Let's go camping!
Few statements in life are more capable than invoking the "flee or fight" response in people that those three words, "Let's go camping."
Some people love it, and some hate it. I've been a dedicated camper for most of my life. I was lucky; I grew up with a father who knew how to camp. I'll take a week of camping over any other style of vacation. I can camp anywhere at anytime. I've camped in the mountains, on the prairies, the desert, and in the arctic. Summer, spring, winter, and fall, I've camped in all four seasons.
Not all forms of camping are for everyone. An inexperienced novice probably won't enjoy a week in the bush, living off the land with nothing but a map, a compass, and a trusty knife.
For the first time camper, I'd recommend an overnight stay, or a weekend at a State, or National Park. With the convenience of the internet, it's easy to check out campgrounds in your area, and see what amenities the campgrounds are equipped with.
Once you've decided where you are going, the next decision is how you are going to camp. There are two choices, tenting, or RV. I don't recommend using your vehicle as your shelter.
Go to the sporting goods stores, and look at the tents. Some of them even have some of their tents already set up and on display. How many people are going? You don't want to try to cram three people into a two-man tent. My rule of thumb for tent size is to add one to the number of people in your group, and look for tent of that size. So, if three are going, I'd look for a four man tent. For larger groups, two medium size tents is easier to deal with than one huge tent.
Don't be guided strictly on price. This rule is pretty much true for all camping equipment. Quality gear will cost a bit more, but generally it's worth the cost.
Once you've purchased your tent, take it home and set it up in the back yard. Take it down and set it up again. Know your equipment. The last thing you want to do is get to the campground when it's dark and try to set the tent up for the first time, reading the instructions by flashlight.
I'd highly recommend buying tent stakes separately. Generally the ones that come with the tent are flimsy at best. Wal-Mart, and other sporting goods stores sell stakes that look like big spikes, and are fairly reasonable. Don't forget to pack a hammer, or a hatchet to pound the stakes into the ground.
Other than the tent, the sleeping bag is most important piece of gear. If you're not warm at night, you're not going to be comfortable. Most sleeping bags are rated to different temperatures. Know the type of weather you are going to be in, and buy your sleeping bag with that in mind. Don't buy a bag rated for 40F when the lows are going to be in 20F range, and don't buy an Arctic mummy bag rated for -50F when the lows are going to be in the 40's. Again, don't let the cost be your only guide. A good sleeping bag will cost a little more, but will give you years of service.
Air mattress or foam, that all depends on your personal preference. My only suggestion is if you buy air mattresses; buy the best you can find and afford. Coleman and other outdoors companies sell battery-powered air pumps. They're not expensive, and much easier than huffing, puffing, and hyperventilating while trying to get your bed ready for the night.
Your footwear is probably the most important article of clothing while camping. If you can't keep your feet dry and warm, you're not going to having a good time. I'd highly recommend a good pair of hiking boots, and take two pairs of socks for each day of camping.
Know what the weather is likely to be while you are camping, and pack appropriate clothing. The evenings can be cool, so pack along a jacket or sweater. Take an extra change of clothing in case something happens, falling into a lake or a stream is not totally unknown. Take along some disposable rain gear, it's cheap, easy to store, and a godsend if it begins to rain. Use the motto of the Boy Scouts, Be Prepared.
Cooking and Food Storage.
How will you prepare your meals? I'd stay away from trying to cook over the fire. That's an art form all in its own. I'd recommend buying a Coleman stove that uses the propane cylinders. They're easier, and safer to use than the stoves that use white gas for fuel. No pumping is required, just screw the cylinder on, and follow the instructions for lighting the stove. Good quality cookware is essential. Cheap pots and pans have a tendency to burn the food instead of cooking it. Garage sales and second hand stores are good places to look for inexpensive camping cookware.
Plan your meals before leaving home, and for the first few trips, keep them simple. Find what works for you, and what doesn't. A small barbeque is a great item to take camping.
Plastic tubs are great for storing and organizing dry and canned food items. A good cooler is a necessity for storing perishables. Block ice with last longer than ice cubes, some campers fill empty half-gallon milk containers with water and freeze them. Use large re-sealable bags to store meat, and cheese.
I can't emphasize this enough. Do not store, cook, or eat food in your tent. Keep your food well away from where you are sleeping, otherwise, you may wake and find a furry visitor in your tent.
A good-sized plastic, or tin washtub can be used for doing the dishes and for washing up. Tin plates, and cups may be the romantic stuff of cowboys, but remember they transfer heat instantly. Many a lip has been burned with the first cup of coffee.
An RV will allow you to camp with a greater degree of comfort. They offer a regular bed to sleep in, your own toilet and shower, and a fridge to store perishables. There are four main types of RV's Travel Trailers (I'll include tent trailers in with the travel trailers), fifth wheel trailers, motorhomes, (Classes A, B, and C) and Campers (The slide in type). Each has it's own unique advantages and disadvantages, but each has one thing in common, cost.
You can rent an RV, generally a Class A, or C motorhome, just look in the Yellow Pages. If you are considering any type of RV, I'd highly recommend renting a few times to see what you like, and don't like.
Camping in an RV is what you make of it. You can combine the comfort of knowing you will be sleeping in your bed after a night by the fire with hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows, with the exhilaration of cooking and eating breakfast in the great outdoors.
Never forget that you are in the wilds when camping. There's more than you and your fellow campers at the campground. Always be aware of your surroundings. Don't approach wildlife, no matter how cute and cuddly they look.
Invest in a propane lantern. Like the stoves, they're easier to use than the models that burn white gas. The rechargeable lanterns are great for kids, and inside of the tent.
Portable two-way radios are a great way of keeping in touch with the camp if someone goes hiking or fishing.
Always take a good first aid kit, and don't forget the sunscreen.
Have a pair of good quality flashlights, and spare batteries.
Make a check list of items you will be taking.
Don't be shy about talking to the park ranger. They are a wealth of information for their park.
Most of all, enjoy the outdoors.
As you camp, you will begin to learn what works for you, and what doesn't. You will find the more you camp, the easier it gets.
There's a long weekend coming, and I'll be camping. Who knows, you might be camped next to me. Come on over, say hello and have a cup of coffee.