Travel

Expert Camping Advice to Help You GTF Outside This Summer

Tips for people who don’t really camp but kinda want to camp.

After spending half the year cooped up inside due to a certain virus we’re all sick of thinking about, our collective need for a good old fashioned camp trip has never been greater. 

But camping is intimidating, especially for first-timers. The key is preparation -- whether you’re pitching a tent in your backyard with Wet Hot American Summer on the iPad, camping in a national park, or solo trekking in the remote backcountry with nothing but stars to keep you company.
 
You’ll need different gear and insider knowledge for each situation, so we tapped a panel of experts in outdoorsy pursuits: Isabelle Portilla, Divisional Vice President at REI Co-Op Brands; Darren Christiansen, guide at Kirk’s Fly Shop in Estes Park, Colorado; Mary Monroe Brown, director of Wisconsin’s Office of Outdoor Recreation; and Josh Haring, owner of The Mountain Air in San Luis Obispo, California.

Here’s what to bring (sunscreen!), what to do (stargaze!), and what to know (bears and bug prevention!) for a successful camping trip.

MORE: Hiking more your speed? Here’s our expert guide to the best hiking gear.

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,” Portilla says. “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 6-person, family-friendly 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 ball jars around the tent for added ambiance. 
 
What to do: Read (bring a good headlamp for this), play games (look here for inspiration), toss around the ol’ pigskin -- whatever makes you actually enjoy being outdoors. Maybe just sit in silence for a while.

Key tip: Haring notes that, wherever you camp, “sleeping pads are very important.” In addition to comfort, they 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. Christiansen loves Thermarest pads, which “pack down really nice and keep your shoulders from digging into the ground.”

camping
Comfort is king on a car camping trip | Jimmy Conover/Unsplash

How to go car camping

Ready to venture beyond your yard? Car camping is easy, doesn’t require any special permits (usually), and still lets you get out into some pretty wild places. Feel free to bring as much as you can fit into your vehicle. You can even throw a mattress in the back if you don’t want to mess with a tent.

The basic setup: Haring extolls the virtues of a good cooler. Stock it with beers and groceries and make yourself at home. Bring camping chairs to set up outside: these love seats are particularly awesome, or check out the furniture from Helinox

The add-ons: 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.”

What to do:Hiking, biking, 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.

charcuterie
Hide all charcuterie from bears | Tom King/Unsplash

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.

MORE:  National parks are slowly re-opening after COVD-19. Here’s the status.
 
The basic setup: To avoid unwanted run-ins with bears and other wily critters, you’ll need to put all of your “smellables” away (this includes toothpaste). Christiansen strongly recommends using bear canisters like a Counter Assault Bear Keg. (Note that bears are even 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.
 
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.

camping on beach
Prepare for wind and rain | Fernando Garcia/Unsplash

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 huge challenge due to high winds, rain, and bugs. It’s also dirtier, because sand. 
 
The basic setup: Prepare for wind and rain with a good tent rainfly and tarp, and be sure to very tightly stake the tent down. 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. 

The add-ons: Haring recommends a good sunshade like this one. Bugs are a thing on the beach; head nets can be a life-saver, along with citronella candles or anything that creates a fog. Lastly, invest in a good Gore-Tex rain jacket from brands like Patagonia, Simms, Columbia and North Face
 
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.

camping
Bring extra socks and a back-up satellite phone | Tower Paddle Boards/Unsplash

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. 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: 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.

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A headlamp is key | Rahul Bhosale/Unsplash

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 of it (you’re dead!) can ruin a trip. On the plus side: 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, while Brown is partial to packs from REI or Johnson Outdoors. For cooking, opt for a lightweight Jetboil; Haring likes the MSR Pocket Rocket.

No add-ons! Just water: 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.
 
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 “every ounce matters,” says Christiansen. And, most importantly, leave no trace.

Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile