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A beginner's guide to camping during a pandemic

Camping has saved my mental health during this pandemic. Last month, my S.O. and I drove to one of our favorite campgrounds shortly after it reopened for a much-needed getaway from our tiny apartment. Our trip left us feeling so renewed that we returned two weeks later, and we plan to camp again later this summer. After two years of camping on a regular basis, we’ve really optimized our process, so that now it’s more fun than stressful. Here’s a pandemic-era guide for first-time campers, based on what I’ve learned from my excursions so far.

Choose a campground

My partner and I found the spot I mentioned above simply by zooming in on Google Maps, looking for campgrounds nearby, and Googling the candidates to see which ones aligned with what we wanted out of our trip. We decided on this particular campground because it was near the ocean and an easily accessible hiking trail. You can also search for campgrounds on Hipcamp, National Park Service’s Find a Park database, or Recreation.gov.

While the campground where my partner and I stayed recently is first-come, first-serve, many places require you to make reservations, so make sure to book ahead of time. I’d call regardless to check whether the campground is open, since many have closed in response to COVID-19.

Remember that we’re still in a pandemic

While the risk of coronavirus transmission seems to be lower outdoors, that doesn’t mean you can completely drop the ball. The NPS suggests skipping your camping trip if you’re sick, going only with members of your household, and social distancing. My partner and I also brought masks, hand sanitizer, and Clorox spray to clean frequently touched surfaces. You might also consider whether you’re willing to use any shared restrooms a campground provides.

Figure out your sleeping situation

My partner and I usually sleep in a Yakima SkyRise tent that we had installed on the roof of our van by a local rack retailer. If you want a happy medium between old-school tent camping and a glamped-out RV, this is the setup for you. It’s warm, comfy, and sturdy — even on blustery nights — and has mesh panels on the roof and sides that you can zip open for fresh air, or a view.

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If you prefer regular tent camping, look for a tent that accommodates one or two more people than it’ll actually house, John Junke Jr., moderator of REI Conversations, told Washington Post. Make sure it’s also tall enough for you to move around easily and simple to set up, like this tent from Marmot. Practice pitching it and breaking it down at home, before your trip. You’ll also want to buy a sleeping pad, but I’d caution against an inflatable pad. Last time I used one, I awoke to find it deflated, the gravel beneath it digging into my back. Not fun.

If you’re a newbie, I recommend sleeping in the back of your vehicle, which my S.O. and I have done a few times. Just lay down the back seats, throw on a slab of memory foam, plus some pillows and blankets, and you’ve got a really cushy bed.

Nothing ruins a camping trip like a cold, sleepless night. In all three of the sleep scenarios I just described, I’d bring multiple comforters and a sleeping bag.

Dress appropriately

Again, since it can get chilly, especially in the evenings, layer, layer, layer. I suggest a dry-wick base layer, a fleece mid-layer, and a puffy outer layer if you expect the temp to really dip. I also swear by my Buff, which is basically a loop of fabric you can wear a zillion ways, but I find it most useful as a mini-scarf; it’s amazing how much heat I lose from my neck.

Footwear can also make or break your trip. If you anticipate traversing rugged terrain, you’ll want something like these hardy yet lightweight Blundstone Active Boots. If you plan on hiking, I’d pair them with wool hiking socks from REI or Smartwool to minimize blistering. Not feeling the rustic aesthetic? These durable New Balance trail shoes are a modern, sporty alternative.

Prep your food beforehand

You want to keep your meals delicious yet simple, so that they’re mainly a matter of heating up on a camper stove, like this Coleman one my partner and I use. On recent camping trips, we’ve eaten sausage, eggs, and fruit with honey for breakfast; cheese and cold-cut rollups for lunch; and burgers for dinner. Obviously, you’ll want to store these in a cooler during your trip.

For caffeination, I suggest brewing grounds in a Bialetti Moka Express pot atop a camper stove. To keep it super simple, stir a tablespoon of uber-concentrated Jot coffee into milk or any liquid.

Remember to wash your dishes, throw out your trash and tidy up your campsite, not only to keep critters away, but as a courtesy to other campers. Basically, please don’t be a jerk.

Set up your campsite

Trust me, you want to do this as soon as you arrive at your campsite, before your motivation dwindles — not after a day hike. Pitch your tent, and set up your “kitchen” area. For my S.O. and me, that includes, among other things, a prep station with a cutting board and knives, and dish washing station, with two bowls filled with water, one for scrubbing, the other for rinsing.

The campground we last visited had porta potties, but since sharing toilets with other campers during a pandemic made us uneasy, we designed our own toilet: literally a bucket with a toilet seat lid and Double Doodie Toilet Waste Bags, double-layered bags that contain bio-gel to deodorize and solidify your waste. We housed our little commode in a Wolfwise Privacy Tent.

Don’t forget lightweight, easy-to-set-up chairs, like the CLIQ Chair, for lounging. Or if you really want to step up your lounge game, string up a Wise Owl hammock.

Prep your day pack

If you plan on hiking, you’ll want to bring a day pack. For a longer hike, this REI pack has a hydration bladder and 30 liters of gear storage, and for a more arduous trek, this Oakley pack, made with heavy-duty fabric, has a bit more storage and a ridiculous array of compartments.

I like to pack, for starters, the right attire: my Buff, a mid-layer, a puffy layer if it’s cold, and sunglasses. My go-to snacks are Clif Builders, protein bars that hold you over, but don’t taste like concrete. (Crunchy Peanut Butter is my fav.) RX nut butters are also an incredibly convenient, delicious, and portable option for a shot of natural protein. I also carry a Nalgene filled with water. I’d bring a headlamp, too, in case you return from your hike later than you expect.

Track your hike with this Garmin fitness watch, and take a few victory swigs at the end from this Growler Werks’ growler, which will keep your beer not only ice cold, but carbonated too.

“But won’t beer make you want to pee?” you might ask. “And what if you don’t have a penis that allows you to do so discreetly?” I got you: This Sunany urination device enables you to pee standing up, without needing to completely remove your pants. I never hike without it.

While we all await a COVID-19 vaccine and/or treatment, camping in nature can at least serve as a balm to soothe our angst and anxiety — and it’s one of the few activities we can do right now. With a little preparation, you can ensure you’ll find the reprieve you need.

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