You don’t have to be a certain “type” to like camping—writer and outdoor adventurer Tasheea Nicholson shares her tips for getting started.
Thirteen years ago, I arrived in the Pocono mountains with two of my best friends for a new adventure. When we set off to go camping, we had no concept of what “good” looked like—all we knew is that we were committed to surviving a weekend in the woods (in a tent, no less).
From over-shopping and overpacking to arriving in the dark with no prior knowledge of pitching a tent, our first camping experience was an ongoing series of rookie mistakes that created a cautionary tale of what not to do. To further complicate things, our campsite had a layer of what could only be described as bedrock just below the surface of the dirt, it rained for the entire first day, the air mattresses wouldn’t stay inflated, and in the midst of all of our shopping, we’d forgotten some critical items.
“Camping is not a lesson in perfection but rather an invitation to receive the gifts of the forest and be flexible in the presence of the unknown.”
By all calculations, it should have been a one-and-done experience never to be revisited, but not only did we withstand every obstacle tossed our way, we loved every moment of it. Rather than a nuisance, every natural element provided us with a gift. The rain invited us to revisit our childhood and play and explore. The fire offered up warmth and light in the darkness of night. And inhaling the fresh mountain air was like breathing in peace. Camping is not a lesson in perfection but rather an invitation to receive the gifts of the forest and be flexible in the presence of the unknown. Realizing that made our “mistakes” laughable, and every year since we’ve dedicated at least one trip to camping off-grid.
With each outing, we’ve become more advanced in our camping knowledge, and in 2019 I shared those lessons in a book called Camping Noire: The Black Girls Guide to Surviving a Weekend Unplugged. What follows is just a small excerpt of the many gems and hacks for tent camping that we’ve learned over the years.
For your first camping experience, it’s a good idea to consider a location that’s no more than four hours away from home and is an organized campground or state park. They are usually cheaper and increase your chances of having people nearby that can help in difficult situations. Sites like TheDyrt.com and Tentrr.com list the details of thousands of campsites nationwide and are excellent places to start your research.
2. Tell someone where you’re headed
While camping is an effective way of communing with nature, there is a level of caution that should be taken. Oftentimes, you’ll find yourself camping in areas where cellular service is scarce, and just in case anything happens you’ll want to know that there are people who know where you are. So let someone know when you’re leaving, where you will be camping, and when you intend to return home.
3. Check the weather
The only way to have a fighting chance at being prepared to handle the unpredictability that is Mother Nature is to check the weather leading up to your trip and again as you are leaving. Weather apps like Accuweather are useful to have on your phone as they will signal any emergency weather changes in your area, even if you have spotty connectivity.
4. Choose a good tent and pitch it properly
The tent is arguably the most important purchase you will make for your camping trip. After all, it will be your home away from home, so invest in one that is sturdy, waterproof, and weatherproof. Also, consider how many people it will need to sleep and whether you’ll be in sleeping bags, on cots, or air mattresses when determining the final size of the tent you’ll need (these are good options for a small tent and a large tent). Coleman.com is an excellent one-stop-shopping experience for all of your camping equipment and provides dozens of tent options based on your individual or group needs.
5. Sleep like a baby
For tent campers, sleeping accommodations fall into the categories of sleeping bags, airbeds, or cots. Each has its pros and cons, so the one you choose is a matter of preference. Sleeping bags are the most portable and should be selected based on the season in which you are camping, but they are not a significant source of cushion between you and the ground. Airbeds for camping are often quick and easy to set-up, breakdown, and store but may need to be frequently re-inflated, while camping cots are a bit bulkier to transport and store, but keep you safely off of the ground and allow you to have a comfortable sleeping arrangement set-up in less than five minutes.
6. Arrive at camp early and inspect the area
For your first few camping trips, you’ll want to arrive with plenty of daylight present. Not only will it give you more time to prepare your camp, but you’ll also be able to give the area a thorough inspection. Make sure that you check the land and surroundings for possible causes of danger, like down tree limbs or insect nests, as well as rivers and other bodies of water.
7. Be careful with fire
Fire is the number one cause of camping accidents, so always be careful when cooking or building bonfires. Ensure it’s a safe distance from the tents and under no circumstances should you consider cooking inside the tent. Never ever leave a fire unattended. Additionally, consider using torches or lanterns (as opposed to candles) as luminaries keep lighters and matches away from children.
8. Maintain proper food protocol
Under no circumstances should you leave food items outside because it can draw animals—yes, even bears—to your campsite. If you’re unable to place open food and garbage in your car at night, create “bear bags” by tying a rope around the bags and tossing them over a branch, raising them until they’re at least seven or eight feet off the ground, and finally tying the rope around the tree so it’s secure.
9. The “bathroom” situation
You may not always have a bathroom located on the campgrounds, so remember to pack toilet paper in a sealable bag. Once nature calls, find a secluded spot that is far from any water source (to ensure you aren’t contaminating or polluting natural resources) and doesn’t have poison ivy or animal holes nearby. Then, dig a small hole, do your business, and cover it up. As tempting as it may be, do not dispose of toilet paper in the woods. Yes, most are labeled biodegradable, but that process doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s best to pack a second sealable bag in which you can place soiled tissue until you reach a proper garbage receptacle in which you can dispose of them. And don’t forget to hand sanitize when it’s all said and done!
10. Leave no trace
The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace outline how we can be good stewards of nature. I encourage all outdoor enthusiasts to read and live the advice to help ensure we are collectively protecting the natural beauty, fresh air, and solace of our natural habitats.
Regardless of how much preparation you do for your camping trip, something will happen that you didn’t expect. Therefore, the one thing you never want to leave home is a positive attitude. Go with the flow, immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of nature, and enjoy your time making new memories in the woods.
To read more about our crazy camping stories—complete with even more camping tips and tricks—download Camping Noire: the Black Girls Guide To Surviving a Weekend Unplugged on Amazon.