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River Camping

From the mighty Mississippi to small, rippling creeks that scatter past rocks with a spray of white, waterways carry a touch of magic. Rivers have their own pulse – and a life cycle, swelling in the spring and shrinking with the heat of summer. And they're also the source of life. River ecosystems support fish, water birds, insects, and frogs. They draw a range of mammals to their banks, from deer and bears to muskrats and river otters. With all this activity, it's no wonder we're drawn to river camping!

Not only are rivers easy to find – they're on every continent except Antarctica – but they're also tremendously varied. You can camp beside broad rivers like the wide Missouri, by twisting ones like the Snake, or by gurgling mountain streams. Rivers can be deep enough for shipping or shallow enough to wade across. There are white-water rivers that race by and quiet-moving ones with shallow bends where dragonflies like to play.

Part of the draw of river camping is the activity it provides. A river is the ultimate playground. You and your family can spend hours wading through the water or inner tubing downstream on a hot summer's day. Fishing is an eternally popular river sport. Some rivers support white-water rafting with raft guides, while others are quiet enough to kayak or boat on your own. Rivers are also fabulous places to watch for wildlife. Hawks, eagles, and other large raptors perch in trees above rivers. Fish swim and jump through river waters. And the insect population draws groups of birds and bats. If you go river camping this June, be sure to bring your guide books and binoculars!

If you're likely to be playing on your river, you might want to bring a pair of old tennis shoes to wear into the water. Underwater rocks and snags can be painful, especially when your feet are already chilled by river water – shoes can protect your skin. If your hands are prone to drying and cracking, you might wear gloves if you're likely to be getting your hands wet.

If you're having a problem with mosquitoes and bugs, you can drive them off with a smoky fire (if fires are permitted at your campsite), citronella candles, or mosquito repellant. It's important to take pains to keep your campsite dry, especially if you're tent camping. Be sure to use a durable tarp under your tent and a rain fly that's in good working condition. And if you'll be wading in the river, of course you'll want to have several pairs of dry socks.

As always, you'll want to wear sunscreen when you're river camping, and be sure to drink plenty of clean water. With the cool river water below you, it's easy to sweat more than you realize, especially in the sunny month of June. So don't forget to drink those fluids!

Rivers have a poetry all their own. With their constant motion and symphony of sounds, they add their soothing rhythm to your camping experience. This summer, as you camp, take a moment to appreciate your river and its unique, wild magic.

The Four Camping Styles

The Four Camping Styles

There's a camping style to fit every group, family, and situation. Depending on what you value most—freedom, comfort, flexibility, independence—you can find the perfect camping style for you. Every style has its benefits, and every one will give you a secure home during your upcoming camping adventure.

Tents come in a wide range of sizes and shapes, suitable for one person, two people, or a whole family. Kids usually love tent camping, in part because a tent is such a snug, kid-sized house. Many adults are less thrilled by the hardships of tent camping—sleeping on the ground in a small space without much headroom. But tent camping also offers the ultimate in flexibility, economy, and independence. Tents don't take up much room, they don't require much gear, and they're welcome almost everywhere camping is permitted.

It takes some practice to put up and stow a tent, so it's smart to test your tent out at home before your trip. You'll also want to consider the weather forecast before tent camping. Even with a good rain fly, tent camping can turn into a real challenge if it rains for days on end without giving your tent a chance to dry out. For more tips, see our article on tent camping.

Campers and pop-ups are generally smaller than RVs, but offer a more substantial camping home than a tent. Trailers come in a range of sizes. Most of these offer special amenities like a gas stove, gas lamps, fold-out beds, collapsible tables, and cupboard storage. Many are roomy enough for whole families to enjoy, with separate sleeping quarters for the parents and the kids.

Because they're more expensive than tents, these are best for people who camp several times a year or who like to go for extended stays of 3 days or more. Unique challenges include hooking up the brake lights and turn-signals, hitching up, and backing up with a trailer. The benefits are many—you get a snug, warm, dry place to stay that's a lot like a small house, right down to the screens on the windows.

With an RV, you truly take your home on the road. RVs come in a variety of sizes and styles, so you can find the perfect one to fit your dreams. Most come with a stove, small refrigerator, an over-the-cab bed, a fold-out bed, a table with seating, and a small bathroom. Because the cab is connected to the rest of the RV, it's easy to move back and forth between the two.

RVs are extremely self-sufficient, letting people camp in places that don't have any facilities. They're also widely available for rent. Challenges include keeping track of gas, water, and other fluid levels, and parking the RV in tight or awkward spaces. When you go RV camping, you may also want to bring along another car for exploring your destination area, or toys like ATVs, bikes, snowmobiles, and small boats.

The closest thing to a home away from home is cabin camping. This gets you near to nature, with the wilderness just beyond your front door, but gives you all the comforts of a hotel or motel room. Cabins often have regular beds, full kitchens, air conditioning, TVs with other electronic equipment, and full bathrooms. Some cabins are far more rustic, so it's important to find out what your situation will be before you head out. Many require that you bring your own bedding, linens, cooking equipment, and food.

Cabin camping is a great way to camp with small children, people who are new to camping, or anyone who appreciates the comforts of home, but wants an outdoors experience. Cabins are a great choice if you think the weather might be bad, since they offer plenty of room, light, and options for things to do.

Desert Camping

Deserts are beautiful, exotic places. They're visually stunning with their red rock canyons, high sandstone walls, and tiny trees shaped by wind and weather. Deserts are full of the unexpected – cool shade beneath stone cliffs, natural springs that send sheets of water across rippling sand beds. But they're also challenging places for humans to explore and live in. That is, unless you take a few smart precautions.

The sun is the first and greatest challenge of desert camping. Even if you can escape to the cool shade of your RV during the hottest parts of the day, you'll still want to equip yourself with sun-shading gear for when you do head out on that hike, horseback ride, or ATV trip. You'll need a hat that shades your eyes, sunglasses, and a powerful sunscreen (SPF 30 or above). Be sure to reapply your sunscreen from time to time throughout the day. You'll also want lip balm with SPF protection and something to cover the back of your neck. It might be tempting for men to go shirtless, but if you hate the idea of constantly stopping to put on more sunscreen, you just might find it more worthwhile to keep your shirt on and enjoy the fabric's sun-blocking power. If you're particularly sensitive to the sun or to sunburn, look for fabrics that are sun-resistant and apply sunscreen underneath your clothes.

Bring everything with you. A good rule in the desert is to expect nothing (then you won't be disappointed!) Bring your own water – all you need, plus some extra – rather than counting on the seasonal spring on your map. Instead of planning to go food shopping at the last little town before your campsite, bring extra supplies with you. If you're camping at an RV park, of course you can call ahead and find out what the amenities are before you arrive. But whenever you head out into the desert on foot, on bike, or on an ATV or four-wheeler, be sure you have plenty of water and some food with you. And sunscreen, of course!

If you're RV or car camping, there are a few more items that might make your stay in the desert more comfortable. Any kind of awning or portable shade will let you enjoy the outdoors in comfort. You may want bandanas that you can get wet and tie on your neck. If you're able to transport them, fresh fruits and cold drinks are heavenly in the desert. Portable shower bags can help you wash the dust off at the end of the day. And you'll certainly want your camera – and maybe even a box of pastels or watercolors – for capturing those dramatic rock formations.

The second great challenge of desert camping is, surprisingly, cold. As hot as the desert gets during the day, it gets equally frigid at night. The dry air above the desert floor doesn't hold any warmth once the sun goes down, so prepare for cold temperatures after sunset. No matter what time of year you head to the desert, take plenty of warm clothing for nighttime. You'll also need very warm sleeping gear, the same sort you would take to the mountains. If you're camping in a canyon or under the shade of a cliff or butte, you should also be prepared for your campsite to stay cold until the sun hits it in the morning. When you get up in the morning, dress in layers so you can shed garments one at a time as the day warms up.

If your schedule allows, you might adjust your sleeping and waking hours to fit with desert time. Try rising early in the morning – the best time to watch for wildlife – and take a rest or a nap in the middle of the afternoon, when the sun is strongest. A nice late afternoon/evening walk will set you up perfectly for a late dinner. Then you can admire the brilliant desert stars, read or chat a little before bed, and wake up the next morning ready to explore the next slot canyon, wooded arroyo, or game trail up a towering butte.

RVs are extremely self-sufficient, letting people camp in places that don't have any facilities. They're also widely available for rent. Challenges include keeping track of gas, water, and other fluid levels, and parking the RV in tight or awkward spaces. When you go RV camping, you may also want to bring along another car for exploring your destination area, or toys like ATVs, bikes, snowmobiles, and small boats.

Ocean Camping

Crashing surf, the sound of gulls, and that unique salt-and-sand scent are just part of what makes the ocean so magical. With miles of sandy beach and cresting waves, the seaside calls out to visitors of all ages. Whether it's sandcastle building, body surfing, or surf swimming you're after, the ocean offers plenty of activities – for free! And somehow just gazing that distant blue horizon is enough to soothe the most restless of spirits.

Ocean camping has a special allure, drawing in all kinds of campers. Fishing enthusiasts look forward to casting their lines in ocean waters or to deep sea fishing, crabbing, and shrimping. Bird watchers love viewing the birds that flock to the shore, from pelagic cormorants and terns in the north to flamingoes and egrets in the south. And wildlife viewers have the chance to see cresting whales, dolphins, porpoises, and even manatees.

Kids can peer into tide pools, learning about ocean creatures, or dip their toes in the waves. The beach is full of playthings for kids, from sand piles to bull kelp that's washed up from the sea. Families can go beach combing, looking for sand dollars and smooth sea glass.

When you're planning an ocean camping trip, it's useful to keep a few things in mind. First, consider the weather before you go. The coast is often cooler and foggier than inland areas, so it's wise to pack extra jackets, hats, and raingear. You'll also want to plan for sun with sunscreen, sunglasses, lip balm, and sun hats. If you burn easily or have little ones in your group, you may want a sun umbrella or canopy.

On long, flat beaches, the movement of the tide can alter the shoreline by a mile or even more. Invest in a tide chart – available at bait shops and seaside convenience stores – so you know when the tides peak and fall. If you'll be tent camping, be sure to identify the high tide line, a collection of seaweed and other debris high on the beach, before you pitch your tent. There's nothing worse than waking up in the middle of the night because your tent is swamped in ocean waves!

Similarly, RV campers should only park in designated campsites where they can be sure the tires won't sink in the sand. And while it might seem like a great idea to sleep out right on the sand, a sandy bed can become very cold. Be sure to use a sleeping pad or small inflatable mattress to keep yourself up off the ground.

Most ocean areas have charming seaside towns nearby that offer gift shops and fresh seafood restaurants. This is a great place to try lobster or crab, steamed clams, or oysters on the half-shell. Many areas have their own distinctive seafood recipes, from chowder to gumbo, so be sure to try the delicacy of the place you're visiting.

You might also find interesting attractions like maritime museums, historic ships, and aquariums. Visiting these sites will give you a better sense of the place you're touring and a new awareness of the creatures that make the sea their home.

The ocean is a perfect summertime destination, with its cooling breezes and luscious waves. So head to the coast this month and dive headfirst into ocean camping!

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Camping—spending nights under the stars and cooking on an open flame—has been popular for generations. In many families, a love of the outdoors is handed down right along with the heirloom china. And in spite of high-tech innovations in camping gear, it's nice to remember that what we practice in our campsites is actually part of an ancient tradition.

It's hard to guess when the first humans set out on a camping trip for pleasure. Our cave-dwelling ancestors probably felt that their lives were rugged enough without the additional strain of packing for a day hike or climbing a mountain to see the view. But as early as the Middle Ages, picnics—the precursor of the camping trip—became popular among the noble classes. In one ancient story of Guinevere and Lancelot, the queen packs an elaborate lunch, dresses her ladies and their horses all in green, and heads out to enjoy a day in the forest.

Centuries later, when exploring new lands was a thriving enterprise, camping became a way of life. Lewis and Clark's famous expedition to find a river-way to the Pacific could certainly be called one of the largest camping trips ever undertaken. The Native American tribes of the plains camped as they followed the buffalo, and, when the land was settled with ranchers, cowboys camped as they followed their herds.

Despite these early forays into the world of sleeping and eating outdoors, the advent of camping for pleasure certainly coincided with the popular use of the automobile. Beginning in 1914, when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line and reduced the price of his Model-T (available in black only) to $550, travel became an American hobby. Sunday drives, family outings, cross-country adventures—all of these arrived with the affordable family car.

Suddenly the thought of visiting the western national parks became an actual possibility even for members of the middle class. Families set out for Yellowstone and Fort Laramie, where women donned their first dungarees. Couples made tours of California, stopping at Pinnacles National Monument and the Muir Woods. With the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1910 and the Girl Scouts in 1912, thousands of children discovered the joys of camping.

From that time to the present, camping has only gained in popularity. The introduction of campers, trailers, and motor homes made camping not only fun but convenient. All the logistical pieces of travel—the transport, the food, and the shelter—combined into one comfortable vehicle. Camping gear has also made great strides with the invention of new fabrics such as fleece and gortex, lightweight shoe and boot materials, and safe, reliable camping stoves. And while the amount of open space has diminished, the number of designated camping areas has only increased with each decade.

Where will our camping adventures lead in the coming years? It's difficult to predict, but there's little doubt that the old standby camping spots will retain their popularity. Parents will continue to pass their favorite fishing holes and hikes along to their children, and children will continue to find new ones for themselves. New inventions will mean that the campers of the future will explore their world in ever-greater comfort, recording what they see with something far advanced of the old Brownie camera or even a Polaroid. And one thing we can say for certain—the urge to "get away from it all” will be as strong in our descendants as it was in our predecessors.

Camping 101

Camping is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and take a much needed mini-vacation without spending a fortune. Staying overnight at a campground typically runs from $10 to $25. Compare that to a motel stay which can easily cost $75 and up, and you'll see that the savings add up fast.

Of course, if you haven't gone camping since you were a kid – or you've never gone camping, period – then expect an initial investment in time, money, and energy. But it's worth it. Spending several relaxing weekends a year in the midst of breathtaking scenery is good therapy for the body, mind, and soul.

The Essentials

Before you head into the great outdoors, you'll need some basic equipment. Get a sturdy tent big enough for your family to sleep in comfortably. Make sure it's watertight and strong enough to stand up to some wind. Sleeping bags are a must especially if you're camping in the mountains or the desert – climates that cool down dramatically at night even during the summer. Check ratings; a sleeping bag that's rated for only 40 F will keep you shivering in nighttime temperatures of 30 F, and you don't want that. A floor pad or an air mattress (with a good pump) will help you sleep more comfortably by adding an extra layer between you and the hard floor.

A large electric lantern (with extra batteries just in case) is a must for evenings as well as for walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night or heading to the lake for some pre-dawn fishing. Bring several flashlights, too. Lawn chairs are great for a relaxing afternoon of reading under the trees or for sitting by the campfire at night. Unless you're prepared to eat nothing but granola bars and fresh fruits and vegetables, buy a Coleman stove. It's portable, it runs on propane, and it's great for morning coffee or a hot dinner of canned stew (don't forget the can opener).

By the way, inexpensive, durable dinner plates and cups work better than the rugged metal cups and plates you'll see in camping stores. Why? Because your hot chocolate doesn't stay hot very long inside one of those metal cups. Bring an inexpensive plastic tablecloth to cover picnic tables. And a large plastic bin works well for doing the dishes (remember to bring dish soap).

Be sure to ask the people at the outdoor equipment store how to set up and use everything – especially your tent and your stove. Don't leave the store with your purchase until you comfortably understand how to use everything. If you have questions later, don't hesitate to call back.

When you're packing toiletries for your camping trip, include a well-stocked First Aid kit, bug spray, and sunscreen.

Trial Run

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to camp overnight in your backyard. Pretend you're out in the wild and bring everything you think you'll need. Set up the tent. Inflate the air mattress. Cook breakfast on the Coleman stove. Use your electric lantern at night. What works? What doesn't? Is your sleeping bag warm enough? Did you remember to bring eating utensils? Pillows? Toiletries? T-shirts and shorts for the hot noon sun and a warm jacket and sweats for cool evenings? Hats? Hiking shoes?

Camping in your backyard is a safe way to prepare for a "real trip.” During and after your trial run, make a list of everything you need – the things you remembered and forgot, plus things you never even thought of before taking that backyard outing.

Do Your Homework

Before you go on that first, momentous camping trip outdoors, learn everything you can about your chosen destination. Get brochures, look up information on the Internet, and ask as many questions as you can think of. What does the location look like? Is your site shaded? Are there poisonous shrubs in the area? Will you be camping next to a river or stream? Are campfires allowed? Is firewood provided?

What are the campground amenities? Are there hot showers on site? Flush toilets? A campground store? A playground? Where are the nearest medical facilities? If there's a lake on the premises, ask about boat rentals, fishing permits, and swim beaches.

When you arrive at your campground, scope it out. Find out where the bathrooms are. Locate the camp hosts, in case you need them later. Read everything posted at the entrance. Follow the rules. Be safe.


The best thing about camping is getting away from it all. Leave behind your cell phones, your computers, your beepers. Enjoy the beautiful scenery and the fresh air. Let it all just soak into your pores and revitalize you. Kick back, unwind, slow down your pace. It's time to smell the wild roses and count the twinkling stars. Relax, and enjoy!

Tent Camping

Tent camping brings out the kid in everyone. There's something special about climbing into that cozy fabric house and snuggling down for a good night's sleep. And with the remarkable tents made today, you can easily find one that perfectly suits your needs.

Of course, as fun as tent camping is, it isn't without its drawbacks. Let's face it – sleeping on the ground can be downright uncomfortable. For backpackers who need to keep an eye on the weight and volume of their gear, this may be unavoidable. But if you're car camping, there's no need to suffer! Why be uncomfortable when you could bring all the comforts of home along with you?

This year, pack your own, full-sized pillow. Invest in a durable air mattress or use several layers of padding (this will help keep you warm, too). If you tend to get chilly in your sleeping bag, bring along some extra blankets or a comforter. Do everything you can to give yourself a good night's rest, so you can concentrate on enjoying your camping trip.

If your tent is a new one, be sure to practice putting it up, taking it down, and stowing it before you leave home. You never know when you'll wind up having to put your tent up in the dark or in foul weather, and nothing is worse than raising a tent for the first time when you're under added stress.

If you've ever woken up in a soaked, soggy tent, then you know how important it is to become familiar with your tent's rain fly. Many rain flies come with their own poles because it's critical that the fly not touch the tent itself – that's the secret to keeping your tent dry. It may also be important that you stake your fly or use strings tied to nearby trees to keep the fabric away from that of your tent. Even if you don't expect rain, your fly is still important for keeping dew off the tent and, therefore, for keeping you nice and dry.

Remember to never store food in your tent – especially in bear country! – and never allow an open flame near a tent. Instead, invest in some battery-powered headlamps or lanterns. Many tents have little pouches sewn into the inside of the tent fabric – this is a smart place to keep your flashlight or headlamp for easy access.

Using a drop cloth or tarp underneath your tent is smart, since it will extend the life of your tent. And if you want to go tent camping with your medium-sized or larger dog, consider a tent with an outer vestibule for your dog to sleep in. Individual tents for dogs are also available in a range of sizes.

During your trip, do your best to keep your tent dry and well-aired. If the nights are damp, but the days are sunny, consider detaching your fly during the day and draping it over a bush or picnic table to dry out in the sun. Giving your tent a good shaking-out every few days will help keep it clean.

If you're going to be camping in a buggy area with mosquitoes and flies, make sure to keep your tent zipped closed during the day. There's nothing more annoying than having a fly buzzing around your tent at night or a cloud of mosquitoes dive-bombing your ears as you try to sleep. Also, if you know you're going to be in a buggy area, you might consider using a tall, roomy tent, the kind that you could stand in comfortably. If you're happy spending time in your tent, you can use it as a pleasant retreat in the event of bad weather or a bug infestation. Some tents come equipped with side flaps that you can roll up and cover with mosquito netting, creating a bug-free, airy space for card games and reading.

Be sure to choose a tent that gives you plenty of space for both sleepers and their gear. It's always best to remove your shoes or boots as your enter the tent – store them outside in the outer vestibule or under a waterproof section of the tent. Just remember to shake out your shoes before you put them on!

Tents are really quite amazing. What other living space can fold up to be the size of a small suitcase? Tents are portable homes that you can carry on your back, in your car, or in your RV as an instant "spare room.” By just following these few steps, you can keep your tent clean, dry, snug, and cozy, making it a fabulous place to rest and dream.

'Reflections of Family Camping Trips'

I started camping after I was married. After I had my first child. When I was six and a half months pregnant with my second child. People thought I was crazy. But I'd never had the opportunity to camp, whereas my husband had camped every summer as a child. He was feeling homesick for camping, and I – pregnant and all – was game to try it.

With a tent and an inflatable mattress, we set off for California's Big Sur Coast. I stayed awake most of the first night, worrying that a gang of misfit chipmunks, led by an intrepid raccoon, would rip through our tent walls and dive into our snacks. By the second night, my imagination calmed down and I started to get the hang of it. And by the third day, I was hooked. We've been camping ever since.

My husband, our children, and I have been making wonderful family camping memories for the past 11 years: Songs and impromptu talent shows by the campfire under the stars. Meals beneath a canopy of trees. Hikes to lakes and waterfalls. We love to reminisce about these happy, family-bonding camping moments.

Some of our memories are kind of funny, especially from those early years when our kids were little and I still didn't know what I was doing. When we camped along Chalk Creek in central Colorado, I was enraptured by the stunning beauty that surrounded us. I was also paranoid that our youngest, only 10 months old but already walking, would fall into the creek. Not that it was a dangerous creek, with its maximum depth of a whopping two inches.

But I wasn't about to take chances, so I tied a rope around his waist to keep him tethered to our site. That lasted about 12 minutes. He was miserable, and his crying let the whole campground know it. So instead I kept a close eye on him. It worked – he didn't end up in the creek. My three-year-old, however, did. She was soaked. Thank goodness for the extra clothes we'd packed.

We've had many other adventures, like the time we rented a little boat in southern Colorado's Vallecito Lake. The sky was blue and clear when we headed out. But storms move in fast in the Colorado mountains, and this one quickly interrupted our tranquil morning excursion. The wind whipped up, dark clouds surrounded us, and lightning flashed to the south.

My husband quickly put his fishing gear down and yanked on the motor. Nothing. He tried again. And again. No luck. We were stranded in the middle of the lake with a dead motor and no paddle, watching every other boater pull safely back into dock ahead of us as the storm grew at an alarming pace. Then I looked across the lake and couldn't believe my eyes. A twister had formed, spewing up water furiously as it headed straight for us.

The kids and I hunkered down as my husband kept pulling the motor's cord. The twister zigged and zagged, getting to a hundred feet away from us before changing course. It passed us by, reached the other end of the lake, and fizzled out just as mysteriously as it had appeared. As we all sat there stunned, a fisherman and his son pulled up, tossed us a rope, and towed us back. We were safe.

We've weathered more storms through the years, and we've enjoyed more blue skies and starry nights, too. And every year, when my husband pulls our pop-up camper (yes, we've upgraded!) out of the garage, we're suddenly filled with a sense of excitement and anticipation, wondering what camping fun and adventure we'll experience next.

This summer, we're taking our camper back to where it all started for me – Big Sur. I can't wait for our kids to see the surreal coastline and giant trees. This time, though, I don't think I'll be losing sleep over chipmunks.


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    Confused about wicking? Baffled by sleeping bag ratings?  We’ll help you wade through the techno speak of high performance camping and outdoor gear.  Having the perfect camp clothes makes camping and participating in outdoor sports fun and comfortable no matter what Mother Nature dishes out.

  • Snap Shots

    Camping Photography


    Snap Shots - Outdoor Photography Tips

    Find tips for taking great camping and travel photos. Capture your precious camping memories and learn to take perfect family portraits, amazing wildlife photos, and awesome landscape pictures. You'll be transported back to your favorite camping trip ever time you share your photos.

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