Expert Camping Advice to Help You GTF Outside This Summer
Tips for people who don’t really camp but kinda want to camp.
It’s true the past few years taught us to appreciate the Great Outdoors, find joy in simple things, and indulge in some good ol’ wholesome fun the way our parents always wanted us to. Whether or not you were a camper BCE (Before Covid Era), maybe you’ve considered how nice it would be to pass out and wake up on a beach in an intentional, not-just-drunken-partying way. Because the sound of wind rustling through leaves or rhythmic ocean waves make for a much better lullaby than the traffic outside your window. And the depth of stars in the milky way are definitely more impressive than the glow-in-dark, stick-on ones of your ceiling.
Here’s the thing—anyone can camp. It doesn’t have to be an exclusive adrenaline-junkies-only activity or just for Burning Man bros. Whether you’re a beginner still dipping your toe into the idea or have maybe tried an easy version like backyard or car camping and want to see if you're ready for a more immersive nature experience, we got you covered like a sturdy tent.
Don’t forget the s’mores ingredients, make sure you're picking up your trash to avoid ruining it for everyone, and definitely bring your drink of choice, because an adult beverage around a campfire is pure bliss. Here’s what to bring (sunscreen!), what to do (stargaze!), and what to know (bears and bug prevention!) for a successful camping trip.
How to camp in your backyard
If you’ve never gone camping, get a feel for it risk-free in your own backyard. You can test out new and unfamiliar equipment before bringing it on a more hardcore expedition. “Indulge yourself and enjoy being outside,” says Isabelle Portilla, Divisional Vice President at REI Co-Op Brands. “You can always go inside if something goes wrong.”
The basic setup: Go all out sleepover-style with comfy throw pillows, an insulated blanket, and a large glamping tent like the REI Kingdom. Haring also likes the six-person Nemo Wagontop tent, which “looks like a wagon” and has room to stand up in. Some folks even bust out tailgating-style 10x10 tents with tarps over them.
The add-ons: Solar-powered “fairy lights” don’t need to be plugged in and can be placed in mason jars around the tent for added ambiance.
What to do: Read (bring a good headlamp for this), play games (look here for inspiration), do some peaceful yoga, toss around a frisbee or the ol’ pigskin—whatever makes you actually enjoy being outdoors. Maybe just sit in silence for a while.
Key tip: Josh Haring, owner of The Mountain Air notes that, wherever you camp, “sleeping pads are very important.” They’re crucial for comfort, since without one you would definitely feel whatever twig or rock you couldn’t clear from the ground all night long. With sleeping pads, any unevenness of the earth melts away into a soft marshmallow you float upon. But they also act as an essential barrier and an insulator for warmth—otherwise “you’re pulling the coldness from the ground” directly into your body. He recommends the Nemo Cosmo doublewide pad. Whereas Darren Christiansen, guide at Kirk’s Fly Shop, loves Thermarest pads, which “pack down really nice and keep your shoulders from digging into the ground.”
How to go car camping
Ready to venture beyond your yard? Car camping is the next step, and it doesn’t mean camping in your car. That would be more like RV camping or vanlife. What car camping actually means is that your tent is within easy walking distance to your car, so the campsite is somewhere you can drive up to. This is an easy and convenient option, since you don’t have to trek far and can bring as many heavy items as fit into your vehicle (hello cast iron meal). It also makes for a quick escape route should you decide all this peace and quiet isn’t for you or get freaked by a chipmunk. Plus it doesn’t require any special permits (usually), and still lets you get out into some pretty wild places. Heck, you could even throw a mattress in the back if you’re not convinced about this whole ground thing.
The basic setup: Haring extolls the virtues of a good cooler. Stock it with cold beers and groceries and make yourself at home. Additionally, your cooking setup comes more into play here. A good old-fashioned Coleman stove will get the job done, but Haring says a Jetboil Genesis system is like “a Coleman stove on steroids. It’s ten times better, smaller, and cooks better.” To avoid unwanted run-ins with bears and other wily critters, you’ll need to put all of your “smellables” in the car anytime you leave and before going to sleep (this includes toothpaste, as well as all food). Christiansen strongly recommends using bear canisters like a Counter Assault Bear Keg. Note that bears are more likely to crash your party at car camping sites, where they’re more habituated to humans. “In the backcountry, they’re more shy,” he explains. If you plan on doing any hiking in bear country, invest in some bear spray.
The add-ons: Camping next to your car is easy enough, but many companies like Roofnest have now made it possible to camp on top of your car. These hard shell tents open on their own as soon as you unbuckle them and come with a mattress on the bottom. Not only is it comfortable and easier to set up, consider it extra security from ground critters and the cold.
What to do: Hiking, biking, swimming, bird-watching! If it’s allowed (be sure you check!), setting up the campfire at night for some s’mores never goes out of style.
Key tip: “You’d be surprised how often you need a knife,” notes Christiansen. You don’t need to go all Crocodile Dundee; a simple versatile camping knife will do the trick.
How to camp on the beach
It seems like a good idea at the time: sunrises, sunsets, the sound of the waves lulling you to sleep… but beach camping can be a challenge due to high winds, rain, and bugs. It’s also dirtier, because sand gets everywhere. But really the hardest part about beach camping is finding a beach you can legally camp directly on, since many sites are beach-adjacent rather than right on the sand. But they do exist, and when you get it right, sleeping on the shore is gold.
The basic setup: Prepare for wind by staking the tent down very tightly. For the daytime, a beach umbrella is a good idea, or Haring recommends a good sunshade like this one. Bugs are a thing on the beach; of course bring the usual bug spray, but up your game with head nets, which can be a life-saver, along with citronella candles or anything that creates a fog.
The add-ons: Bring a broom to sweep the sand out of your tent, and a small sand mat or nylon rug to place outside for wiping your feet. If you’re very anti-sand, but for some inexplicable reason very pro-beach camping, invest in a soft-bristled paint brush from a hardware store. You can use it to de-sand your arms, legs, and feet before you get in.
What to do: Swimming, surfing, tanning, picnicking, beach volleyball. It’s just like a beach day where you don’t have to leave. If it’s secluded and warm enough, you could even go skinny dipping at night.
Key tip: Beach and water camping attract a lot of animals, so store your food and waste away from your camping site to avoid unwanted run-ins with hungry mammals.
How to camp in a national park, state park, or national forest
When taking advantage of our protected lands, a national forest is typically the most laissez-faire—you can pretty much camp wherever the hell you feel like it. National parks typically have the most restrictions, so do your research before you go. The last thing you want on your getting-back-to-nature excursion is a hefty fine.
The basic setup: Same as car camping, but definitely make sure to stay in designated sites if you’re in a national park. Whether those sites have picnic tables, porta potties, running water, and maybe some RV neighbors, or if they’re “primitive” sites where you’re left on your own and have to take care of all business in the woods, make sure you’re staying only where the park allows you to. It’s often designated with a plaque or tree tag of some kind and clearly marked on park maps. Going off course ruins nature and increases chances of starting a forest fire.
What to do: The national park, duh.
Key tip: Socks might be the most important thing you pack, according to Christiansen. Wet socks—whether from rain, mud, sweat, or a wet trail—make feet blister easier, which can pretty much end your trip right there. “If your feet go, it’s really hard to get back out.” He packs two extra pairs on any overnight trip.
How to camp on a canoe or kayak trip
The big payoff with a canoe or kayak trip is you can access more remote areas and camp sites. This entails loading up a pack with your tent and all essentials, strapping it to the bungee cord end of the boat, and paddling out to an island or any remote bit of land you can reach. For privacy, peace, and quiet, nothing beats it.
The basic setup: Two words: Dry bag. These are small bags that cover your backpack and belongings to keep them dry. Without them, your trip will be over before it starts. Haring recommends small, lightweight, waterproof bags like Sea to Summit.
The add-ons: If you are building a fire (which you should check beforehand if it’s allowed, do it in a designated pit, and pour a lot of water over it after you’re done), keep in mind your options for firewood could be more limited on an island. It would be wise to bring a pack of firewood, which should be wood purchased within the state that you’re camping in to avoid transporting harmful pests across state lines. Firestarter is also a good idea if it’s rained recently and everything is wet and therefore harder to light, or if you’re new to building fires and want to ensure you can get a flame going. And don’t forget the lighter.
What to do: In addition to rowing around the water and stomping all over your own private island a la Where the Wild Things Are, stargazing is a universal camping pastime, whether in your backyard or in the middle of nowhere on an epic portaging trip. Haring advises getting a night vision headlamp—they emit a duller red light as opposed to the bright white light of a typical headlamp, which tends to cut down on the number of stars that can be seen with the naked eye. And Portilla notes that REI Quarter Dome tents have particularly great visibility for stargazing.
Key tip: Always tell a friend exactly where you’re going before any overnight trip, and keep a backup means of communication handy in the likely event that your phone signal goes out. These include GPS-like “boosters” where you can text back and forth via satellite. But even if you are in a place where you can’t make a call, “You would be surprised at the places where you can get a text out,” Christiansen says, so bring your phone anyway. He also recommends solar chargers to power phones for multiple days.
How to backcountry camp
The most expert level of camping, planning ahead for the backcountry is critical. “It’s all about getting back to nature,” says Christiansen. “You’re a long way from home if you’re not prepared.” Don’t bring anything you aren’t willing to carry on your back for hours at a time. And you need to be extremely conscientious of water and how you’re gonna get it—too much (it’s heavy!) or too little (you’re dead!) can ruin a trip. On the plus side: peaceful nature and plenty of space for social distancing.
The basic setup: Go lightweight for literally everything. Haring likes smaller packs from brands like Hyperlite and lightweight sleeping bags from Western Mountaineering. Mary Monroe Brown, director of Wisconsin’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, is partial to packs from REI or Johnson Outdoors. For cooking, opt for a lightweight Jetboil; Haring likes the MSR Pocket Rocket. Don’t bring books, don’t bring foldable chairs; every pound counts. Thin rope is also a good idea in order to tie up food and trash, and hang it in a tree at least 20 or 30 feet off the ground so bears aren’t attracted. To do this, get your lasso on and throw one end of the rope over a strong branch high above, tie the other end to the bag of food, hoist the smelly stuff up, then tie the remaining rope around the trunk.
And since you’re out there with no option of running back to the car if the weather decides to change its mind, a good tent rainfly would be wise. For the same reason, invest in a lightweight Gore-Tex rain jacket from brands like Patagonia, Simms, Columbia and North Face.
The add-ons: Water filters—all our experts stress the importance of a good water filtration system. Haring recommends a “squeeze system” that can attach to a Camelbak, with additional options like $10 iodine tablets. Christiansen likes filters like the LifeStraw. People often underestimate how much water they’re going to need—and water is about the heaviest thing you can carry.
What to do: Go on a long thru hike—this is your chance to keep going down the trails, since you don’t have to keep yourself within a one-day radius of a campsite stuck in place. Your campsite is literally on your back and you can take it with you wherever you go. You can either do a loop on a long trek over several days back to your car or bus stop, or have someone pick you up and drop you off at the beginning and end. On the Long Trail in Vermont, it’s common for people to pick up hikers and take them to town or back to their car. On hikes like the Appalachian Trail, which stretches across many states on the east coast, there are even lean-tos scattered along the route in case you’d rather sleep under cover in the event of inclement weather.
Key tip: Double up. Look for multi-purpose items like a spork, and use the same cup you drink out of as the cup to boil your soup and eat from. Seems like a small thing, but as Christiansen says, “every ounce matters.”