What I Learned From My First Time Camping

To some, it's second nature. To others, it's a formative experience.

At Hickory Run State Park in Pennsylvania, the light pours through the trees in long rays like lemonade from a glass pitcher. I noticed it as my daughter, Izzy, and I drove through the campground, trying to find a site where I would pitch a tent. We slept outside for two nights – which, to the average camper, probably seems like child’s play. But to me, a man who's never slept a night outdoors in his life, it was an expedition.

Since I was a kid, I’ve had friends who enjoyed camping: roughing it in the elements and taking on the great outdoors. Honestly, I never saw the allure. I loved nature as a kid, but as my youth dissipated, so did my appreciation for the outdoors. With the comforts available to modern man – hot water, air conditioning, refrigerators – why would anyone want to live outside even if only for a short while?

But this past spring, a friend of mine told me he and his wife were taking their young son on a camping trip over the summer; Izzy and I were invited to come along. At first, I balked. Traveling with a toddler isn’t fun unless you’re going to a playground, and even then things can get sketchy. It was a quick "No, thanks" for me. But then I thought more about it – about the fun that Izzy might have exploring the woods and finding joy removed from her toys and the creature comforts that she knows all too well. I thought that maybe this trip could be one of her first real memories, and while I was sure there would be no enjoyment for me, I called my friend back and told him we would come.

Where to Start

If you’ve never been camping, consider what kind of camping you’re ready to tackle. For Izzy and me, “car camping” was a good place to start. That's where you park directly on the campsite and pitch your tent within a stone’s throw of the car. Some will argue this is a far cry from true camping – and they're probably not wrong. But for a beginner like me, it was just right. And our campground had showers and toilets within 200 yards of our site, which was a convenience I readily welcomed. If you want a more hardcore experience, it isn’t hard to find, but talk to seasoned campers first to find out what's reasonable when you're just starting out.

What to Bring

Once I committed to the trip, I started looking for lists: lists of everything that you need to go camping, first-time camping, camping with a toddler, camping for only a few days, camping for photographers, camping for guys who wear glasses. I got a little carried away. I also talked to experts about what gear was necessary. And the more I researched, the longer my list grew of items that I considered essential. So when Izzy and I arrived at the camp site, I had the car packed so full with gear that any bystander would think I was a doomsday prepper anticipating the apocalypse.

Hindsight being 20-20, now I realize that there's a great chasm between what you actually need for camping and what you would like to have because it’s just so cool. Did I need a flashlight? Absolutely. Did I need a tactical flashlight with an SOS signal and a built-in meat dehydrator? Probably not. And not only had I over packed, but I had packed the wrong items. While I was busy worrying about us having enough paper plates and napkins (don’t laugh at me too much), I should have been thinking about bringing multiple layers of clothing for Izzy and me. I figured that it's summer – it'll be hot, right? Yes, until the sun goes down. Our first night on the site, the temperature dropped to 50°. I brought extra blankets for Izzy; she was fine. But my sleeping bag, lying directly against the ground, was barely holding in the heat.

So if you’re planning your first camping trip, there are some items that I found essential, and others that I should’ve left at home. Here’s what you need:

  • Waterproof matches or a lighter
  • A tent
  • Sleeping bag(s)
  • Tarps
  • A flashlight or lantern
  • A compass
  • Multiple layers of clothing (moisture-wicking fabrics are better than cotton)
  • A pocket knife
  • A sleeping mat
  • A first aid kit
  • A camp stove
  • A cast-iron skillet
  • A cooler with food and drinks

Here's what you don’t need that I took anyway:

  • Enough food to feed everyone at the whole campground
  • Packs of paper plates, dinner napkins, and boxes of plastic cutlery
  • Several pillows
  • More chairs than there are people going on the trip
  • Three different kinds of sunscreen

Keep in mind, that's all for car camping – if you're backpacking 20 miles to a campsite, you'll probably want to leave the cooler and heavy iron skillet behind.

The Experience

I pitched our tent while Izzy shuffled the dirt with her hands and shoes. As I surveyed the unnecessary stuff I’d brought, it dawned on me that I hadn’t simply over packed; I had missed the point of camping. It's not to sleep outdoors while recreating an indoor environment – the point of camping is to actually be outdoors.

Just up the hill from our campsite there was a narrow path cut through the woods, lined with rocks of all sizes and contortions. Izzy and I walked along it, holding hands, while she marveled at the idea of a rock road, pointing out her favorites to me and counting them as we traversed. Living in a suburb with paved streets and well-manicured yards, I had forgotten that even simple rocks, ancient in age and smooth from the turbulence of their upbringing, would be a sight worth seeing to her. At the end of the path, we came to a pond held tight by a dam at one end. We walked to the center of the bridge just over the dam, and Izzy stopped abruptly so as to point out all of the fish dancing in the water that I had missed. She laughed with abandon and talked to them as they glided back and forth, creating small ripples on the surface of the pond.

A rock path, a dam, little fish in a pond – Izzy had never seen these things before. But being there with her, removed from my phone, my tablet, my email, my obligations, I realized that I was looking at these things with fresh eyes, too. Against my nature, I was having fun, and was starting to think this is why campers enjoy camping. It can be fun because you’re "roughing it" – cutting your own firewood, catching your own dinner, and the like if you're into that sort of thing – sure, but it’s also fun because when you camp, you're seeing nature up close. You remember that looking at Instagram photos of Sunday brunch at the restaurant that just opened last week doesn’t hold a candle to walking down a rock path forged by a creek bed a lifetime ago.

We stayed for two nights, and honestly, it was difficult. The mornings were cold and the ground was hard. But the camp fires brimmed with warmth, and the light that poured through the trees was soft, illuminating my trail back to the wild that I once knew in my youth. I have no doubt that Izzy made memories, and even now, some months later, she asks me when we can go sleep in the tent again, and when we can see the fish in the pond. So I find myself looking at the calendar to see when we can schedule our next trip because it was actually fun.

And now that I know the ropes, I know that I don’t need extra plates or the newest flashlight. I need to go and see the dancing fish with my daughter and remember that nature and I need not be such distant strangers.

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