It’s no secret that the ranks of outdoor enthusiasts continue to grow. Whether you’re an avid tent camper that’s eyeing the RV world or someone who’s brand new to the whole camping scene, this Camping 101 for Beginners Guide has everything you need to decide what type of camping is right for you and how to get started.
If you’re exploring camping for the first time, it can feel like trying to take a bite out of a wall. That’s where this guide comes in! Don’t let Instagram influencers fool you, getting outside and exploring a beautiful destination can be simple and easy. Plus, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get started (in fact, I recommend that you don’t)! Let’s dig in.
What Kind of Camping Do You Plan to Do?
While there are many ways to get outside, there are six main ways that most people enjoy the outdoors: front and backcountry tent camping, dispersed camping, glamping, cabin stays, and RV camping. If you aren’t sure which one sounds like your speed, I encourage you to read up on each type in this Camping 101 for Beginners Guide and give each type a try. There are even RV rental companies that are great ways for anyone looking to test out the experience before they make a serious investment.
Frontcountry Tent Camping 101 for Beginners
This is the quintessential camping experience! Frontcountry campsites have all the basic amenities covered. You’ll find running water, nearby restrooms, and the roads are usually paved. You’ll also have a maintained, fairly flat spot to place your tent.
Where to Go Frontcountry Tent Camping
Most anywhere. Local, state, and national parks have ample frontcountry tent sites. The same goes for forests. Private campgrounds also have loads of frontcountry tent camping sites available for quick and easy booking.
You won’t need any special vehicle to access most frontcountry campsites, so don’t worry.
Who is Frontcountry Tent Camping For?
If you want to experience the outdoors on a budget, this is your best option (besides just sleeping in your backyard). You don’t need a lot of money, gear, or knowledge to enjoy a frontcountry tent site. They’re easy to find, usually don’t cost much, and are accessible with all vehicle types.
Who Is it Not For?
Glamping fans and people looking for a more luxurious experience. If you love a hot shower and comfortable bed, you’ll find RVs, cabins, and glamping tents more to your liking.
What to Expect Frontcountry Tent Camping
A standard frontcountry tent site will have a spot for your tent, parking for your car, and sometimes a table of sorts. Often, you’ll find a firepit as well. Bathrooms are usually located nearby. Amenities will vary from place to place, so research ahead of time if you have something specific in mind. You can also use sites like Campspot to filter by amenity type when you select your site.
What You Need to Go Frontcountry Tent Camping
To go frontcountry tent camping you’ll want a tent, first aid kit, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag. Beyond that, all other “gear” is optional (but sometimes helpful).
Clothes and Essentials
Athletic clothes and layers are your best choice here, but you don’t need anything overly technical around camp. A standard travel amenity kit works fine here as bathrooms are usually on-site. Always be sure to pack anything essential to your health and wellbeing when traveling, such as medication. You might also want a battery pack for charging your phone in case of emergencies or navigation needs.
You can go simple and just eat cold and non-perishable items or bring a full propane stove setup and a cast iron skillet. Cooking over the fire pit (if available) is also a great option. Sometimes they’ll have grill grates over the fire pit, but don’t always count on it.
Helpful Apps for Frontcountry Camping
- AllTrails can help you plan out nearby hikes
- The Campspot app can help you book your site
Backcountry Tent Camping 101 for Beginners
Backcountry tent camping can be an especially fantastic option if you crave isolation and stellar starry night views.
Backcountry campsites, as opposed to frontcountry, have a place to put your tent and that’s about it. Some sporadic maintenance is done on them, but they won’t be serviced like frontcountry sites. There are rarely any amenities, though occasionally you have pit toilets, and you’ll need to be self-sufficient.
Where to Go Backcountry Tent Camping
While there are more wilderness options for backcountry tent camping—like camping on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land, I recommend that beginners stick to established backcountry campgrounds in order to gain some experience first before exploring elsewhere. If you’ve never camped before, try out your gear in a couple of frontcountry spots first, and then consider graduating to backcountry options. If possible, go with an experienced friend once or twice to get some practice in before your maiden solo voyage.
Who Is Backcountry Tent Camping For?
The ultimate adventure seeker. The Type 2 fun enthusiast. If you’re willing to put in the work to source the gear and the knowledge required, backcountry camping is an incredible way to connect with nature and yourself.
Who Is it Not For?
Similar to frontcountry camping, backcountry camping is not for the luxury-oriented. If you want a thick queen-sized mattress to sleep on, you likely won’t find backcountry camping enjoyable. If you don’t mind sleeping on the ground but you’re not a big fan of hiking, I’d recommend sticking to frontcountry tent camping.
What to Expect Backcountry Tent Camping
Everything you need and nothing you don’t. By that, I mean there will be a spot for a tent and that’s about it. Occasionally you may find a rock-lined primitive firepit, but don’t count on it.
What You Need Backcountry Tent Camping
Your packing list will look similar to frontcountry camping but with some important distinctions.
You’ll still need the standard tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag. The difference, though, is you want to make sure that these are for “backpacking” and not “camping.” A standard “camping tent” will be much larger and weigh more. The same goes for sleeping pads and bags.
Arguably, your most important piece of gear is your backpack.
Pro Tip: If you’re buying all this gear, purchase your backpack last. Buy whatever tent and sleeping gear you need and then a pack to fit it. Many people buy the bag first and are constrained on what other gear they can buy.
Medical and Repair
You want a first aid kit and an emergency bivy to protect you in unexpected bad weather.
Most tents come with a repair kit, but pick up a small one if yours doesn’t. A bit of duct tape works in a pinch for most options, if nothing else.
A water filter is the best option, though you can opt for tablets or even boil water in a pinch (but that isn’t your best option). If you don’t purify your water, you’re likely to get sick, so never forget the filter.
Go for a headlamp here, not your lantern. Lanterns are convenient for the frontcountry, but a pain to bring backpacking. You’ll get a stronger and more convenient light source from a headlamp anyway.
Most headlamps will do just fine, so look for anything with at least 150 lumens.
Even if you’re using an app, always have a paper map and compass as a backup.
It’s good to have a satellite phone of sorts like a Garmin inReach (or similar) in case of emergencies.
Clothes and Essentials
Like frontcountry camping, opt for athletic gear and layers. Get a good pair of hiking boots or trail runners (though sandals like Chaco’s are popular as well).
There’s no bathroom out there usually (though some locations will have a pit toilet), so you want a trowel to dig a cat hole and to bring your own toilet paper. You want to pack out your toilet paper, so animals don’t get to it. Portable bidets or baby wipes are also options you could go with. Unless you dig a hole at least six inches deep, animals can notice the smell and potentially get to it. Plus, toilet paper doesn’t always decompose, so why take the risk?
Get a small backpacking stove to boil water for freeze-dried meals if you’re just starting out. While you can get all kinds of camping kitchen gear, I recommend starting out simply until you’ve got some trips under your belt.
Helpful Apps for Backcountry Camping
- A GPS app like Gaia or AllTrails Pro
A Note on Dispersed Camping
When looking into free and primitive camping, you might run into the term “dispersed camping.” Dispersed camping is when you find a primitive campsite (established or completely wild and unattended) and pitch your tent (or stay in your car) there. Bureau of Land Management land and Forest Service land are popular places to disperse camp completely off the grid and without any amenities. Dispersed camping can be incredibly rewarding, but be sure not to venture farther than your car can safely take you and always make sure you’re fully informed about whose land you’re on and how to camp safely.
Glamping and Cabin Camping 101 for Beginners
All the rustic aesthetics of the outdoors with many of the comforts of home. What’s not to love?
Where to Go Cabin Camping and Glamping
These are definitely the most unique options on your list of possibilities for camping trips. You won’t necessarily find these tied to any national park or a specific region of the U.S. (though there is some correlation). Find a place you want to visit, and search for a glamping option or a cabin to stay in!
Who is Glamping and Cabin Camping For?
Between comfort and the great outdoors, this is the halfway point. When tent glamping, you’ll likely have a mattress to sleep on and maybe even Wifi. In cabins, you’ll have room to stretch your legs with a kitchen and a bedroom. If you’re the type who wants to explore more of the outdoors but doesn’t want to forgo certain amenities, these are fantastic options for you. Cabin camping is also a great option for families traveling with young children as safe sleep practices are easier to follow when you have space for a portable crib.
Who is Glamping and Cabin Camping Not for?
If you like to get away from it all when you’re in nature, this might feel a bit claustrophobic to you. While comfortable, glamping tents and cabin stays will cost more than just a tent site, so it may not be for those looking to save the most money possible.
What to Expect
This will really depend on the place you’re staying. As a rule, cabin stays will be the most comfortable option of the various types of camping. Some cabin and glamping stays can be more luxurious than others, so read the description of the spot and reserve accordingly.
What You Need for Glamping and Cabin Camping
You might want day hiking gear and maybe your own coffee setup (if you’re like me).
Clothing and Essentials
Flannel. I’m talking flannel pants, flannel shirt, flannel hat (all in clashing patterns, of course). Kidding! At least, mostly kidding. Wear whatever you like! You’ll probably want some clothes for lounging and hiking, but other than that, it’s up to you.
For essentials, whatever toiletry kit you use for hotel stays and travel should be fine. Many glamping accommodations even have outlets for your tech, so you can consider bringing along your laptop if you’re working remotely.
Unless you really want to use your own coffee setup or chef’s knife (guilty) your kitchen gear is likely provided by the campground. Always double-check amenities ahead of time, though, just in case.
Outside of Campspot for your reservation, you really don’t need any. Put your phone away and enjoy the fresh air! If you have to keep your phone on you, at least download a stargazing app like Star Walk and point it to the night sky.
RV Camping 101 for Beginners
The classic home on wheels. If you love the journey as much as the destination (excuse the cliché), you may be leaning this way. There are many different types of rigs, including—
- Travel trailers
- Fifth Wheel trailers
- Pop-up trailers
- Truck campers
- Toy haulers
Like camping, you have a few tiers of comfort here. You can stay at campgrounds with or without sewer, water, and electric hookups (often just water and electric if they offer hookups). You could also go for a resort for the most luxurious option possible, usually with plenty of amenities and buildings on-site. RV parks are a third option, usually middle of the road for comfort and amenities. They come in handy when you want to stay somewhere longer term. Wherever you stay, always check length maximums for spots, especially at campgrounds.
Where to Go RV Camping
Wherever the wind takes you. You have plenty of freedom here. If you want to connect to an electrical source at an RV site (also known as shore power), you’ll be limited to established RV spots (but there are tons of those). If you’re going off-grid, the sky is the limit.
Who is RV Camping For?
If you have the time and money, RV camping is a great way to tour the country. If you can commit to long-term travel (at least part of the year) or using your RV at a regular cadence and potentially renting it out the rest of the year, an RV is for you. With lots of sizes and prices, there are plenty of options depending on your lifestyle and goals.
Who is it Not For?
RVing may not be for you if you don’t have disposable income and time. Granted, you can invest in a smaller rig if you don’t mind the lack of space. It’s a large commitment, so it’s not for the faint of heart.
What to Expect RV Camping
Community is a big thing in RVing. You’ll meet lots of people and make plenty of memories. If you want to see all the parks and forests in the U.S., this is a great way to do so. Just like homeownership, you’ll need to know the basics of plumbing, mechanical, and electrical types of work, or at least have an understanding of where to get help with these elements.
What You Need to go RV Camping
In addition to your RV, you’ll want a set of basic tools, much like if you were on a car road trip. Think jumper cables, tire pressure gauge, and a roadside emergency kit. You’ll also have the electrical gear to think about. You’ll want surge protectors and adapters as necessary. Just what this looks like will depend on your rig, so consult your owner’s manual and/or a professional.
If you’re driving in the summer, it’s a little more straight-forward than cold weather travel. However, keep things like altitude changes and the heat index in mind when taking a road trip. Always get a tune-up before heading out on a long drive. If you aren’t using a heater in the winter months, installing thermal curtains and Reflectix insulation can go a long way for heat.
Clothing and Essentials
Whatever clothing you like, really. For essentials, make sure anything you put down the drain or toilet is RV-friendly (like RV-friendly toilet paper).
You can have most of the luxuries of home here. You may have to leave a few pots and pans behind depending on weight and (more importantly) space. Likely, it will look like a pared-down version of your home kitchen, but in smaller rigs you may want just the essentials.
- If you’re looking for gas, you want GasBuddy
- For navigation, Waze is a popular choice
- iExit is a less used but solid option for finding bathrooms and roadside stops
- When you pull over for the night, use an app like Campspot to find an RV park or cabin stay if you want to get out of your rig
At the end of the day, it matters less how you get outside and more that you do get outside. Arm yourself with this Camping 101 for Beginners Guide, recreate responsibly, leave no trace, and take lots of pictures!
Joe Coleman is a freelance travel and outdoor writer based in East Texas. His love for the outdoors started when living near Olympic National Park and has stayed with him ever since. Taking a respite from social media, you can reach him exclusively at email@example.com.
Photo credit in order of appearance: Tyler Way, Tyler Way, Pexels – Quentin Groome, Cava Robles RV Resort, Tyler Way