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6 Tips for First-Time Campers Straight From a Pro

I am the Branded Content and Pets editor for SheKnows.com. Before joining the SheKnows team, I was a video editor and producer, working on everything from international documentaries to television series and commercials. Being a total ne...

Don't let camping intimidate you — it's not nearly as scary as it seems

Growing up, I had dreams of becoming an editor and moving to the big city. I was all about the city life. My dream was to one day own an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and spend my free time strolling through Central Park and browsing vintage shops in SoHo. Well, the editor part of my dream came true.

Something strange started to happen when I went to college. I no longer wanted to travel to NYC every chance I got. No offense to New York. It’s fantastic, but I started to realize it just wasn’t for me. I no longer yearned to get dressed up to hit up the newest clubs and restaurants. Instead, I had this intense, almost primal need to get out in nature. It was a weird need. After all, I was the kid who would kick and scream every time my parents took my brothers and I camping when I was a kid, but the desire was intense, so I decided to explore it. I started hiking — just short hikes at first, 2 miles, 4 miles. Then a little bit longer — 6 miles, 8 miles. I was hooked. Being outdoors started becoming therapeutic, and I couldn’t get enough.

More: Top Wilderness Survival Tips From an Indoor Kid

Astronomy is also a huge hobby of mine, and I wanted to get into astrophotography. In order to do that, I would need to camp, which was pretty scary to me at the time. The first time I camped, I was pretty terrified. I had a group of friends with me, but they all went to bed while I stayed up to get some shots of the Milky Way. Every little noise startled me, but as the night went on, I got more comfortable and quickly realized that I was just beginning a lifelong love affair with the outdoors.

Soon, I found myself solo backpacking through west and central Africa for weeks at a time. Now I live in Arizona, and I am backpacking through mountains and canyons every single weekend. So trust me when I say that even people completely new to camping and backpacking can get into it pretty easily.

To save you a whole lot of hassle, I have rounded up some of the things that I wish I had known before I set out on my first outdoor adventure.

1. Yes, you overpacked

You do not need three different outfit options. In fact, you do not need your iPad, makeup, hair brush, fancy PJs, half the pots and pans from your kitchen and three bins of toys for your kids. I guarantee you won't use half of that stuff when you get to your campsite, and it will just become a giant pain to lug it all around. Pack the essentials and maybe one or two comfort items if you need to. You're camping to get away from all the clutter, technology and convenience that we have in our everyday lives, so embrace the simplicity.

More: Best Spots to Pitch a Tent in the Midwest and Great Lakes Region

2. You don't need a ton of fancy products

Brands will try to sell you ridiculous products. You know those water-resistant matches that cost $3.99? Well, in case you didn't know, the lighter you already own is also water-resistant and perfectly capable of lighting a fire. And speaking of lighting a fire, skip the expensive fire-starters and go for the free option: dryer lint stuffed inside an empty toilet paper tube. It's much lighter (and therefore easier to carry around in your backpack), costs nothing to make and honestly, it works better than any store-bought fire-starter I have ever used. Outdoor stores will try to sell you fancy footprints to put underneath your tent. Pro tip: Buy some Tyvek, cut it to the size of your tent and lay it underneath. It's much less heavy, a fraction of the cost and protects your tent the exact same way a pricey footprint would.

3. You do need some fancy products

The quality of your gear is important. When I first started backpacking, I thought I could save a few bucks by buying a cheap pair of sneakers and a cheap backpack. At the end of a 20-mile trek, I had lost four toenails and had to see a chiropractor because my backpack had taken a serious toll on my shoulders and hips. So no, you don't need fancy stuff like water-resistant matches, but make sure these five items are high quality and fit you properly:

  • Backpack
  • Sneakers/boots
  • Sleeping pad
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag

Trust me. Losing toenails isn't fun. Invest in quality gear.

4. Start small

You don't want to get miles into the woods, set up your tent and realize you're totally not prepared to spend a night outside. So start in your backyard. Pack up everything you would for a real camping trip and take it out in your backyard. If you need to run to your house for something you forgot, make a note to bring that item with you when you camp. If you bring items with you that you didn't end up using, leave them at home next time. Plus, this is a great way to get used to sleeping outside while still being close to your comfort zone.

More: This Family Camping Guide Will Make You Wish You Could Sleep Under the Stars Every Night

5. Choose your campsite wisely

First, you need to consider what kind of camping trip you are looking for. Are you looking to drive up to a spot, unload your gear and set up? Do you need a campsite with bathrooms or are you down for digging cat holes? All campsites are not created equal, and you need to do your research beforehand to make sure you're choosing the best spot for you and your family or group of friends. Here are a few things to consider when choosing your campsite:

  • Make sure there is enough flat surface for your tent(s).
  • Check the weather before you leave and make sure you have the appropriate gear for the weather conditions.
  • Try to choose a spot with shade and soft ground. Take it from someone who frequently camps in rocky mountains — sleeping on rocks sucks.
  • Being close to a water source can come in really handy

6. Etiquette matters

Sure, you're out in the wilderness, but that's not an excuse to let go of all common decency and respect. One of the most infuriating things I run into is campers who disrespect the outdoors. There's a little saying that all campers, backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts live by: leave no trace. Simply put, this means that when you leave your campsite, it should look exactly as it did before you got there. If you packed it in, pack it out. Leaving garbage, food or any kind of waste is completely unacceptable. We are so lucky to be able to explore this beautiful planet, and it's absolutely necessary to treat it (and other campers) with complete respect.

This post is sponsored by Land Rover.

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