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13 Camping Mistakes Most First-Timers Make

Wait! Before you embark on an adventure in the great outdoors, follow this expert advice to avoid the newbie camping blues.

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Camping above the hills in the the with the aerial view. Sirkot, Sworek, Syangja, Nepal. Amazing paragliding spot.
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Pro tips you need from the start

Many Americans are looking to get outdoors this summer, with one-third of travelers interested in taking their first camping trip, according to Kampgrounds of America (KOA). Of course, we can see why camping is popular this pandemic summer: With trees as your neighbors and the wide, open spaces of the great outdoors to explore, it’s perfect for a socially distanced vacation.

“It’s a ‘biological truism’ that outdoor environments are safer than those indoors,” says Dan Yates, founder and managing director of the camping-reservations site Pitchup. And the outdoors industry is going even further to meet requirements to keep people safe, he notes. For example, some campgrounds are adding precautions like contactless check-in and only allowing socially distanced sports, such as solo tennis. Many have also relaxed their cancellation policies to allow free changes. With capacity being reduced amid a surge in interest in camping, book ahead if you can.

With this in mind, we’ve rounded up tips from industry experts for first-time campers on which all-too-common mistakes they need to avoid, so the only thing you’ll have to worry about when you hit the campground is whether you have enough marshmallows for s’mores! (P.S.—here’s what you need to know about free camping in the United States).

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Equipment and accessories for mountain hiking in the wilderness
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Using your gear for the first time on your first night of camping

Brush up on your outdoor skills before you head out. Acquaint yourself with your camping gear, and try setting up your new tent in your backyard. One time, recounts Yates, it took so long to get to his camping site that it was pitch black when he arrived. “Putting up a six-man tent straight out of the package in the light of the headlights, while all the other campers were getting angry watching, isn’t an experience I’d want to repeat,” he says.

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Bringing firewood from home

Planning to stock up on kindling before you hit the road? Not so fast. Some campgrounds don’t allow out-of-state firewood because of fears of bug contamination, says Dawn Walker, assistant manager of the Kentucky Horse Park Campground in Lexington, Kentucky. If you are traveling across state lines, buy local firewood at a hardware store or check if the campground has a shop that sells firewood on site. And note that it’s never OK to harvest wood from standing trees. If you’re looking to explore this summer, these are the best places to camp in the national parks.

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A man makes a fire with a flint
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Not knowing how to light a campfire safely

It’s not enough to have the right wood, says Yates. If you’re staying at a campground, set up your fire in properly designated areas. Watch out for plastics or bottle caps that will give off a bad smell or unpleasant smoke. And most importantly, make sure the fire is completely extinguished and dispose of ashes safely, and never leave it unattended. The Pull Start Fire is great for getting your campfire started within seconds—no matches or lighter fluid required.

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Close-up of kettle and two mugs of hot tea on tree stump at campsite
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Forgetting essential supplies

A tent and sleeping bags aren’t the only things you need for a comfortable night in the woods. One thing you might not realize you need? A sturdy tarp, says Walker. Tarps are a great multifunctional tool to have in your camping arsenal; they can be used to cover leaky tents in the rain, waterproof your firewood, or even create an awning for shade. Also make sure you have water bottles, cutlery, hand sanitizer, dish detergent, bug spray, and suntan lotion; plus, take an emergency cash supply if you’ll be in a remote spot. If you don’t want to rough it, consider these luxury camping adventures for adults.

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A man hiking with a backpack.
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Heading out without a plan

For first-time campers especially, the summer of 2020 is not the time to head out without knowing where you want to stay since campgrounds and RV parks are experiencing record numbers of visitors while also reducing capacity for social distancing. Make a reservation for a campsite in advance using Pitchup or Campspot. And remember that camping doesn’t have to mean trekking cross-country to a remote area, says Caleb Hartung, CEO of Campspot. There are likely many wonderful campgrounds and RV parks within a short driving distance from where you live. When you’re getting started with camping, avoid very remote areas, and perhaps even consider a cabin with a working bathroom if you’re not sure about more rustic adventures yet. Need some guidance? These are the best campsites in every state.

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Young woman using mobile phone while friends sitting by bonfire at campsite
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Not preparing to unplug

Just because you’ve gone into the woods, don’t expect your whole crew to suddenly start singing around the (now expertly prepared) campfire. You need to pack some unplugged entertainment, too, says Walker. Bring a deck of cards for a game night, some headlamps for reading, or, yes, a guitar for songs if you’re so inclined.

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Friends preparing breakfast at campsite
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Ignoring food-safety rules

Whether you’re staying in a tent, RV, or cabin, don’t leave trash or food scraps outside at night, since it can attract animals, says Hartung. You should also avoid packaged foods that tend to melt (i.e., granola bars covered in chocolate), and bring a cooler to keep your food both refrigerated and out of sight (and scent) from animals. Camp stores usually sell ice, he says; in fact, it’s the number-one-sold item besides firewood. Overall, follow this rule: Don’t leave a trace; take out what you bring in.

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Close up of person stirring soup cooking over campfire
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Going too gourmet

Keep meals and meal preparation simple, says Walker. When it comes to cooking outdoors, nothing beats the flavor of food cooked over a fire, but don’t try to be an instant open-fire gourmet or you might be disappointed with the outcome. Opt for food like potatoes or corn that can be wrapped in foil and cooked in the coals. If you don’t eat them all, they can be used for hash at breakfast.

Pro tip: Leave the bulky condiment jars at home, and clean out your condiment-packet drawer instead. If you’re out of prepackaged supplies, make your own at home and then put everything in plastic baggies.

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Camping and tent under the pine forest in sunset at Pang-ung, pine forest park , Mae Hong Son, North of Thailand
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Not knowing camping etiquette

Good manners have always been important on the campground, and that’s truer than ever in this era of social distancing, says Yates. For many campers, it’ll be the first overnight stay after months of lockdown, so tread carefully, following any on-site rules and respecting others’ space. It’s not just about social distancing, though. What might seem perfectly acceptable and reasonable to you (midnight campfire songs, the dog “just being lively” with his adorable exuberant barking, your little darlings running about first thing in the morning) may have the person next to you muttering in righteous fury, he adds, so be respectful to your neighbors. Don’t miss these 12 unspoken etiquette rules of RV camping.

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First aid kit in a backpack tourists.
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Not having a medical kit

If you’re in the woods, you need to be somewhat self-sufficient, and that includes bringing a first aid kit. No need to buy one, though, says Walker—you can create your own fully stocked medical kit for a weekend away. Fill a Ziploc bag with Band-Aids, tweezers, a needle for splinters (add a spool of thread for emergency sewing), some cortisone cream, alcohol wipes, antihistamine, ibuprofen, and a travel-sized bottle of aloe vera to help soothe bites, scrapes, and minor burns.

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Water drops on the tent
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Being unprepared for inclement weather

Bad weather doesn’t have to ruin your chance to explore, experience nature, and have fun, says Walker. Bring extra clothes in case of extreme weather, as well as rainy-day supplies, like food that doesn’t need to be cooked over a fire and plastic bags to store items and keep them dry. And don’t forget extra dry socks, which will make you feel warm and secure even on the rainiest night.

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A direction sign for showers at a campground
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Hogging the showers

If you’re staying at a campground with shared facilities, remember to be polite with timing, says Yates. No one wants a cold shower, so limit the amount of time you’re standing under the hot water, and clean up after yourself. Of course, in this age of COVID, you should also remember to bring sanitizing wipes to make sure things are germ-free for yourself as well. If you prefer to camp in a house on wheels, check out the best RV parks in every state.

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Not being flexible

Experts say the biggest mistake you can make when camping is not being flexible. Weather, traffic, and other issues can seemingly torpedo a camping trip, but they really don’t have to wreck your chance to immerse yourself in the great outdoors. Trying new things and embracing all sorts of new experiences are among the highlights of spending time camping outdoors! Want to get in the mood for your next adventure? Tour these national parks virtually from the comfort of your couch.

Melissa Klurman
Melissa Klurman is an intrepid explorer and award-winning travel journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She covers topics ranging from family travel and Disney to honeymoons and romantic beaches and everything in between.