Since we love traveling, and are on a limited budget, it didn't take us long to figure out by tent camping you save a LOT of money, thus I was willing to give it a try. I never figured I'd enjoy it as much as I do...
Tent camping is one of our favorite activities. To us, there's simply nothing better than waking up in the morning in a fantastic "nature" setting and enjoying being one with it. Our tent is nicknamed "The Lodge" and is a big part of our memories. Another "plus" is that our minivan can go practically anywhere. RV's can occasionally limit your experiences due to roads not accommodating them - especially in some National Parks. Our van gets better gas mileage too.
If you want to give it a try, here are some tips to help you get started.
Tip #1: Don't let age stop you. Tent campers come in all ages. This was my mom's first time ever tent camping. You'll see everyone from young kids to retirees, male, female, families, and friend groups.
Tip #2: The vast majority of tent campers like it QUIET so they can enjoy nature. If you're one of those that plans to go out and have a loud get together, please stop reading these tips and head back to motels...you'll save a lot of us some grief. Loud folks (loud radios, talking, etc) are the worst part of tent camping. Those folks are talked about by everyone else—(at the bathhouse, etc) and NOT in a favorable manner. PLEASE do not bring a bunch of kids out tent camping without also teaching them to be quiet (and enforcing it).
Tip #3: Passed those? Then you'll need equipment. Cost generally = quality, but you don't always need the "best." I highly suggest doing some research before purchasing.
Tip #3a: Tents never truly sleep the max number listed - unless you like sleeping in a sardine can. Our tent supposedly sleeps 6, and works well for a family of 5. We'd never allow 6 in there. Two doors are also better than one (our tent has 3). We personally prefer fiberglass poles to aluminum - and we prefer a plain old tarp for a ground sheet over those they sell that attract every piece of dust out there. Newer styles can be set up easily - older styles tend to be clumsy and heavy. You want a rain shield and venting up top - not a totally closed tent (unless you LIKE steamy).
Tip #3b: Sleeping bags are rated for temperature. If you buy a low temp one and only tent camp at 65 or higher, you'll be sweating...If you buy a 40 degree rating and camp at Yellowstone (where it drops in the 30's), you'll be frigid. We like the 25 degree bags for our camping, but when it's warm, we leave them unzipped.
There are "mummy" styles (narrower at the feet) and "rectangular." Mummies will keep you warmer and tend to be smaller to pack, BUT many folks (including us) prefer our leg space, so prefer rectangular.
Tip #3c: Mattress pads are essential - but not those big, bulky, "blow them up" types that often sprout leaks at inopportune moments. Nope - never liked those. What we've found that is superb is Thermarest's Prolite 4 - regular sized. It's pricey - even on e-bay ($80 or so) - but it's worth its weight in gold. It rolls up tightly for easy packing, self-inflates, can be adjusted for very soft or very firm, keeps you warmer, and totally eliminates the feel of any ground "junk" you couldn't clear under your tent. Your tenting experience without a pad will be 100% different than with one (at least the sleeping part!).
Tip #3d: Camp cookware is essential if you're cooking. Spend the money for quality, it's worth it. The Internet often gives you the most options. Figure out what you'll be cooking and buy accordingly.
Tip #3e: It's worth it to buy paper plates, etc, as they're less time consuming than doing dishes.
Tip #3f: We keep two plastic storage boxes for camping one each for food and non-food items. By keeping things in boxes it makes packing very easy.
Tip #4: Campgrounds...There are two main types - public and private. Public means publicly owned and can be city, state, or federally owned. These are almost always cheaper, but don't always have the amenities some folks like. Locate these on maps by the little "tent" symbol. Private means privately owned and, while generally being more expensive, they often do have amenities like pools, etc. These are not on maps. To find them, some good books (for both) are Woodall's and AAA Camp Books (similar to their motel guides).
Tip #4b: Choose your campground by what you like. Remember how campers come from all ages and walks of life? Their "likes" in camping do too. Do you want to swim and be a little bit louder? Look private. Do you want more peace and quiet and "back to nature?" Then go public - with as few amenities as you can live with. A good rule of thumb is the less amenities, the less noise.
Tip #5: National Park Campgrounds don't have pools (though some parks have water areas that can be enjoyed by all). Some do not have flush toilets (they'll have pit toilets). Be sure to check carefully when planning. If there are showers, it'll cost to use them - have quarters. Private campgrounds usually include free showers - though with the higher cost to stay, you've paid for them anyway.
Tip #6: At some campgrounds you'll need reservations - to get the best spots, make those reservations early - esp if you want a spot with a view. Best spots are relative. Some prefer near the bathhouse in the center of loops. This is good for convenience, but not privacy. Others don't mind the walk to the bathhouse, so opt for far away on an edge. This gives you the most privacy. Consider your likes.
Tip #6b: Other campgrounds are first come, first served. This means you pick a spot when you get there. Sometimes these are the most popular campgrounds (like Jenny Lake in Grand Teton NP), so you still need to get there early (before 8am for Jenny Lake). Other times arriving early afternoon - or even evening - is ok. Research the specific campground to judge. To get these spots, when you get there, look for a large sign. This will have a map and registration envelopes below. Grab an envelope, read the directions, and go off to see what's available. Then return and put your $$, etc in the slot for it. It's easy - so don't be intimidated even if you're new.
Tip #7: Campers don't care what you wear. Jammies or sweats, etc to the bathhouse is just fine - and expected - of all ages. Don't buy designer wear - or worry about make-up, etc. There's also no "rules" on when, what, or how you cook/eat. Sometimes we do full meals and other times we forage poptarts (or equivalent). It depends on our mood and what we want to do/did that day. Campground stores are overly expensive, so it's best if you bring food in from grocery stores elsewhere.
Tip #8: Sometimes you can have fun conversations with your neighbors, but remember, many people are camping to "get away" so don't feel offended if folks aren't in the talkative mode. Look for cues.
Tip #9: Theft/crime is generally rare in campgrounds. I think campers have to be some of the most honest folks out there - and that's a big point we love. Still, don't leave valuables in plain sight and we don't hike alone. Except for our laptop, which we take with us hiking at times, we don't even bring anything valuable.
Tip #10: Campgrounds have different rules regarding many things (like fires, etc), so always read over the rules where you are. Some allow you to collect dead wood, others don't.
And lastly, give it a chance... unless, of course, you're one of those loud inconsiderate types. My Mom was REALLY tentative about camping with us - and got her start in COLD (at night) Yellowstone. By the end of the trip she was talking about possible future camping trips - some even with her and friends instead of just with us weird folks! :) It's addictive - and fun.
Oh yes, as a final PS... feel free to stay in a motel for a night or two on long travel trips - most of us do - and we're also always flexible to give up camping for a motel if rain is lurking...