The ultimate beginners guide to camping

How to start camping

I grew up camping as a child. It was all great fun but somehow over the years I stopped doing it.

I missed being outdoors and felt a disconnection from nature. I needed that childhood feeling back.

Then…

My wife suggested a camping holiday and I agreed. That was decades ago now and we haven’t looked back – other than on great memories.

If you want to give it a try then this beginners guide to camping will help you get started.

Enjoy.

Planning a camping holiday

Where to go on your first trip

If you are planning your first trip it’s probably a good idea to go somewhere quite close to home. If you do forget something or something goes wrong, you can always bail out and go home. It takes the pressure off if you aren’t 500 miles from home when your tent breaks.

This could be as simple as setting up your whole camp in the garden and spending the night. Or a local campsite. This is a great fun option and you can guarantee the weather.

You can be pretty certain you will have forgotten something or something doesn’t work how you expect it to. A checklist helps.

If you don’t have a garden then the next section will help…

Choosing a campsite

Campsites come in many forms ranging from an empty field with no facilities, to luxury resorts. The choice is yours and will depend on whether you want to get away from it all or have some creature comforts. I would suggest that having a minimum of; drinking water, toilet and shower facilities is a good thing.

Other considerations:

  • Can you park the car next to your tent or will it be a walk from the carpark with your kit?
  • Are there any facilities such as barbecues, fireplaces, tables etc.
  • Are there electric points you can use?
  • Can you have a camp fire?
  • Are there any shops on site for food basics? Maybe there is a village nearby with a pub.
  • Do you have to be a member of a club such as the Camping & Caravan Club?
  • Are there places to visit and things to do locally or by car?

When to go

The first thing to consider is weather and temperature. Camping in the winter is a bit more advanced and is probably best left until you have a bit more exprience. Spring and autumn can be a bit challenging and it’s probably colder at night than you migh think.

That leaves the summer which is the busiest time – and for good reason. The major consideration here is School holidays. If you have children then that’s when you will be going.

But if you haven’t, you may want to avoid the holidays as they are the busiest times at campsites. They can also be noisy.

One option if you are looking for a quieter site in the school holidays is to go for an “adult only” site.

If you are booking in advance then you have to take the weather as you find it. But if you are going last minute try and choose a good forecast. At least plan to arrive on a good day.

If you are planning for out of season then bear in mind that most sites open in the spring and close in the autumn.

Buying camping equipment

Camping gear for beginners

This can be a huge, expensive list of kit. Or you can keep it to basics. I would suggest starting with the minimum and building up as you learn what you want and need. Everyone is different.

Maybe borrow some gear if you can. Or buy used. Be cautious though, as tents can be quite fragile and need looking after well.

One great way to kit yourself out is do it out of season. There are always good deals to be found in the winte.

Another tip is to buy last years model – particularly for tents.

You don’t need to spend a fortune. Of course, if you can afford it and know you are going to love it, then you can get all the gadgets under the sun. My advice however is to learn from experience over time what you want. It’s a very personal thing.

Tents

The obvious basic requirement is for a tent. And the options are a bewildering array of sizes, shapes, colours.

I’m going to try and simplify the choices for you by breaking it down into basics.

Tent size

Definitely consider a tent that is bigger than you think you will need. A 4 person tent is much better for 2 people than 4.

Tunnel tents

The most common form these days is a tunnel tent. This consists of either inflatable beams or poles that form a tunnel structure. These are a great choice for summer camping and the better ones can be used in the winter too.

Geodesic or semi-geodesic tents

These are the ones that are dome shaped with poles that form a cross over the top of the tent. They are stronger than tunnel tents but have less headroom.

Instant – popup tent

These are the easiest to put up as they just pop up when you get them out of the bag. Unfortunately they have a tendency to not stay up and aren’t that waterproof. As a second tent for kids – if they can move into the main tent in bad weather – they are fine.

Not to be relied on as a main shelter to keep you dry in bad weather.

Inflatable or “air-beam” tents

By definition these are of a tunnel type and instead of poles they have inflatable tubes. Whilst that sounds a bit floppy and unstable, they are often more stable than a poled tent. They tend to be high quality and expensive.

The real value is in the speed of erection. An inflatable tent is really fast to put up.

A good choice if you are happy with the price.

Bell tents and Tipees

These are conical in shape which makes them extremely stable and the steep slope makes the rain run off well.

The disadvantage is restricted headroom other than in the middle – where the one pole is.

They are often canvas which breathes better, is heavier, and can leak if you touch the inside when it’s raining.

If you have one that is less than 5 metres in diameter it is much harder to get the beds in. Because of the pole and shape.

Fabrics

The main consideration here is waterproofing.

A guide to how waterproof a tent is can be the “hydrostatic head rating” This is explained in detail here. It’s not a particularly good guide to how waterproof a tent is but if you stick to tents above 3000mm rating, you should be fine.

Canvas is more breathable but heavier. Good ventilation in a synthetic fabric tent will outweigh a poorly ventilated canvas tent.

An inner tent or liner should be made from a very breathable material and have mesh sections.

Poles and pegs

Tent poles need to be strong enough to withstand wind and rough handling. A broken pole is a disaster and is one of the reasons for choosing a more expensive tent. Pole quality is often the first thing to suffer with cheaper tents

Pegs can be either metal or plastic and can vary in strength and function. Wire pegs don’t grip the ground as well as stakes that have a greater resistance to being dragged out. Tent manufacturers tend to have this worked out and supply the right pegs. Not always, and it can be a good upgrade.

Ventilation and condensation

Condensation is a big enemy when camping and good tent design can reduce it. Look out for big mesh ventilation on the sleeping compartment. This helps a lot particularly idf it is next to a vent on the outer tent. More venting is definitely best.

You will get condensation and it is a matter of managing it with ventilation.

Groundsheets

This is the floor of your tent and, certainly in the bedroom area, should be sewn in to the sleeping compartment if you have one. In the main living area you could have another sewn in groundsheet or live on the grass. I would recommend sewn in here too.

Tip: A hand brush and dust pan is a great thing to have if you have sewn in groundsheets

Footprints

This is a groundsheet that is the right size and shape to match your specific tent. This is a good investment as it protects the bottom of your tent’s built in groundsheet.

Carpeting for your tent?

Really?

Yes.

It is a great idea for keeping the floor warmer and it also protects the ground sheet.

You can often get a fitted carpet that specifically fits your tent.

You can even use domestic carpet bit I don’t recommend it as it is heave and bulky.

Necessary?

No.

A doormat for outside or just inside can be a great thing and it is well worth considering a “no shoes” policy inside.

Camping furniture

Camping chair

Sitting on the ground is a bit of a novelty and is great for a while. However the novelty wears off, and cooking on the ground can be difficult – but perfectly doable. I have spent hundreds of nights camping with no furniture at all. It’s your choice how far to go.

A camping chair is the first piece of furniture to go for and I wouldn’t be without one these days

A table is the next priority and can be useful for food preparation even if you eat on your lap. Much better than having your wine glass fall over on the grass!

Beyond that a dedicated “kitchen unit” would be my recommendation. This will give you storage, somewhere to stand a 2 ring stove, and often work surface too. Quite expensive, but a great luxury if you have the budget and enjoy good camping food.

Sleeping equipment for camping

Sleeping bags in a tent

Basic equipment is a sleeping bag and some kind of mat to insulate you from the ground and provide some cushioning. The addition of a pillow is a must to my mind but you may be fine with a rolled up jumper.

Sleeping bags

These come in several forms but a basic division is between down filled and synthetic.

Down is warmer, lighter, more compact, and more expensive. More the territory of backpacking and winter camping than summer holiday camping. It’s not washable and hates getting wet.

Synthetic filling is the most common and economical. With this value comes a huge range of sizes and shapes to suit anyone. I would recommend this type and just choose what suits you best.

Bigger is colder but rarely a problem in the summer. By contrast “mummy” bags are very restrictive and difficult to sleep in.

You can always take blankets to put on top if it is cooler than your sleeping bag is good for.

If it’s hot you can unzip.

Camping mattresses

At its simplest this can be an old fashioned roll up mat that can be bought in various thicknesses.

Not very comfortable and quite bulky.

Inflatable and self-inflating mats are the next grade and are much more comfortable. We use Thermarest Neo Air Dreams and they are more comfortable than staying at home. Expensive but worth every penny to us.

Li-lo and air bed type options rarely give a good night’s sleep and are best left for the beach.

Domestic “spare bed” type inflatables can work if you have the tent space.

Camp beds

Generally consisting of a frame and fabic sleeping area these can be a good option for kids or single adults.

They can damage the groundsheet as there is a lot of pressure on the legs. Consider this when choosing a design.

Camping Pillow or home pillow?

Another option is to just bring your pillows from home and be comfortable. If I’ve got the space, this is my chosen option.

Tips for sleeping well while camping

Bring some earplugs – the campsite may be noisier than you would like.

Bring a hot water bottle if you think you might be cold.

Camp cooking and eating

The ultimate beginners guide to camping 1

Cooking and eating when camping can be a joy or a pain depending on the kit you choose and the planning you put in.

I would suggest starting pretty basic and utilising as much as you can from home. This minimises expense and means you can learn what you need over time.

The following are basic requirements:

  • A 1 or 2 ring stove + fuel + matches or lighter
  • Pots & pans
  • Kettle – not necessary but more efficient on fuel
  • Cutlery and crockery for eating. Ideally unbreakable but you can use your home stuff
  • Washing up bowl
  • Can opener if you need one
  • Container for transporting water

And you could enhance the set-up with these:

  • A table or kitchen unit
  • Cool-box or even a fridge
  • Food storage containers
  • Barbecue – a great way to cook but make sure the campsite allows it

Food tips:

  • Take plenty of snacks
  • Prep food before you leave
  • Take a cooked meal for day 1
  • Take a few meals that don’t need cooking
  • Plan your menus

Campsites often have washing up facilities which make life much easier in that department. It can also be something to send the kids off to do.

Toileting & hygiene

Most but not all campsites have washing and showering facilities so just bring your personal stuff from home. If there is no shower you can use a “solar shower”.

Bring your own toilet paper as it can often be absent.

You could take your own “cassette” type toilet. It’s easier to just use the site facilities though.

Lighting

The ultimate beginners guide to camping 3

You will need some kind of lighting for your tent and also for walking around at night if the campsite isn’t that well lit.

A good all round option is a head torch for each person.

In addition a hanging electric lantern for inside the tent is nice to have. LEDs are best and use much less battery. Avoid burning anything in your tent.

If you are connecting to an EHU (electric hook up) on the campsite your lighting can be more elaborate. Do consider other campers though.

Electricity supply & charging

You may want to book a pitch with an electrical supply. This costs extra but can be very useful if you have lots of devices to charge. Bear in mind that they tend not to allow you much electricity so heaters would have to be small. Check how many amps when you book.

Make sure to use a safe extension lead with an RCD.

If you opt to go off-grid there are a few options to consider for phone charging etc.

  • Charging from your car
  • A solar charger
  • A leisure battery that you charge from the car
  • Some sites have charging facilities but they can be busy

Clothing & footwear

If you are used to being outdoors then there is nothing special that you need for clothing. Just bear in mind that it is probably colder at night than you realise. Sitting around in the evening may get chilly.

Wellies are a useful thing to have as campsites can get very boggy very fast if it rains a lot

Slip on shoes or flip-flops are great for that trip to the loo in the night.

When you are at the campsite

Camping with kids

When you arrive at the campsite the first thing to do is visit reception if you haven’t made prior arrangements. You may be told where to camp or it may be a free-or-all. It’s a good plan to arrive earlyish on your first day. Check what arrival times are permitted.

Pitching your tent

If you get to choose your spot then consider the following:

  • Drainage – avoid flat spots at the bottom of a hill
  • Avoid too much of a slope and aim to get your head higher than your feet if there is any slope
  • Avoid being under trees if strong winds are forecast
  • Wind direction – try and align your tent so the wind doesn’t blow in the door

Allow plenty of time for your first putting up of a new tent as it can take a while. No need to rush and maybe have something for the kids to do like ferrying kit from the car.

Etiquette for camp sites

Always read the rules and follow them there are generally a few and they normally make sense. They are for safety and consideration of fellow campers.

  • Consider your neighbours – that’s everyone on the site
  • Keep noise levels down at night – not everyone likes your music
  • Don’t camp too close to others
  • Keep an eye on dogs and children
  • Follow the rules for fires and barbecues

Safety and security

Take all precautions to avoid fire and use cooking fuels wisely. Gas and liquid fuels can be dangerous. Identify where the fire extinguishers are when you arrive.

Never cook or use an open flame in your tent unless it is extremely well ventilated. If you do – definitely have a CO (carbon monoxide) alarm. Best to avoid it if at all possible.

Lock your valuables in the car or keep them with you.

Top camping tips

  • Give kids something to do while pitching
  • Take your own toilet paper
  • Pack your car in order with your tent available first
  • Take earplugs if you sleep lightly
  • Bring some kind of slip-on footwear
  • Never cook in your tent
  • Use old tea-towels as they get grubby when camping
  • Practice setting up camp before leaving home
  • Use lists
  • Arrive early
  • Avoid severe weather

Go on – get out there and camp…

Hopefully, if you have got this far, you are inspired to give camping a go. I am sure you’ll love it if you plan it right.

If you have any questions or I can help in any way then please leave a comment below…

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