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How to Camp (and Actually Enjoy It)

Guide To Camping

Speaking of bears, I’m a big wuss when it comes to sleeping outdoors. But Liz Stanley from Say Yes raves about camping everywhere from Maine to Wyoming. Here are her genius tips for making camping awesome (including fancy pancakes and blow-up mattresses, no joke)…

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WHERE TO PITCH YOUR TENT

Skip the campground. Campgrounds feel like cities, only you’re closer together. The only thing between you and a bunch of drunk college kids is a thin sheet of nylon. If you’re scared of bears, campgrounds are the worst place because they know that’s where food is. In Yosemite, we saw a couple a day!

Get off the beaten path. You are allowed to camp in any national forest or wilderness area surrounding a national park.

Go car camping. Set up your tent within several feet of your car. You can pull out a fancy-pants air mattress. You can bring a full grill. You can bring a baguette and cheese. For a long time, my husband Jared, who is super outdoorsy, treated car camping like backpacking — pack very minimally, still eat dehydrated meal packets. But then he went on a boys’ camping trip with an expert scout master, who pulls up in a huge truck just full of crap — huge canopies, La-Z-Boy camping chairs, the most comfortable accommodations. And Jared was like, of course! There’s no reason to torture yourself.

Find the perfect spot. You can Google national forests or wilderness areas near you. Then, to pick your exact camping spot, you’ll need to drive down dirt roads and explore a little. We look for water nearby (it’s so much fun to play in a swimming hole or stream, and water makes the best noise machine at night); flat, soft ground; not a lot of mosquitoes (the higher up you go, the better it is, since mosquitoes can’t deal with wind); and pretty views, if possible.

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WHAT TO PACK

  • A larger tent than you think you need. There’s no reason to be cramped in a two-person backpacking tent. We’ve gone camping with families that have luxury tents with separate zippered rooms for the kids!
  • An air mattress. Every time we car camp, we bring an air mattress for the adults, plus a little pump. Our seven-year-old sleeps on a mattress pad. Our toddler sleeps between us. We bring Marmot 20-degree synthetic sleeping bags. We’ll often zip two together to create one huge luxury bag.
  • Our real pillows from our bed at home!
  • I always bring beanies no matter what, even in summer. There’s nothing worse than having a cold head in the middle of the night.
  • Flashlights and glowsticks are so much fun for kids. And a soccer ball. We often bring our camera and take pictures of the stars at night.
  • Folding chairs to sit around the campfire.
  • A camping stove, especially if you’re a new camper and don’t want to rely on a fire.
  • A cooler.
  • Basic tools, like a big spoon, scissors, a knife, a measuring cup and a can opener. We have a set of enamel plates and cups that we take on every trip.
  • We usually rinse our cooking stuff with water, but you could bring Dr. Bronner’s soap if you’re going for more nights.
  • We bring a roll of toilet paper and paper towels. You need to pack up all your trash. Solid waste needs to be 100′ or more from a body of water, buried at least 6” deep.

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WHAT TO EAT

We don’t try to prepare food at home beforehand; it’s too much work when you’re already packing. We just stop at a grocery store on the way. We buy a bunch of ice for the cooler, plus groceries.

For breakfast, we’ll make pancakes, eggs, sausages and potatoes. At the grocery store, I’ll crack the eggs, put them in a ziplock bag, and pop them into our cooler. We’ll buy pancake mix — all mixes nowadays say “just add water,” even the fancy ones — and pour the mix into a zip-lock bag with water; later, we’ll just clip the end with scissors to make pancakes. You want breakfast to be quick; kids always wake up hungry!

For dinner, we grill hot dogs or kabobs. You can bring an old pot and make meatballs and mac and cheese. We also love Mountain House backpacking meals. You just add boiling water. They have cobblers, brownies, pudding pies, beef stew, Mexican rice with chicken… And since they’re dehydrated in small pieces, they’re all baby/kid friendly.

The smartest thing we’ve EVER done is get a Jetboil. It boils two cups of water in like thirty seconds. If you’re hungry and want your backpacking meal, or a cup of tea or hot chocolate, it’s a godsend.

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WHY IT’S SO WORTH IT

It’s so nice to wake up in the morning when it’s chilly, and have a long hot breakfast with coffee or hot chocolate.

I love feeling like we’re doing our parental duty of “letting them run wild in nature.” Let them pick up bugs, get dirty, throw huge rocks in the water, scream “echo” up the canyon 10 bazillion times. Remember that just yesterday you wouldn’t let them throw a soft pillow in the living room too close to your face so this is their chance to be a real kid!

Sitting around the campfire at night — drinking a mug of wine, talking, making s’mores — is amazing. Since it gets dark at 8pm, we’ll often hang out for a while yet still go to bed early, which feels so good, too.

My husband and I once took a kayaking trip and ended up on a gorgeous lake under the Grand Tetons. We went skinny dipping at midnight. I loved that combination of paddling and camping. It was magical.

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Thank you so much, Liz (who is currently on a ladies’ canoe trip in Maine)! These tips make me really want to go camping, something I never thought I’d say.

What camping tips do you have? Where do you guys camp? Any campsites you actually love? I am so curious to hear…

P.S. 10 tips for traveling with a baby, and the weird thing we do on trips.

(Photos courtesy of Liz Stanley; graphic design at top by Rachel Ball.)

  1. ellabee says...

    Bring decent coffee when you camp, not instant. A French press works well if you’re car camping, or just a single-cup drip filter. It makes an amazing difference to have nice coffee if you’ve slept badly. Don’t categorically write off campsites — they vary widely. We’ve had some fantastic experiences in campsites at California state parks. Going with a group of friends (or with another family whose kids are the same age as your family’s if you have kids) can make camping much easier since you can split up meal prep and clean-up responsibilities. Waking up in a tent and hearing the birds singing in the quiet makes the craziness of camping seem worth it every time.

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  3. Emily says...

    I love car camping – really, most any kind of camping. I agree that it’s really fun to get out away from campgrounds and explore old fire roads for camp sites. We’ve spent some of our most favorite camping trips that way. Newfoundland was particularly good for it – there’s a lot of big open wilderness to explore, and not a lot of people in it (similar to northern Maine but with more water). We spent one memorable night finding ourselves lucky enough to be camped next to a bed of ripe wild strawberries!

    We’re camping in Baxter State Park this weekend for an annual trip with friends, and this post is reminding me I need to start making up some lists and pulling everything together! One thing we added to our car camping stash was a small plastic cutting board – much easier to use than an enamel plate!

  4. The first time I went camping was when my host family in Japan took me along for the ride and I absolutely loved it. I want to go camping again, but this time I want to set up everything myself. ;) Thanks for sharing this post, it was super informative!

  5. Clare says...

    I really want to try car camping after this. We’ve always essentially done it, but at a camp-site. But I love the idea of getting further away from other people – it always annoys me to hear someone’s TV blaring from an RV when I’m trying to relax and enjoy the stars.

    I have one question though – if you’re camping somewhere that isn’t a designated camp site, and you want to be very close to your car, doesn’t that put you essentially camping on the side of the road, with your car pulled off on the shoulder? I’m just wondering about the logistics… where do you park your car? Wouldn’t it be destructive to drive it off the road?

    • Most of the spots we end up finding are off fire service roads, so, yes, it’s right off the road but it’s rare there are any cars driving through. And sometimes we do walk a bit from the car to the spot we’re eyeing. But not too far since we’re lugging gear! Even in dispersed camping, we almost always find spots that have clearly been used as a campsite before, we look for a fire ring or other flattened spots where people have camped.

  6. Jessi says...

    This post was lovely, and the photos are beautiful, but it’s the total opposite of how I camp. At home, I’m groomed and I like my clothing fresh and my shoes clean, but when I camp, I’m more of a mountain woman. My boyfriend and I are going to start backpacking, and we pack like backpackers. We don’t feel cramped in our Big Agnes 2-person tent, and we like carrying a light load. We enjoy meal prep, so this past weekend I brought homemade marshmallows for s’mores, and while we did have some convenience items like hot dogs and trail mix (yum!), we also packed shredded chicken and pre-made breakfast wraps. We don’t feel we need much to enjoy camping, we just love being outdoors. As long as trails are nearby and we’re together, I’m a happy camper. Thanks for sharing, Liz and Joanna!

  7. This is a great way to camp in Oregon’s largest wilderness area- the Wallowa Mountains. Healthy food prepared and provided for every meal. Unique experience with wallowsllamas.com.

  8. We are huge campers in our family, and we try to go every couple of months! We’ve camped throughout the Rift Valley in Kenya, but we have yet to go camping in the US – it’s a big goal for us! :)

  9. I went camping in Utah once, and it started snowing at night. And I only brought a blanket from home instead of getting a proper sleeping bag. I was freezing my butt off. But luckily there was a shower on the site, and I basically just went into the shower, turned on the hot water, and soaked in there for a few hours. Didn’t get any rest that night, and I was miserable. Never again. Next time I have a itch for the outdoors, I will just get a warm cabin with a bed.

  10. Good to Go, a Maine company, also makes dehydrated food that’s especially great when backpacking. Delicious stuff like Herb Risotto and Thai curry. Seriously amazing and makes you feel like you’re not being punished. Also, with dehydrated food, always add a little less water then recommended. Nothing’s worse than your chocolate mousse turning into chocolate soup.

    Best campground : Thakgil (Þakgil) in Iceland.

  11. These are such great recommendations. As I get older, my camping needs have changed. An air mattress or a pad makes camping a much better experience. Sometimes we just roll out a mattress pad and fold down the back seats of our Subaru wagon and sleep in the car. Late nights around a camp fire under the stars is magical. As is snuggling early morning in the cool dawn light.

  12. Melliebay says...

    BRING A PILLOW! I have a compressible camping pillow, and it is probably the most helpful item in my pack.

    We just finished a week in Yosemite where we didn’t see a single bear. Booo. But we did use the backpacking campsites 2 of the nights and I found everyone there to be very respectful and quiet. I think the closer you are to civilization, the more crowded and obnoxious your campground is likely to be.

    Always bring bug spray and a headlamp. And have fun.

  13. magoo says...

    Thanks for sharing your tips, I love camping and some of these are new to me! Do you use a plugin to add the Pinterest link to your photos? If so, which one? I like how it disappears when you’re not hovering over the photo.

  14. My husband and I have camped in several National Park campsites and they’re absolutely terrific! Amenities, bathrooms, clean, and quiet – highly recommend. One ENORMOUSLY helpful investment Over the years was this camp mattress http://www.cabelas.com/product/Cabelas-Deluxe-Camp-Beds/732419.uts I SWEAR that it is exactly like sleeping on your bed at home. No leaking, no moving when your partner gets up. GET ONE!!! Also, second an earlier comment about roasting Starbrusts, delicious and less messy than s’mores.

  15. Hollie says...

    Where is that beautiful camp spot with the view of the Golden Gate bridge?? !! I must go there!

    • It’s called Kirby Cove, such a great one!

  16. Do not forget to carry a “Fisrt Aid Kit”!