Go camping with less commitment: 3 steps to get started without spending a fortune

Let’s say you’ve heard of this camping thing, but you haven’t tried it. Perhaps your family camped when you were young, but you didn’t take notes while your parents pitched the tent, and didn’t their stuff fill half the garage? Maybe you’re interested in the benefits of forest bathing, but you don’t have any gear.

Do you have to spend a month’s salary at REI to make a foray into the wilderness experience?

No.

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6

Tent

Here’s some really simple advice for taking a relatively comfortable first camping trip.

Begin with the basics:

  • Shelter,

  • sleep,

  • food.

You’ll be miserable if you miss any of these big three, but they needn’t be complicated or expensive to manage.

Find a campground that will serve your needs

Before anything else, choose the season and location where you like nature best. If you can’t get enough of hot weather, go at summer’s peak to a sunny site; if you prefer shade and moderate temperatures, aim for a wooded site early or late in the camping season.

You already know what kind of climate you prefer. Let that information inform your decisions about when and where to camp.

If you’ve never camped before, you may be surprised to learn that there exist very rustic campgrounds with almost no facilities at all. That means pit toilets or burying (or carrying out!) your own human waste, and bringing every drop of water you’ll require with you from civilization (or treating water you find on site to sterilize it.)

On the other hand, some may be equally surprised to realize that many campgrounds provide amenities like electrical power, water, and cable TV right at individual sites for compatible trailers and RVs.

It is relatively easy to find campgrounds with hot running water in the communal bath houses. Note that you may have to insert quarters every few minutes for a hot shower.

Most public and commercial campgrounds have shared (cold) water spigots and basic toilet facilities, all within an easy walk of your picnic table. Almost all sell firewood on site since this prevents the spread of woodborne insects that infest local trees. Some have a convenience store or a coffee shop.

It pays to carefully read the description of your chosen campground’s amenities. Most have a ranger or manager who will be happy to talk to you about what to expect before you make your first reservation. Make use of this free resource, because these are usually people who love camping and can’t wait to share the great outdoors with a newbie.

You don’t have to hike for miles carrying everything on your back in order to enjoy nature. That’s a great experience to try, but not one I’d recommend undertaking alone or without some practice car camping.

Car camping means driving right to your campground—and often into your own dedicated campsite—with your own vehicle hauling as much as you want of your own stuff.

Shelter

If you’ve never camped before, I’d advise looking into state campgrounds that offer rustic shelters in addition to tent sites. Some private campgrounds may have these, too, but my experience veers toward public lands.

These vary from log cabins to semi-permanent tents, but they do almost guarantee protection from sun and rain.

Don’t expect a bathroom or kitchen or any running water at your site. More often, you’re reserving a glorified tent, possibly one with rustic bunk beds. Read the site description carefully so you aren’t surprised, and expect to do your cooking outdoors and your toileting and bathing in communal facilities nearby.

You may (or may not?) be surprised to learn that reservations are made much like those for hotels or flights. These days, that means online as well as by phone. Check out Reserve America to see what’s available in your area. Some states may use their own proprietary reservation systems; if you’re interested in a particular park, find its website and follow the links.

Costs are higher to reserve a shelter instead of a nearly empty tent site with just a picnic table and a fire pit, but you will still spend much less than you would for hotel rooms. A yurt at one Oregon state campground costs $44 per night; a tent site is $21 per night. At a Vermont state park, a lean-to starts at $25 per night while a tent site is $18+.

Erecting a shelter that will stand up to wind or rain is probably the trickiest step involved in camping. Skip it entirely for your first trip, and you can get a good sense of whether you enjoy the basic experience, especially if mother nature throws any “interesting” weather your way. You also won’t have the expense—or storage issue—of a bulky tent you might not use again.

I think there’s value in learning new things, but there are others you can concentrate on right out of the gate. Properly siting a tent involves evaluating the ground, remembering a number of steps, and tying clever knots. If you’re willing to invest your time in these skills, renting a tent is an affordable option.

Sleep, don’t suffer

Some people will sleep undisturbed on the bare ground with a simple bedroll; most of us won’t!

It’s absolutely possible to bring regular bedding camping, but sleeping bags are the gold standard for a few reasons. They are compact and easy to re-roll and pack. They keep you warmer because they your body heat gets trapped within their enclosed confines. They are sold with easy to compare temperature ratings printed right on the tags giving you a vital clue as to which one best suits your trip.

Borrow, buy, or rent an appropriate sleeping bag for your climate. It is unwise to skimp on this vital piece of kit. Err on the side of a somewhat warmer (lower printed temperature rating) bag because you can unzip it if you get too warm, but getting too cold in the wilderness is a real safety threat.

The threat is less in a campground with facilities, your vehicle, and many people nearby, but it’s best to respect nature’s power from the get go. Never leave civilization unprepared for keeping yourself warm in the given climate! Maintaining your body temperature can be a matter of life or death.

This is another time to know thyself. If you tend turn off the heat at night in winter and sleep with your feet sticking out, you may want a less insulated sleeping bag. If you’re the one who puts freezing cold footsicles on your partner in July, buy a warmer one.

In addition to one sleeping bag per person, bring a sleeping pad or air mattress for everyone, too. You might be the rare soul who doesn’t feel the rocks and twigs. Go ahead and try stretching out on the ground one night, but have at least a little cushioning available in case you want it.

If you’re over forty, consider investing in a “deluxe” level of padding. Many people prefer a softer nest as their joints age.

For car camping, where bulk and weight don’t matter too much, I always include at least one extra foam pad with my camping supplies, even when we intend to use self-inflating or standard air mattresses. Air mattresses spring leaks at the most inopportune moments. Without a backup mat, I would probably choose sleeping in my car over directly on the ground. Foam mats are cheap, often less than $10. I can’t think of a single serious downside to layering an extra piece of foam beneath any and all other mattresses.

Bring at least one old blanket (or a new one that’s sturdy, thick, and washable.) Wool is the classic material; fleece is a cheaper, less allergenic modern equivalent in all ways except flame resistance. Layer it under you if the ground is too hard, over you if your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough, and fold it to cushion the picnic table bench if you get tired of rustic seating. Curl up in it while you stargaze around the fire after dark.

If you enjoy a throw blanket on the couch at home, you’ll absolutely adore it when the temps drop at night in your campsite.

Eating—and cooking and washing up—alfresco

A camp kitchen can be extraordinarily elaborate, or incredibly simple.

Chuck box deployed state with equipmentS

My camp kitchen gear, assembled over more than a decade of trial & error

For a first timer, even one who loves to cook at home, I would recommend starting with a minimal investment in specialty gear.

If you’re bringing perishable food, you will require a cooler. Hard-sided coolers keep ice longer than soft-sided. Larger coolers are more efficient than small ones. If you can buy ice locally near your campground, these concerns are less vital.

One good tip is to eat your most perishable foods at the beginning of the trip. Food poisoning will ruin any experience. If you’re unsure how to keep fresh food at a safe temperature, bring only commercially packaged, shelf-stable items. There are plenty of options.

Consider pre-packaged backpacking meals that are reconstituted with boiling water, or dead simple preparations like meat cooked directly over the campfire. Baked potatoes wrapped in foil are a great accompaniment, can be eaten right from their wrappers, and need very little clean up. All campsites I’ve visited have had at least a fire ring, and most of those also included a grate for cooking or supporting a (fire safe, such as cast iron) pot over the fire.

Remember that if you are bringing reusable dishes or utensils, you will also require a basin in which to wash them and a means of heating a large quantity of water. That’s fine, but it may not be obvious when you’re used to hot and cold running water. You should also make sure the dish soap you plan to use is biodegradable so it doesn’t damage the natural environment you’ve come to enjoy.

A brief camping trip may be the time to be less environmentally conscious and use some disposable items. I like a balance of washable items where they count (sturdy flatware and sporks, plus rigid handled mugs for hot drinks) with paper plates for eating sticky or greasy meals (going into the fire as tinder the next day.)

I’m lazy, so I try to wash dishes only once per day while camping. Carrying and heating water can be a really big chore. Don’t underestimate the effort required for this one.

On the flip side of this issue, never leave dirty dishes or food outside overnight. You’ll wake up to a huge mess made by the nocturnal creatures who enjoyed the “buffet.” Pack food and garbage away in your car overnight (or into provided receptacles if so advised by the campground.) This is both a hygiene and safety issue. It’s also harmful to wildlife.

Esbit stove in front of fire - 1

Esbit stove with folding-handle cup heating water

I wouldn’t plan more than a few hours in the wild without at least the means to boil water. My most basic method is a very inexpensive folding stove that takes small cubes of fuel ($11 on Amazon today, or $13 at REI.) This would fit in any backpack, and many pockets. I bought this and the folding-handle metal cup (~$10) before I had a family to feed, but I still use it to boil the water for my morning cup of tea if I’m the first person awake at a campsite.

There are many other small, simple backpacking and car camping stoves for sale with various learning curves, features, and downsides. I begin with the Esbit because I think it is foolproof and a bargain. I also own and like a JetBoil backpacking model (around $100) that uses fuel cans, and a Kelly “Storm” Kettle (~$90) that burns twigs and locally sourced brush. The Kelly Kettle is my favorite to use when multiple adults want hot beverages and there’s no call for a full campfire.

Taking the plunge ~ how many nights in camp?

The final consideration is how many nights to spend on your first outdoor overnight. Though I advocate moderation in most things, I would recommend at least a weekend (2 nights😉 a three day weekend (preferably not on a holiday) is even better.

Arrive relaxed on a weekday—or by midday Friday. This is much, much better than setting up camp while tired with the sun going down.

Give yourself the benefit of lots of time, energy, and daylight to prepare your first campsite. This holds even more true for families with kids!

Don’t arrive starving unless you picked up a prepared meal to go. If you plan to cook over a fire, it will need time to burn down from high flames to useful, glowing coals.

Even a simple campsite can feel like it requires a lot of setup. New equipment requires a learning curve, adding to the perceived effort.

I’ve heard this from friends, and I feel the same myself: you might as well set up camp for a week as for a weekend. It’s the same amount of work. You just bring more food.

If you manage a successful and enjoyable camping weekend, try a longer trip the next time. You’ll probably agree that the rewards for the effort feel much more substantial.

Don’t forget to invite your friends. Sitting around a campfire in great company under the stars is one of my greatest pleasures. I hope you find the same to be true for you.

Camping friends - 1

Organizing the chuck box & storing camp kitchen gear

If you’re like me (perpetually messy and disorganized in the physical realm) but you want to go camping, sometimes on the spur of the moment, you could probably benefit from storing your camp kitchen equipment in a dedicated “chuck box.”

“Chuck box” is a synonym for grub box, camp box or patrol box. Any of these terms means “your portable camp kitchen in a container.” These days, many car campers use a large Rubbermaid tote as a chuck box.

Until a couple of years ago, we used a large plastic bin for all of our smaller camping equipment, too. What really prompted my chuck box organization project was realizing how inefficient it was to set up camp with everything coming out of the same large bin in the back of the car simultaneously. We kept getting in each other’s way!

Typically, we pull into a campground, and DH sets up the tent while I keep the kids out of trouble and begin setting up everything else (that doesn’t go into the tent.) On particularly bug-infested camping trips, simply leaving the back hatch of the car open as we dig for one item after another feels like a major mistake. It was obvious I could design a better system than the “one large plastic bin” default that had performed adequately before he had children.

Looking back to my own childhood of once or twice a year, week-long camping trips, I wanted to avoid the over-stuffed van (yay! Volkswagen bus!) and the inevitable late arrival with profanity-laden tent erection in the dark. My parents packed too much stuff!

On the other hand, a strictly minimalist camp simply isn’t comfortable enough, or convenient enough, for me to enjoy camping. Some items make a camping trip significantly more comfortable, like sufficient padding under a sleeping bag (physical comfort), or a set of marshmallow sticks that give every kid a simultaneous s’more after dinner (mental well-being.)

Upon reflection, it was obvious to me that I needed to improve the modularization of our camping equipment. In some ways, our gear was already stored in a modular way. After all, the clothing was in a duffel bag ready to go into the tent, and the sleeping bags were similarly corralled in an oversized canvas sack. We hadn’t yet taken this to the next logical step, however, and separated the other gear into collections by function. DH and I were nudging each other out of the way or tapping feet waiting to dig the next piece of equipment out of the same giant black hole Rubbermaid tote leading to inefficiency and sometimes frayed nerves (mine!)

Step one was to create a master checklist for all of our camping equipment. I started with the one from REI’s website and adjusted it to match our style and gear. I simply listed the Chuck Box and Cooler on the master list, and then created a separate list for everything related to camp kitchen equipment.

Listing all the items you’d like to have with you on a camping trip can be enough for some campers all by itself. Checking off each item as you grab it from your kitchen or garage and load it into the car means you will get where you’re going with the gear you expect. This saves the expense of duplicating household items you already own, but it does take time, and it also exposes what may be expensive or delicate household items to the dirt and rugged conditions of life outdoors.

Many, if not most, campers own at least some dedicated equipment for duplicating household chores in a natural environment. My own mother still has a lovingly constructed camp “pantry” made by her woodworking father for her childhood camping forays. That box probably weighed at least 70 pounds when she loaded it up with canned goods, but it is still sturdy and attractive over fifty years later. It also stirs up good memories for me every time I see it in her garage. While solid wood has largely been replaced by lighter weight materials in modern sporting goods stores’ camping aisles, there’s something to be said for having a piece of kit than can literally qualify as a family heirloom.

Mom isn’t willing to pass along her camping pantry yet, but I recognized my new chuck box almost instantly when I found it by web search. You can jump to Blue Sky Kitchen right now if you want to see it before finishing my soliloquy. My chuck box is the one he doesn’t call a chuck box: the Extended Work-Top Box camp table.

Every other chuck box design that I found online—homemade or commercial, old-fashioned wood or high ticket aluminum—shared one similar characteristic that I knew would not create a relaxing camp environment for me: a high center of gravity.

Suffice it to say that a high center of gravity means something is easier to tip over. I’m not the most graceful person. I have poor eyesight, and I am prone to distraction. I’m a grown up who still sometimes forgets about the tent guylines and trips in broad daylight. I’ve been known to shatter a glass by missing the table while engaging in spirited dinner conversation. The sight of a camp kitchen perched on tall, skinny legs on the uneven dirt ground doesn’t give me peace of mind.

I love my Work-Top Box because I can set up the raised work surface and extension leaves while keeping the bulk of my equipment stored in the box body safely down on the ground. The weight of the box itself keeps the raised area steady, and any equipment inside only adds to the ballast.

While the Work-Top Box is obviously a utilitarian piece of equipment, it is also a wooden box (oak hard ply and redwood) made by a human being, not a roto-molded plastic bin churned out by a factory. It was designed by an American entrepreneur who obviously enjoys camping and likes to share his expertise. He offers plans, kits you can build yourself, and fully built boxes ready to stock and take camping. I get an extra measure of satisfaction every time I see my Work-Top Box stored away in the garage because I feel good about every aspect of this purchase, and it brings back fond memories of camping trips past.

Having settled on the ideal storage box for my camp kitchen, I loaded it up and took it camping a few times. Once deployed, it met my needs and expectations, but I realized a few things about set up that could obviously be improved.

Chuck box no interior organizationS

Chuck box, haphazardly stuffed with camping equipment

First of all, the fully loaded Work-Top Box is something I can slide a few feet to get it out of my way, but not something I can safely lift, let alone carry. I can split the load with someone, but it isn’t ideal for our camp set up scenario for me to require assistance with one of the first tasks I need to accomplish. I want the chuck box up and out of the way in case DH finishes setting up the tent before I’m done and wants to access more gear from the car.

I don’t want the box to be lighter for any scenario except moving it, so I’m not looking for permanent changes to the box. Once again, modularization can solve my problem.

Upon arriving at camp (or returning home), I can take the lid off the chuck box and remove a few interior bins—one at a time!—to keep the weight of each load from being too much for my arthritic hands. Choosing lightweight bins made of washable materials means I can set them down on the picnic table, the ground, or whatever surface is convenient. I can also enlist the help of even my younger child to carry a dish pan sized load. With the heavy cookware thus shifted, I can lift the empty—or nearly empty—Work-Top Box and carry it to the desired location before setting up camp (or cleaning up the soiled equipment in the dishwasher back at home.)

Chuck box steam pans empty stackedS

Food-safe, dishwasher-safe, lightweight, commercial quality steam pans

Checking the interior dimensions of the Work-Top Box, I discovered that readily available commercial cooking equipment called “steam pans” were a very good fit inside the box. You’ve probably seen food served from these at buffets in metal chafing dishes. One full size steam pan almost completely fills the box from side to side, but leaves room to store a full-sized cutting board between its lip and the long side of the box. (A standard, full size steam pan measures 20-¾ inches long by 12-¾ inch wide.) These pans come in different depths, but 2-½ inch, 4 inch, and 6 inch deep pans are common. A four inch deep full size steam pan will hold all of my long, skinny BBQ sized cooking utensils, the pot holders, and a host of other kitchen equipment. I will keep this at the top of my Work-Top Box when it is fully packed.

Chuck box ready to re load with organizationS

Chuck box ready to pack with steam pan organizers; oversized yellow cutting board and silver heat-resistant mat fit along side and bottom

One full size pan is the equivalent size to two “half” pans, 4 “quarter” pans, and so on, available in several other common fractional sizes. (A half size steam pan measures 12-¾ inch by 10-½ inch.) For my purposes, I was also looking to replace my standard plastic dish pan with a smaller size that would fit more efficiently in my new box. Two six inch deep “half” steam pans, one made of stainless steel and the other in less expensive, lighter-weight polypropylene plastic, stack neatly next to each other beneath the full size pan. These two pans are big enough to wash my camping dishes.

The stainless steel pan, being a cooking implement, could actually be used directly on the stove or by the fire to heat water, though I’ll probably continue to heat water in a kettle on the stove during dinner as I have in the past.

Lids are available for these, but I didn’t buy any since the rims of the half pans provide sufficient support the full pan. The extra depth of the 6-inch half pans allows me to pack taller items, including a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup, inside each one. If I decide that I want to store the two half pans above the full size pan once we’ve field tested this system, a flat, full-size pan lid should allow for the pans stack in this configuration.

Chuck box half pans not ideal on top of full panS

Full pan underneath would require a lid to support half pans above

Colander inserts are available that perfectly line any given size steam pan. Since I was looking to add a space-efficient colander to my chuck box, I opted for a half sized one that nests beautifully in one of my dish pans. Big round objects are always hard to pack efficiently, so I was pretty excited to find these.

The Work-Top Box is about 12 inches deep with the extension leaves stored inside, so stacking the six-inch and four-inch deep pans will leave plenty of room for last minute additions or somewhat oversized items at the top. Loading up the box this way isn’t fiddly or time-consuming. It also makes it much easier to find and remove any given utensil compared to the jumble inside when I first loaded the box. Kitchen tools also stay organized while the Work Top Box is deployed in camp.

Chuck box deployed state with equipmentS

Blame my photography, not my Work Top Box, for looking crooked

Chuck box deployed state with equipment close up full panS

The full size steam pan goes back in the box once the Work Top Box is set up, adding weight to keep that center of gravity low

Buying a bunch of specialty equipment isn’t necessary to enjoy camping, but it certainly can make packing and unpacking more convenient. How do you organize your camp kitchen equipment?