It’s your first night out camping, you’re settling down under the stars with a well-earned drink in your hand. Behind you, your perfectly pitched camping tent sits proudly, full of all of the worldly possessions you need now that you’re a fully fledged outdoorsman. You’ve done it. You’re a successful camper.
At least, that’s how you always hope it’s going to go. Unfortunately, that picture in your head isn’t always how your first camping trip actually works out. Sometimes, you end up wrestling the tent to life and struggle to get a weak plume of smoke from your pile of damp sticks, before giving it all up and retreating to your tent. Then you find that your sleeping bag is too small, you’ve put your tent on a rock or root, and have been followed in by so many bugs that you wonder if you have a helicopter hovering overhead. Too many first-time camping trips are derailed before they even get going, with gear being hauled back into a car under the light of a flickering headlamp. So here are our top ten camping hacks to ensure that your first camping trip is an all-out success, not a flat-out bust.
You’re going to need a few pieces of equipment. Sure, you can borrow the gear from keen friends, but you’re planning to become a camping expert yourself, right? So you’re going to need a camping tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and either synthetic or merino wool layers, as well as an insulated jacket and waterproofs. You will also need a camping stove with pots and pans and a flashlight or headlamp. Most campers will take a fire starter with them and may either take a camping hatchet to collect firewood.
There are other items of gear your might need, including water purifiers, first aid kits, sunscreen, spare hats, hiking boots, and bug nets — the list could be nearly endless. You will find yourself chopping and changing your gear with time and experience. To start with, we recommend putting together a camping checklist so make sure that at the very least you have the essentials. Even the most obvious items can get forgotten once your garage starts to look like an outdoor store is spilling from the trunk of your car.
Even the best camping equipment is useless in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it. Testing your equipment — pitching your tent, unrolling and repacking your sleeping bag, checking batteries in lanterns — reduces the risk that you might have ‘all the gear and no idea.’ If the first time you ever have to put the poles through your tent or attach the inner to the outer is while you’re trying to set it up to sleep, you’re going to wish you’d tried it in the yard first. Testing for size is a bonus, but you can also usually pack your gear into smaller packages than how it comes from the manufacturers, saving you vital space in your pack.
Some experienced campers will say that there is no such thing as bad weather. While we agree that the right gear can make camping in any weather worthwhile, we would generally suggest that if you’re going out for the first time, you won’t want anything too wild. Camping in the rain is fine, but freezing conditions and strong winds can be enough to put you off heading out again in the future. Once you know the forecast, organize your gear and pack accordingly.
The first time you go camping is the time that you’re most likely to forget items or that things are going to go a little wrong. You’re probably not going to be at a point where you’re ready to rough it out without essentials or fix them up to work well enough for the night. We recommend not going too far from home for your first couple of trips or at least staying within the proximity of a vehicle that can get you back to civilization. That said, a little distance is okay. Camping in your backyard can be tough and you might find it all too easy to just creep back indoors for an extra beer or to watch TV.
Take the time to pitch your tent right. Find soft ground that isn’t going to flood and doesn’t have any sticks or rocks that you’ll find in your sleep. Roll out your pad, or inflate your sleeping mat early and get your sleeping bag out and ready so that when you climb into bed it’s ready to go. We also suggest a camping chair and whatever warm layers you need to get comfortable under the stars.
There’s nothing worse than having to turn in early for the night because you can’t see what you’re doing anymore. Headlamps are great when you’re on the move, or rooting around in your bag for that missing sock. But illuminating your campsite with a camping lantern is a great option for the evening. The wider light of the lantern is perfect for cooking, playing cards, reading, or just chilling out and enjoying the great outdoors.
The roar and crackle of a campfire are among the most memorable parts of everyone’s camping experiences. No matter whether you’re toasting s’mores, telling stories, or just listening to the sounds of nature around you, no camp feels complete without a campfire. Learn how to build a campfire and, as with your gear, practice so that it comes easily when you get to camp. It’s important to check with local authorities or campsite owners about whether you’re allowed campfires — certain regions and parks have restrictions and a blanket ban is often enforced in dry seasons — and whether wood collection is allowed or whether you should bring your own logs or buy a bag on site.
It’s a toss-up between heavy rain or incessant insects for what is more likely to make you run for the safety of your tent faster, but both are sure going to. Keep your campsite bug-free with insect repellent, or permethrin-treated clothes. Alternatively, you can get burnable insect-repelling coils or bug nets. The locals usually have a good idea of what keeps the bugs away and we recommend asking for some friendly local advice for dealing with bugs.
You need to keep yourself fuelled while you’re out camping but that doesn’t mean you need to eat army rations the entire time. There are loads of quick camping meals that can be cooked on a stove or a fire, or you can go all-out and fire up the camping grill. Whatever you do, remember to keep food in a cooler and hang a bear bag if you need to keep your food out of reach.
Don’t forget the importance of hydration either. Drink plenty of water while you’re camping and take water treatment if you’re wild camping. As important as water is, we also recommend a camping coffee maker for your morning cup of joe, as well as a drop of your favorite liquor or a few tins of your chosen brew to enjoy around your campfire.
We can’t stress this enough: It might not all go to plan. In fact, it probably won’t. But after all, the whole point of an adventure is to step into the unknown. Whatever happens on your maiden voyage into the world of camping, try to take it in your stride and with a smile. If you forget a piece of gear, try to do without it. If a piece of gear breaks, try to fix it or do without it. Remember what works and what doesn’t and use that to plan for your next camping trip — there will be many more!
- Winter camping: Everything you need for a safe trip
- Don’t let the season stop you: Our top picks for the best winter hiking gear
- The 13 Best Camping Gifts for Your Favorite Outdoorsman
- Cold weather camping tips: How to stay warm in your tent through fall and winter
- Build Your Perfect Camping Sleep System to Stay Dry and Warm