In honor of National Camping Month, we’re offering 10 tips to help new campers get the most out of the experience.
These tips are for those going to a public or private campground that offers some basic amenities, including a fire ring, a picnic table, and a flat place for your tent or trailer. We assume you have basics like a tent, sleeping bag, and food and water, and that the campground has running water available at a central location as well as communal bathrooms. In our experience, the campgrounds at national and state parks usually meet these basic requirements, but check in advance to be sure your intended destination does.
Here are the ten things that will make your next camping trip a success:
Firewood. Whether you camp in a tent or the world’s largest RV, you are missing out on the true camping experience if you don’t sit around the campfire at least one night. Now you may think you can gather wood locally, but many campsites have been picked clean by prior campers or there may be park rules against gathering wood. This leaves you two options: pay an inflated price locally for a small bundle of wood or bring some seasoned wood chopped and ready for your fire with you.
Your best bet is to check the campground or park rules ahead of time for any rules or restrictions on fires. In dry country or during droughts or high winds, fires may be prohibited. In that case, it’s hard to beat the old Coleman two-burner stove or one of the numerous other portable camping stoves available. For those who can’t get going in the morning without a cup of coffee, a stove will heat that first pot of water much faster than building a fire from scratch.
Fire Starters. Knowing how to start a fire using primitive means is a great survival skill, but it’s slow and tedious. We recommend that you bring at least two modern fire starters on your next camping trip. Matches are hard to beat, but our favorite is a grill lighter with a long neck. This allows you to direct the flame right where you need it. They are available at most big box stores.We’re going to include tinder as part of this tip. Tinder can be a commercial product like the popular Wetfire Fire Starting Tinder Pack or the Micro Inferno All Weather Fires Sticks, but you can also make your own with dryer lint and wax. Tinder should light easily and burn long enough so that twigs, small pieces of wood or other kindling you pile over it are burning well enough that you can build up your fire from there. Even a couple tightly rolled ball of newspaper will do.
Camping Utensils and Cookware. Cooking over an open flame is quite different from using the stove or a microwave, so you probably will want at least one pot, one frying pan, and maybe an old-fashioned coffee pot that you use only for camping out. A great technique is to set aside old pots and pans when you upgrade, dedicating the old set to camping. Another option would be to invest in some cast iron cookware. In any case, your odds of going camping again increase if you don’t blacken the bottom of mom’s best sauce pan.Add some long-handled spatulas and other utensils designed for grilling out and don’t forget pot-holders and cooking mitts so you can handle your hot cast iron frying pans without burning your hands. For eating, paper plates offer simplicity and ease of use, but re-usable plastic cups and plates may be more environmentally friendly. If you go the latter route, bring a tub and a small bottle of earth-friendly soap so you can wash the dishes and dispose of your dishwater without harming the local flora.Many campgrounds provide a basic fire grate or other equipment that makes cooking over an open fire easier. If your intended destination does not, consider picking up a grate of your own. Being able to adjust how high your pans are above the flame and coals is one secret to great campfire cooking. (Waiting until the flames die down and leave you with a bed of hot coals is another.)
A Flashlight. If you live in an urban area, you may be surprised by how dark it gets out in the country, especially on a cloudy night with no moon. We recommend a good flashlight for each camper. Headlamps are also useful as they do not tie up one of your hands. This makes it easier to do everything from tying your shoe to re-packing your cooler. Don’t forget extra batteries or a solar charger if you are using rechargeable batteries.
A Lantern. Flashlights are great for putting light exactly where you need it, but a lantern casts light where everyone can use it. If you are old school, go with a Coleman lantern, which can generate a huge circle of bright, warm light; just be sure you treat the wick well. If you are investing in new gear, it’s hard to beat some of the multi-LED lanterns on the market for a combination of brightness and run time.Lanterns can be set on or hung above the picnic table, hung outside your camper, or used inside your tent when turned to a low setting. Most can also be carried when you walk; just use caution if yours runs on fuel and has a glass chimney.
Camping Chairs. Yes, you can sit on a rock, a log, the ground, or at a picnic table, but having a folding camping chair or collapsible stool will make your camping experience more comfortable. Available at big box stores, sporting goods stores and online, you should be able to get a decent one in the $10 to $40 range. Chairs sized for kids are also available and recommended for the little ones as it can be hard for them to safely get into and out of an adult-sized chair.
A Hatchet or Camp Axe. You may never use a hatchet at home, but it’s a useful tool at the campsite. Your hatchet is great for driving in tent stakes, and even if you use a trailer, you may still need to drive in stakes for an awning. Heavy enough to drive a sturdy tent stake into the hardest ground, you can also use your hatchet to pry up the stakes when it’s time to head home or move on to the next camp site.
Of course the raison d’être of a hatchet is chopping, and there are plenty of potential uses at a campsite. For example, you may need to split one of your logs into smaller pieces of firewood, or slice a few curls off bark or to make kindling (this is technically known as carving).
Plastic Trash Bags. An obvious use for these would be to pack up your trash, and you’ll probably generate a fair amount, especially if you use disposable dishes and cutlery. A less obvious use is to protect things from getting wet should a sudden shower blow through.Rain can really put a damper on a camping trip, but it will be even worse if all your gear gets soaked. Stashing your pack, your clothes and even your hiking boots in a spare plastic trash bag will help keep them dry. (The bags with draw strings are especially useful for this.) The opposite is also useful – if your clothes are soaked from the rain or your bathing suit is damp from swimming, stash them in a plastic trash bag until you get home. And finally, in a pinch, a large trash bag makes a great rain poncho. Just cut or carefully tear a hole for your head and side holes for your arms.
A Tarp. There are probably 101 uses for a tarp on a camping trip. If you have a tent, you can use an extra tarp to make a large rain fly and create more dry space around your tent. If you are not tent camping, you can turn your tarp into a rain shelter or set it up as an awning. If you need privacy, you can set it up to create a visual barrier. You can use it as a table cloth if the picnic table is filthy. Set up at a 45 degree angle with the slant facing the wind, you can use it to protect your fire and keep it from getting rained out as well as to keep your stack of firewood dry. We recommend at least an 8′ x 10′ or 8′ x 12′ tarp but don’t be shy if you spot a great buy on larger tarp.
Marshmallows. Because no campground experience is complete without roasting some marshmallows over the campfire. It’s a sticky treat kids and adults will remember!