First Camping Trip
Camping,  Outdoors

Camping 101: A Beginner’s Guide to your First Camping Trip

Summer is here, and the great outdoors is yearning to be explored. However, your first camping trip can get a bit daunting to say the least. Between the gear and finding the perfect spot, camping can be intimidating. Have no fear!

As a former Girl Scout and a general lover of all that is camping, I am here to give you my greatest tricks to make sure you nail your first camping trip.

Let me put it straight. There is almost nothing better than sleeping under a perfectly clear sky, especially when the moon is dark, and you can see all of the stars. Not to mention, the smoky smell from that campfire that remains on your clothes remind you of that intoxicating glory of an evening in the great outdoors.

With that said, it’s not always easy to get that picturesque camping trip when you have no idea what you are doing. I get it. From forgotten poles or lack of firewood, my fiancé Robb and I have been through it all.

I’ve frozen my butt of in the rain due to poor planning. Trust me, you don’t want all of your gear wet or you are going to have a bad time.

I’ve even gotten yelled at for camping in the wrong spots. Listen to no camping signs folks, they have them for a reason and they monitor any place that looks like a good spot with a no camping sign. Besides, the reason is usually for your safety or to preserve the land.

With mistakes behind us, Robb and I spend almost every weekend from spring to fall camping in Colorado and Utah. This year, we even got a head start and camped the first weekend of March. For those not aware of Colorado mountain weather, it’s usually covered in snow. It’s been a warm winter this year and we wanted to get that weekend in.

So where do you begin with your first camping trip?

First things first. You need to know where you are going to camp in the first place.

FINDING THE PERFECT CAMPSITE

first camping trip finding a site

It goes without saying that location is key. Your campsite is basically your home for the next day or so and the site can really vary your experience.

The first thing to think about is what type of camping are you trying to do? Do you want accommodations? Are you trying to get out to the middle of nowhere? And yes, even a new camper can find a spot that is far away from civilization. I brought my friends to a pretty cool spot in southern Utah on Memorial Day Weekend and they did great!

I generally break these types of campsites into several different categories.

  1. Glamping/ KOA
  2. National Park / State Park
  3. Paid campsites
  4. Paid dispersed campsites
  5. BLM dispersed campsites
  6. Backpacking / Hike in campsites

Each of these different types of camping have their pros and cons. For instance, a paid site may have great accommodations but are often near other campers and may be filled during popular times.

I go over each of these in my story here: How to Find the Perfect Campsite.

This can really make or break your vacation.

DON’T FORGET TO CHECK THE WEATHER

First Time Camping Weather

As you’d imagine with the great outdoors, weather is variable. Like I mentioned earlier, rain can really impact your camping experience, especially if you aren’t prepared to deal with this.

Take all of the guess work out and check the weather. I like to use weather.gov since it gives a more extensive report and you can search the national parks directly. They often will give a report on how the day will progress as well.

Rain

In Colorado mountains, you can almost always expect a bit of rain. If it isn’t predicted for the whole day, you can usually wait it out. Just make sure your tent and site is prepared with tarps and a rain fly.

I always bring at least two tarps. One goes on the floor of my tent to prevent water from sinking in and the other can be an easy makeshift overhang with a bit of rope.

One thing to note is that I usually put the tarp inside the tent since you don’t want anything the hang past the tent or it could pool and get your tent floor soaked. Your tent floor doesn’t do much for stopping this, so I’d rather make sure there isn’t any pooling by keeping it inside.

Heat

Another thing to keep in mind is heat. It may seem a bit more manageable, but it does get not fun fast if you are baking in the sun. Wear your sunscreen and bring plenty of water.

This is also a great use for that second tarp. Much like how it can stop the rain, it can also double as a shade. Just don’t forget the rope. You don’t really need to know how to tie the fanciest knots to be able to string up a tarp. Just have enough rope to let you string it up to the nearest tree, car, or whatever. You’ll thank me later.

Wind

First Camping Trip Wind
RIP to my poor canopy pictured above.

Oh, how I often forget this one. During Moab, we lost our canopy to the great windstorm of the deserts. I mean, the thing was completely destroyed. No worries about me. We have a new one on the registry.

But this leads me to a very important point. Don’t forget to check about the wind. If it’s going to be windy, you might need to pack down your tent in a sturdier manor. Make sure everything is staked down and bring extra. Think about keeping things in the car rather than laid out at your campsite.

Oh, and since I’m sure you don’t want to spend your first camping trip with dirt blowing in your eyes, bring some kind of eye protection, like glasses or goggles and a handkerchief for your face.

You can also invest in windproof gear like cups like these, but it’s up to you. I will say though, these bad boys did not knock over during a relentless windstorm at Goblin Valley, so it was worth the purchase.

Extreme Conditions

I’m lumping everything else together since it might simply be a good idea to find a region with better weather or skip your trip if this is going on. I’m talking about extreme snow, hail, lightning, tornados, fires, or whatever. It can get dangerous out there and especially for first time campers, it isn’t advised.

Not all is lost. During these conditions, we might drive hours to different regions or even states to get better weather. No one wants to ruin a camping trip with unsafe conditions.

FIRE BUILDING AND RESTRICTIONS

One of the first things that people think of when camping is that campfire. The crackling warmth, soft glow, and campfire smells can give anyone the outdoor feels. However, there are some things to note when building a fire.

First, you need to make sure it is even legal where you are camping. Due to unconditionally dry springs and winters, wild fires can be rampant during the summer. To check to see if there is any fire restrictions, look up what county you are planning on being in and search their webpage for restrictions. I usually go off of my state’s webpage but you usually can get the info by simply googling fire restrictions and your state.

Fire restrictions are usually categorized into different levels. Here is what they are in Colorado brought to you by state laws. Since every state is different, I recommend that you look on your own state’s website. This also may be different if you are reading this from another county.

RELATED: How to Camp without a Campfire

Another thing to note is that it is good etiquette to reuse a fire ring already made if you are at a primitive site or a site without amenities.

Since Robb usually is tasked building a fire pit and I don’t have an article on it yet, I’m linking this story from REI’s Expert Advice column to give you the run down on making a fire. As a disclaimer, I am not an affiliate with them nor am I endorsing any products. I just believe this is a great run down on how to make campfires which you will probably need your first camping trip.

WHAT TO EAT ON YOUR FIRST CAMPING TRIP

First Camping Trip Cooking Burgers

Now that you have the spot picked out and you are prepared for the weather, it’s time for all the fun stuff. FOOD!

I love food. I am one of those ladies that spend a good twenty minutes or so building a beautiful cheese platter in the desert. I’m still proud of it guys.

Anyways, you can go a few different routes with cooking while camping.

  1. Traditional camping food
  2. Gourmet food
  3. Survival food
  4. A mix of any of these

Since I camp almost every weekend, I generally go with gourmet cooking that I normally would do at home, but it is fun to have at least one classic camping meal per trip. By that I mean hot dogs on a stick, foil packets, omelets in a bag, S’mores, you know the stuff that makes your feel like a kid.

As for gourmet, I’ve made luxury sandwiches using smoked salmon or fancy cheeses, tacos with avocados, jerk chicken, steak kabobs, whatever. Basically, I like to BBQ at the same levels that I’d do at home.

To do this, you will need to have an alternate cooking source. I bring a stove and a small BBQ. Fires aren’t always reliant as a heat source for your food and you don’t want to be left out in the dark if the fire is just not happening. You can usually find a cheap stove online or at any big box retailer. I got mine for under 20 bucks at Target. Since it’s not particularly unique, I’m not going to recommend a particular brand. I feel that most small propane stoves will do the job. Plus it’s your first camping trip so you really don’t need to buy anything too crazy.

Now if keeping ice cold is a problem, you might need to go more of a survivalist route. This means cooking with non-perishable items.

Don’t worry though. You can still make great meals without refrigeration while camping. Check out my story on gourmet cooking without refrigeration here.

WHAT GEAR SHOULD YOU PACK

One of the most important thing that will make your first camping trip great is to be prepared. How should you be prepared? Bring the right gear.

I’ll tell you, as I’ve been getting more into camping, investing in gear has upped the outdoor game. However, it’s your first trip and you shouldn’t run out to grab a bunch of expensive stuff if you are just starting out. You can easily grab a few basics at your local big box retailer and be good to go.

I’ve made a checklist with a free printable list here. Check it out.

Again, to emphasize being prepared, make sure you bring enough clothes and layers for any type of weather. I personally love this North Face jacket for camping but if you don’t want to buy anything new for your first camping trip, just bring many many layers. I like that jacket since it is super lightweight, keeps your really warm, and waterproof.

Without a waterproof jacket, I highly recommend grabbing a couple of cheap emergency ponchos just in case. If it’s raining out and your gear gets wet, it may be impossible to dry and can get dangerously cold, even if the weather isn’t as low as you’d think. I’d take a small snow storm over a heavy rain because of this. Staying dry is really important.

GET A GREAT NIGHT OF SLEEP WHILE CAMPING

One of the biggest things that make a camping experience better is to make sure that you get a great night of sleep. This isn’t always the easiest thing in the world, but it is possible.

First camping trip poles

First things first, have a tent and all of its poles. I forgot the poles to my tent once. Don’t be like little me. Look at that frown on my young face. It speaks volumes.

Next, get a sleeping pad. I finally invested and got this Big Agnes double sleeping pad and it is life changing. However, it’s your first trip, so you can easily get away with something cheaper to start out. Even a yoga map is better than nothing.

Then, add a sleeping bag or at least some blankets. I like to use blankets because I don’t have an expensive sleeping bag and it works fine, it just might take a bit more room in your car. I also add some pillows from home, but you can use a sweatshirt as a substitute. Once you get used to camping, you might want to upgrade to a higher quality sleeping bag but honestly, I still haven’t. I mostly car camp in ideal weather so it’s not as imperative as the sleeping pad. I’m a millennial getting married in about a month, so I have to prioritize expenses.

Lastly, I always bring an eye mask, ear plugs, and a cap. It will increase your ability to sleep throughout all throughout the night. Heat tends to escape your head, especially if your sleeping bag doesn’t have a hood. A nice beanie can even be pulled over your head if you don’t have an eye mask. It makes a world of difference while sleeping in the outdoors.

I do list a bunch of tips to make your trip more glamorous in my camping to glamping article that you might want to check out before you head out on your first camping trip. Learn more about how I make a luxurious bed in my glamping story here: Glamping: The Ultimate Guide to Glam Up your Campsite.

STAYING HYGIENIC ON YOUR FIRST CAMPING TRIP

I’m sure this is what you are all thinking about. Camping means being away from your perfect bathroom and shower for a few days and being exposed to the elements may make you a bit dirtier than you are comfortable with.

Unfortunately, this is just a basic truth when it comes to camping. However, there are ways to overcome this.

The thing about camping is that you may not have access to water and you’ll want to save as much as possible. The best thing to do to keep clean without water is use products like dry shampoo, wet wipes, feminine wipes, and hand sanitizers to get the job done.

For the folks that want to also stay extra pretty while outdoors by wearing makeup, don’t be ashamed. It’s your face and if you want to make it up, it doesn’t make you any less of an outdoors person. I’d recommend that you go with a lighter travel set with extra SPF and waterproof capabilities. I generally bring bb cream, light waterproof mascara, a neutral shadow in a smudge stick and a moisturizing lip product with a small hit of color.

As you notice, I try to multitask with some of these products by finding ones that have sun protection or moisturizers. I generally aim for a low maintenance look so I can stay cute without the need for touch ups.

This goes with hair too. Hair ties and braids are a camping girl’s or boy’s best friend.

I like to keep all of these products in my camping box so it’s ready to go.

USING THE BATHROOM IN THE WILD

It’s not as bad as you may think. Depending on where you are, you might not need to do this. Most paid campsites, glamping, KOA’s, and national or state parks have bathrooms, even if it’s just an outhouse. Do still bring a flashlight at those during the evening. You’ll want to be able to see when you go.

As a festival goer, I have been a bit traumatized by the poor conditions of porter potties. While camping, you’ll certainly have less of the challenges of intoxicating festival goers and their struggles of getting everything inside the toilet itself but it’s not worth the risk. A flashlight is your friend.

Another thing to realize with these is the toilet paper could be compromised and there might not be a way to wash your hands. Make yourself a kit with hand sanitizer and tp and you’ll be good to go.

For those without bathrooms, you’ll want to pack a shovel and make yourself a poop kit. I know it’s not fun, but you will survive. You don’t have to have a shovel, but the shovel is nice. Dig yourself a nice hole, get it over with and bury it away. Just pack some biodegradable toilet paper in you camping box and you’ll be good to go.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

Lastly, I just want to give you a bit of a rundown of a few things that I have gone over and a few miscellaneous tips that will make your first camping trip go well.

  1. Don’t forget water
  2. Always be prepared
  3. Check the weather
  4. Bring multiple tarps and rope
  5. Protect your gear from getting wet
  6. Don’t forget bug spray or sunscreen
  7. Layer up
  8. Bring alternative ways to cook or food that doesn’t need to be heated
  9. Foil and duct tape can be a makeshift fix
  10. Prioritize your sleep

There you have it. I hope you enjoyed my tips and tricks to make the most out of your first camping trip. I’ve recently taken a few of my close city slicking friends out into the wild and they had a blast.

Are you planning your first camping trip any time soon? I’d love to hear your plans, how it went, and your tips that I may have missed. Let me know in the comments and subscribe to get more stories to help you for your next outdoor adventure.

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