Camping Guide 101: Roughing It in the Great Outdoors

July 27, 2020 Updated: July 28, 2020

I remember the smell of grass and canvas, the songs of birds and cicadas, the dawn sunlight gracing the top of my tent as I lay there until the smell of bacon drifted through the campsite. I climbed out of my sleeping bag, pulled back the tent flaps, and ran the 20 feet to the back door for breakfast. That was camping when I was five, and I’ve loved sleeping outside ever since. 

I ventured a wee bit farther from home over the years, however. The edge of the Grand Canyon, the bottom of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, beachside on an island in the Andaman Sea, sandbars in the middle of rivers, or county parks right outside of town. 

Near or far there is a campsite with your name on it—literally, in fact, if you book a reservation. While the pandemic has some of us climbing the walls, why not get outside them and go camping? Fresh air, spaced-out socially distant campsites, and some of what the Japanese call “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing”—time in green space that cleanses the mind and soothes the nerves. 

Not an experienced camper? No problem. You don’t need to be an old pro to load up the car and hit a national, state, county, or even city park with designated sites. Many parks are fully modern with electrical hookups, hot showers, and concessionaires for firewood, kayak rentals, and even Wi-Fi (but don’t use it—you’re getting away, right?). Even the most rustic (and cheap) national forest sites often supply picnic tables, fire rings, a water source, and vault toilets. 

Where to Go 

There are many things to consider when choosing a campground. How rough do you rough it? How far do you want to drive? Just down the road or clear across state lines to landscapes quite different from your own corner of the country. Is there swimming? Hiking? Is it accessible? 

Each state’s Department of Natural Resources keeps good online information about its parks, but county and city parks may require a bit more googling. The US Forest Service (fs.usda.gov) and National Parks websites (nps.gov) are searchable by state, or if you know your destination, type the forest or park name in the search bar with “camping.” You can find bigger modern campgrounds and abundant rustic ones that might be nothing more than six sites in a loop or a short hike from a gravel parking lot. 

Some sites may be first-come, first-served while others offer or even require reservations. Some states have farmed out reservations to services such as Going to Camp (GoingToCamp.com) or Reserve America (ReserveAmerica.com) with both online and phone options. Other states have their own systems, such as Ohio, for example, with ReserveOhio.com. When calculating camping costs be aware that many parks have vehicle or entry fees as well, which may be different for out-of-state plates. 

Best Time to Go

Modern outdoor gear has pushed camping to a year-round activity, even snowy winter. Of course, summer is hugely popular, meaning you need to consider parks filling, especially on weekends. Autumn colors and the decline of mosquitoes make fall a great choice as well. Once in mid-September, I was the only camper on Rock Island, a Wisconsin state park in Lake Michigan; it was paradise. 

Bringing Pets

Pets are domesticated animals, so going camping is as much a break from the comfort zone for them as it is for us. Many parks have leash rules, and some places, such as picnic areas, beaches, designated nature trails, and playgrounds, don’t allow them at all—although some parks do offer pet swim areas and off-leash areas. Many people love a happy pup, but a barking dog at night amid 100 other campers won’t make you any friends. 

Planning Well

I asked park rangers about the biggest mistakes campers make and a popular answer was “packing too much stuff.” Still, you do want to be prepared for various possibilities. 

This may seem like an odd time to pull out Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the base level of that pyramid is most important when you head into nature: physical needs, food, water, warmth, and rest. Carry a cooler with enough ice (depending on your distance from an ice source at the park) and sufficient food, and don’t forget the necessary cooking utensils and a lighter or matches if you plan to build a fire. A grill may not be necessary if your park has them on their fire rings, and firewood is typically sold nearby. 

Even the most rustic sites will have a potable water source for campers, even if just a hand-pump, but you’d need a vessel to carry that back to your site. Pack clothes for every eventuality: rain, a cool night (which becomes especially cooler if your clothes are wet or you’ve been swimming), and strong sun and heat. 

And finally, shelter: Most tents are easy to set up these days and waterproof. Consider sleeping pads for under your sleeping bag. I had no problem sleeping on rocks and tree roots when I was five; adult me, however, is a whiny bear to be around the morning after such sleep. Most sites have picnic tables (check to be sure) but you might want lawn or camp chairs for around the fire, or a hammock for lazing in the afternoon. Properly store food and dispose garbage; if your campsite is messy you may end up sharing your shelter with the local raccoons, or worse, a curious bear depending on where you’re camping.

Maslow’s next level of concern is safety. Pack your medicines and bandages, sunscreen and ointments or antibiotic creams for cuts, burns, and bug bites, and perhaps a whistle if you get lost hiking or tweezers for splinter or stinger removal. Have a plan for when the emergency exceeds your band-aids and aspirin, and know where to go in a lightning storm or tornado. 

After the basics are covered, address those mental and emotional needs: bring good company, whether that’s your favorite people, a good book, or a pair of binoculars and a bird guide. Then immerse yourself in the great outdoors. A 2017 review of 64 health studies conducted from 2007–2017 found broad agreement that “Nature therapy as a health-promotion method and potential universal health model is implicated for the reduction of reported modern-day ‘stress-state’ and ‘technostress.’” Just what the doctor ordered.

And one more thing: if you are not a morning person or have never been to the wild, maybe pack earplugs and a sleeping mask. Morning comes quickly enough, and while there may be no city noise, the hustle and bustle of the forest may surprise some. I assure you, it’s all worth it. 

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com