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Beginner's Guide to Camping

• Camping • May 27, 2021 • 10 min read

Planning your first camping trip? Check out this comprehensive beginners guide for tips on what to take, fun activities to do whilst you're there and how to cope if it rains.
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I remembered vividly the first time I went camping. I was just a kid, helped set up the tent and then run in and out of it. My father would then go to the lake and bring back some trout. Wrapped them with lemon and bacon, grilled them over a campfire and we got a delicious meal.

After a long period of night activity, we would sleep in the forest and get up early to watch the sunrise before heading back home. It was an amazing experience but it all comes with some preparation. So, whether you're planning your next holiday or your first night sleeping under canvas, this guide will ensure you have a fun, hassle-free camping trip.

Common terms you may hear from other campers

  • Bivouac – a temporary camp during bad weather used by hikers
  • DEET – ingredient in many insect repellents
  • Embers – firewood that has burned down to a steady glowing heat good for cooking
  • Footprint – the square-foot measurement of the bottom of a tent
  • Gear Loft – a net or flap near the tent ceiling that holds small items
  • Grommet – reinforced rings on a tent used for tying it down
  • Guy Line – cord that reinforces a tent or rain fly
  • Hiking – long walks in the outdoors
  • Kindling – small, dead twigs used to start a fire
  • Mummy Bag – a sleeping bag that fits closely and conserves body heat
  • Poncho – a rain garment with a hood that covers most of the body
  • Rain Fly – tarp that prevents rain and condensation from entering a tent
  • Seam Tape – tape that seals tent and equipment seams against water
  • Tent Stakes – spikes that hold down tent lines
  • Tinder – wood shavings, dry grass, or fibres to start kindling burning
  • Vestibule – a covered area in front of a tent door

Types of camping spots

Whatever kind of camping you have in mind, you can find a place to make it happen. If you're wild camping, everything you need has to be carried, and you set up camp without the benefit of a cleared space or electricity and water. Be aware that in many places you are not allowed to wild camp without the land owners permission. Some parts of Dartmoor National Park are exceptions; in those you’re free to wild camp – provided you follow some simple rules like 'leave no trace'.

At a campground, you'll find a level pad for pitching the tent and usually communal restrooms and showers. Recreational vehicle (RV) campgrounds have hook-ups for running water and electricity. Cabin camping puts you right in the middle of nature, but with beds to sleep in and a real kitchen. We'll focus on tent camping in this article.

Camping preparation

First, decide where you want to camp. A good place to start is the Camping and Caravanning Club website where you can see a large choice of campsites on a map. Once you've narrowed it down, read online reviews about other people's experiences there, which will also give you an idea of the best time of year to camp at that site. Find out whether there are trails, creeks or other natural attractions to be found at the camp.

If you're planning to bring a pet, make sure it's allowed. If needed, bring along enough prescription medicine to last a few more days than you plan to camp. Don't forget eyeglasses and contact lenses and remember to check the weather!

Food to take camping

You'll want to bring perishable and non-perishable food on your camping trip. You can plan on eating the food that doesn't last, like uncooked meat, prepared salads and soft cheese, in the first couple of days. As long as you have a good cooler, you can bring refrigerated foods, especially if you'll have access to ice to replenish the cooler. Here are some suggestions for perishable foods.

  • Hard salami (perishable once cut)
  • Cooked bacon
  • Meat
  • Fresh fish and poultry
  • Eggs
  • Milk, yoghurt and soft cheese
  • Peppers, celery, lettuce, mushrooms and avocados
  • Strawberries, blueberries, grapes and cherries
  • Mayonnaise and salad dressings
  • Jams and jellies

Non-perishable camping food

This should make up the bulk of the food you take for camping, since it keeps without refrigeration. Pasta, rice and bread will fill you up and it's not hard to make them into savoury meals with other ingredients.

Peppers and onions will add flavour to your meals, and radishes, carrots and cucumbers make a salad delicious. Farm-fresh eggs can go in the non-perishable category as long as they've just been laid and haven't been washed, since that removes the layer of protection that keeps them fresh.

  • Beef jerky
  • Canned tuna and chicken
  • Canned Ham
  • Hard cheese
  • Powdered milk
  • Butter (keeps 2-3 days)
  • Nuts (lightly salted)
  • Carrots, celery, cucumber, tomatoes, onions and potatoes
  • Apples, citrus fruits, melons and bananas
  • Beans, rice, cereal, crackers and bread
  • Pasta, tortillas, oatmeal and grits

Snacks and drinks for camping

The snacks and drinks you bring will liven up your choices and keep everyone happy.

Oranges, grapes, apples and melons are nutritious between-meal-snacks that stay fresh for a long time. Carrot sticks and celery with peanut butter are snacks you can throw in a backpack if you're going for a long hike. Hard cheese with crackers is a tasty treat, and nuts will always keep well. Make your own trail mix so you can be sure it doesn’t have too much salt or sugar, and pop some popcorn to bag before you go.

Popular camping snacks include:

  • Beef jerky
  • Energy bars
  • Peanut butter
  • Raisins
  • Homemade trail mix
  • Popcorn
  • Chocolate, marshmallow and digestive biscuits for s'mores!

Water is a must when camping and most campsites have access to fresh water. If you're wild camping, that means bringing the water with you. Sports drinks will replace sugar and electrolytes you lose during physical activity like hiking and swimming. The easiest way to bring them along is in a dry form that can be added to water bottles.

Tips for handling camp food

  1. Wash your hands frequently when handling any food.
  2. Store raw meat in a separate cooler.
  3. Bring fruits and veggies that are at the peak of ripeness but not bruised.
  4. Keep different types of produce separate to prevent overripening.
  5. Freeze some foods and beverages before you go to act as extra ice in the cooler.

Camping clothes

Depending on the time of year, your clothing will keep you dry and warm or help you stay cool. It also protects against insect bites, scrapes and too much sun. You need to be prepared for a change in the weather, including rain. Here are some basics to pack for your camping trip, depending on the season.

  • Fast drying underwear/long underwear
  • Polyester blend or wool socks
  • Comfortable pyjamas
  • Nylon or blend t-shirts/long-sleeved shirts
  • Joggers
  • Shorts/long pants
  • Bathing Suit
  • Cotton bandanas
  • Hats
  • Gloves (summer and winter)
  • Trainers
  • Hiking shoes
  • Flip-flops for the shower and creek
  • Rain poncho

As you can see from the list above, it's best to avoid clothing and underwear made of cotton. That's because it absorbs moisture more easily and stays wet longer. Cotton bandanas are the exception, because you'll need them to mop or absorb sweat in the heat. One tip you'll see in a lot of camping guides is to bring a lot of socks. There may be days when you go through several pairs!

Tent camping gear

  • Tent
  • Rope
  • Extra stakes
  • Footprint tarp for under the tent
  • Extra tarps and blankets
  • Foam pads or air mattresses
  • Lanterns
  • Several flashlights
  • Extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Cooking gear plus utensiles
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Toilet paper
  • Walking sticks
  • Fire kindling
  • Duct tape
  • Heavy duty 30-gallon bin bags

What to do when it rains

This is a situation that reveals the value of the extra tarps you brought. If you have to set up your tent in the rain, tie a rope between two trees and hang a tarp over it, then stake the corners of the tarp or tie them to adjacent trees. This will give you some coverage while you set up. If your tent doesn't have a vestibule in front of the door, set up a tarp over the door so you'll have a place to leave your wet clothes and shoes.

You can always play cards and other games or take a relaxing nap while you're waiting for the rain to stop. If the rain doesn't seem to be going away, you might decide to go hiking anyway. That's when the walking sticks will come in handy for keeping your balance on the slippery, wet ground. Make sure the rain ponchos you bring have ventilation and are large enough to cover a hiker with a pack.

Fun camp activities

  • Walking
  • Exploring
  • Board and Card Games
  • Outdoor Games
  • Family time
  • Storytelling
  • Cooking over a fire
  • Kayaking
  • Swimming
  • Fishing

How to break camp

​Cleaning and packing a tent

Before you pack up your tent, you'll want to remove and pack up everything inside it. Then sweep up any dirt or leaves that remain on the floor of the tent.

Ideally, a tent should be packed up after it's had a chance to air out, allowing any moisture to evaporate. Open up the windows and unzip the front door and, while you're waiting, take a damp sponge and wipe any dirty areas on the outside of the tent.

Once the tent is dry and aired out, collapse it and fold it toward the openings. This will give the air inside a chance to escape, allowing you to roll it up compactly. The tent poles should be used as a spine to snugly roll the canvas tent around.

Make sure the tent has been folded to about the width of the tent poles before you start rolling, and take the time to make sure it's a tight roll.

​Leaving the site clean

Campers should always follow the policy of "leave no trace" when the camping trip is over. It's also extremely important to completely extinguish your campfire. Here are steps to take that will make sure it doesn't reignite and cause a forest fire.

  1. Allow the wood to completely burn out until it's ashes if you can.
  2. Keep pouring water on the campfire until all hissing sounds stop.
  3. If the water's not available, smother the campfire with dirt or sand, first stirring it into the embers.
  4. If there are any remaining sticks or logs, scrape them and douse with water or smother with dirt.
  5. Make sure that the fire is no longer warm before you leave.

Top tips for first time campers

Part of your camping preparation should be to read up on mistakes beginner campers make, so you don't make them yourself! Here are a few of the most common ones.

  • Make sure the ground is level (or as level as can be) before pitching your tent
  • Remove any sticks/stones/debris before pitching your tent
  • Remember spare batteries for things like lanterns and torches
  • Store food in tight containers and discard of rubbish in campsite bins straight away - you don't want to attract animals.
  • If you have to pack up in the rain, make sure you air and dry your tent as soon as you get home.

Be responsible

Whether you're pitching up at a camp site or sleeping in the wilderness, it's important you do you bit to help protect the environment. As the saying goes 'leave nothing but footprints'. This video from Cycling UK explains how to wild camp responsibily.

Poo like a pro

And finally..... the all important question. If you're wild camping, what should you do if you need a number two? This video from BMC will give you the answer, so you can do you bit in leaving things just as you found it.

Author Paul Turner is the man behind where he shares all his knowledge and experiences on camping.

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