Guide to Tent Camping for Beginners

There’s something enchanting about sleeping in a tent under the stars and hearing the breeze, the gentle rain, and the wildlife. Your dining room is a serene forest, a soft meadow, or a nearby tranquil lake.
Besides being enchanting and fun, camping is usually far less expensive than staying in a hotel. For example, camping near the shores of Hawaii is usually anywhere from free to $5 per night, while staying in a hotel near the shore often costs between $300 and $800 per night. Camping is a very economical recreation.

Decide what kind of camping you’ll do

Different types of tent camping require varying amounts of equipment. For example, less equipment is required for a camping trip to a park with sophisticated amenities such as a recreation center, showers, flush toilets, cooking grills, and faucets with drinkable water scattered throughout the grounds, and other luxuries. More equipment is needed for primitive or wilderness camping where there are no toilets, water faucets, cooking grills, or bathhouses.

Additionally, different gear is required for cold-weather tent camping versus mild-weather tent camping. Some tents are built to withstand high winds and cold temperatures, others are built for wet climates with the ability to protect against an unremitting pounding rain or sleet.

For backpacking or for those who must travel by air to get to their campsite, special ultra-lightweight gear is essential.

The focus of this article is for the beginner tent camper. Thus, specialized equipment for harsh weather, primitive environments, or ultra-lightweight needs are outside the scope of this article. Those new to camping should select a park or campground that provides drinking water and restrooms.

For those who are “testing out” camping, and are uncertain as to whether or not camping will be something they add to their usual summer activities, gear can be rented, or very inexpensive gear can be purchased at a large discount store.

This article provides information on the camping equipment needed for a trip to a typical Midwestern US park or campground between late Spring and early Fall. State parks often have interesting hiking trails, which can make your camping trip a more active vacation. Beginners should select a park or campground that provides potable (drinkable) water, showers, and some type of cooking structure such as a cooking grill or fire ring.

The following is a list, complete with descriptions, of the equipment necessary for such a camping trip.

Tent

A 2-person dome-style tent can cost as little as $25 at a discount store. However, a cheap tent will not have the good ventilation, rain resistance, and strength of a more expensive tent. Basically, you get what you pay for. A medium-quality, 2-person tent will cost between $100 and $170. A high-quality, 2-person tent averages around $250 and up. Family-sized tents (3 people or more) are more.

Stove

Even if you plan to cook over a wood fire, a cook stove is a nice supplement in case of rain or to avoid having to build a fire just to make coffee.

Wood burning coffee can stove. An exceptionally cheap cook stove is the homemade wood-burning, coffee-can stove. This type of stove takes a few minutes to make, and boils one quarter of water in approximately 7 minutes (10 minutes for 1.5 quarts in the demo). Basically, it is a large coffee can (with no top or bottom) with ventilation holes, and a rack positioned above the can upon which to set a pot. Either charcoal or small pieces of wood are placed into the bottom of the can and ignited.

The can of combustible gel. The next most economical stove is the can of combustible gel fuel, which provides 2 to 3 hours of heat. Sterno makes an inexpensive one. The brand, Fire Glo, is also available at discount stores for about $3.50 (when purchased in quantities of 12). Simply remove the lid and light it with a match. For best results, place the can of fuel down inside a ventilated coffee can, and position the cook pot on a simple rack just above the flame, as demonstrated at instructables.

The propane cook stove. A single-burner propane stove sells for $25 and up, and burns for 4 ½ hours on high or 9 hours on low. When the fuel is depleted, a new canister of propane must be purchased for a few dollars. Dual-burner propane stoves are available for a higher price, and also need replacement fuel containers when empty. This is a good deal if a stove is not heavily used. With heavy use, the propane stove is costly in the long run because of the fuel.

The liquid-fuel stove. Liquid-fuel stoves often begin around $50, but can easily be refueled from a can of white gas, purchased at many discount stores for anywhere between $10 and $15 per gallon. Some liquid-fuel stoves can even use kerosene or unleaded gas, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The Coleman liquid-fuel, 2-burner stove is handy and sells for $85 or $90.

Sleeping Mattress

Having a comfortable bed is crucial to a successful camping trip. Inflatable mattresses are great, and there are numerous varieties to choose from.

Economy inflatable mattress. A very cheap inflatable mattress, which is actually very comfortable to sleep on, is the swimming pool raft, which usually sells for under $5 at any large discount store. Some even have built-in pillows. These mattresses will last for years with proper care. They should be protected from dirt and grit from the tent floor, which is often the cause of damage to these types of mattresses. For the cheap price, buy extras, and always carry a backup.

Double or queen-size inflatable mattress. These cost anywhere from $19 to $100. Unfortunately, it has been the experience of many a camper to discover that the $19 version lasts anywhere from half a night to several nights, and usually starts to fail between 3 and 4 AM. Basically, you get what you pay for.

Therma-Rest mattress. This mattress is the Cadillac of camping mattresses, and costs between $100 and $150, depending upon the size. It comes with a lifetime guarantee, is only a couple inches thick, weighs about 4 pounds, and is incredibly comfortable. It only takes a few seconds to add extra air (optional) to this mattress, which adds an extra inch of thickness.

Sleeping bag or blankets?

The purchase of a sleeping bag is not essential for warm-temperature camping. A set of sheets and a blanket will suffice. For nighttime temperatures down to 50 degrees, a sleeping bag is sometimes preferred over using several blankets.

However, for temperatures below 50, a sleeping bag is recommended. They range in price from $30 to $60 at a discount store, with super-high-quality bags costing up to $1,000. Sleeping bags are usually rated for the degree of coldness they will handle. For example, a 40-degree sleeping bag will keep a person warm on a 40-degree night, and a 0 to 5-degree sleeping bag is intended to keep a person warm down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Miscellaneous equipment

Besides the tent, cook stove, mattress, and blankets (or sleeping bag), there are a few other pieces of equipment that are handy on a camping trip.

Wash basin. If the park or campground does not have showers, a plastic wash basin for bathing is a life saver. This same wash basin also comes in handy for washing dishes or clothing.

Cooler. Coolers range dramatically in size and quality. A Styrofoam cooler can be purchased at most grocery stores or discount stores for less than $3. For better insulation, durability, and greater capacity, expect to pay between $15 and $45 for the large, hard-plastic coolers. Most campgrounds provide ice for $1 to $3 for a 7-pound bag, which lasts 1 or 2 days, depending upon the ambient temperature and the insulative ability of the cooler.

Clothesline and clothes pins. It is often necessary to hang things up to dry while camping (washcloths, towels, bathing suits, wet clothes, etc.).

Illumination. Keep a flashlight handy in the tent for that possible nighttime trip to the restroom. For the picnic table after dark, one or more candles placed inside lidless glass jars (to protect from wind) work well; even better with a piece of aluminum foil underneath or behind the glass jars to reflect even more light. Battery-operated LED lanterns are also available for $35 to $50. Because they are low-energy LED, they last 35 to 50 hours on 8 D-size batteries. Garrity makes a crank-charging LED lantern with built-in AM/FM radio that sells for around $40.

Water container at the table. An Ozark Trails 5-gallon collapsible water container is extremely handy to have setting on the end of the picnic table. It functions like a water faucet, with its spigot that easily opens and closes with a twist of the spout. It is amazingly convenient for washing hands, getting a quick drink of water, and numerous other tasks and is available at Walmart for less than $7. When not in use, it collapses down to a fraction of its expanded size.

Other small items. Other miscellaneous items that are handy to bring on a camping trip are: tablecloth, dish rag, dish scrubber, multi-purpose liquid soap (for dishes, hands, and laundry), salt amp; pepper (and small containers of favorite spices), cookware, cooking utensils, large knife, paring knife, can and bottle openers, saw (for firewood gathering), charcoal and lighter fluid, dinnerware, and cutlery (plastic or metal).

Hopefully, this Beginner’s Guide to Tent Camping has helped to ignite an interest in getting outdoors, learning about nature, getting exercise, and having fun all at the same time.

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