A no-nonsense guide to first time camping in the U.S.

If you have not been camping in a long time or if you have not been camping in the U.S. EVER then you have come to the right place. Not all of us were born to flourish in the wilderness but there are times when you just want to escape the city and hole up in a place with no internet, no electricity and no showers. Thus, the invention of camping. If you are a recreational camper or a first time camper in the U.S. this guide is for you.

1. The most important rule is to plan ahead by booking a campsite online.

The U.S. National Parks Service has an excellent website which makes it easier for you to find a specific park in any part of North America and make a reservation. If you plan on camping over a long holiday you need to get on the internet and book ahead of time (or else you can just easily escape to one of these Cyprus holidays). Some parks like Yosemite can get booked as far as 6-12 months in advance. As an alternative to holiday weekends try camping at National Parks before peak seasons like the end of spring just before the week of Memorial Day or after Labor Day.

2. If you don’t have a reservation then prepare to go on a first-come, first-served basis (this is when the unwritten rules kick in so read on).


The trick to pulling this off is to arrive at the campsite at the crack of dawn. Most camp hosts won’t be available during that time but that’s fine because a lot of these sites have a self-pay station. This is located at the front entrance where they have a huge board with tons of information. Take a self-pay envelope and walk around the campsite to check for campers that are leaving during that day. Part of the self-pay envelope is detachable and this portion contain dates on how long the spot is reserved for. They are posted on wooden markers that are in front of each camp spot. Check-out is usually after lunch but some leave earlier. However, a lot of campers may change their minds and extend their stay. So it is important to talk to these campers (preferably when they are already awake) in order to secure a spot. You basically want to nicely ask if they are breaking camp on that day and if you could have their spot. Once negotiations are over make sure to immediately complete the self-pay envelope and put it in the collection box which is on the board or give it directly to the camp host. It is important to be able to set camp within 30 minutes after the last campers vacate the spot or else someone else will be entitled to claim it (I know this rule sucks but we had to find all about this process the hard way. No website offered this information!).

3. Know what to pack and make sure to bring what is only necessary.

Seriously, you do not need to bring your whole house to the campsite. Unless you are doing back country camping chances are that you are a mere 30 minute drive to civilization which means you have access to modern conveniences. Plus, larger campgrounds have camp stores or facilities like showers. But in order to save you the trek and save you money here is a no-nonsense list of essential things to pack (a lot of the lists out there tell you to bring everything- don’t do it. Rule of thumb is bring only what your backpack and hands can carry). And more importantly, I’m throwing in some tips on how to set up camp. One thing I would add to the list is a sun shelter or tarp to make a canopy so you can hang outside during the day. Sometimes it is hard to find a spot with a shade and the last thing you need is a painful sunburn or an ugly farmer’s tan. Oh and a solar shower is a good buy aside from it’s obvious function you can use it to wash dishes or dirty gear.

4. Observe campground rules.

Please don’t be that annoying camper who runs around the campground drunk during lights out or quiet hours. Common things you should avoid: playing loud music, trashing or littering your campsite, leaving food out (raccoons, bears and other pests will ransack your site), walking through other people’s campsites, washing your dishes at the drinking water fountain and letting your kids or pets run loose through the campsite. Remember to always be courteous and considerate to fellow campers. Most are very friendly and have interesting stories to tell you.

5. Cook well, eat well. Camp food does not have to suck.

I have nothing against s’mores, peanut butter jelly sandwiches, hot dog or tuna out of the can but it’s surprising how campers don’t think of bringing fresh produce/ingredients that keep well and is camp-friendly. Some of these things are: potatoes, carrots, zucchini, garlic, onion, spices, herbs, artisan bread, cheese, pasta, grains, pita, tortillas, bouillon etc. They are very light, easy to bring and packs a much needed flavor punch!  For gourmet camping recipes, get inspired by NPR’s article Forget the Granola: Camp Cooking Goes Gourmet. Here are also a couple more ideas to whip up an awesome camp meal.

6. Note safety tips on wildlife, plants, insects and campfires.

Poison oak, poison ivy, bees, ants, mosquitoes, sharp objects on the ground, raccoons, ticks, snakes and bears are only some of the most common things you should be aware of avoiding. Again, the U.S. National Parks Service website will contain detailed information for each campground so do your due diligence by reading up on it. As for campfires, avoid building a large one because sparks can fly into flammable material like your tent or dry bush. Make sure to put it out after you are done with it. Other important safety tips are to pack a first aid kit, never hike alone and know where water is located.

7. What to do if you want to bring your pet.

Note that not all campgrounds are pet-friendly. Even the pet-friendly ones have strict rules. For example, pets cannot be left unattended and must be restrained at all times by a portable enclosure or by a leash not exceeding six feet in length. Moreover, according to most national park websites: “Dogs, cats and domesticated ferrets (really, who owns a ferret? and why?) are permitted with a current proof of rabies vaccination. The actual certificate of current rabies vaccination as issued by a veterinarian is required as proof that the pet has been vaccinated. The veterinarian’s office must also keep a copy of the pet’s vaccination certificate.”   So be prepared for this by updating your pet’s vaccines at least two weeks before the trip. There is also danger of lyme disease from ticks so either your pet would have to get extra shots or get medication to protect them against this.


A camping trip to Big Sur, California over the 4th of July weekend inspired this quick and easy guide to camping in America. I did not grow up camping and ever since moving to the U.S. have only been camping once  in beautiful Mackinaw Island in Michigan five years ago with a camping pro who took care of everything. For my second camping trip, it was just us two girls and a tiny dog v.s. the wilderness so we made sure to prepare for it by doing some research. However, we soon realized that there were a lot of unwritten rules about camping in the U.S. which this guide covers.

17 Comments A no-nonsense guide to first time camping in the U.S.

  1. pinaytraveljunkie

    6-12 months for Yosemite?! Aww… there goes my dream. Anyhoo, awesome guide here Grace. I agree that camping munchies need not be blah. Your list sounds yum, but when in the Philippines my top camping food is tuyo. LOL.

    Reply
  2. Debbie Beardsley

    Oooh I have camped at Big Sur! Love it there. Yes especially in CA reservations are needed ahead of time. Camping is awesome and camp food is wonderful! There is just something about roughing it that makes food taste better. Although with all the amazing camping gear out there today, roughing it has a whole new meaning.

    Reply
    1. Grace

      Debbie, totally agree. Camping gear nowadays are so far beyond what it was before that you can literally do anything outdoors as you would in a kitchen.

      Reply
    1. Grace

      Thanks Kent, that was zucchini sauteed in shallots on a red sauce over pasta. The other is a new sandwich I invented. Mangobananutella on white bread =) I was too lazy to make crepes.

      Reply
  3. Michael Figueiredo

    When I was a kid, my parents used to take us camping at Carpinteria State Beach (near Santa Barbara) every summer. It was reservation-only, and then a lottery to pick your campsite. Obviously everyone wanted to be on the sand. It was so fun!

    Reply

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