Basic Camping Terms

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Attractant: Anything that can attract wildlife is considered an attractant. Hunters use urine and other animal scents to attract prey. Food, perfumes, scented bath products, and waste can also attract wild animals.

Backcountry:  Backcountry areas are primitive and undeveloped portions of parks and wilderness areas.  Backcountry areas are generally remote and difficult to access.

Backcountry camping:  Camping in a backcountry wilderness area or campground, usually by means of hiking, while carrying all your needed gear on your back.  Means of access can also include canoeing, kayaking, skiing, and horseback.   Learn more about basic camping concepts here.

Backpacking:  Backpacking is hiking overnight or for multiple days while carrying all of your gear (tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food rations) in your backpack.  

Base camping: Sometimes used as a synonym for car camping, base camping is a term more often associated with wilderness/exploration camping.  A base camp is the main encampment where adequate shelter has been established and supplies are stored.  Activities such as hunting, reconnaissance, mountain climbing and canoeing often use a base camp to serve as the central point for further expedition and communication. Basic camping concepts.

Base Camp: A base camp is the main encampment where adequate shelter has been established and supplies are stored.  Activities such as hunting, reconnaissance, mountain climbing and canoeing often use a base camp to serve as the central point for further expedition and communication.  (Learn More)

Bear Bag:  A sack for storing food in bear country.  The bear bag is thrown over a limb and left to hang in the air, keeping it out of reach of bears and other critters. 

A permanently installed bear box.

Bear Box: A bear box is a bear proof container used to store food and other attractants.  Bear boxes range from tiny jars to large metal boxes permanently installed at state and federal campgrounds. 

Blackwater:  Any wastewater that includes urine and feces.

Bivouac: Any type temporary or improvised shelter or temporary camp.  This includes improvised tent, shrubs and branches, or no shelter at all. 

Bivy Sack/Bivy Tent: Basically, just a sleeping bag sized tent with a breathable mesh cover and rain fly over your head.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM):  a federal agency under the United States Department of the Interior that manages 221 wilderness areas, 27 national monuments, and over 600 other protected areas, nearly 36 million acres in total.  In addition to 2,400 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers.  

Cabin Tent:   Cabin tents and hybrid cabin-dome tents are constructed with straight poles, or a combination.  Cabin tents range from modest to gargantuan in size.  Also known as wall tents, they’re the traditional style seen constructed of wood and canvas seen throughout human history. 

Cairn’s are used as trail markers all over the world.

Cairn: Carefully arranged piles of stones used as trail markers in all parts of the worlds.  Cairns also have a long prehistoric past and have been used as burial markers, monuments to the dead and ceremonial pieces since the dawn of mankind.  Some cultures believed cairns kept the dead from rising from their graves. 

Camp Dry: A spray-on waterproof product that can be applied to tent fabric and other fabrics.  Buy it here.

Learn more about Tent Basics.

Canoe Camping: a form of backcountry camping where the mode of access is via canoe. 

Carabiner: (also karabiner) is a specialized closure, called a shackle.  Sometimes called a D-Clip or clasp.  Carabiners are weight tested for load bearing activities as rock climbing, caving, hot air ballooning, rope rescue, and so on.  Clips of similar design have become popular for lightweight use and are stamped “NOT FOR CLIMBING” or a similar warning. 

Car camping: Camping within close proximity to your vehicle as opposed to backpacking, canoe or wilderness camping.  Car camping does not mean sleeping in your car.  While term would definitely include sleeping in a car, SUV or minivan, car camping also includes sleeping in tents or hammocks within walking distance from where you park your car.  Read about car camping basics.

Cast-Iron Cookware:  Made from cast-iron, this heavy-duty cookware is desired by outdoor for its heat retention, unbeatable durability, and its ability to withstand temperatures equivalent to a hell fire.  When properly seasoned, a cast iron is non-stick and easy to clean.  Cast-iron cookware includes, but is not limited to frying pans, pots, Dutch-ovens, griddles, waffle irons, woks, and deep fryers.  Learn more about Campground Kitchen Basics.

Cat Hole: a small hole dug to bury poop.  Cat holes should be dug 200 feet away from camp, hiking trails, and water sources, like streams or shoreline. Cat holes can be dug with a trowel, foldable camp shovel or a stick. 

Comfort Station: Term often used to refer to modern shower houses with flush toilets and hot water.

Conifer Tree: Trees that make pinecones.  This includes cedars, Douglas-firs, all fir trees, pines, cedars, redwoods, and spruces.   

Conservation:  The action of conserving something.  More specifically the ethical use of natural resources and areas, including the conservation of cultural heritage and architecture. 

This CCC bridge in McCormick’s Creek is Indiana’s only self supporting arch bridge. Built between 1933 and 1935, this bridge was the only way to access the northern part of the park for many decades.

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): Federal work relief program which operated from 1993 to 1942 provided unmarried men ages 17 to 28 with meals, housing, and medical care working in the national and state park properties during the Great Depression.    CCC Camps were located across the United States near areas where there was a need for conservation work.  The CCC men performed manual labor jobs such as building bridges, fire towers, roads, footpaths, shelters, and buildings.  They also dug ditches, constructed dams, planted trees, fought fires, and contributed to disaster relief.   

Cowboy Camping: Sleeping under the stars without a tent. 

Cowboy Coffee:  Coffee grounds prepared without any kind of filtration. 

Day pack: A small to midsized backpack used for carrying supplies on a day hike.

Day Box: Storage container for carrying food and picnic supplies on a day trip. 

Learn more about Campground Kitchen Basics.

Dispersed Camping:  Dispersed camping means to camp at any desired location aside from a designated camp site.  This is often permitted in national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.  Since picnic tables, fire pits, toilet facilities, and roads are the designating factors for designated campsites, you won’t have these luxuries while you’re dispersed camping.  See also: boondocking.

Dome Tent: Dome shaped tent with a frame constructed of flexible shock-cord poles.

Dry Box: sometimes called a Larder Box, contains your cooking utensils, spices, small gadgets, paper towels, hand towels, condiments that don’t require refrigeration, anything that must be kept dry and could potentially attract wildlife.  Your dry box should be secured with a locking lid/strap to keep out wildlife.   If you’re camping in bear country, it should be rated bearproof or kept inside a locked vehicle.  Ideally, your dry box should be kept inside your vehicle when not in use.  

Dry camping:  RV term for camping with water, electric or sewer connections, often referred to as boon-docking. 

Dry Sack: Also called a dry bag, is a flexible watertight container used to keep gear and sensitive equipment dry while participating in water sport activities like canoeing, kayaking, and

Dutch Oven

Dump station: Equipment and facilities for emptying the grey and blackwater holding tanks on RVs and Travel Trailers.

Dutch Oven: A piece of cast iron cookware that consists of a large pot or pan with a cast iron lid.  Dutch Ovens can be buried in a bed of hot coals enabling them to reach prolonged temps like your oven at home, allowing you bake stews and cakes while camping. 

Electric Campsites: Campsite with a 30- or 50-amp electrical post, nearby water source, and modern restroom and shower facilities.  

Fanny Pack: a pack that’s worn around the waist for carrying things like keys, maps, and granola bars.

Fifth Wheel Trailer

Fifth Wheel: The fifth-wheel hitch is located over the rear axle and built into the bed of the truck.  This design allows trucks to pull heavier loads safely.  The fifth-wheel trailer is designed to attach the fifth-wheel hitch via the specially constructed overhang over the truck bed. 

Fire Ring: Large metal ring for containing a campfire.  Most every developed, modern campground requires campfires are kept inside the provided fire ring.  Regulations usually prohibit moving them. Some fire rings have a cooking grate.  Fire grates are a fall hazard in the dark. 

Fire Grate: Also called a cooking grate or grill grate.  A metal grill that is placed over a campfire for cooking purposes.  They are either portable or permanently attached to the fire ring. 

Footprint: The area a tent covers over the ground.  A footprint is also the name for the ground cloth placed between the tent and the dirt. 

Four Season Tent:  Unlike three season tents which are designed for camping during the warmer months of spring, summer, and fall, four season tents are constructed to withstand the intense weather conditions encounter during the winter.  They are built with heavy duty materials, typically with double walls and extraordinarily little mesh, just enough to minimize condensation.  Four season tents are rated to hold a snow load and to hold up strong bitter winds.  Learn more about Tent Basics.   

Full Hookup: A campsite where electric, water and sewer connections are provided for RVs and Travel Trailers.

Glamping: The combination of glamour and camping, glamping is can either be considered staying in luxury tents at a camping resort, camping in a modern RV or travel trailer with all the comforts of home, or car camping with the extra trappings of comfort. 

Groundsheet: Waterproof tarp that goes under your tent to keep away moisture, dew, and condensation. 

Greywater: Any wastewater from cleaning and bathing. 

Guy Lines/Guy Ropes: Little ropes attached to your tent for shape and stability.  When pulled tight and staked into the ground, provide added strength during windy conditions.  Tie colored fabric strips (add a glowstick after dark) to help add visibility and reduce trip hazards. 

Hammock Tent

Hammock tent:  A hammock with a screen covering and rainfly intended for overnight sleeping. 

Idiot Check:  The final last-minute check once everything’s pack up just prior to leaving.  Idiot checks should be completed before departing and return trips.   An idiot check includes a visual check of the premises for items left behind and a visual check of the vehicle to ensure everything is secure. 

Inherent risk:  Characteristics or attributes which are potentially dangerous.  Activities that pose an inherent risk would be sky diving, horseback diving, downhill skiing, etc.

Interpretive Services:  According to the NPS, interpretation means helping the visitor connect and create an understanding of the natural environment.  They define interpretation as “a catalyst in creating an opportunity for the audience to form their intellectual and emotional connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings in the inherent resource.”

Itinerary: your detailed plan for your camping adventure that includes places to visits, sights to see, and all things you plan to do while you’re there. 

Kindling: small sticks or twigs used to start a fire. 

KOA (Kampgrounds of America): The world’s largest chain of privately own campgrounds with more than 500 locations throughout the United States and Canada.  Founded in 1962 and surviving five decades of changing times, KOA’s continue to remain popular RV resorts. 

Loop Trail:  A trail that takes you in a complete loop and returns you back to where you started. 

Moraine Lake, Alberta Canada. Getty Images.

Moraine:  An accumulation of rock, dirt and debris left behind by a glacier that forms a ridge

Muir, John: John Muir (1838-1914) was an essayist, writer and early preservationist who helped to save many wilderness areas, including Yosemite Valley.  His letters and essays about his adventures in Alaska and Sierra Nevada Mountains are still read and well-loved to this day. 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): is a federal agency that focuses on major waterways, oceans and atmospheric conditions. 

National Park Service (NPS): is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior.  In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the “Organic Act,” creating the National Park System with the fundamental purpose of preserving natural and historic locations for the enjoyment of future generations.  The NPS manages 417 locations covering 84 million acres which includes 87 national monuments, 60 national parks, 25 battlefields, 19 nature preserves, 18 recreational areas, 10 seashores, four parkways, four lakeshores, and two reserve. More information can be found at nps.gov.

New Growth Forest: Also called a secondary forest (or second growth) is a forest that has regrown after being harvested for timber.  After several hundred years (or millennia depending on the species) the trees will begin to exhibit old growth characteristics and the evidence from the destruction from harvesting operations will have disappeared. 

No Trace Ethics:  An ethical set of principles promoted to lessen the impact of our presence in natural areas.  Read more about it here. 

No See Ems: Slang for very tiny bugs with a rather big bite

Non-Electric: Non-Electric is often used to designate campsites without electricity but have nearby water sources and modern restroom and shower facilities. 

Off Peak:  Off Peak can refer to any portion of time that isn’t peak.  Off-peak days typically refers to Monday through and are often discounted.  Off-peak seasons are early spring, late fall, and all of winter when many campground amenities like water and bathhouses are shut off during freezing months. 

Old Growth Forest: Also called primary forest, virgin forest, or primeval forest, is a forest that has not been harvested for its timber for several hundred years or millennia, depending on the species.   A true virgin forest has never been logged or significantly altered by man.    

Out and Back Trail:  An out and back trail begins at the trailhead and leads to a dead end.  Hikers must then turn around and retrace their steps to hike back out.  Sometimes called an in and out trail, these trails typically lead to a point of interest or scenic vista. 

A remote one stall pit toilet with handicap access. Courtesy of Mellissa Kopka. Getty Images.

Pit Toilet: A restroom that is built over a hole or pit dug into the ground. A true pit toilet (also called an outhouse) does not need serviced for waste removal and is never pumped out.  The human excreta remain in the pit to decompose and seep into the ground.  In the event the hole fills up before the waste can properly breakdown, another hole is dug and the building is moved and placed over the fresh hole, while the old poop hole gets filled in with dirt.  Newly constructed pit toilets are typically handicap accessible.

Pop-Up Camper: Small camping trailer with a “pop-up” that consists of a hard top with canvas sides and typically two queen sized beds that “pull-out,” making a small but comfortable space.

Potable Water: Potable water simply means any water that is safe to drink. 

Portable Shower System:  Portable shower systems range from the simple sun-warmed bag of water with attached shower head, to gas and electric heated models.  Paired with a stand-up utility tent, they make for the perfect portable outdoor shower house.

Primitive Site: Campsite without electricity, water, or modern restroom/shower facilities.  There is typically a nearby water supply and a vault/pit toilet. 

Private Campground:  A campground that is owned and operated by an individual owner or private company.  Private campgrounds   include family owned and large chain campgrounds like KOA. 

Rain Fly:  Covers the roof of the tent.  Can be removed to make a sunroof/moonroof. 

Recreation Area: A natural protected area managed by federal, state, or local agencies used by the public for outdoor recreation such as swimming, fishing, boating and hiking.

Screened Tent: A tent primarily constructed of breathable mesh screen which provides a dining and gathering area protected from insects and weather. 

Seam Sealant:  A waterproof treatment applied to tent seams. Buy it here.

Shoulder season:  Spring and fall are considered shoulder seasons while summer is typically when most people go camping.

Shower Bag: A plastic bag with attachable shower head that can be heated in the sun, then hung from a tree branch to provide a warm outdoor shower. 

Sleep system: A sleep system consists of all components of your sleep gear: pad, bag, and anything else you desire to stay comfortable and get a good night’s rest. 

Sleep pad/sleep mat: a durable and reliable, self-inflating sleep mat.  I recommend Big Two Track Sleeping Pad.

Spur Trail: Spur trails are trails that branch off from a main trail, leading to a dead end which is typically a point of interest or a scenic vista. 

Stakes: Pegs made of plastic or metal that are driven into the ground with a mallet to secure the tent to the earth. 

Summit: the highest point of a hill or mountain. 

Recreational Vehicle (RV): Motor home or camping trailer.

Shoulder Season:   Also called the off-season.  Should season refers to early spring, late fall, and winter when weather conditions make camping unenjoyable for most people.  

Space Blanket: Also called a Mylar blanket, emergency blanket, first aid blanket, and safety blanket.  Made of a very thin, heat reflective plastic sheet, these blankets are an essential item to every Emergency First Aid Kit.  Their uses include but are not limited to the prevention of hypothermia, protection against radiated heat (the sun), and as an improvised distress beacon. Buy them here.  

Stuff Sack: Canvas or nylon bags with a draw string closure used to store gear like sleeping bags, tents, and other items. 

Switchback:  a trail that ascends/descends a mountain in a zigzag direction which allows for a significantly easier climb/descent.

Tarp: Also tarpaulin, is a sheet of weatherproof material used to cover things that need to be kept dry, like firewood, your tent, or your fire or picnic table even.  Tarps can also be placed under things to protect them from ground moisture. 

Tent: A structure constructed for shelter.  Modern tents are typically made from weather resistant fabrics and flexible shock-cord poles.  Types of tents include but are not limited to:  wall tents, dome tents, cabin tents, screen tents, umbrella tents, and event tents.  For more information tents, check out Tent Basics. 

Tinder: The smallest element to building a campfire.  Tinder can be anything that’s dry and ignites quickly like paper, dry needles, twigs, bark, dryer lint, cardboard.  

Topography: The arrangement of the natural physical features of the land, as in elevation. Mountains and lakes are topographical features that represent rise and depression in the elevation.

Topographical Map:  A map that describes the topography of an area using lines to represent elevation. 

Trailhead: Where a trail begins and ends.

Trail Blaze: Marks or signage that indicate the path of the trail.  Types of trail blazes include but are not limited to signage, paint swaths or spots, affixed markers made of metal or plastic that have been either nailed or stapled to a tree, flagging (tying plastic tape to the branch of a tree, poles (sometimes painted, sometimes not or sometimes engraved with arrows, sometimes not), and cairns (carefully arranged piles of stones).

Travel Trailer (TT): a type of recreational camping trailer that is pulled behind a truck or SUV.

The vestibule (pictured in back) of our Big Agnes Big House 4 is roomy enough for a giant dog crate and gear.

Truck Camper: A hard shelled unit that is mounted inside the bed of a truck.  Some models have pop-up roof systems for extra standing space.  Most truck campers are equipped with a stove, fridge, sink, convertible dinette/bed, and a cabover bunk.  Larger units have shower/toilet closets. 

Vault Toilet:  A restroom that is built over a vaulted container that must be serviced regularly for waste removal.  They require no plumbing, water, or electricity. 

Vestibule:  A vestibule can refer to an enclosed entryway to a building, often seen in large public buildings.   The vestibule of a tent is typically an extended area of the rain fly over the entrance that is used to store shoes and gear. 

Walk in Site:  A primitive tent site with walk in access only. Campers must park in a parking lot or designated area and carry their supplies to the campsite.  Typically, these sites are no more than a few hundred feet from the parking area.

Wet Sack: Waterproof bag designed to carry wet, stinky items like swimwear inside of a day bag or duffle bag.

Further Reading

My Top 10 Camping Apps

Car Camping 101: Basic Concepts

The Ultimate Car Camping Checklist

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