Camping for beginners can be a challenge, but if you are well prepared and equipped it actually can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
My first camping trip wasn't so memorable, but I wince when I cast my mind back to our first time camping as a family with our then 5-month old child, a brand new but inadequate tent, and a week of heavy rain.
Essentially, if it wasn't for the hospitality of our camping friends, we would have headed home not long after we arrived. We thought we were organised and prepared, but looking back now, we really weren't, especially not for the amount of rainfall we had.
First impressions are important, so don't make your first camping adventure your last. Our guide to camping for beginners will help you to avoid the common camping newbie mistakes, and will be especially useful for car and tent camping.
1: Properly Equip Yourself for Camping
It sounds obvious, but the better equipped you are for anything, the easier and more rewarding it will be, whether you are snow skiing, cooking, or in our case, camping in the great outdoors.
That doesn't mean though that you need a complicated or high-end setup – just a functional one that serves your requirements.
Certainly, kids won't care if you've got the latest lighting or camp cooker or not, as long as they can see at night and eat a simple but delicious meal.
The problem is, beginner campers typically accumulate their camping gear over time and in a random fashion, and don't necessarily start out with everything they need.
2: Go For a Basic Setup
Go for a basic setup instead of overly complicating your initial camping setup to the point where you are not only acclimatising yourself to the basics of camping, but also dealing with the complexities of high-tech gear. As long as your setup is well equipped with the right camping essentials to fulfil the basic camping functions, you don't need all of the bells and whistles and to spend a whole lot of money.
3: Buy Durable and Long Lasting Gear
Buy durable and long lasting gear, and avoid the cheap bargain buys you see in department stores, especially in relation your camping tent, shelter and sleeping gear. They are generally not of good quality or reliable, and may not last the distance.
If money is an issue, try to borrow gear from someone until your finances permit, or buy second hand rather than settling for something cheaper and less reliable. For more cost saving ideas, check out our article on ways to reduce your camping costs.
4: Make Sure You Have Adequate Open Air Shelter
You never know what the sun and rain will throw at you, and especially on hot and humid days, seeking shelter inside the tent isn't my idea of fun.
Make sure you have adequate open air shelter. That could be by way of a shady tree nearby, shelter provided by the campground, or a marquee or large tarpaulin or tent awning.
5: Outdoor Clothing
Stay warm and dry when packing your outdoor clothing for camping by including a light, waterproof jacket (raincoat or rain poncho) for each person, a good pair of hiking boots or walking shoes and lightweight thermal underwear, even if not apparently necessary according to the forecast.
The weather is unpredictable and being cold and wet can really turn people off camping. At the end of the day, it's better to be safe than sorry. Make sure everyone has a set of dry clothes even if it means they wear dirty clothes from time to time.
6: Sleep Well
Sleep well by packing comfortable and good quality sleeping bags, sleeping pads and other bedding (or for fussy sleepers, as comfortable as possible) as well as extra blankets for added warmth in bed and around camp at night.
When considering sleeping mats and pads, check the comfort rating before you buy and avoid the cheap air mattresses / lilo's. While they are inexpensive to buy and are popular amongst beginner campers, they need to be insulated from the cold air within and (in our opinion) they are notorious leakers!
7: Be Health and Safety Conscious
Camping safety is very important. Make sure you have a well equipped first aid kit and use an easily identifiable first aid kid bag.
8. Choose established campgrounds
Beginner skiers don't start out on the black runs, and unless it is your personal preference, nor should beginner campers embark on camping expeditions to remote areas that require a high level of self-sufficiency.
- Stay in campgrounds with amenities: Your first camping adventures can really be improved by staying at established campgrounds that provide amenities such as showers, toilets, a camp kitchen, picnic tables, a kiosk or general store, access to ice, and most importantly toilet paper. You can then focus on the camping basics knowing you have backup cooking facilities, access to supplies and you won't need to worry about how to DIY a shower and toilet.
- Check out the local activities: Especially during peak holiday times, established campgrounds will often provide activities for kids, such as nature walks, jumping pillows and sporting activities. This will take the pressure off you having to be chief entertainer yourself while you familiarise yourself with the whole camping thing.
- Book a powered site: Many established camp grounds also offer mains electricity on powered sites which negates the need to equip yourself with your own power source. If you do choose a powered site, we definitely recommend using it only to power your refrigeration (if you have a camp fridge rather than an icebox), USB-charged lights, electronic devices and smaller power banks. Bulky electric kettles and toasters etc. should be left at home in favour of your camp cooker.
9. Avoid bad weather
There's no shame in deferring or calling off a camping trip, or altering your departure date due to a bad weather forecast. In fact, you will find even experienced campers aren't too proud to alter their plans at the sign of inclement weather.
The kids might not seem to notice the wet or cold weather, but it's not everyone's cup of tea. Neither is setting up and packing up camp in the pouring rain or drying out soaking wet camping gear at home. These really are the types of issues that can put someone off camping for life.
For a copy of our Camping Weather Guide covering tips for camping in all kinds of weather, go to our Start Here page.
10. Travel with more experienced campers
Travelling with an adult, or child for that matter, with much more camping experience can provide you with support to deal with some of the trickier aspects of camping. Even if there is that extra pair of experienced hands in your camping party, camping etiquette would always suggest that you try to resolve your issues yourself before you take the easy way out by seeking help.
The more you can do yourself, the less reliance you will have on others and the sooner you can camp independently, an in no time you will be providing camping tips to YOUR beginner camping friends.
11. Test Beforehand
It's not much fun when you realise on the morning of departure day that your camping gear doesn't fit in your car or that newly purchased camping stove is missing a key fitting just as you are about to start cooking dinner. To avoid surprises:
- Do a practice pitch of your gear at home before you leave to familiarise yourself with how it is set up and used and to make sure you have all of the pieces and required tools.
- Pack your car for camping in advance of your trip to ensure that everything and more importantly everyone can travel safely to and from the campsite.
- Have an overnight trial run at a nearby campsite, or even a backyard campout, where you can also run through the campsite set up as well as the pack up processes.
Get everyone involved in the practice camp as well so that they are familiar with what will happen when you arrive at camp. Allocate specific tasks to help spread the workload and ensure that everyone is on the same page and there are no surprises (or excuses).
Finally, take notes and photo's of your car packing progress to act as a reminder for the next time.
12. Stay close to home
First time campers could test the waters with their camping setup by staying close to home. If you forget something you can easily pop back to get it. At the end of the day, if it's a complete disaster, you don't have very far to retreat home.
If that is the case, rather than give up on camping altogether, think about how you could learn from your mistakes to avoid a repeat next time.
Before you leave home
13. plan your trip and develop a packing checklist
Camping for beginners can really be happy and fulfilling with good planning and preparation, and a good camping checklist.
Once you have decided to test the camping waters, develop a packing checklist of the items you will take with you camping so that you won't forget anything. Even with short notice, also take the time to work through the various tasks you need to attend to before you leave.
In particular, your camping checklist should include the following broad categories:
- Tents and accessories
- Camping tools
- Camp refrigeration
- Camp stove
- Power and fuel
- Camp lighting
- The camp kitchen
- First aid and safety
- Bathroom and laundry
- Chairs, dining table and other furniture
- Outdoor and camping clothes
14. Allow plenty of time
While allowing plenty of time is important generally, it is all the more so for beginner campers.
A so-called “15 minute meal” never takes 15 minutes to cook on the first go (in my experience anyway), and nor will a beginner camper work through the various camping processes as quickly as someone more experienced and practiced.
Setting up your campsite in the daylight, from start to finish, and at a leisurely pace to minimise frustrations, is important. Everything will invariably take longer than you think, and so in scheduling your time in those early days, allow for the following:
- Packing and loading your car – 1 to 2 hours.
- Travelling to the campsite, including rest stops and time for contingencies – as required.
- Arriving at the campground, checking in, locating the site and deciding on how you will configure your campsite – at least 30 minutes. Aim to arrive as close to check-in time as possible.
- Setting up camp – 1 to 2 hours.
Likewise, on departure day, packing up camp can take as long, if not longer, than the set up. A 10am checkout time might seem generous, but not when you need to shower, eat your breakfast, pack up all of your gear and then pack and load your car. If you have limited time, start the packing process early, even the night before, skip a morning shower and either pre-pack a simple breakfast or eat on the road.
15. Plan your camp meals
Even though a well equipped camp kitchen for beginner campers can be put together quite easily, don't launch into a complicated menu of culinary delights in those early days:
- As camping is not a place to explore your inner Masterchef, establish a simple meal plan of familiar dishes that everyone will enjoy and look forward to, and make sure you can either bring the ingredients with you or easily source them at your location.
- Prepare a frozen meal at home for the dinner on the first or second night – spaghetti bolognaise is our personal default meal.
- Check out the local restaurants and take away cafes to reduce the amount of grocery shopping and to take the pressure off the camp kitchen.
- Consider whether you want to be cooking over a fire. If you are experienced, then enjoy! But if not, consider skipping campfire cooking in those early days.
- Make use of any camp kitchens available at the campgrounds and have plenty of fresh water on hand.
At the campsite
16. Plan your campsite configuration
The difference between a good and bad camping experience for the newbie campers can be as simple as how you choose your campsite and configure it, whether you've pitched your tent in the wrong spot and whether you have easy access to the campground amenities.
You might not need to relocate it if you have simply incorrectly oriented the tent in relation to the sun and shade, but not if you stand back to admire your work and discover a dangerously loose hanging tree limb hovering above your tent.
Before you start pitching your tent, think about how you could best configure the campsite to take full advantage of its features as well as to avoid any inherent hazards.
Think also about any inherent safety issues, such as your proximity to water or the campfire pit if you have young children.
Go to our article for tips on how to choose your campsite.
17. A place for everything
Something that could benefit not just the camping beginner but all campers is keeping your campsite organised. Identify a place for everything and returning it when it is not in use.
Even though being trailer free we don't have a lot of camping “stuff”, and we don't have many places to put it, without a system things can frustratingly go missing just when you need them.
Bring along a couple of spare stackable storage bins or containers to help organise your campsite and keep similar items together, such as the kids toys.
18. Manage expectations
Camping isn't always fun, even for the experienced tent camping enthusiasts. You will naturally go through teething problems as you enter an unfamiliar environment, learn new procedures, use new products and respond to new challenges.
Don't expect miracles in those early days of camping, especially when camping with children, and try to stay calm if something doesn't go your way.
If you are not finding it an enjoyable experience, think about how much fun it was for the kids, how cost effective it was for you and how wonderful it is to be in the great outdoors.
Focus on the positives and in time you will look back and think how far you have come and have a bit of a laugh about what went wrong.