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Camping 101

Camping is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and take a much needed mini-vacation without spending a fortune. Staying overnight at a campground typically runs from $10 to $25. Compare that to a motel stay which can easily cost $75 and up, and you'll see that the savings add up fast.

Of course, if you haven't gone camping since you were a kid – or you've never gone camping, period – then expect an initial investment in time, money, and energy. But it's worth it. Spending several relaxing weekends a year in the midst of breathtaking scenery is good therapy for the body, mind, and soul.

The Essentials

Before you head into the great outdoors, you'll need some basic equipment. Get a sturdy tent big enough for your family to sleep in comfortably. Make sure it's watertight and strong enough to stand up to some wind. Sleeping bags are a must especially if you're camping in the mountains or the desert – climates that cool down dramatically at night even during the summer. Check ratings; a sleeping bag that's rated for only 40 F will keep you shivering in nighttime temperatures of 30 F, and you don't want that. A floor pad or an air mattress (with a good pump) will help you sleep more comfortably by adding an extra layer between you and the hard floor.

A large electric lantern (with extra batteries just in case) is a must for evenings as well as for walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night or heading to the lake for some pre-dawn fishing. Bring several flashlights, too. Lawn chairs are great for a relaxing afternoon of reading under the trees or for sitting by the campfire at night. Unless you're prepared to eat nothing but granola bars and fresh fruits and vegetables, buy a Coleman stove. It's portable, it runs on propane, and it's great for morning coffee or a hot dinner of canned stew (don't forget the can opener).

By the way, inexpensive, durable dinner plates and cups work better than the rugged metal cups and plates you'll see in camping stores. Why? Because your hot chocolate doesn't stay hot very long inside one of those metal cups. Bring an inexpensive plastic tablecloth to cover picnic tables. And a large plastic bin works well for doing the dishes (remember to bring dish soap).

Be sure to ask the people at the outdoor equipment store how to set up and use everything – especially your tent and your stove. Don't leave the store with your purchase until you comfortably understand how to use everything. If you have questions later, don't hesitate to call back.

When you're packing toiletries for your camping trip, include a well-stocked First Aid kit, bug spray, and sunscreen.

Trial Run

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to camp overnight in your backyard. Pretend you're out in the wild and bring everything you think you'll need. Set up the tent. Inflate the air mattress. Cook breakfast on the Coleman stove. Use your electric lantern at night. What works? What doesn't? Is your sleeping bag warm enough? Did you remember to bring eating utensils? Pillows? Toiletries? T-shirts and shorts for the hot noon sun and a warm jacket and sweats for cool evenings? Hats? Hiking shoes?

Camping in your backyard is a safe way to prepare for a "real trip.” During and after your trial run, make a list of everything you need – the things you remembered and forgot, plus things you never even thought of before taking that backyard outing.

Do Your Homework

Before you go on that first, momentous camping trip outdoors, learn everything you can about your chosen destination. Get brochures, look up information on the Internet, and ask as many questions as you can think of. What does the location look like? Is your site shaded? Are there poisonous shrubs in the area? Will you be camping next to a river or stream? Are campfires allowed? Is firewood provided?

What are the campground amenities? Are there hot showers on site? Flush toilets? A campground store? A playground? Where are the nearest medical facilities? If there's a lake on the premises, ask about boat rentals, fishing permits, and swim beaches.

When you arrive at your campground, scope it out. Find out where the bathrooms are. Locate the camp hosts, in case you need them later. Read everything posted at the entrance. Follow the rules. Be safe.

Relax

The best thing about camping is getting away from it all. Leave behind your cell phones, your computers, your beepers. Enjoy the beautiful scenery and the fresh air. Let it all just soak into your pores and revitalize you. Kick back, unwind, slow down your pace. It's time to smell the wild roses and count the twinkling stars. Relax, and enjoy!
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