Sleeping Under the Stars

Use this camping guide to help plan your outdoor adventure whether you’re a first-time or seasoned camper.


Brooklyn, N.Y., might not seem like an obvious base of operations for someone who enjoys occasionally communing with nature, but I’ve learned that it’s actually not a bad location for veteran outdoorsmen and beginners alike. Sure, there have been times when I’ve wished Prospect Park had a campground instead of a parade ground, and yet, many big cities are near parks, forests and seashores with camping areas. 

While I’ve camped in the western United States and in Europe as well, most of my experience is on the East Coast, and I firmly believe going on a camping trip an activity every city slicker should try at least once.

Affordable, Flexible Travel

One of the great things about a camping vacation is the relative flexibility it affords the traveler. At popular parks you may need to make reservations in advance, but at others, it’s possible to turn up at a ranger station and secure a campsite on the spot. You can also pack up and head home if the weather isn’t cooperating.

Moreover, camping trips tend to be quite inexpensive. Prices vary depending on where you're camping, how long you're staying and how many people are camping with you, but overall, park fees are very reasonable—starting at about $20 per night, or just less than $200 for a week. And once you’ve bought gear, you’re outfitted for years—decades with some equipment. Guided tours can range from $300 for a three-night tour to nearly $3,000 for an all-inclusive week; more, of course, for top luxury operators.

Finally, a few nights in a tent teaches you to slow down, relax and pay more attention to the world around you. Add to that the fact that you’re bringing only what you need (see Packing List), and that your activities probably involve a bike, a kayak or a pair of boots, and now you’ve got a green holiday. [Read about Biking Vacations, Kayaking Vacations and Hiking and Trekking Vacations.]

Trip Types and Duration

First-Timers: Car Camping

Generally speaking, my advice for first-time campers is easily summarized: Keep it short and keep it simple. Pick a nice weekend for an overnight outing, select a campground with showers and tap water, bring some healthy snack foods, and then rely on restaurants near trailheads for your main meals. This is car camping at its most convenient.

Lots of people find that car camping suits them well, and this type of escape can be extended with minimal effort—especially during shoulder seasons, the industry term for the months between the high and low seasons. Want to see another part of the park you’re visiting? Just throw your stuff in the car and drive to another campsite. Need supplies? Head to a nearby grocery store. Tempted to stay one more night? Stroll to the ranger station and ask if your spot’s booked the following day.

Seasoned Campers: Backcountry or Outfitter Trek

If you’re ready for or in need of a longer camping trip—be it one week, two or even more—you’ll probably want to upgrade from your standard gear, plan more carefully and really scrutinize your trusty packing list. Next, obtain any necessary backcountry permits, speak with a ranger on duty to learn more about trail conditions and go wild.

Another option is to do a bit of research and find an adventure outfitter that leads treks to a destination of interest. These companies (check out my suggestions below) will handle the nitty-gritty pre-trip details and provide meals, tents and other basic supplies. A final word of caution: Observe all posted warnings, and always pay attention to the local terrain and climate/weather before loading up your trunk or booking with an outfitter.

Packing List

Camping, especially trips of the backcountry variety, encourage us to pack light. Even if you’re sinking your tent stakes a few feet from your car, it’s still possible to enjoy the great outdoors without a ton of equipment. Here’s my list of essentials*:

  1. Tent (They come in many sizes, shapes and prices. Try to anticipate your longer-term needs before investing.)
  2. Footprint (If you’re tempted to accessorize your new shelter, get this small tarp first—it reduces wear and tear on the tent floor.) 
  3. Down sleeping bag and inflatable pad (Avoid cotton bags, which weigh more, absorb moisture and won’t keep you as warm at night.)
  4. Flashlight (Yes, it’s basic, but a torch will definitely come in handy.)
  5. Toilet paper and trowel (Don’t be a stinker; bury any waste away from your campsite.)
  6. Map and compass (Don’t get caught in the woods without these two items.)
  7. Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen (Bring these along even if it isn’t summer.)
  8. Daypack (You’ll want to stuff this with things like bug spray, extra batteries, water purification tablets, a small first-aid kit, matches/lighter, pocketknife, etc.)
  9. Water bottle (Remember to fill it up before leaving home.) [Read our article on new nontoxic bottles.]
  10. Cookset, bowls and utensils (If you’re going to spend multiple nights in the woods.)

*Note: I’ve intentionally left out food, clothing and other optional pieces of gear as they will depend on length of trip, season and to a certain degree, personal preference.

Outfitters and Online Resources

Backpacker Web Tutorials

Before setting out on your woodsy weekend, consult Backpacker magazine (and its content-rich Web site). Short, illustrated tutorials grouped under the heading “How To Do Everything” are helpful for first timers who’ve never set up a tent or built a fire.

Top Travel Companies

Earlier this year, National Geographic Adventure rated the best travel companies on Earth, arriving at a list of 200 outfitters that lead a wide range of trips around the world. Its online directory is a great resource for people who want a guided experience and don’t know where to start.

Started in 1938, Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) has grown to become the camping supply cooperative of choice for millions of outdoor enthusiasts. REI has also operated an adventure travel arm since 1987 and now offers more than 140 active, carbon-neutral journeys around the world and more than 60 trips across Canada and the United States for a variety of budgets.

Based in California and recently acquired by Intrepid Travel, Suntrek leads small groups on trips throughout North America and to 90 international destinations. Suntrek caters to students and au pairs as well as families, and doesn’t charge solo travelers a single supplement. 

Recommended Destinations

After a couple of weekend trips and a longer expedition or two, most people will know what type of camper they are … or aren’t. By that point you may have honed your s’mores recipe, too. (Homemade marshmallows anyone?) The following list represents my top spots around the country, chosen for both scenic variety and geographical distribution. (Also, check out our article on 10 Great National Parks.)


Located about halfway up Maine’s rocky coastline, Camden Hills State Park is easy to reach by car and just two miles from town if the call of civilization is too loud to ignore for more than a few nights. Hike up Mount Battie for panoramic views of shimmering Penobscot Bay and, on a clear summer day, a glimpse of Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain farther to the north. 280 Belfast Road. Camden. Tel. 207-236-3109. Park season: May 15 to Oct. 15.

New Jersey

It’s unfortunate that the Garden State gets a bad rap—numerous parks and recreation areas throughout New Jersey present city-dwellers and suburbanites with opportunities to go camping. Wharton State Forest is one such place with campsites near Atsion Recreation Area, open from April 1 through Dec. 15, for $20 per night. Once you’ve pitched your tent, take a canoe down the Mullica, Batsto, Wading or Oswego River. 31 Batsto Road, Hammonton. Atsion Office: tel. 609-268-0444.


Surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest, Red River Gorge in Kentucky’s Cumberland Ranger District has a small, developed campground but also permits dispersed camping within the greater geological area. Containing more than 100 natural stone arches, caves and rock shelters for exploring and an abundance of wildlife, Red River Gorge is one of the most scenic landscapes in the lower 48 for camping. 1700 Bypass Road, Winchester. Tel. 606-668-9214. Koomer Ridge Campground fees: April 10 to Oct. 30: $22 for a double campsite; Oct. 31 to April 8, $7 per site.


Millions of people visit Zion National Park every summer; so many in fact, that the park’s two main campgrounds are frequently filled to capacity. To avoid the crowds, head for the Visitors Center at Kolob Canyons. Backcountry camping does require a higher level of preparedness, but if you don’t mind hiking gear in and carrying waste back out, Utah’s wilderness can be enjoyed in near-solitude. (Read my related article on Zion’s 100th anniversary.] Zion National Park, Springdale. Tel. 435-772-3256. Entrance fee: $25 per car for a seven-day pass.


Featuring Yosemite Falls, North America’s tallest waterfall, and status as a World Heritage Site, Yosemite National Park in California is truly a celebrity among our nation’s protected places. It also boasts 13 large campgrounds, some of which are open year-round. Scattered around the massive park, they enable visitors to choose a site according to activities or natural features of interest. Reservations are strongly encouraged here. Yosemite National Park. Tel. 209-372-0200. Park entrance fee: $20 per car.


[Turns out you can camp in Brooklyn after all, at least according to this New York Daily News article.]

Destinations: Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, Utah, Zion National Park, California, Yosemite National Park

Themes: Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Camping

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