In the Pacific Northwest, Tinder profiles are required to include guy-in-front-of-mountain shots, REI’s garage sale is basically a regional holiday, and if you don’t have a Discover Pass, do you even live here? I kid, but there’s some truth to all of this: If you live in Washington state, and you’re not already outdoorsy, it can be an alienating place to start.
But the Northwest is also home to those of us who are easily squicked-out by campsite pit toilets, to light sleepers who can’t recall ever resting comfortably in a tent, to early-morning monsters who need coffee and can only blink confusedly when faced with a propane stove.
After a childhood spent being dragged on multiday backpacking trips through the Cascades and a late-onset discovery of the leisurely joys of car-camping facilitated by alt-weekly camping trips and proximity to the Oregon coast, I sympathize hard with both the outdoorsy and the outdoorsy-averse.
And I have great news: If you’ve never in your life pitched a tent, the Northwest is actually a great place to give it a try. Camping doesn’t have to be hard, there’s no rule that says it has to feel like roughing it, and it certainly needn’t be expensive.
You just have to know where to go. For an intentionally low-key trip, you can’t do better than one of the many campgrounds along the Oregon coast. And if the end of summer’s got you filled with FOMO, don’t overlook an end-of-season camping trip — especially if camping is new to you. Campgrounds in the Northwest tend to book up quickly over the summer, shutting out anyone who didn’t grab a spot months in advance. But in the fall, your odds of getting a campsite are much improved. You’ll also beat the crowds. (Just remember to layer your clothing and bring a raincoat and a fly for your tent.)
Here’s how to make it happen.
There’s much to appreciate about an Oregon coast campsite like the one I stayed at in Nehalem Bay in August. It is, in many ways, the platonic ideal of camping. You’ve got the roar of the ocean, the comfort of being around plenty of other people and an all-pervading, laid-back vacation vibe, with access to camp hosts (folks on-site who can help you out with firewood and other pressing camping concerns) and rangers.
All of the coastal campgrounds I’ve been to have come with the same basic setup, with room for one or more cars, water spigots (this is key), RV hookups (less so), picnic tables, decent phone service, garbage and recycling areas, and clear signage to get you onto beaches and hiking trails. (The staff at Nehalem Bay went above and beyond with the informational signage: A sign instructed us to Not Disturb the nesting barn swallows near the women’s restroom closest to our campsite.)
And crucially: Not a pit toilet in sight.
In my experience, the mere idea of a plumbing-free privy can be a nonstarter for the would-be camper. But fear not: The bathrooms at campgrounds like Nehalem Bay are objectively clean and even border on nice. I am staggered by this fact every time I camp at any of these places, which are pleasantly predictable. Most of these campgrounds are arranged in a horseshoe shape, with individual sites on either side of a central paved road with nearby bathrooms and beach access.
So while most camping guides suggest artful planning, you don’t really need to do that here. I certainly didn’t. My camping buddy Ellie and I are recovering Seattle kids who were raised by militant outdoors nerds — our dads met in college as roommates at The Evergreen State College and have been inseparable BFFs ever since, like some hyper-sporty Statler and Waldorf. So this relaxed approach to camping felt like a rule-breaking treat. The prep for a trip like this is easy, and you can afford to be lazy about it. Case in point: By the time I booked my campsite at Nehalem Bay, the only spots left were set up for RVs. Guess what? It made zero difference.
I borrowed a tent from my parents, and Ellie and I each brought a sleeping bag, warm layers and phones loaded with podcasts for the drive. We met in Portland, with our route west mapped out through blue-tinged rolling hills and two-lane highways. But before we even left the suburbs, we stopped to go shopping (sorry, dads), because camping prep need not be confined to toggling between REI and Wirecutter for hours (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
We upgraded our sleeping pads at Target, where we also picked up a small cooler and a butane stove for our morning coffee — two of the things we actually had packed were a pour-over cone and ground coffee. (They’re no Jetboils, but you can get butane or propane stoves relatively cheap at any big-box store. They’re also easy to operate; I Googled instructions while we stood in the camping accessories aisle.)
For a stupid-easy camping dinner that requires no cooking, we settled on a charcuterie tray out of leftovers and Trader Joe’s purchases. Any combination of cut fruit and veggies, bread, crackers, chips, chorizo and soft and hard cheeses or your preferred dips will work. Assemble on a picnic table, crack open a canned sparkling wine, and you’ll feel surprisingly fancy in your flannel and Birkenstocks.
At Nehalem Bay, a ranger by the name of Sylvester Leasure checked us in (there were no vacancies). We pulled into our spot among scrubby beach trees and families in RVs adorned with string lights, as people Rollerbladed past — one guy cruised by twice on a longboard — and the sounds of cheerful dogs and babies filled the air, mingling with the pleasant drone of the ocean.
After some experimentation with tent-pole placement, we pitched our temporary home on a level spot, blew up our mattresses, set up our dinner spread, and ate like kings, then sauntered to the beach with our canned wine. We found a spot where someone had left a bonfire behind (do NOT do this!) and warmed ourselves next to it while watching the light disappear from the sky. Then we extinguished the embers (ALWAYS do this!) and headed back to our tent, past elaborate RV setups (in one, a family watched “Mad Men” on a flat-screen TV) and kids on bikes.
That’s the thing about car camping that can be so fun: While the impulse to seek out solitude in nature is an understandable one, it’s particularly delightful to have an easy outdoors experience surrounded by other people, a sense of safety and community that’s rare when it comes to outdoor recreation — and comforting for beginners.
Speaking of which: One or two nights is the sweet spot for any first-time camping trip; any longer and your charcuterie trays may lose their novelty. So when you’ve had your fill of car-camping, pull up your stakes and pack everything in. And remember to reward yourself for your newfound outdoorsiness on the way home. Your first meal out after a camping trip is always a special one. We opted for burgers, tacos and beers in tiny tasting glasses at Public Coast Brewing in otherwise very corny Cannon Beach. I recommend giving yourself a similar present on the return trip, because no matter what happens while you’re out adventuring, even the most devoted outdoors lovers know that sometimes, the best part of camping is coming home.
If you go
You can reserve campsites at Oregon State Parks (oregonstateparks.org) up and down the Oregon coast through June 2020 either online or by calling 1-800-452-5687 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (you can also call to change an existing reservation). Reservations can be made only by adults over age 18, and minors must be accompanied at campsites by an adult. There is an $8 reservation fee. Site fees typically cover only one vehicle. Each additional vehicle must be registered and paid for separately ($7 per night). Existing reservations can be canceled or changed only by the person who made them. Tent and RV sites are available, as are yurts and cabins for the glamping-curious.
Nehalem Bay State Park is located just off Route 101 on the Oregon coast, about a two-hour drive from Portland and less than half an hour from Cannon Beach, but it’s hard to go wrong with most of the state parks on the coast.