Category Archives for Camping Resources

Camping for Beginners

Guide to Camping for Beginners [2019 update]

2019 GUIDE TO CAMPING FOR BEGINNERS

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO CAMPING FOR BEGINNERS

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

Are you, finally, ready to shed the belief that camping is not for you? We understand your concerns. Sleeping on the ground, outside, with no heat or AC is an intimidating proposition, but we guarantee that it’s one worth overcoming. The joy of a simple life, while camping in the woods is, often, enough to reconnect you with nature and the things in life that really matter.

And, hey, we’re not saying that you have to throw all sense of comfort and cleanliness out the window in order to go camping! With the right gear and camp systems, it’s, actually, quite easy to transform your campsite into an oasis away from home. Our helpful guide will provide specific motivation for why you should try camping, along with helpful gear suggestions, packing tips, and meal planning advice.

Looking to Learn About Camping?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

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    What type of camping would suit you best?
  • check
    Where to go, what to bring and what to cook.
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    How to keep yourself entertained at camp.
  • check
    Which beginners mistakes to avoid

Do

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    Plan your gear, meals, and trip goals BEFORE you go
  • Invest in quality gear
  • Choose your campsite diligently
  • Ask experienced campers or family members for advice

Don't

  • Overpack with every possible piece of gear before your first trip - Focus on the basics
  • Expect everything to go perfectly during your first few trips - You will make mistakes!
  • Dispose of your trash and grey water next to your campsite

Why Go Camping?

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Choosing a vacation with purpose is important. Time away from work has proven to be a vital contributor to overall health and happiness. The ability to relieve tension and stress while doing something that you’re passionate about can, often, lead to increased focus and motivation, even upon returning to those less enjoyable commitments.

Dispersed Camping: Free Camping on Public Lands

While the ideal way to relax and rejuvenate the mind, body, and soul will vary greatly from person to person, there seems to be a common theme amongst the happiest folks out there: simplification. It’s hard to think of a better way to simplify what you, truly, need to be happy than time spent camping with friends. Plus, there are some amazing benefits:

Affordability

With an average campground campsite cost of $20 -$35/night and many wild, or backcountry, sites that are free, camping is among the cheapest lodging options available for visiting a new area. Why be limited to 2 nights in a hotel when you could spend an entire week exploring a new city for the same cost, or less?

Connection to nature

It’s hard to explain if you are uninitiated, but there is something rhythmic and peaceful about falling asleep with the sounds of nature. Camping is a great way to reveal the beauty of being outside and bring out your ‘wild’ inner self. Listening to the sounds of birds, insects, a distant howl from a coyote, a running stream, or simply the breeze blowing through the surrounding trees can breathe life into your connection and association with the great outdoors.

Health Benefits

We could write a novel on the many benefits one receives from camping and being active outdoors. We’ll assume, though, that you’d like to know about them in a more timely fashion, so check out some of the articles below for examples of the ways that camping can be good for you.

What Type of Camping Is Right For You?

Backpacking

Fitting everything you need to survive into a backpack and then carrying it for many miles through rugged terrain won’t be for everyone. The added challenge of grocery/meal planning, and the fact that most backcountry campsites have no amenities make backpacking better suited for experienced campers. It is the best way to achieve privacy and connection to nature, however, so it may be worth the trouble if maximum self-sufficiency is what you desire. If this type of adventure sounds more like you then head over to our guide to backpacking for beginners.

Car Camping

Typically, defined as the camping most of us are familiar with at established campgrounds where you can park your car directly next to your campsite for easy unloading. Additional amenities, like running water, electricity, bathrooms and showers, also, provide a more enjoyable experience for those who want to enjoy being in nature but not sacrifice every element of comfort. We feel that car camping is the best way to learn sound camping practices and test new gear before venturing into backcountry terrain and is the type of camping we'll be focusing on today.

Further Reading: To really save money, did you know you can camp at certain locations free? Check out our guide to dispersed camping to learn more. For family adventures learn how to go camping with kids or if you are feeling adventurous, why not try winter camping?

tent in forest

RV’s

Recreational vehicles are growing in popularity, not just for their camping comforts, but as affordable ways to travel the country. Even non-campers are seeing the benefits of having a private apartment with you wherever you go.

Cabins

Ok, let’s be honest. You will, probably, get some condescending stares from your camping friends if you tell them that you went camping, only to stay in a cabin! With a bed, tv, and a kitchen, overnight stays in a cabin are a far cry from the simplicity and comfort sacrifices of traditional tent camping.

Glamping

Glamorous camping, or glamping, may be the fastest growing segment within campgrounds across the country. As a way to overcome the traditional concerns with cleanliness and comfort that keeps many people from participating, campground owners are creating comfortable lodging options that blend the line between camping and staying in a hotel. Remember that Instagram post featuring an exotic looking yurt, perched on a wooden platform, complete with furniture, lighting, and bug netting? Yep, that’s glamping!

How to Choose a Campsite

Selecting the best site for your home away from home can be crucial to an enjoyable weekend of camping. For longer stays, it will be even more important. Having to move all your equipment and gear to a better site, after previously being set up elsewhere, is never a fun task. Avoid the hassle and get it right the first time by following these key steps to selecting a great campsite.

Determine your trip goals BEFORE you pick a campsite

Being honest with yourself about what you hope to get out of your time spent camping is one of the best ways to determine which site will work for you. Consider these factors and how they can affect where you choose to put up your tent:

  • Are you looking for maximum privacy and seclusion?
  • Or would you prefer to share the experience with others, making new friends?
  • How important is convenience to your camp experience?
  • Proximity to bathrooms, showers, sinks, potable (drinkable) water

What are your size/space needs?

Many campgrounds limit the sites available to you based on your equipment (tent vs. camper van vs. RV). Knowing the dimensions of your tent or camper will help you select a campsite suitable for your needs.

Look for level ground

This may be the most important element to a good night’s sleep while camping. Look for gravel pads or grassy areas, on which will be flat and comfortable to lay down. Also, consider the site’s water drainage potential in case it rains.

Essential Camping Gear

Tent

Choosing a tent to suit your future adventures will, likely, be one of the first decisions you make on the path to becoming a camper. Consider how many people (and pets) will be sleeping inside it most nights to help you determine size. Larger, cabin-style tents are great for comfort and the ability to stand up once inside, however, they do take up considerable space during travel and have limited versatility away from campgrounds.

a large tent in the woods

Whatever you decide, we recommend investing in a quality tent made by a respected manufacturer. Cheap tents, often, puncture easily and have poorly protected seams and zipper components. Check out our overview of the top rated tents and brands to help decide which is the right product for you.

Sleeping Pad, Air mattress, or Cot

As with most camping equipment, you’ll have to balance your desire for comfort with your available storage space. Blow up air mattresses, like those commonly used for houseguests, can be a comfortable option for camping as well. Keep in mind that they rely on electrical access to blow up and can be more susceptible to leaks and punctures than camping-specific designs.

An elevated camping cot may be ideal if you prefer to be up and off of the ground while sleeping, although they do lack some of the comfort seen in air pads and mattresses.

Thanks to the technology behind them, it’s hard to go wrong with a modern backpacking/camping-specific sleeping pad, like those by Therm-a-Rest or Exped. Comfortable enough for car-camping, but light enough for convenient travel or backpacking adventures.

Sleeping Bag

This is a great place to apply the 80% rule: Choose the bag, and temperature rating, that matches where you will be camping 80% of the time. Don’t purchase a 0℉ cold weather sleeping bag anticipating one winter trip and then wind up miserably hot for the majority of your trips camping in spring, summer, and fall.

As your experience grows, you’ll likely end up with multiple sleeping bags better suited to different environments. 

Further reading: Check out our guides to the best sleeping bags & sleeping bag liners.

Cooking Equipment

For most campers, a 2-burner, propane powered stove will be more than enough to turn campground dinners into gourmet feasts. Look for pots/pans that clean up easily and retain even heat, which is often a challenge with lightweight, backpacking cookware.

camp food cooking over fire

Stoves that feature piezo igniters make for quick and easy cooking, without the need to light a match. Also, look for features like integrated wind guards, convenient carry handles, and accessory hoses that allow your stove to run off of a traditional 5-gallon propane tank (like those seen with grills).

Toiletries

Whether you’re in a cabin or a tent, your everyday essentials will be key to keeping you feeling clean and refreshed after days spent outside. We like to keep our toothbrush, toothpaste, contact lens solution, face wash, etc. in a separate stuff sack that is easy to grab when walking to a bathhouse.

Bags with multiple attachment points (we love our Patagonia Black Hole Cube) are great for hanging on door hooks. Organizational compartments, also, help reduce the clutter.

Further reading: For more rustic campsites, learn how to dig a cathole latrine. Also know the ins and outs of biodegradable soap for camping.

Extras

We'd also advise taking the following along with you:

Luxuries

For us, the following items may not, always, be classified as needs, but they are pretty darn essential to a good time.

  • Camp chairs - Hard to beat the feeling of leaning back after a long day of hiking and/or lots of time spent bending over tables, into tents, unpacking gear, etc.
  • A good book - Reading a book while cozy inside of your tent is a surprisingly simple joy (Consider a Kindle as a way to bring along lots of reading material without any bulk)
  • Camp pillow - Yes, you can shove your clothes into a sack to save the space a pillow takes up. No, it won’t be as comfortable as an actual camp pillow!
  • Storage bins and/or gear duffels - organization is key when it comes to happy camping
  • For those hot summer months, a portable tent fan can be an amazing investment.

Packing, Arriving & Setting Up

Before you leave

The final days before your first camping trip can be stressful. You’re faced with wrapping up key deadlines from work and life, while, simultaneously, needing to prepare all your gear and clothing for the upcoming adventure. Despite the challenge, preparing for your first camping trip begins weeks before you leave.

Camping Gear inside tent

Early research will help in determining key aspects regarding your trip, like whether you need a reservation, available campground amenities (which may influence some of your gear & grocery selections), and fun things to do nearby. Here are a few other key steps that we always take to help us prepare for a camping trip:

  • Laying out gear on the floor - helps to visually confirm that we have what we need
  • Identify a meal plan and/or menu
  • Make a grocery list (mark which items can be bought in advance and which would be better to buy on the way or the day before leaving)
  • Utilize helpful gear checklists to highlight items you may not have thought about
  • Purchase or view necessary maps for hiking, biking, paddling, or other plans

Arriving at the campsite

At most campgrounds, you will be required to stop at a registration office before continuing on to your site. If the campground allows it, make sure to explore all possible sites before selecting the one you’d like to camp at.

Be on the lookout for level ground (gravel tent pads are ideal if rain is expected) and proximity to other campers and amenities. Also, don’t forget to check out the quality of smaller features within the site, like a fire ring or picnic table.

Setting up

Don’t worry, setting up your campsite as a first-time camper doesn’t need to happen at the speed of a Nascar pit crew! You’ll find that as you continue to camp, you will pick up efficiencies that make the process less daunting. Browse some of our tips for making your first campsite setup a smooth operation:

  • Prioritize - Your tent is, almost, always the most practical item to set up first. Don’t get caught in a sudden shower with nowhere to go because you focused on the tablecloth and chairs first!
  • Be strategic with site layout - Where should the tent go? Where should the food area be? Will you still have room to park the car? Make sure to look for hazards in plain sight like dangling limbs above you, or ant mounds next to your tent door.
  • Laying down on your tent footprint is a great way to test the ground comfort of an area before fully erecting your tent
  • ALWAYS consider rain - Is your tent site elevated? Do you see obvious ground runoffs that will fill with running water in the event of a storm? Keep in mind that grass and gravel will handle moisture better than compacted dirt.

Camp Meal Planning

Planning campfire meals can be a frustrating task for the beginner camper (as well as the seasoned pro!), but it is one of the best ways to save money and create memorable moments. Time spent cooking and eating together, as a family, around the campfire is never wasted!

Remember that your meal options will be limited by the cookware that you bring, so be sure to research the best camping stoves if you plan to step into that camp chef role.

Planning

This sounds obvious, but start your planning by clearly identifying how many meals you need to make. Remember to factor in any plans to eat out into your meal planning. For us, a weekend camping trip (Friday afternoon- Sunday morning) will, typically, consist of two breakfasts, two snack/lunch options, and one dinner. We enjoy eating at a local restaurant one night, a great way to reduce your meal planning prep, while, also, getting to know the area.

Pro Tip: Consider the Clean Up

Consider what the clean up will be like for a given meal during the planning stage, not once out in the field. It’s easy to think ‘oh that sounds delicious and easy to make’ only to realize at your campsite that it leaves a harsh, hard-to-clean residue on everything or requires multiple pots and pans.

Cooking

For simplicity, a deep-sided pot or saucepan will give you numerous meal options while camping. Skillet cooking with a frying pan or griddle, however, opens up another level of gourmet camp cooking versatility (Nutella-stuffed french toast, blueberry pancakes, pizza, need we say more?).

If you are planning to cook over an open fire, make sure you know how to build a campfire safely, and understand the responsibilities that come with supervising it & extinguishing it completely.

Camping Activities

Never fear the infamous ‘What are we going to do?’ question again! The possibilities are, almost, endless for what you can do while camping, but here are some of our favorites:

Common Beginner Mistakes to Avoid

You don’t start out an expert in anything, so be prepared for some frustrating (and comical!) trial and error as a new camper. From your first rainstorm to your first real meal cooked at the campsite, you will pick up on numerous intricacies that, ultimately, make the experience more enjoyable. Here are a few common mistakes that we’ve made ourselves, or watched others make, during their first trip camping.

  • An excessive amount of gear - Overpacking creates organizational nightmares, uncomfortable travel arrangements (best not to lose sight of your child amidst the pile of gear in the back seat!), and frustrating campsite setup clusters. Rather than buying everything that you think you might need in advance, wait until you’ve camped a few times and developed an actual need for something. Your opinions on necessary gear will, often, change after a few trips.
  • Cheap tent - Unless you enjoy soggy living quarters, poor puncture resistance, sticky zippers, and limited structural integrity, we suggest splurging a bit for a well-designed and quality manufactured tent. Not only will it provide a more comfortable camping experience, it is, likely, the more affordable option over the long-term, as you won’t need to replace it as frequently. Check out this article on caring for your tent to get the most out of your investment.
  • Improper disposal of grey water and food waste - If you’re well schooled in the principles of Leave No Trace, it can be a frustrating sight to watch newbie campers, carelessly, dumping their dishwater and food scraps in the trees behind their site, increasing the likelihood of animal encounters, and creating nasty sites for future campers. Follow the rules for proper disposal at every campground you visit. Most will have specific locations for dumping grey water, often sinks near a bathroom or at a gravel drainage site within the campground.

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There isn't many greater pleasures to be enjoyed in this world than camping out under a clear starry sky. This is one thing all campers will agree on. However, that may be the only thing, as camping to one person may mean traipsing 10 miles off-trail with just  a hammock and rain-fly while to others it may mean driving up to the campsite and pitching a behemoth of a tent with accompanying power sockets, fans and lighting. We all enjoy camping in our own way, and our guides try to reflect the many flavors of overnighting in the great outdoors.

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Free Camping

Free Camping on Public Land: Dispersed Camping 101

FREE CAMPING ON PUBLIC LAND: DISPERSED CAMPING 101

free camping on public land: Dispersed camping 101

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and spent most of my time outdoors. As soon as I was old enough to go camping by myself I made a habit of meandering in any direction and picking a campsite at random. This predilection developed a taste and preference for dispersed camping that I’ve carried into the rest of my life.

Dispersed camping is a no-frills solution for those who want to rough it, or who are camping on a budget. It’s a practice for the adventurous and the incorrigible explorer who demands a more authentic experience.

We’re going to take a look at what dispersed camping is and the general guidelines and good practices that have allowed it to endure. Planning ahead is a key element for these trips. Knowing the rules and regulations of specific forests and parks is just as important as picking the right campsite.

Like good camping ninjas, we will ensure to leave no trace. The largest appeal of boondocking is the sense of solitude and unspoiled wilderness. Nothing ruins that experience like finding trash from other campers.

These key points will be reinforced and expanded on throughout this feature, but let’s take a look at them now:

Looking for the best guide to Dispersed Camping?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

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    What is dispersed camping?
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    What are the national forest camping rules?
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    Can you camp anywhere in a national forest?
  • check
    How to find the best free camping sites near you.
  • A few trip suggestions for boondocking around the country
  • Do check with local parks, forest services, and ranger stations before making your trip - we live in the information age after all.
  • Do Practice your best camping ethics while boondocking, from fire safety to waste disposal to smart site selection.
  • Do let at least one person know where you’re going in case of emergency.
  • Do maintain that sense of wonder!
  • Don't use these public lands for anything but camping-centric recreational purposes!
  • Don’t break or abuse lenient rules!
  • Don't forget to Leave No Trace!

Dispersed Camping, Boondocking, Wild Camping = Free Camping

Campgrounds surrounded by fellow campers aren’t for me. The appeal of sleeping in the outdoors is immediately tarnished when I hear conversations, and especially when there’s a toilet. I mean, what’s the point of camping if you aren’t going to the bathroom in the woods?

Further Reading: If you are new to outdoors adventures then check out our beginners guide to camping and how spending time in nature can help your body & mind. If you're planning on taking the little ones then we've got some great camping ideas for kids.

Define It For Me! 

Dispersed camping is the recreational use of free-access public lands for campers. Most of the time this camping is done out of your car. People drive to a forest road, safely park their vehicles on the side, and then camp. Simple as that.

Forest Road

Park on the side of the road and find your way to a private campsite.

This hybridized form of camping combines the conveniences of car camping with a genuine roughing-it experience free of amenities including toilets, showers, garbage cans, and any other basic service other campgrounds provide.

Where Can I Disperse Camp?

Public lands are there for public use, so most areas owned by National Forests, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Bureau of Land Management are open for boondocking. In general, unless there’s a specific rule against it you can freely camp in one of these locations.

The history of dispersed camping goes back to Theodore Roosevelt establishing forest land as a protected and reserved site for the nation. This was back in 1891, so the principle of free access to public land is a tradition dating back more than one-hundred years. Nowadays National Forests are found in 40 states (most is concentrated west of the Rockies), and they all offer places for you to settle in and stay awhile.

Why go dispersed camping?

While boondocking isn’t for everyone, it’s an experience just about everybody can get something out of. At the very least it’s an outing folk should scratch off their list of “Been there, done that”. Even a bad experience can make a good story.

For the campers and hikers who are more inclined to jump into the roughing-it nature of dispersed camping, it’s an experience that many find addicting and compelling. Venturing into the outdoors and making camp far from established campgrounds is a relieving experience that satisfies our inner nomad.

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No facilities, including trash collection, are standard for boondocking

The Pros

Most National Forests are near National Parks, so dispersed camping is an excellent way to save on campground fees and to beat the reservation system.

  • A sense of solitude and wilderness is standard for boondocking, appropriate for the folks who truly want to get away from it all.
  • A simpler experience that requires a more critical thinking approach to camping.
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    The lack of frills and fuss.
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    A freedom and sense of adventure lacking in more guided and structured camp settings.
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    Dispersed camping is a free activity.

The Cons

  • Absence of amenities: no toilets, no shower, no trash service; this holds the camper to a higher degree of responsibility
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    The total lack of other people might irritate the anxieties and fears of some individuals
  • Dispersed camping requires a pack-it-in, pack-it-out approach, so campers are responsible for bringing their own belongings in and out of the outdoors; this includes toilet paper!
  • If unprepared with items such as potable water and firewood (more on this later), an otherwise enjoyable experience can quickly turn into a bad time

That sense of adventure combined with the grit of such a hands-on jaunt into the woods is what it’s all about. For folks like myself, the cons are part of the appeal of dispersed camping! However, for individuals with a more refined taste might find this more primitive form of camping unsavory.

Free Camping Guidelines

Because so much land available for dispersed camping is federally owned, there are some general rules and guidelines that everybody should follow while boondocking. States and local governments may also have additional rules.

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Sure looks pretty, but all dispersed campsites need to be located 200 feet from a water source

Forest Service Camping Regulations and Recommendations

Forest fires are a growing concern (especially out West) so diligent fire safety rules are a no-brainer. Ideally, the camper will use a camp stove, but if an open fire is your only option always build a campfire ring around it to contain the flames.

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Keep that fire under control

Maintain a distance of 200 feet from any source of water. This is to protect the water from contamination (think human waste & camping soap/gray water) but also keeps sensitive water plants and wildlife from harm’s way. Use only fallen wood for your fire.

Bury all human waste to a depth of six inches a minimum of 200 feet from a water source.

The easiest way to ensure you’re following these regulations? Find an established campsite. Dispersed camping isn’t about leaving your own mark in the wilderness, it’s about enjoying the outdoors responsibly and leaving as little evidence of your presence as possible.

Prohibited Activities

If a roadway is blocked with a gate, don’t try to go around it; it’s locked and the road is off-limits for a reason.

Never leave trash, garbage, or supplies/gear behind at your campsite. Everything that you bring in must come back out with you.

Camping within site of trailheads is often prohibited. Your goal while dispersed camping is to be relatively unseen to preserve the wilderness for others, so that means no camping in meadows or clearings where others are likely to see you.

Local Rules and Regulations

Each state may have different rules and regulations, and so will local jurisdictions. Always check with local authorities and Ranger station before heading into the forest all willy-nilly.

Planning it Out

While dispersed camping is the spontaneous campers best friend, basic planning will only improve the trip.

At the very least it is wise to stay abreast of date-specific events like hunting seasons and burn bans. Some forests require you to have a camping permit before you can set up your tent. Major holidays and scheduled events or festivals can influence your experience as well.

Locating Dispersed Campsites

Rather than just driving around blind hoping to stumble upon a suitable spot there are three ways that will help you find a suitable location ahead of your trip.

Local or State Authorities

One of your best friends in the forest is a Ranger. These folks know the terrain, the roads, and the hazards of their jurisdiction. If you can’t find information elsewhere, consult a Ranger. These professionals will be familiar with where campsites are located and can point you to the best locations. Informing Rangers where you’re camping is a safety bonus too.

Alternatively, contact the local or state Bureau of Land Management or Forestry Service office who should be able to provide you with the same information.

Motor Vehicle Use Maps

Since 2005, the forestry service introduced a rule that all areas must make maps of all roads open to motor vehicles available to the general public. This means there is an entire database of potential campsites available for you to search.

MVUM - Finding a Free Campsite 1

1. Mosy over to the Forest Service MVUM page and find the National Forest you are interested in.

MVUM - Finding a Free Campsite 2

2. Once you have found the forest, then pick the area/map that you think would be a good place to camp.

MVUM - Finding a Free Campsite 3

3. Check the legend for the dispersed camping symbol...

MVUM - Finding a Free Campsite 4

4...and find the perfect camping spot!

User Curated Websites

There are also several community run websites that have an extensive list of dispersed campsites across the country. Try one of the following:

Always Be Prepared

Just because there’s a road doesn’t mean you can drive on it! Check out updated motor vehicle use maps and websites dedicated to camping in your selected areas. There are plenty of forest roads to adventure from, but they aren’t always open. Seasonal conditions can make these roads dangerous or impassable.

Having an up-to-date map is important if you’re in an area with limited or no phone reception. Check weather forecasts before heading out, too.

If you’re a fan of traveling with your dog, most forests and areas simply require that your dog is leashed and under control at all times, but specific areas may have more stringent rules. Diseases, animals, and parasites deadly to your pet and may be experiencing a population surge.

Selecting and Preparing Your Campsite

Picking the right destination for your trip is equally important as picking the right location for the campsite itself. The wrong option can be detrimental to the environment, and at worst could place you into a seriously precarious situation in the event of an emergency.

A Safe Distance

Keep your campsite at least 200 feet away from any water source. This is to prevent contaminating the water. Some forests will have additional rules about distances from roads and trailheads. Most dispersed camping requires you to be 1 mile away from permanent campground locations.

Fire Safety and Flat Footing

Set your fire away from nearby combustibles and ensure you have adequate overhead clearance. Firewood should always be sourced locally; if you need to collect wood from the local area, always choose wood that is already on the ground. Never break branches from standing trees, live or dead. Always ensure your fire is dead out and cold to the touch before you disperse the ashes around the campsite.

Alternatively, bring a camp stove.

Find a flat, level area to set up your site. Never alter the area by digging drainage ditches; this is why it’s so important to find an established and trusted campsite to minimize your impact on the ecosystem. 

Hanging Around

An excellent way to avoid leaving a heavy footprint from your tent is to camp in a hammock. It’s a lightweight, easily transported, and quick to assemble sleeping area. All it requires is a few trees or posts the right distance away to set up. Suspension straps will eliminate damage to trees.

Leave No Trace!

When in the outdoors we value the untouched feeling of the wilderness around us. At most, we want an established campfire ring marking a location for a campsite. This feeling of the wild and separation from the mess and the noise of civilization requires that the hiker and the camper practice the art of leaving no trace of their presence.

If you bring something into the outdoors, it comes back out with you. That applies to trash of any sort, food items, your gear and supplies, and if you want to be really awesome, your waste and toilet paper.

Not sure what to do? Here are some specific tips for your trip!

Campfires

Always ensure that you use locally sourced firewood (purchased or picked from the ground surrounding your campsite). Only burn inside a fire ring, and always look for an already established fire ring before making your own. Ensure the coals are cool to the touch before walking away from a fire and store your firewood a safe distance from the pit itself.

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A good campfire is within bounds of its ring.

Toilets

Ah, the art of pooping into a hole. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, I promise. Just make sure to dig a hole at least six inches deep to deposit your waste, and that your toilet is at least 200 feet from any source of water. Consider using portable toilets and waste removal bags specifically designed for leaving no trace whatsoever.

Water

Bring your own water that is clean to drink, or bring appropriate gear to purify and decontaminate any water sources you intend to drink from. If you do bring your own make sure to bring the containers out with you.

Trash

Any and all trash needs to come back out with you. This includes wrappers, containers, remnants of food… pretty much anything you’d ordinarily leave in a trash can at a campground.

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And here we see the soda can, an introduced species to this environment.

Trip Suggestions

While most of this public land for dispersed camping is found west of the Rockies, there are areas and regions for adventure from sea to shining sea. We’ve broken this down by generalized region and have a few ideas for each to get you started. For more ideas of campsites in your selected area check out the website Free Campsites.

The Northeast

Edgemere in Delaware National Forest is near Dingman’s Ferry in the Pennsylvania Poconos. It’s an excellent area to gain a good glimpse at what makes Pennsylvania an underappreciated area for backpacking and camping. Permits are required. Woodhull State Forest in upper New York state is an out-there but worth-it trip to see a large chunk of forestlands.

The Southeast

The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia offers some excellent camping in the southeast. South Carolina provides Sumter National Forest, a favorite camping destination of a close friend who swears by the location.

Autumn Sunset in Blue Ridge Mountains

The Midwest

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is my favorite area of the state. While exploring the terrain, stop into their park offices to obtain a backcountry permit. Shawnee National Forest in Illinois has liberal dispersed camping rules; their big one is that all vehicles must be parked in designated overnight areas.

The Rockies

Outside of Boulder Colorado is Rainbow Lake. The long road has scattered pull-offs and invites campers to find a secluded area. Outside of Somerset Colorado is Keblar Pass. Watch out for private lands abutting the public ones and make efforts to stay at established campsites rather than building your own.

The Southwest

The Coconino National Forest in Arizona is a tie for my favorite place on earth (the second being Disneyland, of course). Although there are 12 sites for dispersed camping along the Snow Bowl Road, it’s one of the best freakin’ areas in the state. A few hours north is Utah; the Gooseberry Mesa is among the best trails in the Southwest. The access road is a long one and rainy conditions can make travel impossible, so plan ahead before visiting here.

The Northwest

It’s impossible to not find dispersed camping opportunities in the Northwest. My favorite area is the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a wet place, but the hiking is topnotch and the views without equal. Deschutes National Forest outside of Bend Oregon is another spot worth checking out. This site is especially attentive to the Leave No Trace ethics we’ll read about later.

Now Get Out There!

We’ve got a good look at what we can expect when dispersed camping, and have a grasp on the responsibilities involved. We’re also ready to contact local Ranger stations and reach out to the proper channels to learn about the conditions of tracts of the forest before we head blindly into the wilderness. I’d say that’s a good start.

Dispersed camping is a great adventure for the right people and a totally worthwhile experience for the people less inclined to roughing it. Now that you’ve got a good handle on it, the next step is to put that to use and plan your next trip.

I’ll see you out there.

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The Definitive Guide to Winter Camping

THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO WINTER CAMPING

THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO WINTER CAMPING

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

It is difficult to explain at first. The absolute silence. The complete lack of noise on awakening - I am in my sleeping bag, in my tent, in the middle of the wilderness in the middle of the winter. Few people venture out here when the temperature plummets, but those few that do are greeted by a land of absolute beauty. Fragile, beautiful, yet deadly.

Just because the mercury has dropped, and the sun is struggling to make an appearance, there are many, many good reasons to try snow camping. We take you through a few of our top reasons to get out there in the snow and ice before leading you through how to plan and prepare for camping in the cold.

Looking for the best guide to Winter Camping?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

  • How to plan a winter backpacking trip.
  • What clothing to wear/pack.
  • What winter hiking gear you will need
  • How to select & setup camp
  • Various outer winter camping tips
  • Do research the area and plan your route, contingencies and turn-back scenarios before you go.
  • Do dress in layers so you can more easily regulate your body temperature.
  • Do bring lots of energy dense, simple, warming food (and drink) with you.
  • Do carefully select your campsite.
  • Do watch out for the symptoms of hypothermia, dehydration and frostbite.
  • Don't go out camping in winter on your own.
  • Don't forget to pack down the snow before you set up camp.
  • Don't eat snow! It may contain bacteria. Always boil snow first.
  • Don't leave a Trace. Pack all trash (including human waste) out.

Reasons to go Winter Camping

While the majority of people would not consider the midst of winter an appropriate time to camping, we revel in it. While there are many many reasons, here are seven great reasons to get out and explore this winter:

No Crowds

One of the greatest benefits of camping in cold weather is that you are not one of the majority - most people will think you’re crazy to head out in the depths of winter. However, their loss is your gain. Gone are the crowds from the campsites and the trails, leaving you and your group as possibly the only humans in the area.

Silence is Golden

Many people choose to take a camping trip to get away from the stresses, strains and noises of modern life. Take a trip in summer, and you’ll get peace and quiet in the wilds, but take a trip in the winter, and you reach another level of tranquillity.  Gone is the chatter of other human life, no buzzing insects, no rustling of the trees nor sounds of running water as the rivers have iced over. Just the sound of your own breathe punctuates the eerie silence in this ethereal landscape.

Evening landscape in mountains

Lack of Bugs

There is quite possibly nothing more frustrating on a trip into the backcountry than spending your evenings with dozens of angry mosquitos treating your ankles as a walking buffet. Come the winter almost all insects have disappeared, so leave your bug spray at home.

More wildlife on view

It may seem a bit paradoxically that as winter rolls in and life slows down that you may have more opportunity to spot various critters - the reduced foliage provides less cover for larger animals, and darker fur will stand out in stark contrast with the white snow.

Resets your Circadian Rhythm & Can Combat S.A.D.

Spending time outdoors, particularly in winter, is good for your health; it’s official! Researchers from the University of Boulder have shown that a short weekend camping in the snow will reset your sleep pattern to more closely mimic the rise and fall of the sun, thus helping you get a fuller more rested sleep once you return home. Also, the exposure to more sunlight and the exercising (you are hiking to your campsite, right?) are two common ways to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The Scenery

The mountains and the trails are beautiful in the summer, but their beauty come winter is something else - a fragile mystical world that exhibits mother nature unveiled, delicate, yet unyielding.

The chance to brag

What’s that, you binge-watched Netflix last weekend? Nice. I backpacked through Potawatomi State Park. Feel free to give yourself the opportunity to boast of your adventure in freezing temperatures while your friends wasted the weekend getting hooked on some drama series that was so bland they can’t remember the basic storyline four days later.

Pre-Trip Planning

A camping trip in the winter requires a little more planning, skills and gear than a summer car camping trip. With the weather much harsher, the margins for error are much smaller so your preparation should go above and beyond to help ensure you have a safe and fun trip.

Further Reading: If you are a novice camper, then we would recommend our camping 101 guide.​​

If you are heading out into the wilderness in the winter, our advice would be not to go alone, especially if this is your first trip out in the colder months. Bring along some buddy’s to share the joys and tribulations of your adventure, particularly any who have cold weather experience or skill sets that complement and support yours such as being able to navigate through snow, avalanche training or snow shelter building or indeed take a cold weather camping course before you go. The winter is a harsh mistress, don't take her on alone.

As important as who you will be travelling with, is where you go. Pick a destination for your trip that is within your abilities, and is likely to meet your expectations and goals. Research the area carefully and consider the following questions:

  • Where are the nearest emergency services located and how long would they take to reach you?
  • Are there any backcountry shelters in the area, and if so, where?
  • How will you get there? Where will you leave your vehicle? Do you need a 4x4 or winter tires to reach the trailhead? And are the roads even open?
  • What is the terrain like? What are the trails like? Is gentle easy open country or are you looking at some steep long climbs? Pay particular attention to any slopes over 200 that may be prone to avalanches and ensure your group has formal avalanche training if this is the case.

Speak to others who have visited the area and get their insight - if you don’t know anyone personally, you can find lots of helpful folks on various message boards and other online communities who may be able to answer your questions.

When you have a good understanding of the lay of the land, gather your companions and discuss the trips goals and expectations. Plan the route together, taking into consideration the likely trail conditions, weather conditions and the abilities of your group - stage overnight stops closer together than you would normally. Nothing in winter happens at the same speed as in summer.

hiking in snowy mountains

Be prepared for the unexpected by packing extra clothes, food and cash for emergencies and make contingency plans ahead of the trip and agree on them before you leave. Always, leave a copy of the trip plan with someone, include the names of everyone in your group, the make/model/registration of your vehicle and where you will park it, the route (with timings) and arrange to check in with them every so often. If you fail to check in at the appointed time, then they call the authorities.

Lastly, check the weather forecast before you leave, and be safe rather than sorry if conditions are too nasty. If you are travelling through areas with risk of avalanches, check the local avalanche reports also.

Cold Weather Gear

There are no two ways about it; camping in snow is more onerous on you and your gear. You’ll need more clothing and equipment than a summer trip, and the gear will have to stand up to the harsher conditions of winter. To ensure you don’t forget anything, lay out your gear and run through a winter camping checklist before you start packing.

Cold Weather Clothing

The driving principle of an enjoyable winter camping trip is to keep yourself dry and warm. The Scandinavians have a saying “ikke dårlige vær, bare dårlige klær”, which translates as “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”.

Dress appropriately in clothing that will insulate, wick moisture, dry quickly, and are weatherproof and breathable. Do this, and you will be able to handle the elements with a grin on your face. To keep warm and dry efficiently it is dress in layers, in layers, each layer with its own specific purpose.

Cold Weather Camping Tips: Clothing

Chose clothing with plenty of vents and zippers so you can quickly get some airflow to cool down and prevent sweating.

Zippers aren’t always the easiest to operate with gloves, so add 3 inch strips of lanyard to save yourself from removing your gloves.

The base layer(s) should be a comfortable light- to mid-weight synthetic or merino wool fabric whose principal purpose is to wick sweat away from your skin to the outer layers where it can evaporate. Never wear cotton as a base layer as it will retain the moisture as you sweat, leaving you damp, cold and miserable. If it is particularly biting, then it may be a good idea to wear a second, thicker heavyweight base layer.

Moving outward, the middle layer is your insulating layer to help you retain body heat. Think fleece pants, jackets and shirts, or consider going a bit heavier duty with a down-filled jacket if it’s really cold out.

Couple hiking with dog in winter mountains

The outer layer is there to protect you directly from the harsh elements, principally, rain, snow and wind. This layer should not only be waterproof/windproof but must be breathable too. We would recommend splurging a bit more here on a jacket made of Gore-Tex or eVent rather than plumping for a cheaper alternative, that while waterproof is less breathable. Also, do not forget to pack gloves and a hat (or several) to keep your extremities warm.

Keeping your feet in tip-top condition is a must, consider wearing 2-3 layers of socks with thin polypropylene liner sock (a cheap alternative is to use oven roasting bags) next to the skin to wick moisture away followed by 1 - 2 pairs of wool or wool/nylon blend socks.

Pro Tip: ...more clothing

Remove your boot liners and sleep with them in your sleeping bag. If they are damp from the hike, it’ll stop you waking up to find your boots have frozen. (Can’t remove your liners, then sleep with your shoes!).

Pack Extra Gloves, Hats and Socks. Some will vanish, some will get wet, but hey, at least you brought spares. Right?

Depending on the weather conditions you can get by with a pair of traditional hiking boots, but if snow trekking is on the cards, then you are going to fair much better in winter or mountaineering boots. These tend to have more significant levels of waterproofing and insulation to keep you drier and warmer. Lastly, pack gaiters if you expect thick snow, you will quickly find snow melting in your boots if you don’t.

When wearing all this clothing make sure only to wear what you feel is comfortable and it is imperative to try to minimize sweating. Try and anticipate ahead, if you away to go on a strenuous hike then open up your jacket or even remove a layer to prevent yourself from sweating.

crossing a glacier

Conversely, if you know you are approaching a particularly windy and exposed section of the trail, layer up before you get there. It is much easier to stay warm than trying to re-warm yourself up from the chills.

Once you get to camp make sure and put all your warm clothes on immediately to preserve the heat you have generated while hiking.

Cold Weather Gear

Gearing up for the colder weathering doesn’t necessarily have to devolve into an expensive exercise of “levelling-up” from your summer gear. Careful consideration of the weather conditions, the specifications and the current state of repair of your current gear need to be weighed up against the need for a complete overhaul. So, lets dig into cold weather camping gear and decide what are the winter camping essentials.

Shelter

Taking a look at the first of the “big four”, purchasing a winter tent is possibly not a necessity. If the area is experiencing a mild winter, you can get by with a three-season tent and a few modifications/additions. You’ll need to bring a couple of tarps with you, one to protect the bottom of your tent from melting snow and the second to set up as a wind block. Purchase a sleeping bag liner, and this setup may work well for you.

Further reading: If you intend on using tarps to help shore up your shelter, make sure you know some basic knots for camping before you head out into the wilds.​​

On the other hand, if there is even the smallest chance you will be experiencing winter storms, then please, do invest in a winter or mountaineering tent. These tents are heavier than their 3-season cousins but are sturdier and offer better snow & wind protection.

A good 4-season tent will typically be dome-shaped, and constructed predominately of solid fabric as opposed to mesh for more warmth and strength, have a large number of guy lines and a larger than normal vestibule(s) for gear storage and/or cooking in bad weather.

Sleeping Bags

Choosing a good cold weather sleeping bag is a must, and the first place to go is to check the EN ratings. EN ratings are generated by tucking a sensor covered manikin into a sleeping bag and subjecting him/her to a simulated freezing night in a cold chamber.  After pulling our stiff(er) friend out of the chiller, they will look at the data and will generally give EN ratings as two numbers - a comfort rating and a lower-limit rating in degree Fahrenheit (or Celsius).

The comfort rating represents the lowest temperature that the average female (or cold sleeper) can comfortably tolerate and the lower-limit rating is representative for the average male (or warm sleeper).

Pro Tip: Sleeping Bags

Consider heating some water and putting it into a watertight container, such as a Neogene bottle. Place the bottle into your sleeping bag around 20 minutes before bed for a nice cozy feeling when it’s time to tuck in for the night.

If it’s a clear, sunny day then turn your bag inside out and leave it on top of your tent to dry out during the day. Buying a bag with black interiors will absorb more sunlight and dry out faster.

When selecting a sleeping bag always choose one that is rated to at least 10 F (5 C) lower than the absolute lowest temperatures you expect to experience on your trip. Winter bags are typically filled with goose down due to its superior warmth-to-weight ratio, however, be careful to keep your bag dry (or purchase one with water-resistant down) as wet down quickly loses its insulating properties.

Best Sleeping Bags

If you want to keep extra cosy, then consider purchasing a sleeping bag liner. They not only will keep you 5-150 F warmer but also help to minimize wear and keep your bag cleaner. Also, consider buying on that is a VPL (vapor-barrier-liner) to prevent condensation from your body freezing your sleeping bag solid.

Sleeping Pads

It may come as a surprise to some that you lose more body heat to the ground than the air while sleeping. A lot more. If you like to travel light, you can forgo a sleeping pad in the summer, in the depths of winter is a different story. As Bear Grylls, the love him or hate him ex-SAS trooper and tv presenter says, “one on the bottom is worth two on the top”.

As with the EN ratings for sleeping bags, sleeping pads are differentiated by their R-Values. The R-Values are an indicator of how insulating a pad is from 1-8, one being the poorest insulator and eight the highest. As with the EN ratings, these are from a standardized test under test conditions, so take them with a pinch of salt.

Typically entering the winter season, you want at least an R-Value of 5 between you and the ground. However, before you rush out to buy a new high-end pad, R factors from multiple pads can be stacked. A common hack used by experienced winter campers is to place a closed-cell foam pad on the ground and layer a self-inflating pad on top.

Backpack

With extra clothes and gear, you will need a higher volume backpack compared to summer trekking for the same trip duration. Typically, between a 65-litre to 80-litre pack should see you through a 2-4 day winter camping trip.

Electronics

With the longer nights, be sure to pack some lighting, be it headlamps and/or flashlights. Make sure all your devices/batteries are fully charged before heading out on your adventure and bring spares should they run out. Check to see if your devices can handle lithium batteries, which handle better in cold weather and last longer than cheaper alkaline batteries.

Pro Tips: Electronics

Cold weather significantly decreases battery life, so store your batteries and electronics inside your sleeping bag to keep warm.

If you find your cell phone has died, place it in an inside pocket close to your body heat and you may well find it works again.

Bring some candles & candle lantern as a backup, they are lightweight and can provide extra light (and some extra heat). 

If you are going into the backcountry, then it is likely you will have no cell phone coverage to check in or communicate with your group should you get split up. It is recommended to bring two-way radios and/or a satellite phone to make sure you can still reach help if need be.

Snow Gear

In addition to your typical gear list, it is likely that you will need some (if not all) of the following gear to make your trip a great one:

  • Snowshoes
  • Poles
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Extra Tarps
  • Snow sled
  • Snow shovel
Winter hike

Emergency Gear

Safety gear is a necessity when heading into avalanche prone areas. It is recommended that every member of the party to at a minimum carry an avalanche transceiver, a probe and a snow shovel. Extra items, like a personal locator beacon (PLB) and avalanche airbag packs can make all the difference between life and death, so seriously consider looking into them.

Setting up Winter Camp

If you have got your planning right then you should arrive at your allotted campsite spot with plenty of daylight left to set up camp. If possible, try and arrive at least an hour and a half before the sun dips below the horizon.

Choosing your spot

Arriving at your destination you will have to do some work to scout the lay of the land to setup camp in the optimum location to keep you safe and warm(er). When picking a spot, consider the following:

  • Is the area exposed to the wind? Do not set up camp on any ridges or other places exposed to high winds. Ideally, you should find a spot that is naturally sheltered but failing that you can build a snow wall, or use that spare tarp you brought to construct a wind break.
  • Is the area in an avalanche danger zone? If so, then move location.
  • Get your bearings and determine where the sun will rise. Placing your tents in a sunny spot will help you warm up faster come morning. South facing slopes will give you longer days and more direct sunlight.
  • While trees will help shelter you from the wind, do not pitch your tent directly under any overhanging branches. Branches laden with snow will break from time to time. You don’t want to be sleeping under one when it does.
  • Is there a water source nearby? Or will you have to melt snow?
  • Is the ground relatively level?

Setting up Camp

If you are planning on sleeping with tents (rather than building a snow shelter), then start setting up your camp by getting out your shovel and packing down the snow around your pitch areas. Unpacked snow may melt, leaving a very uneven sleeping surface. If you can, leave the snow 30 mins or so to settle before beginning to pitch your tents.

Pro Tips: At Camp

It’ll likely be a long night, mostly spent in your sleeping bag so make sure you have something to pass the time like a good book, or cards or good conversation with your camping buddy.

If you intend to build a camp fire, bring enough wood along as you can’t guarantee that with limited winter services you will be able to buy or find (or be allowed to gather) wood at your location in the depths of winter.

When setting up your tent, always place your entrance at 90 degrees to any prevailing winds. If the winds are particularly strong, then build a snow wall (or use a spare tarp) on the windward side to protect your tent. Also, you can also pack up snow onto your shelter from the base up to add an extra layer of warmth. A quick warning that this is a two-person job, as you will need your companion inside the tent pushing back to hold the snow up until you have it packed down on top.

A post shared by Clayton Robison (@c._r._r) on

Make sure and stake down your tent with snow stakes (regular ones won’t work well in snow and frozen ground) and add and stake down extra guylines. If you are camping in deep snow, consider tying a plastic shopping bag to the end of the guy and fill the bag with snow then bury it so only the handles are sticking out.

To create a bit more space, dig a pit under your vestibule(s) out of the snow to a depth of 2 or 3 feet. This will 1) allow you to sit comfortably and take off your boots before entering the tent and 2) will create more space to hold the rest of your equipment. If, however, you do not have enough room under your tent to store all your equipment, then remember to cover it with a spare tarp.

Camp kitchen

If you are planning on camping in the same spot for a few days, then consider building your own winter kitchen - dig out trenches and benches in the snow around your “table”.

If you are travelling light then consider cooking in your vestibule (always light the stove outside and bring it in). Keep the door open for ventilation and get out of the tent if you begin to feel nauseous or are getting a headache. If you are a bigger crowd then consider bringing a second tent/shelter/tarp to create some cover for boiling water and cooking when the weather turns nasty.

Pro Tips: Fuel for the Body

Plan on eating every hour or so when you are on the move. Stop for 5 minutes and eat drink, then move on! Don’t stop for long lunches and lose all your body heat.

Drop 20-40g of butter into your dinner for an extra calorie boost.

Add gatorade/lemonade to water to help prevent it from freezing.

When it comes to how you boil/cook it’s good to know that liquid-fuel stove perform better than canister stoves at lower temperatures and bringing a second contingency stove is a great idea should the first fail. Also, don’t forget the extra fuel! At colder temperatures all stoves become less efficient and will burn through fuel faster.

When it comes to food, remember it is not just your stove that will burn through its energy reserves faster, you will too. Remember to pack plenty of energy dense foods for the trips.

Red Tent in High Latitude Mountain Terrain

When you are out in the cold all day, hearty soups, stews and other one-pot meals that can be prepared at home or purchased so that you can quickly heat them up and get moving again. As there is no need for a cooler, consider replacing your typical backpacking add-water meals with regular tv dinner boil-in-the-bag fare.

Bring plenty of hot beverages: hot chocolate, coffee, tea etc. to keep yourself cosy as you snuggle down for an evening or to revitalize you on waking up the next morning.

When it comes to water, always heat your snow to a boil. While it may look pristine, snow forms by nucleation of water vapor around a nucleus (either dirt or bacteria). You don’t want to get sick in freezing temperatures.

Once you have boiled your snow and have a plentiful supply of water, store it in a wide-necked Nalgene bottle. To prevent the water from freezing, put them in an insulating bag or pouch and flip the bottle upside down. Ice forms from the top down, so flipping it will prevent the neck/drinking tube from freezing solid.

Staying healthy while out in the Cold

Cold Weather Sanitation

Sanitation is a little trickier in winter when the ground may or may not be frozen solid. If you can, dig a cathole 8 inches into the dirt, bury the number 2 and put a rock on top. If the ground is frozen solid then pack it out using human waste disposal bags - DO NOT leave it in the snow to be discovered by the first hikers of spring! Remember, Leave No Trace!

When it comes to peeing, this is slightly easier, just make sure to kick some fresh snow over once you are done. You may find that you have the urge to pee more frequently during the night when you are warm in your sleeping bag and in no real mood to get out of the tent. You may want to consider using a pee bottle in such circumstances, although, make sure that you can readily tell the difference between your pee bottle and your water bottle in the dark!

Cold Weather Health Concerns

When out and about in the cold, you will have to pay particular attention for any symptoms of hypothermia, frostbite and dehydration.

Hypothermia is easy to slip into without noticing. It is in principal; hypothermia is a failure of the body to maintain normal body temperature at (or around) 370 due to exposure to cold temperature conditions.

Pro Tip: Remember Sun Protection

Bring sunglasses and sunscreen. Sun reflecting on the snow cover can not only be blinding but also give you a nice lobster red color even in the most frigid of weather.

Pay attention for any members of your group who are exhibiting symptoms of slurred speech, lethargy, shivering or are less or non-communicative. If you suspect someone has hypothermia it is important to warm them up by giving them warm food/fluids, put them in warm/dry clothes and/or a sleeping bag and/or use your own body heat to keep them warm. In severe cases, call for help as hypothermia can be life-threatening.

Frostbite is the freezing of tissue usually on the extremities (fingers, toes, nose or face). It occurs when your body can not circulate warm blood fast enough to compensate for heat loss in cold conditions. If severe enough, frostbite can require amputation of the affected area.

If you feel an area is numb to the touch, or if it is tingling and/or has turned white-to-purple then you may be suffering from frostbite. Use warm water on the affected area and/or place the frostbitten appendages next to warm skin such as putting your fingers in your armpits.

Despite the cold weather, dehydration is a real threat. Make sure you are drinking plenty of fluids to keep you hydrated. If your urine is quite dark, then you are not drinking enough. Dehydration can lead to dizziness, confusion and weakness (and possibly death) if it becomes severe.

Don't forget to restock and bring along a backcountry first aid kit!

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101 Camping Tips from Fire to Shelter

101 CAMPING TIPS: FROM FIRE TO SHELTER

hiking & camping: 101 CAMPING TIPS

In today’s high-tech environment it seems like fewer people are getting off the couch and enjoying the great outdoors. Camping is a great way to reconnect with nature and science is showing that there are many health benefits of being in nature. You might not get cell phone service or Wi-Fi for your tablet. But, you probably won’t even notice once you get settled in with a crackling fire, star-filled skies, and fresh air.

There are a couple of ways to camp. You can either pack everything you need, including some of the comforts of home, into your car, SUV, or truck and head to an established campground. Or, you can go lighter and hoof it with a backpack and a rolled up sleeping bag.

Whatever your preferred method of camping, we have compiled a list of 101 camping tips and hacks to ensure your next trip is a successful one!

Quick Tips: Do's & Don'ts

  • Plan ahead
  • Consider the "four essentials" - shelter, fire, food and water. Get these covered and you're a long way towards a great trip
  • Leave everything till the last minute and hope it works out
Best Hiking & Camping Tents & Shelters

Essential No. 1: Shelter

Some folks love RV camping, with all the comforts of a home on wheels, including electricity and running water. Others prefer rudimentary shelters made of branches and broad leaves. And then some folks enjoy slinging a hammock up and sleeping under the stars.

Find a Good Spot

Start by finding a level spot that is free of tree roots and ledge. Remove any downed branches and loose rocks, as these can damage your tent and are mighty uncomfortable.

Whether you are car camping or backpacking, it makes sense to carry along some ground cover for under your tent. Most tent manufacturers produce footprints for their model, although, plastic sheeting or a Mylar blanket can work equally well. This keeps the tent base dry and free of dirt and abrasions or tears.

Further reading: What is dispersed camping? Did you know you could camp for free in national forest land?

For sleeping, pack thin foam, or similar, pads to be placed under your sleeping bag for padding and insulation for a more comfortable nights sleep. You can read our review of the best backpacking sleeping pad on the market. Alternatively, if you are car camping consider investing in some foldable camping cots.

Set your tent up well away from dead trees, you do not want to be underneath a dead branch should it decided to join you in your tent while you are sleeping. Under the cover of healthy trees is fine.

Have the door of your tent facing away from the fire so that you don’t fill the tent up with smoke every time you go in and out of it.

Be sure to keep your tent door zipped up at all times to keep insects and critters out.

Choose the Right Tent

Car Camping Tents

The beautiful thing about having vehicle space to pack your camping gear is that you can bring bigger items. You can easily pack a spacious family camping tent in the back of your car. A larger tent will provide plenty of space and a comfortable place to hang out and store gear if the weather turns ugly. If the tent is tall enough, such as a dome tent, you may be able to change clothes without sitting or lying down.

Consider a tent that has a double door with a vestibule. The great thing about a vestibule is that you can take off your dirty boots and shoes and store them right in the vestibule where they can stay dry. That also means less dirt gets inside the sleeping area of the tent.

Choose a tent that has a rain fly to place over the top. This will ensure that the inside stays dry and that the water is directed away from the door and ventilation panels.

While the larger tents are excellent for the roominess they offer, these are generally designed only for milder weather camping. The material is often lightweight for ease of putting the tent up. Together with the height and lightweight fabrics, larger tents do not do well in windy conditions.

There is something to be said for staying warm via shared body heat. Warm air rises, so your tall tent will not stay as toasty inside as the smaller 1 or 2 person tents. If the temperatures are prone to dropping significantly at night, you might want to consider packing a couple of smaller two person tents designated just for sleeping.

Backpack Camping Tents

If you are hiking and carrying everything you need for survival on your back, then choosing a smaller, lightweight tent is the way to go. Of course, the design and material all depend on the weather conditions you are going to encounter. So, check the forecast before you purchase your tent.

Basic backpacking tents are available in 3 and 4 season versions. A 3 season tent is perfect for milder temperatures and cold nights. These tents have a little more ventilation and are lightweight. 4 season tents are designed to withstand heavy snowfall for camping in cold weather. The better ones have double fabric walls. Both versions sit lower to the ground than the larger tents discussed in the car camping tent section.

When backpacking, the tent you carry will be designed primarily for sleeping, storing your pack, and keeping insects and rain out.

Weight matters. This tent will likely be placed at the head of your pack, just above your shoulder. A lighter tent/pack will equate to better balance while hiking.

Essential No. 2: Fire

One of the best parts of camping is having a fire to cook over, warm you up, and keep biting bugs away. Many campsites come with stone fire pits that you can prop your feet up on. Others have separate grills for cooking. If you are backpacking, you will likely want to bring along a small, single burner camp stove for boiling water and heating food up.

Fire Pits

First, check with the campground to see if the site you are going to has a fire pit or at least some rocks so that you can fashion one yourself.

You should pack enough dry wood to last for your entire trip. That would be approximately 10 to 12 logs per day, depending on the log size. Your campsite might have wood available on the ground or for sale. Call the park or campground to find out because hauling a lot of wood takes up gear space.

Further reading: Learn how to build a fire correctly.​​

You will need fire starters, tinder, or kindling to get a flame going. Fire starters are available in most hardware stores. Fatwood works well to start both wood and charcoal fires. Candles and dryer lint, and even Doritos work pretty well as kindling. What you don’t want to use in an open pit is paper, as this can get taken by the wind and could spark an accidental fire elsewhere. 

Matches are great, but they must be kept in a waterproof container, such as a plastic baggie. A better tool is a lighter. The butane filled ones with a handle and long nozzle are the safest.

If cooking over a pit, you will do well to bring along a metal grate and cast iron cookware. A Dutch oven can go directly into the coals for even cooking. A great trick for easy cleanup of cast iron is to coat the bottom and sides of the pot or skillet with soap. The soot will stick to the soap and not the pan (1)

Other items you will want to bring along for your fire include a hand shovel for preparing the pit and for putting the fire out with dirt, as well as a poker to move burning logs around. Fireproof gloves aren’t a bad idea either. Be mindful of putting the fire out before your retire. Use dirt or water to accomplish this. Never leave a fire unattended.

Charcoal Grills

If you are lucky enough to have a grill on site, all you need is the charcoal and a flame. You can purchase individual bags of briquettes for single fires, where you just light the bag. The problem with these is that they have chemicals in them that give off a strange odor. If you don’t mind the chemicals than these small bags are convenient.

If you want to bring your own charcoal grill, some portable ones will get the job done.

A charcoal chimney and clean charred wood or briquettes produce a more natural cooking source for the grill. To see how to build a fire with a charcoal chimney, take a look at this video from About.com below.

Alternatively, you can bring a camp cook stove that is fueled by liquid gas. These have to sit on a level surface for safety reasons. They also need a windshield, so the surface area for the pots can become limited. Still, these are great for boiling water or making a pan of eggs in the morning if you don’t want to take the time to start a fire. This makes sense if you have early activities, like a hike, planned.

Camp Stoves for Backpackers

Making a fire along a trail is sometimes restricted for safety reasons. And, you would be entirely reliant on finding dry wood. For this reason, it makes sense to invest in a single burner camp stove.

There are camp stoves available in all sizes and shapes. Some use sterno, while others use fuel canisters. The single burner camp stoves are ideal for backpacking. They fold up and pack easily. Many of them are just a burner that attaches right to the top of the fuel canister that you can place a small pan on top of.

With the small canister camp stoves, there are sometimes issues with keeping the flame from extinguishing in windy conditions. Carrying some aluminum foil with you can remedy that problem by forming it into a wind barrier or shield. Some stoves are equipped with windshields.

Remember to carry matches in a plastic baggie or a lighter.

Essential No. 3: Food

Cooking with fire is so primal and feels a bit liberating. The flavor that smoke infuses into the food is just so unique and delicious. Most people love the smell of a barbecue, even if there isn’t any animal protein. Grilled and blistered vegetables are a great option.

If traveling by car, your options are pretty much wide open with coolers for storage. If backpacking, you will have some limitations on what you can and can’t carry, and how to pack and preserve your meal choices. The one thing that is universally a hurdle is keeping things cold with ice, as ice eventually melts.

Food Tips for Car Camping

You can grill, and you can cook in a pot in the fire or on a camp stove. That is all well and good until it comes time to clean up. Remember that you can also cook in packets of aluminum foil with no cleanup (although, remember to take dispose of the foil responsibly). It is wise to plan out your meals before you leave home so that you are only using the grill, one pot, and some foil. This is a fairly good rule to stick with, especially for dinners. Cleaning up in a creek in the dark is not fun.

Do a little research for successful campfire recipes that require less clean up. Some innovative campfire recipes can be found at Six Sisters Stuff. And, prepare whatever you can ahead of time at home that will keep well. This could include chili, cornbread, roasted chicken, hard boiled eggs, or dips for chips, as suggestions.

Further reading: For more inspiration check out our ​​campfire dinners ideas.

A trick to keeping things longer in your cooler is to fill a plastic milk bottle with water and freeze it. Then, place it in your cooler. A solid block of ice will take longer to melt than ice cubes or ice packs. Plus, you will have extra water to use when it does melt.

Another good idea is to freeze your animal proteins. They will last longer on the road. You can cook them as they defrost. This could give you a couple of extra day’s worth of meals. Store your dairy in with the frozen proteins to keep it from spoiling.

Choose fresh fruits and vegetables that don’t need to be refrigerated. Bananas, apples, lemons, bell peppers, potatoes, carrots, onions, and corn on the cob will keep well for a few days, if not longer.

Make use of your home pantry staples. Here is a list of pantry items that are easy to prepare and will incorporate well into meal options or eaten as snacks.

  • Boxed pasta and canned sauce
  • Canned beans
  • Nut butters and crackers
  • Tinned fish
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Jerky
  • Fruit roll-ups
  • Granola bars
  • Minute rice
  • Instant coffee packets and tea bags
  • Mustard and Catsup
  • Oil and vinegar

And of course, remember to bring the makings for s’mores, especially if you are camping with kids.

For plates and utensils, you may do well with disposable products. However, you will need to bring garbage bags, and you will need to haul it all out with you. Otherwise, pack plastic plates, bowls, cups, and utensils that you are ok with washing after every meal. To-go mugs will work for coffee, tea, and hot cocoa.

Store uneaten or opened food in your car so as not to invite animals and insects to your site.

Food Tips for Backpacking

Backpackers have an entire world of dehydrated food options to choose from. While that may not sound appetizing, many advances have been made in this category of meal resources. You might want to head to your camping store, or online, and try a few of these before you head out to your expedition, as they are a little bit costly or alternatively check out our guide to backpacking foods.

Take a stroll down the aisles of the bulk and dehydrated food sections in your health food market, and you will see many options for organic dried food items. These are lightweight and can be nutritious.

A basic list to start with for backpacking is:

  • Instant hot cereal
  • Dried fruit
  • Trail mix
  • Fruit leather
  • Dehydrated vegetables
  • Tuna and salmon foil packets
  • Mustard packets
  • Ramen noodles
  • Instant soup packets
  • Jerky
  • Individual servings of nut butters
  • Instant coffee, tea bags, and cocoa
  • Electrolyte packets for water

You can also bring fresh foods with you. They won’t last forever, but they will provide some nutrition for the first few days.

You can freeze cubes of meat, like beef tenderloin, in plastic wrap. Then, wrap it with newspaper and then with aluminum foil. It will keep in your pack for almost 24 hours. Small, tart granny smith or lady apples, lemons, and tangerines do well placed in the outside net pockets of a backpack.

Remember to pack a small cooking vessel that can also be used as your bowl and cup.

There are pocket knife style utensils that fold up neatly. These have a knife, a spoon, and a fork that fold back into the handle. That really should be all that you need.

Essential No. 4: Water

Water is your most precious commodity when camping. You simply must have it for staying hydrated, for cleaning yourself, brushing your teeth, and for washing cookware and utensils. There are many ways to carry and store water for your excursion. It is also important to know how to make use of natural water supplies, such as creeks, rivers, and freshwater lakes.

Bringing Water with You

If you have the luxury of a vehicle, then just fill jugs with tap water and bring them along. Also, freeze some water to use for your cooler, as mentioned above. You can purchase spring water in 3 to 5-gallon dispensing jugs with spouts that work nicely perched on the edge of a picnic table.

If you are backpacking, you will do well with a pack that has a bladder or reservoir built into it to carry water. This device comes with a tube that you can place in your mouth to hydrate while hiking without having to stop to unpack your bag. You will need to refill this frequently, as it doesn’t hold more than approximately 50 ounces of water.

Dealing with Fresh Water Sources

It is imperative that you know the condition of any fresh water source before attempting to drink it. Fresh water can have bacteria, acid rain, and agricultural runoff in it. The bacteria can be dealt with by boiling the water properly - bring the water to rolling boil for a minute or two.

Acid rain and pesticides are not so easy to get rid of. The CDC recommends purifying water with common chlorine bleach. A ratio of two drops of bleach (5-6% Sodium Hypochlorite) per quart of water should do the trick (make sure and use an unscented variety). Simply mix the bleach in the water, mix and wait for about 30 minutes.

There are purification and filtration systems that you can bring along on your trip. The top choices include gravity flow filters and water treatment drops. Gravity flow filters seem to be the filter of choice for both car campers and backpackers. Some compact models fold up neatly to fit in a pack. Potable water treatment drops are easy to use and to carry. They come in tiny bottles and can treat large quantities of water.

Water for Personal Hygiene

There is nothing more arresting than dunking yourself in a freezing cold stream or lake to get cleaned up in the morning. Yes, you likely smell of campfire smoke or you are dirty from hiking. But, staying stinky and dirty might be better than dealing with bracingly cold water. You may just opt to go with the funkiness and clean up when you get home. That works if everyone is on the same page.

Or, you could bring along a solar shower bag and some microfiber travel towels. A solar shower bag works by absorbing the heat from the sun to warm the water. Once warmed, the water is released by gravity to give you a shower, albeit a short one. These bags are small enough to fit in a backpack but might take up more space than you want. Remember to pack a bathing suit, or similar, as there won’t be any shower door to hide you from your neighbors.

For brushing your teeth and daily face washing, just use your bottled or backpack water. Don’t rinse your mouth with stream or lake water and risk the chance of ingesting harmful bacteria, acids, or pesticides.

To prevent losing your whole bar of soap while washing, consider shaving it into small strips with a regular potato peeler, meaning you have one strip per wash. Even better, bring along some biodegradable soap specifically made for camping.

Nature will call, so bring some biodegradable toilet paper and a cathole trowel. Make a small hole in the ground first, go, and bury the evidence. Always be mindful of poison ivy when doing this and always be mindful "to go" at least 200 feet away from any standing water.

No. 5: (Not So Essential) Additional Tips

Comfort

Collapsible chairs made of metal and waterproof fabric can make sitting around the camp fire more relaxing than sitting on the ground or a picnic bench. Get them with cup holders.

Sleeping comfortably is necessary. For car camping, you can bring inflatable air mattresses that keep you off the ground and make it feel like you are sleeping on a bed.

Backpackers will do well with either foam pads or by placing clothing beneath a sleeping bag. Use the sleeping bag pouch, stuffed with clothing, like your pillow.

Make sure you choose sleeping bags that are appropriate for the forecasted weather conditions.

If the weather is forecast to be super warm then taking a portable camping fan with you may help alleviate any sweaty discomfort.

Skin Protection and First Aid

Packing a backcountry first aid kit is essential for all campers. The bare necessities in it should be:

  • Band aids and bandages
  • Gauze pads or a roll
  • Tape
  • Ace bandage
  • Sterile wipes
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Burn ointment
  • Anti-itch cream
  • Antihistamines
  • Aspirin
  • Tweezers
  • Safety pins
  • Snake venom remedy
  • Any necessary prescription medications

Insect repellent will be needed. You can purchase many varieties at sporting goods stores. You can also make your own with essential oils that are safe to use on humans and pets. Do not get it inside yours or your pet’s eyes, nose, and mouth. A recipe can be found at Aromaweb.

Sunscreen is a must if you plan on doing a lot of well-exposed hiking or swimming. Hats, long sleeved shirts and pants, dry socks, waterproof shoes, and a rain poncho or large trash bag will make life so much nicer if it there are too many bugs for the repellent to keep away from you or the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Camping with Kids

Safety is your first rule when camping with kids. Before you even hit the road or the trail, teach them about safety around an open fire.

Pack Velcro strapped shoes, if possible, so they don’t risk tripping over untied laces that get snagged by a root or a branch. Also, make sure they understand that they need to follow the trail when hiking.

There won’t be a TV, so plan plenty of activities, and bring some games. Allow them to bring a favorite small stuffed animal to snuggle with when it is really dark at night.

Respect Your Neighbors

RV campgrounds sometimes have a reputation for being noisy. This isn’t true for all of them. Many have noise restrictions. Tent and trail camping generally attract those who are looking for some peace and quiet. Be mindful of other campers by not bringing along a noisy boom box.

Be gentle with your lighting as well. Tabletop battery powered lanterns are generally fine at campsites. Do not to use your car high beams to light up the site.

Both car campers and backpackers can see quite well around the campsite at night with a headlamp.

Site Cleanup

Be sure that you bring some plastic garbage bags. These are not just for garbage. They can be used for dirty laundry and for keeping clothes and boots dry. Do use them to carry your trash out. Leave your campsite clean and debris free when you depart.

Remember to put your fire completely out.

When You Get Home

A good practice when you return home is to unpack your tent and let it completely dry out in the sun. This will help prevent mold and odors, help preserve the fabric, and keep the seams clean. After it dries, consider resealing the seams with a fluid that you can purchase at your camping supply store.

If you wash your down sleeping bag, place it in the dryer with a couple of tennis balls. This will help the down to disperse evenly.

Recondition your leather boots with something like mink oil to moisturize them keep them water resistant.

Restock your first aid kit and toiletries kit for your next trip.

Replace batteries in your flashlights, lanterns, and headband lights, if needed. Always have extra on hand.