10 Things I Wish I Knew the First Time I Went Camping in the Wilderness

I don’t remember exactly what age I was the first time I went camping with my family, but I was young, probably in the single digits. That was somewhere in New York, likely at a state park, and I distinctly remember loving it. The dirt under my fingernails, waking up to the sun, collecting kindling, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire — I was in heaven. 

Fast forward to college-aged me, now living in Arizona. My friends invited me camping and I agreed without hesitation. It had been a long time since I’d gone and I didn’t have any of my own gear, so I went and bought a cheap sleeping bag. I’d share one of my friends’ tents, one of the guys had extra chairs, and someone else had a cooler. We were all set. 

Since that college trip, I’ve been camping probably another 100 times (literally!). To this day, that particular trip is one of my favorites of all time. It was the trip that introduced me to wilderness camping. We found a spot in the middle of the forest, far from bathrooms or other campers, and it reignited my absolute love affair with The Great Outdoors — which is burning strong to this day. 

I’ll always view that camping trip as my first “real” one, and as fun and memorable as it was, it certainly wasn’t perfect. Mistakes were made. Lessons were learned. My camping game has come a long, long way since then, and I’m ready to share some of the things I’ve learned.

1. Go with the flow

At least one thing will go wrong on your first camping trip — or at best, not according to plan. You may forget a lighter, a critter might get into your food, the weather may change unexpectedly (and honestly, probably will!), or someone could get injured. Even veteran campers run into unexpected challenges, so know that it’s totally normal for things to go wrong. Just recently, I completely burnt everyone’s dinner. Another time, heavy winds flattened our tent and broke one of the poles. 

Roll with the punches, take a moment to laugh about the situation, then regroup and figure out a solution. It may be frustrating in the moment, but I promise you’ll look back and laugh… someday.

2. Bring more than you think you’ll need — within reason

There’s a saying, “It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.” I suspect it doesn’t refer to camping specifically, but I can’t imagine a more appropriate quote. Generally, it’s not a bad idea to overpack — a bit. You’ll never regret having extra food, clothes, or a blanket, but be realistic about what you bring extras of. You don’t need 10 rolls of toilet paper or a dozen pairs of socks for a weekend trip. Pack the essentials and you’ll be good to go.

3. Mountain weather is unpredictable

Come to think of it, so is desert weather. And weather along the coast and at the lake... Basically, wherever you’re camping is probably out of town, which means the elevation and overall climate are likely different from where you live. It may get cold at night, even if daytime temperatures are hot. In the desert and mountains especially, afternoon storms are very common. Prepare for unpredictable weather by wearing layers, having heat sources ready, and keeping tarps accessible to quickly cover your gear if necessary.

4. A hammock is an absolute must

Quite simply, hammocks are incredible for relaxing or napping. If you don’t already have one, I highly recommend buying an inexpensive model from your local sporting goods store or Amazon before your first camping trip. All you need is a couple of trees to hang it from, but you may also want to practice at home first. 

5. Baby wipes are your best friend

Regardless of the type of camping you’re doing and for how long, it will lead to a bit of a mess. Dirt + food + a limited amount of water = messy. I personally use an old laundry detergent jug filled with soapy water as a hand- and dishwashing station, but there are some messes that simply require the strength of baby wipes. They’re great for cleaning tables, washing hands, and wiping down in lieu of a proper shower. Baby wipes are also great for, say, cleaning up sticky s’mores residue from a man’s beard. Don’t ask me how I know. 

6. Camping isn’t the time to test a new recipe

Let me clarify this one: camping isn’t the time to try an elaborate new recipe. If it’s a dish like chili or a skillet meal where you can simply dump ingredients into a pot and let it do its thing, go for it. However, I can tell you from personal experience that trying a new baked good requiring several steps or anything that needs to be watched carefully is probably not a wise choice. Stick to tried-and-true favorites and pre-made meals for camp cooking

7. There will be critters

Every region has unique wildlife. In Arizona, we have poisonous spiders, tarantulas (which aren’t poisonous or even remotely threatening, but enormous and hairy), scorpions, rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats, and even black bears. It’s important to remember that we are in their home — the animals were here long before us. Stay alert, watch where you step, shake out bedding, clothes, and shoes before putting them on, and try not to freak out when you inevitably come face-to-face with a probably-not-so-cute critter. 

8. You don’t necessarily need to sacrifice luxury or comfort

If there’s something you really can’t live without, bring it. Maybe not your hair straightener or massage chair, but you can pack small luxuries or comfort items like a favorite pillow, a tablet to watch movies, or a portable fan. Remember, there’s no wrong way to camp. Even if it seems like a bit of overkill, if it’s something that makes you more comfortable, bring it. Ultimately, you’ll enjoy camping more and get a lot more out of the experience. 

9. There’s more than one way to make s’mores

To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the classic marshmallow, chocolate, and graham cracker combo. But that’s only the tip of the s’mores iceberg. Try Reese’s peanut butter cups, Rolos, or using Fudge Stripe cookies in place of the graham crackers. Fair warning about Rolos, in particular: remember the sticky beard I mentioned above? It turns out, caramel, marshmallow, and facial hair are an incredibly sticky trio. 

10. There is such thing as being a good camper

You probably (hopefully) already know about Leave No Trace, which is important —  leave your campsite better than you found it. In addition, it’s important to be respectful of other campers. If you’re camping in an area with other people nearby, leave plenty of distance between their campsite and yours. Keep conversation, music, and other noise to reasonable levels and if you’re camping with children or pets, be sure they don’t wander into other campsites. Be a good camper so everyone can enjoy their time in the wilderness.

Hopefully, these tips will help you if you are new to camping and coming up on your first trip in the wilderness. I’m sure you will learn many more things during your trip, but these tips will get you started on the right foot! Happy camping!