He said “I assume I should get a tent right? Any recommendations for brand? I’d want something that is easy to set up.”
Yes, you probably want one but some trips do not require a tent so bear that in mind. If you want to buy one we would recommend REI’s Half Dome tent. We have had this tent for 6 years and used it many times. It is amazingly easy to use and goes up in minutes. It has never leaked.
He said “Duration? I think I should ease in with just a 1 night stay e.g. hiking all day Saturday and return on Sunday. Is that too easy?”
A 1 night stay is not too easy. We would actually suggest that you just camp in a National park, State park or National Forest “frontcountry” campground and do a day hike (out and back to your tent) each day. Doing this means that you do not need to worry about getting a backcountry camping permit which can be limited in some places. It also means you do not have to carry everything on your back and you can afford to “bear aware” instead of “bear paranoid”. We spend more time doing day hikes and camping at a “frontcounty” campground because they are easier to arrange and we can go further on each day because we are carrying less. Obviously day hikes and staying in a campground do not offer the same feeling as sleeping away at a backcountry wilderness camp site though. We have made some recommendations and suggestions depending on what aspects you want from your camping trip.
He said “Where? Yosemite? Any particular part of Yosemite would be a good start for a beginner?”
We really like Yosemite. It offers lots of great day hikes so you can enjoy the hike without having to carry your whole pack on your back. We have lots of recommendations for Yosemite. Other good places are Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, Yellowstone National Park or many of the State Parks along the coast of California.
He said “Transportation. I’m assuming I should Zipcar or rent a car.”
We do Zipcar usually. If you plan to go further than Yosemite (about 180 miles) you’ll likely need to hire a car because Zipcar has limited mileage included. Hiring a car adds a lot of extra hassle (collecting from and returning to the airport) so if you can do Zipcar is much more convenient. If you plan to go in the winter make sure you get a 4WD and/or snow chains if you plan to go to the Sierras.
He said “Do I need to have a camping permit?”
It depends where you go. Usually you need a wilderness permit to camp overnight in the backcountry. If you don’t hike in the backcountry you likely need a reservation for a campground instead of a camping permit.
He said “Are campfires allowed in these venues? Is there anything you’d recommend I use to make sure a novice like me does not start a forest fire? e.g. I see that some places sell fire pits.”
Again this depends on where you go. Many places do not allow open fires because of the fire risk. Yosemite is one. In the places where they do allow them they either have a BBQ, fixed ring or there will be a stone ring left by the people before. Many places require you to get a fire permit and they will explain what is allowed in each location when you get the permit. We highly recommend creating a ring if there are no fixings already and a fire is allowed. Even if there is fire allowed we’d recommend a small canister stove for boiling water and cooking food. It’s just so much easier. Use the fire for light, warmth and s’mores 🙂
He said “Sleeping bag? Sleeping mat? Cots so that we’re not on the floor?”
Highly recommend a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. Also make sure your tent has a ground sheet as well (the one we suggest does and most modern ones do). For a sleeping bag you will need a three season bag rated to 20 – 15 degrees. This means you should be warm until the temperature drops below 15 degrees. If you plan to camp in winter you’ll need a four season bag. We wouldn’t recommend that for a first timer. It can get cold.
For a sleeping pad we would recommend one that self-inflatable. They range in price based on the combination of warmth and weight. Lighter pads that are warmer are more expensive. We each have a Therm-a-rest but the REI equivalents are likely very good as well.