While a trip to Italy is probably not happening, a camping adventure might be feasible in 2020. According to the U.S. Travel Association website, studies show that “6 in 10 Americans are eager to travel again, but will first feel most comfortable participating in outdoor activities and traveling to destinations by car.”
However, many campsites remain closed due to the pandemic, and it’s tough to predict when their status will change.
According to the National Park Service website, parks are following orders from the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local public health authorities when making decisions in “a phased approach to increase access on a park-by-park basis.”
Should you choose to camp, the NPS recommends retreating only with people from your household, maintaining physical distancing when you’re on trails, campsites, boat launches and parking lots, and staying home if you’re feeling sick.
“[Camping] is safer than an indoor activity. But nonetheless, that doesn’t give us an excuse to let down our guard,” said Robert Quigley, the regional medical director for travel risk mitigation company International SOS who holds a PhD in immunology. “Remember, when you camp you usually go to a campground where there are shared facilities, washrooms, showers and so on.”
To get advice on camping for the first time, we called camping expert John Junke Jr., the moderator of Conversations, a digital community for REI — an oasis of camping gear and advice for outdoorsy people.
Pick a camping spot online based on your camping goals
Your camping plans should start by booking a campsite online.
Consider the activities you want to do during your trip. Junke chooses campsites close to hiking trails and swimming spots.
“Narrow down your search to campgrounds that are nearby and have that activity that you’re looking forward to,” Junke said.
Gather your gear meticulously, and focus on warmth
If you’re traveling anywhere during the pandemic, make sure you leave the house with a face mask, hand soap, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to clean common surfaces.
“I would be overly cautious and wipe down every surface that is potentially shared, even among my family,” Quigley said.
For first-time campers, coordinating what gear you’ll need for a trip may be the most daunting part of the experience. Gear will vary dramatically depending on whether you’re car camping, RV camping, backpacking, “glamping” or beach camping. REI has a comprehensive packing list online that will give you a good jumping-off point.
Junke said the most essential items on that list are a sleeping bag and sleeping pad. One of the most common issues novice campers have is underestimating how cold it’ll be at night, even if you’re camping in a place that’s hot during the day.
“You want to make sure that you’re using a sleeping pad that is insulated against the ground in some way, shape or form,” he said. “The ground will just slowly seep the warmth away from you.”
Choose the right tent, and take it for a test run at home
A tent is another camping essential, and if you’re not sure you want to become a regular camper, you can rent one.
When you choose the tent for your trip, make sure you’re getting one that will be comfortable for the number of people that’ll be sleeping inside of it. If it’s described as a four-person tent, that means it fits four sleeping pads and nothing more. Junke recommends getting a tent that’s at least one or two people more than you plan on having inside.
Also note that tents come in a range of heights. If you want to be able to stand up, walk around or change easily, make sure you’re opting for a taller tent.
Though tents are notoriously tricky and cumbersome, Junke said you can tackle assembly and disassembly better by practicing at home or at a camping gear store.
“There’s an adventurer’s credo that says ‘Don’t let the first time be the first time,’ ” Junke said. “Don’t make the moment when you roll into the campsite [be] the moment you unpack it and try to learn how to make it work.”
And once you arrive at your campsite, set up your tent first. Junke said it’ll add extra frustration if you’re trying to pitch it in the dark or when you’re tired before bed.
Plan your meals precisely, but keep it simple
Whether you keep things super simple (i.e. sandwiches around the clock) or go full Francis Mallman with gourmet feasts cooked over live fire, make a thorough list of the meals you want to eat and the tools you’ll need to prepare them.
While you can cook almost anything in a campground that you can cook at home, Junke said it’s fun to have things you normally wouldn’t. His family has a tradition of making Nutella or peanut butter s’mores around the campfire or cooking meat dishes in foil over the fire.
Whatever you do, clean up spotlessly after meals. Follow Leave No Trace etiquette whether you’re cooking, lounging or setting up your camp to make sure your site is just as nice for future visitors.
“You want to have as little impact on the land as you possibly can,” Junke said. “[Leave No Trace] is about taking care of the space that we’re in and making sure that it’s there for many, many more years for others to enjoy as well.”
To keep trash to a minimum, consider reusable cutlery and utensils and silicone bags for food storage and prep instead of disposable paper and plastic options.
Don’t overthink it
With so much to plan, and a lot of information out there, it can feel overwhelming to approach camping as a beginner. But fear not.
“At its fundamental base, [camping is] pretty straightforward,” Junke said. “We’re just going to sleep outside. So we need shelter, we need to stay warm, we’re going to be comfortable and we’re going to have some fun while we do it.”
There’s no such thing as perfect camping. Sometimes you’ll have a seamless trip, other times it could be nothing like you expected. Those hiccups will prepare you for future camping trips — and give you better travel stories to tell.
“There’s no achievement point where you’re like, this is the greatest camping moment,” Junke said. “You learn every single time you go out and you make adaptations to make it better next time.”