, work offline.

Campgrounds and trails may have pet-specific rules, so review any in advance, and ensure that pets can adventure with you. Bring their food, water, leashes, waste bags, towels and a pet medical kit in addition to your own first-aid kit.

Getting dirty is part of the fun, but biodegradable soap, hand sanitizer, toilet tissue and a towel are essential alongside your toiletries, sunscreen, bug repellent and anti-itch cream.

Camp responsibly

Wherever you’ve pitched your tent, follow “leave no trace” principles. Avoid trampling vegetation, and don’t wander off the trails. Follow fire restrictions, purchase local firewood to avoid introducing pests to an area, and build any campfire in an appropriate area (and fully extinguish it).

Bring reusable water bottles and, if you haven’t rented a set, reusable plates and silverware. Minimize the amount of food packaging that campgrounds must truck to landfills. Place trash and gray water into designated receptacles, and try to leave your camp area better than you found it.

Embrace misadventures

Preparation is important, but spontaneity and patience for inevitable mishaps will allow you to appreciate your learning curve.

“I still have so many moments and trips that don’t go right, and that’s a big part of what I love about camping,” said Arentzen, who also celebrates the transformation that first-timers experience in nature. “At the beginning of the trip, they’re full of anxiety or trepidation, and by the end, they’ve discovered that they’re stronger and more capable than they thought.”

Williams is a writer based in Oregon. Her website is erinewilliams.com.


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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