In a special report on camping and COVID-19, Kampgrounds of America, Inc. and the North American Camping Report found one-third of travelers are interested in taking their first camping trip. However, planning any kind of trip for the first time can be daunting.
First, I want to dispel the myth that there is only one way to camp. My first camping experience was glamping in Upstate New York in a yurt with catered meals and Wi-Fi, which people told me "wasn't real camping." My second camping experience was in Estes Park, Colorado, where we hiked over a mile to our campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park with no amenities, ate spaghetti and meatballs, and spent the night in a tent under the stars.
As a Black woman, I always thought camping wasn't for people who looked like me — but my perspective changed after those trips, and I would camp again in a heartbeat. Even my limited experience shows there are many levels to camping and you can explore whichever options provide the most comfort and cultivate a positive experience for you.
Danielle Williams, the founder of DiversifyOutdoors.com and the award-winning blog Melanin Base Camp, and Caleb Hartung, the CEO of Campspot, offer up some useful tips and advice to help you avoid newbie mistakes no matter which camping option you decide to try first.
Not Using Your Digital Resources
Technology is one of the most useful ways to help travelers map out their ideal vacation. With over 100,000 campsites, Campspot makes it easy to find the amenities you're looking for within a budget that works for you in 47 states and Ontario, Canada. Whether you're looking for a campsite with a lake, a cabin with air conditioning, a glamping experience, or want to car camp, you can build your ideal experience with a few clicks of the mouse. If you are a camper with a disability, there are also filters that Campspot CEO Caleb Hartung says can help anyone with a disability find the best campgrounds and layout for their needs. "Most campgrounds are required by law to have ADA-accessible sites and cabins, and you can search for those on our site,” he said.
Waiting to Find Community
The outdoors haven't always been safe for Black people to explore due to Jim Crow laws that kept even national parks and other outdoor spaces segregated. With the help of founders like Danielle Williams, who is an avid hiker, and brains behind online platforms DiversifyOutdoors.com and Melanin Base Camp, the open-air doors are opening. "It's not accidental. It's not cultural. We were intentionally kept out of that space,” Williams said. She shares that her reason for creating specific hashtags and platforms was logistical. "The reason for starting Melanin Base Camp was to create a community to find other people that looked like me that enjoyed the outdoors, no matter what their outdoor activity was,” Williams shared.
Venturing Too Far From Home
Traveling to a national park might be on your wishlist, but you can plan that bucket list trip after you get acquainted with camping in your own backyard. "The average camper that is doing it for the first time is actually closer to home [usually 130 miles], which is a good way to start," Hartung said. "I wouldn't recommend a national park for a first-time camper." This is because private campgrounds traditionally offer a higher level of service than national parks. "There's just a lot more staffing in general on a private campground, and these private campgrounds are also easier to access, meaning they're within an hour to an hour and a half from home," he said. Their proximity makes them a more accessible option for two- to three-day weekend trips, which Hartung recommends for first-timers.
Using Negative Language and Being Overly Ambitious
"It matters how we talk about camping and the outdoors," Williams said. "When we use words like, 'I conquered this,' that can sound intimidating and it's not a great language to use with respect to the outdoors. It can also set up a mental barrier for people who think that the outdoors is really intense and requires eight- or nine-mile hikes or backcountry camping,” Williams said. Hartung agreed. "It's kind of like new hiking boots,” he said. “You want to go on some shorter walks and break in the shoes." The same analogy works for camping. "Eventually, if you enjoy the extreme forms of camping, you can make that your new pastime, but I would start by staying in a cabin and having the luxuries of home," said Hartung.
Over-investing in Gear
"You don't have to immediately spring for really expensive gear," said Williams. Sometimes when you're the newcomer in the group, you may feel pressure to overspend on equipment. "There might be a little bit of pressure, even a subtle pressure that people don't realize that they're doing, [when they say things like] 'You shouldn't get this tent from Walmart because it's too heavy, you need to get an ultralight tent from REI,' and you really don't need to,” Williams said. “Your camping gear should vary according to your needs."
Complicating Your Tent Search
If you're looking for a relatively easy tent, "Coleman is a good brand to start with," said Hartung. "They have what they call an instant tent and fast-pitch tent. It's [the instant tent] basically like an umbrella you just pop up, and it's in place. The fast-pitch tent is something that will have color-coded poles. It's not instant, but it's pretty quick." Hartung said these options will help make your experience less frustrating from the start.
Not Packing Layers
The temperature can change pretty drastically as the sun sets, even in the summer months, depending on where you are in the world. Packing layers can be beneficial, but Williams encourages campers to pack light and re-wear clothing. "If your pack is overloaded, that can ruin your trip."
Not Fitting Your Pack Correctly
Pack placement is essential, especially if you're taking a long hike. "Have someone with a little more experience go over that with you to make sure you're wearing gear that fits because you can end up with really bad bruises or worse on your shoulders and back," Williams said.
Leaving Your Water Filter and Snacks at Home
The LifeStraw is one of Williams' go-to's for filtering water when adventuring in the backcountry, even though she says iodine tablets are an option, too. Snacks are important on any trip you take, and this one area where Hartung encourages overpacking. "We encourage people to overpack,” he said. “It's better to have snacks than to run out." If you do run out, you can hopefully pop into the general store or the on-ground cafe to grab a bite, depending on your campsite.
Not Packing Sun Protection, Bug Spray, and Closed-toe Shoes
Protecting your skin is vital to your health, and no one wants to nurse a sunburn that could have been prevented. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing sunscreen with 30 SPF or higher and reapplying it every two hours when you're outdoors. Bug spray is another must-have, and you'll likely regret pretty quickly that you forgot it on your kitchen counter. Aside from the bare necessities to protect your skin from sunburn and bug bites, closed-toe shoes are especially helpful. They'll help prevent muddy feet and keep them protected when hiking or walking the campgrounds.
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