10 Tips for First-Time Campers

By Heather

Whenever we go camping, we usually see someone at the campground with just a tent. Nothing else. No cooler, no firewood, no food, no hammock, no chair, no water… nothing.

A conversation with the host at one of our favorite campgrounds finally revealed what the deal is with these people: New campers. They simply have no idea what happens after you pitch your tent. They don’t know what to do for fun, what to eat or how to start a fire.

If you’re new to camping and want to do some preparation, though, I can help with that.

We were very fortunate to camp with experienced campers our first time. I highly recommend going that route. They will show you the way, and you will learn much in a low-risk environment.

However, that’s not always possible. My tips here are going to focus on car camping for people who are utterly, totally new to camping and don’t have someone to show them the way. Also, some of these tips are going to mean that you need to have some friends who can loan you certain key items before you invest in your own (tent, for example).

10 Tips for New Campers

1. Figure out where you’re camping and reserve a site.

I’m going to assume that a lack of planning could extend to the finding of the park and the making of the reservations, hence this instruction.

Make reservations somewhere. Don’t pull up and hope there’s going to be something, especially on a Friday night. Just have a reservation ready to go, print the confirmation (some hosts require it) and bring it with you. Here are some tips for finding campsites.

Someday, when you get the hang of camping and feel more comfortable, go ahead and wing it. Try your hand at a first-come, first served campground. It’s not my style, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!

2. Do some homework.

bathroom indian cove joshua tree

So, that campground you just reserved? You’ll want to know about the amenities.

  • Flush or vault toilets? There’s not much action you can take on this one. I guess it’s more about mental preparation. Vault toilets really stink. Especially if you have a bad host who isn’t keeping up the facilities.
  • Is there water? If there are water spigots, no need to buy gallons of water at the store. I do suggest bringing a jug – two gallons or so should be plenty.
  • Is there a host? Some campgrounds are unhosted, which just means someone swings by a couple times a day as opposed to living there full time. Sometimes it can mean total anarchy.
  • Does the host sell firewood? Many hosts do sell firewood and at comparable prices to stores nearby.
  • Is there a general store nearby? If there is, you won’t have to stress so much about coming to camp fully stocked with all the food, ice, firewood and water you can handle. Caveat: Some stores are really expensive if they’re the only game in town, so don’t rely on them to have everything you need at an affordable price. You still should bring as much as you can and supplement at the store as needed.
  • Is the campground pet friendly? If you’re bringing your dog, make sure they are allowed!
  • Any special alerts? This is key. Any fire restrictions or weather warnings will be on the website; check them before you leave! You don’t want to arrive to find out that you can’t have a campfire and that a windstorm is coming.

Most campground websites will tell you this information. Learn it, live it, love it.

3. Pack layers.

Never underestimate how cold it will be while camping. It’s better to overprepare on this one, because if you’re too cold, there’s not a lot you can do about it once you’re at the campsite.

Depending on where you are, temperatures can range wildly from day to night, particularly in the desert. Check the weather forecast, but don’t allow it to replace your common sense. Regardless of the forecast, bring layers so you can warm up or cool down as necessary.

4. Stay warm in the tent, too.

Our sleeping bags are only rated to 40 degrees. Which is actually fine, because I tend to sleep very hot, and we would never intentionally camp anywhere where it was much colder than that. If the temps are close to what your sleeping bags are rated for, bring an extra blanket to ensure that you’re warm enough.

If you have a partner you’ll be sleeping with, open both sleeping bags and sleep between them, instead of sleeping in your own individual bag. Body heat is a wonderful thing!

You will also want an air mattress. Maybe it’s fussy, maybe it’s a little Princess and the Pea-y, but I don’t care. I’m happy to be a princess in this instance.

Air mattresses are comfortable, you’ll sleep like a baby and when the ground temperature plunges, you won’t feel a thing because you’re on your sweet, sweet double-high queen bed with an air mattress between you and the bed.

5. Don’t forget the food.

nabby the corgi eating leftover eggs

Now, you do not need to be fancy. Bring things you can toss on the grill: Canned beans, burgers, sausages, other meats. What you can’t throw directly on the fire, just wrap it in foil. Potatoes, onions and green peppers mixed with some butter and seasoning… Heaven.

Food Network also has a handy list of 50 things you can cook in foil on a grill. Go crazy.

For lunch, we often just snack. Nuts, chips, crackers, hummus, veggies. If there’s a store nearby, we’ll pick up a sandwich. Lunch isn’t fussy.

For dessert/after-dinner snacks, you’ve got S’mores and Jiffy Pop.

There are times you may also need a burner, especially in the morning when the fire isn’t usually roaring. To keep it the most simple, I suggest a Coleman Single Burner and a Lodge Cast-Iron Skillet. The skillet can be used both on the burner and the fire, saving space when you pack.

On the skillet, you can whip up eggs, pancakes, bacon, chilaquiles. The sky’s the limit.

Here are a few tips on doing dishes, and minimizing the need to do them.

6. Store your food and protect it from wildlife.

bear box

You’ll need a good cooler for your perishable items. I said a good cooler, not the piece of junk we own. The better the cooler, the less often you’ll find yourself buying ice. Steve and Regina use this Igloo cooler, and it holds ice for days and days.

For non-perishables, a bin will do nicely. You’ll want to stash your food in a place where little critters can’t gnaw through and eat everything. Even if you’re not in bear country, you’ve still got to worry about squirrels, raccoons, crows and foxes. They all want your food and they can be incredibly aggressive and persistent about it.

Keep it locked up in a bin, at least, and in a bear box if available.

(An aside: when I first heard that food was supposed to be stored in bear boxes, I thought I had to buy one and frantically scoured the internet. All that turned up were those small canisters. Turns out, the bear boxes are at the campsite. And they are generously sized. Just in case you’re a little slow, like me.)

7. Don’t forget the coffee.

coffee pot camping percolator

Dad’s old coffee pot.

A French press will be your best bet for making strong coffee quickly in the mornings. We love this one from REI in particular.

You’ll need something for boiling water; a saucepan from home will do nicely.

8. Bring enough water.

The general rule is one gallon per day, per person (and don’t forget your dog or the dishes). If there are spigots at the campground, you won’t need to worry about this. Just bring your jug and it’s all good. We use this five-gallon jug, but a small one will do just fine too.

9. Bring enough firewood.

photo 3

Ah, firewood. The big camping expense. The killer. You will need to leave room in your budget for wood. We usually go through about four bundles per day, starting the campfire as the sun sets and letting it run until bed time. If you want to run your campfire all day, you may need more. Bundles out here in California go anywhere from $5-$10, depending on where you buy it. Sometimes it’s as much as $12 per bundle, as it was in Kings Canyon.

While hardwood will cost you a little more than softwood, consider it an investment. Softwood burns quickly, and you’ll go through a bundle in no time. We usually buy a single bundle of softwood to get us started; once the fire is nice and raging, we start tossing on the slower burning hardwood.

Here’s how you can save some money while camping, especially on firewood.

10. You’re going to have to borrow some things, or buy them.

So, yeah. I hate to be the bearer of bad news: there are some things you simply can’t get away with going camping without. You may have to borrow some things, and you may need to buy what you can’t borrow.

However, I have some great news: If you live in an area prone to natural disasters, your camping gear will sub nicely as survival gear. In California, we’ve got earthquakes, so if we’re ever struck with The Big One they’ve been threatening us with since as long as I can remember (and seriously, did Loma Prieta not count?!), we have what we need to get by: A camp stove, propane, a single burner, stuff to make coffee (v-e-r-r-r-y important in disasters), canned food, can openers, a tent if we’re displaced, sleeping bags. You get the idea.

You also have a variety of resources for camping gear:

  • The other great news? Fellow campers are so nice, helpful and generous and will happily loan you their gear.
  • REI rents gear.
  • And a lot of these items are things you probably have sitting around anyway.

Fortunately, most of what you will need is not very expensive. For most of what you purchase, you should get the smaller version. You don’t need an 8-gallon jug of dishwashing soap, y’know? Always be saving space! And on that point, consider items that might have dual uses. For example, why pack a whisk if a fork could accomplish the same task?

So, what will you need? I’m going to give the most bare-bones (car camping) supplies list I can. Backpackers and Steve will roll their eyes because they can be all minimalist and get by on nothing. Me, Darren and Regina? We cannot.

Basic Camping Supplies List

 General Supplies  Safety, Cleaning & Survival  Food & Drink
Tent First-aid kit Can opener
Stakes Flashlights Bottle opener
Mallet Lantern Corkscrew
Sleeping bags Headlamp Paper towels
Extra blanket Extra batteries Tablecloth
Air mattress Lighters Dishtowel
Pillows Fire starters Paper plates
Foldup chairs Toilet paper Utensils
Single burner stove Water jug Foil
Cooler Propane tanks (1-2 per day) Cast iron skillet
Blanket/pad for dog Firewood (4 bundles per day) Saucepan
Dog leash Paper towels Paring knives
Canopy (if no shade) Dish soap Cutting board
 Tarp Handwashing soap Small bowl
Sponge Drinking glasses
Baby wipes Coffee mugs
Sunscreen Dog food/water bowls
Bug spray Butter
Garbage bags Cooking spray
Dishwashing bins Seasoning
Ice French press
Spatula, wooden spoon

I hope I haven’t missed something essential. If I did, add it in the comments! There is obviously so much more you can purchase, but this should get most new campers started off on the right foot.

Next time, I’ll give you some tips on setting up your campsite once you’ve arrived.

Disclosure: When you click one of the links above to purchase an item, we get a tiny commission that will in no way enable us to quit our day jobs and roll around in our piles of cash.