News, know-how, and opinion for the adventure conscious reader.

The Quick and Dirty on Camping

Dispersed car camping. Lone Pine, California.

Dispersed car camping. Lone Pine, California.

In a lot of my blog posts I reference camping in California.  And sometimes it’s accompanied by some sniping about intimidating setbacks either from popularity or warranted restrictions.  But I’m here to promote adventures in California, not dissuade any would-doer curious about the countless wild pockets of our state. 

The simple life can be complicated, so here’s a quick rundown for anyone thinking about exploring the outdoors for the first time. 


Top three essentials are tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad.  Skip Wal-Mart and get something decent, from a local shop if you can.  Otherwise REI has a very good deal on a quality setup.

Next you’ll need food and water.

For food you’ll need a gas stove, large or small.  In many cases you’ll have an opportunity to cook over fire, but even in campgrounds there are frequent fire bans, so it’s a good idea to default to gas, especially in the backcountry.  You’re also likely to be hungry well before you’re ready to start a campfire.  Some campgrounds do have charcoal grills.

What you eat depends on your taste but also scenarios. If you’ve got a cooler pack whatever you want. If you’re backpacking though you’ll need to consider space and weight. Most people eat a lot of dehydrated food, either homemade (pasta or rice based usually) or packaged meals.

In the backcountry and at suspect campgrounds you’ll need to purify your water with a filter or SteriPen.

A short list of other essentials includes:
Pocket Knife
First Aid Kit
Map/Compass (if backcountry (and knowledge of using both))
Trash Bags


There are a bunch of places and ways to camp.  There are national parks, national forests, national wilderness areas, state parks, state recreation areas, state beaches, BLM, and private land.  You can either camp in a developed campground, in wilderness accessible only by foot or in wilderness accessible by vehicle.  There’s also plenty of boat-in camping on lakesides, islands and seashores.

But camping is generally divided between car camping and backpacking. 


Car Camping

Car camping is done at established campgrounds in state parks, national parks and private properties.  Campgrounds have reservable and first-come, first-served sites, usually outfitted with a fire pit or grill, and picnic table. Developed campgrounds have bathrooms with toilets, sinks and sometimes showers. Primitive campgrounds have vault toilets if anything at all.  Most accommodate RV’s and most get crowded.

There are also lots of wilderness areas with dispersed camping, which is car camping with none of the above, which is sometimes the point. 

Car camping’s advantage is you can carry a ton of gear and live the luxe life.  It’s great for first timers, folks hoping to do several activities over the course of their stay or roadtrippers moving from place to place.


Backpacking means leaving your car at a trailhead and bringing everything you’ll need for a night or several nights in the wilderness.  This requires a big backpack and efficient packing.  You’ll have to work to get to your site, which are seldom designated or numbered, but the rewards are usually worth it. 

Backpacking is what most people picture when they think of camping in the outdoors.  And true wilderness can be closer to the car than you think.  There are plenty of sensational trips requiring very little miles or elevation gain.


This can bet he hard part but there are always options.

A ton of National Forest and BLM land is wide open for public use and include car and backcountry camping opportunities.  You will need a state issued fire permit if you plan on a fire and these can be obtained with a quick tutorial and quiz online.

Camping at State Park campgrounds can be booked up to six months in advance at Reserve California or by calling.

Camping at campgrounds in National Parks as well as backpacking reservations in federal wilderness areas can be reserved up to six months in advance at Recreation.gov or by calling. 

Wilderness reservations in national parks can be reserved through the individual park website, mail or telephone reservation systems. Here’s Yosemite’s for instance.


Summer is the peak camping season but you can sleep outside whenever you’d like.  Even in summer however, California recreation areas do still experience winter conditions, with fallen snow and freezing temperatures normal.  Likewise, some areas are scorching hot with limited water.  Make sure you check current conditions and weather ahead of your trip.


Leave No Trace is the prevailing authority on proper etiquette in nature.  It’s important to tread softly and to be aware of (and observe) any restrictions when visiting the outdoors.  Don’t interact with wildlife if you can help it.

Have Fun!

Camping is the foundation of adventure.  It gets you right in front of anything you could dream of doing in the outdoors and can keep you there for as long as you packed for.  You can wak up early for a surf or bath in a hot spring, go for a hike or a bike ride, catch fish for dinner or gril burgers and wind up stoking a campfire and crashing under stars. There’s a ton of fun to be had with combinations to last a lifetime. Mix in your favorite adventure hobby and you’re bound to get hooked.

Do your homework, check conditions, observe regulations and have a blast.