A Beginner’s Guide to Camping in Northern New York

Whether you’re a camper stashed in the countryside or someone looking to brave their first night under a starry sky, countless outdoor adventures await throughout New York’s networks of parks and preserves.

So how do you get into camping and backpacking? Rich Gottlieb, an outdoor enthusiast (now retired) and longtime owner of the Rock & Snow outfitter company in New Paltz, encouraged people to go on day hikes and try camping with cars first before heading out for an epic solo adventure.

“Before setting off on a multi-day backpacking trip, I would say you need to hike a group first,” Gottlieb said. “Put on those hiking boots, and get in the habit of using maps and navigation. Know what you need to bring for a long day in the woods. Learn what isn’t essential. Hiking is a big component of backpacking and both are about endurance and experience, so you’ll want to build those basics.” Or not “.

Evan Thompson, manager of Hudson Highlands, Breakneck Ridge and Fahnestock State Parks near Cold Spring, agrees. “Unless you grew up camping and backpacking, this is not necessarily something people know how to do. Car camping is a great way to start.”

After you’ve narrowed down the area you’re interested in exploring—the Catskills, the Adirondacks, or areas closer to New York City like the Hudson Highlands—plan some day hikes so you can familiarize yourself with the trail system and find out what you need in that pack.

Beginner equipment for testing

Taking hiking day trips is a good way to test out equipment like shoes and backpacks before diving into an overnight camping trip.

Rich Gottlieb

Avoid cotton and focus on wicking fabrics to stay comfortable. Then there is the option in shoes. “There are now a lot of great, great hiking boots out there,” Gottlieb said. “But you want to break into them and not save them for the big hike because that can end up with blisters.”

Water is key, some type of portable water filtration system (like LifeStraw), like food, a map, compass or GPS, a headlight (in case you get lost and the day closes on you faster than your legs can go) and an extra layer. “It gets cooler at different altitudes or it might rain, so just having that extra dry layer is key,” Gottlieb said, as is “boots that fit the terrain and weather.”

Now that you’ve hiked and discovered your backpack, specific energy bars, and trail mix that fuels your body, it might be time to start thinking about camping.

car camping

“Most trail systems have campgrounds somewhere near them,” Gottlieb said, when talking about New York State’s parks and preserves.

Different locations require different levels of preparation. Backcountry campsites require that you carry everything you need in your backpack to sleep and eat in the wilderness overnight, weekend getaway, or longer. Pitching a tent while sorting how to protect yourself from rain, insects and creatures is a lot of things to nibble on if it’s your first time camping,

Echoing Thompson’s comments, Gottlieb said, it’s much easier to start with car camping, which is simply to find a camping site where you can ride in your car and pitch your tent, with a built-in safety net to have a car crawling inside. If the weather turns harsh, stock up on extra food and clothes, or drive to the nearest town for more supplies.

North Lake and South Lake in the Catskills are one popular car camping destination.

Camping where tents or other necessities are already provided

Tentrr now offers 45 locations in four New York state parks in the Hudson Valley.  The arrangement is similar to a revenue split with private hosts: the parks keep 80% of the reservation fee.
Tentrr now offers 45 locations in four New York state parks in the Hudson Valley. The arrangement is similar to a revenue split with private hosts: the parks keep 80% of the reservation fee.

tensed

If you don’t feel like investing in a lot of equipment before figuring out if camping is right for you, consider trying fully stocked camping at designated Tentrr sites in Harriman, Mills Norrie, Taconic, and Lake Taghkanic State Parks. Tentrr provides tents, beds, mattresses and a range of equipment – plus all sites are set up upon arrival. More details and reservations can be found online.

Another option is camp sites with some basics already built in. Fahnestock Park near Cold Spring, for example, offers 70 tented campgrounds that include a fire ring, barbecue and picnic table as well as rest stations (hot showers and spa facilities) and some outdoor camping essentials like firewood bundles and fire starters sold on the premises . These locations are also accessible from public transportation.


“We’re about an hour away from New York City,” Thompson said. “You can literally take a Metro North train and bike from Cold Spring Station to here, which a lot of people do. We are only 8 miles from the station.”

With their rest stops and barbecue stations, these campers are a relatively safe bet for starting campers. Countless miles of trails are offered nearby. “All you need is a tent, a sleeping bag, a pillow and some food,” he said.

How to plan camping in the countryside

If you’re ready to take that leap and do some camping in the countryside, Gottlieb has shared tips for getting started:

  1. Plan around the long hiking trails. “If there’s a loop or hole in the back and forth that you really want to tackle but can’t do it all in one day, this is a great way to start planning your first backpacking trip,” he said. “You have a sense of the terrain, are somewhat familiar with the track and keep an eye on a flat site to camp on. Catskills can be tricky because it is hard to find flat ground and that is key especially if it rains.”
  2. Beware of bears and creatures. While many backpackers and campers may worry about the bear coming for their food, Gottlieb said that “what actually gets you in trouble are rodents. If you leave a bar of chocolate in your pack or even toothpaste or deodorant, they will chew your tent, chew your pack and take a few They bite off and leave.Keep everything outside of your tent and pack and tie it.
  3. Prepare for seasonality. “You need a basic tent that will keep out rain and insects,” he said. Ask a store salesperson about the weights of different sleeping bags and sleeping pads. “There are different sanitary pads for different seasons and you want to pay attention to that. A summer pillow will not keep you warm in winter even if you have an overhead sleeping bag.”
  4. Additional checklist for camping essentials. In addition to the items listed above, “You need food. You’ll need a basic stovetop and fuel, or at least something to boil water. Gottlieb said that some kind of solar charger for light bulbs and electronics is also a worthwhile investment beyond owning headlights, there are plenty of backpacks that only require water, and it’s a great way to raise the light. Trekking poles can be used to stabilize yourself on rough terrain, help get up hills and save knees on slopes, and can double as a stake to support a tent or tarp. A pair of gloves can save your hands if the weather takes a turn. Don’t forget to use a shovel and toilet paper when nature calls.

Even seasoned outdoorsy folks can still learn from every experience. The important thing is to get started. Get a map, pick a camping site, find some fun trails, make sure you have the basics and go for them.

General camping tips

Harriman State Park is New York's second largest state park, with more than 200 hiking trails and several campgrounds for campers of all experience levels.
Harriman State Park is New York’s second largest state park, with more than 200 hiking trails and several campgrounds for campers of all experience levels.

Rich Gottlieb

Hike parts of the Appalachian Trail, hike some peaks in the Catskills, sail a more bumpy week in the Adirondacks or do some tent camping with the car and rest stop just a stone’s throw away.

Whatever you do, make a reservation ASAP, especially for the most well-travelled camping sites. All reservations for State Park campgrounds are made through the Reserve America website, and Thompson cautioned that they “fill up quickly, especially on weekends.” There are 56 camp sites operated by the Department of Environmental Conservation—many in the Catskills Forest and the Adirondack Conservation Area—as well as a range of smaller, lesser-known campgrounds.

Explore options on the DEC Camping Guide and the ReserveAmerica website.

“Backpacks become her own way of life, her own world,” Gottlieb said. “It all becomes quiet and it’s about finding a good place to camp and…look at the stars and listen to the sounds around you.”

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