First Time Camping Tips, Tricks, and Pets

Our first camping trip took place at Colorado Bend State Park in Texas. We chose this park specifically and gained a lot of experience while camping for the first time with our dog. Preparation is the key to a successful camping trip when you are a beginner. You never forget your first time camping.

You are smart. You’re reading this because you want to learn how to best prepare yourself for an upcoming camping trip. The first time you set up camp you will discover a wealth of experience. Adequate preparation will lay the foundation for that experience. This article contains our best camping tips and tricks for your first time.

Our first time camping took place along the Colorado River with our dog in Bend, Texas.
First time camping at Colorado Bend

Disclosure – We are not the most experienced campers in the world. We simply enjoy the experience of camping, hiking and adventuring outdoors with our dog. I believe we were 98% prepared for our first camping trip, but we still learned a lot. You will as well. Prepare yourself with these first time camping tips and share your own with us. We will continue to update this article as we visit new places and gain more camping experience.

There are nearly 50 first time camping tips within this article. However, they have been broken down into eight major sections. It may be helpful to bookmark this page in case your research takes you down several rabbit holes. Most of our tips are highlighted in bold. Please share this article if it is helpful to you, and let us know what you like best.

First Time Camping Tip #1

Make Camping as Easy as Possible

There are many places to camp, but they will not all meet your needs. Furthermore, you will need to prepare more for some than others. How difficult do you want your first camping trip to be?

Our best advice – Make your first time camping easier

This piece of advice will also be highlighted as we cover our other camping tips, and we will explain how you can accomplish it. Once you arrive at camp, you cannot make the experience easier if you are not prepared. However, you always have the option of making camping more difficult (if you are into that kind of thing).

I use this piece of advice as I work with clients as a certified personal trainer as well. I do not start anyone out on an advanced workout program, nor do I try to challenge a person as much as possible during their first workout. The most difficult challenges can force people to quit when they are not prepared. This is true for many aspects of our lives, and camping is not different.

The best thing beginners can do is make the experience as easy as possible. No one wants to have a terrible camping experience their first time. A lack of preparation and experience can lead to disaster. Do you want your first time camping to be easy? The following tips will help you do that.

We setup our first tent in about 10 minutes.
Backpacking tents are easy to setup

First Time Camping Tip #2

Choose the Right Camping Location

Parks are different. You cannot do the same thing at every park. Some camps will have electricity, restrooms, showers and other amenities. Other camps will be far more primitive. You may not be able to shower or make a campfire. A park may allow pets to camp, but not hike on most trails, such as Big Bend National Park. Find out as much as you can about the park you want to visit. Choose a park which will make your first camping experience easier.

Pro Tip – Many parks have camping fees and may require reservations in advance. Find out before you head out.

Know the Route

Do you want to visit a nearby park, or one that is harder to reach? What are the roads like? Will there be traffic, or gas stations? Will the weather be favorable, or will it make the roads difficult to travel? The answers to these questions will determine how easy or difficult your camping trip will begin.

Once you have narrowed down a location for your first camping trip, find it on the map and learn the best route. Don’t take any chances on getting lost, or being led to the wrong location by your GPS. Make sure your vehicle is road ready, and prepare for emergencies. Locate gas stations and other stores or restaurants, depending on the length of your trip.

Know the Rules

What is allowed, or prohibited at the park? Are your pets allowed? Can you make a campfire? Will you be able to fish, hike, or shower? All parks have rules, and certain natural areas will have greater restrictions.

Some parks do not allow campfires. If you cannot make any fires, you will not be able to use a dutch oven or roast marshmallows, unless you bring other means to do so. Know the rules and limitations of the park you plan to visit. Make your first time camping easier by choosing a park with less restrictions.

Know the Layout

Park interiors vary from place to place. What does it look like inside the park you want to visit? Where is the HQ or visitors center? Where are the roads, trails, rivers, lakes, and restrooms? How far is camp from the parking area? You can get lost in some parks without knowing the layout. Furthermore, it may be difficult to reach camp from the parking areas.

Beginners may want to camp closer to their parking areas, rather than hiking for miles to a primitive area. A shorter hike will not only be easier, it will substantially decrease your time to setup camp. Get out of your vehicle and get your tent setup in a matter of minutes. Time saved in proper preparation gives you more time to cook and do other things.

Consider choosing a place to “practice” camping

Which Park Will You Choose?

One of the reasons we chose Colorado Bend State Park as our first time camping location was to gain experience prior to camping in Big Bend Country. We were somewhat familiar with the park and how to get there. We prepared, packed, and made the trip as easy as possible. This strategy boosted confidence and gave us a little, but much needed, experience.

Gaining some experience prior to longer, and more difficult camping trips is important. Of course, you could use your own yard to practice camping. To us, that seemed a little too easy and would not have felt like camping. Although, it would be a great way to try out your new camping gear, which leads us to our next tip.

Our first time camping was spent next to the Colorado River, and a giant hill to the south in Bend, Texas.
Our orange tent is easy to spot next to the Colorado River

First Time Camping Tip #3

Bring Proper Camping Gear and Supplies

The first time you go camping you will need very specific gear, unless you plan on cowboy camping. Where will you sleep? How many people will be with you? What will you eat, and how will you make it?

In the very least, you will need a tent, food, water and cookware. These are the basics: tents provide shelter and privacy, food and water provide sustenance, while cookware allows you to heat and eat your food. Most people will need to bring much more their first time camping. Once you know what you can do at your desired camping location, you must choose proper camping gear.

Choose the Best Tent for Your Group

There are more than a dozen different types of tents. The goal of this article is not to cover every type of tent. You will need to research all types of tents for your situation. If you are camping with a large family, you may want to bring a large cabin, tunnel, hybrid, or freestanding tent. However, small instant tents and backpacking tents will serve you better if your party is few, and you are hiking to camp.

We chose a 2-person backpacking tent prior to our first time camping. It was not our first choice, but it was in the top three and would arrive in time for the trip. Backpacking tents are extremely light and very easy to setup, but can be tight on space. Ours was barely enough room for a couple with a 60-pound dog. Research tents, read reviews, choose the best one for you and your situation.

Make sure you are prepared to pitch your tent before your first time camping.
Protect the underside of your tent and keep it dry

Practice Pitching Your Tent at Home

Figure out how to setup your tent before you camp the first time. Pitching your tent at home not only gives you experience, it will allow you to find any problems with your tent before you camp. Look for damages or missing parts. Make sure there is enough space inside for your group.

Pitch your tent until you become proficient

Protect Your Tent from the Elements

You never know what the weather will be like. You may need to setup camp in a hurry. Most manufacturers claim their tents are waterproof, but water has a way of sneaking in. Seal all seams on your tent before you camp the first time. You may also want to use a tarp, or thick piece of plastic, to keep the bottom of the tent from getting wet or punctured.

Position your tent in a way to accept or block the elements, such as sunlight and wind. Airflow is helpful in preventing condensation from forming inside your tent, but may make it more difficult to sleep. Don’t position your tent too close to, or downwind from campfires. You wouldn’t want to inhale smoke all night, or run the risk of your tent catching fire. If you expect your pets to sleep in the tent with you, make sure they are comfortable inside before you arrive.

We setup our tent so the wind would flow through to the south.
Choose your tent direction carefully

Save Time With a Quick Setup

At Colorado Bend State Park, we chose a camping location near the parking area. We placed a tarp where the tent would go, and unpacked the tent. Ours attaches to an aluminum spine which bends under pressure and breaks down easily. A rainfly covers the tent, but can be removed if sleeping under the stars is preferable. Our goal was to setup camp as quickly as possible and carry on with our evening.

Before camping for the first time we practiced pitching the tent, sat inside with our dog, and sealed the seams. We knew what would fit inside the tent and how comfortable we would be. This preparation made it possible to quickly make camp without issues. Compared to the 3-hour drive, our camp was ready in no time. We were all setup in less than 10 minutes, with plenty of time to cook and watch the sunset.

No one had the slightest idea it was our first time camping

Don’t Buy the Cheapest Tent You Can Find

We paid $75 for our backpacking tent. It is very light, durable and worth the cost. It may not have been the first choice, but it gets the job done. Some tents are expensive, while others can be dirt cheap. Spend a bit more on a tent and increase your odds of having a good experience the first time. Invest in the future because you may need your tent to withstand more than one camping trip, newbie.

Choose the Best Cookware for Your Situation

You can spend a lot on camping cookware, but it may not be necessary. Buying separate cookware for camping and learning how to use it is not easy, and can cost a fortune. I was eager to try a dutch oven or Solo Stove when we began camping, but decided to make cooking as easy as possible. The best cookware for your situation may be your own.

We made dinner easy by preparing meals and reheating them with a dual burning portable stove.
Make dinner easily your first time camping

Cookware our first time consisted of plastic silverware, paper plates, one pot and a pan. All these items came from our own kitchen. Additionally, we purchased a dual-burning camping stove, two canisters of propane, and a portable sink. We paid about $50 for the extra items, but already knew how to use them. We also knew we would be able to use them on our second camping trip where campfires are prohibited.

If you survive your first time camping and enjoy the experience, you can always try different cookware later. What kind of meals will you be making? How long should it take? Does it need to have a specific taste? How difficult do you want it to be? The answers will point you toward specific cookware (maybe no cooking at all).

Just ensure everything works before you pack your vehicle

Choose the Most Appropriate Camping Gear and Supplies

Once you’ve planned for the basics, there are many more things to consider before your first camping trip. Do you need to see in the dark? What type of things do you need in your tent? Where will your pets sleep? Do you need some form of power (electricity)? What clothing will you bring? Consider everything you normally do throughout the course of a day when planning ahead.

Most of the stuff we brought went inside the tent: LED lanterns, cell phones, backpacks, clothes, pillows, sleeping bag, dog bed, and a foam mattress. Yes, we slept on a 2″ foam mattress topper, which was folded over to provide 4″ of pure comfort. No shame. We easily loaded these items into the tent from our car, which was about 100ft away.

Beginners can make sleeping easier by using bedding from home.
This foam mattress is so comfortable

Ways to Sleep Above Ground

It will be much more difficult to backpack with a foam mattress, but it could be done. An easier option may be a blowup mattress. It’s lighter, but requires more setup time. We did not fancy sleeping on the ground directly. The foam mattress was the easiest to use in our situation.

We placed a two-person sleeping bag on top of the foam, with the dog bed at our feet. There was just enough space in the backpacking tent for the three of us. Cots are another way to get off the ground and they allow more space for pets. However, they also cost more than some tents. We decided to stick with what we already had at home, and revisit the idea IF we wanted to continue camping after our first time.

Plan for Emergencies, Essentials and Extras

Running out of food, water, or fuel at camp could be a disaster. Bring more supplies than you expect to use. You can always use the extras later and won’t risk running out. Pack other essentials from home, such as a tooth brush, soap (hand, dish and body), toilet paper, towels, garbage bags, a case for contacts or glasses, etc.

Bring extra supplies your first time camping

Charge all of your electronics, or bring portable battery chargers. Don’t expect to find a signal at every park. Cell phone service is hit-or-miss inside many parks. Let your friends and family know where you will be going. You may not be able to make a call, or send a text, and it shouldn’t be your only hope in an emergency. Be safe and plan ahead.

If you will need to see in the dark, carry a rechargeable light. Consider getting something you can clip on, or wear atop your head. Charge your lights before you pack your vehicle, or get an adapter to charge them at camp. Try not to point your lights at other tents. We find this very annoying in the middle of the night.

First Time Camping Tip #4

Prepare Your Meals in Advance

Most campsites have fire pits, grills, or picnic tables – somewhere you can prepare meals at camp. Technically, we’re not supposed to cook food where we sleep, but most animals will stay away when they see you or other campers nearby. We discussed cookware in the previous section, and now it’s time to talk about food.

You probably have a good idea about how you would like to cook your first time camping. What types of food would you like to eat? You may feel like your choices are limited, but that is not the case. It’s entirely possible to have good home-cooking while camping, and you can do it as easily as possible. Prepare your meals ahead of time in order to make cooking nice and easy.

Sometimes you see people making things like ramen, macaroni, or soup. Those do not make a well balanced diet, and don’t taste very good either. You do not have to force yourself to eat boxed or canned goods, unless you’re into that stuff. Most of our meals are unpreserved and made in bulk at home. The “leftovers” are put into the refrigerator and consumed throughout the week.

Cooling Your Food

How do you make cooking meals at camp as easy as possible? You simply reheat the food you already prepared ahead of time. However, you will need a cooler to make this work in most instances. You will also need ice. We find a bag of ice will keep food cold for two nights if you keep the cooler shut. For longer camping trips you may need to get more ice, or use a frozen food trick.

Frozen meals will thaw in the cooler throughout your trip and stay cold longer

As long as your camp is close to your vehicle, you will be able to use a large cooler. The largest coolers can hold more than 100 quarts, but they are bulky and expensive. If you are backpacking, you may need to carry a small cooler or cooler bag. We purchased a 60-quart cooler which keeps food for two people cold most of the week. If you have a large group, or family, you may need more cooling space.

Bring Water for Drinking, Cooking and Washing

Bottles of water and gallon jugs are inexpensive, and they can be refilled at home. Bring more water than you think you will need, unless you plan on filtering river water. You will need it to drink, but you may also need it to wash pots, pans, dishes and silverware. You may also need water to wash your hands and face, or brush your teeth.

If you are bringing any pets, they will need drinking water as well. Our dog loves drinking water outside of the house. Even so, we had more than enough water our first time camping. If you camp at a park without showers or sinks, you may go through several gallons of water.

Humans need (at least) half a gallon of water each day to prevent dehydration. We play it safe and pack more than two gallons for each day. If you are very active on your trip, you may drink a gallon or more. City parks tend to have drinking water, but most of our state parks do not.

You may need to drink 2 – 4 liters of water per day

Snacking on the Go

Snacks are a popular choice because they don’t need to be cooked and you can carry them with you. We often eat snacks while out on the trails and away from camp. Snack bars with the fewest ingredients, nuts and figs, or granola mixed with peanut butter are a few of our favorites.

Snacks are great for us, but should be kept out of the reach of wild animals. Never leave food in your tent, or someplace animals can find them. The same goes for your trash. Keep it with you or out of reach.

Do feed animals in your own family. Your dog will not be impressed if you forget his food at home. We like to carry dog food in a plastic container which stays in our vehicle. When it’s time to eat we place some in a collapsable bowl. Those can come in handy while camping or backpacking. What kind of snacks do you and your dog enjoy?

First Time Camping Tip #5

Pack It Out and Leave No Trace

These are well-known sayings for those of us who are regularly out in the wilderness. They are promoted to help protect the environment, wildlife and us. Use designated areas to hike, bike and camp. Don’t take anything with you that belongs outdoors. Make campfires sparingly and in proper places. Respect the wildlife and your fellow campers. Throw your garbage away properly. This may mean you need to take it back home with you.

Everything should be left just like you found it, as if you were never there. This includes droppings if you are hiking with dogs. The dog poop fairy does not exist and those droppings can be harmful to the environment. Don’t leave anything behind for those who come after you. Pack it out.

Sadly, we notice garbage and dog poop inside many parks (especially city parks). Be responsible and respect our environment. The world is not your garbage can. Don’t be that dude. We have a responsibility to be respectable human beings. Do your part and we can all be friends.

Photos should be the only evidence you were ever there

First Time Camping Tip #6

Enjoy Being in Nature

The great outdoors – it is full of life at its finest. Listen to the sounds as you camp. What do you hear? Sure, some sounds can be annoying, like the bugs, but others can be enjoyable. You might hear an owl overhead, a rustling in the grass, or howling in the distance. The wind may be blowing through the trees while other creatures splash in the water. We heard each of these sounds and more. It all depends on where you camp. 

Honestly, I’m not sure our dog, Abbey, got any sleep our first time camping. She was constantly sniffing the air and looking in the direction of unusual sounds. She was fine in the tent, but not all dogs are. 

It was an autumn night in Texas, which could go either way. Unfortunately, it was quite humid after sundown. The clouds rolled in over night, but it didn’t rain until mid morning. I would have removed the rainfly completely if not concerned about the rain. Everything else about camp was very comfortable.

Enjoy your first time at camp. Relax and experience all that nature has to offer. Sleep will come for you eventually. That’s probably the easiest camping tip I can provide. 

First Time Camping Tip #7

Find Ways to Sleep Better

Some of us do not sleep well when there is a lot of noise. I’m not talking about noise from the woods, but the sounds of nearby campers. If you choose to stay at a campground, especially around weekends, you may have to put up with noisy campers. People become louder when they are in groups, and the walls of most tents do not keep sound in or out. How will you prepare for noises and other distractions throughout the night?

A lot of things can happen at camp which may prevent you from falling asleep. Some campers stay up late, talk loudly, or laugh and yell. Truck doors will slam shut, and vehicle alarms may go off. Headlights might shine right at your tent. The couple in the tent next to yours may make interesting sounds together as they enjoy each others company. All of these distractions can make it incredibly difficult to get some sleep.

Pack earplugs and an eye mask to minimize distractions when you go camping. Some people can sleep through noise, but others cannot. If you are among the latter, cover your ears when you lie down to sleep. Moreover, you will also want to cover your eyes if headlights, flashlights, or camp fires might wake you. Most campers do not realize how distracting they can be to others nearby. You may need to prepare ahead of time and find ways to get better sleep.

First Time Camping Tip #8

Wake Up to Coffee and Bacon

Your first time camping does not have to become an excuse for a poor breakfast. We pre-made turkey bacon and eggs our first time. They stayed cold in the cooler at night, and took only a few minutes to heat on the stove. Was it as good as a fresh breakfast? No, but we made it as easy as possible and saved fuel for the stove. Those canisters don’t last all day, you know.

We also spent less time cooking because we enjoy being out on the trails. If you plan on hanging out at camp, you could spend a lot more time cooking. Make bacon, steak, an omelet, or whatever you enjoy eating. How about coffee? I made coffee quick and easy, the same way I do at home. I used the stove to heat water in a pot, and poured it over fresh coffee grounds in a French Press.

Bacon, eggs and coffee took less than 10 minutes to make. Afterwards, I washed the cookware in our portable sink. We continue to learn new ways to enjoy good food at camp. However, we did not want to spend all day cooking, or try new methods our first time camping. In fact, we were eager to hike to Gorman Falls on the other side of the park.

If you don’t do “leftovers” these tips may not work for you, but there are other options. You may need to use more fuel, a campfire, or choose some uncooked options. What is your favorite food to cook at camp? We may add a section about specific meal options with recipes. If you would like to see that, let us know.

First Time Camping Tip #9

Hit the Trails for Health and Happiness

Hiking is the main reason we visit most parks. Abbey may love hiking more than we do, and it’s a great way to increase bonding. Camping provides a great opportunity to hit the trails early because you are already at the park. However, we notice most people hanging out at camp, or at the water.

Hiking is one of the best ways to get fit outside. It has similar benefits to other forms of exercise, and you get to do it away from the gym. Increase your bone density, lean muscle mass, and cardiovascular endurance by hiking. How far can you hike without getting tired? How high can you climb?

We hike often, but do not pass many other hikers on the trails. What are ya’ll doing at these parks? Maybe you enjoy fishing, swimming, or kayaking. That’s understandable, but our parks have more to offer than the option of playing in the water. We have climbed hills, crawled through caves, and hiked with gators. History has been learned and personal records have been broken.

We hike everywhere and we do it dog friendly. Hopefully, our final camping tip will encourage you to do the same. Sure, we also enjoy kayaking, swimming and working out at home in order to stay active. Although hiking the morning after camping is quickly becoming our go-to activity. We would not trade the experience for anything.

I’m a certified personal trainer in San Antonio. After adopting Abbey, I created Places for Pups to help you get outside, exercise with your dog and have fun doing it. We have mastered hiking in Texas Hill Country. Though we emerge from the woods unharmed, we are not responsible for you or your pets. You are solely responsible for trying exercises, or places discussed on this site. Grab the best hiking gear and go dog friendly.  I wish you good fortune on the trails to come.

David Earley


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