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Camping 101

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW TO GET STARTED

Article by Kaylene Mathews

Photography by Image by chulmin park from Pixabay

With the economy slowly starting to open back up, we are flush with the anticipation of getting out of the house and experiencing a change of scenery. Looking forward to something gives us a feeling of hope that our current situation isn't going to last forever.

Now is a great time to start thinking about your next trip. If you still have lingering health concerns, a camping trip might be just what you need.

The Case for Vacationing

Traveling for fun gives you the opportunity to rest and recharge while simultaneously reducing stress. It gives our bodies a chance to rid themselves of the built-up cortisol from our daily stressors that is slowly eating away at our lives.

Vacationing makes you healthier and reduces your risk of serious health conditions like heart disease. Removed from activities and environments that are the source of our stress, we have a chance to take a breath and gain perspective.

In the Expedia Vacation Deprivation Study 2018, study participants indicated the following when asked about their vacation experiences:

  • 80% of study participants agree that regular vacations strengthen their relationship with significant other.
  • 79% agree that vacations rekindle their relationship.
  • 90% agree that vacations help them to feel better connected to family and friends.

Traveling makes you more alert, mentally engaged and happier. Our brains love the anticipation of vacation almost as much as actually being on vacation. Studies show that people who plan and take vacations are more productive and happier than people who don't. The planning process gives you something to look forward to, which makes us naturally more hopeful. 

The Case for Camping

Camping is the one trip where you are guaranteed time in nature. Time spent outdoors saturated in natural lighting and scenery has a therapeutic effect on us. It gives us a chance to recharge our batteries and mend our fractured attention spans. Not only that, spending extended periods immersed in nature, disconnected from multi-media technology, increases performance up to 50% on creativity and problem-solving activities. Our mental, emotional and physical well-being is enhanced, and we will return to daily life better than when we left.

Being married to an Eagle Scout has definitely boosted my willingness to crawl inside a tent and brave the great outdoors overnight. With a lot of help from my husband, we have put together this quick guide to help the novice campers leave the suburbs with confidence and pitch their tent in the great outdoors.

Camping 101: The Basics

If you've never camped before, you can give it a very inexpensive test run with items you currently have in your home and a few purchases. This basic gear list is all you will need to car camp, which is mostly driving to a campsite, unloading your vehicle, and pitching your tent.

Basic Gear  

  • Tent and footprint
  • Sleeping bag(s)
  • Sleeping pad, air mattress or cot
  • A good cooler
  • Lighting
  • Camp chairs
  • Water
  • Food, cookware and serving items

Aside from the tent and sleeping items, you probably have everything you need. The items you don't have can be borrowed or purchased inexpensively.

Tents and Sleeping Gear

Basic Terminology

The terminology you need to understand for tent and sleeping gear is 1, 2, and 3 person tents as well as 2, 3, and 4 season ratings.

While the occupancy rating for tents sounds self-explanatory, it's not. For the most comfort and least danger of fighting for space, always add at least one person to your tent size needs—meaning that if you have two people, purchase a three-person tent. The reason is that you will want to keep some of your gear in the tent with you, and this additional space will allow you to do this comfortably.

The seasonal ratings given for tents range from 2-4 season.

  • 2 Season-rated tents and sleeping bags are for summer camping in favorable weather conditions when overnight temperature lows are above 50 degrees with no storms in the forecast. These will be the lowest cost options and fine for car camping.
  • 3 season-rated gear is capable of dealing with cooler temps and the unpredictable weather of the spring and fall seasons. Sleeping bags that are rated for 20- to 40-degree overnight temps, and tents that will hold up in the wind and rain. Season 3 gear is more expensive but more durable with improved features. Most of our equipment falls into this category.
  • 4 season-rated gear is for the expert camper who envisions hiking to camp on a windswept, snow-covered mountain at temperatures as low as 0 degrees. If this sounds like fun to you, then 4 season-rated gear is what you need. However, it's not recommended for the novice camper.

Tents

Tents come in a variety of styles, everything from instant pop-ups to advanced engineering degree required to assemble.

We prefer a dome tent design for a couple of reasons. It doesn't require guy lines, and the tension of the poles allows you to easily move the tent around.  

Dome tents are also typically higher in the middle, so depending on your height, you can stand upright in them. They are also easy to assemble and hold up well in the wind.  

A four-person dome tent will give you the room and flexibility needed to make your camping experience more comfortable and enjoyable. The cost to purchase an inexpensive four-person dome tent at Walmart or Amazon is around $35 to $60. 

If you choose the lower end tent, be aware that they are suitable for a one time use, maybe two if you're lucky. We consider those tents to be disposable.

Tent Footprints

Footprints are the ground tarps that match the outline of the bottom of your tent. Custom footprints align perfectly with your tent and its poles. They provide a moisture barrier between your tent and the ground, keeping the bottom of your tent clean and dry. All the better tents have footprints, but in most cases, they are sold separately. 

Footprints are invaluable for maintaining your tent and allowing you to quickly pack it up at the end of your trip. For less expensive tents that don't have custom footprints, you can buy a tarp to serve the same purpose. 

It's imperative that if you use a custom footprint or tarp, it must be entirely covered by your tent. If it extends beyond the edges of your tent, it will actually bring moisture the moisture into your tent floor.

Sleeping Gear

Ground temperatures are typically cooler than the ambient air temperature. So even when it's warm outside, you can still wake up shivering if you're sleeping without insulation between your sleeping bag and the floor of your tent. That is why you will want to purchase either an air pad or foam pad to sleep on.

Air pads and mattresses

Air pads/mattresses are suitable for one to two people depending on the size. You can purchase one that you must inflate or one that is self-inflatable. While self-inflatable pads seem easier, they are not 100% reliable to actually inflate when you need it.

Foam pads

Foam pads are the least expensive option but also the least durable. Foam pads typically are for a single bed, so each person will need their own pad.

Cots 

The most expensive option is a cot. Cots are durable and will last for several camping seasons. However, the downside of the cot is that they are big, cumbersome, and the legs can damage your tent. If you're willing to spend the money, other options are better suited for the same price.

Sleeping bags

Sleeping bags aren't a requirement for your first camping trip. When car camping, you can easily bring sheets and blankets from home and not invest in a sleeping bag just yet. Warm socks, sweats, and a comfy sweatshirt can bridge any gap if the air gets chilly. However, sleeping bags are comfortable, convenient, take up little space, and keep you warm. So they might be worth exploring if you think you will go camping more than once.

Choose a bag that is big enough to fit your frame size and sleeping style. Consider the width, length, and zipper placement (left, right, both sides). 

If you are a back sleeper, any bag will work. Side sleepers may have issues with bags that have a zipper on only one side or are not roomy enough to turn on your side. Some bags have a full zipper on one side and a partial zipper on the other side. Full zippers on both sides are not the best for warmth and comfort.  

Sleeping bags come with temperature ratings. In most cases, the temperature rating is a survival rating and not a comfort rating. You can get a $26 bag on Amazon that claims to be a 20-degree bag. It basically means that if the overnight temp drops to 20 degrees, the bag will keep you warm enough to stay alive until you are rescued by the EMTs. To be on the safe side, add 15 degrees to the bag rating to make sure you will be warm enough.

Coolers

Premium coolers like Yeti have a root-molded design that keeps air out and the cold in. They are usually bear-proof and come with a lifetime warranty. If you are going to spend the money, we suggest the Orca brand as it will outperform Yeti at a slightly lower price.

If you do not want to break the bank, consider Orca or Yeti knock-off copies sold at large outdoor outfitter stores. Even less expensive is the Xtreme line of Coleman coolers. We have one with wheels that has kept ice cold for a weekend in 90-degree temperatures. 

Lighting

You will need two kinds of lighting: a lantern-type light for inside your tent and a portable light for when you're not in the tent. In general, your eyes will adjust to the dark, and you will see fine without a flashlight. Flashlights provide too much light, eliminating your night vision.

In most cases, if you need a light beyond your lantern, a headlamp is best as it shines in front of you and frees up both hands. Some headlamps come with a red lamp function that allows you to see if you're walking without compromising your night vision.

Meals and cooking

With a good cooler to keep your food chilled, and access to a grill, you can plan simple meals to get you through your weekend successfully. Many campsites have public grills available for your use. You can bring a portable charcoal grill as well.

If you enjoy a hot cup of caffeinated brew in the morning, consider purchasing an inexpensive single burner camp stove to boil water. You can use boiled water with an inexpensive stainless French press for delicious morning coffee every day.

Where to get the gear

There are many options, both online and in-store, to get your camping gear. Amazon and Walmart are good places to get inexpensive gear to get you started. If you want better gear, we highly recommend REI. REI guarantees everything they sell, and the REI brand is very high-quality gear and less costly than the top brands.

A few times a year, REI hosts a garage sale where they sell all their returned items for significant savings. We have gotten most of our gear, suitcases and other items at the garage sale.

You can also find your gear needs at big sporting goods stores and outfitters like Cabela's and Bass Pro Shop. We recommend not purchasing anything full price from these outlets as you can usually find the same gear cheaper elsewhere. However, if they are having a sale, you will get some good deals on mid-quality gear.

Another good online store for all types of camping gear is Campmor. They are worth a look for comparison shopping and deals.

Note about purchasing used tents: We don't recommend buying used tents on sites like eBay or Craigslist. In most cases, these are lower quality tents that were purchased at mid-tier sporting goods stores. They are no better than a new tent you can purchase on Amazon or Walmart. Other downsides to buying used are potential for broken or missing equipment and foul musty smells from improper care and storage. The only exception to this advice is if you can find a good deal on a reputable name brand flagship item such as Big Agnes or REI.    

Where to go camping in the DFW Metroplex area

*Visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife website to get the latest updates on park and camping access as we emerge from quarantine restrictions. 

In general, the best places to camp are State Parks. The nice thing about most parks is that, once the day-use people leave, you have the place to yourself.

Below are listed recommended state parks within a few hours of the Metroplex.

  • Cedar Hill State Park is in the DFW Metroplex. It's very popular and potentially hard to get a campsite and then busy once you're there.   
  • Lake Ray Roberts is just up state highway 35. It has a lake, a beach, hiking and mountain bike trails.
  • Eisenhower State Park is located on Lake Texoma.
  • Bonham State Park is a very nice smaller park.
  • Cooper Lake State Park is lesser-known, but a nice park with lots of trees and a lake. This campground is a favorite with nice spacing between campsites and not usually crowded.
  • Erwin Park is located in McKinney. It is larger and has more trails than several state parks (212 acres vs. Bonham St pk @ 65). It is a popular mountain bike park so you can join in or just be aware of the many bikes that are sharing the hiking trails.  

Conclusion

One day we will be fully released from our quarantine lives, and planning a camping trip for that glorious day will make you happier, as studies show. Use the time you're waiting to get your gear together and scope out your campground options. Once the green light is given, hop in your car and head out to enjoy the health benefits of the great outdoors.

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