How can I try out camping?
September 9, 2013 8:33 AM   Subscribe

I would like to find a way to try out camping, without buying a lot of gear. Can I rent gear somewhere? Maybe from an outfitter or outdoor education sort of place? My ideal would be to fly or drive to a U.S. National Park, put myself in the hands of an expert who will rent me gear and take me to a camp site, help me set up the gear and give me basic instructions about how to use it and cook stuff, then have the expert leave while I try things out for a long weekend. Does such a service exist?

I used to camp with my family when I was a kid, but have never done so as an adult. I'm interested in trying it again, but I don't want to invest in a lot of gear for an activity I might end up hating. Is it possible to try out camping without going all in up front?

A lot of the guides/outfitters/outdoor educators I've found via Google go all out with pre-made gourmet food and fancy-pants tents and what not -- they are more like outdoor fancy hotels than the kind of car camping I have in mind. I just want to find someone who can help me learn and try out normal camping.

My husband and I are in our 40s and have really enjoyed visiting National Parks for the last 10 years or so. We usually fly/drive to the park, then stay in a nearby hotel and visit the park. Depending on the park, we go the visitors center, sometimes hire a tour guide (if it's a historical park, like one of the battlefields), then go for one or more 5-10 mile hikes over the course of a couple days. This has been great!

But now I'm thinking I'd like to camp instead of stay in a hotel. This would open up a LOT more parks and other areas to us. My camping experience as a kid was not great due to issues specific to my family that I don't want to go into detail about, but basically revolve around a lack of money and a lack of planning.

I am NOT interested in backpacking, just car-camping. Is this kind of service even available anywhere?
posted by OrangeDisk to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Where are you based?

There's a place in upstate New York where they pretty much do this - but you have to get yourself to the campground itself on foot. You can either rent a fitted-out campsite, or just a campsite - you take the train up to the beginning of one of their trailheads, they meet you there and pick up the rest of your stuff, and you hike the rest of the way while they set it up for you.

Another idea is to try camping at Floyd Bennett Field, which is indeed a campground - but it's in the middle of Brooklyn, so while you'd still have to bring your own tent and stuff, if you discover you forgot the matches or something you can still go get on a city bus and get to a place that sells supplies pretty easily.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:42 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Many REI locations will rent gear and I'm sure they would be glad to explain its use to you. Car camping would require a very low level of gear savvy, pretty much just setting up a tent and lighting a camp stove. You could practice in the backyard before you go.
posted by ghharr at 8:43 AM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you are looking for a Maine Guide. Note that they do many things in addition to hunting/fishing; if you search on camping you get lots of results.

Maine has Acadia National Park and the ginormous Baxter State Park (which is quieter than the natonal parks, and very beautiful).

I'm not sure if other states have similar programs.
posted by pie ninja at 8:43 AM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Is leaving the States an option? If so, you can try "ready to camp" sites in Canada or France. Perhaps they exist in other countries as well?

Another option would be to book a camping holiday in a group. This company offers 2-5 day packages combining camping and kayaking, for example. I've used them, they're great.

I don't know of any place that would set up a tent etc for you, but I do know you can rent equipment from MEC.
posted by Cuke at 8:44 AM on September 9, 2013

What you describe is sort of what a guide does, though not quite. You could call a guide service, explain what you want, and they might be able to offer you a custom package. The problem is, when you hire a guide they become responsible for you to some degree and they might not be willing to leave you alone. They could stay with you and as the week progresses they'll do fewer and fewer things for you while you do more and more. You should call around and ask.

Where do you live? There are lots of hiking and outdoor clubs around (the AMC on the East coast, the Sierra Club out west) that you might be able to join. These groups run various "intro to camping" classes that might suit your needs.

What you can do for starters, is get yourself some sleeping bags and pads, rent a tent, and find a NP campsite. Sleep in the tent, get up, go out for breakfast (or eat a cold breakfast in camp), spend the day out and about, go out for dinner, come back and sleep in the tent.

The next time you do this, buy or rent a stove and cook your meals at the tent site.

VoilĂ ! You're camping!

That's really all there is to it. It's complicated by weather, wildlife in the area, and other things, but car camping can be as simple as sleeping in a tent (or a car / van) and nothing else.

My advice would be to join a local outdoor club, sign up for an intro program, sign up for some trips, and eventually you'll learn the skills and maybe even have a group of new camping friends who will join you, and possibly mentor you.

A couple other things:

Most modern tents are very easy to set up. Usually it's nothing more than sliding poles through some sleeves. If you rented one from REI they could show you how to do it, then you could practice in your backyard a couple of times.

A modern Coleman 2-burner stove is also easy you use. Pump it up, turn it on, touch a match to it. Again, whoever you rent it from could show you.

If you happen to be in the Northeast I can give you more detailed information about which groups to join.

Good luck!
posted by bondcliff at 8:51 AM on September 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure about guide/outfitter services that let you rent equipment (you'd probably want to at least buy your own sleeping bags because eww) but one thing you could look for would be campgrounds in your area that have cabins or platform tents you can rent. (By cabin, I mean the total no-frills kind of cabin, basically four uninsulated walls, a roof, and maybe cots; just enough to keep the elements and critters out.)

Other than shelter, sleeping bags, and making sure you're warm enough* and dry, you really wouldn't need much else for car camping; if you have a camp stove, water, and a vessel to heat it in you can buy any number of dehydrated camp-food-in-a-pouch type meals. (It has been more than 20 years since I went on a proper campout, but I remember them being surprisingly good. Being out in the woods may have had something to do with that, but I expect camping food technology has made some advances since then too).

*Warm enough is really really important!
posted by usonian at 8:55 AM on September 9, 2013

Do you have any outdoorsy friends? Most people who are into camping are excited to share their experience with people who are genuinely interested, of any age or experience level. It's likely that you know someone who would be happy to go on a weekend trip with you and informally guide you, then set up their own tent a short distance away so you can experience the place yourself.

Also, seconding ghharr's recommendation for renting at REI and allowing them to educate you about gear beforehand.
posted by a halcyon day at 8:56 AM on September 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Came here to say the same thing about outdoorsy friends. Longtime campers are loaded up with gear, often multiples of everything (e.g.different weights of sleeping bag, different sizes of tent, car camp + backpacking stoves, you name it).

Another thought if you're plugged in to that community is finding through word of mouth someone cool, experienced and reliable to hire to do exactly what you want at a pre agreed-upon rate with borrowed stuff at a campground within an hour or two of you. It would be a start without having to travel far to try it out.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 9:07 AM on September 9, 2013

If you indicate what part of the country (assuming you are US) you will get more specific answers of where to rent stuff from. Seeing as you just want to car camp I'm not sure outfitters are going to do much more then rent you the stuff, they may well show you how to operate itif you ask before hand, but taking you by the hand to a car-camp site and set it up for you? Well... perhaps if you pay them enough.
Not being interested in backpacking (or I assume canoeing) into a site means your experience is going to be a pretty limited experience of what camping is. Like eating store brand boxed mac n cheese vs homemade.
posted by edgeways at 9:15 AM on September 9, 2013

Are you affiliated with a university in any way? Most have some kind of equipment rental service available to students, faculty and the community. They also often have coordinated trips for beginners. See here for an example.
posted by topophilia at 9:15 AM on September 9, 2013

L.L.Bean offers custom outdoor adventure packages and typically provides all the gear for folks in the outdoor adventure program. Call them and see if they'll quote you a price. (They're in Maine; so your adventure would be in Maine, not necessarily at a national park but at a nice outdoor location.)

nthing what was said above, however, about most guides not really being willing to leave you alone.
posted by anastasiav at 9:29 AM on September 9, 2013

If its a cost issue... if you are patient over a couple of months you can probably outfit yourself with just about everything you need for cheap via Craigslist / yard sales. Other than the tent, a lot of what you need to camp is quite useful to have around the house anyway. I have cooked on the camp stove / portable grill during power outages, the sleeping bags are useful as emergency blankets or if you end up with a houseful of guests, lanterns are useful when the power is out, etc.
posted by COD at 9:38 AM on September 9, 2013

My partner and I did this canoe-camping at Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. The outfitter picked our route, and booked our permits. They picked a route suitable for beginners, with only a couple of short portages.

We basically showed up with our clothes and toothbrushes.

They gave us everything else -- canoe packs, food, stove, tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses, etc. They gave us a canoe lesson, showed us how to follow the map, and then we left for 3 nights. We had a great time. We'd totally do it again.

Here's who we used:

I know you said you wanted info on car-camping, but I am posting this anyway because my partner had I had nearly zero outdoors experience. We'd been canoeing together once for a day on a still river. To extent that you are going for car-camping because you are worried about something more 'difficult', I'd highly recommend what we did. Plus, because we canoed for most of the time, we didn't have to carry stuff for long periods, which is good because I'm lazy and out of shape. So we got the seclusion of back-country without backpacking.
posted by girlpublisher at 9:52 AM on September 9, 2013 [4 favorites] has lots of camping groups -- see if there is one local to you. They likely won't be scheduling out-of-town National Park trips, but you may meet friendly people who will show you what to do at campgrounds close to home.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:58 AM on September 9, 2013

Wilderness Inquiry is a great outfit and I did a three day canoe trip with them a year ago. Most of their trips involve tents, but they also do some lodge based trips.
posted by brookeb at 11:19 AM on September 9, 2013

Car camping is easily doable with a modicum of preparation. You need less than you might think, as I indicate below.

Many campgrounds in the National Forests and Parks are geared for exactly this sort of thing. You pull your car into a campsite, put your tent up next to your car, and have at it. Usually fire rings with grills are provided, but you must bring your own firewood unless you go to certain areas. If you think of campfires as something to cheer up the campsite, you'll be okay. Don't try to cook on them until after you get to another level of expertise.

Mostly you will cook on your own stove. This is a modest investment. I recommend a two-burner stove that uses liquid fuel. Coleman makes several. I avoid the gas-cannister burners for several reasons, but that's just a personal preference. Use your stove on the picnic table, not in your tent. Don't leave your ice-chest on the picnic table, ever. This is where the critters look first. Some campsites have metal bins to store food in. If your campsite has one, I advise you to use it. Otherwise put in in your car after you eat. I once saw a troupe of jays take a whole loaf of bread, one slice at a time, off a picnic table.

Buy a dome tent. You ought to be able to get one for less than a hundred dollars. Use the rain fly that comes with it. Practice putting it up a couple of times in your living room. They come in various sizes. If you get more enthusiastic you can buy a larger tent later on.

Buy two sleeping bags. I prefer not to use down bags for general camping. Various "hollow-fill" types are available. The main attraction for hollow-fill types is that they don't become totally useless if they get wet. Down bags are better for times when weight is the issue. I hear that even ridge runners are drifting away from down nowadays.

My ritual for getting into a bag on a warm night was to sit in the bag and undress from the bottom up, creeping into the bag as I disrobed. I reversed the procedure in the morning. You should think about what you are going to do when nature taps you on the bladder in the middle of the night. I suggest that a flashlight be kept handy, to help you get to the latrine without tripping over stuff.

Buy a couple of sleeping pads. You may try sleeping directly on the floor of the tent if you want to know why sleeping pads are a good idea. The best ones are self-inflatable. You open the stem and unroll it, then let it pump itself up. Air mattresses are great, after you blow them up, and much less expensive. Foam pads run the gamut from very good to very bad. My personal favorites were there cool-back pads I used on my pack animals.

You can set up a simple coffee-making outfit with a drip cup and filters, just like in your kitchen at home. Grind your coffee and put it in baggies. For food, you can bring the usual stuff that comes to mind: trail mix and freeze-dried camp food. For your first outings this will be fine. Later on, experience and taste will refine your choices. Save the gourmet steaks for later trips, when you get the drill down. You may also plan on eating supper or breakfast at a nearby restaurant. Many campgrounds are located near such facilities. Most camp trips fail on account of food. Food issues are second only to those trips that fail because inexperienced hikers get off into a wilderness setting without knowing what they are doing. Car-campers are spared most dire results by being able to at least spend the night in the car if everything goes south.

By the way: most camp grounds feature bathrooms, but not showers. These are usually actually latrines, which means that the toilet, though enclosed, is over a pit. Try to pick a campsite that's not right next to the bathroom.

Any clothing needs are probably obvious. Most people don't think of headgear, though. I like wool watch caps, but anything that covers your head will come in handy: you lose as much as 30% of your body head via the head on a cold night. I wear my watch cap in my sleeping bag. On cold nights all you can see of me is my nose, and little clouds of breath.

A bunch of rules for car-camping exist, most of which rely on common sense. Forest Service or National Park campgrounds usually will have a list of regulations posted near where you pay the fee. You should be able to outfit yourself with this basic equipment for maybe three hundred dollars. If you learn by experience, your camping will improve with each attempt, as you bring into focus the types of places you want to go, and the type of equipment you want to deal with. The main benefit of this type of camping is that it's relatively safe and easy. The main drawback is that you share the area with the other campers.

If car-camping rings your bell in a big way, you might think about spot packing in successive seasons. The camper with a medium level of experience can hire a pack-station to haul him and his gear into a camper's paradise on horseback, and let him set up his tent and stay for as long as he likes. The packer will come and get him and all his gear when he runs out of food. They charge only for taking you in and coming to get you, not for the amount of time you spend there.
posted by mule98J at 11:36 AM on September 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sent you a memail.
posted by lharmon at 11:41 AM on September 9, 2013

Ontario provincial parks have "learn to camp" programs that sound like exactly what you want, except...not in the US. I wonder if there's some equivalent in any state/national parks in the states? I tried searching, but can't get google to forget that I'm in Canada, so all I get are local results.
posted by quaking fajita at 11:44 AM on September 9, 2013

If you're near San Francisco, Alite Designs has a lending library from which you can borrow camping gear for a long weekend. They also hold the occasional free, overnight "learn to camp" event at Mt. Tam (to win 2 spots, send in a brief explanation of the hurdles that have kept you from going camping). No idea when the next one is, but get in touch--in my experience, they've been really responsive and eager to help people get started with camping!
posted by kiripin at 11:58 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

To all the other excellent advice about intro gear, where to buy or rent it from, etc, I will add that a headlamp is an great investment. You should be able to get a decent one for under $50, and it's great for middle of the night bathroom trips, etc. I find it comes in useful sometimes at home, too.
posted by epersonae at 12:45 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Car camping and FLYING some where to camp are pretty different.

If you want flexibility to be able to fly somewhere to camp make your tent, sleeping pads and sleeping bags small. It will be pricier but more flexible. You will save enough on a weekend trip camping, instead of a lodge, to pay for it though. All you need to do it set it up and break it down once at your house before you go.

We car camp about 20 days a year. We love to be in the wilderness and find places where there's no other camper in sight, yet if I don't feel like cooking for 6 we can pop out and get a meal.

When you car camp you can start with just the items I mentioned (tent, sleeping bags and sleeping pads). You can eat meals out. You just need to add toiletries and towels that a hotel would have.

Little by little you'll know what you'd like to add. I've been camping for 28 years and my list of things to bring slightly changes each time.

If you add cooking at your site it adds a lot of gear. Stove, pans, utensils, something to clean up with, etc.
If you are used to lodges it is a big difference. Cooking and cleaning at a site add a bit of time. To save money we do it but I'd rather experience local restaurants and explore instead.

I would choose a park not far too from home, and not too far from a town. Go for 1 or 2 night overnight. Then take classes when you want to learns about the more complicated stuff.

Just don't put your tent on a slope and don't put it in a valley.

And not all tent sites are created equal. I shop a lot before I decide on one.

There are LOTS of sites to reserve. One trick is reserve early. Find out how far in advance you can book and start looking then. Some are 300 days, 7 months, etc. Some of the websites have pictures of the camping sites.

Oh, and there are LOTS of RV parks. I'd avoid those. I look for tenting campgrounds.

As for tents- I got this one for my camping partner. Coleman Hooligan 2 - 8'x6' 2 Person Tent it's about 50 bucks and easy for her to put up.
posted by beccaj at 1:03 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of camping websites, with lots of tips for what to cook. You can post to freecycle looking for pads, sleeping bags, tent, camp stove, etc., and you may be inundated. Lots of people have camping gear in the attic collecting dust. If you have a backyard, you can camp out at home for practice. If not, find a state campground that's not too far from home for a test run. The idea of starting small is excellent.

This time of year, even in Maine, a medium weight sleeping bag is fine, but it doesn't hurt to throw a spare blanket or quilt in the car. If you buy sleeping bags, get rectangular ones that zip together. Unzipped, they can be spare quilts at home. The pad underneath is for comfort and warmth. I have a full-size 4" foam mattress that I take car camping because what the heck. Air mattresses are also popular.

Tent - if you buy one, ask them to show you how to set it up. Or do a test setup at home. Tents these days are pretty easy to set up, and seldom use stakes, except to secure a tent in severe wind.

Camp stove - you want to be able to cook. A friend brings a propane single burner that's easy to use. Between that and a campfire, you can cook most things. I keep most camp food simple, except for breakfast, which will be pancakes 1 day, and eggs, bacon, cornbread, etc., another. You may already have a cooler.

If it's going to be at all cool in the evening/morning, a campfire is cozy and fun. Buy camp wood, wood from leftover building projects, whatever. half-burnt candles and some newspaper will help you get the fire going. I've gotten several long barbecue forks at thrift stores. Not just for marshmallows - you can cook pieces of kielbasa, steak, hotdogs, etc. In some areas, campfires are limited or require a permit, so check 1st.

To get ideas for equipment, there are lots of lists on the web. The lists are often absurdly detailed, and everybody will have different opinions on what items can be left out. You don't need the 'camping version' for most stuff. For car camping, it doesn't matter that your mugs are heavy. Except, pots and pans get pretty grotty on a fire, so you may want to use the crappy kitchen ware from the back of the cupboard. Take stuff that's washable, as it may end up smelling of smoke, or damp, etc. I have 2 milk crates of camping gear, and it's mostly from Goodwill or yard sales.

The one app I love for the outdoors is Google Sky Map, for identifying stars and planets. Have fun.
posted by theora55 at 1:36 PM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

REI is also now running trips and that might be a way to camp without having to acquire stuff and to learn more. The downside is that these are group trips which for me undoes a large part of the point of camping.
posted by leslies at 6:53 PM on September 9, 2013

Response by poster: Wow. You have all given me such great information! Thank you! To answer a few questions, in case anyone is still reading this: I am in the U.S., in the mid-Atlantic. I'm interested in car camping rather than back-packing or anything else just to sort of ease into things. If I dive in to something way more involved, it would likely de-rail me completely.
posted by OrangeDisk at 11:07 AM on September 10, 2013

If you are near PA: First Time Campers
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 5:31 PM on September 11, 2013

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