A How-To Guide for the Camping Curious

Is this your first time car camping? (Hint: It is if you’re asking, “What is car camping?”) Use this camping guide for beginners to prepare for your first trip, from finding campsites to packing the right gear.

A How-To Guide for the Camping Curious

Camping in Arches National Park in Moab, Utah

Photo by Jack Sloop/Unsplash

Inevitably, some things will go bust after their pandemic boom—but it’s safe to say that camping isn’t one of them. October 2020 research from Kampgrounds of America (KOA) showed that though the travel industry at large suffered, camping saw strong growth, with “nearly half of all campers indicated either starting camping for the first time or restarting after having not camped in recent years.” In large part, this is because of the perception of safety, and the actual safety of camping: lots of fresh air and wide, open spaces for socially distant trips.

Camping is only getting more popular, with 29 percent of North American leisure travelers replacing a postponed or canceled vacation with a camping trip, according to KOA. Interested in joining the fun? Here’s how to get started.

Sites like the Dyrt show campsites as well as RV sites.

Sites like the Dyrt show campsites as well as RV sites.

Screenshot of the Dyrt

Choosing a campsite

If you’re a novice camper setting out on your own, we recommend going with a “developed” campground relatively close to home for an overnight—one with running water and flushing toilets that’s less than two hours away by car. A good resource for public lands nationwide is recreation.gov, which has booking options for more than 100,000 sites across the country, as well as ratings, nightly rates, and key info for each.

Sites Hipcamp and the Dyrt, meanwhile, have an Airbnb-like interfaces and list available campsites, glampsites, RV spaces, and cabins from private owners; users can filter based on listing type, location (from Waianapanapa State Park, Hawaii, to Mount Desert Narrows Camping Resort, Maine), landscape (the canyons of Utah; the plains of North Dakota), and amenities like showers, picnic tables, and yes, even Wi-Fi.

Renting camping gear

First-time camper? You’d be wise to avoid splurging on a tent and sleeping bags until you’re sure the investment is worth it—and that’s where gear rental companies come in. For a fee, they’ll bundle everything you need and deliver it to your doorstep or, if you’re going farther away and planning to camp out, to your destination.

All gear gets thoroughly cleaned inbetween each use, and sleeping bags and sleeping pads are treated by a professional cleaner or given a wash with anti-microbial spray. Even better: Gear is updated regularly, which means you could test a number of the newest options before you decide to buy.

Some of the best camping gear rental companies:

Outdoors Geek: Basic camping packages with a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag start at $69 for a one- to three-day rental period, while stylish “fancy camping” kits are $268 and up. Round-trip, nationwide UPS shipping is extra, or you can pick up your kit at Outdoor Geek’s Denver location.

CampCrate: The basic CampCrate package comes with a tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, headlamp, backpack, and water filter for $92 a day with nationwide, round-trip shipping included.

Arrive Outdoors: One-person camping sets start at $191 for one to three days. Round-trip FedEx shipping in the lower 48 is based on weight; one-person camping kits ship for $20 round-trip, while heavier four-person kits are $30. In-store pickup and local delivery are available in Los Angeles.

Read more: Rental Services That Make Camping Easy

The Wawona tent sleeps six comfortably.

The Wawona tent sleeps six comfortably.

Courtesy of The North Face

Camping essentials to buy

If you’re certain you want to commit to gear of your own, here are some camping gear essentials—and our picks for the top choices:

Tents for car camping

Considering the size of the tent is one thing, but don’t forget to think about the elements: what you save on a cheaper, more lightweight tent may cost you more sleepless nights, as they tend to be sieves for wind, or sometimes aren’t strong enough to withstand a gale.

REI Co-op Half Dome ($279, rei.com): Light, packable tent perfect for three-season camping (but no more than two sleepers).

Marmot Limestone ($370, rei.com): A four-person tent with 61-inch-high ceilings and two large doors.

The North Face Wawona 6 ($450, rei.com): For those with large parties—or those looking for a little more room—this tent sleeps six. Bonus points for its 80-inch ceilings and double wall for durability.

The North Face One Bag weighs less than four pounds.

The North Face One Bag weighs less than four pounds.

Courtesy of the North Face

Sleeping bags

Nemo Disco 30 ($260; $280 long, rei.com): Perfect for side sleepers looking to curl their legs and change positions.

North Face One Bag ($290; $300 long, rei.com): This versatile bag is essentially three in one, thanks to interchangeable layers that adapt to varying temps. We also love it because it weighs less than four pounds.

Sea to Summit Altitude Women’s Down Sleeping Bag (from $379, seatosummitusa.com): Filled with 90 percent premium duck down, this plush bag is as snug as they come, but can also keep you cool and ventilated thanks to a main zip, half-length opposite side zip, and foot zip that lets you use the bag as a comforter. The price of the bag increases slightly with length and lower temperature rating.

This self-inflating pad offers three inches of cushion.

This self-inflating pad offers three inches of cushion.

Courtesy of Sea to Summit

Sleeping pads and cots

Don’t just throw your sleeping bag on the ground and call it good—to give yourself some extra cushion, stick a sleeping pad beneath your bag for some extra comfort. If you’d rather “elevate” off the ground, look instead to a cot.

Sea to Summit Comfort Plus Self-Inflating Sleeping Mat ($140 regular; $160 long, seatosummitusa.com): Bid farewell to feeling the cold hard ground beneath you: This mat offers three inches of supportive foam and has specially designed “Comfort Warmth Zones” in the hip and foot area for added insulation and support.

Exped MegaMat 10 ($229, backcountry.com): Four inches of air and foam make for comfortable, stay-asleep-all-night cushioning.

Helinox Cot One ($300, backcountry.com): Fabric stretched over a lightweight aluminum cot that’s 6.5 inches off the ground? Sign us up for additional comfort.

The MPOWERD Luci recharges via USB or sunlight.

The MPOWERD Luci recharges via USB or sunlight.

Courtesy of Mpowerd


Fires are fine and all, but what to do once you need to locate your lip balm inside a pitch-black tent? Here, the best lighting options for camping, from headlamps to LED lamps.

Petzl Actik Core Headlamp ($70, rei.com): Emits 450-lumen white and red flood lighting with a max beam distance of up to 90 meters, this headlamp is compatible with AAA batteries as well as a USB-rechargeable battery.

MPOWERD Luci Solar String Lights ($40, backcountry.com): An 18-foot string of glittering LED lamps that packs into a fist-sized spool and recharges via USB (8 hours) or direct sunlight (14 hours).

Goal Zero Lighthouse 600 Lantern ($70, rei.com): Not only does this nifty little lantern have collapsible legs and a built-in storage handle, it can recharge via USB or hand crank. Another one of our favorite features? A dial that lets you illuminate just half of the lantern—perfect for extending run time and for setting a spooky-story-time mood.

Save 20 percent off on BioLite products during this sale.

Save 20 percent off on BioLite products during this sale.

Courtesy of BioLite

Kitchenware and dining

Form and function meet around the stove and campfire.

BioLite CampStove 2+ ($150, bioliteenergy.com): This stove captures a wood fire’s exhaust and converts it into electricity that grills burgers, boils water, and even recharges your phone via USB.

Breeo Outpost ($129, breeo.co): A portable grill grate that stakes into the ground and allows you to transform any fire into a ready-to-cook-on grill.

Snow Peak Cutting Board Set ($40, rei.com): We love this super-sharp knife, and we also love that its natural-wood carrying case doubles as a cutting board.

Kelty Camp Kitchen ($75, backcountry.com): Four plates and four bowls made of recycled plastic that nest inside a three-item set of stainless-steel pots and pans.

Stanley Classic Stay-Hot French Press ($65, stanley1913.com): This 48-ounce press makes coffee for a crowd and, crucially, keeps it warm for the late risers.

Read more: Stylish Camping Gear That Will Transform Your Campsite

The JW Down is made of premium duck down and treated with water repellant.

The JW Down is made of premium duck down and treated with water repellant.

Courtesy of Jack Wolfskin

What to wear when camping

Layers and waterproof clothing will make any camping trip more comfortable, no matter if you’re heading out in midsummer or early fall or in New Mexico or North Dakota—trust us, you’ll feel the drop in temperature.


Jack Wolfskin JWP Down ($108, jackwolfskin.com): One of the most versatile options for campers is the 700-fill down jacket from German outdoors retailer Jack Wolfskin. Made with water-resistant Stormlock fabric, the 8.4-ounce jacket helps keep the elements out and the warmth in, but it is also breathable enough to not lead to overheating. (Helpfully, it rolls up into a bag smaller than the size of a Nalgene bottle.)

Arcteryx Venda Anorak ($299, rei.com): For shoulder season and water-based activities like kayaking, we love this jacket. Made with buttery Gore-Tex fabric, it weighs just 9.2 ounces, has a long side zip so it doesn’t bunch when seated, and practically repels any water that hits its surface.

Aether Down Poncho ($350, aether.com): Thanks to custom quilting and sturdy snaps, this plush down-filled poncho doubles as a duvet, so you can stay warm wherever you are.

The prAna Alana pant has snaps at the knee, allowing you to turn the full-length pant into capris.

The prAna Alana pant has snaps at the knee, allowing you to turn the full-length pant into capris.

Courtesy of PrAna


Women’s PrAna Alana Pant ($89, prana.com): AFAR editors love this pant for its versatility and ReZion performance fabric, which has quick-drying properties, is wrinkle-resistant, and has UPF 50+ sun safety built in. Another feature: The pant has knee snaps, so you can turn them into capris to stay cool (or when you need to, you know, cross a river).

Men’s Patagonia Quandary Pants ($79, patagonia.com): Soft, stretchy, and finished with water repellent and 50+ UPF sun protection, these pants are also ecofriendly: They are 5 percent spandex and 95 percent nylon (65 percent of it recycled).

The Pyramid GTX by La Sportiva

The Pyramid GTX by La Sportiva

Courtesy of La Sportiva


Take it from us: A bad pair of boots can ruin your time on a good trail. Whether you’re setting out for 1 mile or 10, these adventure-ready shoes and boots will keep your feet happy.

Vasque Mesa Tek UltraDry ($140, amazon.com): AFAR editors love it for its abrasion-resistant mesh, a cushy footbed, and an outsole that provides extraordinary traction.

La Sportiva Pyramid GTX ($189, sportiva.com): Midcut, classic-style hiking boots with excellent ankle stability and—thanks to the Vibram Nano outsole—excellent traction in various terrains.

Read more: The Best Boots and Hiking Shoes for Women

Merrell Moab 2 Mid Ventilator ($110, backcountry.com): The Moab collection of hiking boots and shoes is one of the most popular options out there for both men and women, thanks to a solid footbed that provides excellent support and traction.

Read more: The Best Boots and Hiking Shoes for Men

Camp kits cover two days of meals.

Camp kits cover two days of meals.

Courtesy of Patagonia

What food to pack—and how to pack it

No matter the types of meals you are looking to prepare, meal planning when camping is essential, even if it means you just draw up a basic schedule of what you’re having, when. Boxed and canned food is popular for a reason: it’s shelf stable and portable, and many entrees will have seasonings mixed in, so all you need to do is heat and eat (an attractive option after a long day of hiking).

If you’re interested in a hybrid option—a meal plan that includes some packaged items as well as a checklist of fresh ingredients—look no further than Patagonia Provisions, which sells an AFAR-approved 2-Day Camp Meal Kit for Two as of summer 2020: Each box comes with five “pouched” meals, three tins of seafood, one box of wild sockeye salmon, and fruit bars and packs of savory snack seeds in multiple flavors.

If you plan on packing your own snacks, considering taking ones that:

  • Are high in protein to keep you fueled up
  • Include healthy fats, which are required for basic bodily functions such as muscle movement
  • Have fruits and vegetables to help your body form red blood cells, reduce cholesterol, and promote healthy bowel function
  • Contain complex carbohydrates, which will keep you feeling full longer

Read more: 25 Tasty Snacks That Are Actually Good for You

The Yeti Tundra Haul is one of our favorite picks for durable coolers.

The Yeti Tundra Haul is one of our favorite picks for durable coolers.

Courtesy of Yeti

How to store food

Remember: No matter what you bring, it needs to be stored safely and secured away. If you’re leaving camp for an extended period of time, put your food in a weather- and animal-proof bin; at night, consider locking it in your car if you’re able. If you’re in bear country, it would be wise to read up on food lockers, as keeping food away from your camp is in your—and the bear’s—best interest. As for keeping it all cold: If you’re planning to visit a frontcountry campground, freeze some gallons of water to help keep your food cold, then melt them when you need more water for drinking, cooking, or cleaning.

Yeti Tundra Haul ($400, yeti.com): Durable wheels and a tug handle make it easy to transport from trunk to picnic table; more importantly, it preserves ice for days.

Kelty Folding Cooler ($110, kelty.com): This 45-liter cooler is soft-sided and folds up to just four inches high after use—an attractive option for those whose space is at a premium.

Read more: The 8 Best Coolers to Take on Outdoor Adventures

Renting an RV is a smart way to figure out what you like—before you buy.

Renting an RV is a smart way to figure out what you like—before you buy.

Photo by Nerthuz/Shutterstock

RV camping

Levels of interest in RV camping have spiked during the pandemic. If you’re interested in RV camping, try a few makes or models before taking the plunge: RV and RV trailer rentals can range anywhere from around $50 per day to upwards of $800 per day depending on the size, make, and model; most fall in the range of $100 to $250 per day.

Don’t feel comfortable driving the vehicle just yet? RV rental companies RVshare and Outdoorsy include an option to have owners deliver the RV to your campsite and get everything set up for your arrival.

Some of the best RV rental companies include:

Outdoorsy: Billed as the Airbnb of RVs, Outdoorsy enables RV owners to rent out their vehicles to would-be road-trippers. It’s available in 14 countries and lists more than 50,000 RVs and trailers.

RVshare: The site, which allows users to rent RVs in their area, features more than 100,000 vehicles ranging from Class A motor homes to small travel trailers.

Travellers Autobarn: West Coasters will love this company, which offers RV and campervan rentals from its three locations in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco.

Cruise America: This RV rental company dates back to 1972 and specializes in renting out four different models of Class C RVs. Cruise America has 128 locations in 33 states across the USA and in 5 Canadian provinces.

Read more: The Complete Guide to Taking an RV Road Trip in the U.S.

Those who prefer the feel of alcohol sprays to gel sanitizers will love EO Lavender Hand Sanitizer Spray.

Those who prefer the feel of alcohol sprays to gel sanitizers will love EO Lavender Hand Sanitizer Spray.

Courtesy of EO

But what about bathrooms?

Before your trip, discuss whether or not you’ll use public restrooms at campgrounds. Whether the answer is yes or no, plan ahead and BYO hygiene gear: toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, hand soap, hand sanitizer, water, paper towels, and paper soap sheets to use in a pinch.

Scientists have found that flushing a toilet “generates a cloud of aerosol droplets that rises nearly three feet,” according to the New York Times, but the bigger risk from public restrooms is sharing a poorly ventilated space with a number of people. Your best bet, should public restrooms be given the thumbs-up from people in your traveling party, is to “wait outside until it’s free, wear your trusty mask, wash and dry your hands well, and, if you can, put the lid down when you flush,” reports National Geographic.

If you are camping in an area without a public restroom or porta potty, go into the woods and go “responsibly”: ensure the spot you choose is at least 200 feet from any water source, and dig a hole 6–8 inches deep to bury human waste. Pack out used toilet paper, and dispose of it when you return to camp.

As far as other camp “smells” go, it’s best to leave the deodorant off—and at home: The scent of the stuff can attract bears and bugs.

Read more: 6 Travel Hand Sanitizers for When You’re on the Go

Hydro Flask has long been a favorite for outdoor enthusiasts.

Hydro Flask has long been a favorite for outdoor enthusiasts.

Courtesy of Hydro Flask

The golden rule of camping

One of the main principles of camping is to leave no trace, and one of the best ways to do that is to cut down on trash. Some tips per Leave No Trace, via the Center for Outdoor Ethics:

  • Swap out the 24-pack of plastic water bottles with a refillable water container and reusable bottles
  • Drink from reusable straws, bring reusable camp dishes instead of paper plates and plastic utensils, and ditch plastic tablecloths, paper towels, and paper napkins for reusable and washable versions
  • Reuse containers—like empty ice bags and snack containers—for trash
  • Keep a separate bag for recyclables and pack it out if not available where camping
  • Before you leave home, repackage food into reusable containers
  • Use a larger, refillable propane tank for stove fuel rather than a single-use

>> Next: The Best State Park in Every State

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at Afar focused on features and essays.
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