In the past decade, camping has exploded from the outdoorsy set’s humble pastime to the most popular way to spend downtime. A record 78.8 million U.S. households camped at least once in 2018, says the 2019 KOA North American Camping Report, and for the first time, 51 percent of new campers were nonwhite. Popular apps like Hipcamp have made it easier to find and book sites on private and public land, and the company is so buzzy that last year, Jay-Z and Will Smith (among others) became investors. The rise of glamping has also helped to make sleeping under the stars trendy: in 2019, Google searches for the term, which began in 2007, reached an all-time high. And #vanlife has fully mainstreamed, with 7.1 million posts on Instagram. Even as the U.S. remains under varying levels of lockdown, KOA found that 46 percent of all “leisure travelers” view camping as the safest form of travel once restrictions lift. Experts seem to agree that camping is a low-risk activity, as long as you avoid crowded campgrounds and ones with shared facilities like poorly ventilated restrooms.
Despite the changes that have made camping more comfortable, convenient, and accessible than ever before, all the important stuff has stayed the same—the fresh air, the trees, the sense of escape, and the quality time by the campfire. Here’s your updated guide to what’s still the best way to spend a weekend.
1. Glamping is camping.
Glamping was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016. The definition’s ambiguity—“outdoor camping with amenities and comforts (such as beds, electricity, and access to indoor plumbing) not usually used when camping”—allows for everything from bare-bones backcountry yurts to decked-out accommodations like the three-bedroom, two-bathroom tent introduced by the Resort at Paws Up in Montana last year ($2,908 per night). Are you a camping purist who’s become glamping curious? Read about Outside editor Christopher Keyes’s first glamping experience at Under Canvas Tucson.
2. It doesn’t have to be glam.
Tentrr partners with landowners in 29 states across the country to set up basic canvas tents on their properties, each one stocked with a queen-size mattress, a heater, Adirondack chairs, a fire pit, and other essentials. Prices start at $50 per night.
3. Stay local.
Many states are still under some level of travel restrictions. But even before the pandemic, more campers were sticking closer to home. KOA’s report found that 54 percent of campers traveled less than 100 miles to camp. And you don’t have to live near mountains or wilderness to do so. For urban dwellers, here are five dreamy campsites within 50 miles of a city.
4. Definitely take that dirt road.
There’s a special joy in turning down an unpaved road, bouncing over miles of washboard, and winding up in an Instagrammer’s dream: gorgeous views, no other campers, and no host plying your wallet for the pleasure of sleeping in nature. This kind of free camping in undeveloped sites, called dispersed camping, is increasingly popular in the U.S. on public lands that permit it, such as National Forest or BLM land. Not long ago, the locations of the best spots were traded like gold, each gleaned from sheer luck or hours spent poring over maps and exploring unmarked roads. Today you can use apps like OnX and Google Earth to digitally scope out tracks that could lead to potential campsites, or head to Campendium or Freecampsites.net to find spots marked with GPS coordinates and enhanced with user-submitted photos and reviews. However you find a site, make sure to minimize your impact by Leaving No Trace. Outside contributor Wes Siler has the rundown on dispersed camping.
5. Roughing it is out.
The best thing about car camping is that you get to bring everything. Here’s a short list of the guilty pleasures Outside editors have been known to bring car camping: the Kelty Low Loveseat camping couch; a Tempurpedic pillow; homemade dough and a cast-iron skillet to make campfire pizzas; an Aeropress and grinder to make good morning coffee; cleansers, toners, and moisturizers to keep the nightly skincare routine on point; and a comforter with a $135 organic-cotton duvet cover by Alterra Pure. Here are nine more unnecessary camp items you absolutely need to pack.
6. Vanlife has mainstreamed.
In October 2011, at age 23, Foster Huntington quit his Manhattan job as a designer at Ralph Lauren and moved into a 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon. He drove to the West Coast, where he surfed, shot for brands like Patagonia, and pioneered the hashtag #vanlife. Since then, so many people have discovered how sleeping on a mattress in a warm vehicle is a game changer that the tag now has 7.2 million posts. With travelers now looking for more socially distant and self-sufficient ways to hit the road, RV and camper rental companies like RVshare and Outdoorsy are citing a 650 and 450 percent increases in bookings, respectively, since the start of April compared with the same time last year. Here are seven more companies that will rent you a taste of #vanlife.
7. Find your go-to spot.
Growing up, Outside assistant editor Maren Larsen’s family had a house camping spot, not unlike a house cocktail or a house meal. She shares why you don’t need to go somewhere new to experience the magic of camping.
8. You don’t need expensive gear.
Instead of springing for gear that takes up garage space, rent from Arrive, which assembles kits for everything from bikepacking to solo trips. A set for two for a weekend, with a Marmot tent, Therm-a-Rest pads, and a Yeti cooler, is $265 including return shipping. Have it delivered to your home, your hotel, or a FedEx office near your site.
9. Go ahead, bring your phone.
A little tech support goes a long way toward relieving the logistical burden of camping. Hipcamp’s app, released in 2019, is a road-trip godsend, allowing you to reserve everything from tent sites to tree houses on the fly. (Note that along with establishing coronavirus cleaning guidelines for hosts, the app recently added an extra step where travelers have to check a box to self-certify that their booking doesn’t violate any local regulations or travel bans.) AllTrails Pro offers downloadable trail maps usable without cell service ($30 per year). And Dark Sky delivers hyper-local weather reports, so you’ll know if you need a rain fly for the night ($3 and up).
10. The campfire is still everything.
No matter how much has changed about camping, the best parts have stayed the same. One of those things: sitting by the fire. Outside contributor Blair Braverman waxes poetic on why the campfire is timeless. (Check your local restrictions, however: in part to mitigate the strain on first responders during the pandemic, many areas have fire bans in place.)
11. Don’t forget the deet.
And don’t stress about it too much, either. Past health problems caused by the insect repellent were mostly due to overapplication and ingestion. If you apply as the label recommends (once a day, to exposed skin only), and wash it off at the end of the day, you’ll be fine. It certainly beats risking mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile—or the woes of being the mosquito magnet at camp. Outside contributor Eva Holland knows about the latter far too well.
12. You will not be mocked for your massive tent.
If you’re car camping, go ahead and go big—it’s not like you’re thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. The most popular tent on Amazon, with nearly 10,000 reviews, is the Coleman Sundome ($150). The six-person model is 100 square feet, which is plenty of space for two queen mattresses.
13. Food tastes better outdoors.
It’s a fact. And you don’t need to mess with a stove, either. Here are three delicious ways to cook on a campfire from Outside associate managing editor Aleta Burchyski.
14. You need a sporktula.
Outside Gear Guy Joe Jackson used to swear by cutlery pilfered from Taco Bell for backpacking trips. “That was before I met the Morsel spork,” he says. The Morsel is a spoon, fork, knife, and spatula combo—in other words, a camping superutensil. He loves the XL size, with its long handle for scraping the last bits of a freeze-dried meal from the bag. We love that it’s only $13.
15. Backpacking has never sucked less.
Let’s be honest: backpacking can take you way out there to awe-inspiring places—but it can also have its painful moments. These nine new technical pieces of gear will help you travel faster, lighter, and in a little more comfort.
16. Keep it real on the ’Gram—or at least get creative.
Staged camping photos have become such a trope that the Instagram account @youdidnotsleepthere has racked up over 150,000 followers just by calling them out. Founder Luisa Jeffery says she’s seen every clichéd or unlikely scenario: “Long-exposure night shots, lit-up tents, feet out the tent, on a cliff, on a beach.” If you’re going to fake it, at least be original. “Some people have been staging campsites underwater, which is impressive,” she says. “Ridiculous, but impressive.”
17. Company is overrated.
Outside associate editor Jeremy Rellosa says you should camp alone at least once. Here’s why.
18. If you’re sleeping outside, you’re doing it right.
Whether you’re tent camping, vanlifing, or glamping, there’s nothing like the freedom and joy offered by a night spent under the stars. And, with a comfortable sleep setup, camp snoozes can even be more restorative than sleeping indoors. It’s science.