The Learning Curve – Camping Tips for City Folk

Most city folk don’t know the first thing about camping. In fact, camping may be the last thing you ever want to do, but it can be a wonderful experience if you give it a shot.

When my daughters were young and I was a student, I got tired of waiting to be able to afford a fun family holiday, and began going on camping trips with them.

With no experience, and without anyone camping with me, there were some bumpy times. Camping in a provincial park in Manitoba, we were rained out. I hadn’t waterproofed my new tent and everything got soaked; our clothes, our food, even the car (I hadn’t rolled up the windows). But we didn’t give up just because of weather!

Not only is the cost of camping geared toward the budget of a student, you have more freedom than you would in a hotel. For you first-time campers, or you folks who had a really bad experience camping and have avoided it ever since, here is a set of tips that can really make your experience enjoyable.

So erase the idea of mosquitoes swarming you in the morning (and evening) while you sip gritty campfire coffee. we’re not talking about wilderness camping here; this is how to car camp in a civilized manner!

Picking and preparing a tent

You can now buy reasonably priced tents that have built-in poles. I recently picked up a new tent for $190 on sale—six-person with built-in poles and solar-powered LED lights with removable solar charging flashlight!

Most comedy sketches about camping poke fun at people trying to set up a tent, but these tents save a lot of time—they can be set up in four minutes, including fly and tent pegs. Known as EZ-Tent by Woods, they’re also available in four- and eight-person models. A four-person version of the EZ-Tent lasted six years, camping most weekends in the summer, mildew damage, losing the tent bag the first year, peanut butter accidents, and going without a tent fly for the last year.

If you read the reviews on this tent (as all good students would, right?), people are whining that rain gets in. Of course it does—rain will leak into any tent before you waterproof it. But waterproofing spray can be picked up at Wal-Mart for $11 and it works. If You’re really worried, stop by a Canadian Tire and get tent wax. It looks like a big Chapstick and you run it on the seams inside the tent and fly to make sure water won’t get in.

Set your tent up at home and follow the instructions to waterproof it. Also, make sure you read the instructions that come with it; they’ll tell you how to clean it in case of a food- or nature-related accident.

Some campers think it builds character when You’re putting together a “real” tent. But unless you want a 16-person tent with a detachable gazebo, you can stay with a simple approach. Hard-core campers might give a giggle—until it is a beautiful 28 C day and your tent is up a full half hour before theirs and You’re on the beach before they have their fly on!

Picking your campsite

Start easy. Pick a provincial park close to home to test out your equipment and camping skills. Pick a site with electricity, and one within walking distance to something you want to do. Like the beach? Going for walks? Photography? Jumping off a dock into a lake? Build your first trip around what you know and love.

If You’re not ready for full-on nature, you can camp at a park that has a swimming pool. Do not head for an unstaffed, remote campground on your first trip. As silly as it sounds, re-introduce yourself to nature gradually.

Inside your tent

Nothing should touch the walls—if it rains, that might cause a leak. And do not keep food inside your tent, because critters like food (and chips inside your sleeping bag are no fun at all). If chocolate attracts kids, imagine what other animals it might attract.

Sleeping-wise, you can choose an air mattress or foam (camping foam unrolls to go under your sleeping bag). Always have a sleeping bag; if it is cold it will keep you warm, and if it is warm out, you can sleep on top of it and be quite cozy. Bring a light fleece blanket as well. don’t use a camping pillow; those are for hikers and hard-core campers. Bring a few pillows from home and you’ll sleep that much better.

Keep all your clothing and personal items inside a plastic tote, or at least a double garbage bag inside your tent. In case a little water gets in, your clothes and equipment will be dry! One important tip: bring two sleeping bags. There’s nothing nicer than sitting in front of a fire cuddled up with your sleeping bag. Use one bag for outside the tent and one to sleep in. Plus, you’ll have a spare if one gets wet or it gets cold out!


Stomach upsets really suck when you are camping so keep it simple, meaning foods you are used to. Here are some foods you can easily cook on or in a fire and that taste great: corn on the cob, S’Mores (roasted marshmallows between two graham crackers and a piece of Aero chocolate bar), shish kebabs, hot dogs, campfire pies (pie filling between bread, cooked in a campfire sandwich maker), bannok (Bisquick works for this), Jiffy Pop, and canned food (take the top off and put the can in the corner of a fire to warm up). Just remember your can opener!

It might sound good in theory, but don’t plan to cook everything over the fire. Small propane stoves are less than $30 and will come in handy if it is too hot for a fire or you just want to boil water for tea. If you never plan on camping again, you can keep it around in case your power goes out.


Bring a lot of newspaper to help start your fire or buy some Firestarter. It is inexpensive, usually sold in the camping aisle of any bigger store, and will make your trip so much more fun (unless you love feeling like a caveman, screaming to the world “I make fire!”).

Keep all your material for fire and cooking in a plastic tote so it won’t get wet, and bring an empty pail to keep by the fire, filled with water. When You’re done for the evening, you won’t have to grope around in the dark for a water tap, and if a piece of wood flies out of your fire you can dump water on it. Always put your fire out for the night.  100 per cent completely out. I don’t care if it is pouring rain, put it out.

Also, call ahead to make sure you can buy wood at the campground. Most campsites won’t let you bring in your own wood anymore because of tree diseases or other things they’re trying to keep out of their park.

Things to keep you happy

Twice as many clothes as you need. Sunscreen, bug spray, and a hat. A coffee maker. That’s right, a coffee maker (part of the reason for picking a campsite with electrical plugs).

Bring a kettle if you are a tea drinker, and a toaster if you like your morning crumpet. You won’t want to crank up a propane stove or fire when It’s already warm at nine a.m., and these amenities will let you hit the beach within 15 minutes of waking up!

Extra garbage bags and duct tape. A piece of rope to dry bathing suits over. A really comfy camping chair; the folding type with beverage holder.

The AU course you are currently working on. You can take a break from it if you want, but bring along a textbook in case guilt or beach boredom sets in. Just keep it in the car when You’re not reading so it stays dry in case of rain!

Good summer reading. Rubber boots and an extra pair of shoes and way too many socks (always keep your feet dry). Two flashlights—they are really easy to lose in the dark.

Camping with kids

If it is your kids’ first time camping, great! The younger the better, and if they are a little squeamish at first don’t worry. Just don’t make faces yourself if something gives you the chills. Chances are they will hit a playground within an hour and make a pack of friends to hang out with. Here are a few things that younger kids love to bring camping:

Nets (they’re inexpensive, and great for catching bugs, minnows, or crayfish). Board games or a deck of cards. Bikes (if you can possibly bring them they are so much fun for exploring the “neighbourhood”).

Beach toys. Gear them toward the child’s age, but even a 10 year old admits she loves to bury her mom in the sand, and sandcastles are fun at any age. Camera—my girls like disposable cameras so they can take their own camping pictures.

Setting up and taking down your tent

When setting up, remember to put the tent on a tarp of the same size. If the tarp is too big or too small, water can run under the tent floor and damage it. Set up on the flattest, highest spot you can. And remove any rocks or sticks first; you’ll avoid poking a hole in the tent floor—or sleeping on a rock.

Never put your tent away wet. Sometimes you get rained out, pack it all up, and go home. It happens. But as soon as that sun starts to shine, set up your tent to dry out. If your tent stays wet you’ll get mildew stains, which look like rust but smell like garbage or wet socks. You can only remove them with a combination of bleach, water, and scrubbing, and even then the smell might still be there.

And make sure you bring a few extra tent pegs in case you lose one, and an extra hammer to make sure they are secure in the ground.

Outside your tent

Keep your fire and wood away from your tent, your food in your car, and your tent away from your neighbour’s. don’t hang things on your tent to dry, and avoid setting up your eating or sleeping area right beside an outhouse. Trust me.

How hard do you want to make it?

Keep things simple and lighthearted. don’t plan on spending three hours cooking a gourmet meal unless that is your passion. If your supper ends up absolutely gross and inedible don’t get too upset; pull out the extra hot dogs and have fun. When you are camping you will lose one thing, ruin one thing, leave one thing behind, and one person will get a minor injury (did you bring a first aid kit?).

But simple car camping is as safe and easy as hanging out at an in-town park and having a picnic. Just plan ahead, bring extra food, and if all else fails there will be a restaurant or chip truck within walking distance. And leave those things you don’t want to lose at home or locked up in your car. Cell phones can’t fall into a toilet if they are sitting in your glove compartment.


It is iffy if you want to bring your pets camping the first time you go. Just consider whether it would cause more stress if they were along, and if you do bring them, pack food, a water bottle, a leash, and some pocket scoopy bags. Pets are a great way to meet other campers, but if you have a hairless dog that sunburns easily, it would be happier being indoors.

Other campers

Camping really brings strangers closer together. It is like living in a small town for a short period with people you might never see again. But you might end up making some friends you want to go camping with in the future, too. Be friendly and take the chance to chat it up with other people.

If you hate it

don’t give up. Try a different park, different setting, going with a different group of people, or a different plan. I think for camping, the three-time rule applies. If you try camping three times and you hate it with a passion, then sell all your camping equipment and try again in three years.


Some of my fondest memories of my daughters growing up were camping accidents. Find the humour in whatever happens; 10 years from now, you would rather remember a laugh at something than someone who was grumpy.

And That’s another reason to bring the coffee maker along. I know I’m more cheerful on a wet soggy morning with a decent cup of coffee.