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When you leave the city behind, the sky gets bigger. On a clear night, a sea of stars shimmers above in the cool air. You feel you can reach out and touch one. It's magic. In part, it's why millions of North Americans love camping.

Campers come in three basic categories: backpackers, car campers, and RVers. What all these forms of camping have in common is the opportunity to get away from urban life and enjoy nature.

  • Backpackers carry everything they need for camping on their backs, including tents, food, and clothing. They will hike into remote camping spots where vehicles cannot go.
  • Car campers, or tailgate campers as they're also known, load up their car or truck with the gear they'll need for a weekend camping trip and drive to a campground. They may choose a campground with showers and toilets, or they may choose something more rustic.
  • RVers are so named because they take their recreation vehicles with them when they head for the great outdoors. The RV offers all the comforts of home, with a kitchen, shower and even television. These vehicles need campgrounds with hookups for electricity, water, and sewer.

Campgrounds vary to match the needs of the camper. There are thousands of campgrounds in America. Some are private, while others are government run.

The National Parks System operates 25,700 campsites in 548 campgrounds across the U.S. These campsites come in all styles: tent camping, recreational vehicle spaces, and backcountry camping. This doesn't include the thousands of camping spots in private campgrounds.

Camping isn't expensive, but buying the equipment you need can set you back a few hundred dollars. If you want a camper or trailer, be prepared to spend several thousand dollars.

Mike Fleming suggests renting equipment when you're starting out. "See if you like it," he says. Or you could go with friends who have all the equipment until you can afford to buy your own.

So what do you need for camping?

  • A tent is your basic home away from home. They usually come in sizes to suit between one and six campers. Or, they may be purchased as three- or four-season tents. A three-season tent is good for camping spring through fall. A four-season tent can be used year-round.
  • A ground cloth is a big piece of plastic which goes under the tent and keeps the tent dry and clean.
  • A good sleeping bag is a must. Sleeping bags are rated for various temperatures, so make sure your bag is warm enough for the climate and season you're camping in. You may also want a thermal pad to place under your sleeping bag.

Camper Mike Fleming remembers taking a summer sleeping bag on a cool night camping. "It was colder than I expected and I was cold the whole time," he warns.

Backpackers have other equipment needs: backpacks and boots.

  • There are basically two types of packs -- external and internal frame. The external frames have metal or heavy plastic poles that you can see. On internal frames you don't see any poles at all. All the metal is sewn into the pack.

Either type of pack is fine -- you'll just want to make sure it has a well-fitted hip belt to deflect the weight from your shoulders. Backpacks vary in cost from around $50 to over $100.

  • Be careful choosing your boots. You'll want them to fit well and be sturdy enough for the terrain you're hiking. If you injure your feet, the trip is over and you'll need help to get back to civilization. Good boots cost between $100 and $200.

Prices for camping gear vary widely, but the experts say price shouldn't be your only consideration. Camper Sarah Boomer of Seattle warns against buying the cheapest equipment available.

"Buy cheap -- buy twice," she notes. "I bought a $50 sleeping bag at first and had to replace it." Good equipment will give you years of enjoyment.

Once you're properly outfitted, camping costs are minimal. Overnight stays range in price depending on your style of camping. Tenters may pay only a few dollars while RVers may pay $25 a night.

Fitness requirements change depending on the type of camping you choose. Backpacking can be quite strenuous, but almost anyone can enjoy camping in a recreation vehicle.

A love of camping can set you on a number of career paths. Forestry, biology, and botany all require an interest in nature.

Some campers turn their hobby into a source of income by writing about their experiences. Some become guides, leading others through a wilderness experience, while others work as outfitters in camping supply shops.

Getting Started

If getting away from it all sounds like something you'd like to get into, there are a number of ways to get involved.

Go with friends who know what they're doing. Or join an outdoors club. Many sporting goods stores offer organized camping tours for modest fees.

It's important to go with someone who knows the basics of survival. Would you want to be in the woods with someone who didn't know how to light a fire?


The National Park Service
Camping advice and information for beginners and experts

Explore America
Checkout these special campsites across America

Camping U.S.A.
See the camping checklist, then search for a U.S. campground near you

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