A Beginner's Guide to Camping

Here is a brief primer on a wonderful nature-based form of travel.

large red and blue tent is set up in tree-filled woods with sunlight filtering in

Treehugger / Dan Amos

So you want to start camping? You're not the only one. Interest in camping has surged over the past year, as it's one of the few ways to travel safely and close to home, while still feeling like you've had a real vacation. It's good for kids, rejuvenating for parents, and free from the usual anxieties over virus transmission.

Booking site Pitchup.com saw record-breaking website traffic last year as people scrambled to find a way out of their homes. Founder Dan Yates told Treehugger in November that the site had already seen a 284% increase in the number of bookings for 2021. I believe it: A friend trying to book an annual trip to Ontario's Bruce Peninsula National Park was more than 22,000th in line this week when online bookings finally opened for the summer season.

Camping does, however, require a certain degree of skill – or at least an awareness of what's required to spend a few days in the wilderness, away from the amenities of home. Do yourself a favor by familiarizing yourself with these skills before heading out. That way, you're more likely to be successful, enjoy yourself, and not have to deal with any emergencies.

As an experienced camper, I'd like to share my thoughts on a progressive camping "program" of sorts that could take you from backyard to backpacking and more. (To be clear, I'm talking only about tent camping, not traveling with an RV, as I have no experience with that.)

Camp at Home

multiple tents are scattered around small white house out in the country

Treehugger / Dan Amos

If you've never camped before, spend a night or two in your backyard. That way, you have an easy exit strategy if things go awry. This is a perfect chance to test the waterproofness of your tent, the reliability of your stove, the comfort of your air mattress.

Even experienced campers do this. My husband took his new winter sleeping bag out onto the porch for a few hours of sleep at -4 F in February. He came back inside around 2 a.m., pleased that he had stayed warm the whole time but saying he should have worn a hat. No doubt, he'll remember one next time he goes winter camping.

closeup of two marshmallows being roasted over open fire while camping
The best part of camping is, arguably, making s'mores over an open fire.

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Backyard camping is a good introductory experience for kids, too, who will be so excited at the prospect of camping out that they probably won't care that it is right in their own backyard. It gets them comfortable with the tent and sleeping bag.

This is a good time to familiarize yourself with the seven principles of Leave No Trace and to make a detailed list of all the things you use in a 24-hour period. Based on that, determine what gear you'll buy, borrow, or rent for a trip away from home. Start the list well in advance and add to it as you think of important items. 

Go Car Camping

busy, tree-filled campsite filled with cars and tents with people milling about

Treehugger / Dan Amos

The next step is to book a site at a drive-in campground. The beauty of car camping is that you can take everything but the kitchen sink — though, you can take that anyway in basin form. You can enjoy luxuries like comfy chairs, a cooler (and ice-cold beers), outdoor toys for the kids, a playpen for babies, a cast-iron frying pan for making gourmet pizzas or whatever you crave over the fire, a tarp or bug tent, musical instruments, and so much more. 

Car campgrounds have bathrooms with flush toilets and hot showers (bring flip-flops). They may have protected shelters for eating meals, communal washing sinks for doing dishes, and electrical outlets for charging phones — but consider turning it off for a much-needed tech detox. They always sell firewood that's safe to burn in a given location; you should never bring firewood from outside a region, as this can transport unwanted insects and wood-borne diseases.

You don't have to worry about hanging food in a tree to keep it away from bears or keeping stuff dry in the case of rain; everything just goes into the car at the end of the night, which makes it quite low-stress.

Try a Hiking Trip

guy with blue camping backpack inspects map while hiking in the woods

Treehugger / Dan Amos

The next level of camping is hiking to a more remote spot. Everything you take has to be carried in a backpack, which forces you to pare down what you need to an absolute minimum. You may want to opt for a single destination, i.e. hiking in and staying at the same site for a night or two before hiking out, rather than packing up and walking every day.

If you book a site through a national, state, or provincial park, it may still have rudimentary amenities, such as an outhouse, fire pit, and possibly a raised platform on which to pitch a tent.

Hiking trips are the easiest to do with friends or family who can share the load of camping gear. Instead of everyone carrying their own tent, stove, and water filtration system, one or two of these can be divided among packs, freeing up space for food.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having brought too much gear or ending up with broken gear, never leave it behind. Apparently, this was a problem last summer in Algonquin Provincial Park, where a ranger told my husband that cleaning work had increased due to campers abandoning cheap broken gear. Even I was horrified to see several trash-filled garbage bags left at canoe portages, presumably by travelers who felt too lazy to pack it all the way out.

Go on a Canoe Trip

SUV with canoe on top is parked on rocky beach, ready for camping

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Canoe trips are a wonderful way to travel, as long as you're comfortable handling a canoe. There's some hiking involved on the portages that connect lakes but depending on your route, these can be short. It's best to avoid the torturously long portages; they're never fun, especially at peak bug season when you can't slap a biting fly because you have a canoe on your head. 

Like hiking trips, canoe trips require a bit more specialized gear than car camping. You need waterproof packs, a food barrel that can be strung up in a tree, ropes, life jackets, a water filtration system, and all your food because there's nowhere else to get it. A canoe trip requires careful planning of every meal and possible scenario, as well as hard copies of the route since your phone might die. You should rent a lightweight canoe that's specially designed for portaging.

You can; however, carry a bit more weight because most of the distance is covered in the boat. On my family's annual canoe trips, I take advantage of this by packing gourmet meals (wine included) that make hanging around the campsite more pleasurable.

Final Thoughts

guy sitting on log at campsite next to open fire takes big bite into burger

Treehugger / Dan Amos

However you choose to travel, one of the best things you can do if you're new to camping is to go with a more experienced friend. That way you'll learn how it's done — and hopefully, be able to share your friend's gear — before venturing out on your own. You'll also get a better sense of the gear you need to buy if you plan on making camping trips a regular thing.

As for gear, it never pays to buy cheap stuff. Save up for high-quality goods that will last and can be repaired. It may seem expensive upfront, but camping gear quickly pays for itself if it means fewer nights in hotels or meals in restaurants. My husband and I sometimes give each other (and our kids) camping gear as birthday and Christmas gifts; my parents gave us air mattresses and sleeping bags for my university graduation present, and we've been using them for a decade.

Camping is not difficult. Anyone can do it and learn to love it. If you put in the time organizing and planning properly, you'll be able to relax fully once you're out.