Updated: Aug 18, 2019
Getting away from the hustle and bustle of daily life to find some peace and quiet is highly desirable but equally difficult this day in age. Although 40 million Americans go camping each year in some form or another, very few forego the amenities provided by cabins and RVs. A large reason for this is attributable to the fact that many consider tent camping or backpacking too difficult and primitive. However, by knowing a few simple hacks, a tent camping experience can be a comfortable and enjoyable experience.
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1. Bring the right tent and sleeping bag. You’ll need a tent that will keep out the rain but allow moisture to escape. People exhale nearly 8 ounces of water vapor while they sleep. If your tent doesn’t allow this moisture to escape, you’ll wake up to a damp tent. If you’re camping with others and plan to share a tent, make sure to bring a tent large enough to accommodate everyone. I’ve found most 2 person tents are tight for 2 adults if you plan to keep clothes or other items in the tent while you sleep. Not to mention that you want to leave space between your sleeping bag and the outside walls of the tent to make sure you don’t wake up to a wet sleeping bag, since water can easily penetrate most tent walls to items inside if they are in contact. Therefore, I usually bring a tent that is rated for the number of people sleeping in it plus one. For example, while camping with my brother, we brought along a tent rated for 3 people, since a 2-person tent was much too small. We are both 6 ft tall, but we were able to fit comfortably along with our packs. To make removing dirt and leaves from the inside of your tent after your trip (the tent gets dirty no matter how hard you try to keep it clean), line the bottom of your tent with a thick plastic drop cloth cut to size. Not only can you pull this out of the tent to easily get rid of the dirt, it also helps keep you dry if water does seep into your tent while you sleep, as it will flow under the plastic rather than into your sleeping bag. You’ll want a breathable sleeping bag rated for the expected overnight temperatures, so that you’ll stay warm and comfortable. I typically camp in the fall or spring when overnight temperatures can dip into the low 40s, so I use a sleeping bag rated for 32 degrees.
2. Don’t forget the sleeping pad! There are some great, lightweight sleeping pads that are incredibly comfortable. I particularly like Therm-a-rest sleeping pads, which self-inflate and roll up tightly for easy transport. I prefer sleeping pads over air mattresses because they don’t require an air pump to inflate and are, in my opinion, just as comfortable as an larger air mattress.
3. Set up your tent in the right spot. Tent placement is key. When you reach your campsite, choosing a site for the tent is the most important decision you’ll make. Make sure to erect the tent in a location where water won’t pool if it rains, but you also want to avoid steeply sloping terrain, because no one wants to roll onto someone else in their sleep (or be the one rolled onto!). I’ve found that a slight slope is preferable, so long as you orient the tent so that your head is pointed uphill. You also want to make sure the area is clear of any large rocks protruding from the ground, and clear the ground of large gravel or sticks before setting up the tent.
4. Bring several tarps. In the event that it does rain during your trip, tarps are essential to ensure the inside of your tent remains dry. I always place one tarp under the tent, allowing water to run underneath the tent rather than into the tent. This tarp also protects the bottom of your tent from being torn by rocks or sticks that may find their way under the tent, which would allow water and insects to enter. Most tent flys do an adequate job of keep the tent dry from falling rain, but you can also hang a second tarp above the tent as an extra precaution. This tarp should extend 2-3 feet past the tent in all directions, and can be tied to trees (if allowed by the park or campground) or staked into the ground using nylon string and extra tent stakes. This tarp is extremely useful if you’re trying to get in or out of your tent in the rain, as it keeps rain from entering even when you open or close the tent door and fly. You’ll also want to bring another tarp to keep firewood dry, which brings us to our next point.
5. Stockpile and cover dry firewood. If you plan to build a campfire or rely on a fire to cook meals, dry firewood is a must. If you’re allowed to collect dead fallen branches from the surrounding area, try to find ones that aren’t in contact with the ground, as these will likely be dry unless it has recently rained. You can also buy wood from a convenience store or campground store close to your campsite. I’ve found that many campground stores in state or national parks sell wood that they cut while clearing fallen trees inside the park, which often is still green or moist. If this is the case, you can dry wood by propping it near an already burning fire (if it’s all the wood you have, you’ll have to use plenty of lighter fluid to keep the fire going until the wood starts to dry out). Once you have your dry firewood, store it under a tarp to keep it from getting rained on. Avoid bringing firewood from home, as many states and parks discourage the transport of firewood in an effort to prevent the introduction of invasive and potentially destructive insects, which often burrow in chopped firewood. PRO TIP: To make a well burning fire, chop your firewood into smaller pieces before adding to the first. While this can certainly done with just a sharp hatchet, a hammer can help finish driving the hatchet through the wood if it’s particularly hard to chop.
6. Bring bug spray and build a fire to ward off mosquitoes and other biting insects. Bug spray with a high deet content will keep mosquitoes, ticks, and others pesky insects away. A campfire also helps distract mosquitoes, who are attracted to the carbon dioxide exhaled by humans. Campfires emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide, so they draw mosquitoes towards the smoke rather than towards you and your fellow campers.
7. Bring empty water jugs and natural hand soap. Often, you’ll find that you have to walk a couple hundred yards from your campsite to reach a water source or hydrant. Toting water for cooking and handwashing back and forth becomes an important task. I often see inexperienced campers carrying pots and pans to the hydrant to fill them up for cooking. Avoid this by bringing along empty water jugs. You can fill up several at once, and therefore store 3-4 gallons of potable water at your campsite for cooking and hand-washing to save time. Also bring along natural soap, like Dr. Bronner's biodegradable soap, so that you can wash your hands whenever and wherever you need to (Dr. Bronner’s can also be used for dishwashing, as a shampoo, a toothpaste, and pest control! Seriously, after using Dr. Bronner's as a shampoo and body wash drives away mosquitoes like magic!)
8. Easily cook any food over the fire with a cast iron skillet and cast iron dutch oven. Whilst nearby campers are eating beans out of a can, you can cook up gourmet meals with your trusty Lodge cast iron cookware, including fish fillets, chili, biscuits, steaks, or apple cobbler (perhaps made from apples picked from the Capitol Reef National Park orchards). Well-seasoned cast iron is versatile, cooks food evenly, and easily cleaned, so you’ll definitely want to bring cast iron cookware with you on your next camping trip.
9. Pack a small toolbag. Be prepared for anything by packing a small toolbag. Your toolbag should have pliers, scissors or a utility knife, nylon string, a hammer, a hatchet, a hand shovel, duct tape, and a flashlight. These tools will help you effortlessly drive tent stakes, pull up tent stakes, chop firewood, tie off tarps, dig small drainage ditches, and patch a leaky tent.
10. Bring a lantern. A lantern will be a great help if you are camping in the spring or fall when it gets dark early. I recommend a Coleman dual fuel lantern over a battery-powered one, since the light is not blinding, but is bright enough to provide adequate lighting to most of your campsite. With it, you’ll be able to cook meals, clean dishes, build a fire, and play games even when it’s dark out.
11. Don’t forget to relax! Camping shouldn’t be a chore. Make sure to bring along books to read and a hammock for napping. When choosing your campsite, identify sites with trees suitable for hanging a hammock (again, check if the place you are camping allows you to tie rope around trees, because some don’t). Strong trees spaced 10-16 feet apart with no shrubs, rocks, or large sticks underneath are ideal.
With these simple camping hacks, you’re ready for your next outdoor adventure, so start planning! For ideas of places to visit, check out our list of the seven most underrated national parks that you should visit.