The Basics to Campgrounds and Camping

How to Set Up Camp and Pitch a Tent

A family pitching a tent
Lumi Images/Dario Secen/Getty Images

As you approach the campground entrance, the excitement begins and your heart beats a little faster. Don't get too excited yet, there's still the matter of checking in, picking out a site, and setting up camp. You might think that pitching a tent is the most important part of setting up your campsite, and it is important, but there are plenty of things to consider when camping

Checking In

When you first arrive at the campground you'll want to stop at the campground office and check in. Identify yourself to the campground hosts, and tell them whether you have a reservation or not. They'll have you fill out a registration form and state the number of campers, how long you intend to stay, and whether you're tent camping or RVing. While registering, ask to drive through the campground to pick out a site. Tell them this is your first time here, and you want to see what's available. The office may have a map so that you can see the different areas of the campground. If you have any location preferences, like close to the bathroom and showers, or next to the lake, or away from RVs, ask the attendants. This is also a good time to ask some questions about campground rules, quiet hours, garbage disposal areas, emergency contacts, ranger patrols (good to know if you're camping alone), or whatever else comes to mind.

Preparing Your Campsite and Pitch Your Tent

You've finally arrived at the campground, and you're scoping out the area to see which spot looks best for setting up your campsite. What should you be looking for?

  • Look for relatively high, level ground. There is some truth to the saying "high and dry." Pick any spot to set up your tent where it is elevated from the ground around it. In a storm, rain will flow away from your tent, rather than under it. You should never set up your tent on a slope, or you'll find yourself rolling out of your sleeping bag all night. So avoid campsites in low areas.
  • Check for a water source nearby. Water is essential for camping. You'll need it for all your drinking, cooking, and cleaning up. When choosing a campsite, check to see how far it is to the nearest water source. You don't want to have to walk far with a five-gallon container.
  • Find an adequate area for cooking. Don't ever cook in your tent. Most campsites have a grill and picnic table. For cook stoves, locate a flat area away from any leaves, twigs, or brush that may catch fire. And never leave an unattended campfire burning.
  • Pick another area for cleaning. Campgrounds typically have cleaning stations and water faucets. Please don't use bathrooms or drinking fountains to do your dishes. Don't kill the flora with hot, soapy water. Use bio-degradable soap, and only dump gray water in designated areas or where it will do no harm.
  • Find the garbage cans. Always keep a clean campsite. Collect all litter and keep it gathered away from your tent in a location out of reach of any of the local critters or pests. It's a good idea to bring plenty of plastic garbage bags and change them daily.
  • Pick a campsite with some shade. It's nice to have a shady spot to relax in during the heat of the day or while hanging out at the campsite. But as a word of caution, don't set your tent up under trees when it's likely to rain. Not only are you a target for lightening strikes, but you'll also get rained on long after the storm has stopped.

Time for Recreation

After setting up the campsite it's time to go do what you came here to do, go play. Now is the time to enjoy doing whatever it is that you like to do. For many campers, seeing the campsite set up and smelling the country air is a refreshing change from all of the confines of the city. Take this time to just sit down, get something cold to drink, and relax a spell. It's usually around this time, too, that the thought may go through your mind, "what did I forget to bring?" It never fails, there's always something useful that gets left behind, like a bottle opener, or the clothes line, or something.

More Campsite Tips

  • Keep a checklist. Itemize your gear and all the essentials that you use while camping. Depending on when and where you like to camp and what you like to do, the list will be ever changing. But most importantly use it.
  • Plan meal times. Whether it's just two of you or the whole family, let everyone know when it's meal time before they run off to play. Meals take more time to prepare at the campground, but it's also one of the chores that everyone seems to want to help out with.
  • Keep a clean campsite. After meals do a thorough job of cleaning the dishes and the eating area, and put all trash in appropriate containers. Never leave food unattended at the campsite because critters will make quick use of it and usually leave quite a mess in the process.
  • Observe campground rules. Campground rules, which are usually posted near the campground entrance, were made so that everyone can enjoy the campground. It only takes one camper from hell to ruin it for everyone else. Be a good neighbor.
  • Take a late night walk. Check out the stars, listen to the silence, smell the fresh air. It doesn't get any better than this.

Now get a good night's sleep.