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Tried and tested camping tips for first timers

Who doesn’t want to spend time in the great outdoors, sleeping under the stars, drinking campfire coffee, letting the sounds of nature lull you to sleep?

Lots of people.

But many of those people avoid a camping vacation because they think it takes too much work and too much gear and creates too many headaches.

All travel involves some work, but camping has its own rewards. And if you can rent or borrow gear, you’ll keep costs down too.

But is it for the inexperienced?

To see, we asked veteran camper Mary Forgione to share her best tips and advice with newbie camper Denise Florez. Because a practiced camper can forget what a new camper doesn’t know, we asked Florez to grade Forgione’s advice.

Here, the advice from Forgione and the outcome for Florez, who camped at Refugio State Beach with her 7-year-old daughter and husband.

The thing about advice is that not everything works for everybody. The key: Choose what works for you and discard the rest.


Tip: Reserve a campground well ahead of time.

Feedback: By far this was the hardest and most crucial part of the trip. It is a real test of skills to book a campsite, much harder than booking a hotel. Some campgrounds accept reservations up to a year in advance; take advantage of that if you can.

Tip: Try out your gear before you go. Put up your tent and make sure everyone fits inside (even those 6-footers).

Feedback: This would have been helpful if I had received this advice sooner than the day before we were leaving .

Tip: Some gear seems unnecessary; take it anyway. Your tent’s rain fly will be your best friend in a storm.

Feedback: Mary sent me a REI list, which included a tablecloth. I didn’t think I would need one, but then I saw the picnic table and understood why it wasn’t just a fancy idea. The tent I borrowed had a rain fly, which I didn’t need. The weather was perfect anyway.

MORE: Did my family survive first-time camping? »

Tip: Make sure you have enough fuel for your camp stove and lanterns.

Feedback: We camped just one night so we had enough.

Tip: Plan your meals and pack enough food and snacks. And don’t forget the s’mores fixings.

Feedback: Planning the menu made it easier to know what to pack.

Tip: Always follow campground rules.

Feedback: Pets were allowed at Refugio. No big deal; we don’t have pets.

Tip: Bring clothing you can layer. By day, quick-drying shorts or pants and tops may be fine; by night, you’ll need a fleece or jacket, especially if you are at high elevation.

Feedback: I didn’t have quick-drying clothing but we did pack jackets as well as shirts with long and short sleeves.

Tip: Be prepared for bumps and bruises. Always bring a first-aid kit, and make sure you know what’s inside.

Feedback: I bought a first-aid kit and brought some ibuprofen.

Tip: Let there be light. Flashlights, extra batteries and even a headlamp are necessities of the night.

Feedback: We took a flashlight and a lantern, which was sufficient.

Tip: Want to be warm at night? It’s in the bag. Sleeping bags come in different styles and temperature ratings.

Feedback: I bought one before I had Mary’s five-page guide. I was lucky; it turned out to be just right.

MORE: 8 great campgrounds in California »

Tip: Create a portable kitchen. Pack plastic dishes — no glass, please — and special items such as slotted spoons, spatulas, an egg poacher, whatever.

Feedback: Don’t forget the tea cups if you’re going to the trouble of packing the tea and the pot.

Tip: Bring on the creature comforts such as a comfy beach chair. You may be roughing it, but you don’t want to start out too rough.

Feedback: I bought a small nylon ground cloth to use on the sand. It folds up into its attached pouch so it was easy to pack.

Tip: Critter-proof your food. Pack it in plastic or metal bins with lids that latch firmly.

Feedback: We bought a cooler, which we left inside the car.

Tip: Take ice, ice and and more ice, especially if your camping menu includes steak, chicken, eggs and/or milk.

Feedback: Place your food in Ziploc bags so items don’t get wet when ice melts.

Tip: Make it homey: maybe outline your tent in a string of LED lights.

Feedback: We were there one night. I would consider this if I was camping for a week or more.

MORE: How to reserve a campsite »

Tip: Pack fire wood if you want a campfire (and if they’re allowed at your campsite).

Feedback: Make sure you know the rules. Some campgrounds allow you to bring firewood, and some allow you to use dead branches you gather.

Tip: Pick up maps and guidebooks before you go.

Feedback: This was unclear. Where do I find them?

Tip: Be mindful of your campsite choice. A walk-in site can be 10 feet or 10 miles. If you have a lot of gear, a long trek can make you miserable.

Feedback: I didn’t know there were walk-in sites and drive-in sites, which I learned is called car camping. We went car camping.

Tip: Bring bug spray and sunscreen

Feedback: I made sure not to forget either one of these.

Tip: Take garbage bags — and use them.

Feedback: We had a paper bag we kept refilling and dumping into the trash bin, which was about 50 feet from our site.

Tip: Take (preferably non-electronic) toys for kids and adults.

Feedback: Good advice, but I forgot the toys. Luckily, the campground store had sand toys at a good price, so my daughter enjoyed her beach time.

Tip: Bring a generous quantity of wipes and aluminum foil.

Feedback: This was an easy one — everyone has these at home.

Tip: Leave your campsite as clean as you found it.

Feedback: We did a walk-through to make sure we left nothing behind.

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