Are you a first-time camper and want to get it right?
Camping requires striking a balance between over-packed and under-prepared. You need a lot less “stuff” than some camping retailers might have you think, but there are some essentials you cannot miss.
Buying gear also means finding gear the combines value and cost. You want a tent that doesn’t leak, but maybe you’re not ready for the high-tech tents made for sleeping on a peak in the Alps yet.
Going camping is very personal, and what you find you need to be comfortable differs from the person in the next tent over. We put together a list of things that you should have at a minimum. Use this list to build your camping kit, and then figure out what other extras are right for you.
Our list includes three types of camping: single or weekend camping
trips, week-long expeditions, and thru-hikers camping across multiple weeks and months.
Go ahead and get outside, but don’t forget to bring everything on our camping checklist with you.
THE ESSENTIALS FOR ONE TO THREE NIGHT CAMPING TRIP
Hitting the road for one night or the weekend? We’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to bring for a few nights under the stars.
Your tent is arguably the most crucial item you’ll pack for your trip. If you choose to splurge on one item, make it your tent.
If you’re only out for a few nights and you don’t need to carry your gear very far, you have far more options. Your primary goal is to find a tent that:
- Sleeps everyone on your trip
- Keeps out the rain
- Offers proper insulation and ventilation
That’s it. It’s all you need unless that weekend is in a remote part of the Rocky Mountains where snow, rain, hail, and wind are all in the forecast.
The set-up is another thing to consider. You should be able to set it up without struggling, especially if you arrive in the dark, rain, or wind.
Buying a new sleeping bag? It’s no problem. A new sleeping bag should suit your body’s dimensions and the climate.
Start your search by narrowing the sleeping bag down to temperature
rating. If you’re camping somewhere where the temperatures could drop down to freezing, opt for a 20-degree 3-season bag for extra protection. Otherwise, a summer season or 35-degree bag often works well because even if it gets warm, it’s easier to ventilate a sleeping bag than fight against the cold.
Headed out in the winter? You’ll need a bag rated explicitly for winter temperatures, usually 10 degrees or below.
Sleeping bag shape is also important because the form contributes the amount of heat surrounding you. Generally, you can choose from:
Finally, there’s insulation. Choose from goose down or synthetic insulation. If you’re camping, synthetic insulation works well because it’s durable and inexpensive. Thru-hikers and other camps might prefer down if only because it’s both more compressive and more durable; it’s a lighter weight for less money.
There are many other characteristics to work with, but these three
have the most significant impact on your trip.
Some people think a camping pillow is nothing but dead weight. Those people don’t mind sleeping on balled up jackets or dirty clothes.
Protect your neck with a camp pillow. You can buy compressible, inflatable and hybrid pillows. Choose the one that you’re confident will help you sleep well, or at least not feel like you spent the night in a tumble drier.
Sleeping pads are ironically more compact than pillows, and even those who forgo a pillow won’t leave home without one.
A sleeping pad doesn’t just add comfort. It’s an extra layer of insulation between you and the ground, so you’ll stay warmer, too.
If you’re car camping, you’re free to choose whichever one is most comfortable and suitable for your budget.
A headlamp makes midnight bathroom runs less terrifying, and we argue that it’s an essential part of your safety equipment.
Bring at least one for every two people and don’t forget the spare batteries.
Stove and Fuel
If your campsite doesn’t have barbecue facilities and you’re not bringing your own, then you need a camping stove.
Camping stoves tend to rely on liquid gas, so you don’t need to worry too much about different fuel sources. The traits that make a good stove are boiling and burn time. You want a stove that boils water fast and burns long enough to cook your meal.
Each stove lists both of these characteristics in the product description,so it's not a guessing game.
If campfires are approved where you’re hiding out, then you’ll need a Firestarter, matches, or both. These are self-explanatory.
You have your cook stove. Now, pack up your cooking utensils.
Camp pots and pans can be specially bought or come from the kitchen.
Just make sure you’re comfortable using them on your stove. Don’t forget items
like spoons, spatulas, or tongs.
Plates, cutlery, glasses, and cloth napkins are all essential unless you intend to eat out of the pan. Bring a sponge and a scrubber to wash up.
Bathroom and Hygiene
Your bathroom and hygiene products become fairly utilitarian when you’re out in the woods. These come down to personal preference. At the very least, you should bring:
- Toothbrush/toothpaste/dental floss
- Washcloth/cotton bandana
- Feminine hygiene products (and bag for taking them away again)
Here’s what you don’t need:
- Shampoo and
conditioner bottles (opt for bars instead)
- Anything non-biodegradable
We want to iterate this point: don’t bring deodorant. Your favorite roll-on or spray gives you an attractive smell to wildlife. Don’t let the bugs or bears smell you coming.
WEEK-LONG CAMPING TRIPS: THE EXTENDED LIST
Are you headed out on a long trip or to a campsite with a minimal amount of amenities? You’ll need a few extra things to remain comfortable.
You can often skip a shower for a day or two. By day three, it gets a bit funky.
If your chosen campsite doesn’t offer shower facilities, you’ll need to bring your own.
Solar and Portable Power
Battery packs are your friend for small devices, and they’ll extend your battery life for several additional charges.
If you’ve got more kit, we recommend a solar panel. Once bulky and expensive, solar is now light, efficient, and relatively inexpensive.
If you’re out with a group or you need some serious power, try a lithium battery generator. They do more than charge a phone; you can even run a TV or small refrigerator.
Books and Games
If you’re not going far, load up on books and games. Even if you think you’ll be outside all day, you’ll be thankful for the non-electronic entertainment on rainy days.
You’ll wash your clothes once during the week, so bring a portable clothesline and clothes pegs out camping with you.
Camp Chairs and Table
Sitting and squatting is fun for a day, but if you’re in it for the long haul, bring chairs and a table.
Camp chairs and tables come in sets and often break down easy and come with a strap. You can also choose between chairs and stools, but we recommend chairs for longer camping breaks as long as you can carry them.
Bring a battery-powered lamp for safety and light.
Are you staying out for three days to one week? If it’s not rechargeable by USB, then bring an extra set of batteries.
THRU-HIKERS AND LONG-DISTANCE WALKERS: PACK LIGHT
The first thing you need to know about packing for a thru-hike or another long-distance trail is that you cannot bring even half of what weekend warriors fit in their bags.
Why? Because if you’re about to camp for two to three weeks (or longer) at a time, you quickly find you don’t need that much stuff. More importantly, you cannot carry it.
Packing for a thru-hike is an art form. It marries responsible practices with practicality as well as combining durability and light products. You should practice carrying your rucksack on shorter hikes before hitting the longer trail.
Here’s what you need during a thru-hike or when you’re hiking to remote campsites.
About to embark on your first long-distance or thru-hike? Bring a tent.
You’ll want a two-person tent that is both lightweight and durable. A leaky or poorly insulated tent isn’t worth carrying around and can be dangerous when you’re out on the trail for two or more weeks at a time.
Some people say skip the tent and stick with a bivy because it weighs less. If you’re new to the trail, don’t follow this advice. You want a shelter because you’ll have nowhere else to go when it rains for three days at a time.
Packing the right sleeping back for a long-distance hike is tough if you’re hiking in the high country or throughout multiple seasons. It might be 100 degrees one day, but only 35 degrees in the mountains.
The most important thing to do is carry a sleeping bag that accommodates your coldest possible temperatures without freezing. A sleeping bag between the 0-15 degree range works best. Make sure the bag fits your body before you leave to save yourself those sleepless nights.
Some thru-hikers now say skip the sleeping bag and choose a camping quilt because it’s just as warm and slightly lighter. Side sleepers might still prefer the extra support of a sleeping bag.
Your sleeping pad is a necessity, not a luxury. It keeps you off the hard ground and adds an extra layer of insulation. Go light but don’t sacrifice comfort.
If your walk is under a few weeks, bring a camp stove. Even though the rugged adventurers say they live without, hot coffee on a cold, rainy morning makes the hike worth doing. It also helps you choose a more diverse meal set to help offset the monotony of some camp foods.
Again, go light but don’t sacrifice quality. You want a stove that boils water in under 10 minutes.
Keep in mind that stoves change at altitude in cold temperatures. Look for a newer stove that boils well even when it’s cold in the mountains.
You have two options as a long-distance hiker: treat your water or get giardia and suffer the consequences.
Look for a lightweight water treatment system that still works reasonably quickly. You have a lot of options to play around with, so don’t buy
one and settle. Find one that makes hydration safe and easy.
Your compass, map, and GPS are all critical. They stop a seven-hour hiking day from inadvertently becoming an eleven-hour hiking day.
First Aid Essentials
How do you condense a first aid kit into something suitable for a thru-hike? It’s not a question of whether but how because you will need it.
Here are a few things to keep in your pack:
- Alcohol wipes
- Sterile pads
- Nail clippers
These tools should form everything you need to deal with scrapes, cuts, blisters, ticks, and allergic reactions.
Some parks request that all hikers bring their food in a bear canister, and some even have some to borrow. We recommend borrowing when you need them because they are heavy, bulky, and hard to pack.
Still, they remain indispensable because anyone who has never lost food after hanging it from a tree is merely lucky.
You’ll need them if you’re hiking in California, Colorado, Alaska, or Washington. You’ll also need them in the summer in the Adirondack Mountains in New York.
HIT THE TRAIL WITH ALL THE RIGHT GEAR
Visit any adventure store, and a salesperson will inundate you with all the latest camping gadgets. They’re cool, but you don’t need them. Start with the basics on this list, and then add on what feels essential and what you can carry.
What’s on your must-have list for a weekend in the woods?