To this day I remember the excitement and anticipation of my first time camping. I was six at the time, so it was a few decades ago! Even though I was young, I was still picking up on the tips and tricks my uncles had learned in the Army and over the years of wild camping together.
Being only six at the time I knew nothing. Now in my 30s, I am more than confident when it comes to summer and winter camping trips. That confidence doesn’t come from years of trips though. I had an 8-year gap of no trips between the age of 10 and 18.
At the age of 18, some friends and I decided a weekend away camping was in order, so we started planning our first camping trip. At 18 I was a complete beginner. I had forgotten everything I learned when I was a young lad. That was until I started getting into the swing of things again!
Since that first trip when I was 18, I have been on multiple trips. Over the years I have taken different groups of friends camping and always answer the same questions, have them forget the same items and fall into the same pitfalls and issues. That is why I have collected all of these recurring questions into this complete camping for beginners guide.
If you are a complete beginner and currently planning your first camping trip, then you are covered. You should also be able to use the basic camping gear checklist to ensure you have all the equipment and supplies.
Basic Camping Gear You Need
Camping is only getting more popular by the year with many families and friends taking to the outdoors instead of city breaks and beach vacations. Planning a trip into the wilderness is a little more complicated than booking a hotel and flights though. My list of essential camping gear below is just the absolute necessities that you must not leave home without. There is a complete essential camping gear checklist on it’s way very soon.
The most important aspect of your camping trip will be your tent. It will dictate where, when and how many people you can take. Of course, it would be wise for a group to have more than one tent, but that is a personal preference.
When you are looking to buy a tent I would always suggest that you buy one a little larger than needed. For example, if you will be sharing with one other adult, then you should look for a 3 person tent. Having the extra room will be a blessing when it comes to having space to move and stretch. I often find a 3 person tent works great for myself and my wife. It gives us room to store our backpacks while also giving us enough room to move around the tent.
Another aspect to keep in mind for families camping is the height of the tent you want to buy. I find that it is useful for some families to have a tent where you can stand up inside instead of having a smaller tent. A tent with a small vestibule is also a wise choice as it will provide you with an area to take wet and muddy boots and clothes off without compromising the inside of the tent.
Beginner Tip: Once you have bought your tent you should practice setting it up at home first. The real test I usually hear people struggle with is folding away a tent. Pop up tents are very easy if that is a concern.
Choosing a Sleeping Bag
Deciding on which sleeping bag is appropriate is a little more difficult than a tent. Using the sleeping bags temperature rating is a great guide, but it just that. If you are planning on camping in typical summer weather, then temperature rating should work great. If on the other hand, you would like a little more flexibility for unpredictable weather then a 3 season sleeping bag is an excellent choice.
Something else to keep in mind would be the size and weight of your sleeping bag. If your camping trip is going to be more of a hike, then I’d strongly suggest keeping an eye on the weight of the sleeping bag to ensure it’s not too heavy for carrying around all day. The size of your sleeping bag should be snug but should also give you enough room to move, roll over and generally feel comfortable. The “Mummy” type sleeping bags seem to be very popular, but not everyone likes them.
You may also want to have a look into a sleeping mat which will provide you with some insulation from the cold hard ground. They will generally help you retain some body heat inside your sleeping bag. I strongly suggest you have a little read through my guide on keeping warm in your tent for more tips.
If you are planning a winter camping trip then I would suggest you read through my winter camping guide.
Lighting For Your Campsite
Most campsites will not have any form of artificial lighting, so you have to bring your own. I have seen many camping beginners using iPhones and other mobiles, but they do have some limitations in that they will drain the battery fast and they don’t provide enough light for a campsite.
I always suggest picking up a cheap headlight as it will provide enough light in front of you while freeing your hands. My favorite headlamp for camping can be found here on Amazon.
A campfire is also a great source for lighting and will allow you to create a little more ambient light to share around the campsite and your fellow campers. Just make sure you check the rules and regulations for campfires as there can be strict rules. In some campsites, you will not be allowed a campfire so be sure to know this before you get there!
Campsite Seating & Hammock
When wild camping you will want to ensure you bring at least a folding chair. If you are going to a campsite that has picnic chairs and benches, then this would be a nice to have item. I would suggest a mesh chair, so if it gets wet, then it’s a lot easier to dry off. If you’re like me and you forget to bring the chair into your tent through the night it could end up very wet with the morning dew.
When I go camping, I like to take a camping chair like this one on Amazon as well as a hammock. Having a hammock while camping can be a real luxury as they are so incredibly comfy and let you have a little downtime without having to lay on the cold hard ground.
Hammocks are a love or hate item. I would suggest you at least give one a try. That way you know if it suits your comfort needs. Being a larger guy I was very reluctant to try a hammock. These days I don’t go camping without one. A good reliable hammock that I have suggested can be found here and if you do enjoy the experience and comfort it provides, you can upgrade it to something a little more luxurious at a later date.
Stove & BBQ
Many people will suggest a two-burner gas stove which is a great suggestion. They do come at a price though. Many camping beginners will want to keep costs down until you can upgrade certain items. In my personal opinion, a stove is an item that you can start with a cheaper option assuming you check the reviews and know what your buying.
The stove that I always suggest to people prepping for there first time camping trips is the Coleman Classic Propane Stove. It is the best camping stove for beginners and campers on a budget. It also has thousands of great reviews from fellow campers. I suggest it as one of my top picks.
Fancy a BBQ or grill instead? Getting some good food during a camping trip is why most enjoy the experience so much. There isn’t anything better than sitting back watching the sunset with a cold beer, friends around you and some delicious BBQ or grilled food. Usually not an item I take on a solo trip, but if I go with my wife or a group of friends, it is always the first thing I look out. I have a few different portable BBQs and camping grills, but for a beginner, I would strongly suggest something like this small portable grill on Amazon or even this folding Charcoal BBQ which will help save on space and allows for a lot of cooking space for a large group.
Tip: If you camp somewhere that doesn’t allow a campfire but do allow for Grills, and BBQs then take some extra Charcole and fuel with you. When you’re not cooking, you can use the BBQ/grill as a small campfire to keep warm.
Keeping Food & Drink Cold
The following is a tip I see most people forgetting until the last minute of preparation and the reason for my first time camping guide. I was recently on a trip with a friend who was a self-confessed wilderness expert. The morning of the trip he messaged me saying he had completely messed up and didn’t realize his cooler was too small for the food and drinks we needed for the 4 person camping trip.
So moral of the story is to ensure you have a cooler that will both work well in high heat and is large enough for the amount of food and drink required. An easy task but one I am sure everyone slips up on eventually.
Luckily enough I had a couple of coolers. Our trip went ahead as planned and we didn’t have to delay anything. Coolers aren’t something I would want to cheap out on as it can make or break your trip. I would always suggest getting two and splitting food and drinks between both. That way if one fails you still have at least some supplies. If you are looking to take meats and perishables then you should read through my buying guide of the best camping coolers, it should help beginners find a cooler that will work well for most trips.
Being a beginner and on your first time camping trip can be daunting with all the gear you need to remember, plans you need to make and generally the learning curve you have to get over. Then you have the camping etiquette to learn which is almost like the additional unwritten rules of the campsite.
I will be honest and say most of these rules are common sense. There will be a few that you will either read here or learn the hard way. Unfortunately, the topic of camping etiquette is far too long to be in a beginners guide to camping. My main advice is to be nice to people. Offer help to others when it looks like they need assistance but don’t try to make friends when it seems like someone else wants to chill out alone. Don’t make too much noise with music especially after 11 pm, respect other campers privacy, keep children out of trouble and away from other campers and dogs under control.
Honestly, that should all be common sense. I am sure many of you will have followed these rules perfectly anyway. But, there is always that one time when the dog runs off and steals the burgers from the campsite across from you! Trust me, I have seen this happen before. It was hilarious at the time, but all it took was the owner to apologize and a simple offer to replace the food for everything to be okay again.
It all comes back to being nice to people and accommodating when you mess something up.
What Should I Wear?
By far the most asked question I get. It is straightforward to answer, but it does depend on your comfort as well as where your camping, the time of year and the weather. In short, I would always suggest that you take multiple layers of clothing with a warm waterproof coat, fleece hoodie, gloves, hat, thick warm socks and even long underwear (Long Johns) or thermal underwear.
My opinion here is that it is better to be too warm than too cold. If you get caught in a blizzard or low temperatures unexpectedly then you will be glad of the extra layers and waterproofs. Whereas if the weather turns for the better, then you take layers off until you are comfortable.
Planning around and paying attention to the weather is the key to deciding what type of layers you are likely to need. Guessing and turning up with the most fashionable clothes for a camping trip is unwise.
Meal Prepping for Camping
Many of us these days are proficient meal preppers. Some of us are better than others though. I can have good weeks and bad weeks when it comes to food prep. When I go camping though I have food planned right down to the exact time I need to look out the stove.
Meal preparation while camping is one of the most critical tasks you can plan for. Being hungry for too long and still having to complete for the campsite is my worst nightmare.
For first time camping would suggest using your stove to cook boxed and canned food as sides and entrees while you use your campfire, BBQ or grill to cook meats and kebabs.
Generally speaking, there are no right and wrong answers when it comes to what food works and what doesn’t as long as you are prepared and know how to transport it to the campsite and to keep it cool.
Beginner Tip: Make sure you keep food covered and packed away. Bugs and animals will help themselves to your delicious food if you don’t take care. I like to seal all my food away in lock bags or plastic food storage containers. Your leftovers will entice animals over too so be sure to either eat everything or dispose of leftover fast so not to attract animals to the area.
Camping Hygiene For Beginners
The topic of hygiene while camping is a long one. It needs its own series of posts that cover all the separate aspects of staying cleaning while camping. Something I do plan on writing very soon. In the meantime, though beginners and those planning a first time camping trip should be prepared and take a few items with them
- Baby Wipes
- Hand Sanitizer
- Travel toothbrush, paste, floss, and mouthwash
- Unscented dry shampoo
- Water to wash with (Unless you have a stream or clean lake)
- Biodegradable soap
Personal hygiene should be your top priority to ensure you feel clean and don’t smell the campsite out. When you are looking for hygiene products to buy you should be looking for unscented and biodegradable items.
Biodegradable toothpaste, soap, and shampoo mean you are less likely to pollute the wildlife and water supply with horrible chemicals found in “normal” hygiene products. I strongly suggest unscented too to ensure you keep the big bad B‘s away – Bugs and Bears! Not a concern for many locations but some campsites will have the occasional bear and a few million bugs.
How do I go to the toilet while camping?
Now that you are in the wilderness your bathroom activities will be vastly different. You will no longer be able to sit on the throne for 20 minutes swiping through your Facebook and Instagram. If you are wild camping and don’t have bathroom facilities, you should look to relieve yourself as far away from your and other campsites. I usually like to walk for 5 mins away from the tents.
In an ideal world, you will have a container to urinate into which can then be disposed of properly. It isn’t always possible and if I am honest usually isn’t a practical option for many camp trips with lots of hiking involved.
If you do have to go without a container, then be sure to pick somewhere away from streams and lakes. Preferably a little bit uphill and a 5 to 10 min walk away from your and other tents, so the smell doesn’t cause problems.
My No. 2 tip, the pun is 100% intended, is to make sure you don’t just go into the woods and poo. Trust me it won’t end well. That smell will travel pretty fast. Take a small hand spade or trowel with you and dig a small hole around 8 inches deep and use that. Once you have finished you can cover the hole with the soil you dug up as well as any leaves and other debris. It will mean you and others won’t accidentally step in it, and the smell won’t linger and travel.
Once you get back to camp, you must be sure to thoroughly clean the hand spade with water that isn’t used for anything else. The toilet paper that you have used should ideally be disposed of in your campfire too, although I am sure many of you would prefer to bury the evidence so as not to get embarrassed! This shouldn’t be a problem as long as you have biodegradable toilet paper, but ideally, you would burn the paper instead.
Great care should be taken when preparing raw meats so as not to give your fellow camper food poisoning. Cross contamination is the likely source in my experience as many people seem to think a little bit of water is enough to clean utensils, pots, and plates.
You should always be using biodegradable washing liquids for anything your food touches. I would also suggest boiling some water to ensure you have some warm water to use for cleaning, make sure you give the water time to cool down a little. That way you don’t burn yourself.
Camping With My Dog
I’m sure you have already seen the numerous Instagram photos of people out camping in the wilderness with their dogs. So, that should already answer the question of “Can I go camping with my dog?”.
If you’re like my wife and me, then you will know a family holiday isn’t complete if your dog isn’t there. Trust me when I say bringing your dog on a camping trip will make for a great experience with lots of fun memories. I always have fun when we go camping with Woody (my little West Highland Terrier). I am planning a solo camping trip with Woody for this coming summer which I will document, write about and maybe share some photos and videos of us both.
If you do want to take your dog, then you will have a few extra precautions to consider. Such as making sure your dog’s nails are cut, or at least not sharp enough to tear through your tent. I have various other tips and information about camping with dogs that you may find helpful.
You should also make sure you find a nice comfortable and warm spot for your dog to sleep at night. I always suggest letting your dog sleep in with you that way you have the security of not having a great escape on your hands in the morning. I also like to cuddle into my little Westie at night. He is my natural, although sometimes smelly, hot water bottle.
Something to keep in mind is where you are camping. Not all campsite allow dogs or animals, so check in with the rules. Most campsites are okay as long as you follow a few rules which a responsible dog owner would do anyway.
Choosing a Campsite
Last but certainly not the least important, deciding where you want to camp for the first time. There are hundreds of close and accessible locations to choose from regardless of where you live. As a first time camping experience, I would suggest beginners select a place that isn’t too far away from the rest of civilization. Even if you can park your car within a few miles of your campsite, it will give you a get out option if things go wrong or you have forgotten something.
If you are in the USA, then I suggest taking a look at campsites on https://www.recreation.gov from there you will be able to locate campsites, rules and even start your planning. I would use some common sense when it comes to animals, bugs and general environment elements that you will likely experience. The last thing you want to do is set up your tent and realize the area is swarming with bugs or worse bears!
Campsites in Scotland, Wales, England (UK)
If you are planning a UK camping trip, then I would suggest having a look through https://www.pitchup.com/campsites/. For Scotland, you should use Visit Scotland’s Wild camping in Scotland guide to both keep up with the rules and find campsites throughout Scotland.
Side Note: I am from Scotland, it is a beautiful country with some of the best campsites in the world. I know, I sound biased but I have camped in numerous locations (England, USA, Germany are just some of the countries I have camped in) around the world and the scenery in Scotland still takes my breath away. I will be doing a Scottish campsite series so be sure to keep your eye peeled for that. I am also hoping to get across to the USA for some camping trips with my American friends soon. Like I have said, I like the Wilderness.