There are plenty of ways to make camping a highlight folder in your brain’s memory file, so if you’re looking to step out of your comfort zone and into the great outdoors, this guide is the full package!
Where To Shop for Camping Gear
If you want to make camping an experience you will want to do again (and again), then it’s advisable to invest in some nice gear and decent equipment that will last you for years. Outdoors stores like REI, Bass Pro, and Outdoors, Inc. have all the high-quality adventure items you need (though sometimes overpriced), and Osprey has ideal packing and hiking gear. Stores like Patagonia and The North Face have some great clothing products, but they’re often very overpriced, so if this is the route you choose to take, make sure to shop their sales. GSI Outdoors has outdoor cooking equipment, or you can check hardware stores like ACE Hardware or Home Depot. It may sound like a lot when you buy all your items for the first time, but these items are an investment – you’ll use them on every camping trip!
You can find some knockoffs on Amazon – just be careful about the quality and check the ratings (although some Amazon ratings are fake). You can even find products that work at Walmart, which is especially helpful for a quick shopping run on your way to the campsite for last-minute items. However, for things you’ll be using for a while, like hiking shoes, cast-iron pans, and tents, you’ll want to invest in good quality and save yourself the frustration of the product breaking mid-activity.
When To Camp
Depending on where you go, fall and spring are definitely some of the best times to go camping, unless you’re spending your summer hiking mountains. Places like Colorado, Wyoming, Maine, and Alaska are good for summer camping – the higher latitude (and altitude) keeps the days cooler. Late September and most of October afford pleasant weather for the middle states. If you’re in Florida or even southern Texas, then between October and March is a good window of time for camping because of the cool weather and brief absence of bugs. Plus, you can enjoy the sun in the winter when everywhere else is frozen!
Where To Pitch Your Tent
There are multiple really beautiful camping areas spread all throughout the United States. The best bet for lovely scenery and official campsites would be the state and national parks. In these types of areas, there are usually opportunities for outdoor adventures, like hiking, zip-lining, and white-water rafting. Explore Tennessee around Chattanooga, the Smoky Mountains, or the Blue Ridge Mountains. Climb the Colorado hikes in Idaho Springs around the Rocky Mountains. See the wonders of Yellowstone Park and the Tetons in Wyoming. If you’re thinking more tropical paradise with jet skis and kayaking, pop down to Florida for beach camping on Sanibel Island or in Ocala National Forest. Be sure to check the ratings and location logistics when scrolling through campsite options.
For your safety, stick with legitimate campsites. Campsites generally include a basic restroom on the grounds, and there’s usually a park ranger or campsite manager roaming the area in case there’s an emergency or to answer questions. Yes, there will be a fee, but you’ll forgive it on your first trip to the restroom outhouse instead of having to dig a hole!
Don’t Sleep on Your Sleep Setup
Depending on the weather and where you’re camping, you have to decide whether you’ll be sleeping in a tent, a hammock, or even your car. Cars good for sleeping include Jeeps, Subaru, and any SUV with a sizable trunk and seats that fold down.
A sleeping bag is one of the most important items for your camping experience – it’s no fun during the day if you freeze during the night! Check the details of the sleeping bag to see what temperature range it's suitable for. Unless you’re camping in a very warm, tropical area in the summer where you’d want a lighter sleeping bag like this one, you should invest in a well-insulated bag for colder temperatures like this one. You can buy a “mummy” style bag, but if you don’t like feeling constricted, there are also oversized sleeping bags. I personally prefer flannel-lined sleeping bags like this.
You can find some great tents at Bass Pro Shops. They all should come with mosquito-net windows for ventilation and a weatherproof cover for rain, snow, etc. You can buy a one-person tent, two-person, four-person, and even bigger! If it’s just you in the tent and you want space for your bags, I’d recommend getting a two-person tent (especially if you’re claustrophobic). Follow the included instructions to set up your tent. You should practice setting it up before your trip to make sure all the parts are there and you know how to do it. No one wants to get to their campsite after dark and find out their tent is missing a pole.
If you’re sleeping in a tent, I recommend you bring a cordless, battery-powered air mattress. Other options are a foam mat or an inflatable air mat – they’ll be thinner, but they’re still more comfortable than sleeping on the bare ground.
If you want to try out the hammock, which is honestly one of the easiest and comfiest options for sleeping under the stars, buy a double-sized hammock (fits two but is more comfortable and roomy for just one). You can also buy a rain cover on Amazon to go over your hammock so that you’re covered (literally) if it rains or if there’s a heavy dew in the mornings. If you have a temperature-suitable sleeping bag to wrap up in inside the hammock, then you won’t have anything to worry about!
What To Wear To Be Practical but Cute
Again, clothing depends on the weather and in what season you’re camping. Obviously, location is very important, especially for mountainous places; for example, Idaho Springs is much higher in elevation and thus much cooler (and very cold at night) compared to Denver, even in the height of summer. Always pack on the practical side while being mindful of the weather. And if you have the freedom to pack your car, then bring whatever you may need – even if you never use it, it’s better to be safe than miserable.
The secret to camping clothes is layers! Pack a comfy shirt or flannel, a cashmere sweater (thin but soft and warm), and a jacket and/or windbreaker. Hiking pants or joggers are a good choice for bottoms, instead of shorts, so your legs are protected against the brush. Some hiking pants have zippers at the knee to convert to shorts for warm weather. Layering flannel pants or sweatpants with leggings or thermals would be a good idea for insulated sleeping in colder weather. I usually layer pants as well as wool socks for sleeping.
Always bring a hat – a warmer snow hat for sleep and the cooler evenings, as well as a sun-shielding hat for the daytime, like a bucket hat, ballcap, or cowboy hat. Even if you’re not in a very hot climate, you can still get sunburned. I was hiking a 14,000 ft. mountain in Colorado in early August where it was cool and breezy, so I forgot to protect my face, and I emerged from that trip with a very burnt face. Ouch.
You should pack a pair of sports shoes for your activities. If you’re hiking, check out Merrell hiking boots. They have a reputation of being some of the best for quality, comfort, and durability; I have a pair, and they are indeed some of the best shoes I’ve ever used. For walking trails, bring either hiking shoes, tennis shoes, trail runners or Chacos.
Remember to break in your sports shoes ahead of time, though! If you’re braving the water sports like canoeing, kayaking, or white-water rafting, grab some water shoes from Walmart or Amazon. Plus, pack a pair of slip-ons to change into and wear around the campsite, maybe sandals like Birkenstocks or even flip-flops.
With this being said, girls will be girls and we still want to look cute while camping! In order to embrace your femininity while comfortably adventuring outdoors, you can choose pretty, natural colors for tops like lavender, sage, dusty pink, and blue instead of ratty old T-shirts and dark colors like black. Corduroy or denim jackets look much cuter than neon orange and gray athletic jackets. If you want to wear flannel, find one in a color that complements your skin tone and wear a scrunchie or bow to match! Bring dry shampoo and put your hair up in braids or high ponytails to look cute and keep your hair contained.
Also, if you don’t clean your face, your skin will rebel from the exposure to outdoor dust, wind, and sun. So, bring your facial wipes or cleanser, moisturizing face lotion, and chapstick. Even if you want to embrace your natural beauty and skip the makeup, you can still get a 2-in-1 natural lip shimmer chapstick or natural lip gloss from Burt’s Bees to feel like yourself.
If you’re not going hiking, a backpack is not necessarily an essential. Belt bags or fanny packs are perfectly handy for the few essentials you’ll need during the day. But if you do want a backpack, choose wisely. Although it’s pricey, Osprey is one of the best. You can also find several good quality backpacks on Amazon from different brands (just don’t go with the least expensive – it will be the cheap option in quality as well as price). Even if you end up spending a bit more on your pack, the price is an investment because the product will last and be durable. If you want something in between small and large then you could get a smaller, one-shoulder backpack so you have plenty of room to pack liquids, first aid items, and snacks.
How To Build a Campfire
This is a basic survival skill that would be handy to learn regardless of whether you'll be the one to do it while camping or not. Not to mention, it will also greatly impress a guy if you know how to build one well. Watch this video here on how to build a campfire like a pro, or this video here on how to build a good cooking campfire, if you want to put a cooking grill over it.
You can look around your campsite for natural materials like kindling sticks, dead leaves, and brush to burn. Be sure to also bring:
Lighter and/or matches
Firewood – Some campsites sell firewood on site.
Firestarter – You can buy some at a store or use a cotton ball or large wad of toilet paper or paper towel in addition to brush and dead foliage at the campsite. Here’s a DIY video on how to make your own.
Cooking in the Great Outdoors
Once you have a fire, you’ll want to use it! It’s your choice if you do want to just stick with granola bars and jerky, but why not start your day in the great outdoors with some fresh sausage and eggs with coffee or tea? Or even pancakes, if we’re feeling adventurous. Save the packaged snacks for your outdoor activities later on!
What equipment should you buy, you’re probably asking. Here are some essentials:
Campfire grill – Do your stomach a favor and buy one. You can cook meat directly on it and also use it like a cookstove. You can buy a plain grill to put over the campfire or buy a gas camp stove. Alternatively, you could embrace the vibes of an olden-day explorer and plop the cast iron pan straight onto your campfire, but the food will take longer and is more likely to cook unevenly.
Cast-iron skillet – Stuff of the pioneers and chefs alike for a reason! Super durable and lasts forever, but you have to treat this pan right (clean by rinsing, heating, and oiling). Make sure you bring a hot pad or towel for handling without getting burned.
Dutch Oven – This cast-iron pot is at a bit of a higher level than basic cooking, but it insulates well and can be used as a stew pot or a mini oven to bake biscuits. If you want a lighter option that’s easier to wash, go with a small, stainless steel pot.
Portable kettle – For boiling water for tea, coffee, or oatmeal. Get a regular kettle to go atop the campfire grill like this one or a self-heating kettle. The latter will most likely require a gas for the flame, so you’ll also have to acquire a small gas can. Or just use that small stainless steel pot you also packed.
Camping dishes – Disposable paper or plastic (bowl, plate, cup) or reusable dishes if you’re willing to wash them.
Cooler – Buy on Amazon or at Walmart for meat, eggs, syrup, yogurt, fruit, breads, etc.
Food Prep and Meal Ideas
Now that we have the cooking tools on the table, let’s look at some edible ideas. With some foods, you can pre-mix fillings and pack them in plastic baggies. And if you’re going fishing, then you can swap the meats for your fresh catch of the day!
Dried fruit – dried mango, pineapple rings, apple rings, figs, fruit leathers
Trail mix – Buy healthy (not just tons of Red-40 Skittles) trail mix or make your own.
Fruit – Cuties, apples, and bananas are the easiest to bring camping.
Water gallons – Keep refilling your personal water bottle, and don’t forget to hydrate!
Favorite tea bags or individual coffee packets
Apple cider – liquid jugs or powder packets
Hot cocoa packets
Coconut water – You’ll need the extra electrolytes!
Bodyarmor provides electrolytes and is healthier than Gatorade, for when you’re doing intense activities like mountain hiking.
Alcohol – If you want to bring booze, just don’t drink it on your first day in high elevation, and be sure to hydrate beforehand to avoid migraines.
Pancakes + applesauce – use a dry mix that just requires added water.
Bacon or sausage + eggs
Granola + yogurt + fruit
Smoked salmon + avocado + bagels – Grab individual serving packs of smoked salmon and whole grain bagels.
Oatmeal bowls – Either buy oatmeal packets or pre-mix quick oats with cinnamon, pecans, chia seeds, raisins, or dried blueberries, and pack them in small baggies.
Overnight oats – Pre-mix in small containers and store in a cooler, or buy ready-made overnight oats from Trader Joe’s or Mush from Whole Foods. Also works for a yummy snack!
PB & J – Get some healthy bread like sourdough or Ezekiel (or make your own), and either pre-make and pack in baggies, or pack individual servings of fruit spread/jam and nut butter packets like Justin’s. Or use sliced bananas and a Justin’s nut butter packet.
Turkey sandwiches and cucumber wedges – Pre-pack lunch meat and sliced cucumbers in baggies.
Wraps – Roll up grilled chicken, avocado or hummus, and grape tomatoes in a healthy (whole grain, or quinoa flour/gluten-free) tortilla.
Salmon or tuna + crackers + baby carrots – Get the individual serving-size fish packets.
Muffins + grilled chicken – Bake your favorite healthy muffins ahead of time, and either grill the chicken fresh or pre-cook and pack in Ziplocs.
Hot Dogs – Kind of a given for a classic campfire night, and you can buy organic hot dogs with whole grain or gluten-free buns to roast (don’t forget your favorite condiments).
Beef stew – Pre-mix and pack a stew recipe in a baggie, then cook in your cast-iron over the campfire or on your camping grill. Eat with biscuits!
Biscuits – Tasty with stew and adventurous to make outside! You can pre-mix the dry ingredients into a plastic baggie and pack wet ingredients in the cooler, or pre-mix the dough and store it in the cooler to cut and cook on the cast-iron pan on the campfire grill.
Steak + sweet potatoes – Just add to your cast-iron pan, cover, and cook (potatoes first).
Chicken + rice – If you don’t want to cook it in an actual pot, you can buy pre-cooked rice packs and cook/pack the chicken beforehand. Or just season the chicken and store it in a baggie, ready to cook on the cast iron to add to the rice.
Stuffed bell peppers – You can pre-prep the filling (find a favorite Pinterest recipe) beforehand, store in baggies in the cooler, fill the peppers, and cook them up on the pan.
Kebob skewers – Pre-cut the veggies and meat, pack in Ziplocs, and pack bamboo sticks.
A Very Important Small Essentials List
Little things of great importance. Do not forget to bring:
Plastic trash bags – You have to clean up all traces of your presence when leaving campsites, including trash, otherwise you’ll most likely be fined.
Bug spray – For ants and wasps to mosquitos. Better to be safe than sorry.
Bear spray – Helpful emergency defense for all kinds of wildlife.
Water bottle thermos, plus several large water bottles to refill your thermos.
Paper towels and/or hand wipes.
Hefty pocketknife and/or heavy-duty scissors – You'll never know what comes in handy!
Toilet paper – Even if your campsite has a restroom/porta-potty, it may run out of TP.
Hand sanitizer – My favorite kind is the small spray bottles of lavender or citrus sanitizer at Trader Joe’s. It’s essential oil-based, fresh smelling, easy to pack and carry, and it lasts a long time.
Gone are the days when camping spells sleeping fitfully on the hard, bumpy ground and surviving off Cliff bars and Lunchables. This fall, challenge yourself to master the art of camping and cooking over an open fire, peacefully unplug in nature, and make some unforgettable memories!
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