With its mix of woodsy wonders and pandemic-friendly isolation, camping has become a hot vacation option. Seventy-two percent of boomer-age campers believe that camping is the safest possible travel activity, according to a May 2020 survey by campground chain KOA, which also found that a third of non-campers are now interested in sleeping under the stars. Outdoor retailer REI reports that online visitors to its camping advice pages have doubled since 2019.
“It’s exploding,” says Kevin Long, cofounder and CEO of the Portland, Oregon-based The Dyrt, a website with accompanying app that has information, including user reviews, on more than 44,000 public and private campgrounds around the country and offers discussion forums for campers to exchange information. The Dyrt has four times as many people registering this year as last year (though you can use the site as a guest), according to Long — and 40 percent of its users are older than 50.
If you’ve never pitched a tent or slept in a sleeping bag, know that, whatever your age, camping need not feel like roughing it. “The biggest rule of camping,” says Long, “is be extremely comfortable.” He notes that the vast majority of people who camp aren’t trekking through the backcountry: “They’re parking their cars and walking 20 feet to their campsite. So bring your pillows from home, bring your air mattress. My wife and I bring our duvet.”
And if you haven’t camped in decades, you’ll find that tents are lighter and easier to use than the basic gear of yore.
Sure, a rainstorm might keep you cocooned in your tent rather than out toasting marshmallows by the fire. And yes, there will be bugs. But that’s all part of the adventure.
Here's some expert advice on getting started.
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Know your destination options
Your camping fantasies may involve pitching a tent in the wilderness, but KOA-type campgrounds are good options for first-timers, says Jeremy Puglisi, coauthor of See You at the Campground: A Guide to Discovering Community, Connection, and a Happier Family in the Great Outdoors. You'll typically find camp stores, plentiful staff and clean bathrooms, which is not always the case at state and national parks. You can also search for campgrounds near you on thedyrt.com or The Dyrt app, taking a careful look at reviews, photos and videos visitors have posted to get a good sense of each place.
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Plan ahead (but check for cancellations)
To camp at popular state and national parks, you'll want to plan months or even a year ahead. “Few walk-up sites are available anymore,” says Malcolm Dunn, REI operations program coordinator for local experiences in the Seattle area and a former REI camping and backpacking instructor. Because of the pandemic, however, cancellations are common. In the KOA survey, 31 percent of campers said they have cancelled or will likely cancel trips and 13 percent said they'll postpone. If a campground is full, call back every day to check on cancellations. “A lot of people snag good sites that way,” says Puglisi.
Stay close to home
Given the unpredictable nature of COVID-19, many veteran campers are choosing local options over far-flung campgrounds. You don't want to embark on a 10-hour road trip only to find that a state is suddenly quarantining visitors. You're also more likely to find available camping sites at a less-crowded, under-the-radar county park than a state or national park. Another reason to stay local: If you find you really don't like camping — or see a forecast full of rain — you can easily head back home.
Consider renting gear
Renting is a smart option: You can try the equipment — and see if you enjoy camping — before spending a lot of money. Companies such as Arrive Outdoors, CampCrate, Outdoors Geek and Xscape Pod will ship individual equipment or camping kits to your home. The kits can include gear such as sleeping bags, pads, a tent, headlamps, chairs and cooking essentials, and you can rent them for one person or for larger groups. Costs can range from $169 for a two-person, four-to-seven-day Xscape Pod kit (which also includes a first aid kit, fire starter and other goodies) to a $52 basic, one-person set from Arrive Outdoors that includes a tent, sleeping bag and pad. Retailers such as EMS and REI also rent camping gear, as do many smaller, local outdoor companies.
When you buy, go with the pros
When you buy camping equipment, avoid the big-box retailers. You'll find higher-quality gear and more knowledgable staff at stores that specialize in outdoor goods. ("The person that's going to help you is most likely a tent camper,” says Puglisi.) Well-known options include Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's, Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS), L.L.Bean and REI. For equipment reviews, check sites such as Gear Junkie, GearLab and Switchback Travel.
Get a good night's sleep
For sleeping bags, check the temperature rating. You don't want a bag designed for Arctic conditions if you're camping in Florida. Dunn recommends a rectangular bag that zips all the way down the side, as opposed to a backpacking-style sleeping bag (often called a mummy bag). A rectangular bag is heavier, but more comfortable. “You don't feel quite as constricted,” he says. Your most comfortable option is likely an air mattress. Most include built-in pumps and Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) mattresses are a good option because they're durable and waterproof, according to CampingManiacs.com. And, as Long noted, don't be afraid to bring your own comfy pillows and blankets from home.
What do you really need?
• Ground cloth (placed under the tent to keep out moisture)
• Sleeping bags (with pads) or air mattresses
• Camp chairs
• Sun protection (sunglasses, hat, sunscreen)
• First-aid kit
• Plenty of water and easy- or no-prep food
• Headlamps or flashlights
• Insect repellent
Additional useful items: tablecloth for your picnic table, clothesline for drying wet clothes, trash bags, paper towels, toilet paper, batteries, a tarp for rain or shade (with lines to string it up), cooking gear (such as a camping stove), paper maps, games/books.
Choose the right tent
The big difference between an expensive tent and a more moderately priced tent is the weight. But unless you're backpacking 20 miles, a lighter tent shouldn't be an issue. The main consideration, says Dunn, is buying a tent that's tall enough and roomy enough to feel comfortable. “A two-person tent is really just two people lying side by side and there's not much space beyond that,” he says. Set up your tent — and try all of your gear — at home rather than doing it for the first time at a campsite. “You don't want to show up at a campground and mess with gear all night instead of relaxing around the campfire,” he says.
Prep your meals in advance
If you're camping over a weekend, Puglisi recommends an easy meal on Friday night (since you'll be setting up the tent) and then a more elaborate dinner on Saturday. His favorite cooking gear includes Coleman two-burner stoves, Blackstone griddles, Weber portable grills and the Lodge “Cast Iron Cook-It-All,” which he calls the Swiss Army knife of cooking gear: It can be used as a grill, griddle, skillet, wok, Dutch oven or pizza oven. Dunn's advice: Do as much kitchen prep work (such as cutting vegetables) at home, where it's easier. You'll also have more time to enjoy your campsite and you won't have to pack things like a cutting board.
Make a checklist
Don't expect to be connected
If you're in a remote campsite, you may not have phone service, so be prepared. Bring old-school maps, guidebooks, field guides, star charts and entertainment, whether it's board games or a deck of cards. And don't view the lack of phone time as a downside. As Dunn says of being disconnected, “I consider it a bonus."