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

Sharing much-adapted recipes while giving credit where it is due

Since I'm a rather reluctant cook—producing meals because I or my family need to eat, not from a sense of creative purpose—I have a lopsided relationship to recipes, whether found in a cookbook or online.

Those few recipes that hit the sweet spot of "easy to prepare" yet "delicious to eat" while simultaneously "nutritious and healthful" are, almost literally, treasures. I cherish them. I wouldn't want to live without them.

If I share a recipe on this blog, it's because I find it life altering in its perfection for these needs/wants. I probably won't do this very often.

cookbooks-on-shelf-1.jpg

On the other hand, the search for appropriate recipes is a frustration to a non-cook like me who's just trying to get a meal on the table.

"Easy" and "simple" are often slapped upon a series of steps that I find arduous (lots of chopping), painful (washing lots of vegetables under cold water), disgusting (slimy hands-on handling of meat), or terrifying (flaming cooktop vs. the safety of my nicely enclosed slow cooker or oven.)*

Even seemingly more straightforward tags like "gluten free" are often attached to recipes that abound in other taboo ingredients or inclusions I can't conscientiously allow in my family's diet.

As a parent whose kids have always benefited digestively by avoiding dairy, the addition of a celiac diagnosis for another much-loved family member has compounded the difficulty of satisfying everyone without almost literally poisoning someone else.

Which is to say, I almost never find a recipe that doesn't require a little modification for my purposes. More often, recipes require a lot of changes before I can even attempt them.

All of which brings me, at long last, to my point today.

Bear with me. Really, I'm getting there.

There's a fair amount of angst amongst internet recipe creators about ownership and giving credit where credit is due.

I get it. Attribution is important. It's a laudable goal. I completely support the rights of those who create content to be acknowledged for, and compensated for, their work. I don't steal music. I only post my own mediocre photos (or my husband's much better ones) to this blog.

On the other hand, I also totally get why recipes are not protected by copyright law in the same manner as many other written works.

Here is a really nice explanation of how US copyright law applies to recipes.

A list of ingredients and the basic steps to combine them are too far removed from the tangible reality of what a recipe really is. It's like protecting the rights to a complete assembly instruction manual vs. declaring you own the act of rotating a screwdriver to drive in a screw…

When I use a recipe, it ends up looking like this after a few attempts:

recipe Waffle Gluten Free

Gluten Free Waffle frozen - 1

Resulting waffles, frozen, because I hear people like to look at pictures of food

If I find a recipe online that I'm going to try, I print it out. I'll use it "as is" if it will print on one page. If I'm using a cookbook from the library, I photocopy the required pages for a given recipe.

I need a print out to use while cooking—I've come far too close to destroying my iPad trying to skip this step and use a virtual recipe in the actual kitchen. I've tried for decades to switch to a digital recipe collection, and failed completely at every attempt. I would never subject a library book to my kitchen shenanigans.

Cookbook binder - 1

If I use a recipe and like it, or if it's going to print out on multiple pages or with multiple photos illuminating nothing confusing, I cut and paste the text into an editor.

I'm bound and determined to create a document that formats a recipe how I like to read it.

I'm very text-oriented. I only want a photo if it clarifies a step. Best example: bread dough stages.I find photos of completed dishes superfluous, not inspirational. For my use, pictures are routinely discarded.

I also strip away narrative content because it's a distraction. It might have led me to try a recipe, but I don't need to read that again. I've already been convinced to make the dish. If something seems important, I might move it to the end and add an Author's Note section.

For the past year or so, I've started appending the link to my document when I find a recipe online. It never occurred to me to do that even a few years ago. I wasn't publishing anything, and I'm not the friend people ask for culinary inspiration.

Odds are, if a recipe becomes a part of my life, I'll never want to reference the original source again. Eventually, I will have the essentials of the original recipe as text in my computer, and I will have added many notes, and adjusted many ingredients. I will have made the dish dozens of times, optimizing the process for my skills in my kitchen.

It's a tricky thing to say when the recipe stopped being "the originator's" and became "mine," but I believe that does happen eventually. How would you quantify that shift? Any change at all? 10% changed? 25%? Or in years that have passed? Or oceans and continents crossed?

If I'm this free and loose with a recipe, I can't imagine how much more innovation is introduced by serious cooks.

All of which is to say, excluding acts of outright theft perpetrated by scoundrels who copy and paste content wholesale to their own sites, I think there is room for interpretation about where your content ends and another's begins.

If I post a recipe here, I will make every attempt to accurately state its origins, but I may make mistakes. I may not remember my own source, but I might recall the story of how a dish grew to prominence in my own humble kitchen.

My personal stake in this subject is simply feeding my family nourishing food at a level of effort I can afford to undertake, and keeping track of how I did it.

Sharing a recipe represents my sincere wish to save another person a little effort, perhaps making his or her life better in that moment.

I'm curious to know how this topic resonates with others. Is there more that should be said? Am I wrong if I share a recipe whose origin I don't know?

 

*We can talk about my weird fear of the stove top some other time. My husband assumes I was burned at the stake in a former life. But, seriously, the gas stove is ON FIRE, INSIDE MY HOUSE. How can that be right? Someone should EXTINGUISH that!

Quickest whole grain breakfast cooked in a Thermos insulated jar

Breakfast? We don’t need no stinkin’ breakfast!*

Oh, wait… Yes, we do!

Breakfast Thermos cereal preppedYou’ll find many better resources for recipes and cooking all over the internet, but I have one time saving breakfast solution that I want to share.

All of the (very minimal) preparation can be done in advance. The only work you must do in the morning is boil water. For those of us who start the day with a cup of hot tea, this means zero extra time or effort at the busiest part of the day.

Remember that Thermos food jar that I recommended so strongly when I wrote a post with suggestions for packing a waste free lunch?

Here’s another use for that Thermos: a quick and easy hot cereal for a hurry-up-and-wait kind of morning.

Breakfast Thermos cereal ingredientsIn my case, there’s one day every week when I have to get up extra early and rush out the door to take my son to his violin lesson. The lesson starts at 7:45 am, and it’s 20 minutes away. Yawn!

I was getting my son up, fed, and there on time, but I was having trouble fitting in my own breakfast. This simple Thermos hot cereal solves that problem.

During the winter, I often prep several insulated jars at a time. Family members can grab one, top off with hot water from our always on (Japanese style) kettle, and eat according to his own schedule.

I also bring a thermos and containers of pre-measured ingredients when I travel. You can make this simple, filling breakfast with a hotel room kettle or coffee machine, too.

Simple steps:

I hesitate to even call this a recipe.

  1. Start with a clean, dry Thermos. (I fill multiple jars at once, on the weekend.)
  2. Add measured quantities of dry ingredients, to taste. (I’ll specify one blend shortly.)
  3. 30+ minutes before you plan to eat, fill Thermos with boiling water and stir.
  4. Cap the Thermos and take it with you on your commute.
  5. Open and eat!

The longer you wait to eat, the softer the cereal grains will become. My husband likes oatmeal cooked much longer and with more water than I do. Vary according to your tastes.

Rolled oats are edible in about 15 minutes. I prefer a 30-40 cooking time for oatmeal blends. I usually include steel cut oats, and I appreciate that they retain a firm texture at 30 minutes.

Ingredients:

Here are the specific quantities I used to make the hot cereal for my photos today. I want to stress, though, that I don’t normally bother to measure my ingredients at all. This is a forgiving recipe!

  • 50 g Oats, rolled (1/4 cup)
  • 20 g Oats, steel cut (1/8 cup)
  • 10 g Buckwheat cereal (∼1 Tbsp)
  • 10 g Coconut milk powder (1 Tbsp)
  • Brown sugar, maple sugar, salt & raisins to taste
  • 125 mL Boiling water (enough to fill the Thermos, leaving a little space to stir)

I didn’t weigh or measure my toppings, but if you really want guidance, try one spoonful each of raisins and sugar and a tiny pinch of salt.

I never measure out my boiling water. I just dispense it until the Thermos is full. I used the scale today just to provide a guideline for anyone who’s unfamiliar with cooking hot cereal from scratch.

Breakfast Thermos cereal water 125 mL

127mL of hot water topped up my Thermos jar

Some people argue that oats aren’t healthy due to high levels of phytates. This is controversial. I love oatmeal and I think the nutritional benefits they provide outweigh these risks, but I have adopted the routine of including some buckwheat grains in every bowl.

I don’t like buckwheat cereal on its own, but I don’t even notice its flavor blended in with other grains.

You can read more about how adding buckwheat might be helpful here. Sometimes, I do soak my oats overnight in an acidic liquid according to this philosophy. Frankly, however, I don’t enjoy the taste of the resulting oatmeal as much, even when I rinse it before cooking.

Barley is another grain that works well when prepared by this Thermos cooking method. I like it combined with oats in roughly equal proportions.

I missed lunch because I was busy preparing this blog post, so I took the completed Thermos full of ingredients with me to after school pick up. I ate the hot cereal about 40 minutes after preparation, and it was just the way I like it: slightly chewy, but definitely, thoroughly cooked.

You can purchase ready made steel cut oats to eat on the go. Amazon’s price for Pacific Steel-Cut Oatmeal is $2.41 per serving when you buy them by the dozen, and this product is packaging intensive.

I calculated my cost per serving using my Thermos method by finding prices for all organic and gluten free ingredients from Amazon.com. $1.31 per serving for Thermos oatmeal is probably on the high side, but I wanted to provide a cost estimate.

My absolute favorite hot cereal is steel cut oats, brought to a boil the night before then left to sit at back of the stove overnight. Re-heated in the morning, these are soft and delicious, but retain the chewy goodness of Scottish oats. Making these requires forethought, and spending a specific amount of time both the night before—and the morning of—the breakfast.

Thermos cooked hot cereal, on the other hand, tastes pretty darn good. It can be made with any whole grains you wish at an affordable price. The minimal time you spend prepping can be done as far as days before you want to eat; the only step that is time dependent is adding the hot water.

I feel strongly that some fat is essential at breakfast if I want sustained energy to get me through my morning. This is why I always include the coconut milk powder in my blend. Powdered (dairy) milk is readily available, and costs less (even for organic) on Amazon than my brand of Coconut Milk.

If you add the boiling water to your Thermos jar first thing, say, before getting dressed, you could just pour in a liquid dose of your preferred milk straight from the fridge after giving the cereal time to cook. Dairy, soy, coconut, or almond milk—add whatever you like.

A personal trainer I know likes to use chia seeds in his hot cereal. I eat chia, but I don’t like that particular crunch in my oatmeal. Try this for added protein and fiber if you like the idea.

Nuts are another great add-in option for extra nutrition, but, if you grind or chop them for this recipe, remember that they will oxidize (become rancid and unhealthy) faster once broken, so don’t cut them up too far ahead of time. If you must prep them early, consider storing your filled Thermos in the fridge until ready to use it.

Storing a prepped Thermos jar in the fridge might add to the time needed between adding boiling water and eating your cereal. I haven’t tried it. Allow extra time if you try this, and let me know the results if you do!

This recipe will work any time you can boil water, then wait half an hour to eat. Just don’t forget to pack a spoon! I keep a Light My Fire spork packed in a silicone “popsicle mold” in my car for just such occasions.

Let’s not talk about how many times I’ve found myself waiting outside the kids’ schools or activities with my meal packed, but no utensils. I’d like to retain a shred of dignity.

Bon appétit!

Breakfast Thermos cereal spoon

*Just couldn’t resist the reference. I had no idea this popularly quoted phrase from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre took its most common form on the TV show The Monkees! Did you?