Going camping for the first time or the fiftieth time need not be an overwhelming project. Tent camping for beginners and novices is actually an easy thing to put together, and an easier activity to have great fun doing. The tricks are to prepare right and then to know what you’re doing before you even get there.
Choose the Right Tent
Pitch your tent at home before you go camping, to make sure you know all the little ins and outs of doing so. Get a tent with a nice big rain fly (the detachable part on top of the tent), not a cute little “hat” of a rain fly on top. You’ll thank yourself if it rains.
Consider how many people will be in the tent. If the tent says it sleeps 4, that means body-to-body with no extra room. If you want room, cut in half what the tent says it sleeps. For a tent that sleeps 4, count on it sleeping only 2 comfortably (and maybe a small child).
Note the height of the tent. If it is 48 or 52 inches high, you won’t be able to stand up in the tent. If you want to be able to walk into your tent, change your clothes comfortably, and sit in a chair in the tent on a rainy day, make sure your tent is at least your own height.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen inexperienced campers having to leave camp because the inside of their tent, all sleeping bags, and most of their clothing is soaking wet. It’s a sad thing to watch, but it need not happen.
First, make sure all of your tent seams are sealed. Read the instructions to your tent and see what sort of sealant and method the manufacturer recommends. If no such information exists, use a tent seam sealant like SeamGrip. Take your tent outside and wash it with water. (Some people recommend using a very mild detergent too, but I think that would negate any waterproof-ness your tent might already have.)
Rinse and let your tent dry outdoors (NOT in a machine). This is a perfect time to pitch your tent and learn what the idiosyncrasies of doing so are. There’s a good guide to seam sealing a tent at Trailspace.com
If you think even a little that you might get rained on, take a tarp. I can’t emphasize that enough. In certain areas of the country I always put a tarp over my tent, even if it is beautiful and sunny. In the mountains and certain areas of the country storms can blow up fast. (This is a good reason to take a weather-band radio with you.)
Tents can and do leak. Throw the tarp over your tent. Anchor it down so that it doesn’t blow away at night in the middle of a storm. There’s a whole article on staying dry when camping here.
All diets are off when it comes to camping, especially for camping beginners. Take your favorite food with you when you go camping. Celebrate food. Have coffee, eggs and bacon in the morning (I love the smell of bacon outdoors). Make extra-special sandwiches to take on a hike in the afternoon. For dinner, have steak or chicken barbecued over a grill. Some campgrounds have grills, but I recommend you take a small grill for barbecuing. And for dessert, take something scrumptious. Or make S’Mores over the fire.
Entertain the Kids
Plan ahead for how you are going to keep your children entertained. Especially in this day and age, with video games and cell phones, children often don’t know how to entertain themselves.
You can require that they leave their electronic gizmos at home, but if you do, be sure you prepare. Plan each day so that they don’t have time to complain about being bored. Check out the local area in advance so that you know where to take them and what to do – hikes, tours, local attractions, museums, train rides, ranger talks… your options are endless.
Also, take things along for them to do in camp. No, I don’t mean a lot of chores, although having them help out with cooking, washing dishes, making the campfire (they love that one), gathering wood, etc. will help keep them busy.
Involve your children in planning the trip, too. The more input they have into what they will be doing, the less likely they are to complain about doing it.
First, make sure the sleeping bags you are taking will be warm enough. Sleeping bags have temperature ratings, but don’t always rely on them to be accurate. Allow ten degrees less than the tag says for a guideline.
Take more jackets, sweatshirts, and shoes than you think you will need. Even if it is hot where you live, remember the mountains or beach can get quite chilly.
If you are going to a regular campground, there will probably be picnic tables. My advice: take a chair. They are much more comfortable than a wooden plank with no back support. You can read better in a chair, nap in a chair, and just chill out better in a comfy chair. Watch the sales – you can get a chair for under $10.
Definitely bring a cot, pad, or air mattress of some sort for under your sleeping bag. Besides insulating you from the ground, an air mattress adds so much more comfort than the hard ground. If you are in your twenties, sleeping on the hard ground may not seem so bad. But us older people like our comfort.
There’s nothing more relaxing than sitting around a campfire at night, talking with your friends or family. Be sure to buy your wood before you head out to a campground. In National Parks you are not allowed to collect wood, and that holds true for some other campgrounds as well.
Building a good fire can be tricky. Don’t just put some logs on the ground, throw lighter fluid on it, and try to light a fire. It won’t work. Prepare your fire pit before you put a match to it. Start off with very small sticks, newspaper, or tissues. Then add consecutive layers of slightly larger sticks until you get up to wood that’s about wrist thick. Hopefully you have left a hole in your tipi-shaped fire, where you can easily light the bundle from the bottom. For more details on how to build a tipi fire (the hottest, most fuel efficient fire), go here.
All in all, just think ahead. Imagine yourself at your campground and what you will need. Take a few days to pack so that you don’t forget anything. It’s also a good idea to find a camping checklist online and go by that. Happy camping!