Camping can be a wonderful opportunity to get away for a long weekend and enjoy some time in the great outdoors, whether you’re gearing up for a trip through the 100-Mile Wilderness or sleeping under the stars in a park just a few miles from your house. It’s also an affordable summer vacation idea.
However, nothing ruins a camping trip like accidentally leaving the rain fly at home and sleeping in a leaky tent or having to come home early because you forgot something essential like your camp stove.
Make sure your next camping trip doesn’t go awry by making a camping checklist. Then stock up on missing essentials with this comprehensive list of the best camping gear available for everything from an intense week-long backpacking trip to a quick weekend away.
Sleeping on the ground doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. You just need the right gear for the job. I used to camp with a rainbow-colored sleeping bag I got on sale at Walmart, which weighed a ton and was made of thick, heavy cotton. It was hot in the summer but somehow cold in the winter and made sleeping outdoors more like lying awake in the middle of the night outdoors. Once I got the right gear for the job, it made all the difference.
1. Camping Tent
Tents have come a long way from the cotton canvas teepees of Cub Scout days of yore. They fall into two main categories, so pick one based on your priorities.
Will you be carrying the tent on your back for long periods each day? If so, opt for something very light and relatively small. Go for a three-season tent like this REI Co-Op Half Dome 2 Plus tent, which fits two people who don’t mind being cozy.
If you’re doing some extreme winter backpacking, buy a four-season tent. These have thicker, more durable fabric for keeping out snowdrifts, are more robust to stand up to high winds, and generally have less ventilation so they can be effective at keeping wind and cold out. They’re also usually a bit pricier, but the REI Co-Op Arete ASL 2 tent is a reasonable midrange price for a storm-ready tent.
If you are setting the tent up 10 feet from your car, you’re probably more concerned with comfort than weight. That means you can choose a bigger, roomier tent. These run the gamut from a smaller, dome-style tent such as the Rei Co-Op Grand Hut 4 to a spacious number such as the Columbia Mammoth Creek tent, which has space for up to 10 people. Some tents even have multiple “rooms” and enough height for you to stand up in them, which can make getting dressed in the morning easier.
2. Camping Tent Pad
No matter which tent you have, you need a good tent pad, sometimes called a tent footprint, to put down on the ground before you pitch the tent on top of it. A tent pad, or even just a tarp or a big piece of plastic, helps protect the thin material on the bottom of your tent from too much wear and keeps it from prematurely getting tears and holes in it. It also helps even out any bumps underneath the tent, which makes sleeping more comfortable, and prevents moisture from the ground from seeping into the tent and making all your stuff uncomfortably wet.
You don’t need a fancy tent pad. Just get a sturdy piece of impermeable material that’s slightly smaller than your tent. If you’re backpacking, use whatever is lightest — I have the REI Co-Op Camp Dome 2 Footprint — but other than that, no specialized equipment is any better than a sheet of plastic left over from your last home improvement project.
3. Sleeping Bag
A good sleeping bag is essential to a good night’s rest, so this is one area where it pays not to skimp. If you’re doing any fall or winter camping, make sure you buy something that’s rated highly enough to keep you warm — and safe — in extreme conditions. Check out sites like Wirecutter and OutdoorGearLab for their reviews on the warmest, highest-rated sleeping bags for extreme weather. The Mountain Hardware Bishop Pass 15 is rated for 15-degree weather and is lightweight and perfect for backpacking. The Alps Mountaineering Zenith 30-degree sleeping bag is a cozy option for solo backpackers anticipating cool, wet conditions.
If you’re car camping, you can focus more on comfort and less on weight and bulkiness. There are many good options out there, including bags geared toward men or women and unisex bags. Wirecutter has a comprehensive list of the best sleeping bags for 2020, including the pros and cons of each model.
4. Sleeping Bag Liner
These sleeping bag-shaped sacks go inside the sleeping bag and serve multiple purposes: making your bag warmer, giving you a “sheet” to sleep in if you’re too hot to sleep in your bag, and keeping your bag clean so you don’t have to wash it as often, which extends its life. A sleeping bag liner serves the same function as the sheets you put on your bed.
These liners come in a variety of materials, from super-lightweight silk to cotton-polyester blends. If you’re worried about weight, look for one in silk or a synthetic blend. If you’re camping on a budget, you can sew your own using a cheap cotton sheet. Sleeping bag liners are also popular with people who stay in hostels frequently.
5. Sleeping Pad
A sleeping pad can make or break a good night’s sleep. It can be as basic as a piece of foam you put between your sleeping bag and the ground to add a little more padding. For years, I used the mattress topper I bought when I first moved into my college dorm room.
But now that I’m doing as much backpacking as car camping, I care a lot more about weight. A few years ago, I picked up the Big Agnes Q-Core SLX sleeping pad, which has served me well and weighs almost nothing.
Some sleeping bags have a built-in pillow. If not, you can buy one if you like.
If you’re car camping, bring a pillow from home or purchase a camping pillow. These are typically smaller pillows you can stuff into a small sack or inflate to save even more space. The REI Co-op Trailbreak Foam Pillow packs down to one-fifth its size, while the NEMO Fillo Elite pillow is an inflatable luxury pillow that compresses down to the size of a kaffir lime.
That said, if you’re backpacking and don’t want to carry the extra weight of a pillow, you can always fold some clothes to put under your head instead.
Ensuring you’re adequately fueled for the great outdoors is essential. And the food you eat at home tastes that much better when you cook it over an open flame after a full day of hiking, fishing, or swimming. With a little planning and the right gear, you can eat like a king while camping.
When I was a little kid, my parents had the classic two-burner Coleman propane stove that has served campers faithfully for generations. This stove isn’t light, though, so it’s best for car camping when you only have to cook for a few people.
If you’re making food for a group, go for something a little bigger, such as the Weber Q1000 gas grill, which is portable enough to bring for a weekend getaway but more equipped to cook for a crowd and can double as your home barbecue grill. It heats up quickly and is easy to clean.
If you want an extremely lightweight and easy-to-use stove, check out the MSR Pocket Rocket 2, which can boil water quickly, a convenient feature for backpacking.
7. Stove Fuel
Having the best camping stove on the planet doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have the right fuel, so make sure you have the appropriate fuel canisters — and that they’re full — before you leave. If you’re flying to your adventure destination, you can’t bring most fuel canisters on an airplane, so do a little research to make sure there’s somewhere near your campsite where you can procure the fuel you need.
If you don’t use up all your fuel before you have to get back on an airplane, drop it off at the nearest ranger station or outdoors store. They can find it a new home.
8. Matches or a Lighter
It’s essential to have waterproof matches. Try Coghlan’s 940 BP waterproof matches or a dependable windproof camping lighter like the Scorch Torch Dominator Triple Jet Flame butane lighter, which I like because it’s refillable. I’ve used both, and they’re incredibly effective. Just note that you can’t take a butane torch lighter in your carry-on if you’re traveling by plane.
It may seem like a small thing, but the old rubbing-two-sticks-together trick is a real pain.
9. Pots & Pans
If you’re a frequent camper, you need a set of dedicated camping pots and pans. Cooking outdoors, potentially over an open campfire, can do a number on cookware designed for the home chef and a real oven.
For car camping, a Sempiyi portable cookware set works just fine. It’s relatively lightweight and affordably priced for what you get. But to save even more, check out your local thrift store for a solid cast-iron skillet with a flat bottom and an all-metal pot with a glass — not plastic — lid. They’re durable, so they can take a lot of damage, including being dropped in a campfire.
For backpacking, weight consideration is paramount, so opt for something made of titanium. When you’re cooking at a backcountry spot after hiking all day with a heavy pack on your back, you’ll mainly be boiling water to add to various sustenance options. Opt for the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Soloist II Cookset. It’s lightweight and nestles into itself, which makes packing it up every time you change location a breeze.
10. French Press or Coffee & Tea Filter
Many people can’t function without coffee, especially after sleeping on the ground all night. So bring along a trusty camping French press and some coarse ground coffee. The Snow Peak titanium French press gets fantastic reviews.
If you’re not a French press person, something like the super-lightweight MSR MugMate coffee and tea filter makes a single serving of piping hot caffeine to gear you up for the day ahead.
11. Plates & Utensils
You don’t need to buy specialized camping plates and cups if you’ll only be lugging them from the car to a picnic table. So stick with something durable and easy to clean, such as reusable melamine plates from Target or Walmart that are designed for this kind of use. These are often on sale at the beginning and end of the summer, so stock up when they’re available. You can also check your local thrift store to pick up some stuff you don’t have to worry about ruining or losing. And don’t forget to bring forks, knives, and spoons. Pick something durable and reusable that can become your dedicated camping and picnic kit.
If you’re backpacking, choose something lightweight that can pull double duty. You’ll probably be eating out of pans and pouches, so you can skip the plates and cups. Instead, get a titanium spork so you’re ready to eat no matter what the meal is. I have the Snow Peak titanium spork, which was an excellent addition to my camping kit and comes in fun colors too.
12. Water or a Water Filtration System
One of the first things to investigate once you make your camping plans is whether the campsite provides water or you have to bring your own. Most campsites have potable running water or at least a pump where you can get water to filter yourself. If not, be sure to bring plenty of drinking water to keep everyone hydrated and to use for cooking.
If you’re backcountry camping or backpacking, you might be on your own in terms of water, which means you need an adequate water filtration system. Try the Platypus GravityWorks 2-liter water filter kit, a lightweight, pump-free water filtration system that works well for two to four people.
13. Camp Chairs
After a long day of hiking, fishing, or hanging out in the great outdoors, there’s almost nothing better than sitting in a comfortable chair by the campfire, roasting marshmallows and gazing at the stars.
Don’t forget to bring comfortable, collapsible camp chairs to pull up to the fire at the end of the day. And you have plenty of options to choose from. One is a basic folding chair, such as the Kijaro dual-lock chair. Or if you want some serious comfort, choose the deluxe Helinox beach chair, which has plenty of back and neck support and has gotten rave reviews from users because of its comfort.
If you’re eating dinner in a group after the sun has set, or trying to play cards or read late into the night, you might want a lantern in addition to a headlamp or flashlight.
Fortunately, gone are the days when you had to carefully unpack a tall, unwieldy glass-walled kerosene lantern and carefully coax it to life to illuminate the campsite at night. Now, there are multiple durable, easy-to-use options. The Goal Zero Lighthouse 400 lantern can provide light for a group.
If you’re just looking for a little lantern to bring into the tent with you, try the cute and compact Black Diamond Moji.
If you’re car camping, there’s no reason you shouldn’t pack a cooler full of essentials. Though your goods may not last more than a day or two, having perishables on ice can make for more variety when feeding your family.
A basic cooler costs as little as $25, but some cost $200 or more. There are even coolers designed to be bear-proof, though they’re more expensive. If you’re a frequent camper, don’t compromise on quality. A sturdy, high-capacity cooler from an outfit like Cordova will last longer and perform better than a lower-quality alternative.
Here’s a basic checklist for car camping, which includes a mix of perishable and nonperishable food and drink items:
- Breakfast cereal or instant oatmeal
- Instant coffee and hot chocolate
- Cheese and sandwich meats
- Dry snacks like crackers, trail mix, pretzels, and granola bars
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Canned fruits and vegetables
- Canned beans
- Dinner proteins such as chicken, hamburgers patties, and hot dogs
- Graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate bars for s’mores
When camping, the key is to keep your meals simple. When my family used to go camping, we typically ate sandwiches for lunch and had things like grilled chicken and potatoes or franks and beans for dinner. We usually packed dry snacks, as cooler space was always limited, and avoided products that spoil quickly or melt in warm weather. (Note: The melting concern does not apply to chocolate because you can’t go camping and not have s’mores.)
Once you get your campsite set up, your next step is to start exploring. And you’re going to need some gear to do that safely and comfortably.
Get a basic day pack for day-hiking trips. All family members need their own day pack with at minimum a personal water bottle or hydration system in case they get separated or lost. Along with a backpack, your kids should know basic survival skills in case they get lost in the woods.
You need enough room to bring along snacks for longer hikes to keep energy up and an emergency kit. Day packs run the gamut in price, but you can often find a decent pack for less than $50.
18. Infant Carrier
If you’re bringing an infant or toddler along on your camping trip and expect to do some hiking around your campsite, you can purchase an infant carrier. These cost $100 to $200 on average and are usually appropriate for infants 6 months and up.
You can also save money by looking for used infant carriers. Check REI, which often sells used equipment, eBay, or your local Craigslist. You can also sometimes find used infant carriers at a children’s consignment shop or garage sale.
You also need a portable infant bed, which can cost anywhere from $30 to $70 or more.
Because temperatures tend to fluctuate in the mountains or out in the woods, you need plenty of layers to ensure you and your family members stay comfortable.
If you don’t already own a few sweat-wicking base-layer shirts, purchase one or two per person. These can help you stay cool when you’re hiking in the sun and typically cost $10 to $20 for a short-sleeved shirt and $15 to $25 for a long-sleeved shirt. You also need some warmer fleece layers for nighttime and some type of rain gear. A basic fleece sweatshirt costs $15 to $30, while no-frills rain jackets and ponchos fall into a similar price range.
20. Hiking Boots
If you plan to hike the trails during your trip, you need the right kind of footwear. While some people choose to hike in sneakers, hiking boots are a much better option, even for trails that seem easy. Unlike paved roads, trails often contain slippery surfaces, rocks, and uneven terrain. Hiking boots offer much better traction than sneakers and provide an added layer of cushion for your feet to minimize injury in the event of a fall.
Look for a pair that provides good ankle stability. You can find a quality pair of adult hiking boots for as little as $50. But you could also pay well over $100, depending on the type of boot you choose. Children’s hiking boots tend to fall into the $30 to $60 range.
After a long day exploring, most people are ready to chill out at the campsite. Or perhaps you and the kids are up for fun and games. That’s why it’s essential to have some entertainment along with you.
Your best bet is to bring along some playing cards or board games without too many pieces. You can buy travel versions of your favorite games for approximately $10 each, and playing cards are even less expensive, costing as little as $1 per set. You can also opt for some popular outdoor games, like portable cornhole.
The best camping trip can quickly turn into the worst if you’re not prepared with some essential survival tools. Even if you’re just car camping an hour from home, having the right gear is paramount to making sure you’re safe and ready for anything. Don’t leave home without these survival essentials.
The number of uses for a sharp knife is almost endless, including using it to slice open plastic-wrapped food, sharpen a stick into a point for roasting hot dogs or marshmallows, peel off thin wooden shavings for tinder to start that fire, and cut up food. If your knife has a substantial handle, you can even use the butt end of it as a makeshift mallet to drive tent stakes into the ground.
Even if it’s just a classic Swiss Army knife, it’s always handy to have a sharp blade in your kit when you’re camping. Just make sure you use and stow it safely and keep it out of reach of any kids in your group.
23. Emergency Blanket
If you’re camping, hiking, or even just spending a lot of time outdoors, it’s always smart to have a small foil emergency blanket in your pack. They weigh virtually nothing, so throw one in your bag for each person in your group, just in case. There are several fancy options out there, but you don’t have to buy a pricey emergency blanket. Just grab a Space emergency blanket or a Swiss Safe emergency mylar thermal blanket, and you’re good to go.
If you’re a runner and have ever done a 5K or other road race where they hand out mylar-coated blankets at the finish line, you can even fold up one of those and put it in a plastic sandwich bag to add to your pack. I save these extra race blankets to keep in the car for my road trip emergency kit. They’re good for keeping you dry or for staying warm in a pinch because the foil liner reflects your body heat back to you, and you can even use the flashy side to signal for help. If you’re ever lost in the woods, you’ll be glad to have any version of one of these lightweight emergency blankets in your bag.
A compass is invaluable if you or someone in your family gets lost. A basic compass costs $10 to $20.
A compass does you no good if you don’t know how to use it. Make sure you learn basic orienteering skills before you head out on a hike. REI has an invaluable tutorial on how to use a compass.
A quality headlamp is one of the most underrated pieces of camping and hiking equipment out there. It serves the same function as a flashlight, so depending on the type of camping trip, you can sometimes get away with packing a headlamp instead of a bulky flashlight.
Headlamps are perfect for making your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, rifling through a backpack hands-free, and looping through the poles inside your tent’s roof to make a lantern as you get settled in for the night. Most headlamps have a red-light setting as well, which helps preserve your night vision and doesn’t shock your eyes when you turn the lamp on to see something for just a minute when it’s dark out.
Headlamps are also handy for many uses around the house, from entering a dark attic or basement to working on a car to taking the trash out at night. And a first-rate headlamp won’t break the bank. The Yalumi Spark Pro is a top-notch inexpensive basic model. But if you’re looking for something with a few more features, like higher lumens and waterproofing, the Black Diamond Storm 400 is a solid pick for more adventurous explorers.
26. First Aid Kit
No matter what kind of camping you’re doing, it’s critical you have a few first-aid essentials on hand in case someone in your group gets hurt or sick. You can either buy a preassembled first-aid kit like the Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Backpacker medical kit or make your own from items you probably have around the house. If you do make your own, start with a waterproof dry bag like Watershed’s Chattooga. Make sure you include:
- Bandages in various sizes
- Antiseptic ointment
- Sterile wipes for cleaning wounds
- Pain medicine
- Small scissors
- Safety pins
- Hand sanitizer
- Moleskin for blisters
- A piece of rubber or latex to use as a tourniquet
- An EpiPen if anyone in your group has a known allergy
You can add extra items that make sense for your specific trip based on your needs and how much space you have.
27. Water Purifier
Water treatment tablets can be useful for car camping in emergency situations. Being able to purify water means taking advantage of whatever water source you encounter on your journey. A pack of 50 tablets costs under $10. One tablet is typically enough to purify a half quart of water.
Another option is to purchase a Life Straw for everyone in your family and make sure they carry it with them every time they leave the campsite. You can often find great deals on Life Straw during Black Friday sales.
Taking your inaugural camping trip or setting out for a weekend backpacking adventure for the first time doesn’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of places to find a deal on everything you need.
Check out end-of-season sales, try to buy some gear secondhand on sites like eBay and Craigslist, and look for garage sale deals and used-gear sales or swaps in your area by checking with REI or your local outdoors club. You can also ask to borrow stuff from friends or look into renting gear you only need for a weekend. Don’t let concerns about money keep you from enjoying the great outdoors.
Have you ever gone backcountry camping, or do you prefer to stick to car camping or glamping? What’s the most crucial equipment you’ve ever forgotten to bring with you?