Urbanites nostalgic about childhood camping trips — or wanting to try tent camping for the first time — are often daunted by logistical challenges, like figuring out where to go and what to bring, and anxieties about diving headlong into the unfamiliar wilderness.
Fear not. For those more accustomed to navigating subways than wooded trails, a wealth of online resources, a new generation of camping equipment and a national network of user-friendly campsites make reserving a place to pitch a tent no tougher than hailing a cab.
"The main misconception about camping is that it's hard," said Chuck Stark, a senior camping instructor at the REI Outdoor School in Chicago. "When you start planning, it's actually really straightforward. The key is to keep it simple."
The first step, he said, is to do a little homework and figure out where you'd like to go. "The Best in Tent Camping" book series (Menasha Ridge Press) reviews campsites in 30 states and is loaded with detailed ratings that can help you avoid blaring stereos, convoys of RVs, poor maintenance and concrete slab platforms. Many other local guides, both online and in print, are also available.
Next, identify what's essential to your comfort. Maybe it's back support (bring a cot). Or having separate tents for kids and parents. Or bringing s'mores. Or earplugs: The wilderness can be surprisingly noisy at night.
Before setting out, reserve a place to pitch your tent — ideally as early as nine months before. Luckily, the reservations process is now similar to that at a hotel — without the hefty price tag.
Perhaps the single most important resource for campers in the United States is the online reservation service ReserveAmerica.com, which includes campgrounds in state and national parks, as well as many run by regional agencies and some private companies.
The website, and a few others including smaller networks of campsites, features detailed maps of each site. You can reserve the precise spot where you'll pitch your tent, deciding how near or far you'd like to be from modern amenities and nearby trails, rivers or other features. Some areas can also be contacted directly.
Campsite fees are generally between $10 and $25 a night, depending on the park, amenities and season. Advance reservations, particularly for more coveted areas, are strongly recommended. If you're flexible about dates and locations, though, many campsites can be reserved on shorter notice. The camping season generally runs from May to October.
In addition to offering some of the most stunning scenery around, many state and national parks now offer clean private showers and porcelain flush toilets, potable water and electrical outlets, playgrounds, boating, swimming and hiking. Firewood is often available for sale, and most individual campsites are equipped with picnic tables and fire rings. These campsites also offer the security of being regularly patrolled by rangers and, unlike at many big private campsites, RVs and mobile homes are limited and there are designated quiet hours.
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