How To Go Camping For The First Time

Camping can be a blissful experience or it can be an experience that will make you want to pack up and go home; the key is to be prepared.  When I was heading out the door for my first camping experience, I did not read a how to go camping for the first time guide.  This is why my first time camping was brutal rather than blissful.  I was not prepared and was worn down by the inconsistent weather and lack of supplies.

I camped in Hocking Hills, Ohio with no rain coat, tarp, or padding to sleep on.  This was just the start of my many downfalls.  That is why I am here, to walk you through a step by step guide on how to create the greatest camping experience; one that you will enjoy and want to continue to repeat.  I will start off by listing off the essentials needed for any camping trip.

Camping Checklist

  1. Camping Tent
  2. Tent footprint
  3. Rain Cover for Tent
  4. Tarp
  5. Utility Cord
  6. Pocket Knife
  7. Sleeping bag
  8. Sleeping Pad
  9. Pillow
  10. Clothing
    • Rain coat
    • Layers of clothing
    • Water sandals
    • Boots or shoes suited to terrain
  11. Illumination (headlamp, flashlight, or packable lantern)
  12. Cooler
  13. Food
  14. Water
  15. Utensils, plates, and bowls
  16. Matches
  17. Firestarter
  18. Firewood
  19. Camping Stove
  20. First Aid Kit
  21. Personal Items
  22. Campsite Reservation Information

Necessary Items for Campsite

Tent, Tent Footprint, and Rain Cover for Tent


When it comes to the type of camping tent to pack, make sure to examine what type of season the camping tent performs well in.  I have purchased a camping tent that is meant for three seasons.  I opted out of the winter season due to my preference to camp when I can hike, swim, and kayak.

A tip for once you leave the camping tent even for a couple of minutes: ALWAYS make sure you secure any openings on the tent.  This is to keep the bugs out, because when you are ready to get cozied up in your sleeping bag for the night and realize you have pesky bugs flying or crawling about, it leaves you with a restless night.

Another reason for keeping your tents’ flaps secure is to keep the rain from getting into your tent, which means a rain cover is a must. While I was camping in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee I left for a day hike on a gorgeous sunny day and as a naïve camper, I thought it would remain sunny.  However, a downpour happened twenty minutes later.  This led to a sprint back to the tent to place the rain cover on and to protect all my necessities.  So no matter what your day looks like, secure your tent before leaving your campsite.

You will also need to make sure you bring a tent footprint, which sometimes comes with the tent purchased.  If you do not have one, a tarp would be an effective alternative.  A ground cloth or a footprint, extends the life of your tent by preventing punctures and protecting the floor from direct contact with the ground.  An added benefit is that the footprint is much easier to clean than the actual tent.

Tarp, Utility Cord, and Pocket Knife


Make sure to get an all-purpose tarp.  This will help you enjoy your camping experience rain or shine.  My downfall in my first experience was not bringing a tarp, which left my clothes soaked from the rain, stuck in a tent, with the feeling of being trapped.  I don’t want that for you, so bring a tarp to protect you and your campsite.  This will allow you to utilize your campsite fully and provide a place to sit and enjoy the campfire.

pocket knife

Don’t forget to bring along a utility cord because this will allow you to place your tarp anywhere with a tree.  In order to hang the tarp you may need to cut the utility cord to adjust it to properly cover the areas needed, which is why a pocket knife comes in handy.  The pocket knife will also come in handy in regards to various materials that needs cut, like the paper wrapped around firewood, food packages, and making tinder for a fire.

Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, and Pillow

sleeping bag

Similar to the tent, the sleeping bag will need to be suited for the season in which you choose to camp.  It tends to get colder at night, even if you are camping in the summer.  This will depend on the region you will be camping in as well.

In regards to a sleeping pad, make sure to get one that will suit your comfort level.  They have various types from a simple yoga mat to an inflatable pad.  If you are someone who values sleep, spring for an inflatable pad.  This will also be something you will have to evaluate in respect to any physical ailments.

As for a pillow, if you are not backpacking, any will do; just make sure to bring one to get a great night of sleep.  But if you plan to backpack, make sure to bring one that compresses for easy packing capability.


rain coat

The first thing I always make sure I pack no matter where I am going is a rain coat.  As I said previously, my first time camping I was soaked. This left me feeling miserable and freezing.  I always check the weather before I head out for a camping trip.  However, more often than not the weather report has led me astray.  So the key is to be prepared.

The next thing I advise is to bring PLENTY of layers, especially moisture wicking fabric.  Regardless if it is a 100 degrees Fahrenheit or -30, you will want an under layer that will be able to keep dry and absorb the moisture from you, which will leave you cool and comfortable.

Make sure to bring other layers, like a fleece along with you, in order to stay warm when the sun goes down.  The key is to have multiple clothing items that will match with other items you have brought.  This creates less clutter in your backpack and an ease to find what you need.

While you are camping you will most likely want to partake in water activities, shower, or simply want to be comfortable around the campsite, so bring water shoes.  These are shoes that will either be closed toed shoes made with mesh or sandals with straps.  Either way they will be the shoes that will protect you from rocks in the river or from the floors of a campground restroom.

hiking boots

When you go camping, you expect to be doing a lot of walking or hiking, so bring boots or shoes that suit the terrain.  What that means is you will want to have shoes that are sturdy and comfortable to create all day comfort.  This doesn’t mean you must go out and buy hiking boots because what I have found out is they are pretty expensive if you get high quality ones.  Instead, if you simply plan to do trails labeled easy, you will be fine simply wearing your tennis shoes.

If you have bought new hiking boots, DO NOT wear them for the first time on a hiking excursion.  You may think this is common sense, and I wish that were true for me.  However, I wore my hiking boots the first time on a five mile hike, the once called “comfortable” shoes were not comfortable by the end.

You will need to evaluate the terrain by understanding if the path is paved or gravel, if streams will have to be crossed, or if the path has uncut foliage.  This will help you determine if you need boots that will provide ankle support, be waterproof, or if you need to wear long socks with them.

Again, if you find that terrain to be something you are used to walking on and the trail is labeled easy, tennis shoes will be fine.  However, if you plan to do more strenuous trails labeled hard and are not familiar with the terrain, I would opt for hiking boots.


lanternA headlamp is the most useful illumination I bring with me on my trips.  It is convenient because you can just strap it on your head and go about your nightly activities.  You may be someone who like me at first, thought the headlamps looked a little uncool.  However, getting past that allowed me to walk around at night with ease.  This doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to illuminate your campsite.

You could also use a packable lantern.  I purchased a lantern the size of my hand and it illuminates the whole campsite.  Also a bonus is that it clips to anything, which allows for me to strap it to the inside of my tent or on the utility cord holding up the tarp.

The other alternative is to use a flashlight.  It will provide all the illumination you need, however, the only downfall is that you will have to use your hands.  It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal until you are trying to start a fire at night and need both hands to do so.

Cooler, Food, Water, Utensils, Plates, and Bowls

camping food

When identifying the type of cooler you will want to bring, it will depend on the length of time you will need to the food to remain cold, how tough it needs to be, and the amount of items it needs to hold.  This means you will want to consider the type of insulation in relation to length of time it will keep food cold.

You will then need to figure out the durability needed because if you think you may put it through the wringer, go durable.  From personal experience, I used a soft cooler and it didn’t make it through the weekend due to the exterior being punctured by a branch.  Next, you will need to figure out how many items you will be bringing, this way you can choose between a small or large cooler.  Keep in mind smaller coolers do not effectively keep items as cold as larger coolers do.

In regards to food, you will want to make sure have snacks along with meals.  I go a simple route with food and bring brats, buns, ketchup, oatmeal, beef jerky, trail mix, and of course coffee.  Even though I bring simple items, I always make sure I bring a plate, bowl, utensils, roasting fork, and pot.

The trick is to bring all the necessities to make and eat the meal you would like to have.  So make a checklist before your trip.  This will help you designate how much food is needed and what type of cookware you will need to bring along.

You will also need to evaluate if the campground you are staying at has free access to water. You would be able to find this out by looking under the section listing the features or amenities of your campground.  If they have free access, it will most likely be in the form of a hand pump or water fountain.

I typically bring two jugs of water with me no matter what.  Even if they provide water on the campground, because it makes it easy to fill up jugs when I need them, rather than a water bottle.

Firewood, Camp Stove, Matches, and Fire Starter

camping stove

Firewood is a staple when it comes to camping.  It is something everyone associates with the outdoors and is personally something I adore.  Sitting around the campfire is a relaxing and enjoyable activity for all.  It also provides a perfect cooking area.  Something to look at before you go to your campground is, is there a fire ring at your campsite.  If there is, it will make it much easier to start a fire on your own.

Most campsites will even have a grill rack to pull down over your campfire, which makes it a perfect alternative to a camping stove.  When I go tent camping, I personally never bring a camp stove because a campfire has always suited my needs.  However, if you like a quicker more direct fire that cooks food at a faster pace, a camp stove would be worth an investment.

Make sure to bring matches and a fire starter to help your fire start with ease.  Matches or a BIC extended length lighter would be good for lighting a fire.  The extended length lighter makes it easier to light without your hand too close to the fire.  You also need to bring fire starter, this is especially handy in rainy weather.  I typically bring fire starter gel, which is something you squeeze onto the firewood to help the fire catch faster.

First Aid Kit

A first aid kit it something that isn’t always needed, but why take the risk of not bringing one?  Make sure it contains disinfectant cream, band aids, gauze, and tweezers.  Most will come with a variety of items. It will just depend on what you deem necessary precautions.  I typically bring band aids and disinfectant cream, which is all I ever needed.  However, why not be overly prepared rather than under?

Personal Items

camping backpack

  • Backpack or duffel bag
    • You will only need to bring a backpack if you will be staying at a walk-in campsite or going backcountry camping. Otherwise, a duffel bag or any bag that holds all your items will do.
  • Quick-dry towels
    • My first time I showered while camping, was fine until I had to figure out what to do with my towel afterwards. I couldn’t get it to dry fast enough due the shade of the trees at my campsite.  This towel will speed up the drying time and allow the capability to use it again.
  • Bug Spray
    • Get the type of spray that matches with the type of environment you will be staying in. This means if you plan to stay in the woods, get deep wood spray.
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Any shower items
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • And anything else that would make you feel comfortable in the outdoors

Campground Reservation

I am going to list off some things that you will want to be aware of when making reservations and for what to do once you get there.

When Making the Reservation:

  • First, identify the location you would like to camp. A great website for this is recreation recreation.gov or you can simply run an internet search and find what site works best for you.
  • Identify if it is a walk-in area or a place you can pull your car into the campsite.
    • The first trip in Hocking Hills, OH consisted of a walk-in area. I thought it looked nice and secluded, but that was due to walking five miles to the site.  So if you opt for walk-in, be prepared to pack light and get your exercise in to and from the campsite.
  • Next, you will want to examine the amenities the campground has. This will help you understand if bathrooms, showers, free access to water, fire ring, and picnic table are available at your site.
    • Try to find one with a picnic table. I find it to be very useful because it allows you to keep your items off the ground, a place to eat, and an area to sit at while relishing the day.
  • Depending on your interests, you should also check out if the campground offers trails for hiking or mountain biking. Some places also have access to a river and you could find a campsite near it, which is a plus since it is a soothing sound to fall asleep to.

What to do once you get there:

  • First, you need to be aware of the check-in time.
  • Then make sure you are able to go to the ranger station to provide your name and reservation information.
    • If you get there late and the station is not open, do not worry. You can check-in in the morning.  Sometimes they will even have rangers drive through the campsite and you can provide your information at that time.
  • They will provide you with a slip of paper that lists your campsite, which you must post. There will be a post with a clip on it, so you can place it there.  This provides verification that it is your campsite.

Once you are checked in, it is now your time to sit back and relax.  Camping has brought me great joy, even after my first unprepared and daunting trip, I continue to camp every chance I get.  It has been two years now and after each trip, I crave the next time I can go again.  Therefore, I hope with this guide that teaches you how to go camping for the first time, you will be able to make your first time a joyous occasion that you will want to repeat.

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