How to Camp in the Woods

A Complete Guide to Finding, Outfitting, and Enjoying Your Adventure in the Great Outdoors


By Devon Fredericksen

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Immerse yourself in the natural world with How to Camp in the Woods, the book StarTribune says “does all but set up the tent.”

Perfect for everyone from novices to boondockers, How to Camp in the Woods compiles contemporary and classic wisdom, practical tips, and illustrated DIY advice on every aspect of equipping, packing, setting up camp, cooking, and improvising no matter where you are in the great outdoors. How to Camp in the Woods will teach readers:
  • Camping and survival basics including fire building, essential knots, site finding, wilderness first aid/CPR, map/compass reading, and camping off the grid.
  • Essential gear, packing light, recommendations for DIY if you’ve left something behind, and how to keep everything relatively clean.
  • Guides to camping comfortably in all seasons and weather, as well as tips and etiquette for camping around the world, including with pets and kids.
  • Tips for enhancing the experience, including recipes for easy and inexpensive meals from 25 base ingredients, stargazing essentials, fireside games and songs, bird-watching, and the perfect campfire reading list.


Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity…

—John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901

There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.

—Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

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CAMPING FOR RECREATION IS NOTHING NEW, having become a popular pastime as early as the 1860s. As a way to experience the outdoors, camping has continued to grow and evolve over the past 100-plus years. In the United States, shortly after the first guide to recreational camping was published in 1908, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts organizations were founded. Around that same time, vacations to explore national parks soared in popularity. In an increasingly industrialized society, the scouting programs and national parks offered paths for children and their parents to reconnect to the natural world—and they still do today.

In 1856, Henry Hopkins Sibley, an officer in the US Army, patented his canvas bell-style conical tent modeled after the traditional tepee structure used by native Plains and Great Plains peoples. Eventually, the functional design allowed campers to quickly set up and take down temporary outdoor shelters—a convenience that made camping more appealing and accessible. During the Great Depression, camping got a boost when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was developed as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program. The goal of the CCC was to lower the unemployment rate by hiring laborers to work on conservation and natural resource projects. One of the by-products of this program was the creation of more than 800 state parks, which made the outdoors more accessible to many.

After World War II, as a result of increased wealth and leisure time, a surge of campers flocked to wilderness areas across North America, embracing time-tested nomadic traditions and designs that certain Native American tribes had been employing for thousands of years. Summer camps gained popularity, teaching games and rituals adopted from various North American tribes. In the 1960s and ’70s, the cultural shift toward conservation and environmental protection sparked a growing interest in outdoor recreation. Now, with the advent of social media and instant photo sharing—a phenomenon that allows thousands of people to learn the exact GPS coordinates of a picturesque campsite—the popularity of camping has reached an all-time high. With this growing trend comes an ever-increasing urgency to link camping with environmental stewardship.

As people camp in the wilderness in greater numbers, fragile natural areas can suffer the consequences—a threat that necessitates extra care be taken to limit the environmental impact of camping. The Leave No Trace Seven Principles outlined in this book are not just codes of conduct for proper camping etiquette—they are rules that should be closely followed to preserve our wild spaces for generations to come.

Advancements in manufacturing have made camping more approachable for many. However, it can still seem out of reach for more marginalized groups in society, where cultural norms or the amount of leisure time or money can be limiting factors. Steps have been taken in the outdoor gear industry and the national parks system to help groups that are typically underrepresented in the outdoors world feel more welcome, but there is still a long way to go. One of the goals of this book is to present information about camping in a way that makes it more accessible to everyone. Camping doesn’t require investing in the most expensive gear or learning hard-core wilderness survival skills. It simply requires a bit of know-how, enough gear to stay safe in the elements, and the right temperament to revel in the joys that camping can inspire.

How to Camp in the Woods is a comprehensive guide to enjoying the great outdoors, covering trip planning, gear selection, basic skills, etiquette, cooking tips, activities, and safety protocols. If you are new to camping, you will find all the information needed to confidently plan and execute a safe and enjoyable trip. If you are an experienced camper, you will learn new tips and tricks to make your forays more streamlined, enjoyable, and sustainable.


For some, camping is about exploration or testing the human limits of endurance. For others, it’s about leisure and quality time spent with family and friends. The common thread behind the myriad reasons for camping is usually the desire to connect with nature. Away from population-dense city centers, a starlit night sky is no longer obscured by light pollution. The stars shine with more definition, and in the most remote places on a clear night you can observe the sparkling expanse of the Milky Way. A chorus of birdsong accompanies each sunrise. Water filtered from a cold stream is the most refreshing reward at the end of a day spent in the wilderness, and when you’re camping, food simply tastes better. As the sun sets, frogs begin to croak in chorus, marking the time to gather around a campfire and share stories. When the moon is full, it casts so much light across the landscape that you can see your shadow. This time spent in nature can realign your sense of self. Even an overnight camping trip can feel restorative.

Camping in the traditional sense means finding the right balance between comforts and basic human needs for shelter, food, and water in the wilderness. However, it doesn’t need to feel like roughing it. Precautions can be taken and gear can be packed that will limit your exposure to uncomfortable or harmful situations. However, traditional camping isn’t typically luxurious. Luxuries like electronics, lavish living quarters, or modern amenities such as refrigeration, air-conditioning, or central heating aren’t considered part of the classic camping experience, so they won’t be covered in this book.

A number of situations have the potential to reduce your enjoyment of the great outdoors. A swarm of mosquitoes can convince even the most seasoned camper to retreat into the confines of a tent. Relentless rain can dampen high spirits. A poorly insulated jacket or sleeping bag, an unstable tent flapping in the wind, or a stiff sleeping pad positioned over a tree root can make sleep impossible. Yet with the right tools and know-how detailed in this book, you can take measures to minimize discomfort by packing and preparing for all possible variables. When you’re wearing the appropriate layers, and your tent is holding steady in the wind, and you’re cozy inside a warm sleeping bag and lying on a comfortable sleeping pad, you can then relax and listen to the breeze rustling through the trees.

Once any discomfort or safety issues have been addressed, the joy of engaging with nature can commence. There are many ways to interact with and enjoy the outdoors while camping. Many people relish the relief from the distractions and stress of work, technology, and household chores. Some look forward to the social aspect of gathering around a campfire and singing songs. Children delight in the opportunity to roast marshmallows and explore all the wonders of a forest. Intrepid campers like to test their outdoor skills and endurance by carrying minimal gear along a trail for days on end. Regardless of your motivation, the experience of spending time in the outdoors creates memories that bond people to each other and to the natural world in ways that can last a lifetime.


Just as there are many ways to appreciate the outdoors, there are many ways to camp. The choices range from amenity-packed recreational vehicle (RV) camping to an ultralight ramble with just a tarp and some cord to rig a makeshift shelter. The more luxurious the camping setup you require, the more money you’ll spend on gear and the less time you’ll spend in direct contact with nature’s elements. Choose the style of camping best suited to your disposition, budget, and fitness level.


Defined as the style of camping where you can drive right up to the campground or campsite, frontcountry camping lends itself to packing a lot more gear than you would for backcountry camping. Frontcountry camping includes RVing, glamping, car camping, van camping, and walk-in camping. When frontcountry camping, the size of your vehicle determines the amount of gear you can pack. Many frontcountry campgrounds include wheelchair-accessible paths and toilet facilities, running water, food-storage boxes, fire rings, picnic tables, and sometimes even showers.

Car camping

Car camping is most commonly used as an umbrella term for frontcountry camping. But in its truest form, car camping refers to parking right next to your campsite. This makes unloading gear incredibly convenient. Some car-camping campgrounds provide outhouses or composting toilets, while others are outfitted with amenities such as restrooms, a campground store, and sometimes even a swimming pool.

RV camping

Camper vans and RVs are permitted only in select campgrounds, so you should check ahead to make sure you can camp at your destination in a motor home. RV camping is appealing to people who want the comfort of certain amenities to make it easier to sleep, cook, and use the bathroom, while also enjoying easy access to the outdoors. Some RV-friendly campgrounds provide hookups for electricity, and sometimes even a dump station for disposing of human waste from RV toilets. It’s possible to park RVs in some campgrounds that don’t offer hookups. This is called dry camping, when no electricity, water, or sewer connections are supplied. RVs and camper vans are also well suited for roadside camping on long road trips in areas where campgrounds are few and far between.


A term used to describe a luxurious camping style, glamping can be very high-end and almost resort-like, depending on the destination. Certain home-rental and camping reservation websites now advertise yurts, platform cabin tents, and bare-bones structures that come with amenities that make the camping experience feel downright deluxe, while still allowing for easy access to scenic areas. This type of camping is not covered in this book, but it’s easy to find online.

Walk-in camping

Many campgrounds include both car-camping and walk-in campsites. While you can park your car right next to car-camping sites, walk-in sites require you to park in a designated parking area and then haul your gear on foot to a campsite located away from the car. Some campgrounds provide wagons to help transport gear. Although walk-in sites require some extra work to unload the car and set up camp, they are often much quieter and farther removed from other campers. This is a good option when you want the ease of car camping but choose to avoid the potential downsides of nearby neighbors.

Bike touring and bikepacking

Bike touring is similar to backpacking but instead of traveling on foot, you travel on a touring bike to get to each new destination. Panniers are typically used for carrying gear, as they securely attach to racks on the front and back of a bike. Some panniers are waterproof so gear doesn’t get soaked in wet weather. Bikepacking is different from bike touring in that a mountain bike is used to travel on trails and rougher terrain. The trick to bike touring and bikepacking is to pack as light as possible. The amount of gear that you would pack on a bike is about equal to the amount you would carry while backpacking. A bike that isn’t loaded down with a lot of heavy gear is also much easier to ride uphill and for long distances.

Van camping

It’s becoming increasingly popular to outfit a van with a built-in bed and sometimes even a kitchen unit. Van camping provides a comfortable place to sleep, even on the side of the road, and protection from the elements. Vans also usually get better gas mileage than RVs or camper vans, so they are a more affordable option when extra amenities are your style.

Roof-rack tent

In the past few years, manufacturers have begun making tents designed to sit on a rigid platform secured to the top of a vehicle roof rack. These rooftop tents come in a variety of styles and sizes. Some have vestibules and ladders and can accommodate a queen-size inflatable mattress. With a roof tent, you gain elevated sleeping space. Some roof-rack tents are made to fasten to the top of sedans. A similar type of tent can be set up in the bed of a truck.


Backcountry camping encompasses the kinds of trips that require carrying gear into the wilderness via human-powered modes of transportation, such as backpacking, kayaking, mountain biking, canoeing, snowshoeing, or skiing. Backcountry camping often requires being much more weight- and space-conscious than frontcountry camping, because all gear must be hauled by you and packed into the limited confines of backpacks, dry bags, or panniers. Still, certain kinds of backcountry camping allow for a surprising amount of gear. For example, more gear can be packed into a canoe than, say, a backpack or kayak, but a canoe can hold only so much. If you overload a canoe, you risk gear falling overboard or weighing the canoe down so much that it becomes difficult to maneuver.

If you choose to pursue backcountry camping, be sure to read the rules and regulations that apply to the specific place where you plan to camp to learn about food-storage protocols, fire restrictions, and any safety updates.


Backpacking involves hiking on foot from a trailhead to a wilderness camping area. It requires owning a backpack fitted to your size and height and a selection of specialized gear and clothing.

The rule of thumb is that the pack, when loaded, shouldn’t weigh more than 20 percent of your body weight. So a 150-pound person should aim to carry a backpack no heavier than 30 pounds. A loaded backpack can be weighed at home by standing on a scale without the backpack and recording your weight, then stepping back onto the scale while wearing the backpack and subtracting the difference to determine the backpack’s stand-alone weight.

Some backpackers prefer to hike to a backcountry campsite destination and then stay at that site for a few days, day hiking from the home base. Others choose to backpack to a new campsite each day, which requires packing up the tent on travel days and setting it up again at each new destination.

Backpacking backpack

Minimalist camping

Considered to be one of the original minimalist campers, naturalist and author John Muir would carry little more than bread, sugar, a tin cup, and a couple of blankets on some of his expeditions. Today, minimalist camping is less extreme. Also referred to as ultralight backpacking, minimalist camping requires investing in featherlight gear, which is often more expensive. There are ultralight options for all sorts of gear, including stoves, backpacks, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, cooking utensils, and clothing. The goal of the minimalist camper is to strip down the number of items packed to only the bare essentials, with each item weighing as little as possible.


A term coined to refer to extended backpacking trips along one of the three longest trails in the US, thru-hiking requires an incredible amount of planning, preparation, and endurance. Thru-hikers typically backpack along the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, or Continental Divide Trail, which range in length from 2,100 to 3,100 miles and usually take several months and many resupply stops to complete. Many thru-hikers opt to pack ultralight gear given the sheer number of miles that must be traveled daily.

Winter camping

Some forms of winter camping require snowshoeing or skiing to your destination with a pack on your back. Rustic basic huts or cabins are sometimes located at the end point for these trips into the backcountry, which allows winter campers to leave their tents behind. Some people backpack in the winter or late fall, when snow blankets the ground. For this type of camping, a four-season tent is the optimal choice and an extra-warm sleeping bag and clothing are absolute essentials. Depending on the destination, taking an avalanche safety course may be necessary.

Camping with pack animals

Certain backcountry trails permit bringing pack animals with you. This means you can either bring your own pack animal or pay for a pack animal as part of a backcountry trip with a tour company that offers this service. Typically, the animals will carry your gear while you hike. Depending on the pack animal service, you can sometimes even ride the pack animal into the backcountry instead of hiking. This is a good option for people who still want to enjoy the backcountry but who aren’t physically capable of traveling the whole way while also carrying gear.

Water touring

Kayaks, canoes, and inflatable rafts allow you to pack more gear than you would think, and the speed and mobility of a watercraft can help you travel to remote backwater campsites located on ocean islands or along the shorelines of rivers and lakes. Various sizes of dry bags or tightly tied garbage bags are used to keep your gear dry.

Certain models of kayaks are built for sea kayaking versus lake or river kayaking. Similarly, certain models of canoes are better suited for camping trips and weigh less for easier portaging. Various types of rafts are used for camping trips along rivers. Framed rafts offer good stability for going over rapids without the risk of gear falling out. Lightweight pack rafts can be folded to fit into a backpack. This allows more mobility and the freedom to hike to a river put-in where there is no road access.


Camping destinations abound if you know where to find them. The trick is determining where you are allowed to camp safely and legally. The other requirement is to strictly follow the Leave No Trace Seven Principles wherever you stop, especially in locations without designated campsites. To limit the traffic to fragile ecosystems, it’s always best practice to camp in designated campgrounds and campsites whenever possible.


The US and its territories are home to more than 400 National Park Service sites, which are areas of scenic, historical, or scientific value that have been set aside for protection and outdoor recreation. Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, after Congress signed an act designating it as a protected public park. This then set a precedent worldwide for preserving important scenic areas for generations to come. The National Park Service, created in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, was given authority to manage and conserve these preserved areas. It was also given the responsibility of limiting human impact on these natural and historic spaces, while allowing people enough freedom to recreate.

The 84 million acres set aside as national parks feature dramatic landscapes, unique geology, and seemingly endless opportunities for exploration. Consequently, some of the more popular camping destinations are national parks. They feature established campgrounds and campsites that are available for car camping, RV camping, and van camping, as well as designated campsites in the backcountry areas that are ideal for backpacking and getting away from the bustle. To reduce the human impact on fragile ecosystems, some of the most popular hiking trails enforce a reservation lottery system that limits the number of people camping along the trails each night. However, national parks reserve a small percentage of permits for walk-ins, either the day of or before your planned trip. Just be sure to get to the park office early to get in line. Whether you’re frontcountry or backcountry camping, check in advance of your trip to find out whether a campsite can be reserved.


Free camping is also referred to as bandit camping, dispersed camping, boondocking, or wild camping. The essential idea is to locate a camping spot in an area where no fee is required to stay there. In some countries you can camp on privately owned property. Investigate applicable laws and ask for permission before pitching a tent. It’s inadvisable to camp right next to a main road or walking path. Instead, find a location hidden from view and near a water source, if possible. If you see any litter from previous visitors, pack it out.

You can sometimes purchase a book or find online sites that provide information about free campsites in your specific destination area. Free camping is a somewhat controversial form of camping because it creates the potential for irresponsible campers to damage wild areas. The benefit of paying an overnight camping fee is that the money helps pay for upkeep and maintenance of the campground and its facilities. These fees are especially important for government-managed park and forest systems that rely on a combination of user fees and tax dollars for maintenance and preservation.


Most designated national forests and grasslands in the US allow people to camp for free. Before you head for one of these areas, be sure to find out what rules apply to the specific area and whether camping is prohibited due to safety issues or environmental protection. Nightly fees might apply when staying in established campsites or campgrounds. Camping in a national forest or grassland is a good option for backpacking, car camping, bikepacking, van camping, and RV camping. Although the camping is free outside of designated campgrounds, the time that you’re allowed to stay in any one location is typically 14 days. For tent camping, you will want to pull off along a forest service road and then haul gear on foot from your car to a level spot to pitch a tent, at least 200 feet from any water source. For van camping or RV camping, you will want to find a spacious pullout on a forest service road and set up camp there. National forest and grassland camping usually does not provide easy access to amenities, so you will need to bring your own water, unless you know where to find a nearby body of water.

When camping in national forests or where there are no established campsites and campgrounds, be sure you camp responsibly. Before building a campfire, you should check in with a ranger station to see whether you need to secure a fire permit and whether any fire regulations apply to your specific camping area.

Pick up all trash, even if it isn’t yours. Dispose of waste properly (see here), and after you disassemble fire rings, scatter or bury all ashes.


Similar to national parks, state parks and forests are areas that have been protected by state governments. They are managed by each state, not the federal government. Check the state-specific regulations for the park or forest you plan to visit, as rules and restrictions can vary. Many state parks provide established campgrounds and campsites with amenities, along with trails that lead to more remote campsites ideal for backcountry camping trips.

In some state forests, free camping is permitted outside designated campgrounds and recreation areas. The restrictions that apply to any specific state forest usually depend on the laws of that state, so advance research is necessary before camping anywhere you like in a state forest. Developed campgrounds can be found in many state forests, so you can find places to camp that provide amenities and established campsites.


Many of the western states in the US include regions of land that are publicly owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Although these areas do not provide developed campgrounds, campsites, or amenities, you do not need to pay a fee to camp on the land. However, you’ll need to research the area where you want to camp to make sure it isn’t in the middle of cattle grazing land or a mining operation, since ranchers and miners can lease BLM land for these purposes. If you can find a spot away from these uses, camping on BLM land is a good option for car camping, van camping, bikepacking, and RV camping. In most areas you can set up camp in pullouts or carry your gear from a road to a more secluded area and camp there for a maximum of 14 days. A van or RV can be parked on the side of the road as long as the vehicle is situated completely off the road.

As with camping in national forests, you should camp at least 200 feet from any water source, pick up any trash, dispose of human waste responsibly, and remove any evidence of a firepit. You should also check in with a BLM field office to identify any fire restrictions, and to see whether obtaining a campfire permit is required.


The only way beautiful, pristine areas will remain accessible to the record number of people who want an outdoor experience is to take steps to reduce recreational impact on the environment. This is a matter of taking personal responsibility for your own actions. The following guidelines should not be considered optional. They are critically important for ensuring the enjoyment of all campers and preserving our last remaining wild spaces.


On Sale
May 7, 2019
Page Count
304 pages

Devon Fredericksen

About the Author

Devon Fredericksen has camped around the world and has backpacked and bagged peaks across much of the American West. She’s worked as a sea-kayak guide in the San Juan Islands, has cycled across Central America, and has rock climbed in many of world’s premier climbing areas. She coauthored 50 Classic Day Hikes of the Eastern Sierra and Greenfire, and her work has appeared in High Country News, Guernica, Yes!, Indian Country Today, Meatpaper, and Eastside magazine. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

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