A First Time Camper in America’s National Parks

Although I’m a city dweller, I’ve always been drawn to the wide-open spaces and peaceful beauty that can be found in America’s National Park Service sites. Last summer I planned a trip to two US National Parks, and decided to camp out as opposed to staying in a lodge or hotel. Although I was a first time camper in US National Parks it was easy, economical and fun way to experience the parks.

Front-Country vs Back-Country Camping

Most US National Park sites offer two types of camping facilities: front- and back-country campsites. A front-country site is in an organized campground within a park, and the site can be accessed by car or RV. Back-country sites are generally out in the wilderness and away from roads and service facilities. As a first time camper, I opted for the safety and convenience of a front-country site.

What to Take With You, What to Leave At Home

In retrospect I packed far too much camping equipment for this trip and didn’t use most of it. Again, a typical first time camper mistake! If I had it to do over, I would have focused on just a few essentials in addition to my clothes and food for the week:

  • A tent of adequate size. If you’re camping solo, look for a 2-3 person tent. If you have more people with you, look for a tent that is rated to hold about double the number of people in your party. You’ll be glad to have the extra space.
  • Extra tent stakes and a rubber mallet. I found that tent stakes are surprisingly easy to bend, and I’m glad I had the foresight to bring a few extra. Unfortunately I forgot a mallet to drive them into the ground, which made tent setup a lot more difficult.
  • A Coleman propane stove for cooking. Its easier and faster to set up and clean up a propane stove than to start a fire for cooking.
  • An all-purpose cooking pot for making meals. I found I could cook just about anything in the single pot that I brought, which made prep and cleanup a lot easier.
  • A cot or foam mattress and a sleeping bag. My preference is to sleep on something softer than the ground, and so I chose to bring a collapsible cot.
  • Bear spray isn’t a necessity in every US National Park, but it’s good to check first. Yellowstone had signs all over the place warning visitors about unexpected encounters with bears.
  • A cooking pot, a set of utensils and a coffee pot was really all I needed to cook my meals. I didn’t make anything fancy and cooked mostly canned goods. My focus was on getting some food in my belly and then getting out to start my day.

There are also some things you should leave at home:

  • Folding chairs/tables are a matter of personal preference, but I found that I really didn’t need what I’d packed. My campsite had a picnic bench in it which appeared to be suitable for seating 4-6 people comfortably. I didn’t spend too much time at my campsite, so that was perfectly adequate for me to sit on during meals and so on.
  • An overabundance of cooking utensils just weighed me down. I really only needed a big spoon and a fork, because I cooked everything in the one pot I brought with me.
  • About half the clothes I brought could have stayed at home. I’ve written before about packing light…sadly this camping trip was before I learned how to not overpack. I mean…I was camping! Did it really make a difference if I wore the same shirt for a couple days?

Camping At Badlands National Park

Sunrise, Badlands National Park

I began my trip by heading to the Badlands National Park, located in South Dakota. Badlands NP offers two separate campgrounds. Sage Creek Campground in the northwest part of the park, and Cedar Pass Campground in the southwest part. I chose to stay at the Cedar Pass Campground because it provides additional services that make camping easier. It has running water, flush toilets, paid showers, and covered picnic tables.

Cedar Pass also offered another advantage – a great view of the badlands formations and of the sunrises and sunsets. The colors were absolutely amazing and vibrant. I was able to capture several great photos from right outside my tent.

The other thing I liked about this location is that it was very central to the areas I wanted to visit. Walking and hiking trails were just a few minutes away, meaning that I didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting to the right places to do stuff.

After of a couple exciting and beautiful days in the Badlands, it was time to move toward my ultimate destination: Yellowstone National Park.



Camping At Yellowstone National Park

Waterfall, Uncle Tom’s Trail, Yellowstone

For the duration of my stay at Yellowstone, I chose to stay at the Canyon Village Campground. Canyon Village is located close to the Yellowstone River and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and is in the southern part of the Grand Loop. The Village also has many restaurants, a full-service gas station, and multiple shops where you can find souvenirs, supplies and groceries. Campers also have access to showers and washing machines‚ both of which came in handy for me.

The Canyon Village area was an excellent location for me, because I wanted to spend a lot of time exploring the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It’s also very easy to get from the Village to the Norris Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, Lake Yellowstone, and many of the other iconic spots in the park. There are other camping sites in the park, but I’d probably end up staying here again if I ever return.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the overnight temperatures in Yellowstone. I should have checked the weather forecasts and seasonal temperatures, but I didn’t think about it. On two separate mornings I woke up at 4AM feeling like I’d slept in a deep-freezer. I couldn’t get warm, and ended up sleeping the rest of the morning in my car. Next time I’ll pack a heavier-duty sleeping bag. Have I mentioned first time camper mistakes before?

Wrapping It Up…

I had a wonderful trip and learned a lot about camping during my time out west. If I ever get back out that way, I’ll definitely consider camping out again – maybe even in a back-country site this time!

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