How Camping Works

By: Sarah Winkler
Person exploring nature's outdoor adventure as a tourist.
National Parks Image Gallery Some people camp at designated campgrounds, and others seek out their own scenic spots. See some scenic spots in these pictures of national parks.
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Picture dense woods of pines, trickling waterfalls, slipping into your fleece and roasting marshmallows around a fire. Then imagine bug bites, sleeping in the cold and rain, and a bear roaming a little too close. Camping's brushstroke is pretty wide. Sleep outdoors in a temporary shelter like a tent or a vehicle, and you're basically accomplishing it.

Ironically, it was the affordability of the automobile -- not nature's splendor -- that first thrust camping into widespread popularity. In the 1920s, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, people flooded the cities to take up residence. But they ultimately yearned for the great outdoors they'd left behind. The automobile gave people the means to reach it, and, in fact, the first organized campers were referred to as "tin can tourists" because most of them drove model Ts. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were both camping enthusiasts [source: Ford, Detroit News]. As American car culture continued to develop in the '30s and '40s, interstate highways emerged, which allowed campers to visit sites like Yosemite National Park. Camping facilities sprang up around these areas of natural beauty, and camping became an important part of recreational life and an inexpensive way to see the country.


­Camping still satisfies the desire to hit the road and experience an adventure on a relatively small budget. Today, more than 47 million Americans camp each year [source: Outdoor Adventure]. In fact, camping is the foremost outdoor vacation activity in the U.S. About a third of American adults have gone camping in the past five years [source: TIA] -- average age, 37, and average household income, $43,000. It's often a family activity -- 59 percent of campers went on camping trips with their spouses, and almost half say they brought their children along [source: TIA]. Most campers don't venture to the outdoors just to sleep there. They also bike, hike, canoe, kayak, raft and more. Once you invest in some basic camping supplies, you can use them for camping trips for years to come.

Gearing Up: Camping Tents and Sleeping Bags

Pick a size and shape that suits your camping needs.
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If you're new to camping, the first thing you'll need to invest in is a tent and a sleeping bag. Don't worry -- you can find plenty of moderately-priced tents that will protect you against the elements and will last you for years. When choosing a tent, consider that its most important function is to shield you from wind, rain, sun and outdoor pests like mosquitoes and other creatures. A tent also will give you a place to store your gear and provide you with a bit of privacy in the great outdoors. Choose the appropriate size, shape, quality and cost.

Be sure to pick out a tent that will both suit the size of your camping party and be manageable to carry to your campsite. Tents are usually labeled with a maximum capacity. You'll find the number next to the name on the label. If you want to carry only one tent, choose a tent that will accommodate the maximum amount of people you'll camp with. If you're camping solo or with a partner, it's best to pick a two-person tent. Remember that bigger isn't necessarily better. A big tent might be heavy, and it might be hard to find a large enough clearing to set it up.


Most tents come in one of the following shapes:

  • Dome tent -- free-standing, meaning that the tent requires no lines. Tension is created when poles are inserted into the pockets of the tent.
  • A-frame tent -- beneficial because its sloped walls allow water to slide off
  • Walled tent -- shaped like a house, with four walls and an A-frame roof. This tent works well for families because it offers the largest amount of space inside. Depending on its size and your family's size, you might be able to fit everyone in one of these.
  • Partial dome tent -- a combination of a walled and a dome tent. The walls of the tent are sloped, and the tent is free standing. But the tent needs to be staked out. It may even have a built-in awning to provide a useful covered area outside the tent. It's a bit more difficult to set up than a dome or A-frame tent, but it gives you extra floor space and higher ceilings.

­High quality tents usually have fiberglass or aluminum poles. Lower quality tents usually have plastic poles, which can become brittle over time. Make sure your tent is waterproof -- check that the seams are well-made so that water can't leak through. The tent should include a rain fly, a cover that goes over the main body of the tent. But just because the rain fly is waterproof doesn't mean the ceiling of the tent is. Also, check the zippers to see how easily you'll be able to enter and exit your tent.

Tent costs range based on quality. In general, if you pay less than $100 for your tent, expect to make up for it in set-up hassle and water leaks. To be on the safe side, choose a tent with a lifetime warranty. If you plan to make camping an permanent hobby, consider investing in a more costly tent. If you're just planning on taking a few trips, a less expensive tent without bells and whistles might work for you. High-end tents, at prices around $1,000, may feature amenities like vestibules, two doors, more space and extra vents.

As far as sleeping bags go, you'll want to pick something appropriate for the season in which you're camping. If you're a first-time camper, it's likely you'll camp in the warmer months, so you'll be able to use a lightweight, inexpensive sleeping bag. If you're camping in the winter, however, you'll want to up the ante and invest in something a bit warmer. Sleeping bags come in two basic shapes -- rectangle and mummy. The rectangle bag is like it sounds -- rectangle-shaped. Although it gives you lots of leg room, you should only use this type of bag if you're car camping in the summer months because it's harder to carry in a backpack and doesn't provide as much warmth. The mummy bag, on the other hand, is optimal for cold weather. It provides a close fit, especially around your feet, which preserves body heat. It's also easier to pack this compact bag.

All sleeping bags have a temperature rating provided by the manufacturer. A 50-degree Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) bag is suitable for warm weather camping, while a 0-degree (minus 17 degrees Celsius) bag is better for winter camping. For extreme camping in high altitudes or very low temperatures, choose a minus 10 degree Fahrenheit (minus 23 degrees Celsius) bag. In general, to be safe, always select a bag with a lower temperature range than you expect on your trip in case it's chillier than you thought it would be.

You'll also want to consider the type of material your bag's made of. Down is a great insulator. It's also lightweight, which is an added bonus. But a bag insulated with synthetic materials is non-allergenic and will dry quicker if it gets wet.


Food and Drink: Camping Stoves and Water Filters

Just because you're camping in the woods, doesn't mean you can't cook up a delicious breakfast.
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You've picked out your tent and sleeping bag. What else might you need for your camping trip? Food. You'll certainly want some grub to snack on after a long day of hiking, canoeing, biking and other outdoor activities.

Your camping menu will vary based on your level of comfort with cooking outdoors. If you consider yourself a backyard chef, most campgrounds provide grills that you can use to cook up a culinary masterpiece. Be sure to bring some charcoal, a spatula and some ready-to-make grub like hot dogs, steaks or hamburgers -- and of course, a cool place to store that meat until you start cooking.


If you prefer to cook over a campfire, bring a skillet and some pots. If you bring a propane stove or Dutch oven, you can even bake while camping. To use a Dutch oven, place it over a bed of about 10 charcoal briquettes. Then place 20 briquettes over the oven. This will heat the oven to about 350 degrees, and you'll be ready to cook. Propane stoves work like gas stove tops. When picking out a propane stove, be sure to buy one with refillable propane tanks -- you'll end up saving money in the long run, and it's better for the environment. Depending on your cooking skills and equipment, you can make quite a feast in the wilderness.

If you're camping near a source of clean tap water, then you'll probably only need to fill up your bottle before you set out. But if you're camping farther away from a clean water source, you'll have to treat your water. While fresh spring water is usually safe to drink, it's not safe to drink water in the backcountry. Since a variety of animals use these water sources, and substances like fertilizers run off into them, they're likely to be contaminated. You don't want to drink water that is polluted with a parasite like Giardia lamblia, for example, which can cause nausea, bloating, and diarrhea that leads to dehydration. If you can't bring enough bottled water on your trip, carry a few packages of iodine. This is a cheap and easy way to purify water. Other purification options include bringing water filters and boiling your water. You can purchase a good quality water filter for about $50. When filtering your water, choose the cleanest water before you filter it -- for example, use water from a spring rather than a pond. If you choose to boil your water, be sure to let it boil for 10 minutes to kill all the parasites.

Depending on what kind of camping you're doing, how long you're staying out and the season you're camping in, consider packing these other items too:

  • maps
  • compass
  • sunscreen
  • rain gear
  • army knife
  • water bottles
  • personal hygiene products
  • flashlight with some extra batteries
  • waterproof matches
  • books, games or other forms of entertainment


Types of Camping: Tent to RV

Pugs and people alike enjoy RV camping.
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There are as many types of camping as there are types of campers. Camping can range from simply pitching a tent in your backyard to heading deep into the wilderness. Let's take a look at some of the most popular types of camping.

Wilderness camping, tent camping and RV camping are all categorized as camping. When you wilderness camp, you generally fill up your backpack with all the necessary equipment and leave your vehicle. You don't have access to restroom facilities or running water. It allows you to enjoy the peace of nature away from hords of other campers.


If you're not sure you want to completely abandon all modern conveniences, you can set up your tent and camp at an organized campground instead. This is often referred to as car camping, since you use your vehicle to get to the campsite, instead of hiking there. Campgrounds may provide picnic tables, fire rings, grills, parking areas, docking facilities for boats and outdoor equipment available for rent. Some also provide structured activities like nature tours, educational programs and training in outdoor activities. Many campgrounds require reservations, especially in the summer months, so book ahead of time.

Some people choose to camp in an RV, which makes it easy to pick up and go, and you enjoy the convenience of a bedroom, living room and kitchen. The downfall is that you're not as close to nature as you would be in a tent -- you'll have to step out of your RV to explore your surroundings. Many campgrounds provide designated space for RV parking. You'll need to reserve a spot.

Most campgrounds that cater to RVs offer special hookups, which supply energy and allow you to make sewer and freshwater connections. To hook up your RV, connect the sewer hose to your RV. Connect the freshwater hose, which is usually white, to the campground's faucet. Be sure to flush out the hose to access clear water, and turn off the water before connecting it to your RV. To supply your RV with energy, connect the shoreline to the RVs outlet. With the breakers off, plug the cord in the ground pedestal and turn on the breaker. Then you can turn on the breakers inside the RV.

Whichever type of camping you're doing, it's good to follow the leave no trace camping philosophy -- leave nothing behind and don't disturb the environment in which you're staying. When you leave no trace, you reduce campfire use, respect wildlife, bring home everything that you brought and clean up your campsite before you leave. When making a campfire, use an established fire ring, fire pan or mound. Keep your fire small to reduce impact and only use sticks that you can break with your hands. Burn all of your wood and coals to ash and then scatter the ashes. When choosing a campsite, use existing campsites where you don't disturb vegetation and keep your site small.­


How to Camp Safely

If you're planning on camping in the cold, pack plenty of layers and prepare to drink lots of hot cocoa.
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bears in the U.S. [source: GBOP]. Most camping dangers are much more mundane -- mishaps usually happen simply because people aren't prepared. Let's take a look at some common safety hazards.

The biggest mistake campers make is not being prepared for the weather. If you camp in the mountains, you might experience sudden temperature and weather shifts. Temperatures also can drastically drop during the night. To be on the safe side, bring clothes that are easily layered, a rain poncho and an emergency blanket. If you're camping in hot weather, overheating can be a risk, particularly for children. So on particularly warm days, hike in the morning and evening, and stay in the shade during the heat of the day. Stay hydrated and use sunscreen.


When setting up your tent, look for wasp nests -- wasps like to build their nests close to groups, in proximity to tasty food. If berries grow near your campsite, that's another risk -- bears or other creatures might forage there.

When you're building a fire, look for a clearing and build a fire pit. This will help contain your fire. In dry seasons, it's safest to bring along a portable stove for cooking instead of making a fire.

Steer clear of poisonous plants like poison sumac, ivy or oak. These plants aren't always easy to identify, but the general rule is, "Leaves of three, leave it be." But keep in mind that poison oak and sumac can have up to five leaves. So, to avoid contact with these plants, wear long sleeves and pants if you're camping near a lot of vegetation. You might also want to carry some calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream or antihistamines in case of an allergic reaction. These items can also help if you get bitten by an insect. Speaking of bugs, keep an eye out for ticks, which can cause Lyme disease.

One major mistake campers make is to get lost. So if you're heading into the wilderness away from an organized campsite, be sure to bring a GPS or compass and a map. These serve as valuable tools in the wilderness. If you're up for a more high-tech camping experience, indulge in a GPS, which will allow you to fix your position using latitude and longitude, measure bearings and distance, and even track your speed of travel. But, even if you use a GPS, you'll still need to know how to read a map and compass.

Other high-tech items you might bring along include water bottles with built-in filters, collapsible buckets for toting water to camp and creature comfort items like portable electronics and coffee presses [source: Forbes Traveler]. The great thing about camping is that it can be as high-tech or low-tech as you want. Tailor your trip to suit your wants and needs.­


Camping Activities

In addition to your tent and sleeping bag, bring along your kayak and bike for your camping adventure.
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Now that you've set up your camp, it's time to have some fun. Outdoor activities like canoeing, hiking, fishing, cycling, horseback riding, rafting, kayaking, skiing or rock climbing will round out your camping experience.

But before you set off on an outdoor adventure, make sure that your camp is completely set up before nightfall. The best time to make camp is shortly after you arrive. In case the weather suddenly changes, you'll want to have your sleeping bag unpacked and tent assembled. And be sure to return from your hike or fishing excursion before nightfall so that you're safe and sound before it gets dark.


Many people choose to hike while they camp. For a light hike, take a walk around a park or your campsite. If you're up for more of an adventure, take a lengthier and more rigorous hike on a nearby mountain. Many parks offer trails with differing ranges of difficulty and length. When choosing a hike, consider the difficulty of the trail and its safety. Particularly if you're new to hiking, you should choose a well-maintained trail manned by a staff that monitors safety and security. Hiking offers a great way to survey the wilderness and see more beautiful scenic sites.

Biking is also a good way to get around while you camp. Make sure to verify beforehand whether biking is allowed on the trails near your camp. Many national parks only allow cycling on paved and dirt roads, but some campsites also offer special trails just for bikes.

If your campsite is near water, try a white-water rafting adventure. If you want a more relaxing excursion, opt for canoeing or kayaking on a nearby lake instead -- a great way to explore scenic areas that aren't frequented by traffic or lots of pedestrians. If you camp in the winter months, skiing or snowboarding are also options.

What to do around the campfire at night? Play board games, charades or your guitar. But whatever you do, have fun. After all, camping is the perfect way to set aside the hustle and bustle of modern living to spend quality time with family and friends in a scenic outdoor setting.


Lots More Information

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