What to know before camping for the first time?

Camping for Beginners: Everything First-Timers Need to Know

What to know before camping for the first time?

What to know before camping for the first time? When the weather is nice, people start looking for ways to get outside and enjoy it. Camping is one of the most immersive outdoor activities.

If you’re thinking about getting into camping, there are a few things you should know before heading into the woods for a weekend of fresh air and sunshine. Here is our guide to camping for beginners, informed by experts.

Use these expert tips to get ready for your beginner camping trip.

Camping for Beginners: Everything First-Timers Need to Know

Different Types of Camping

Most casual campers and professionals agree that there are two types of camping — car and backpack — that include more specific categories like glamping, RV camping and base camping. So what’s the difference?

Car camping means you remain near your car, so you can store supplies or even sleep in your car. At a car camping campsite, Watta says “you generally have a boxed area with sand called a tent pad where you pitch your tent, a picnic table and a fire pit.” Other amenities may include restrooms, shower facilities and bear lockers.

“In base camping,” says Watta, “you usually carry what you need in a backpack, hike in a few miles, and set up your campsite.” This campsite serves as a home base for the duration of the trip. From there, you can go on day trips and hikes to explore the area.

Where Should Beginners Camp?

Backpacking takes things a step further. On a backpacking trip, you’ll pack up in the morning and hike out to a new campsite. This is a great way to explore a larger area in one trip. It’s also useful for trips where it takes more than a day to hike to the destination.

Glamping and RV camping are the least rugged of the camping types. Glamping, or glamorous camping, may or may not involve hiking to a campsite; the site is usually set up and ready when you arrive. These large tents can be rented through sites like Airbnb. RV camping means you sleep in a recreational vehicle, such as a motor home, travel trailer or camper van.Where Should Beginners Camp?

The backyard is the easiest place to practice setting up a tent and sleeping outdoors. After backyard camping, McMahon and Watta recommend car camping for beginners. Having a car nearby gives you space to overpack and shelter from rain, and leave quickly if you need to. But car camping still provides the experience of sleeping outdoors in a tent.

Start at a traditional campsite, such as a state or national park or a KOA. These locations usually have staff or park rangers, bathroom facilities and paved trails, along with other campers.

Once you’ve become comfortable at a traditional campground and familiar with the things you need to pack, McMahon recommends “dispersed camping,” where you drive to a backcountry location but still set up camp near your car.

“This is a nice ‘second step,’ ” McMahon says. “You’re not around others and really have to be prepared, but [you] still have your car so that you can have extra gear and the ability to drive if you really need to leave.”

When to Camp

With the right gear people can camp in any season, but moderate temperatures are best for beginners. Timing will depend on your location. Generally speaking, spring and fall are the best times to camp. Each season has its benefits and drawbacks.

“Spring is a great time to head out with fewer insects,” Watta says. “Keep in mind that it’s colder at higher elevations, so if you’re out in the fall, pay attention to the evening temperatures.” Winter camping requires specialty gear and is not ideal for first-time camping. We’ll talk more about packing and gear below.

When you’re packing for a camping trip, McMahon recommends a “load out,” regardless of how experienced you are with camping. A load out means laying all your supplies on the floor like in the photo above. You can pack more stuff if you’re car camping. If you’re backpacking, you’ll have less room and may need to bring less.

Camping for Beginners: Everything First-Timers Need to Know

As insurance, create a physical list and check items off as you pack them, not as you add them to the load out. “I’ve seen more than one person check off that they had the item nearby, but it never made it into the backpack or car,” Watta says.

Speaking of the car, be thoughtful in the way you load it. Don’t bury your 10 essentials beneath your pillows and games. Load in a way that lets you take out the most important stuff first, namely your shelter and water. “You also don’t want to be scrounging around in the dark trying to find your headlamp,” Watta says.

Having a plan and taking safety measures are other important parts of preparing for a camping trip. Always choose your location and study the route ahead of time. Keep a paper map in case your cell phone dies or you can’t find a signal. Watta also says to make sure you “have identified how and where you’re going to get water, and that someone knows where you’re going and when you’ll be back.”Packing List

Your packing list will depend largely on the type of camping. Backpackers who need to save space and weight may wear the same outfit every day. Car campers, on the other hand, “may pack an outfit a day, a larger stove and more food because it’s more about the campsite experience, and the car is nearby for easy storage,” says Watta.

At the least, your packing list should include 10 essential items. McMahon outlines these:

  • Navigation
  • Headlamp
  • Sun protection
  • First aid
  • Knife
  • Fire
  • Shelter
  • Extra food
  • Extra water
  • Extra clothes.

These 10 essentials are also recommended by the National Park Service. There are some options within each category. For example, you might choose to bring multiple forms of lighting, like a flashlight and a headlamp. Or you might bring a multi-tool or repair kit in addition to a knife. Some creature comforts are good additions to the essential 10, especially when camping for beginners.

Camping Clothing

Everyone will have different clothing preferences, and the list will change depending on the season. However, McMahon offers a simple formula for all seasons: base layer, insulation and shell.

When it’s cold, the base layer will be warmer. In the summer, a light, moisture-wicking fabric like a running shirt is better. The insulation layer provides warmth. This might be a puffer jacket. Finally, the shell protects from wind and rain.

“The best shells are generally made with Gore-Tex,” says McMahon. It’s important to pack one regardless of the season. “Even on a 70 degree day, when you get covered in sweat hiking and stop to rest in a windy area, you can find yourself shivering,” McMahon says.

Other necessary camping clothes include hats and gloves, long pants, hiking shoes and lots and lots of socks. Seriously. Wet socks are uncomfortable and, as Watta says, they’re “a great way to get blisters.”

Camping for Beginners: Everything First-Timers Need to Know

Camping Food and Cooking Essentials

Some campsites have grills and fire pits. Others don’t. You might find a camp stove comes in handy in both situations. To make camping meals easy, Watta says to bring a “stove, fuel, lighters or matches, a pot to cook with, bowl to eat out of and something to eat with.” The latter could be an easy-to-pack spork.

As for camping food itself, pack nutritious meals and snacks that are easy to prepare without a stocked kitchen. McMahon treats himself to hard meats and cheeses for the first night, then settles for dehydrated meals, which aren’t half bad. His favorite is Mountain House. Dehydrated camping food is available from many stores and brands. Salty snacks and energy gels, like GU Energy, help on long hikes.

Camping Tools and Gear

Again, essential outdoor tools and gear will depend on the campsite location and season. You probably won’t need a water filtration system at a campsite with running water and drinking fountains.

Here are a few camping products to consider:

  • Water filtration
  • Fire starter
  • Firewood
  • Hand axe, hatchet or saw
  • Compass
  • Emergency signal, like a whistle and mirror
  • Cord or rope
  • Seating
  • Insect repellent
  • Hammock
  • Multi-tool
  • Duct tape
  • Mallet or hammer
  • Food storage

Sleeping Gear

Pack sleeping clothes that are appropriate for the nighttime temperatures during your trip. The same rule goes for your sleeping bag; some are rated for temperatures below zero, others for 40 F and above. You certainly don’t want to be too cold at night, but being too hot is another concern.

“Try to aim for a sleeping bag that is 10-15 degrees within the temperature range for the evening,” Watta suggests. This will keep you comfortable if temperatures fluctuate slightly. A blow-up sleeping pad and pillow make a world of a difference without taking up much packing space.

Pro tip: “Don’t blow (the pillow) up all the way,” Watta says. “Keeping it a little underinflated helps it move less and feel more like your usual pillow.”

Campsite Prep

Once you arrive at the campsite, setting up your shelter is usually the first step. Choose a spot where the ground is level and smooth. “Leave a little weight in the tent itself,” says McMahon. “You’d be surprised how well they can fly with just a little wind.”

It’s also a good idea to set up everything you’ll need for sleeping that night, even if you arrive early in the morning. “I promise you that blowing up a sleeping pad is the last thing you’ll want to do after a full day of adventuring,” McMahon says.

Next, you’ll need to find a place to store your camping food, particularly if you’re backpacking or base camping. “Food should always be kept 100 yards from camp,” Watta says. “As a matter of fact, anything with a scent should be removed. Bears and other animals have learned that where they smell toothpaste, there’s food.”

A bear canister can go beneath a log or between some trees, while an Ursack or dry bag can be hung from a tree.

Camping Activities

Watta and McMahon recommend hiking and kayaking as camping activities. Nature photography, bird watching and sunset spotting are other fun ways to enjoy the views around your campsite. If you’re car camping, you can pack a yard game like giant Jenga or cornhole, but a simple deck of cards is a must for games by the fire.

Have Fun

So, starting out slow. Getting yourself a backpack that hugs your hips well and carries the weight that you are going to be packing around is probably essential for just your long term enjoyment being able to carry comfortable weight is going to allow you to enjoy the steps you are taking while you are outside exploring,” Salinas said.

He said shelter is also going to be very important. That could be a camper or a tent.

“You are also going to want your sleep system along with that which if you are a camper, you probably have your bed that gets set up with your home amenities. Those are kind of the big three pillars that you will need for success other than that you move on to your essentials,” he said.

Camping for Beginners: Everything First-Timers Need to Know

Which includes things like layered clothing, a good pair of socks and sun protection.

“You need your fire resources, first aid kit, including a stool, utility tool and a knife,” he said.

Do not forget about the bug spray. 

“Especially if you are getting on a late hike or out fun on a day hike that runs late. You want a light to lead you home,” he said.

Food preparation is also important. If you are backpacking, bring food for the days that you are out and enough for an extra day.

“That unfortunate event that an accident may happen that takes you out there a day longer, you want to have that fuel to carry you over, just as a precaution,” he said.

Another important essential is water filtration and perhaps the most important thing, do not forget to have fun.

Judging by how many campsites already are booked most of the summer, it appears the 2020 pandemic-fueled push to get outdoors is continuing big-time in 2021. But there are other options — private campgrounds, RV parks, national forests, municipal campgrounds and more. And if you’re willing to drive a little and maybe try some new locations, there are still available campsites in the state park system for the upcoming long weekend. You’ll have to head south into farm country to find a park that still has openings for this weekend — places like Upper Sioux Agency, Camden and Lac qui Parle state parks all had some Memorial Day weekend sites as of earlier this week.

Camping on the Fourth of July weekend?

Pretty much the same issue; the hotspot destinations were reserved back in March. But a few state parks still had openings as of earlier this week, including Crow Wing State Park on the Mississippi River near Brainerd (better hurry, those will go fast) and Mille Lacs Kathio.

Savanna Portage State Park near McGregor — with hiking trails, a swimming beach and fishing — had about a dozen drive-in sites available earlier this week for the July 4 weekend. Like the southern state parks, you may not have heard of it. But trying new camping options can be fun, too.


Savanna Portage has nearly 16,800 acres of old-growth hardwoods, tamaracks, trails and glacial lakes. The water at the Continental Divide here flows west into the Mississippi River and east into Lake Superior. Anglers enjoy the four fishing lakes’ panfish, trout, and bass. Hiking trails into the woods often provide glimpses of wildlife, the lakes are home to loons and waterfowl, and the bogs attract small animals and songbirds.

There are openings as most state park campgrounds at times this summer if you are willing and able to be flexible with your dates. Maybe go camping Wednesday through Friday, or Sunday through Tuesday, if your schedule allows.More on Minnesota state park camping

All campsites at Minnesota state parks must be reserved in advance — there are no first- come, first-served sites available.

To check for Minnesota state park campground availability and to make reservations, go to dnr.state.mn.us and click on “state parks,” then “make a reservation.” You can plug in a specific park to check availability or plug in the dates you want to go camping and see which campgrounds have openings.

You can make a reservation — up to 120 days before your first camping date — on the website or call 866-857-2757. There is a $7 fee to make a reservation online and $10 to make a reservation by phone. There is no fee to make a same-day reservation.

A $35 year-round state park vehicle permit is required and provides unlimited visits to all 75 Minnesota state parks and recreation areas for a full year from the month of purchase.

Overnight camping fees

Overnight camping fees, in addition to the vehicle permit, range from $20 to $25 per night, depending on amenities like flush toilets and showers. Add $10 per night for electric hookup where available and $8 per night for water and sewer hookup where available. Group campsites, for up to 30 people and six vehicles, range from $50 to $300 nightly. Tipis and wall tents are $35-$40 per night, while yurts are $65-$70 per night.

The state park website also has useful lists for first-time campers and information on the “I Can” series of field classes for beginners in camping, paddling, mountain biking, fishing and other activities.Private campgrounds/RV Parks

There are hundreds of such campgrounds across the region. You can go to exploreminnesota.com/places-to-stay/campgrounds and click on private campgrounds by region. (Plug in Northeastern Minnesota and 110 private campground options pop up. But you have to contact the actual site to find out availability.)

Campgroundreviews.com lists an astonishing 515 campgrounds and RV parks in Minnesota with reviews and information on most of them, but again no way to check on date availability.

Another option, Campspot.com can help you find them. Plug in Spooner, Wisconsin, (or wherever) and the dates you want to go and sites will pop up that are available, listed by how far they are from your point of search.

A bird’s eye view of Duluth’s Indian Point Campground on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, shows a number of empty campsites. Like many campgrounds that won’t be the case on weekends and during the summer. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)Hipcamp.com

Camping for Beginners: Everything First-Timers Need to Know

We first told you about the glamping website hipcamp.com back in 2019. It’s a place where you can reserve furnished yurts and clear plastic bubbles to watch the stars and tiny houses (even a former chicken coop in Duluth!) to stay in. Hipcamp encourages and recruits private landowners to open up space — in their backyard, along their lake, river, farm or ranch — for campers to rent. It then lists and promotes those sites, along with most public campgrounds, to prospective campers. But they also have many campsites and campgrounds listed. Just go to hipcamp.com and type in an area where you want to go anywhere in the country. It’s cool.Minnesota State Forest campsites

There are 46 state forest campgrounds in Minnesota state forests (most of them in Northeastern Minnesota) and all the sites are on a first-come, first-served basis with no reservations, so you will have to stop by to see if space is available. They tend to be a bit more primitive than state park campgrounds and do not have resident managers, organized nature programs or modern facilities such as showers and flush toilets. They do have cleared tent or campers areas, vault (pit) toilets, garbage cans, drinking water, fire rings and picnic tables. To see where the state forest campgrounds are located, go to dnr.state.mn.us/state_forests/camping.html. Registration is required via envelopes provided at each campground. Nightly camping is $17; $50 for a group site.Wisconsin state parks

Go to dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Parks. Camping reservations are required and can be made for the same day of your arrival or up to 11 months in advance of your planned date of occupancy. Campers must make a reservation before setting up on any site. Reserve a campsite online at wisconsin.goingtocamp.com or by calling 1-888-947-2757. In addition to nightly camping fees a vehicle permit is required. It’s $28 for Wisconsin resident vehicles ($13 for resident seniors) and $38 for out of state vehicles.Superior National Forest

The home of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is also home to 27 drive-to campgrounds. But like state parks, they fill up fast for popular weekends. Most are on a lake, a few are on rivers, all are in wooded areas with fairly well-spaced campsites. You’ll find drinking water and vault toilets at most, along with boat landings, some fishing docks and hiking trails. Go to recreation.gov and search Superior National Forest. You can book up to six months in advance.

RVs and camper trailers occupy campsites near George’s Pond at the Buffalo House campground Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)Chippewa National Forest

The forest has 21 drive-to campgrounds (and 100 backcountry camping sites) many of which are on or near some of Minnesota’s best fishing lakes. Also part of the federal reservation system at recreation.gov.Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

The northern Wisconsin forest has 25 drive-to campgrounds. Recreation.gov.U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sites

Drive-to campgrounds located at Lake Winnibigoshish Dam, Leech Lake Dam and Pokegama Lake Dam that are hugely popular with fishing families. Go to recreation.gov.Voyageurs National Park

You’ll need a boat, canoe or kayak to camp here, but it won’t be next weekend. Out of 147 water-access campsites in the park, only three were available as of early this week. But if you could start your trip on Memorial Day we found nearly 50 open campsites for a three-night or longer trip. Same goes for July Fourth weekend if you can start on the following Monday. Voyageurs’ 147 campsites are spread out across more than a dozen lakes with another 14 that require a backpack hike in. Permits are $12 to $35 per night. Most sites are on the big lakes of Rainy, Namakan, Kabetogama and Sand Point. All have pit toilets, picnic tables and fire pits. Some have docks or sand beaches to land your boat. Go to recreation.gov and search Voyageurs National Park.

A tent at one of 143 remote, boat-to campsites in Voyageurs National Park. Campgrounds across the country, including in the Northland, are filling up fast for holiday weekends and peak summer weeks. But several options remain if you are willing and able to be flexible with your dates. (John Myers / 2020 / News Tribune)Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

As of early this week there were still a very few permits left for the BWCAW for Memorial Day weekend for a handful of less-popular entry points or unusual permits, like being able only to canoe on Lac La Croix. Go to recreation.gov and search for BWCAW and click on “Explore Available Permits.”

But contrary to popular belief that all BWCAW permits are gobbled up in January, earlier this week we found more than 50 available overnight paddle permits if you are willing and able to start your trip on Memorial Day rather than end it then. Be flexible and you can find open dates.

A word of caution here, the BWCAW is not a resort or RV park. You must be entirely self-sufficient, including finding your way in and out. You need the proper equipment — including a lightweight canoe and lightweight camping gear — and you need to follow the rules. If you have not made a BWCAW trip before, please find someone who knows the ropes to go with you, hire a guide or set up your trip through an outfitter.Isle Royale National Park

The island park on Lake Superior has 36 campgrounds located across the island. Campsites are accessible only by foot (backpack hiking/camping only) or watercraft. All campgrounds offer tent sites, a source of water and outhouses. Some campgrounds on Lake Superior offer shelters and picnic tables. For boaters and parties of six or fewer, overnight permits are free. Backpackers hike from one campground to another, usually traveling 6-8 miles per day. Isle Royale National Park requires an overnight permit from all who stay in the campgrounds, at dock, or who anchor out in a boat. The permits are used to monitor campground use, deliver emergency messages to hiking parties, find lost campers, and serve as a tool to measure backcountry use. There is no fee for the permit, but there is a required entry fee for all park visitors. Camping fees are $7 per person, per night. Typically, extensive planning is required for an Isle Royale trip since you can only get there by plane or ferry, which can be booked well in advance. The campsites are not reservable at recreation.gov. For more information call (906) 482-0984 or go to nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/camping.htm.

For information on passenger ferry service to the island, go to nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/ferry-transportation-services.htm.

Only parties of seven people or more can reserve campgrounds. If you plan to camp alone or with only a few other people, you need to find a campsite early each day. The summer season is busy and popular campgrounds will fill quickly. Most campgrounds are designed for small camping parties and have only a handful of sites. If you arrive at a campsite and it is already claimed, the National Park Service suggests you ask the current campers if they mind if you camp there, too. Most campsites will be large enough to accommodate both groups.

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