There are a lot of ways to go car camping and if you’re just starting out it can be overwhelming. Here are some helpful tips for first time campers and things you should think about before you even make a campsite reservation.
Don’t go alone:
The easiest way to get started camping is to go with someone. If you have friends that camp, they’d probably love to take you with and may even have equipment you can borrow. You’ll get a sense of how to set things up and in what order.
Don’t buy anything:
For the very first time, you should borrow as much equipment as you can. Places like REI also rent equipment, which is awesome. REI has an awesome return policy, but you don’t want to be the person returning 5 pieces of gear because camping is not for you. I honestly don’t know many people who have gone camping and hated it, but there must be someone. If you can’t borrow gear, try to get it as cheaply as possible.
If you’re going with all beginners the first time we highly recommend you practice setting up the tent in your yard before you go. It’s also a lot of fun to spend the night in your backyard to see how it goes and what gear you need to bring.
If you’re an experienced camper and you’ve just bought a new piece of gear, try that out at home first too. Make sure you know how the stove lights, that the water filter has all of the parts and the headlamp came with the right batteries.
Critter Case: Momma Critter’s first night camping was at a State Park 45 minutes away from home. That way if everything went wrong, packing up and leaving in the middle of the night was an easy possibility. Same with Tiny Critter, we were about an hour away from home for the first trip and mere minutes away from actually pulling the plug on the whole thing when he finally settled down and slept.
When you’re packing to go camping, it’s tempting to want to put the tent and sleeping bags in the car first. Those are things that NEED to go with and they’re a single shot item. I want to put them in the car and be done with them, so then you can go finish packing the kitchen box.
But when you get to the campsite, you don’t want to pull out your pillows, kitchen stuff, camp games and clothing out of the car to get at the tent. If at all possible, pack the tent and sleeping gear LAST. Then you’ll be able to pitch the tent without having to unload the whole car first.
Once the tent is set up, all of the sleeping pads, pillows and blankets can go right into the tent instead of sitting on a dirty picnic table or the ground.
Have your lights and headlamps readily available, especially if you’re pulling into camp in the evening. It gets dark quick and digging through boxes and bags trying to find a flashlight is super frustrating.
Note: Check the weather. If it’s possibly going to rain, keep the rain gear handy too!
Know Your Campsite:
As a beginning camper you’ll need to check your campground’s amenities so you’re prepared. Most car camping sites we’ve been to have a place to park the car, a clearing to put up a tent, an area to start a fire, a picnic table and a bathroom building with some form of toilets and running water. But not all campgrounds are like that.
Some sites have electric plug-ins for trailers and RVs (usually at a higher fee) but tents are typically allowed there as well. If the campground doesn’t allow fires, you’ll need a stove and fuel to have warm food and drinks.
There may be sites without tables, so a small folding table will be a must for meal prep, eating and card games.
Bring extra food:
Being outside and in fresh air tends to make us more hungry than normal. You should bring extra easy to eat snacks; they work really well to fend off unhappy campers. Tiny Critter prefers Nilla Wafers, Fruit Snacks and Pringles.
Also you should bring at least 1 extra meal in case something goes wrong. Our suggestion is to bring the makings for peanut butter sandwiches (or the spread of your choice). They’re simple to make, the ingredients won’t spoil on the trip out and they’ll give you a decent amount of energy. They can also be made without heat, so if the stove runs out of propane, you can still eat.
Critter Case: We once went on a 9 mile hike in camp (without Tiny Critter) and planned on eating at least one meal a day at a local food tent that was in the campground. Due to extenuating circumstances the food tent wasn’t open on 2 of the days and we ran low on meals. Luckily one of our campmates brought extra dehydrated meals and very kindly offered them to us. We would have survived on the extra protein bars, but it was nicer to have a warm meal.
Have a plan for bad weather
You need to decide before leaving on your trip if toughing out bad weather is worth it.
If a little rain doesn’t bother you, pack the rain gear and extra dry socks. If you’re excited by the idea of snuggling up by a fire to ward off the cold, then pack warm clothes and go for it! Bring a battery operated fan and a light sheet if you’re excited for hot weather and are willing to give it a shot.
If you’re farther away from home, you may want to make sure you know of a near-by motel if the weather gets rough.
Critter Case: We once took Tiny Critter to a campground 2 hours away in the early Spring. We’d already stayed overnight in chilly weather with him (and had to improvise socks into gloves) so we thought we were well prepared for the cold this time. It was getting dark as we were setting up our tent and we quickly realized it was so cold we could see our breath. Our friends that were meeting us at that camp site stayed in our already set up tent for the night. We lucked out that the nearest motel was 20 minutes away and had a vacancy. We went back the next morning and had some lovely day hikes with everyone, but it just wasn’t worth staying in the tent with Tiny Critter in the cold.
Use these tips to enjoy your first camping trip! Tell us about your first family trip in the comments!
I was a scout, from Tiger Cub to Eagle. I’ve done the day camps, the weekend trips, and the high-adventure, week-long outings. I love any and all camping and I’m always looking for the next adventure with my family!