This year, you might want to get out of your usual weekend routine and escape to the outdoors; and for many, it will be the first time. Maybe you want to get in touch with nature, or see how rugged you really think you are. It could be an outing with friends, and you want to get in some campfire time with the one you say is just a friend but you really want to ask out. We’ve all been there. And since it’s your first camping trip, maybe you can surprise yourself and them with what were latent outdoor skills. In any of these cases, you’ll want to do your homework. It’s better to be over-prepared than in a constant state of panic.

Let’s start with the basics: You’ll need somewhere to sleep. And since the woods don’t come with a Tempurpedic mattress and turn-down service, it’s up to you to build a cozy nest. The three basic items you’ll need are a tent, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad—and you’ll want the sleeping pad. For any of these items, the weather and time of year will be the determining factors for picking them out.


Your tent may be borrowed or rented. If it’s your first trip and you don’t know if it’ll become a regular thing, you might as well save a whole lot of money and seek a temporary situation. If you do want to spring for a tent, it’s better to spend the money for a good one. You buy cheap, and you should expect what you pay for—which might not even last the weekend. When picking one out, opt for a roomier tent with double doors. When sharing, a three-person tent is a lot more comfortable for two people, and the double-doors give you an easy escape for the bathroom without having to crawl over the other person. As for the footprint, make sure it’s the right size for under your tent. If it’s too small, then it won’t cover the whole underside; and if it’s too big, it can collect rainwater and channel it right under where you’re sleeping.

This time of year, you’ll be comfortable in a three-season tent, since chances are there hasn’t been any snow or extreme temperatures quite yet. They’re designed to hold in heat better, but still have the vents to allow your tent to breathe. The full fly will help protect you from wind and messy weather.

Sleeping Bags

Sleeping bags come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and R-values (insulation value, or the warmth of the sleeping bag). A three-season bag is great if you intend to camp around the fringes of the warmer months, when the temperature is significantly lower at night. The four-cornered bags will give you more room to move around, and adequate space for your pillow. If you need more insulation, drape your coat or a blanket over the top of the bag. Wearing more while you’re in it will actually negatively affect the sleeping bag’s ability to trap and retain heat. A mummy bag is designed for hiking, is a snugger fit than the four-corner bags, and tends to have a higher R-value. Plus, it looks cool. But for beginning campers, a four-corner bag gives you more space and should be fine for the less frosty months.

Sleeping Pads

A sleeping pad sounds like an extra item if you want to add a touch of luxury to your camping trip, but it’s actually an important piece. Not only does it give you a cushier place to rest, but it also helps to maintain warmth. There are three types of sleeping pads: air pads, self-inflating pads, and closed-cell foam pads. If your genius idea is to bring an air mattress like the one you use for guests at home, you’re in for a rough night. They might be a big marshmallow of air, but they usually don’t have insulation and lose heat like crazy.

Air pads sometimes come with a pump, or you can buy a compact air pump at the same place you got the pad. You’ll want to read the box and make sure it’s got adequate insulation, depending on the time of year you’re camping. Self-inflating pads are a combination of closed-cell foam and air. They’re usually made with stronger fabrics than air pads, so you won’t worry as much about punctures. Closed-cell foam pads give you no worries of poking a hole and deflating, since they’re just foam. Granted they’re bulky and not as comfortable as the other two, but they’re more durable and less expensive.

Last-Minute Suggestions

So, there’s your basics on shelter and sleeping. A few pointers to keep in mind… Try setting up the tent at home before going camping, so you can make sure everything’s there and you know what you’re doing. Set up your campsite early in the day, so you can settle in and enjoy your evening. And finally, check the weather before you go. There’s no shame in postponing the camping trip due to awful weather. You want your first time to be as painless as possible, and sitting in a tent for the day during a storm can be Chinese water torture.

You don’t have to be an expert outdoorsman to have a successful camping trip. Just be prepared, for a lot of things. You’re going to get tired, dirty, and hot or cold, depending on the weather. If you want an easy time, you can check into a hotel downtown and enjoy the minibar and adjacent restaurant. If you’re going camping, be prepared to work for it. It could be well-worth the effort.