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Ten Camping Tips

Ten Ways to Camp Better (and More)

Brendan Leonard, National Geographic

Camping is one of the best and easiest escapes into nature, away from the chores of daily life. The more nights this summer you can spend staring at a campfire and sleeping under a canopy of stars, the better, even if you stay close to home. Here are ten ways to make it more fun and happen more often.

1. Night Lighting

A campsite can feel a little lonely when you’re walking around in the darkness if the only light is coming from the small LED bulb in your headlamp. One or two additional lighting options can make the campsite, kitchen, and tent feel more inviting.

2. Camp on a School Night

A camping trip doesn’t have to take up an entire weekend or be a three-day backpacking route somewhere far away from home. No matter what city you live in, there are usually campsites within a 90-minute commute from downtown via train, bus, bike, or car. For example, Indiana Dunes State Park is a 90-minute train ride from downtown Chicago and has 140 campsites. The campgrounds at Colorado’s Cherry Creek State Park (pictured) are a 12-mile bike ride, all on off-street bike paths, from downtown Denver.

What’s more, hardly anyone is there on a Tuesday night. Arrive on a weeknight just in time for a late dinner, then get up early the next morning to head into work. Or show up at the office with your car packed, then head out right after work (or a few minutes early), and while everyone is at happy hour still dressed in their business casual, you can be working on starting a campfire somewhere quiet.

3. Take It a Little Farther Into the Backcountry

You don’t need the newest, shiniest, most ultralight, super ultrahigh-tech gear to go backpacking. It’s nice, of course, and can enable getting farther down the trail or up the mountain before you stop and camp for the night. But, the fact is, if you have strong legs and a big enough backpack, you can take pretty much whatever you want on a backpacking trip—and you don’t have to go far to get solitude.

Two or three miles down a trail can get you to a spot much quieter than any car-camping site. You might miss the bathrooms and the picnic tables, but you won’t miss the other people (especially the kind who like to slam car doors all night or drink around a campfire until 2 a.m.). If you already have solid backpacking gear, and you’re looking for something new, strap your camping gear on your mountain bike or road bike or stuff it in a rented kayak or canoe and find a new spot via a new mode of travel.

4. Don’t Sacrifice Having Good Coffee

Even when we talk of “roughing it,” cowboy coffee is a thing of the past—unless you like your pot or cup of coffee unfiltered and drunk when the grounds sink to the bottom. Today the camping and coffee industries have synced up, and there’s no reason to drink the subpar stuff of the past.

5. Find (or Make) a Better Pillow

A great pillow can mean the difference between a decent night’s sleep and a restless night of tossing and turning between positions to find the one that’s least likely to put “call chiropractor” on your to-do list at the end of your camping trip.

6. Don’t Stress About Campsite Availability

Nothing’s worse than being that person driving around the campground at 11 p.m. on a Friday night looking for the last vacant spot to pitch your tent—except being all the people trying to sleep or enjoy a quiet night in front of a fire as that person drives around shining their headlights around the campground. Thankfully, many state parks, national parks, and private campgrounds have now instituted reservation systems, which provide a little peace of mind for those of us who used to race out of town on Friday afternoon to try to secure first-come, first-served spots. Many state park websites allow you to reserve any campsite months in advance, and the online reservation system at lists thousands of national park and national forest campsites across the U.S., most with campground maps and many with photos of individual campsites.

7. You Don’t Have to Eat Freeze-Dried Food

There are tons of easy ideas that can boost food morale on camping trips—ultralight or not. Hard cheeses will stay edible for days in backpacks. Fresh vegetables don’t have to be refrigerated right up until the moment you eat them—they can survive a couple days in the back of a car or a backpack. A small, sealed bottle of olive oil boosts backcountry pasta dishes. Buy a small cutting board just for your camping trips.

8. Discover Water-Resistant Down

It used to be that goose-down-filled sleeping bags were lighter, warmer, and more compressible, but bags filled with synthetic material kept you warm even when their insulation material got wet. Once goose down took on moisture, it clumped, leaving it with almost no insulation value. Enter treated down, which is when down feathers are coated to become water-resistant or water-repellent—the best thing to happen to sleeping bags since the zipper. While it still doesn’t perform when wet quite as well as wet synthetic insulation, treated down is a huge leap forward for down. It absorbs nearly a third less water, dries 60 percent faster, and retains more loft (and insulation) than untreated down. While it’s not waterproof, treated down performs far better in wet environments—inside tents where condensation drips from the walls or soaks into sleeping bags when they touch the walls, inside bivy sacks, next to a river or creek, or even in light rain. Most major companies now include water-resistant down in several sleeping bag models.

9. Build a House on Wheels

If you can sleep in your car, you often don’t even need a campsite—just a dark, quiet spot to pull off the road somewhere. If you haven’t followed the #vanlife hashtag on Instagram, the 200,000-plus photos you’ll find there will provide plenty of brainstorming material—and envy. The expensive options are buying a Volkswagen Eurovan, custom Sprinter Van RV conversion, or Sportsmobile.

Less expensive options include buying a van and converting it yourself—like Alex Honnold and hundreds of other “dirtbag” rock climbers—by building a bed platform for the back of your truck or buying a rocket box for your station wagon or SUV to keep all your gear in so you can sleep in the back.

10. But First, Organize

If every camping trip starts with a two-hour effort to locate all your gear and load it into the car, going camping will feel like work. Keep a prepacked box of your camping gear in a certain corner of your house or garage—or better yet, in the trunk of your car—all summer, and you’ll be ready to hit the road with minimal stress every time. Keep your tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad together, along with your lighting (headlamp with extra batteries, lantern, and/or tent lights). Pack the kitchen stuff together (repack it in your garage or car immediately after you’ve cleaned it from the previous trip): your stove, enough stove fuel for the next trip, coffee-making apparatus, lighter, knife, pots, mugs, bowls, spoons, forks, other kitchen equipment, a water container, and nonperishable food items. This way you can head out of town with only one or two stops for last-minute groceries and firewood.