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A beginner’s guide to camping near Pittsburgh

Want to explore the great outdoors but don’t know where to start? We’ve got you.

by Tess Wilson
July 14, 2021

This story was written for Very Local by Tess Wilson. You can follow her @tesskwg on Twitter.

When you live in a city like Pittsburgh — bursting with green space and full of outdoorsy folks — the enthusiastic refrain “Let’s go camping!” echoes from borough to borough from the early days of spring into the fall and winter months. For many, it has become second nature to load up the car with gear, food, and family and hop on the highway out of town. But for others, taking off into the wilderness can seem, at the very least, intimidating and, in some cases, inaccessible. However, camping can and should be something for everyone to enjoy! While not exhaustive, this guide will give you a few resources, tips, and ideas to kick off your camping adventure.

Are you looking to add some more adventure in your life? A new reality show is filming in Pittsburgh in August. Find out more here

🎒 Gear: What do I need for a camping trip?

Because methods and motivations for camping differ from person to person, one of the first steps is to consider what kind of trip you want to take. Would you rather have access to amenities or rough it in a more primitive campsite? Will you be hiking and biking all day or cuddling up with a book at camp? Is access to swimming and boating an essential part of your outdoor experience? How comfortable would you feel sleeping in a tent? What about a vehicle, or even a cabin? Determining your comfort level and priorities is a good place to start when planning out your camping trip.

As you dive into the world of camping gear, you might find yourself overwhelmed at how much stuff is available—from the small and hyper-specific (collapsible whisk) to the large and slightly absurd (the hot tub hammock). Here’s a list of some basic essentials that will keep you happy and healthy as you explore:

  • Tent and tarp
  • Sleeping bag, pillows, blankets, and pads
  • Flashlights and extra batteries
  • Jacket, hat, rain gear, sandals, walking shoes, socks, and extra clothes
  • Toilet paper, paper towels, toothbrush/paste, and soap or shampoo
  • Lighter or matches, and local firewood (be sure to burn it all, don’t leave it!)
  • Food, cooler, and grilling tools
  • Extra water and water bottles
  • Swimsuit, sunscreen, and towel
  • First aid kit

⛺️ Camping Gear & Tent Rental in Pittsburgh

While buying new gear can be exciting, it can quickly get expensive. It’s worth checking in with local outdoor stores to see if they rent out camping equipment. 3 Rivers Outdoor Co. on Braddock Avenue has an extensive list of rentals, which is ideal for those who might not have room or funds to keep camping gear long-term, or for new campers who want to try out gear before they buy.

Take a listen to our interview with Christine Iksic, one of the co-owners of 3 Rivers Outdoor Co for more on exploring the great outdoors near Pittsburgh.

🍉 Food

When we picture a camping trip, one image that comes to mind is cooking over a glowing campfire. But as you pack coolers full of meats and veggies to grill, don’t forget about the times when you might not be up for cooking a whole meal! Nearly ready-made meals like those from Patagonia Provisions and Good To-Go are an easy option. Be sure to bring along staples like tortillas, bread, peanut butter, fruit or meat jerky, and trail mix for snacks along the trail. Some other locally-made camping snacks include Power Bites and Best Ever Granola. The good news is, if you forget anything, there are often concession stands somewhere in the park (but check first). And when it comes to trash, remember the Pack-In/Pack-Out rule—anything you bring along must leave with you.

💵 Money & Permits: Can you camp for free?

Recreational camping has a history riddled with gatekeepers, privilege, and classism. And there are lots of expenses involved in camping, including campground fees. But while many campgrounds cost money, there are tons of free spots too! Primitive camping on State Forest land is free, for example, but requires a permit if you stay for more than one night. Pay close attention to any permit or entrance fees that are associated with your destination, make a note of equipment rentals and swimming fees, and keep in mind highway tolls and gas tank refills along the way. Remember to keep some extra cash on hand for anything that comes up unexpectedly. Finally, as you continue on your camping journey, look into National Parks passes! Kids, veterans,  and seniors can often find deep discounts.

🗺 Where to go? The best places to go camping near Pittsburgh

One perk of being a Pittsburgher is our city’s proximity to all kinds of natural spaces. Drive even twenty minutes out of town, and the world opens up into a collage of mountains, valleys, and lakes. Not only are there a number of State and National Parks within a few hours of Pittsburgh, there are tons of classic favorites that are great spots for beginners. Since staying close to home isn’t a bad idea for your first few outings, here are a few nearby spots that delight campers of all experience levels:

 

Racoon Creek State Park 

Only a short drive outside Pittsburgh (anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour), Raccoon Creek is a wonderful place for beginners to set up camp. This is also a great spot for anyone who wants to supplement their camping trip with some water activities, as there’s a 101-acre lake to explore. Camping here is flexible—there are sites with amenities (electricity, flushable toilets, etc.) and more primitive sites (limited amenities within walking distance) available. This is a local favorite for many reasons, but one of them is the stunning Wildflower Reserve, where you can take a leisurely stroll through land featuring over 700 species of plants.

Keystone State Park

About the same distance in the opposite direction, Keystone is a local treasure. It has plenty to explore on day hikes and kayak trips, but the camping options here are unmatched. From rustic campgrounds to cottages to yurts, there is definitely a spot to call your own. Between the wide swimming beach, meandering easy trails, and boat rentals, Keystone can provide a laid-back break from the city.

 

Allegheny National Forest

This spot is a little further out (about two hours), but well worth the trip. This is Pennsylvania’s only National Forest, so it’s a real gem in our area. Hiking here can be what you make it, as there are trails ranging from level day hikes to more advanced backpacking routes. And camping here has a similar range. You can pick your own spot in the fee-free rustic campground area or pay a small fee for a site with access to water and garbage disposal. Or take advantage of the more developed campgrounds, which offer access to trails, pavilions, and more.

 

Cook Forest State Park

Located just south of the Allegheny National Forest, Cook Forest is another great option for a weekend camping trip. If you want to include biking or hiking in your trip, this might be the place to go. There are miles of multi-use trails (open to hikers, bikers, and horses) within the park and along the Clarion River. Camping in this area is a must because there are plenty of sites available that range from rustic to fully-equipped for RVs. And if you stay here, Clear Creek State Park is only a short drive away and ideal for day trips.

 

While this list is a good starting point, Pittsburgh is ideally positioned for any camper—whether it’s your first trip or your hundredth. So get out there this year and enjoy your trip!

Not quite ready for tent camping? How about glamping…

Check out our review of the Getaway Cabins. Located just an hour from Pittsburgh, this might be the ideal camping compromise. We’ve also got a guide to glamping near Pittsburgh.

📸 Header photo: Getty Images.

Tess Wilson is a librarian who loves talking loudly about digital literacy, equitable access, and citizen science. Beyond her library work, she is an arts educator, mentor trainer, and zine enthusiast. She’s a collector of many things, from small rocks to big books.

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