Camping for the First Time: What Basics Do You Need?
What Is Camping?
In my opinion, it's not really camping if you bring your portable TV, radio, playing cards, and just sit in the campsite listening to ball games, playing cards, watching TV, or playing with electronic game devices.
You can do all of those things at home. Camping is for a change of scene; for doing different things than you can do at home.
For one thing, you won't have electrical outlets for charging your devices. Most campgrounds disallow generators, and the ones that do allow them are pretty much set up only for the RV crowd. And--you don't want to run down your car's battery by using chargers that plug into the power port.
Before You Set Out to go Camping
If you've never been camping before, there are a few things to keep in mind, and prepare for. First would be to research the area you want to travel to, and second, what items you will need. The second list could be long or short, depending on how many in your family, and how long you will be staying.
If you have been before, but perhaps you had a bad experience with a school or scout camping trip, and have cold feet about it, you might be more comfortable with practicing the set up at home in your own back yard. However, for it to feel like real camping, you have to "outlaw" any kind of electronics. No TV, no radio, no cell phones, no video games, etc.
This way, you'll easily find out what you didn't need; and more importantly, what you may have forgotten that you absolutely need, but while it's easy to get hold of. If you want a true test, then you have to pretend that you are miles from home, and figure out a workaround.
But What if I Forget Something?
Forgetting stuff: it happens even to experienced campers. Trust me; I've been down that road more than once!
One time, I'd gone camping alone for a weekend to escape the teenage angst my daughters were going through. I needed a break to have some peace and quiet. Just a weekend, so I packed lightly: too lightly!
I found myself heading for the shower with a few dishtowels instead of my beach towel, which I'd forgotten to pack. It was not an efficient way to dry off. Forgotten items are very rarely a trip-killing disaster, it's usually just an inconvenience.
Where do You Want to Go?
Your first task is to decide where your camping vacation will be. Do you prefer mountains and lakes? Beaches? Forests and streams? Desert? Make that choice first, with how far you are willing to travel also kept in mind.
If you have small children (or teenagers, for that matter), you don't want to be driving for hour upon boring hour to arrive at your destination. For a first time trip, I'd suggest to stay fairly close to home, not more than two hours out, and on a normal weekend, not a big holiday. You don't need all the crowds and hubbub for your first time.
If you go on the off season, which means while the kids are still in school, a weekend will be a nice, quiet getaway before the summer crowds arrive. Naturally, some areas are not open in the off season, due to weather conditions, and that's another thing to think about.
Keep in mind that many, if not most state parks and recreation areas now require reservations, and they are mandatory at national parks. This is especially true in the peak season. For off-season use, it is best to call and inquire. You can go to the "Reserve America" site to find a directory of campsites. This is a comprehensive list covering all states nationwide. Reservations are made from there by clicking the appropriate links: the individual parks do not handle making reservations.
Once you have decided where you want to go, map out and plan your drive, departure from home, and arrival time at the campground. If you are heading into the mountains, remember that once you are off the freeway, winding mountain roads have lower speed limits, and it will take longer to get where you are going.
You don't want to arrive late in the afternoon, because setting up a tent in the dark or semi-dark by flashlight is not fun. It happened to me once, and the result was one of the tent pegs going right down an ant hill! It was only discovered the next morning, when we got up and found the tent covered in ants! Yes, we moved the tent!
In the mountains, with dense forest canopy, it gets quite dim well before the sun has actually set, so plan to arrive not later than noonish. That way, you're all set up, and have time to relax from the drive, and scout out the area for any amenities.
Minimum Needs For a Weekend Trip
Let's assume for a moment, that you have decided upon your destination, researched the availability of campsites and travel time. Now, you just have to pack. But what should you bring?
Years and years ago, I used to think that "be prepared" meant to bring everything you might possibly need in any situation. Not so. That leads to over packing and making things too complicated. Rather, to be prepared means to have some dual purpose items, as well as being able to be flexible and improvise if something has been forgotten.
- One change of clothes for every family member; two if very young kids are involved
- Towels; one per person
- Roll of toilet paper
- Sleeping bag for each person
- Padding of some kind to go under the sleeping bags
- Flashlights; one per person, plus battery lantern for inside tent
- Cooking and eating utensils; keep it simple with one fry pan and one saucepan and a couple of serving spoons; coffeepot for hot water
- One plate per person, and one set of knife, fork, spoon per person
- Easy-to-prepare food, such as freeze-dried and 'just add water' mixes
- Covered pail for fresh water
- Plastic dishpan for washing dishes
- Propane lantern for outdoors
- A small first-aid kit
To Elaborate on the List Above...
- A single change of clothes is fine for the adults; you may need more if very young kids are involved, for sure as the moon rises and the sun sets, at least one will manage to face-plant in the dirt, fall into a creek and get wet and muddy, or spill food on themselves. You know your own kids best, so judge by that. (One of mine definitely tended to be a walking mudball!)
- The same goes for towels--one each should suffice, unless you have those "accident" prone kiddos. (I love water, and my childhood specialty was "accidentally-on-purpose" falling into a creek.)
- You want to simplify with your soap. Choose a multi-purpose one that can be used for washing up yourself as well as your dishes. The original blue "Dawn" brand is good for this, as it's gentle, and biodegradable. (It's the one rescue groups use to bathe animals caught in oil spills.) Divvy it up into small plastic bottles, one apiece, and keep the larger original bottle for dishwashing.
- Beginner-suitable campgrounds do have bathroom facilities with flush toilets, sinks, and often also showers. However, sometimes the TP has run out, so bring a bit with you on your trip to the loo, just in case.
- You want a sleeping bag for each person. If you and hubby want a dual zip-together bag arrangement, you'll need a bag each, but be sure they are the same style and brand, or the 'zip together' feature may not work.
- You want some kind of padding between you and the ground. Even in a tent, only the tent fabric comes between you and the ground. An air mattress is a great choice, but so is a self-inflating pad that doesn't require pumping up. Or, you can just use a couple of old blankets folded up underneath. You know your own comfort level.
- Make sure your tent is large enough for your family. In general, choose a size at least one larger than you think you need.
- Each person should have their own flashlight, including the kids. For the adults, to see where you are going, or look for something inside the tent. For young kids, they can be a comfort, like a night light. Don't forget extra batteries!
- For cooking, you'll need a simple camp stove, just two burners should be adequate, for all you may need to do is use a saucepan or frying pan and a serving utensil or two. A metal coffeepot is good to have for heating water; you can have instant coffee, hot chocolate, instant oatmeal, or tea, as well as warm water for cleanup.
- For plates, one per person, and I prefer plastic plates, as metal ones make the food cool off way too fast. It cools off fast anyway in the outdoors, but metal plates make it worse; plus, when the food is still hot, you can burn your fingers on the plate under the food, only to have it too cold to enjoy moments later. (For your very first trial, you might even want to just use heavy-duty paper plates and disposable forks, etc.)
- Food should be ridiculously simple to prepare, such as freeze-dried whole meals and other just-add-water mixes. To make it even easier, make dinner your only hot meal; use cold cereal (or instant oatmeal if you want warm food) for breakfast, and sandwiches for lunch. Peanut butter is great, but (take my word for it), leave the jelly home; it will manage to travel onto everything in camp, not only making a sticky mess but also attracting undesirables such as ants, bees, and possibly worse.
- At campsites suitable for beginners, fresh water is piped into the campground, but not usually at each individual campsite. So, you want to fill a pail to have handy at camp, and be sure to have a bungee cord or piece of rope to tie the lid on, so raccoons won't get in and contaminate your water supply.
- A propane lantern is a good thing to have for evenings outdoors. They throw about a 100 foot circle of light, so you can sit at the table and chat or play old-fashioned games with the kiddos until it's time to tuck them in. Never, ever take this kind of lantern inside the tent, however, as that is very dangerous.
- For first aid: don't try to bring an entire clinic along. A few band-aids, gauze pads and adhesive tape, a small pair of scissors, tweezers for splinters, and some antibiotic ointment should do you just fine.
Playing at Being Pioneers?
If you've never been camping at all in your life, you may have any number of reasons why, ranging from not having had the opportunity to something as simple as disliking dirt.
No matter. It is something everyone should try at least once. If nothing else, it is an excellent disaster preparedness skill to have. Those who know how to survive minus modern conveniences have the best chance of coming out on the other side of any disaster.
Meanwhile, you can think of it as playing pioneer, and imagine your vehicle as a covered wagon. Getting out into the elements of nature is a healthy and wholesome activity. It can re-charge your personal spiritual batteries and energize you in a way that is difficult to explain.
© 2011 Liz Elias