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    Here's How To Camp Like A Pro (Even If You've Never Slept Outside Before)

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    A First-Timer's Guide to Camping
    Ryan Pattie / BuzzFeed

    The coronavirus pandemic is still impacting travel, and destinations around the world have different COVID-19 restrictions in place. It’s important to check and adhere to local government policies as you're planning any trips.

    If you're desperate for some fresh air and elbow room, it doesn't get much better than camping. There's nothing like stepping away from your routine, putting your phone on airplane mode, and sleeping in the open air to reset your perspective after a long week (or year). And it's super easy — once you know the basics.

    a woman standing on a hiking trail in the mountains, wearing a backpack with camping gear, smiling at the camera
    Evie Carrick

    For me, summer camping trips have always been the norm. I was raised in the mountains of rural Colorado by two boomer hippies from opposite coasts who couldn’t get enough of the great outdoors. We went on multi-night camping trips in the wilderness and opted for car camping over Holiday Inns on cross-country road trips. I learned how to hang a bear bag, pitch a tent like a master, and plan for multiple nights in the woods.

    So if you're ready to experience the wild but aren’t sure where to go, what to pack, or even what to do once you get there, don’t worry — I've got you covered. Here's everything you need to know so you can camp like a pro.

    Where To Go
    Ryan Pattie / BuzzFeed

    To slow the spread of the coronavirus, right now it's best to stay close to home and avoid traveling long distances. Be sure to check what parks or forests your state has to offer, and read up on these tips to minimize risk while camping during the pandemic.

    If it's your first time camping, I recommend heading to a campground.

    a tent in a marked camp site in Goblin Valley State Park, with white and red layers of sandstone rock formations in the background
    Krblokhin / Getty Images

    There are a few different kinds of camping, some more complex than others, so if you've never slept in a tent before, staying at an official campground is the best way to go.

    Developed campgrounds have various amenities (running water, toilets, and even showers), and because your car will be nearby, you won’t have to lug your gear anywhere and can bring along luxe add-ons like camping chairs and a cooler. You can pay for and reserve a campsite at in advance and park your car right at the site.

    Related: 27 Borderline Genius Ideas for Anyone Who Camps With Their Car

    If you want to avoid people (and avoid spending money on a campsite), consider dispersed camping.

    a remote tent on a flat mountain top with the sunset in the background
    Ron Karpel / Getty Images

    Dispersed camping — which is camping anywhere outside a designated campground — is great if you want to steer clear of crowds, but you’ll likely have to pack out your trash, poop in the woods (more on that later), and build your own fire pit. Parking near your campsite will make things easier, but if you want to get away from the road, you can hike in a short distance.

    Parks often have different rules and restrictions for dispersed camping, so always check the guidelines before you go.

    Or, to really get out there and clock up some serious steps, try backpacking.

    three people with big backpacks and hiking sticks walking along a national park trail
    Wweagle / Getty Images

    Backpacking requires you to pack everything you need into a backpack and carry it to a camping spot (most likely dispersed). Say goodbye to that cooler full of burgers and 5-gallon jug of water and hello to freeze-dried meals and a water filtration system.

    While backpacking requires a lot more effort — and takes a certain level of wilderness know-how, fitness, and preparation — if you're able, it allows you to camp somewhere truly remote and sleep with the satisfaction that you carried everything you need to survive on your back.

    And remember, no matter where you decide to camp, you should follow the seven principles of “leave no trace.”

    How To Pick A Campsite
    Ryan Pattie / BuzzFeed

    Look for a spot that has room for your tent and camp chairs and is protected from any obvious hazards.

    a two tents and camping chairs on a grassy patch of ground surrounded by trees
    Evie Carrick

    If you don't have camp chairs, look for a spot with natural seating already in place — an overturned log, large rocks, or stumps will do the trick.

    If rain is in the forecast, you may want to find a spot that's on a hill so that water doesn't collect around your tent, and if it's windy, a spot in the trees or among boulders will provide a windbreak.

    Before you set up your tent, make sure the area is flat, free of rocks and debris, and at least 10 feet from the campfire.

    A small campfire roars in a remote campsite in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp
    Allen Allnoch / Getty Images

    If there's no flat spot to be found and you have to settle for an area that's a little sloped (don't worry, we've all been there), put your head on the high side so that the blood doesn't rush to your head while you sleep. If you need, you can give the site a minor renovation by moving rocks and clearing away sticks.

    If you’re booking a site in a campground, you’ll want to choose a spot that’s a bit more isolated.

    campsite with orange tent and campfire set among pines in the northern Minnesota wilderness
    Willard / Getty Images

    Pick a site that’s farther in the campground, since a spot near the entrance will mean you’ll have to deal with constant traffic. Similarly, if you set up camp near the facilities, you’ll have to put up with other campers constantly walking to and from the bathrooms and trash cans.

    For dispersed camping or backpacking, the key is finding a spot near a water source.

    a couple filling up their water bottles from a flowing stream surrounded by rocky terrain
    Evie Carrick

    Since you won’t be able to rely on a campground’s developed water source, you’ll need to set up camp near a running creek, river, or lake to gather (and filter) water and do your dishes.

    The water source should be within walking distance of your campsite, but you don't want to be too close. The general rule is to camp at least 200 feet from the water to keep it clean and free of human contaminants (such as if you have to pee in the middle of the night or you accidentally drop a pan of grease).

    What To Pack
    Ryan Pattie / BuzzFeed

    When it comes to packing clothes, prepare for the elements. And remember: Layers are your friend.

    woman wearing a big backpack walking across rocky mountain terrain
    Evie Carrick

    Check the forecast, but keep in mind that temperature swings can be dramatic in the mountains and the desert. You might have to pack for 80-degree days and then be prepared for chilly, 30-degree nights.

    The secret is to bring layers — fleece pants that can go over your shorts, a long-sleeved tech shirt for when you have a chill, and a down jacket for sitting around the campfire. In general, a hat for the sun, sunglasses, a beanie, sunscreen, bug spray, and a raincoat are all musts.

    Related: 23 Pieces of Clothing That Are Perfect for Hiking and Camping

    Bring a tent (obviously!) and all the extras you need to stay warm and dry overnight.

    a view from inside a tent, with sleeping bags and clothes on the ground, looking out into the woods
    Pekic / Getty Images

    All you really need for your sleep setup is a tent (one with a rain fly will keep you warmer and be your knight in shining armor if a storm rolls in), sleeping bag, and sleeping pad.

    For the latter, an inflatable model is your best bet if you don’t have a lot of storage space at home and want something lightweight enough for backpacking (I use a Therm-a-Rest ProLite). If you’ve got the space, an inflatable pillow — like Cocoon’s hyper-light version — will make your nights feel kush.

    Related: 27 Things People Who Camp Swear By

    Bring a headlamp or lantern or both.

    illuminated tent under starry night sky
    Anatoliy_gleb / Getty Images

    You can use the flashlight on your phone in a pinch, but if you rely on it too much, you won't have any battery to take photos the next day.

    A good-quality headlamp costs under $30, and when it comes to cooking or cleaning up the campsite before bed, a lantern goes a long way. Luci makes a solar-powered lantern that’s lightweight and inflatable. All you need to do is set it in direct sunlight for 7 hours, and it’ll give you a welcome ambient light for up to 12 hours.

    Pack plenty of water and the supplies you need to get more.

    man sitting by a stream filling up his camel back bladder with water
    Evie Carrick

    Some campgrounds have running water, and if you’re car camping, you can bring a huge jug of fresh water to replenish your water bottle or CamelBak. But if you have a long hike planned or are camping in the backcountry, you’ll need to camp near a water source and bring along a water filtration system.

    I’m obsessed with the rechargeable Katadyn Steripen Ultra, which kills bacteria using UV rays, while the more traditional Katadyn Hiker Pro pump will filter out a liter of water in a mere minute.

    Be prepared for whatever comes your way with a small first aid kit.

    red first aid kit case on wooden bench
    Mastersergeant / Getty Images

    A camping first aid kit — with antiseptic, gauze, and ibuprofen — is a must. You never know when you’ll skin a knee or wake up with a raging headache. You can make your own or buy one that's lightweight and waterproof and packs in all the essentials (I like this ultralight version from Adventure Medical Kits).

    Pack the tools you'll need to cook and eat a meal.

    bird's eye view of a person sitting outside on the ground preparing to cook dinner on a small camping stove
    Evie Carrick

    While you can technically cook over your campfire, a camp stove (I like the MSR PocketRocket) is faster and more reliable. You won’t have to worry about fire bans or wet weather sabotaging your plans for a hot meal.

    Think about what you want to cook, then bring along whatever dishes and cutlery you’ll need to make and eat the food (think: pots and pans, serving spoons, plates, cups, a spork, and a knife). You can buy special camping dishes or bring along old ones from home. And if you're camping near your car, don’t forget a cooler. Yeti makes one that you can throw over your shoulder (they also have a backpack version).

    Also bring everything you'll need to keep your campsite — and yourself — clean.

    Cleaning a cooking pan and spatula on the camp stove
    Sshepard / Getty Images

    If you’re camping near water or have running water at your campsite, all you’ll need to do is bring along a sponge, a towel, and some biodegradable dish soap — you can use Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Liquid Soap for everything (including your face). If you’re camping away from water, bring a pack of Scrubs dish-cleaning wipes. A few ziplock bags are great for storing wet items (like a sponge) and leftovers, while trash bags will keep your camp clean. Just be prepared to take your garbage home with you if your campground doesn't have trash cans or a dumpster.

    It's near impossible to leave a camping trip feeling totally clean (and that's kinda the point), but packing a toothbrush, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, and toilet supplies goes a long way. If there are no bathrooms, bring a trowel and some TP (not the scented stuff).

    And if you’ve got space, consider some luxe extras.

    a dog sitting in a hammock in the woods
    Evie Carrick

    If you’re able to park your car nearby, you can pack it full of fun extras. The Big Agnes Mica Basin Armchair is lightweight (without sacrificing drink holders), while nothing beats lounging in a hammock after a long hike (I love this one from Grand Trunk). A camping table makes cooking a little easier, and lawn games (like a glow-in-the-dark bocce ball) make the nights a lot more fun.

    What To Cook
    Ryan Pattie / BuzzFeed

    For breakfast, oatmeal is hard to beat.

    pot of porridge cooking on a gas burner surrounded by nature
    Dimid_86 / Getty Images

    Not only will oats keep you full, but they’re also lightweight and quick to cook. Buy the little instant packs, or make your own by putting quick oats, chopped nuts, dried fruit, and brown sugar in a little ziplock bag. Instant coffee will be the lightest way to get your caffeine fix, or you can bring along a plastic drip coffee maker (this one weighs less than 3 ounces).

    If you were able to park your car nearby and have a lazy morning on the books, you can opt for eggs, bacon, and a French press–brewed mug of joe.

    Related: 14 Camping Breakfast Recipes That'll Make Your Next Trip So Much Better

    Plan a lunch that’s easy to take on the go.

    tomato focaccia in a paper bag next to a metal drink bottle, sitting on a wooden bench outdoors
    Sascha Jacoby / Getty Images

    It doesn’t matter if you’re car camping or high in the backcountry — a PB&J is easy to make beforehand, wrap in tinfoil, and pack along on any hike, fly-fishing trip, or paddleboard excursion.

    An energy bar, some pretzels, and a bag of gummies (my go-to) will keep you moving throughout the day.

    For dinner, you can go super simple or super extravagant — depending on how you decided to camp.

    two women sitting on the grass eating packaged mac and cheese off plastic plates, smiling and taking a selfie
    Evie Carrick

    If you’re backpacking or you hiked to your camp spot, you’ll want to pick a meal that’s lightweight and simple. Good to-Go makes great dehydrated meals (I love their Thai curry), or you can buy a box of mac 'n’ cheese and transfer the noodles and cheese packet into a plastic bag to make it more totable.

    If you were able to park your car nearby, the sky’s the limit — although, as a general rule, you should try to keep it simple. Bean-and-cheese burritos, grilled cheese and tomato soup, and BBQ fare are all easy dinner options.

    Related: 23 Easy and Delicious Camping Recipes for Your Summer Adventure

    Camping Etiquette
    Ryan Pattie / BuzzFeed

    Be aware of any fire restrictions, and learn how to build a campfire correctly.

    woman sitting by a metal campfire, with papers and firewood, getting ready to start a fire.
    Evie Carrick

    Before you go, check for fire restrictions in the area you’ll be traveling to. If your destination is campfire-approved, you’ll need to bring a lighter or a box of matches and a little something to get the fire going (I often use dryer lint and Vaseline). That'll get you started, but you’ll need to feed the flame with small, dry twigs or leaves (or newspaper) before graduating to small sticks and, eventually, large pieces of wood.

    If you’re camping at a campground, they may sell bundles of firewood, or you can buy some from a nearby gas station or grocery store. Buying wood locally is key, since transporting firewood across the state (or from state to state) can introduce non-native pests to the forest or park. If you’re in the backcountry, you may be able to forage for wood near your campsite, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to find anything substantial or dry.

    Then make sure you know how to put it out properly.

    roaring campfire surrounded by rocks and camping gear
    Evie Carrick

    It’s never smart to leave a campfire unattended, which means you’ll want to put out the fire fully before you head to bed or leave the campsite. I usually get the fire to burn down as much as possible, then extinguish any remnant flames or embers by alternating between pouring water on it and stirring the ashes.

    Have a bathroom plan when nature calls, and research how to leave no trace.

    group of people sitting by a lake with a stunning snow-capped mountain in the background
    Evie Carrick

    Your campground may have a bathroom (some even have showers), but amenities vary from campground to campground, so there’s a chance you’ll need to go to the toilet in ~nature~.

    If this is the case, grab your trowel, TP, and a ziplock bag and walk about 200 feet into the woods (away from your campsite, hiking trails, or any water sources). Dig a 6- to 8-inch hole using the trowel and either bury your TP with your waste or use the ziplock bag to pack it out (check the area's regulations).

    Don’t let the critters eat your dinner.

    woman on a rugged path pointing towards a small bear bag hanging in the trees
    Evie Carrick

    If you’re car camping, you can lock your leftovers and tomorrow’s dinner in the car; some campgrounds also have bear lockers where you can safely secure your food. However, if you’re in the backcountry or at a campsite without a bear locker, you should have a plan for how to keep your food away from animals (especially bears).

    I recommend slinging a Ursack bear bag (which is made from bear-proof fabric) over a high tree branch that's around 200 feet from your campsite. Read up on more bear safety tips here.

    Happy camping!

    Robert E. Blackmon / Via

    Do you have another camping tip? Share it in the comments!

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