Last Christmas, my parents asked each other for sleeping bags. They got them, along with camp chairs, portable cookware and plastic wine glasses (from yours truly). See, as newlyweds, Mom and Dad loved to camp. Then they settled down, and decades passed while their passion for the outdoors faded to the background. But after a few trips with friends to nearby state parks and an outing to the Utah desert with me last fall, they were hooked (more accurately, re-hooked). So, now it's official: My parents are renewing their vows—with camping.
They're in good company. Almost 34 million Americans sleep under the stars each year and that number is growing. It makes sense, especially in these economically challenging times: Once you invest in a tent and other basic gear, your biggest expense will likely be a campsite that costs $20 or less per night. But that's just scratching the surface of what the activity has to offer.
The chance to "unplug" can be especially valuable for families. Camping rookie Hannah Bissell, 38, and her husband took their two children on an overnight trip last summer. Son Ethan, 6, and daughter Morgan, 4, swam in the lake and explored the woods at a nearby state park. "There were no video games, no DVDs—nothing plugged in—and they still had a great time," Hannah says.
Joining the ranks of tent-pitchers and campfire connoisseurs may be easier than you think. Car camping is as simple as driving to the campsite, setting up your tent and preparing a meal on the grill. You don't even need fancy sleeping bags, just blankets and pillows from home. "Full-service" campgrounds feature bathrooms and showers, fire pits, grills and picnic tables. If you want a more one-with-the-woods experience, opt for primitive campsites—these spots might not have running water, but they score high on scenic beauty and solitude. And regardless of whether you pitch your tent at a five-star campsite or just in your backyard, there's one essential piece of gear sure to make camping more enjoyable: a sense of adventure.
Take it outside with tips from the American Hiking Society's Seth Levy.
- Buddy-up. Head out with friends or family members who know the ropes, or look for local chapters of organizations such as the Sierra Club that may host group outings.
- Ask questions. Tap the staff at a local outdoor store for best camping spots and gear recommendations—some stores, such as REI, even offer free camping clinics.
- Ease into it. Especially if you have kids, practice pitching your tent in your backyard. For your first real adventure, choose a full-service campground near your home; venture farther as you gain experience.