ESSENTIAL #1: SHELTER
When looking for a spot to pitch your tent, you want to look for somewhere which will be both safe and comfortable. Let’s start with the safety part.
Need to know
Pick a safe spot to pitch your tent
If you’re camping close to trees, be aware of dead branches and pine cones that could fall onto you and your tent. Even a pine cone can cause some damage when falling from a height.
Avoid getting flooded
When camping close to water, ensure you are above the high water mark in case of flooding. This is particularly important when camping in the mountains when a sudden rainstorm can transform a tiny stream into a raging torrent! Stagnant water will also attract bugs and mosquitos.
If you’re camping on the beach, look for the high tide mark where the water has pushed debris up the beach. It’s also a good idea to check the tide charts in case you’ve timed your visit with an exceptionally high tide.
Check the weather forecast
If the forecast looks like it’s going to get a bit wild, then try to find a spot with some natural cover from the elements. This does not mean under a creaking old tree! If you know the wind direction, try finding some shelter behind a large rock or tucked under the tree line.
Don’t camp too high or too low
If you are looking for a camp spot in mountainous terrain, you should also consider the elevation. You neither want to be camping too low or too high. If you pick a site that is low down in the valley or a hollow, then you will be in for a cold night! When the sun sets, the cold air starts to sink down the hillside and accumulate in hollows. Not only can the temperature be several degrees colder, but also you will wake up covered in dew as the condensation builds up over the night.
On the other hand, you neither want to camp too high. Ridgelines will be exposed to high winds and storms, often coming out of nowhere during the summer months.
Choose a comfortable camping spot.
The first thing you should consider is the ground that you’ll be lying on. This can significantly affect how well you’ll be sleeping at night, so it’s worth spending some time to get it right. First, try to find an area the size of your tent that is flat and level. Any lumps and bumps in the ground can get pretty uncomfortable after lying on them for a few minutes. The ground should also be level, or you could find yourself waking up squeezed against the wall of your tent, having slid down the slope. If you can’t find a perfectly level area, then pitch your tent so that your head will be on the higher ground, and you’ll be aligned straight with the slope.
Protect the groundsheet of your tent
You also need to ensure your spot has no rocks or tree roots protruding that will stick in your back. They can also puncture the groundsheet of your tent and let in water. If you’re going to be camping in the wilds, then it’s worth investing in a tent footprint that goes on the floor under your tent and protects the groundsheet. Next, you can use a branch to sweep away loose debris and double-check there are no unseen rocks.
Where does the sun rise?
If you’ve got all these boxes ticked, you can also consider where the sun will rise if you don’t want to get woken up too early. This can be particularly significant if you are camping in a hot, dry spot, where the temperature will start to rise dramatically once the sun hits your tent.
Choose the size of tent that suits your needs.
First, you should choose a tent size that fits your needs. There are pros and cons to a large tent, but I would advise you not to go too much bigger than you need. Larger tents are more complicated to put up and break down and can require extra pairs of hands. They are also heavier and will take more space in your pack. Basically, the only way you’re moving a tent bigger than a 2-man tent is in the truck of your car. If you are backpacking, you’ll need a 2-man or smaller tent. Smaller tents are also easier to find a placement for. It’s easier to find two good spots for two 2-man tents than to find one good spot for a 4-man tent.
I would recommend upscaling to a larger tent only if you’re going for a longer stay. Life in a small tent can get pretty frustrating after a few days. A larger tent will give you more room to move around in/cook in/party in and will be worth the extra effort if you are staying for a little while.
Pick the right shape of tent
The shape of the tent can also affect how much usable space there is inside, and comfortable they are to spend time in. Tents come in two basic forms: Cabin or dome. Cabin-style tents give you more vertical walls, which give more headspace, and often include separate compartments, which make them great for camping with kids or pets.
Dome-style tents are best suited for a more pragmatic, no-frills camping experience. They have a simpler design and so are easier to set up. They also have a lower profile shape, so they are better in strong winds. This type of tent is best suited for backpack camping, where you want something that is light and efficient and are prepared to sacrifice some comfort.
How many doors does your tent need?
A tent with double doors can be a real plus. The extra space created by the vestibule gives you more space and can be used for cooking or somewhere dry to put your boots on.
Consider the weather
There is a huge range in price between tents. If the weather is warm, with no wind and no rain, then you can get away with almost any tent. You can even sleep out under the stars in a bivvy bag or in a hammock.
In more challenging weather, you’ll need a more sturdy tent. One which can handle some wind and rain. This means a tent with a separate fly sheet which is held down with guy ropes.
Dial-in your sleep system
Your camping sleep system is all the kit you’ll be using to ensure a good night’s sleep…so it’s pretty important! This usually means your sleeping bag, your sleeping pad, and your pillow.
Get the correct Sleeping pad.
Most people prioritize the sleeping bag, but actually, half of your warmth comes from the sleeping pad, so let’s start there:
Sleeping pads not only add comfort but also insulate you from the cold ground you are lying on. No matter how much insulation you have in your sleeping bag, once you lie down, that insulation is compressed and does almost nothing to keep you warm against the cold ground. This is why you need a sleeping pad. You also need a sleeping pad to add some cushioning to have a comfortable night’s sleep. Sleeping pads have warmth ratings, just like sleeping bags. It makes sense to match the warmth rate of your sleeping pad and
Chose the right Sleeping bag.
The first thing you should consider when choosing a sleeping bag is how warm you need it to be. For the most part, I use my 3-season sleeping bag when camping. It has a temperature rating of 21 degrees Fahrenheit (or -6 degrees celsius). This means I can use it from spring to fall, and although it can sometimes get a little warm in the summer, I can always unzip a little if I need to cool down. It’s easier to cool down than it is to warm up when camping, so if you are not sure, go for a bag a little warmer. A night spent shivering in a tent is no fun at all!
Next, you should consider what insulating fill is best for you. There are 2 types of fill: down and synthetic. The main advantage of down feathers is that they back smaller and weigh less than synthetic fill. This makes a down sleeping bag the obvious choice if you are backpacking where weight and space are a major consideration.
The main advantage of synthetic fill is that the insulation works well even when wet. So you should consider a synthetic bag if you are camping in wet weather. The other big advantage of synthetic fill is that it tends to be considerably cheaper than down sleeping bags.
Get a sleeping bag for the kids.
If you are camping with kids, try and get them a sleeping bag that is their size. An adult sleeping bag will have too much space, and they will move around too much in it.
Get comfy with a Pillow.
Lastly, don’t forget your pillow! Sleeping on hard ground without one can be really uncomfortable. Inflatable camp pillows are relatively inexpensive and can make all the difference to a good night’s sleep.
ESSENTIAL #2: Fire
There’s no better way to end a hard day on the trail than sitting around a good ol’ campfire. But lighting and maintaining a good fire takes some planning and some work.
Make sure you have enough wood
- 12-14 split logs will provide enough wood for cooking dinner and fueling a comfortable fire until midnight
- Lighter, dry wood will burn faster than hardwoods, so take that into account.
- Take enough extra wood for an unplanned bonus day to cover any contingencies – sell it off to other campers in lieu of taking it home
Every scenario is different. Camping in colder climates means you could be stoking a fire all day and most of the night. In the desert southwest, campers may only burn a fire in the evening hours after returning to camp.
Tips for Effort less fire lighting
- Cotton balls with a smear of petroleum jelly make great fire starters. Store them in a plastic resealable bag for easy access and to minimize the mess.
- Fill cardboard toilet paper rolls with dryer lint for a fire made easy
- Place small balls of dryer lint in the spots of an old egg carton and cover each with wax to make 12 individual fire starters.
- Fire starter sticks can also be purchased in the section of the grocery store where you find charcoal.
- Establish piles of wood when you set up camp in graduated sizes. Having a tinder pile to get things started and a pile of thin slat wood can make the process much easier, especially in breezy conditions.
Practice fire safety with kids
- Firepits get hot to the touch almost instantly. Use rocks to surround the firepit. It makes the pit look great and creates a bit of distance between kids and the flame.
- Explain the process of fire building to your kids so they understand what you’re doing and how it all works. Giving them an activity like collecting tinder can make them feel included.
- Establish a “one poker” rule. Kids will want to poke the fire, but that can be avoided when the poker is in the hands of an adult.
Camping tips for building the perfect campfire:
- Work on your wood pile as soon as you’ve set up your shelter. Create piles by size ranging from kindling to big logs. This makes building the first fire of the day a breeze.
- Take multiple fire-starting methods with you on every trip. Some may work better than others in certain conditions.
- Smooth rocks placed along the outside of the firepit ring can be useful for heating hands, feet, or low back while you lounge in your favorite camp chair or useful in preheating your sleeping bag.