Long before you could turn your cell phone into a 3G portable hotspot and Skype into a conference call from a hollow tree trunk in the middle of a remote national forest, my parents would pack my sister and me into the family station wagon and drive down to the Ozarks to go camping. These trips provided some of my fondest childhood memories -- long stretches of the rural Midwestern landscape where the only radio you could find was staticky classic country, fishing for blue gill with my dad, perfecting the art of roasting a marshmallow and arguing with everyone over whether or not it was toasted enough.
Today, stepping away from my internet-saturated lifestyle to reconnect with nature every so often is an absolute must, and a good old fashioned camping trip is a great way to do it. But unless your name happens to be Bear Grylls, you can't just wander off into the wilderness without provisions. I won't claim that my camping checklist is exhaustive, but it should be enough to get you started on your own camping adventure.
If you're not sleeping outdoors, then you're not really camping so much as just spending the day outside. My best advice when choosing a tent is not to overestimate the space you need. Don't get an 8-person palace when a 2-person tent will do. The 8-person tent may be nice and spacious for 2 people, but if it gets cold at night then you'll be shivering all night long. A smaller tent is more easily warmed by your own body heat and will keep you cozy on chilly nights. My general rule is to go for a tent one person bigger than you need. Tents that claim to sleep two tend to be perfect for one person plus some gear. I love my 2-person tent, but I don't know how a second body could possibly fit in there.
Also, a pad for your sleeping bag is a worthwhile luxury. You may have found the smoothest, flattest piece of earth for your tent, but the ground is hard and trust me, you will always find yourself sleeping on a rock or two. Skip the air mattress, though, especially if you're expecting cool nights. The lack of insulation will keep you cold.
Choosing which clothes to bring is inevitably the trickiest part for a novice camper. You probably don't need to worry about summer snows unless you're camping high in the mountains, but a scorching hot day can easily turn into a chilly night by the campfire, and getting caught in a freak thunderstorm is always a possibility too. The rule of thumb here is to plan for everything. And a word to the wise about the campground's bathing facility - plastic shower shoes are a must.
They may be the quintessential camp food, but there's more to campfire cuisine than hotdogs and s'mores! Roast veggies with some ground meat and spices in an aluminum foil packet set on the coals. You can make filling for breakfast burritos the same way. If you have a grill grate, try making a pizza. Got a frying pan? Pancakes and stirfry are both easy enough. If you're camping where open flames are banned, bring a small gas grill. Just be sure to keep all of your food and garbage locked up. It only takes one run in with your friendly neighborhood raccoon and a stray tube of toothpaste to understand why keeping food and garbage secure is absolutely essential.
You've spent the day having all kinds of fun in the sun and now your merry band is chilling out with some brews around the campfire. Time to make s'mores and stare into the fire. Go old school and tell scary stories. Or spread a blanket in the grass and watch for shooting stars and satellites zipping across the night sky. Don't wander off without a flashlight, and keep a lantern handy for when the campfire goes out. I'm also fond of solar-powered light strings. Not only are they a fun camp decoration, but they'll make it easier to find your tent when you're wandering back from the bathroom half asleep in the dark at 3am.
Living in the great outdoors can be rather unpleasant without a few essentials like bug spray and sunblock. And don't count on the campground to provide toilet paper. Always pack a few rolls, or stash a travel packet in your bag. You'll also want to line dry your clothes after a swim or a rain shower. Finally, keep a first aid kit handy for cuts, scrapes, bug bites and poison ivy.
What's the point of camping if you're still checking Facebook on your iPhone every 5 minutes? Camping is the perfect time to reconnect with the world around you. Leave your iPad at home. Put your smartphone in the glovebox and forget about it until you've returned to civilization. Get back to basics. Take a folding chair to the lake and read while the kids play in the water. Play frisbee. Bring your guitar and find your inner Jack Johnson by the campfire. Take your camera out for a hike. Grab your GPS and take the kids geocaching. Find a quiet and beautiful spot to do some yoga. Get a book of wildflowers from the public library and see what local flora you can identify. But whatever you do, please don't feed the animals unless you want them snooping around your camp in the middle of the night.
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