Imagine spending a night in the dirt repelling bugs and befriending the local wildlife.
Washingtonians love to hike and camp, but if you’ve never stayed in the woods before, the thought of camping can seem intimidating or even ridiculous. Sleeping outdoors certainly requires some adjustments to your bedtime, but with practice, camping will feel comfortable and fun for even the greenest of beginners.
Gear and preparation are key, as is learning to feel good about unwinding. Experts Teresa Hagerty, founder and CEO of Cascade Mountain Adventures, a Seattle-based adventure company specializing in women-only outdoor activities, and Ben “Bucky” Bukowitz, sales representative at Ascent Outdoors, an outdoor gear store in Ballard, gave their tips for campers who want to go outdoors for the first time.
Find the right equipment
Both Hagerty and Bukowitz emphasized the importance of buying or renting from the “Big Three” the highest quality that you can afford: tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag.
“There are fewer things worse than a wet, cold, or a terrible night’s sleep,” Hagerty said. “We recommend tents that are larger than expected, sleeping pads with an R-value of 3.5 or higher, and a sleeping bag rated for 30 degrees or warmer.”
Rentals are available from major Seattle retailers like REI, as well as a number of smaller organizations from The Mountaineers to Ascent, Gearhouse, and more. When in doubt, ask an expert for help.
With all the gear options available on the market, finding the right setup can be overwhelming. OutdoorGearLab.com offers honest reviews for just about every outdoor gear you can think of. Once you have an idea of what you want, head to your local outdoor store to test drive the gear. Most outfitters offer guests the opportunity to try products in store before they buy them.
“Have someone work with you to put it all together,” Bukowitz said. “That way you can feel and see how parts connect. Ask the staff questions. You will have all the answers.”
Finding the right gear can take time. If you want to try something out a few times before you buy it, rent a setup or ask a friend if you can borrow gear. Camping with a more experienced buddy is the perfect way to learn the basics.
Quality camping gear doesn’t come cheap (several hundred dollars all-in). If buying the Big Three suddenly isn’t in your budget, you might want to consider buying used gear. In Seattle, Ascent, Wonderland Gear Exchange, REI and others sell used gear that has been staffed for reliability and quality.
“There’s so much good gear out there for all kinds of outdoor recreation,” Bukowitz said. “It’s easy to find used camping gear and tools in stores and online.”
In addition to the Big Three, always bring the 10 essentials, layers for cold nights and mornings, rainwear (even in the summer!) and comfortable shoes for hanging out at camp. Once you have camping gear, go to parks.wa.gov to look for campground reservations (ideally well in advance).
Make friends with discomfort
Some are put off by the idea of camping because of the lack of sanitation, bugs, or dirt, but there are different types of camping that can help new campers embrace the idea of having the luxuries of home for a few days leaving.
“It’s liberating to disconnect and let go of some of those standards outdoors,” Hagerty said.
Autocamping at an established campsite is an ideal place to start. Many campsites have showers (usually for a small fee) and shared bathrooms.
If your car is right there, you can bring more comfort: your own pillow, larger cooking utensils, extra groceries. Over time, you’ll learn what you actually use, which will prepare you for rougher adventures.
Hagerty also suggested that first-timers include some fun items.
“After the essentials are covered, throw in some playing cards, twinkling lights, a flying disc, or your favorite stuffed animal,” she said.
Camping hygiene, life without a toilet
As far as hygiene goes on camping trips without access to toilets or showers, it just takes some getting used to. Baby wipes make makeshift showers, or you can bring a small bottle of biodegradable soap and a washcloth if you’re near a water source.
Washington-based company Kula Cloth makes delightfully quirky reusable pee cloths that make peeing outdoors pretty fun, honestly. When it’s time for #2, it really isn’t as scary as it seems, and you’re probably in for a pretty sweet prospect. Find a spot off the trail and away from a water source, dig a cat hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide, bury your poo, and unpack your toilet paper.
“If you’re ever nervous, just take a deep breath,” Bukowitz said. “If you meet other campers, you probably at least feel comfortable knowing they probably haven’t showered either.”
Your first camping trip
Once you have the gear and the mindset, it’s time to start planning your camping trip!
If you have friends who are experienced campers, ask them to come along on your first trip. They’ll probably be excited to show you the ropes. If you don’t know anyone who camps or is new to the Pacific Northwest, Facebook groups can be great places to meet camping friends.
“We have a wealth of local outdoor communities like The Mountaineers and social media groups including PNW Outdoor Women, Women Who Hike Washington and many more,” Hagerty said. “They welcome beginners and are a great place to find community.”
Blacks looking for community in the great outdoors can check out groups like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Asian, while QPOC and OUTVentures serve the LGBTQ+ community.
Before you leave home, check the weather and do some local research. The Washington Trails Association is a fantastic resource for trail conditions and other relevant information about bears, other wildlife, and fire bans. Always share your trip details with a trusted friend or family member.
“A solid foundation built on essential skills and environmental awareness is key to a lifetime of successful outdoor adventures,” Hagerty said. “Camping should be both a safe and enjoyable experience, with room for childish wonder.”