Camping has always served as a “reset” for me. When life’s routines start to feel stale, I know that it’s time for a change of scenery. Even spending one day outdoors feels like a renewal of energy. Maybe it’s the mentally fortifying effect of nature, or just the disruption to the status quo – but a simple camping trip does wonders for the soul. 

So how do you get started on a camping trip? Breaking your routine, finding a site, packing the car and having all the supplies can be daunting – especially if you’re new to it. But for the payoff, it’s well worth the effort. 

With a simple checklist, you’re already well on your way to resetting in nature. Read on to discover basic tips, essential items, and suggested Bay Area locations to get started as a camper. Before you know it, you’ll be waking up in a tent to the sound of the birds and gentle wind!

Types of Camping

Different types of camping require different preparations. There’s backpacking, where you carry everything you’d need to survive in a knapsack. Then there’s motorhome or trailer camping, where you’d have a large vehicle equipped with a sink, shower and a bed to sleep in. Or you could stay in a cabin.

Car camping is somewhere in between and an ideal first step, since you can store your supplies in your vehicle and you won’t have to do much heavy lifting. Don’t worry – you’ll still be roughing it enough to call it proper camping…just with a few creature comforts. I learned the basics of car camping with my family. Every year, we’d go to Carpinteria State Beach in Southern California, which has drive-in campsites. (Many sites have this option – see below for recommended sites in the Bay Area.) 

Throwing camping supplies into a car is easy and fun!
With a car, getting to and from the campsite with all your supplies is much easier – and better for your back! (Illustrations by Cameryn Baker)

Supplies and Gear

To make the most of camping, there are a few basic discomforts to avoid. You don’t want to be cold, wet or hungry. Fortunately, with the right gear and supplies, you’ll be cozy, dry and well-fed. 

And you don’t need to spend a fortune on gear. Last Minute Gear, Sports Basement, REI, and more retailers offer affordable (or even free!) gear rentals, so that you can get the supplies you need without dropping a heavy dollar. See here for more rental suggestions. 


Reliable shelter is necessary for your outdoor adventure.  A tent and a sleeping bag are the absolute essentials. (Pro-tip: the simpler, the better. I’ve experienced tents with strange angles and special overhangs – while it can be cool, it’s not always worth the effort. A simple, straightforward cross bar tent goes up in as little as 5 minutes.) Blankets provide extra assurance that you’ll stay warm, and pillows offer neck support.

For added comfort, a sleeping pad to provide cushion beneath your sleeping bag is nice. And if you really want to be comfy, I’ve sometimes packed an inflatable mattress and an air pump, or even a foldable cot – though you’ll want to make sure your tent can fit it. 

Layers of clothes are always a great idea. Even if your camping location is warm during the day, it’s likely to get chilly at night. Several changes of clothes ensure comfort in the varying temperatures of your trip. 



a beginner camper sets up a basic tent
Pro Tip: Arrive while the sun’s still out. Putting up a tent in the dark is far more challenging.



A beginner camper cooks a basic meal over a fire pit.
Using provided fire pits to cook meals makes you feel like a professional camper!


This goes without saying, but you’ll need food. Enough to last your entire trip, for all people present. Bring various small snacks to nibble on throughout the day – goldfish, granola bars, apples, etc. But for more substantial warm meals (not to mention s’mores or hot drinks like coffee), you’ll need fire

Some sites are equipped with a fire pit and built-in grate, but with varying weather conditions, it’s often more reliable to have a camping stove. These come in a variety of sizes, some small enough to fit in your pocket and others far heftier. The right choice for you will depend on how many people you’re feeding and what you’d like to eat. Get an idea for types of camping stoves here.

And don’t forget: plates, utensils, and any pots and pans needed for cooking. You’ll also need a sponge, dish soap and a plastic bin to scrub them in. You’ll also want your fire-lighting materials such as matches or a lighter for a stove or firewood and paper for a firepit. For meal inspiration and suggestions, see below. 


Toothbrush and toothpaste are the essentials here. Trust me. I’ve tried to get away with a day of camping without brushing ….I couldn’t. It can also be nice to have face wash, a hairbrush, lotion, sunscreen or whatever other product you like – just remember to make no mess, and leave no trace!

You’ll want to know about bathrooms. Some sites have facilities available, and some even have showers. But for some sites…you’re on your own. The idea of handling your business without facilities can be daunting, but it’s not as scary as it sounds. However, it’s important to go about this with etiquette. You can research how to handle and dispose of toilet paper to protect the natural environment. Read the National Park Site’s guide on how to handle outdoor poops here


When sleeping outside, there’s always a slight risk of animal encounters. Animals who are hungry and might smell your food. That’s why it’s important to have a food storage system. Some sites have wooden food storage boxes available to use, but if not, it’s best to place all food items in a sealed container. It’s even better to place that container inside your car. This way, no one will come sniffing. Believe me, raccoons are NOT afraid to dig through your dinner supplies. 

For when the sun goes down, it’s important to have lanterns, flashlights and/or headlamps to see in the dark. This will make it safer and easier to cook, play games and get to/from the bathroom after sundown.

Other safety considerations: have a first aid kit for cuts and bruises, bug spray or citronella candles to keep the insects away, any necessary medication and an awareness of the nearest hospital, should the need arise. 



Raccoons raiding improperly stored food.
It’s important to store your food properly, or else critters, such as raccoons, may raid your dinner supplies.


A child enjoys a basic but delicious meal at camp.
Kids can be kept happy with even the most basic of camp meals.


Cooking outside the kitchen may take you out of your comfort zone. But anyone can be a chef around a campfire or camping stove! Here are a few very basic meals that I’ve found reliable during outdoor stays: 

  • Quesadillas
  • Pasta
  • Boil-in-a-bag Indian food pouches
  • Bring pre-cooked meals to warm up

You can always cook in the comfort of your kitchen, pack it up and bring it to re-heat! My mom always makes her famous chili ahead of time, then packs it up into a cooler to re-warm over the camp stove. If you’d like to get more adventurous, check out some more advanced camping meals here


After you’re all set up and fed, you may want something to occupy your time. Here are a few activities you and your fellow campers can take up:

  • Have a deck of cards
  • Use expert-approved apps to identify plants, animals, nearby mountain peaks or night sky constellations.
  • Bring a football or a frisbee. (Pro-tip: Don’t play after dark. I’ve seen gnarly black eyes and bruises.)
  • Hike around!

A couple enjoys a game of cards at a camp table
From “war” to “euchre,” there are plenty of card game options to enjoy at camp.

Additional Checklists:

To be absolutely certain that you’re not forgetting anything, use these checklists to ensure you’ve packed everything you’ll need! Click on an image to expand the list. You can also download the document here.

A checklist of the essential camping basics for kidsA checklist of the essential camping basics

Suggested Locations:

Family friendly camping for beginners at Uvas Canyon

Uvas Canyon County Park

Uvas Canyon is a lushly wooded park nestled beside the Santa Cruz Mountains. Its sites are equipped with all the basics: fire rings and bathrooms with showers. The one-mile Waterfall Loop trail takes you along Swanson Creek and passes numerous waterfalls.

Reservations can be made here.

Mount Hamilton, with nearby camping locations ideal for beginners

Joseph D Grant County Park

This park is located on Mount Hamilton east of San Jose. It features fire rings, picnic tables, and bathrooms but no showers. Hiking trails wind through the park, and cattle graze nearby.

Make reservations here, or by calling (408) 355-2201 during business hours.

Anthony Chabot Park, photographed by Jason Hickey

Anthony Chabot Regional Park

This location, a 30-minute drive from Oakland, is equipped with fire rings, picnic tables, and bathrooms, including showers. Overlooking Lake Chabot, this site is ideal for hiking, biking and admiring the view.

This campground is only open from the start of April through the end of October. Check reservation availability here

Portola Redwoods, a great campsite for beginners

Portola Redwoods State Park

Campsites equipped with fire rings and picnic tables can be found at Portola Redwoods State Park. This location gives the feeling of seclusion in nature, though you’ll still find bathroom facilities with coin-operated showers.  

Reserve a site for your car camping adventure here (Type in Portola Redwoods SP as your destination in the search bar).

I’m grateful that car camping was introduced to me at a young age. I have so many fond memories of setting up camp after a scenic drive to the site, and I still rely on this method as a way to get outdoors. Though it takes planning and effort, camping can be easy, enriching, and an escape from the routine that we all need once in a while!

About Post

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more

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