Already campy. Want to be camper.
March 9, 2010 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Help a prissy city-dweller learn how to go camping.

I grew up in a family that went camping exactly once in my childhood. My parents only agreed on the condition that there be running water, indoor plumbing, and somewhere they could plug in their espresso machine. We're *that* kind of family.

I'm gay, and the only camping I know about involves feather boas and bears that go "Woof!" When I was in law school, a friend invited me to go winter camping with him, but I declined as I was pretty sure he was just inviting me along so that they would have someone to eat if the weather got nasty. I'd most certainly be the first to expire in dire circumstances.

I'd like to start camping. Real camping. No espresso or electricity. But I don't even know where to start. I need websites, podcasts, books and inexpensive gear (that I wont regret if I decide never to visit nature again) suggestions for someone starting from scratch.
posted by greekphilosophy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (44 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
This is going to be tough to do on your own. A subscription to Backpacker might be a good start. If you have an rei nearby, they often run free beginner classes on a lot of outdoor topics, including backpacking. Beyond that, you'll need to tie in with some other people. Start with some day hikes to get a feel for things, make friends with your fellow day hikers, and then borrow some of their gear for a quick overnight trip. Then start looking into buying your own gear. Good boots are the first buy, then a good backpack, then a sleeping bag and ground pad. Cooking gear and a tent will probably be owned by whoever you tag along with for your trips. REI is a great resources for all of this gear; they have solid house-brand gear that is high quality, and their staff is knowledgeable and will field any questions you might have. Have fun!
posted by craven_morhead at 9:50 AM on March 9, 2010

Camping is really ill-defined. craven_morhead touches on the hiking aspect, but camping doesn't necessarily need to involve hiking or even leaving the camp area. Camping can be in your own backyard or 10 miles into a national forest, or even in your car.
posted by meowzilla at 9:54 AM on March 9, 2010

Some states run programs through their state park system. (The one I'm familiar with is for women -- B.O.W., Becoming OutdoorsWomen, because with more single moms and fewer families who grew up camping, kids just don't get the exposure to camping unless moms take the lead.) You might look at your state's department of natural resources or state park system or whatever and see if they run something.

Also, I think the best way to start is with a friend who camps ... and many friends who camp will let you borrow their old or extra gear (or even their current stuff!).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:59 AM on March 9, 2010

Best answer: Got to Target, get a cheap tent and a sleeping bag appropriate to the weather. Bring pillows, blankets and towels. Bread, cheese, fruit, a dog and some good books. Throw in back of car. Go to National Forest campground. Bingo, you're camping. If you love it, you can upgrade your gear and your skills. If you hate it, you're out $150.
posted by sageleaf at 10:00 AM on March 9, 2010 [20 favorites]

REI rents some equipment, too.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:01 AM on March 9, 2010

Oh yeah, I didn't even think of car camping. I'd still recommend borrowing gear from friends for your first couple of times out. If you go the Target tent and sleeping bag route, things could work out great, but if it rains the misery of bad gear and rain could turn you off on camping altogether.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:03 AM on March 9, 2010

i, too, am a prissy city-dweller who'd like to learn how to go camping, so while i don't have any real OUTDOORSWOMANNN advice, i'm just popping in here to say that you are adorable.

also, via camping savvy friends, i've been advised to start out slow- learn to take all day hikes, then try out car camping just for one night, move up to wussier camping where there are showers and bathrooms available, and then build up to doing real camping out in the woods for days etc.
posted by raw sugar at 10:05 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sageleaf has the correct approach to begin with. Don't take classes unless you're doing backcountry camping. Just go to a state or national park and drive to a campsite. Set the tent up near the car. Try building a fire if you like, but bring food you can eat without heating. Go for one night and don't worry about taking a shower.

One pitfall to avoid: don't hike all day and then try to set up your tent for the first time in the dark while you're tired and hungry. Make camp earlier in the day, then set out.
posted by echo target at 10:07 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Got to Target, get a cheap tent and a sleeping bag appropriate to the weather. Bring pillows, blankets and towels. Bread, cheese, fruit, a dog and some good books. Throw in back of car. Go to National Forest campground. Bingo, you're camping. If you love it, you can upgrade your gear and your skills. If you hate it, you're out $150.

This is pretty much the way to try it and see if you like it. If it turns out that you hate being outdoors, it doesn't make sense to invest in a bunch of fancy backpacking gear, to go out into the real wilderness. A cheap tent will keep you dry enough for decent weather, and a cheap sleeping bag will keep you warm enough for summer. I got our tent at target, and it serves us just fine to camping in a state park camp ground.

The only thing I would add is to try a little cooking/fire making (assuming you're camping somewhere with fire rings). Read up on how to make a fire, buy some firewood, and give it a go. Bring some burgers in a cooler or veggies and try to cook them in a pan over the fire. You'll probably fail miserably, but it's fun to try.

I also tend to bring a lot of beer, but that's a personal choice. Drinking in the woods is fun.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:07 AM on March 9, 2010

Check weather reports and go with sageleaf's advice. If panic occurs (doubtful), get in car, drive to nearest town, buy some magazines, return to camp.
posted by circular at 10:07 AM on March 9, 2010

My first camping ventures were at about 35 years old and I went with some friends that are super outdoors-y and yet also super helpful and fun. That made it easy and not at all scary. I did not get eaten by a bear or die of dehydration and have camped successfully on my own since then. I suggest car camping first at a defined campground.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:11 AM on March 9, 2010

First off, what kind of camping do you want to do? Car-camping or backpacking? (there are other kinds of camping, such as canoe, bike, or RV camping, but they're really just variations)

Car-camping is when you sleep in a tent (or possibly the back of your car), cook on a big-ass Coleman on a picnic table, keep all your food in a giant cooler and occasionally go out for breakfast. This is often what a bunch of buddies will do once or twice a year so they can smoke cigars around the campfire and brag about how the conquered nature. There's nothing wrong with it, if that's your thing, but it's a different animal from backpacking.

Backpacking is when you put whatever you need on your back and hike into the woods. The goal here is to balance your comfort with the amount of weight you have to carry. In my experience this is where it's at. This is the way to becoming one with the woods.

Whatever you do, find out when bug season is and DO NOT GO camping in bug season your first couple times. You will most likely hate it. Cancel your trip if the weather is going to be bad. Once you have some experience you'll be more likely to tolerate a bit of hardship but your first couple times the conditions should be perfect. Whether or not someone becomes a lifetime camper often depends on the conditions they experienced their first time out.

Also, nothing can ruin a first camping trip more than a cheap tent. Renting or borrowing a decent tent is better than buying a cheap one and probably more cost effective in the long run. Listening to the pitter-patter of rain drops on your tent is fun, waking up in a puddle is not fun.

The best way to start is by finding some experienced friends or a hiking club. Now that spring is coming a lot of "intro to hiking/camping" programs are starting up.

Also, winter backpacking RULES. You should try it.
posted by bondcliff at 10:14 AM on March 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh, also, if you're at all interested in peeing in the woods, many areas of national forest land allow for free primitive camping (i.e. no port-o-potties or running water). They usually have areas where you can just pull off of the dirt road and into a campsite, and they're often less crowded and prettier than the established pay campgrounds. Don't forget to bring plenty of water.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:14 AM on March 9, 2010

Hi greekphilosophy, good for you for deciding to do this! The very first thing I would tell you is that while it feels like you have to have all sorts of special gear and equipment and skills to go camping, that's not necessarily true. Basically, what you want to do is go sleep outside. "Camping" can refer to any number of things, from an extended backpacking trip into the wilderness to driving over to a campsite at a state park and setting up your tent. You can easily get started at the beginner end of this spectrum without needing to take a wilderness first aid course or buy a camp stove.

Having said that, you will need some basics: a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad. Often, outdoors equipment stores rent these things pretty cheaply, so call your local REI or mom-and-pop gear store and see what they offer. If you want to make camping a part of your life, there are some pretty cheap (but solid) tents and other gear available—for example, the REI Camp Dome 2 tent, $99.50.

You might start by going car camping at a local state park, but beware that car-camping sites are usually full of RVers holding cookouts and not exactly the wilderness experience you're dreaming of. sageleaf is absolutely right on about going to a national forest—often, the campgrounds are less crowded and annoying. Speak to park rangers or administration on the phone beforehand if you have questions about bears, weather, etc. You definitely want to know whether there are bears around before you bring things like food into your tent.

This is all much easier and more straightforward than it seems. Feel free to Mefimail me (or others in this thread) if you need more advice.

In a related note, I would disagree with craven_morhead's suggestion of Backpacker magazine—they have some beautiful pictures, but it's largely a sell-out to gear companies, and no less full of fluff than any other "lifestyle" magazine. The outdoor gear industry has made a killing off of making people believe they need special clothes, books, magazines, etc. in order to experience the landscape, but it's not true.
posted by cirripede at 10:20 AM on March 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Check out your local branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club. They offer organized hikes/campouts for all levels, and have tons of advice and experience to offer.
posted by Melismata at 10:28 AM on March 9, 2010

Woops, you're not near the Appalachian mountains, sorry.
posted by Melismata at 10:29 AM on March 9, 2010

Come to Northern Utah and you can come camping with us. I've got three kids who are going to be doing their first camping this summer, so you'd fit right in!

People above have given good advice. Car camping is the way to go (at first). A pup tent, a sleeping bag, and some food and water are all you need. It's best if you get somebody to go with you, it's safer and more fun. Find a local National Forest and just go for one night. The National Forest website will tell you which campgrounds have facilities, so you can use that to narrow down your search if you'd like. Try to get to your site in the early afternoon so that you have plenty of time to get camp set up in the daylight. Also, bring way more water than you think you'll need. Two gallons a day would not be too much. Sunscreen is also a must, you will be outside the whole time.

I love camping and love to convert others to the experience, feel free to MeMail me if you want more help.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:31 AM on March 9, 2010

I camp in my backyard pretty much all summer. Love it! When I do camp elsewhere, I take a good flashlight or head-lamp for night hikes. And bring a book with you, because you can only clomp through the woods and stargaze so much before it gets kinda boring.
posted by ducktape at 10:34 AM on March 9, 2010

There's lots of good suggestions in this thread. But based on personal experience, I'll offer one caveat: unless you are going car camping, don't bring beer. Bring a hip flask of whiskey. Less weight, no trash to lug back out. And if you smoke, buy a pack of non-filters to take with you. Then you can throw the butts in the fire guilt-free.

Camping is about paring down, not gearing up. You need a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a camp stove, a mess kit, a Swiss Army knife, a lighter AND waterproof matches (you can never be too sure), and a rifle to shoot hungry, angry bears. Just kidding on that last one; the bears will be on you before you can get a shot off.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:45 AM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I suggest you look up short hikes in your area (say an hour or two drive from where you live) and find ones that have allow camping. Rent all your gear (tent/sleeping bag/stove), buy ready to cook camping meals from REI, and just go. It'll take you a few hours to hike in.
Then you can comfortably pitch a tent, maybe start a fire, and get ready to relax and cook and hang out. Then in the morning, lounge around, and then plan to make it back to your car before sundown. Let people know if your plans and exact route in case anything goes wrong.
Just google camping checklist for all the things you may need.

This will give you a taste for real backpacking and camping. If you like it, then slowly accumulate your own gear (and continue borrowing/renting the rest), plan longer hikes, and you'll be good at this in no time.
posted by special-k at 10:48 AM on March 9, 2010

One thing not mentioned yet - practice setting up your tent in your yard before you go. Oh the fun we've had watching newbie campers setting up a tent for the first time. It's even more fun when they have 4 kids under 10 who are totally wired from the car ride to the campground, it's getting dark, the kids are hungry, and dad is trying to read the instructions for the tent by flashlight.

Don't be that guy.

BTW, the $50 Target dome tent is fine to start with for warm weather camping. Just make sure you seal the seams when you practice setting it up.
posted by COD at 10:50 AM on March 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

N'thing advice re: cheap tents. Don't go there - not only will they leak if there's any precipitation, it will also likely not breath properly, so you can end up with 'indoor rain'. Also, cheap tents use cheap (often fiberglass) poles - which break, usually when you don't want them to.
My other suggestion is to go with a group of experienced campers - this can be all kinds of fun, and they'll have fun lending you gear and helping you have a good experience. Our church (a Unitarian Universalist) does an annual family camping (car camping at a state campground) outing that is loads of fun, and we nearly always have a couple of newcomers.
I'd also like to point out that if you can get good with a couple of knots a tarp is all your really need as shelter - so don't get hung up on gear.
Have fun!
posted by dbmcd at 10:50 AM on March 9, 2010

When I was in the boy scouts, we went back-packing, and that was my notion of "camping." I loved it - take as little as you can to survive for a weekend or a week, and have fun. Swim in lakes, wander through trees and rocks, and sleeping in a tent or just with a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag. Eating dried and powdered mealsI never had to plan the routes, so I got to enjoy the fun stuff (just being there) and never got involved with figuring out how far to the first suitable camping location, if there were rivers to ford or if there would be any water to filter if we ran out of our own supplies, and if we were allowed to have fires.

Since those days of having the ability to get out whenever I wanted (more or less), I've gone car camping (drive up to a site, unload stuff, and cook good meals on a gas stove), and on a great guided back-pack trip in the high sierras, complete with bedding and meals provided, which really simplifies how you pack. I still love back-packing, but I've come to realize that you don't need to carry everything to experience the out-of-doors.

Depending on your experiences, you may want to start with hiking, and figure out how far you'd want to carry your gear. Then figure out how close you want to be to other people when you camp, because car camping can feel like being in a hotel without the walls (or maybe that's just me and my notions of camping being your group and no one else around). If you're car camping and weight isn't an issue but you want to save money on the gear, you might save by going to a military surplus store.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by filthy light thief at 10:57 AM on March 9, 2010

definitely don't do this from websites and books -- camping is learned by apprenticeship. Some people learn from their parents; you'll have to learn from friends. They'll lend you beginner gear, help you decide what gear to buy and when, where to go, what to see, what to cook (and how), etc. Campers tend to be very friendly and helpful people, especially if you're enthusiastic about the outdoors and willing to learn. Tag along next time your friends go somewhere. If none of your existing friends are outdoorsy types, most universities have outdoor clubs, and your local outdoor shop or rock climbing gym can probably point you in the right direction too. Don't be nervous or embarrassed about being a noob, just have fun!
posted by Chris4d at 10:58 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think, wherever you are, a good first step is to look for a local outdoor club. Hiking and camping may very well be different things, but there's an awful lot of cross-over between people who do the former and people who do the latter, and I think you can learn a lot of things from real people that are difficult to convey over the internet. Gear selection, for example, is a lot easier to wade through with someone who can point over your shoulder and say, "What about that one?"

Also, if you're going to go car-camping, I agree with the national forest idea. If you are looking for less crowded times and you have a flexible schedule, campgrounds on any night other than Friday or Saturday will be significantly less crowded. On the other hand, if your neighbors aren't too loud, it can be sort of comforting to have other people around as you get used to the idea of sleeping on the ground in complete darkness.

I would also recommend that you bring a friend on your maiden car-camping voyage. If everything goes wrong and your tent leaks and you can't eat half your food and you step in a knee-deep mud puddle on your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night and you're by yourself, it sucks. If everything goes wrong and you're with some one else to share your misery, it's frequently hilarious.

This is one of the most important thing to know about camping: you either have a good trip where nothing goes wrong and you have a wonderful time, so it's all good. Or, everything goes wrong, and you either spend the entire trip laughing hysterically or mutely enduring it, but after it's over, you have a really good story that you can tell people for years afterwards.

I'd also recommend, if you're going the car-camping route, to camp somewhere where there is something else to do--a beach, a well-established trail, etc--because part of the fun of camping is getting to do things outdoors that you normally can't do, because normally you don't wake up in the morning with a wild beach right out your door, etc.
posted by colfax at 11:15 AM on March 9, 2010

Here in MN, many of the state parks have "camper cabins", which are just cabins with bunkbeds in them. No power, no plumbing. You've got an outhouse or outdoor latrine some distance away, and there's a firepit outside. There will be a source of drinking water nearby.

I'd suggest this as an even cheaper way of seeing whether you even like the idea. No tent needed. You'll have to bring bedding [or a sleeping bag] and food. The things you'll have to deal with will be getting [and keeping] the fire going and cooking. Once you're comfortable with that, add the tent, go out to one of the more rustic sites, and try that. You'll have the fire+food part down, and then the new part will be finding a spot for and setting up your tent.

All that setup stuff can take a lot of time when you're not familiar with it. It could add up to I Hate Camping! if you have to deal with tent, fire, food, latrine, bear bag, etc. etc. on your first outing.

After that, add the water-filtration aspect, so you can go to more-remote sites. And so on.

You can usually find lots of cheap or free tents on freecycle or craigslist.
posted by chazlarson at 11:21 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

ok, and my big bullet points:

- the best part of camping (arguably) is eating. even canned chili or ramen tastes better when you're camping, but you can make some pretty impressive meals with a little planning. I've done fresh chicken pot pie type foil wraps, italian stew, fajitas, all with fresh veggies and stuff. You can also buy dehydrated "just add water" type meals which are lightest and best for longer backpacking trips.
- "real" camping is wilderness camping, not campgrounds. this means off-road driving and/or backpacking. it also means using the land gently so you don't leave it looking trashed. use fallen wood rather than cutting down branches, dig small holes for waste and dishwater and cover them afterward, use existing fire rings or dig a small pit that you can cover over, pick up any trash you see (even if it's not yours), etc. the idea is "leave no trace."
- the gear you buy will be partially determined by what kind of camping you do. if you only car camp, weight and bulk is less of an issue. If you want maximum flexibility and value (and if you can't mooch gear from friends) buy in this order: day pack or camelback, lighter/matches, headlamp (way better than a flashlight), first-aid kit, pocketknife or multi-tool (leatherman), sleeping bag (feather down, rated to 10deg colder than the coldest you'll be camping), internal frame backpack, 2-person 3-season backpacking tent (most versatile), backpacking stove and fuel, inflatable ground pad. Once you've collected all of this and gone on a few trips, you will have a good idea what to buy next (water filter, compresson sacks, rope, carabiners, bigger stove or tent, tarps, etc.)
- dress in layers (including a waterproof outer layer) based on the weather where you're going. Temperature can swing by 50deg or more from mid-day to late night, so be prepared.
- good shoes make life much better, but wear them around town a few times to break them in before going hiking in them. have one pair of socks for each day of the trip, plus at least one extra.
- also here.
posted by Chris4d at 11:26 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also- never, never, NEVER bring food of any kind into your tent. Ever. Keep food on the other side of your site as much as possible. Otherwise, while you're off swimming in the swimming hole, racoons and bears will be be breaking into your tent to investigate smell of potato chip crumbs and cheese doodles. (At least you hope it's while you're away.)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:35 AM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

And just FYI, here are the national and state parks near you. I know you didn't want to have electricity, but go ahead and do an "experimental" trip at your local park...just because you have amenities doesn't mean you have to use them, and if you do need them, you'll be glad they're there.
posted by kittyprecious at 11:38 AM on March 9, 2010

Since you mention you're gay, and your profile says Texas, maybe check out this gay & lesbian campground? I'm in Chicago, and there's a place like that just a few hours away in Michigan - I haven't gone myself, but many of my friends go several times each summer. It's probably more of the "car camping" sort of thing people are talking about (though the site mentions having some "primitive, tent-only" camping spaces) but I'd think that could be a good way to start building up some experience with the whole thing. And you might meet some other gay folks there who are interested in the more serious wilderness-camping and backpacking.
posted by dnash at 11:47 AM on March 9, 2010

the best way to start is with a friend who camps ... and many friends who camp will let you borrow their old or extra gear (or even their current stuff!).
This is sage advice. I'm a lifetime Girl Scout, and my mom works for her local council as the training coordinator. I can't tell you how many camping trainings I've helped out on. We're talking volunteer moms, for a weekend, learning how to put up a dome tent and build a campfire. The first thing we told people was "borrow equipment your first time out". 'Cuz really, you might hate it. I love it. Lots of people love it. But you might decide it's not for you.
It didn't occur to me until I read some of the answers above that you didn't mean "car camping". For your first time out, go to a nice state park (one with showers), pick you a site close enough to the bathrooms that you don't have to hike in the middle of the night to pee, but still far enough away to avoid people getting lost in your site. Get to the site well before dark, and set up your tent first thing (seconding the advice to make sure you've practiced pitching the tent before you go). You can usually buy firewood when you check in, or if you've got another source bring your own. If you're going to cook on the fire you'll need more than a couple bundles (unless you're only staying one night. Personally, if I'm going to the trouble to set up camp, I'm staying for at least two nights.) but if you've got a cookstove and enough propane, you should be fine. Bring a lantern and a flashlight with fresh batteries. Bring food that's easy to make. Definitely sandwiches for the first night. Nothing's worse than having trouble starting your fire and then trying to cook chicken wings at midnight.
I could type about this all day, but you're getting lots of good answers here, so I'll stop. MeMail me if you want me to share more.
posted by purpletangerine at 12:27 PM on March 9, 2010

I recommend getting a copy of Freedom of the Hills.

It's a mountaineering book, which is more hardcore than you want. So you can skip the sections about knots and crampons. But there's a huge amount of best-practices camping knowledge in there, all in one place. If you're going to go more extreme than car camping, this will be useful to know.

And even if you don't read the book, commit to memory the ten essentials.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:30 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Former Boy Scout who lamentably hasn't been camping in almost 20 years here. Nthing everyone else's recommendations to go with experienced campers to get started... it's the best way to learn everything from how to set up a tent to how to build a fire to how to cook food (there are a whole lot of options there) to how to get used to sleeping with nothing but a thin wall of nylon between you and all those night sounds outside. Don't worry about hiking at first - hiking out to a camping spot carrying all of your gear on your back can be fun, believe it or not, but not without conditioning and a bit of experience with basic camp skills.

I would also add: bring extra socks! Extra clothes in general are good, but socks especially. There are few things more miserable while camping than wet feet. In general, If you're going to have a backpack outside of your vehicle, wrapping everything in it in plastic bags is a good idea. (Although rain is probably less of an issue in Texas than in New England.)

And most of all, if you're lying there slightly in the wee hours of morning with a root digging into the small of your back and wondering what you just heard scurrying past your tent, always remember that you get to back to civilization eventually. (Actually, I never had too many woodland visitors on campouts; the only exception was at scout camp, where the raccoons knew that the platform tents were full of dumb kids who leave their candy out.)
posted by usonian at 12:55 PM on March 9, 2010

For car camping, I highly recommend this Coleman tent. It's enormous for one person, just right for two, easy to set up, well ventilated, and it will keep you dry. I picked one up at Big 5 for a sale price of $49. We love it.

Another MUST is to buy a tarp that's slightly smaller than the footprint of your tent. Set your tent up on top of it so that the edges of the tarp stop an inch or two from the edges of the tent floor. (That is, you don't want to see the tarp sticking out from under the tent.) This will keep the floor of your tent dry.

Do practice setting up your tent before hitting the campground.

Pretty much the biggest objective when you're camping is to stay dry. Everything else is cherries on top. Set your tent up correctly, with a tarp underneath, and bring along some synthetic, quick-to-dry clothes if there's even the slightest chance that you'll end up wet. (Cotton is bad.) From there, you're good to go.

Also, if you haven't already, check out these previous questions: 1, 2.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:20 PM on March 9, 2010

You can probably borrow a tent for the 1st couple times. My cheap tent was a great "car camping w/ family" tent. You don't need gobs of equipment. Search Camping List to get checklists of possible stuff to take; car camping lets you use stuff you mostly already have, and get an idea of camping. In a state park campground, you'll be safe, and they'll have trail maps and ideas for outings. I've really enjoyed books by Colin Fletcher. Do learn at least a little about 1st Aid if you get far from civilization.

I love the smell of a campfire, the way food tastes fantastic when you're camping, the darkness of sky and brightness of stars away from cities. Have fun.
posted by theora55 at 1:23 PM on March 9, 2010

Tons of good advice already. I'll add four items to take, especially if you're going to be doing primitive car camping (not on campsite) - plastic bags for trash, baby wipes, paper towels and a small shovel. The plastic bags are for trash - "pack it in, pack it out" - hang a bag on a branch while cooking, throw all trash in, then tie it up closed when you are done. Baby wipes are great for us more prissy types wrt. personal hygiene - many uses. Use the baby wipes in conjunction with the plastic bags, and use the shovel for digging a small hole (I recommend digging the hole ahead of time, if the need strikes you more or less at set times, like after breakfast, or first thing in the morning etc. - it's nice for the hole to already be ready) - the usual recommendation is 4 inches deep.

Also: take your interest gadgets - camera plus extra batteries, car charger etc.; or portable recorder and mike, or even just notebook and pencil etc., - whatever's your poison. It gives the hikes and camping an extra edge/purpose when you can be creative. And being out there in nature, away from the daily routine, I find is a very creative time and a great way to refocus your perspective, and often an opportunity to think more deeply about your life, plans for the future, and priorities.

Everybody finds their own way to camp after a few times. I wish you the best - finding your own way! Good luck.
posted by VikingSword at 1:52 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Learn to spot the poison plants and keep away from them! Nothing like ruining a camping trip with a bad case of poison oak/ivy/sumac. Yikes! And keep a close eye on any dogs you might bring with you so they won't get the evil oils on them and then transfer them to you. Some campsites are surrounded by poison plants, which is another reason to make sure you get there early enough to set up camp in the daylight so there are no surprises in the morning.

N.B. you might be immune to the poison plants (many people are), but it's best to not take any chances until you know for sure.
posted by wherever, whatever at 2:29 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I did absolutely zero camping in my childhood due to allergies and an overprotective mom. However, I married into a family of Eagle Scouts (my husband and both his brothers achieved the honor), and I've learned a little about it since. It seems to me their major advice would be: 1) stay dry, 2) know how to build a good fire, 3) have good boots, 4) never go alone, 5) respect your surroundings. Most of the rest is details.
posted by iceprincess324 at 2:45 PM on March 9, 2010

So much good advice, already. I'll list my suggestions, as an avid hiker/camper all my life.

This assumes you're an absolute beginner:

1. Don't buy any equipment for your first camping trip. Borrow it from a friend. You can waste a lot of money buying a sleeping bag or tent or camp stove that you don't like or doesn't suit you. It's best to try it in the field first before you lay out money for something. Key pieces of equipment include a seasonally appropriate sleeping bag, a sleeping pad (a cushion you put under your sleeping bag to make for a vastly more pleasant sleeping experience), a backpack, a water bottle/pouch, good hiking shoes/boots, a hat, a tent and a ground tarp (for putting under the tent on so you don't damage or dirty up the bottom of the tent). You may get to where one or more of these is not essential to your experience, but I strongly recommend starting with them.

2. Point one implies that your friend is going to suggest appropriate gear for wherever you're going camping and what time of year. It's really impossible to make suggestions without knowing where and when you'll be camping. The sleeping bags, for example, need to be different weights, depending on the seasonal temps. The tent may need to be different if you're going in rainy season or bug season. And so forth. So get plenty of specific recommendations on equipment and locations and times to camp from friends that know the area. Your friends can help you with checklists of specialty or emergency equipment you should take (first aid kit, etc.).

3. Go on a dry run. If you have a back yard (or you have a friend who has a back yard), camp out there for one night first. It lets you get the chance to test all the equipment, familiarize yourself with how it works, what is comfortable for you, what you brought that you didn't need and what you didn't bring that you did. A big part of camping well is the psychology of handling being away from amenities. Doing this once will give you better confidence when you go out into the field and thereby help you enjoy your camping outing even more.

4. When you're ready to go on the camping trip, make it a car camping trip. That is, a trip where you can drive right up to your campsite (or within a very short walk). As has been suggested, any state and national parks have excellent campsites where you can do this. This allows you to bring things that would be too heavy to hump in to a campsite that would be farther away from the car, such as a camp stove, more water, a camp chair, a cooler with food, if you want, and so forth. It allows you a lot more grace in terms of deciding what to take and you can take more than you'll need. As you get more comfortable camping, your load will diminish and you may soon get to where you're trying to minimize weight so you can go on hiking camp-outs.

5. A general rule we follow is always take more water than you think you'll need. And in this day and age, a fully charged cell phone is also key. Always let someone know where you're going and when you expect to be back, even if you're going with a partner.

There are a lot of other suggestions I could make, but if you have friends that are into camping/hiking, then they will be able to address the details once you get into this. I wish I could take you camping and introduce you to just how wonderful the whole experience can be. Hope you have a wonderful time exploring!
posted by darkstar at 3:02 PM on March 9, 2010

If you want to visit juniper springs in the Ocala forest, I can teach you about any kind of camping there. (I know, you're far from Florida, but maybe you want to drive to south beach, and that's not so far from where I live...)

On a more serious note, start with car camping. Bring fun snacks, look up 2 or 3 potential breakfast places (really, one is likely to have closed down, and one could really suck), bring something fool proof for starting a fire, and at least n+1 comfy camping chairs, n being the number of people in your party.

Camping can be extra fun with games, like boggle or scrabble or cards.

Bring a book, and something to write in.

Also, bring envelopes and stamps, and maybe plan to send some postcards from a ranger station. If you don't send notes, the added weight/space of that is negligible. But if you want to write and can't, it may be a bummer.

Memail me if you want advice about anything specific.

Also, since I recently asked a camping question in which I sounded like an ass, please know that most hard core campers (including me!) love exposing others to the great outdoors.

Final advice - bring your medications with you, epi-pen if you need one. Benadryl in case of stings. Whatever you take for a headache, upset stomach, or heartburn. No matter how rarely these things happen to you in real life, it's important to be prepared for them, even when car camping. Some car campgrounds aren't easy to re-enter in the middle of the night, even if you find a 24 hour walfgreems nearby.

Oh. Last thing. I hope. Buy a groundpad. Not necessarily an inflatible $100 one, but something to pit between you and the rocks and twigs that might be under the tent.

(I like for deals on gear, but it's been a few years since I've had a budget for buying gear, so maybe there is a better site now.)
posted by bilabial at 3:57 PM on March 9, 2010

Seconding the offer to help via MeMail if you have any questions.

Dangit, now I want to go camping!
posted by darkstar at 5:04 PM on March 9, 2010

{sigh} If you were in the NW, this would be a piece of cake to answer and we would be best friends. I, like you, am of the 'nerd/gay' persuasion. I grew up in NY, and, as such, did not partake of the Great Outdoors... because there weren't any. I moved to Seattle a few years ago and ended up living with a former forest ranger (no, I'm not kidding). I listened to him whine and kid me about my never-been-camping status until his bachelor party. It was an all-boys camping trip and I was invited. I'll admit I hemmed and hawed about it for weeks (Me? In the woods? With 20 straight boys, 10 gallons of whiskey, various herbs and cheeses, and a couple of shotguns? I figured it could only go one of two ways: horror film or porno). In the end, I went. And I had more fun than I ever did stumbling around all those damn gay bars for 15 years.

All of the above advice is rock. Borrow before you buy, car camp before you hike in, go with friends, read up at the library, find a store and ask the clerks for advice (REI!!! I LOVE REI!!), call a national park and ask advice for first-timers, etc.

The only thing I haven't seen anyone address is: Do you have friends that camp? I'm assuming you don't live with a former forest ranger. In Seattle (which, admittedly, is a bit of a special case... you don't exist in this town if you don't hike/camp and drink coffee), we have the Mountaineers. They're crazy campers and they do intro classes! I'd try finding something like that to learn and/or meet other campers. Then get out and do it!

(Special Note: If you find yourself playing Campfire Olympics with 20 straight boys, the key to beating the pants off of them is to hit the pine cone over the laundry line with the machete as if you were serving a tennis ball, not as if you were hitting a baseball.)

Have fun!

posted by Vavuzi at 12:15 AM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Awesome answers everyone, thank you for helping clarify things for me.

Last night, I told my dad that I was thinking about camping a bit, and his reaction was entertaining and typical. "I learned a long time ago how to camp. Get a cabin. With plumbing. And electricity. And appliances. Because there's just no point in going off into the wilderness to eat sticks and bugs... especially if you can't have cappuchino."

So I giggled a little to myself, and started thinking about some of the things you've suggested. Here are things I've learned in this thread:

- Car Camping, despite its name, does not necessarily have anything to do with sleeping in your car by the side of the road as I first imagined it must. This is really what I'd like to start doing, and I'm glad to know what to call it. I'm sure if I tried anything more complex at this point I'd become another cautionary tale to my electricity-loving family members. I think I can follow the instructions here and have myself a nice little camping experience.

- Friends are important. Know people who know what they are doing, and who are willing to help you learn, and ideally who already own some nice gear that will be easy for you to test out... For me, I'm a little out of luck here. My aunt and uncle are campers, so they're the logical first step. But my other camping friends live across the country making it tough to work something out with them. I think a camping group is going to be ideal for me. New friends! Yay! And I'll try to drag some other friends along with me, but I run with nerds so I'm not sure how likely that is going to be.

- Camping doesn't mean abandoning all creature comforts! Okay, this is one that intellectually I knew, having walked around REI and seen a million different ways that one could bring civilization along into the wilderness. But some of your suggestions have helped me really grok that this isn't necessarily MAJOR, but instead MINOR things. Case in point: baby wipes and having enough water such that you wont have to feel all rationed.

- Climate is something I'm still thinking seriously about and it is going to be the one that I might get caught up on. I live in Texas, where in about a week it's going to be 80+ every day until November. And humid. Really humid. And I am one of those people that thrives around 65 degrees. Anything higher and I begin to sweat. And complain. So I'm going to need to pick my climate carefully in order to make sure that I enjoy myself. I'm thinking about joining an outdoorsy club based in the Austin area. While it is 4 hours away, the climate there is more arid than the Gulf Coast and therefore more likely to be tolerable to my delicate sensibilities. I'll probably use my next question for hiking/camping suggestions in Texas that wont cause me to wilt like a flower. And then I'll really get planning!

And I got a subscription to Backpacker, cause it was cheap and because pretty pictures and consumerism sounds right up my alley... :)
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:41 AM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Outstanding! Have a blast, dude!
posted by darkstar at 3:45 PM on March 10, 2010

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