The Pandemic Made Me Learn to Love My Only Vacation Option: Camping

Read This Before You Go on a Camping Trip for the First Time

For the last three months, I’ve been glued to the news, like everyone else. In theory I wanted to stay informed—but in reality, it compounded the anxiety my husband and I felt being across the country from our families. One day, he had enough of watching CNN and switched over to YouTube—which is how we entered the wormhole of fancy Asian camping videos.

Prior to the pandemic, camping ranked extremely low on my list of preferred vacations. My husband and a select group of friends were fans but I’d only join after a lot of coaxing. There were your standard concerns: bugs crawling into my sleeping bag, using the bathroom outdoors, and no easy access to a clean shower. But I was also weirded out about spending extended amounts in remote locales. I’m your quintessential city kid, born and raised in New York City to a Chinese immigrant family who definitely did not see any merit in paying for gear just so you could sleep outdoors. I’m most comfortable in an urban setting, surrounded by a diverse mix of people and I’m wary in rural destinations where residents may not exactly be used to a face like mine.

Camping, and outdoor activities in general, are a predominantly white space, and most non-white people are like me.

My fears are not unfounded: Just this week there was a near-lynching of a Black man in Indiana, a multiracial family harassed in Washington, and an Asian-American family confronted on a hiking trail. Camping, and outdoor activities in general, are a predominantly white space, and most non-white people are like me: We don’t grow up doing these activities and we have to teach ourselves how to do them. It’s intimidating because there’s so much to learn: what stuff to buy, how to set up a campsite, and above all else, outdoor safety.

Outdoor safety isn’t just containing a campfire or protecting your food from wild animals—it’s also about ensuring you feel comfortable and welcome at a campsite. Where do you begin if you don’t have friends or a partner who is knowledgeable and googling makes you even more confused? Diversify Outdoors is a great resource. Founded by a group of activists, athletes, and entrepreneurs, they’re devoted to helping everyone feel comfortable out in nature. Melanin Base Camp is another helpful site, with a focus on BIPOC who love adventure sports like climbing, hiking, and more. And on Instagram, Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Native Women’s Wilderness, and Outdoor Asian are among a few accounts where you can connect with outdoors loving individuals who are happy to offer advice.

The hardest reservation to get in Los Angeles right now isn’t a table for two at N/Naka, it’s a campsite in Joshua Tree and Yosemite.

In the age of COVID-19, heading outdoors has become one of the few vacation-like activities you can do relatively safely. And you can see it reflected in the amount of people camping: It’s surged in popularity as the 2020 vacation of choice. The hardest reservation to get in Los Angeles right now isn’t a table for two at N/Naka, it’s a campsite in Joshua Tree and Yosemite. With national parks limiting visitors to half capacity, those who do get spots are lucky: You get to enjoy all of the amazing views without a giant crowd.

This new reality had me reconsidering my camping aversion. I’ve had to ditch my usual vacation plans as hotels seemed too risky. The idea of being in the confined space of a hotel room, where a stranger had stayed just hours prior, made me panicky. Suddenly camping seemed like it might be a viable, if not my only, option. Even if I chose a site with a shared bathroom, it was still relatively low risk. Still, I wasn’t fully convinced, which is where that wormhole of Asian YouTube camping videos came into play.

My husband knew how to win me over: He introduced me to a South Korean creator who goes by PICNICAMP. Unlike other YouTube personalities, there’s no peppy greeting or overly enthusiastic commentary packaged into a neatly edited five-minute long video. Instead you listen to gentle acoustic music for 20 to 30 minutes as he sets up camp with his little dog, Anna. The inside of the tent is immaculate, typically furnished with a rug and maybe some lanterns. And the food! He roasts lobster over a fire, shucks fresh scallops, and even makes breakfast rice porridge (with a little portion set aside for Anna). PICNICAMP creates a five-star hotel experience, except he’s parked at a campsite.

It also opened my eyes to what the outdoors looked like when it wasn’t informed by a white gaze.

The appeal of these videos isn’t just because he makes camping look beautiful and luxurious. It also opened my eyes to what the outdoors looked like when it wasn’t informed by a white gaze. It’s not just campfires and hot dogs at the end of a long day of hiking, it could easily be sitting by a beautiful river while enjoying steaming bowls of noodles and dumplings like what PICNICAMP does. There’s no one “right” way to camp if you’re respectful of the outdoors. All you need is to see someone like you doing it and you’ll want to get out there too.

Ready to Get Out There?

Here are some of the best products that helped get me started.

Kelty Discovery 2-Person Camp Bundle
You can easily sleep in your car if your seats fold down and you have a sleeping bag—but you’re more likely to be more comfortable in a tent. This set features a four-person tent, which means it’s nice and roomy for two. Plus it also includes a footprint (a layer of fabric that protects the bottom of a tent), sleeping bags, and inflatable pads (to cushion your sleeping bags from the hard ground). Bonus? It’s on sale.

Yeti Roadie 24 Hard Cooler
Yes, you can buy a cooler for $20, but take it from me: don’t. You’ll waste so much money refilling the rapidly melting ice. There’s nothing better than Yeti, which can keep a bag of ice cool for days at a time. Your groceries remain perfectly cold, which is important: You don’t want to accidentally get sick from spoiled vegetables.

Goal Zero Crush Light Lantern
This tiny but mighty light, which can illuminate a space for 3 to 3.5 hours, will be handy when the sun sets. Featuring a USB for recharging, it comes with a solar panel in case you can’t plug it in.

Black Diamond Astro 175 Headlamp
How do you find your way to the bathroom at night? No, not using your phone’s flashlight. You’ll need an affordable, lightweight headlamp, like this one.

Snowpeak 3-Piece Titanium Cookset
If you own a cast iron skillet, you can easily pack it up and use it to cook every meal. Should you want something less bulky—or if PICNICAMP’s elaborate videos inspire you to make fancier items—Snowpeak is a Japanese camping brand that makes superior cookware. You can go all-in and spring for their tabletop grills, but this more reasonably priced three-piece set is ultralight, durable, and versatile. Pack a knife, utensils, and bowls from home; you don’t need to buy special camping ones if you’re a newbie.

The North Face Class V Brimmer
One of the best parts of camping are the daily hikes to spectacular views. You’ll want a breathable hat for when it gets hot—preferably one with a drawstring, so you can take it off and hang it around your neck. This one comes in lots of fun colors.

Salomon X Ultra-3 Mid GTX
Good hiking boots will protect your ankles, especially when you walk down uneven, rocky trails. It’s a personal preference as to what brand fits you best, but you can’t go wrong with Salomon for a starter boot.

Patagonia Baggies Shorts
As someone who lives in black leggings, two hours in 100-degree heat changed my mind: I’d rather wear these lightweight shorts than melt in long pants. Just put on plenty of bug spray to protect your legs.

Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Shirt
Sunscreen on your exposed skin is a must, but a shirt with built-in 50+ UPF protection adds another layer of protection. This one also has odor control, which is great if you can’t shower after a sweaty hike.

Osprey Siskin 12
A light bag with a built-in water bladder and room for snacks, a first aid kit, and sunscreen is key for keeping safe on hikes. This one fastens securely against the body.

LL Bean Buff Coolnet UV Plus Multifunctional Headwear
While you can choose quieter trails, you’ll still need to bring a face covering to be safe. This one wicks away moisture and can also protect your neck from the sun.

Unsun Mineral Tinted Face Sunscreen SPF 30
This award-winning, moisturizing sunscreen won’t leave a white cast, no matter your skin tone.

Repel Plant-Based Insect Repellent
Mosquitoes are inevitable… but mosquito bites can be prevented. This top-rated, all-natural bug spray will keep you from turning into an insect buffet.

Diana Tsui

Diana Tsui

Diana Tsui is a Los Angeles transplant who used to be the senior fashion editor at The Cut. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Elle, Nylon, and Tidal to name a few. Before she worked in fashion, she almost became a doctor and spent a year as a researcher at Harvard. If you show her your arm, she can tell you which vein is the best for a blood draw.

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