Camping is a fantastic activity to do with your family or friends but, if you’re intimidated by the amount of gear you need, we’ve got you covered. Let’s look at what you should bring on a camping trip.
Camping’s a pretty broad activity. It’s camping if you drive to an official campsite and set up six feet from your car and it’s also camping if you spend three days hiking in the backcountry sleeping in a tent each night. What gear you need depends on what kind you’re going to do. If you’re car camping and not having to carry stuff too far, I’d suggest bringing everything up to and including the kitchen sink; there’s nothing wrong with luxurious camping.
On the other hand, if you’ve got to carry everything for a few days, then you need to consider if something is worth its weight. If you’re into backpacking, then you probably know everything you need to know about camping, so we’re going to skew this article more towards the if-in-doubt-bring-it end of things.
It’s not camping if you don’t bring some kind of shelter. While things have gotten a little more interesting in the last few years with all sorts of bivvies, lightweight shelters, and hammocks getting popular, it’s hard to beat a proper tent for keeping you cozy and dry, whatever the weather.
When you’re picking a tent, the most important thing to look at is the size. Tents are measured in persons, and this should be viewed as an absolute maximum, packed to capacity number. If you want to be comfortable and have some room to sit inside your tent, you should size up: for one person, get a two-person tent; for two people, get a three-person tent; and so on.
With tents, you pay more for lighter gear. Heavy tents with plastic or aluminum poles and thicker materials cost a lot less than fancy backpacking gear with carbon poles and ultralight fabrics.
How waterproof and windproof a modern tent is has a lot more to do with how you pitch it than with the tent itself. Unless you’re digging through bargain basement bins or buying ancient second-hand gear, any tent you buy will be able to handle a bit of bad weather. Pitch even the best tent poorly, however, and expect it to leak like a showerhead.
For car camping, weight doesn’t matter too much, so you’re better off going with a cheap, big heavy tent with lots of room for everyone. I recommend heading down to your nearest REI and picking up something like this Kelty Discovery 4. Talk to the experts there if you have any questions.
A Sleeping Setup
Your sleeping setup is probably the most important thing you’ll bring camping. Get it wrong, and you’re in for a long, cold, uncomfortable night. Get it right, and you’ll be snug and toasty in the great outdoors.
There’re two parts to any sleeping setup: a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad.
Sleeping bags are rated in seasons. A one season bag is only suitable for summer. A two-season bag can do spring and summer. A three season bag can also handle fall while a four season bag will keep you warm even in winter—although you’ll probably overheat in summer. They also have comfort and lower temperature limits. The comfort temperature is the lowest temperature that it will keep the average cold sleeper comfortable; the lower temperature is the lowest temperature that it will keep the average warm sleeper comfortable. What bag you need depends on what the weather is like where you intend to camp. I’d recommend taking sleeping bag ratings with a pinch of salt and getting something rated for colder temperatures than you’ll encounter. You can always open the bag or strip off a layer of clothing.
Sleeping pads make the difference between a comfortable night’s sleep and a hellish six hours lying awake. The $10 foam mats you used in Cub Scouts or Brownies won’t cut it. If you’re car camping, you can go ahead and bring a full-on air-mattress. They’re heavy, but good ones are pretty comfortable. If weight is a concern, then you need to look at lightweight inflatable pads like my goto, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. These pads inflate in a few breaths and are seriously comfortable. The downside is they’re pretty pricey.
Once you’ve got your shelter and sleeping arrangements sorted, it’s time to think about food.
Cooking on a campfire is lovely, but they take a lot of work to manage and aren’t legal in lots of areas. If you don’t have any experience with a campfire, your first camping trip is not the time to rely on one for food.
If you want the flame-cooked taste, you’re driving, and they’re allowed where you’re heading, disposable BBQs are a great option. Just be sure to recycle them properly.
The main option used by most campers is a portable gas stove. These lightweight burners can boil a pot of water or heat a frying pan. Just be sure to bring gas.
The final option is not to cook, either because you’re car camping near somewhere that you can buy food or because you’re going to pack in sandwiches and other cold food. It’s not an option I’d recommend, but it is there.
If you are cooking, make sure you also bring:
- Any pots and pans you need
- Cutlery and plates for everyone to eat
- Tongs or a spoon
- Water or some way to treat water
- A washing basin and biodegradable soap
- Matches or a lighter
- Paper towels
- Trash bags
- Aluminum foil
- Roasting sticks and marshmallows
- Whatever food you want to cook
As well as all the stuff above, there are some essential items you shouldn’t forget.
- A head torch for hands-free work and navigation of your campsite at night
- Sunscreen and insect repellant. You will be outdoors all day
- A small first aid kit
- Toilet paper
- Wet wipes
- Toothpaste and toothbrushes
- Hiking clothes
- Hiking boots
- Sleeping clothes
- A warm jacket or hoody for the evenings
- Waterproof gear in case it rains
- Swimming gear
- A towel
- A book
- A charged smartphone
If you’re driving to your campsite, it makes sense to bring a few (highly optional) extra creature comforts. Some things you might like to bring are:
- Camp chairs for sitting by the fire
- Blankets to wrap up warm in the evenings
- A pillow for a better night’s sleep
- A french press or another coffee maker
- A second cooking method for more impressive meals
- A portable camp shower
- Games and sports equipment
- Your dog
I love camping, and once you have a tent and sleeping setup, you don’t need a lot more. The gear list above might look long, but when you break it down, you probably have most of the things on it—or can borrow them. Just remember to stay safe.