How to Go Camping Like a Pro

What first-time campers need to know including what to plan for, what gear to bring and more.

Like everything else in life, knowing how to do something comes with a trial-and-error period.

We're here to help minimize the error portion of the equation when it comes to pitching a tent, if that's the kind of camping envisioned. Follow our lead to locating the perfect campground, the kind of equipment needed and basic recommendations to get on the path to successful first-time camping.

Shenandoah National Park

Location, Location, Location

Finding the right location can make all the difference, and that includes the site at the desired camping location. There are many places to begin looking, such as the National Park Service, state parks, Bureau of Land Management and Kampgrounds of America (KOA). Campsites that can be driven to, have electricity and/or some kind of facilities may be the most desirable for first-timers. Backcountry camping—typically sites only reachable by foot or boat, often hours away from civilization—isn't recommended for the novice camper. 

"I recommend car camping over backcountry camping for a first-time experience," said Kathy Kupper, National Park Service spokesperson. "Most parks have multiple campgrounds. There are also rangers and campground hosts who can provide information and instruction. Several parks also host 'Camping 101'-type programs to introduce people to camping. A ranger usually leads the program and stays with the campers. Sometimes the tent and gear are provided as well." 

James H. Floyd State Park

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources State Parks & Historic Sites goes one step further with its First-Time Camper Program.

First-time campers, specifically those who have never camped in one of the 12 participating Georgia State Parks, can access all the program has to offer, including a six-person tent with up to six sleeping pads and other basic equipment. In addition to the availability of restrooms and hot showers, campers receive guidance from a ranger.

"Often the participants are not comfortable in the unfamiliar outdoor environment," said Ellen Graham, chief naturalist for Georgia DNR Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division. "This program allows them to try it with assistance prior to investing in their own outdoor gear. The First-Time Camper program offers a safe first-time camping experience with rangers on call which gives many beginners a sense of security." 

Don't Forget to Bring the Basics

Location can also help determine what gear campers need. 

While camping somewhere that doesn’t offer equipment, shelter—a tent—is one of the first priorities. Sleeping bags are good for slumber, but the aforementioned sleeping pad adds an extra layer between bag and ground and that bit of comfort can make all the difference in the world. 

"Get a decent sleeping bag and a decent tent, it doesn’t necessarily have to be high end," said Pat Doyle, Montana State Parks' marketing and communications manager. "Get a solid three-season tent that can withstand most any weather. Get a bigger tent that kids can move around in and make it a fun place to hang out in."

What the intended activity is naturally plays a part in what to bring. Sneakers may be good for some areas, but hiking boots are the go-to footwear for rougher terrain. Camping on a beach may require a totally different array of clothing options and equipment.

With all the different regions in the country that play host to campers, Doyle advises heading to a local outdoor store for the best information about the type of equipment/attire that would be most useful.

It's hard to make it through the adventure without food, and while considering what to bring, don't forget to add cooking utensils and pots and pans.

"Bring food that is easy to cook like hot dogs ... keep it simple," Doyle said. "Keep food safe in places like the car or in a bear-proof box," he added.

Some places may have a supply of firewood available but it's best to check before arriving empty handed.

“Make sure there’s a great fire experience. Everyone likes sitting around a campfire at night,” said Mike Gast, Kampgrounds of America vice president/communications.

Cell phone service and GPS may not be available, so an old-school paper map is handy to have. Printing one out ahead of time is an option or ranger stations near park entrances should have one. 

How to Plan Ahead and Have a Backup Plan

No matter how successful the planning stage, something is most likely going to go awry. A dry run in the backyard beforehand is well worth the effort.  It helps ensure equipment is working and you have the right accessories—such as the right fuel for a stove. It might make for a long trip upon arriving at a campsite to find that new hiking boots don't fit and gear needed doesn't all go into that just-purchased backpack.

KOA has 486 locations nationwide, almost all with tent sites available, so those wanting to try a dry run outside the backyard may have a place nearby to experiment.

“We’re pretty close to just about everybody, your first trip doesn’t have to be Yellowstone," Gast said. "You can go right there in your own hometown and give it a try on the weekend.”

While a spur-of-the-moment trip might be exciting, it is best to check with the intended campsite and reserve a spot in advance.

"You don't need to get up at 5 am to get on the road and get a site," Doyle said.

When planning activities, take into account whether all will be physically able to participate. Despite best intentions, there may be injuries or someone may get separated from the group. Every camper should have a list of names and contact info of the group members in addition to vehicle identifiers. 

While you think you know what the weather will be, it's advisable to have gear for adverse conditions or know where alternate places to stay—read motel/hotel—are.