Before anything else, I want to begin by saying that the best way to survive in the wild as a newbie is to bring a lot of the comforts of the indoors with you. This isn’t about backpacking through the Pacific Crest Trail – it’s about finding a fun and stress-free way to enjoy your first camping experience.
No Idea What We’re Doing?
I didn’t camp as a child. Although my family enjoyed a day at the beach or picking strawberries in a field, we just weren’t “outdoors overnight” people. Though I loved the outdoors and grew up (predominantly) in the countryside, I wasn’t sure what to do when it came to camping. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn when I finally ventured out into the camping world.
I expect that’s true for a lot of us. It seems that millennials are more interested in camping than their predecessors, which can only mean one thing: there are more clueless people like me wandering around without knowledge of the outdoors because, well, our parents never taught us.
To make matters worse, I was camping with my husband who also hadn’t been camping before, and we had two kids to take care of in the midst of it all! So, if you’re a little weary of your first camping experience, let me tell you, you’re not alone. Even better, though, I can help walk you through some of the basics to get you off to a running start.
Why You Should Camp at a Campground
I love the idea of going out into the wild backcountry as much as the next adventure seeker, but let me tell you, that just isn’t the best first step when it comes to camping.
A lot of people like to challenge themselves in “sink or swim” situations, but when it comes to camping in the wild you may quickly find that your “sink” situation is a lot different from “sinking” at a new work project or moving to a different city.
Now, don’t panic, I doubt you’ll experience an emergency. I just know, firsthand, how comforting it is to know that I’m not really “alone” in the wild when I can get a signal on my phone.
The Key to a Good Night’s Sleep
My biggest complaint about camping (actually, my only complaint) has always revolved around sleep. It’s peculiar, really, to be unable to sleep in the wild. After all, it’s quieter and much more peaceful than anywhere else I’ve slept. Some people even listen to soundtracks of the outdoors to help themselves sleep at home.
The problem was never the noise (or lack thereof). It was pain. A sleeping bag on the floor of a tent is a lot less comfortable than I expected it to be thanks to the hard lumpy ground beneath. My best solution? A quality air mattress! We selected a few good ones right here.
The pros and cons of air mattresses can be debated , but they remain my favorite. Some people prefer cots or even foam mats beneath their sleeping bags since they’re a little easier to set up than an air mattress.
I have to say, though, that nothing beats the puffy, air-filled comfort of an air mattress. I also find that the air pockets create a great layer of insulation between me and the cold, damp ground, something mattress pads aren’t as good at. Cots can cause you to lose a lot of body heat in the night, but that can actually be a good thing for some people.
In the end, the perfect option will depend on your own body’s needs. As long as you get yourself up off the ground you should find the entire camping experience more enjoyable.
Planning and Packing Meals
Eric Davis of Camping USA suggests planning out specific meals before leaving. This way, you can avoid packing too much food, the wrong food, and food that will go bad too quickly.
My family often camps somewhere close enough to a grocery store that we can make one drive out of the park during our week to two-week long trip. This allows us to keep more fresh foods on-hand to meet our various dietary restrictions. When we camp further from civilization we try to plan our meals far enough in advance that we can actually pre-cook and freeze a lot of our meals, then simply reheat them on your camp stove or over a fire. This method reduces mess, increases the longevity of our food, and doesn’t leave us dependent on ice supplies at or near the park.
Canning is perhaps an even better method to prepare food. You can use one of the pressure cookers we reviewed here, or do it the old fashioned way with pans.
Three Keys to Well-Planned Camping Meals:
- Buy your food in advance.
- Portion your food in advance.
- Freeze or can your cooked food so you don’t need ice.
Part of planning your meals is also making sure that you bring the necessary cooking equipment with you. Some of you may be thinking, “But I want to challenge myself and cook over an open fire!” That’s great. But it may not work out that way.
Nature is unpredictable. Despite your very best efforts, you may find yourself camping in rainy conditions which aren’t conducive to cooking over a fire. If you want a huge challenge, go ahead and plan to cook over a fire the entire trip.
If you want to be realistic and logical and create the more enjoyable atmosphere possible, plan to cook at least some meals on a cooking stove and bring the right supplies to make that possible. Don’t forget cooking utensils, pots and pans. To keep track of things like this, I suggest using checklists.
Checklists are Your Friends
One thing I learned the hard way is the importance of checklists. I remember watching Full House as a kid and seeing Danny Tanner create lists and itineraries for everything and thinking just how crazy he was. Now that I’m all grown up with a family of my own I see the importance of lists (though maybe not to his obsessive degree).
Creating checklists for things you need to pack is an essential step to surviving while camping. Even if you follow my advice and choose to camp at a campground you may quickly discover that the camp store isn’t always open and may not carry the things you need or want.
Ontario Parks, a provincial campground system in Canada, created a fantastic checklist to get you started – click here to download and print it. Feel free to add and remove items from this list as you form a list more specific to your needs.
Camping Essentials to Bring
To recapitulate and sum-up, here are some of the basic things to think about.
- Matches / Fire Starters
- Contingenct & First Aid Kit
- Emergency Kit (Flare, Whistle)
- Map & Compass
- Pocket Knife
- Sun Protection
- Rain Gear
- High Nutrition Foods
Other Things to Consider
- Practice building a campfire before you need one.
- Learn about the rules of any park you stay in before going.
- Bring an empty container to keep dry wood in.
- Select a sleeping bag that is equipped for your environment.