The Ultimate Camping Guide
Seven years ago last month, I found myself standing at the edge of Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park. It was sunrise and I stopped to listen to the early morning silence surrounding the rushing waters that filled the natural amphipheater. I was on my way to the top of Half-Dome, nearly a vertical mile above the valley floor. I had landed in San Francisco a day earlier with my best friend. We had just begun a weeklong camping road trip through Northern California. We camped in national parks. Underneath massive redwoods. Next to coastal lagoons. Under the stars. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Camping can mean a lot of different things to people. For some, it’s a way of life. For others grinding Monday through Friday, camping provides a sweet weekend escape. Still others seek the physical benefits that comes with spending time in nature. Regardless of your motivation, there is clearly something about being out in the wilderness, in our national parks, even just strolling down a local trail, that often brings out a hidden desire in us
Don’t Go for Just the Camping Experience, Snag the BENEFITS of Camping. Achieve Balance.
Now before we get to the best gear to camp with and the most beautiful places to camp in, let’s look at some of the benefits from balancing out all of that time in the office with some time around the campfire. Young adults work on average 45 hours a week, which turns out to be higher than most Americans and about 5 hours more than our parents spent in the office. Nowadays, armed with an understanding that most jobs come with a major entrepreneurial element, professionals in their 20s and 30s are spending increasingly more time focusing and growing their careers. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy having a job I can pour energy into each day. But, at the same time, my overall well-being relies on having a balanced life.
Say it with me. Balance.
To counterbalance all of the hours I spend working, I have to include enough time running trails, hiking peaks and camping underneath the stars of untouched sky. Computers are great and smartphones simply amazing, but lately I’ve found myself longing for surroundings that aren’t always back-illuminated. Mornings filled with birds chirping and mist floating over nearby likes. Silent afternoons in the hammock with warm winds gently rocking. Lively evenings where the only sounds are the crackling of a roaring campfire and laughter as a bottle of Buffalo Trace makes the rounds.
Moments like these can help you relax the mind and body in a way that can be great for your health. Spending more time in nature has been found to alleviate stress in some and even help those battling with depression, according to a growing body of research.
You probably incorporate some hiking in your camping adventures already. If so, that’s great news. Hiking regularly (7+ hours a day) can help you improve your cardiovascular fitness, increase strength, improve bone density or decrease bone loss, and better weight control. By spending a weekend camping on the coast of Olympic National Park or along the rim of Crater Lake National Park, you are getting a massive dose of fresh air, socialization, and sunshine.
What’s the cost, yo?
Camping adventures, whether by yourself, with a loved one, or with a crew of friends, offer us the chance to make memories even if we don’t make an absolute fortune. Sure, it’s easy rack up a $1k bill at REI if you’re starting from scratch and need everything.
Luckily, there are plenty of options for buying great used camping gear at a large discount, including GearTrade and Ebay. Many outfitters and gear shops will rent the basics to get you on your way, as well, so you don’t have to commit if you’re an occasional camper.
But really, what’s not to love about having your own set of gear that can take you anywhere? A new two-person tent will run you about $100 or more if you don’t need the lightest on the market. A sleeping bag with enough synthetic insulation to keep you warm in the 40s starting at $80. Simple foam sleeping pad as low as $35. You don’t need to spend too much beyond that.
Meals will add cost and many parks require admission, as well as a fee to camp if you are staying in an established campground. These trip-specific costs can range anywhere from $20 to $500, depending on the length of your stay and the size of your crew.
The point is, go for it. A little planning can bring you a killer weekend that might not cost you more than food and gas.
OK, but what SHOULD we bring?
Camping takes a comprehensive approach of planning, execution and if you do it right, a whole lot of fun. From the minute you start preparing menus for the backcountry and checking inventory in your gear “closet”, you have an adventure to help you sail through the week. I at least treat it that way.
So, let’s take a look at some of the greatest gear to bring on your next camping trip.
Tents. They are awesome. I love the simple concept of having a lightweight toy that you can take anywhere that will protect you and give you indoors. If you like backpacking, consider going with a tent that is light enough to carry 10+ miles in your pack. For strictly car camping with larger groups, REI has a great line of spacious tents for 4, 6 or even 8 people. For car camping along lakes the Oregon Cascades, I use REI’s Half Dome 4. Backcountry excursions require the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2.
Focus on floor size, weight and vestibule size when browsing new tents. Fabric strength can be important for our four-legged friends.
Sleeping bags. The best way and only way to select the right sleeping bag is to test it in the field. Getting a feel of a sleeping bag’s cut is always important when choosing in-store. But, how do you KNOW that it will give you a great night’s sleep? You have to take it camping!
Sleeping bags are divided in two main categories: down and synthetic. Down bags are generally warmer, pack down smaller and are more expensive. Down is also more susceptible to getting wet, though there are an increasing number of ‘waterproof down’ sleeping bags on the market. Synthetic insulation will still keep you warm when soaked, but tends to not be as packable. Synthetic sleepings are arguably heavier compared to a down counterpart with the same warming power. For most general purpose camping and backpacking, synthetic bags are the perfect fit. Rugged, cheap and warm no matter what.
Sleeping Pads. You have three main options here: thin foam pads, comfy inflatable pads, and air mattresses. If you can sleep anywhere and don’t want the expense, foam sleeping pads might be perfect. Air mattresses are great for finicky sleepers and friends looking for luxury, not lumps. Lightweight inflatable pads are a great middle ground, though they tend to be the most expensive due to their tiny weight and packable size.
REI always has several different pads you can try out in-store, making it easier to choose the right one.
Clothes. I could go on forever about which clothes to bring. Bottomline: it really depends on the weather and how easily you get cold. If the forecast is for dry warm days and chilly evenings, bring lots of layers, including a base layer, fleece and windbreaker. If you live in the Pacific Northwest and expect to see some rain over the weekend, bring waterproof jacket and pants, along with waterproof boots or sandals, like Chacos.
Don’t wear cotton if you plan to get wet. If it’s going to be very cold, make sure you have something windproof. And if all else fails, jump in your sleeping bag and go to sleep.
My personal recommendations for some of the most useful and versatiles clothing to keep you comfortable camping:
Grubbin’ by the fire
When it comes to going gourmet at the campsite, you have endless options to turning that ancient picnic table into a 3 star Michelin-rated restaurant. Well, maybe not quite that good. But the point is, spending a night or a weekend outside doesn’t mean you have to eat like a squirrel.
Do you love Italian? Grab some fresh pasta, sauce, sausage and peppers, and make yourself a delicious meal of pasta with a side of garlic bread. Or would you prefer a delicious Thai meal? Bring your seasoned wok and cook up a piping hot stir-fry with bell peppers, green beans, authentic prig king curry paste.
For car camping, just bring along your home cooking essentials, a cooler to keep any perishables from tragically perishing, and a rag for cleanup. Backpackers will want to prep ingredients ahead of time and keep things limited to a one or two-person cookset that won’t add much weight to the pack.
Be very mindful about where and how you wash your dishes in bear country. Those big critters have a sense of smell 2,100 times better than people.
For those who prefer a no-fuss cooking experience with minimal cleanup, freeze-dried backpacking meals can be the perfect option. They are light, some of them are tasty, and require no cleanup. $8 a meal. The Snow Peak GigaPower Auto is an excellent choice for backpackers who need legit power with almost no weight.
Check out 25 amazing camping meals recommended by our friends at Bon Appétit.
Top Camping Spots for 2017
The truth is: there are countless amazing places to go camping in the United States and beyond. You don’t have to wait for weeklong trips to our National Parks to plan and execute an epic camping trip. Even if you live downtown in a major city, I bet there is at least one state park or other area that allows camping within an hour of your front door.
With that being said, here are three of my absolute favorite places to camp in the U.S.:
Mt. Hood Wilderness, Oregon
Glacier National Park
Continental Divide, Rocky Mountain National Park
Now get out there and CAMP.