11 mistakes travelers make on their first camping trip

Jun 21, 2020

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I’ve been backpacking in Chilean Patagonia, mountaineering in Switzerland, car camping in Maine and overnight camping all along the Northeast. Yet every time I lace up my hiking boots and set out for a night under the stars, I discover a new way to make the experience easier or more comfortable. And even the most experienced campers are bound to make mistakes.

Just last week on a camping trip in Harriman State Park, for example, I made a handful of rookie errors, including not packing enough layers and, worst of all, forgetting the coffee at home.

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Travelers are expected to hit the trails and fill campsites in droves this year. By late May, nearly a third of Americans said they’d consider taking a vacation this summer, according to a TPG special report, though the vast majority are planning on road trips, bound for state and national parks (44%) or the nearest stretch of beach (39%). Various surveys have cited the camping boom, and travelers are no doubt flocking to drive-in campgrounds, renting RVs, making campsite reservations and scoping out backcountry spots at this very moment. June is, after all, National Camping Month.

Whether you’re planning your first overnight at a nearby state park or mapping out a multiweek journey on one of the nation’s famous thru-hikes, learn from these common mistakes so your summer camping trips are as relaxing and enjoyable as possible.

Related: National parks begin to reopen: Here’s everything you need to know to plan a trip

Using all new gear

If this is your first-ever camping trip, you may be gleefully ordering hiking boots, a camp stove and a tent online. And that’s all fine, as long as you don’t plan on wearing those boots for the first time on a multiday hike, or waiting until sundown to try assembling the tent and firing up the camp stove. There’s no better way to derail a camping trip than with miserable blisters, a collapsed tent and an empty stomach. Even experienced campers and hikers should always do a dry run with new gear to get familiar with the way things work (try pitching the tent in your backyard or living room) and break in those stiff boots.

“As a teenager, I did a lot of camping with my high school, and I learned really quickly about the dangers of not breaking in your hiking boots before a long camping trip,” food and travel writer Georgia Freedman told TPG. “It’s a small thing, but it’s something that many first-time campers aren’t aware of. I’m going to take my husband and kid camping for the first time this year as a way of safely getting out of the house for a few days, and if we buy new hiking boots, I’m going to make sure that we take a few shorter hikes in them first.”

Freedman also says she’s going to pack plenty of moleskin — a durable fabric that can be used to prevent blisters and also cushion existing blisters. The adhesive tends to stay in place better than bandages, and moleskin also provides more cushioning. It’s always a good idea to keep a few moleskin dressings in your first-aid kit.

Related: Maximizing points and miles on summer road trips

Setting up camp in the dark

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman / The Points Guy.)
We pitched these tents in the dark, but got very lucky. Lesson: Don’t take your chances and always set up camp before nightfall. (Photo by Melanie Lieberman / The Points Guy.)

Unless you’re sleeping in your car, it’s incredibly important to set up camp while you still have daylight. Yes, setting up a tent in the dark can be frustrating, but more importantly, you want to make sure you’re not pitching a tent beneath a dead or damaged tree with limbs that could fall on you during a storm. You also don’t want to pitch a tent on a pile of animal droppings. Do this once, and I promise you won’t do it again.

Depending on how familiar you are with the terrain and where you are, setting up camp in the dark can also mean you end up in a low area (a good way to wake up in a puddle). In general, you want to look for a shady spot beneath a healthy tree on a bare patch of flat land. Having a water source nearby can also be very helpful.

During a backpacking trip in Chile‘s Cerro Castillo National Reserve, my boyfriend and I got a late start and ended up pitching a tent as the sun was setting. We woke to the sound of heavy breathing right outside our tent. When we unzipped the door, we were staring directly at a very large bull — and beyond him, a ring of displeased cattle. It turns out we hadn’t pitched the tent at a campsite — we’d made camp on farmland.

And Jac Taylor, founder and managing director of travel and lifestyle agency Crucible Content, points out that you can pitch a tent on any number of unfavorable spots surrounded by unwelcoming companions if you’re not being careful. “I learned my lesson waking up in the morning to see teeming little shadows running all over my tent,” Taylor said. “I’d pitched camp right on a giant green-ant nest. The Aussie outback is not a very forgiving place!”

Related: Visiting the Grand Canyon with a family: Where to camp, stay and play

Underpacking

Depending on where your outdoorsy travels take you, it’s possible you’ll be around the corner from a visitor center with firewood or bug spray. But for travelers heading into the wilderness, you need to make sure you have the right supplies — and enough of them. Your packing list will vary wildly depending on the type of camping and where in the world you are, but in general, be mindful to pack enough water; a camp stove with fuel (more on this in a bit); a compass and first-aid kit; and plenty of layers.

Because even on a hot summer day, you shouldn’t underestimate how cool it can get at night.

“No matter how warm a daytime climate may be, never ever make the mistake of assuming you can brave the chillier [temperatures] at night on a camping trip unprepared,” warns TPG contributor and travel writer Tracy Block. “When camping in a foresty park in north Florida in the late fall about 10 years ago, I was alone in my tent shivering and awake all night because I was not properly equipped for the 20-degree cold. The next day, my friend told me about hand and foot warmers, which — as a Florida girl who never went skiing — was an entirely new concept to me. Since then, I’ve stocked up on hand and foot warmers and always have them handy to crack open and throw into my sleeping bag at night … Nowadays, I even stash unopened warmers in the pockets of my tent before I break it down, so ‘future Tracy’ is never left unarmed — while out in the cold — again.”

One of my personal favorite items (the one I’d recently forgotten on my trip to Harriman State Park) is my windproof, ultralight down jacket. It’s great for cutting the breeze at the summit, staying warm at night at camp after the sun goes down and, best of all, it has a packable design. You simply fold it into a pocket, zip it up and suddenly you have a soft pillow to slide into your sleeping bag.

Related: 8 survival tips for wilderness hikes

Overpacking

As you may have guessed, packing for a camping trip is a fine balance. You don’t want to be left without essential gear, but you also don’t want to be burdened under the weight of an overstuffed pack. Depending on the type of camping trip, you may have more or less flexibility with how much you pack. It’s easy to toss an extra bag of nuts into the back of a car before a weekend away at a campsite. And unless you’re planning an expedition to a remote mountain summit, you probably don’t have to worry about cutting the handle off your toothbrush. But if you want to really enjoy the getting there of any backpacking trip, be incredibly mindful of the weight you’ll be carrying on your back.

Sleeping with your food

Hiking in the high peaks of the Adirondacks is incredibly rewarding, but if you don't bring your own bear canister, you'll need to rent one. (Photo by Melanie Lieberman / The Points Guy.)
At certain times of the year, you’re required to have a bear-proof canister when camping in the high peaks of the Adirondacks. Lesson: If you don’t bring your own bear canister, you’ll need to pay to rent one. (Photo by Melanie Lieberman / The Points Guy.)

Depending on where your travels take you, you might discover there are strict rules and requirements about traveling with food. In the high peaks of the Adirondacks, for example, overnight campers are actually required to use bear-resistant canisters by the Department of Environmental Conservation from April 1 to Nov. 30. Black bears are notorious for stealing food that isn’t properly secured — even destroying vehicles isn’t out of the question for particularly determined bears.

Writer Michelle Tolson said she forgot to stash her food appropriately during her first solo camping trip, and returned to find her “car door window frame ripped, window glass busted and trunk trashed.” She said she was “unharmed, if humbled.”

But even less intimidating wildlife can ruin a camping trip if you don’t store your food properly.

Chipmunks, mice and squirrels have been known to tear through dry bags and tents. So, when you’re ready to turn in, take your food bag — along with any fragrant toiletries or dirty dishes — and tie it up on a high, sturdy tree branch. You want the food bag dangling high enough from the ground that a bear can’t reach (about 15 feet) but low enough from the branch itself so smaller critters can’t get access either.

Dressing for the wrong occasion

“I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is not wearing the appropriate clothing,” said TPG contributor and former wilderness therapy guide, Josh Laskin. It’s an important reminder that even if you pack layers and the Goldilocks-number of socks, the wrong type of garments can be downright disastrous

“Cotton can not only ruin your trip,” Laskin said, “but can potentially prove to be dangerous. Cotton absorbs moisture efficiently — from rain, a slip in a stream, sweat or however else [you] might get wet — and holds it. If you spend the day hiking and sweating in jeans and a cotton T-shirt, they’ll be wet for the rest of the trip, including when the temperatures drop at night. It poses a huge risk for hypothermia. Make sure to get wool, synthetic materials or any other moisture-wicking clothing designed for active adventures.”

Being unprepared for the unexpected

Everyone hopes for the best-case scenario, but if you plan on venturing into the wilderness, you should almost never expect things to go according to plan. Even if the 10-day forecast promises clear skies and sun, pack a rain jacket. If the trail guide says there’s a river crossing, bring extra socks (just trust me on this one, OK?) and even if you only plan on going out for a day hike from camp, bring a headlamp with extra batteries. Campers should also always bring a dropper with bleach or iodine, a filtration system or a Steripen in the event you need more clean drinking water.

Expecting to stay dry

Just before this picture was taken, I fell squarely into a glacial stream. Lesson: Always pack extra socks! (Chilean Patagonia, photo by Melanie Lieberman / The Points Guy.)

On that note: Unless you’re camping in the desert and you know the weather will stay clear, you want to at least keep your rainfly easily accessible. Always bring extra socks (there’s a theme here) and a small, packable towel. Maybe you’ll discover a secret swimming hole, or get caught in a freak summer thunderstorm. Getting wet may not hurt you, though it can make the rest of your trip pretty uncomfortable if you’re not adequately prepared. In extreme situations, it’s also the leading cause of hypothermia, as Laskin mentioned earlier.

And when you think of getting wet, don’t just picture a rainstorm. “Clothing gets wet from sweat, and then the temperatures drop significantly at night — especially if you’re camping at a higher elevation than where you started,” said Laskin. “It could be 80 degrees when you leave the car, you sweat all day, and then by the time you set up camp 3,000 feet higher (not to mention at night) it could be 40 degrees.”

“Temperatures drop approximately 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit per 1,000 feet when it’s clear out,” Laskin said. And that’s to say nothing of unexpected bad weather. Of course, travelers embarking on a canoe- or kayak-camping trip have more pressing considerations in mind. Years ago, storyteller Eria Corsano was on a camping and canoeing trip along the Saco River, which runs from the White Mountains of New Hampshire through southern Maine.

After canoeing for a couple of hours, Corsano recalls setting up camp on land. “We had a bonfire and roasted hot dogs on sticks … and felt very proud of ourselves for pitching the tent properly.” But, “In the middle of the night, we felt water enter our tent. We took the tent — we didn’t break it down, there wasn’t time — and put it on our canoe and started paddling for dear life upstream with one hand on the tent and the other paddling.”

Even if you’re not canoeing, being close to a river can be great fun on camping trips. Just be sure to be mindful of rising water levels. And as a general leave-no-trace principle, campers should set up tents at least 200 feet from lakes, rivers and streams and other bodies of water.

Making assumptions about the facilities

I’ve been to campgrounds with sparkling clean showers, restrooms and excellent Wi-Fi, and campgrounds with basic restrooms but next to no cellphone service. I’ve hiked to primitive campgrounds with fire rings; lean-tos with bed platforms; and pitched my tent in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing. Before camping this summer, whether you’re piling the family into a car and heading to a drive-in campsite, renting an RV at a popular campground or filling your pack and hitting the trail, be sure to research your destination far in advance.

You may also need to make a reservation (and some of the most in-demand destinations are filling up fast) or get a permit. Certain campsites and shelters may be first come, first served. And either way, you’re going to know precisely what’s available when you arrive. Keep in mind that restrooms and shower facilities may be closed for the season, meaning it’s more important to be prepared this summer than ever before. And if you’re counting on a bathroom only to discover that it’s a primitive campground, you’re going to want to pack your own toilet paper.

Related: Start planning your camping trip to Yellowstone National Park

Underestimating the flora and fauna

Here in the Northeast, you may know to look for ticks and avoid poison ivy. But campers everywhere, regardless of whether you’re driving or hiking in, should be familiar with the local flora and fauna. Know what to look for (you’re here to appreciate the wildlife and natural landscapes after all, right?) and what to avoid — plus, what to do if you find yourself with an unwanted animal encounter.

The first time TPG contributor Lola Méndez pitched a tent as an adult was in the Tasek Merimbun swamp forest in Brunei “on the banks of a crocodile-infested river.”

“We set up our tent on a slightly raised wooden gazebo across the water from the ‘crocodile isle’ and went out at night to shine a flashlight, which reflected on five crocodile’s eyes. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep!” And while camping at a nature lodge in Temburong National Park, Méndez was trained to prepare for a python encounter, should she find herself with “a python coiling around [her] body.”

Chances are you, won’t have any python or crocodile encounters on your camping trip this summer. But be mindful of how to behave around any animals you do stumble upon, including deer, moose and coyote. The best rule of thumb? Keep your distance.

Playing with fire

Photo by Melanie Lieberman / The Points Guy.
Just because there’s dry firewood doesn’t mean the weather will allow for a fire. Lesson: Always pack a camp stove. (Photo by Melanie Lieberman / The Points Guy.)

OK, so most camping trips involve playing with at least a little bit of fire. That’s part of the fun, right? Warming up around a campfire for s’mores and scary stories, or making coffee when you wake up the next morning.

But fires — where you can make one, when you can make one — come with a lot of responsibility, even if you’re just lighting up a Duraflame at a drive-in campsite. You don’t want to make a campfire if it’s too windy, if there are burn bans or, depending on where you are, above certain elevations. And if it’s raining or has recently rained, you may not be able to make a campfire at all. So always be prepared with a camp stove and fuel, unless you’re dining exclusively on protein bars.

And as you probably expected, fires can be dangerous. Vancouver-based travel writer Claudia Laroye discovered that her first-aid kit didn’t come with burn ointment after her 4-year-old was burned by a sparking ember at a remote campsite along Kootenay Lake in British Columbia. For travelers camping with little ones in tow this summer, Laroye says “teaching fire safety and respect is paramount,” including “sitting far away, not walking around the fire [and] making sure [the] area is free of tripping hazards.”

Even if the conditions are right for a campfire, you’ll want to be prepared with either a lighter or waterproof matches. Using old candle wax and dryer lint is an easy way to make fire starters at home, and Laroye recommends a fire steel. “[It’s] zero waste and light to carry if backpacking.” Another pro tip? “Use a torn-up tampon (compact, compostable, flammable) or two to get smaller twigs and sticks alight before adding the bigger pieces of (hopefully dry) wood.”

Feature photo by Melanie Lieberman / The Points Guy. 

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