I went camping last weekend in the Cuyamaca State Park area, just outside of San Diego. I count myself very lucky to have such a beautiful area an easy 45 minute drive from my doorstep. I’ve camped at Palomar Mountain, Anza-Borrego, Doheney Beach, Malibu Canyon, and Zion National Park in the past two years. Quite a list for someone who, until recently, hadn’t slept outside since sixth grade!
Borrow, Rent, Buy?
My first camping foray in November 2015 was a disaster. I borrowed a very thin sleeping bag and I honestly thought I was going to perish of cold before the sun came up. I wasn’t sure I was going to go ever again. If you’re not sure you want camping to be a part of your lifestyle, I recommend borrowing things from a friend (just not a “church basement only” sleeping bag like I got). You could also find a place to rent gear (REI has rentals), so you don’t sink your money into a hobby that might not stick.
Since our first camping trip, my husband and I have built up quite a collection of stuff, buying a bigger piece every now and then, and keeping an eagle eye out for sale prices at REI, Backcountry ($10 off your first purchase), and Steep and Cheap. Once you know you’re going to make it a regular hobby, it’s worth buying better camping gear backed up by trusted brands. Getting quality gear can reduce frustration, increase comfort, and make the outing much more enjoyable.
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The tent you end up with will really depend on the conditions you plan on encountering when you camp and the number of people you plan to go with. Looking at neighboring campsites, the most common tents I see are made by Coleman since they can be purchased almost everywhere. They make a good, inexpensive product: this one would suit most people well. My tent is a no-name brand I got from a coworker, and it is definitely not top of the line but it’s a “roof” over my head and it keeps the bugs out fine. Once you decide to join the big leagues you can upgrade to a more expert brand.
After my first disastrous foray into the great outdoors, I bought a proper sleeping bag. If you haven’t shopped for sleeping bags before, you might be shocked at the prices. This is the one area I am very happy I didn’t skimp on. A comfortable night’s sleep makes all the difference, and you will use this item for years if not decades! Unless you plan on camping in the very cold weather, you can probably go with a 30 degree bag like I got. I highly recommend the Marmot Trestles 30 women’s sleeping bag. It has synthetic fill which makes it cheaper than down bags. The zipper slides smoothly and doesn’t catch on the fabric. I prefer mummy shaped bags since they retain body heat better.
The biggest adjustment for someone not used to camping is simply sleeping on the ground. It’s cold and hard, and one can wake up sore. Using a sleeping pad underneath your bag is clutch for insulation from the cold ground and significant added comfort. I use this one by Klymit and my husband uses this one from Big Agnes. Some people like solid pads (they’re more budget-friendly) but I prefer inflatable since they deflate, roll up to about the size of a Chipotle burrito, and are therefore easier to store. I also like putting a yoga mat beneath my sleeping pad to keep from slipping around.
Last but not least, a blanket, in case it’s colder than you thought it would be or you want a little extra padding. I always bring my wool blanket with me because it’s light and warm. This one is classic and affordable, and this one is closer to the one I have, (I got mine at a flea market).
You probably know how to dress yourself for the great outdoors. Think wool, think fleece, think layers. Two things I am happy I picked up on sale are: a good impermeable rain coat that packs down small (mine) and a down puffer coat (mine). Obviously, layering is fine. The puffer coat was my most recent “big buy” because it was on mega clearance at REI this year as summer approached. These are things that I love to pick up secondhand at REI garage sales or on Poshmark since they are pretty spendy to begin with. My tip is to be flexible with color—buying last year’s trendy hue can result in a good deal.
Cooking is my weakest area when it comes to camping. Until recently it was hot dogs for dinner and cold pop tarts for breakfast, every time. My husband got a Coleman stove for Christmas last year and it has changed everything. Now we can cook pretty much anything we want! I recommend getting a metal kettle and a cheap skillet that you don’t mind getting banged up and dedicating it to camping. Cast iron is heavy but excellent. A secondhand stainless steel would work well too. Nonstick coating doesn’t play well with high heat like a campfire flame, so avoid pans with that.
I love to bring melamine (hard plastic) plates and metal enamel mugs (mine) since they are light, durable, and easy to pack (we just boil water in a kettle and use Starbucks Via packets for coffee). I went ahead and splurged on a Hydro Flask when I had a gift card, but the important thing is to bring a water bottle you like and will use. Staying hydrated is important.
I’m sure I have missed something. Oh! Like a camping chair. Anyway, these are just essentials. What would you add to the list, or what do you wish you’d had your first couple times out camping?
I’ve included lots of links here to items I love and use. Thank you for supporting The Voyageer. I also highly recommend Camp Academy’s gear lists for newbie campers.
All photos by Staci and Doug Jackson for The Voyageer.