When I asked for suggestions for topics for my Wednesday posts of special interest to vandwellers, vagabonds, rubber tramps, nomads, and travelers of all kinds, my friend Laura-Marie of the dangerous compassions blog suggested I write about the basics of camping. Good idea! Camping season is upon us, so today I’ll share the steps for finding a camping spot, setting up your equipment, having a great time, and packing up to go home.
#1 Decide where you want to camp. Do you want to camp close to home, or do you want to visit a different region? Do you want to camp in a campground or hike into the back country? Do you want to camp at the beach or on top of a mountain? Do you want to camp in a forest or in a desert? Do you want to be in a remote, quiet location or close to civilization? Answering these questions will help you decide where to camp. (If you decide to camp in a forest, desert, or on top of a mountain, see my blog posts “How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest,” “10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Dessert,” or “Managing in the Mountains” for more tips for a pleasant camping experience.)
#2 Decide on the amenities you need a campground to provide. Do you want to rough it in a place with no amenities or stay some place with running water, electricity, hot showers, and flush toilets? Do you want to stay in a yurt with real beds? Will you be pitching a tent or staying in your motorhome, travel trailer, or 5th wheel? Do you need to take a hot shower every morning? Do you gag at the thought of using a pit toilet? Do you want to hike, fish, or collect rock specimens during your trip? The answers to these questions will also help you choose the right camping spot for you.
#3 Do research online before you hit the road. If you want to camp for free, check out both the Free Campsites and Campendium websites. These websites list free and cheap campsites across the USA and include reviews from people who’ve actually stayed in those places. Many of these camping spots are in primitive camping areas on public land, so be ready to boondock and meet all your own needs. (Not sure what it means to boondock? See my post “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers.”)
National parks, forests, and monuments often offer developed campgrounds. You can get information about and make reservations for your stay at these campgrounds at Recreation.gov. National forest campgrounds typically do not offer showers but often do offer pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings. Campgrounds in national parks tend to be a bit fancier and may include running water, hot showers, and flush toilets.
If you want to camp at a state park, do an internet search for the parks in the state you’re interested in that have campgrounds. State parks often have amenities like hot showers, picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets, and even visitor centers with educational exhibits. If you need some comforts of home while still enjoying time out in nature, a state park campground may be the right choice for you. (New Mexico has fantastic campgrounds in its state parks. You can read my posts about camping at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, Brantley Lake State Park, Rockhound State Park, and Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. You can also read my post about the New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass.)
Another camping option is a private campground. Some private campgrounds cater to Rvs while others have spots for tent camping too. Some private campgrounds prohibit car camping, so if you’re a vandweller, you may want to carry a small tent for just such occasions.
No matter what sort of campground you decide to camp in, make sure it has the amenities you need before you make a reservation or pay a fee. Get as much information as possible online before you make a decision.
#4 Pack everything you need. Where you camp will help determine what supplies you will need. If you’re not bringing an RV, at the very least you’re going to want a tent, food, and water. If you want even a bit of comfort, bring a sleeping bag. For extra comfort, bring a sleeping pad or air mattress to go under your sleeping bag. If you’re going to cook, you’ll need a portable stove, fuel for the stove, pots and pans, utensils, plates, ingredients, cooking oil, spices, etc. If you’re in a spot with no drinking water, you’ll have to bring your own. If there’s no water at all where you’re camping, you’ll have to bring water for washing too.
Other basic necessities: flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries (it’s dark out in nature, even in a campground); tarp to go under your tent; rain gear (just in case); pillow (you can get small ones especially for travel and camping); strong stakes to help hold down your tent; small shovel, hand soap, and toilet paper if you are going to be primitive camping.
(For a very complete list of items useful for camping, see my Checklist of Things to Take on the Road.)
#5 Once you arrive at your general camping destination, find your campsite. If you’re staying in a campground, the camp host will probably assign you a site, or maybe you already picked your site when you made a reservation. Ask the camp host for help finding your site, check your reservation confirmation for your site number, or look for a placard with the name of the person who made the reservation on it. If you’re in a first-come, first-served campground, look for a site that’s not too close to the (possibly stinky) pit toilets and not on an obvious incline.
If you’re boondocking, find a spot that’s been camped on before. Look for a place where the groundcover has been disturbed or where there is a fire ring made of stones.
No matter where you are camping, you want a nice flat spot for your tent. (Creeping downhill all night because your tent is pitched on uneven ground is a special kind of hell.) Make sure you aren’t pitching your tent on top of bumpy tree roots. When you find a spot that seems workable, look up. You don’t want a branch falling on your tent in the event of high winds Once you’ve found a flat spot with no dangerous branches overhead, clear away any sticks and rocks. (Another special kind of camping hell is finding you’re sleeping on top of rocks, sticks, and roots.)
#6 Pitch your tent. For a complete step-by-step guide (with pictures!) to setting up (and taking down) your tent, see the WikiHow article on the subject, but for your convenience, I’ll hit the high points here.
- Practice setting up your tent before your trip. This step is especially important if you won’t arrive at your camping spot until after dark. This will also allow you to make sure all of the tent components are present.
- Once you’re on your campsite and have picked a place for your tent, unpack and lay out all the items you will need to set up the tent. These items include the tent itself, rain-fly, ground cloth or tarp, tent poles, stakes, guy lines, and a mallet or rock for pounding in stakes.
- Lay out the tarp or ground cloth where you want the tent to be. The ground cloth will help protect the tent floor from tears and punctures and keep it dry. This bottom layer should be as big (or nearly so) as the bottom of your tent.
- Lay the tent over the ground cloth.
- Assemble all the tent poles.
- Put the poles through the sleeves on top of the tent. Beware: With some tents, poles of different sizes go into specific sleeves.
- Once the poles are in place, the bottoms of the poles must be attached to the bottom of the tent. Look for pouches at the bottom of the tent the poles can fit into or metal pins attached to the tent that slide into the hollow end of the poles. As the poles go into place, the roof of the tent should lift off the ground
- If the tent has clips used to hold its fabric close to the poles, snap the clips over the poles.
- The bottom of the tent should have loops through which the stakes go. Put the stakes through the loops, then pound the stakes into the ground using your mallet or a rock.
- Stretch out your guy lines and stake then down. You want your guy lines to be taut but not overstretched. Staking the guy lines will help the tent stand properly and will help the zippers slide smoothly.
- Attach the rain-fly if your tent has one. You may want to leave the rain-fly off on a clear night, but if there is any chance of rain, put it on. Trust me, you do not want to go outside in a thunderstorm to attach your rain-fly.
#7 Set up your kitchen. Your kitchen will be one of the mostly highly trafficked areas of your camp. If your campsite has a picnic table, that’s a logical place for your kitchen.
If you’re camping in bear country, you’ll need to take some extra precautions. In the book Bear Aware, author Bill Schneider offers an entire chapter detailing camping in bear country. One of the most important tips he shares is to separate your sleeping and cooking areas. If food smells attract bears, you want them as far away from sleeping people as possible.
“The sleeping area and the cooking area must be separated by at least 100 yards,” Schneider advises.
Also, he says be prepared to “hang everything that has any food smell” or store those items (including trash, toothpaste, sunscreen, lotion, etc.) in bear canisters.
#8 Keep a clean camp. Food and garbage lying around can attract flies, rodents, raccoons, ravens, and bears. Of course, you don’t want to tangle with bears, but even smaller animals can create a huge mess by dragging food and garbage all over your campsite. Flies carry disease, and no one wants to get sick while they’re supposed to be enjoying trees and birdsong. For more information about dealing with wildlife while camping, check out the great article “How to Keep Animals Out of Your Campsite” on the Camping Cooks website.
If you’re in a campground, dispose of trash in garbage cans or dumpsters regularly. Be sure you close garbage containers securely. If you’re camping in a place with no trash containers, tie garbage bags and stow them securely in your vehicle until you can pack out what you’ve packed in.
#9 Once your camp is set up, you’re going to want to relax and enjoy yourself. Most campers love to sit around a campfire, maybe roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. Of course, before this fun can begin someone has to build a campfire. If there’s already a fire ring on your campsite, use it. Otherwise, build one with stones. Do NOT start a fire on bare ground. Also, you need a source of water, a bucket, and a shovel on hand at all times during your fire building and enjoyment.
If you are allowed, gather wood from around your campsite. Sort your wood according to size. Even if you’ve brought firewood, gather small sticks and dry leaves and needles for tinder if you are allowed to do so.
Place some tinder in the middle of the fire ring. Use sticks less than one inch around to build a teepee-like structure over the tinder. Shove balled up paper in between the sticks. Once the framework is built, light the balled up paper. You need to start your fire small, then add larger pieces of wood. Once the fire is burning strongly, you can add larger pieces. You can get more information about building a safe campfire from Smokey Bear.
Had your campfire fun and now you’re ready to go to bed? Make sure your campfire is DEAD OUT. Any time you leave your campsite, any fires must be DEAD OUT. Smokey Bear can tell you how to do this too, but briefly, pour lots of water on your fire or stir sand or dirt into the embers to bury the fire. Smokey says,
If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.
#10 When it’s time to go home, break camp.
Make sure any rain or dew on your tent has dried completely before packing. If your tent is damp when you put it away, you will have to set it up again at home so it can dry, or you run the risk of unpacking a stinky, moldy mess next time you go camping. Pack up the tent in the reverse order of setup.
Clean up your campsite. Practice the leave no trace rule of camping where you remove every hint of your presence. Pick up all trash, including microtrash. Put all trash in trashcans, or if none are available, pack out what you packed in. Don’t leave any trash in fire rings. Be a good campground steward and leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.
If you piled up rocks, sticks, leaves or pine cones before you set up your tent, spread those materials out over the big bare patch where your tent sat.
If you built a fire ring, take it apart after you have determined that the fire is DEAD OUT. Disperse the rocks and ashes so their presence cannot be detected.
Don’t leave any belongings behind. Get everyone in your party to do a final walk through of the campsite to make sure everything brought has been packed up.
I hope you had a great camping experience! What did you learn that I left out? Share your camping tips in the comments below.
There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every situation one might encounter on a camping trip. Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you or protect you from every danger you might encounter in nature. You are responsible for our own self! Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp before you get there. If you plan to camp on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land, call the field office or ranger station responsible for that place and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!