Camping for beginners can be a challenge, especially when you are taking the kids camping for the first time. But if you are well prepared and equipped, you don't have to be experienced to have an enjoyable and rewarding outdoor experience.
First impressions are important, so don't make your first camping adventure your last with our camping tips for beginners and first-time families.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF CAMPING?
Firstly though, some of the benefits of camping are pretty obvious for the beginner camper, especially the children, but there may be some surprises as well. You can check out our more thorough benefits of camping article, but here's a summary:
- Exploring Remote Places
- Connecting with family and friends
- Appreciating the basics
- Getting away from it all
- Lower cost holidays
- Education and learning opportunities, especially for children
- Improving your health – both physically and mentally
- Building life and survival skills
- Inexpensive accommodation
YOUR CAMPING SETUP
1: Plan first before you buy anything
Don't just go out and buy a tent or any kind of camping equipment before thinking about why you want to go, what you think you might want to do while out there as well as where you want to be in, say, 3-5 years.
What is your camping style - minimalist, glamper or somewhere in between? Are you planning on starting or growing the family in the future? Do you think you might get into 4-wheel driving? Is touring around the country something that appeals to you? Is an upgrade to a camper trailer or caravan on the cards sooner, later, or never?
These are all questions you should be asking yourself before you start investing your hard-earned money on camping gear.
A good planning process can really help you to save money knowing you are buying to a plan rather than based on ad-hoc decisions because the items looked good on the shelf.
2: Choose the right tent
Following on from the previous point, probably our most important tent camping tip for beginners is to choose the type of tent you buy wisely. There are a number of things to consider when buying your tent and a lot of things can go wrong if you don't choose wisely - poor quality, too heavy to carry, too small, too big, too hard to transport, too long to set up, too hard to dry when you get home, or in our case when we bought our first family tent - no outdoor shelter. And the list goes on.
3: 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, learning how to camp 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 gas camping stove 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 equipment over time and in a random fashion, and don't necessarily start out with everything they need.
4: Our top 3 camping items you should avoid
Firstly, as important as it to find the right camping gear, equally important it is to steer clear of items that are notoriously unreliable or you are likely to regret.
i) Inflatable air-beds
While inflatable air-beds are popular, and may be comfortable for the short time they are intact, they are notorious leakers. There are some more expensive and reliable products on the market, but those that we all grew up with should be avoided if you want to avoid the inconvenience of a deflated airbed and a grumpy and tired sleeper.
Not only that, they take some time to inflate, require a separate pump, and in cold weather, they need to be insulated from the cold air circulating within, which means you also need to be equipped with an insulating layer, such as a yoga mat.
ii) Large Camping Lanterns
Firstly, they are extremely bulky, which when you have limited space limits what else you can take.
You can source similar rechargeable batteries, but nevertheless, they are bulky for transportation which along is a good enough reason to avoid them.
iii) Large Camping Chairs
If you are camping trailer and RV free as we do, cargo space is tight and camp chairs can take up a lot of space, especially the flat-folding ones. When choosing your camping chair, go for quality over quantity, and make sure that the chair you choose isn't too bulky for transportation.
5: Go For A Basic Setup
Camping for beginners shouldn't be so complicated to the point where you are not only acclimatizing yourself to the basics and the joys of camping with kids, 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 functions, you don't need all of the bells and whistles and to spend a whole lot of money.
6: 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 to 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.
7: 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, having everyone crammed inside a tent for shelter isn't my idea of fun.
Make sure you have adequate open-air shelter. That could be by way of a shady tree nearby, any shelter provided by the campground, or a marquee or large tarpaulin or tent awning.
8: Pack appropriate clothing
When packing your clothing for camping, ensure that you have enough to be able to stay warm and dry. Include a light, rain gear (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 conditions can be 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.
9: 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!
And if you are a light sleeper, make sure you bring along some luxury items from of home to help you relax. If noise bothers you, maybe bring along ear-plugs, and if your tent is particularly light in the morning, face-masks.
10: Be health and safety conscious
For safety, make sure you have a well-equipped first aid kit and use an easily identifiable first aid kid bag. Familiarise yourself in advance with the typical outdoor camping safety tips that would come in handy for your planned camping and outdoor activities.
You should also know how to seek help, especially if you are in remote areas, and familiarise yourself with the required equipment and contact details. Check out our article on how to call for emergency help in Australia. If you are based elsewhere, use this article to research your own local emergency information.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
11. 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 expeditions to remote areas that require a high level of self-sufficiency.
- Stay in campgrounds with amenities: Your first outdoor adventure can really be improved by staying at established parks with campground amenities such as such as showers, toilets, a kitchen, picnic tables, a kiosk or general store, access to ice, and camping activities and facilities to occupy the kids. You can then focus on the camping basics knowing you have backup camp 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 fun activities for kids, such as nature walks, jumping pillows, and games. 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 campgrounds 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 to keep your food cold (if you have a 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 favor of your gas stove.
12. 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 heavy rain or cold weather, but it's not everyone's cup of tea. Neither is setting up and packing in the pouring rain or drying out soaking wet gear at home. These really are the types of issues that can put someone off camping for life.
You can check out our camping and the weather articles for all you need to know about what the weather can throw at you in the great outdoors and the rain gear you should included when packing for camping.
13. Travel with more experienced campers
Traveling with an adult, or child for that matter, with much more 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 from a fellow camper, 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, and in no time you will be providing tips to YOUR beginner camping friends.
14. Test beforehand
It's not much fun when you realize on the morning of departure day that your camping gear doesn't fit in your car or that newly purchased gas 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 your destination.
- Have an overnight trial run nearby, or even in the backyard where you can also run through the campsite set up as well as the pack up processes.
Get everyone involved, including the kids, in the practice run as well so that they are familiar with what will happen. 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 photos of your car packing progress to act as a reminder for the next time.
15. Stay close to home
First-time campers could test the waters with their 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.
16. Create a camping checklist
Once you have decided to test the waters, the first thing to start for any beginner is a camping checklist of the equipment you will take with you so that you won't forget anything.
In particular, your checklist should include the following broad categories which you can read more about in our camping setup for families article:
- Tents and accessories
- 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
BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME
17. Allow plenty of time
While allowing plenty of time is important generally, it is all the more so when you are learning how to camp.
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 work through the various 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 minimize 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.
- Traveling to the destination, including rest stops and time for contingencies - as required.
- Arriving at the campground, checking in, locating the site, and deciding on how it will be configured - 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 10 am 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, make sure everyone knows how they will contribute to the pack up (including the kids), skip a morning shower and either pre-pack a simple breakfast or eat on the road.
18. Plan your camp meals
Even though a well-equipped camp kitchen for beginners can be put together quite easily, don't launch into a complicated menu of culinary delights in those early days:
- 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 dinner on the first or second night - spaghetti bolognese is our personal default family meal.
- Check out the local restaurants and take away cafes to reduce the amount of grocery shopping and the extra food for camping you need to take with you, 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 kitchens available for your cooking and have plenty of fresh drinking water on hand.
At the campsite
19. Plan your campsite configuration
The difference between a good and bad camping experience for 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 local 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 your proximity to a water source and 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.
20. A place for everything
Something that could benefit not just beginners but everyone is keeping your campsite organized. 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 "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 organize your campsite and keep similar items together, such as the kid's toys.
21. Manage expectations
In this guide to camping for beginners, we haven't tried to hide the fact that camping isn't always fun - heck it can also test the more experienced amongst us.
Different people enjoy different types of camping. 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 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.
OTHER USEFUL RESOURCES
One of the most prominent things on any campers' mind is what the weather has in store for us. If you are an inexperienced camper and are not properly prepared or equipped for the conditions, the weather gods can definitely make camping a very unpleasant experience.
For plenty of weather-related advice and tips for beginner campers, check out the following articles:
- Camping in cold weather
- Camping in the rain
- Camping in windy conditions
- Camping in hot weather
- Camping in autumn/fall