Have you ever wanted to wake up in the morning and see the sky with no filter whatsoever? Or go to a weekend-long outdoor music festival that requires you to sleep (with scores of strangers) under the stars? Maybe you’re the kind of person who hates to shower and wants a really good excuse to stay dirty for 48 hours straight. To you, we present: THE ROOKIE GUIDE TO STAYING IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS.
Over the years, we’ve learned a few outdoor “survival” tips (sometimes the hard way) by going on camping trips and to festivals with friends. We also consulted some of the camping connoisseurs we know for their advice. If you’re escaping to a festival or a campground for a couple or so days, here are some handy suggestions for keeping hydrated, fed, and comfy while you’re in the elements.
A CAVEAT: This is not a guide for serious, solo, no-water-or-food-within-a-short-walk-or-drive-away, many-days-long hiking or camping trips. Maybe you’ve read or seen Wild, or just know this anyway, but that kind of camping can be dangerous (even life threatening!) if you haven’t dedicated enough time to research, training, and preparation.
Today we’re talking about camping with pals at designated sites that have drinkable water, a serviceable toilet, and (hopefully) an outlet somewhere to charge your phone. We’re talking about outdoor festivals where you can totally “rough it,” but that also have at least one vendor selling, like, lemon shake-ups and corndogs. Don’t get us wrong: We are headed into the Great Outdoors! Just not suuuuuper far. Ready, campers?! First things first:
Where are you going?
If you’re camping: As tempting as it may be, (in the U.S., at least) you can’t just stumble into an idyllic spot in the woods somewhere and pitch a tent. You have to find an authorized place to camp. That means locating a public campground or camping area operated by a national park (you can search for sites all over the U.S. here) or by a state park (most states have their own directories online). You could also search for privately run campgrounds—just make sure the site is licensed by the state it’s in (meaning that the state says that it’s safe to camp there—states like Michigan and Illinois keep lists of licensed privately run campgrounds). Wherever you’re thinking about camping, it’s also worth looking online for reviews of the site from previous campers.
Once you’ve picked a spot, check the campground’s website to see whether space is available, and how much it costs to make a reservation (you might have to call its office to do this stuff). Even national and state parks usually require reservations and charge a fee to camp. Late spring and summer are prime camping times, too, so book your camping spot early if you can.
There’s information about the campground that will be very, very valuable to know before you make your reservation, but that you might not think about from the comfort of your home (aka the internet). Before you book, make sure the place you want to camp has:
- A source of potable (drinkable) water
- Toilets or an outhouse
- Grills or fire pits for cooking
- Electrical outlets
Once your reservation is made (yay!), there are some other details to figure out before you embark on your outdoor adventure:
- Does the campground take credit or debit cards? (Many are cash-only.)
- Will you have to check into the site with a ranger during “office hours” (as opposed to rolling in whenever and paying later)?
- Is tent camping allowed? (Some campgrounds are reserved for RV-type camper-vehicle things.)
- Can you drive a car into the site? (Sometimes you have to park your car somewhere nearby and then hike to the site with all your stuff.)
- Is there decent cell reception?
- Is the site pet friendly? (’Cause not all campgrounds allow dogs, if they happen to be your travel companion of choice.)
- Are there any potentially dangerous wild animals, like bears or rattlesnakes, in the area? (If there are, does the campground offer a guide for keeping them away and staying safe if you encounter them?)
It’s a lot to look into, but the upside is that the same sources that have the answers to these questions will usually be able to tell you about all the fun stuff, too—like where the good hiking trails are, whether there are beaches or lakes nearby, and where to go for the best stargazing.
If you’re staying at an outdoor festival: Check the festival’s website for camping guidelines when you buy your festival pass. Every festival has different rules—like about whether on-site camping is even allowed, if you have to reserve a spot ahead of time or if it’s a pitch-your-tent-wherever-you-can free-for-all, whether you can drive into and/or park your car at your campsite, how many tents you’re allowed to bring, if it’s OK to bring a portable grill, et cetera. THOUSANDS of other people are going to be rolling up with their tents when it kicks off, and you don’t want to be stuck in the fracas, figuring out where you’re sleeping that night. You want to be watching bands.
In any case, check the weather periodically before you leave. If you’re camping and big storms are in the forecast, you miiiiiight want to reschedule the trip (a tent’s a terrible place to be when there are high winds and/or lightning). If you’re headed to a festival and it’s supposed to rain the whole weekend, you’re gonna want to pack some galoshes. If it’s supposed to be really hot, you’ll need more water than you’d normally bring (a gallon a day per person). Speaking of:
What should you bring?
Whether you’re camping or festival-ing, you’re gonna need a tent to sleep in. There are SO many kinds of tents (here’s a detailed guide on the different types) but a “good” tent is waterproof, sturdy, and well ventilated. Bare-bones tents in the $50 to $100 range are pretty easy to find, but if you think sleeping outside might become regular thing for you, consider investing in something more deluxe (like one that’s lighter weight, has a rainfly, or can sleep more than a couple people). If you can’t afford a brand-new tent, look at Craigslist or ebay, or ask around to see if an outdoorsy person in your life will lend you theirs.
You’ll also want to bring a tarp to lay down underneath your tent, to keep moisture from the ground out. Also: This is not an ideal sleeping arrangement, but depending on what your campsite and the weather forecast is like, you can also use a tarp and some rope tied between two trees to create a small shelter. (It’s pretty sweet to nap in a hammock tied between trees, too, if MAXIMUM RELAXATION is your thing.)