1st camping trip? It’s gotten easier

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Gear up and get out. - PHOTO: Courtesy

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, as well as anxieties about diving headlong into the unfamiliar wilderness.

Fear not. For those more accustomed to navigating highways 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 easier than getting around highway construction closings.

“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. It’s 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 adults. 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 your trip. The reservation process is now similar to that of hotels , but  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, porcelain flush toilets, potable water, 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 are regularly patrolled by rangers and, contrary to what you’ll find at many big private campsites, RVs and mobile homes are limited and there are designated quiet hours.

“There’s a real movement underway to make the outdoors more relevant to city dwellers, and there are a growing number of partnerships between outdoors organizations and city communities,” said Melanie MacInnis, assistant director of the Sierra Club Outdoors. The Sierra Club, which promotes the enjoyment, exploration and protection of the environment, has offices and chapters across the United States, including in Wisconsin. The organization offers classes and trips to teach beginners wilderness skills like first aid, camping and hiking.

If you’re not quite ready for tent camping, some campgrounds provide cabins, which combine the joys of camping and gathering around a campfire with the convenience of beds, stoves and refrigerators. Many, however, require a seven-day minimum stay.

New kinds of gear have  made tent camping the old-fashioned way easier than ever. Some major outdoors outfitting stores offer gear rentals; classes in camp cooking and basic camping; and group trips, as well as easy returns should you find your equipment isn’t quite what you’d hoped.

“Tents are way easier to set up than they used to be,” said Stark, the Chicago camping instructor. “When I was a kid we had a big canvas tent that was a real event to set up. Now better tents are lightweight with only a few flexible poles, and are color-coded so it’s easier to figure out where things go.”

New creature comforts include double-decker cots (at least one model doubles as a couch), sleeping bags roomy enough for two, pop-up tents, small portable toilets, solar-powered phone chargers, and suitcase-size kitchens and camp furniture that would look as comfortable in a Milwaukee studio apartment as in the great outdoors.

Some experts suggest starting out with just the basics: tent, sleeping bags and pads, and essential cooking supplies. Many sporting goods stores and online sites have lists of what to bring, as do camping books and guides. And careful, organized packing at home definitely makes for a more relaxed and comfortable adventure.

“I think more and more people in cities are realizing that camping isn’t scary at all,” said MacInnis. “It is really a lot of fun, and the wilderness is much more accessible than you think.”