In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. There’s nothing like falling asleep to the chorus of
In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
There’s nothing like falling asleep to the chorus of treefrogs after the campfire turns to glowing coals, and then waking up to sunlight filtering down through pine needles. Or falling asleep to the crash of the ocean, a soft blanket of sand beneath you, and waking up to the scent of salty air. Suffice it to say, that from the shadow of Cape Lookout Lighthouse to the brow of Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina offers plenty of perfect spots to pitch a tent.
“I love that North Carolina has such great access — we can get away, but not be that far away,” says Chuck Millsaps, minister of culture at the Raleigh-based Great Outdoor Provision Company. The outdoors reignites all of us. This has been particularly poignant in the past two years — in the outdoors we can find an appreciation that we all share.”
We talked to Millsaps and two other experts — Jessica Phillips, superintendent at Mayo River State Park and the host of NC State Parks’ Ask a Ranger podcast; and Beth Hooper, chief operating officer at FIND Outdoors, a nonprofit based in Pisgah Forest dedicated to helping people connect with nature — to find out their best tips for camping beginners, what to pack, and their favorite spots in the state to rough it.
Minister of Culture at Great Outdoor Provision Company
Superintendent at Mayo River State Park and host of NC State Parks’ Ask a Ranger podcast
Chief Operating Officer at FIND Outdoors
Chuck Millsaps: I have an older sister, and she was in the Girl Scouts. Our mom headed up her troop, so I was always brought along camping with them because there was nowhere else for me to go. I became their mascot of sorts. At a young age, that introduced me to the outdoors and to camping. I also ended up pumping gas in Yellowstone during the summers while I was in college — it was a great ticket to be outside.
Beth Hooper: I grew up in Transylvania County, camping, hiking, and biking in Pisgah National Forest with my family from a young age. For me, it’s just always been a part of what our family did.
Chuck Millsaps: In North Carolina, you can get to places where you can feel removed — but you can do it in a day.
Jessica Phillips: I’m originally from Chicago, and while I love Chicago, in North Carolina you get just enough city and metropolitan area. In one day, you can go three hours to the east and get to the beach, or you can go three hours to the west and get to the mountains, or have the Piedmont all around you in central North Carolina. You could get a little bit of everything camping in each one of our state parks in North Carolina — and Illinois doesn’t have that.
Chuck Millsaps: I am going to be shamelessly self-promoting here, but we have this button on the Great Outdoor Provision Company website called “Plan Your Next Adventure,” built just for that function. You click it and say “I want to go camping,” then choose what part of North Carolina you’d like to visit, and it gives you different options for that camping experience. State parks are always a great place to start.
Jessica Phillips: I would go onto ncparks.gov, and you can see which parks have the amenities you want — whether it’s a beach experience, a mountain experience, or somewhere in between. And you can reserve camping spots through it as well.
Beth Hooper: I would recommend stopping into one of our local visitor centers. Pisgah National Forest has a visitor center in the Pisgah Ranger District, and the folks there are very knowledgeable about all the hiking trails and camping areas. For a first-time camper, it would probably be a good idea to stop into a visitor center like this one, ask some questions, and share with the folks there what you’re looking to accomplish.
Chuck Millsaps: Here in Raleigh, what we often do is watch the weather, and if it’s nice, go out and camp at Umstead State Park in their designated tent loop. For a bit farther away, I am partial to the areas around Bryson City and the Smokies. Another favorite for a short, splendid hike is at Mount Mitchell; Deep Gap Trail right off the summit has an unbelievable campsite.
Beth Hooper: My favorite is probably Carolina Hemlocks campground in Pisgah National Forest. It’s along the Toe River, so it has a great swimming hole for kids and adults, you can tube down the river, and it’s just a really nice and shady campground.
Chuck Millsaps: You need a tent, a sleeping bag, a ground pad or air mattress, something to keep your food in, and potentially a nice cooler. If you want to cook or make coffee, it’s always great to have a cooking stove. If you go to the Great Outdoor Provision Company website, we offer a “Get Camping” package, so even if you have no gear but want to go camping, we’ll provide the basics and deliver it to a site for you. But the definition of the outdoor experience is broadening — people enjoy the outdoors in a lot of different ways.
Jessica Phillips: Honestly, it depends on the time of year and what your comfort level is. I think you probably need a tent and a sleeping bag, and a lot of people now like to have a little air cushion for underneath their sleeping bag. The thing you want to do first if you’re just initially trying out camping is to try it one night in your yard. Or you could try “Cadillac camping,” where you drive up to your campsite instead of hiking there.
Beth Hooper: Your basics would be your tent, plenty of water, and bear-proof storage for your food. It’s also better to have a compass and a paper map instead of relying on a map that you’ve downloaded from your phone, because in a lot of these areas, the cell service is not going to be ample enough.
Beth Hooper: If you’re in the mountains, you need to be prepared for weather changes. Here in western North Carolina, we get a lot of rain, and the temperatures do tend to drop overnight. It may be very warm and sunny during the day while you’re hiking, but you need to be prepared for those temperatures to drop in the evening. You should have appropriate clothing with you — for those temperature drops and for any inclement weather that might come in.
Jessica Phillips: It’s going to be cooler in the mountains, depending upon where you are and the time of year. What I do with camping, whether it’s the coast, the Piedmont, or the mountains, is look up where I’m going on Instagram and see what everybody’s been posting about [in real time] — where to go and what to do. You can even put in the hashtag “mountain camping” or “beach camping” and see what everybody is doing in that region.
Chuck Millsaps: What seems to be growing is this appreciation for outdoor places, and the willingness to advocate for and take care of them — there is an exponential peace in the outdoor community. We can find an appreciation for the outdoors that we all share, and when you are in that environment you meet people that just seem to be friendly and at peace with being out in the wilderness. Being outdoors allows me to realize how small I am, and how big the universe is. I have to rely on my own senses.
Beth Hooper: I love that our public lands are free to everyone — they belong to all of us. At FIND Outdoors, we are very much about promoting equality in the outdoors. We want to get more people out camping and enjoying what nature has to offer — because it’s free. It’s also just a really great way to spend time with your family and get away from electronics and just sit down and enjoy one another’s company around the campfire.
Beth Hooper: Growing up, camping is what we did for vacation. I remember being able to spend time with my dad, learning how to build a campfire, and then roasting marshmallows over that fire while enjoying the sounds of nature. Those are the best memories.
Jessica Phillips: In this current timeframe, I think my favorite experience is watching my child interact with the outdoors. I have a 2-year-old and an older child, but it has been fun living vicariously through my younger one — going out, camping, and exploring — seeing the wonder and joy that this brings.