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 knowing exactly what you’ll need for your pre-camping checklist. Here’s a comprehensive list of the best camping gear available for everything from an intense, weeklong backpacking trip where you carry everything you’ll need on your back to a quick weekend away where you set up your tent a stone’s throw from your car.
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 out of thick, heavy cotton. It was somehow hot in the summer and 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 you’ll want to pick one based on your priorities.
Will you be carrying the tent on your back for long periods before you set it up each night? If so, opt for something that’s 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, you’ll want to 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 North Face Assault 2 is a good mid-range price for a great tent.
If you’ll be setting the tent up 10 feet from your car and are more concerned with comfort than weight, you can choose a bigger, roomier tent. These run the gamut from a smaller, dome-style tent such as the Marmot Limestone 4-Person Tent to a spacious number such as the Eureka! Copper Canyon Three-Season Tent, which has space for a six-person family. 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.
Whichever tent you choose, before you leave home, make sure you have the rain fly, tent poles, and stakes that go with it so that you’re prepared for any wet or windy weather that may come your way.
2. Camping Tent Pad
No matter which tent you have, you’ll want 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, will help protect the thin material on the bottom of your tent from too much wear and will keep it from prematurely getting tears and holes in it. It’ll also help even out any bumps underneath the tent, which makes sleeping more comfortable, and keep 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 larger than your tent, and you’ll be good to go. If you’re backpacking, you’ll want to 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 Big Agnes Roxy Ann 15° is rated for 15-degree weather and is lightweight and perfect for backpacking. The ALPS Mountaineering Zenith 30° is a great 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 a bunch of good options out there, including bags geared toward men or women and unisex bags. REI has a great selection of reasonably priced sleeping bags for car camping, and they often have sales and other promotions on these items too.
4. Sleeping Bag Liner
A sleeping bag liner is something I didn’t even know existed until I started backpacking a few years ago, but now I’m a total convert. These sleeping bag-shaped sacks that go inside the sleeping bag serve a multitude of purposes: making your bag warmer, giving you a “sheet” to sleep in on top of your bag on hot nights, and keeping your bag clean so that you don’t have to wash it as often, which will extend its life. A sleeping bag liner serves the same function as the sheets you put on your bed but for your sleeping bag instead.
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 when traveling, for all of the reasons listed above, so it’s a good piece of gear to have if you’re a budget traveler, as well.
5. Sleeping Pad
Another piece of camping equipment that can make or break a good night’s sleep is a sleeping pad. It can be as basic as a piece of foam you put between your sleeping bag and the floor of the tent to add a little more padding. For years, I used the mattress topper I bought when I first moved into my college dorm room as a sleeping pad. It was the size of an extra-long twin bed, which meant that when I was car camping, I could simply throw it down on the floor of the tent and set up my sleeping bag on top of it before turning in for the night.
Now that I’m doing as much backpacking as car camping, I care a lot more about weight than I did when I was using that mattress topper. A few years ago during a big sale at REI, I picked up the Big Agnes Q-Core SLX sleeping pad, which has served me well and weighs almost nothing.
Depending on what kind of sleeping bag you have, it may or may not have a built-in pillow. If you’re backpacking, you may not want to carry the extra weight of a pillow with you, but you can always fold up some clothes to put under your head as a makeshift pillow instead. If you’re car camping, bring a pillow from home or check out this article from OutdoorGearLab on the best camping pillows if you’re in the market for something a bit more specialized.
Next to sleeping well, ensuring that you’re adequately fueled for the great outdoors is the most important thing. For some reason, the food you eat all the time at home can taste that much better when it’s cooked over an open flame and eaten outside 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 and my family went car camping over summer break, 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, I recommend something a little bigger, such as the Weber Q1000 Gas Grill, which is portable enough that you can bring it for a weekend getaway but is 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 is a great option for boiling water quickly while backpacking.
7. Stove Fuel
The best camping stove on the planet won’t do you any good if you don’t have the right fuel to go with it, so make sure you have the appropriate fuel canisters – and that they’re full – before you pull out of the driveway or head off on a trail. If you’re flying to your adventure destination, you can’t bring most fuel canisters on an airplane, so do a little research ahead of time to make sure there’s somewhere nearby when you arrive where you can procure the fuel you’ll need while you’re in the wilderness.
Pro Tip: Once you’re headed home, if you haven’t used up your entire fuel canister but are getting back on an airplane and can’t take it with you, drop it off at the nearest ranger station or outdoors store and see if they have a use for it or can find it a new home.
8. Matches or a Lighter
It’s essential to have waterproof matches such as Coghlan’s 940 BP Waterproof Matches or a dependable windproof camping lighter such as the Scorch Torch Dominator Triple Jet Flame Butane Lighter, which I like because it is refillable. I’ve used both of these on camping trips, and they work like a charm. I keep the matches in my camping kit because 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 not being able to light a fire or your stove while you’re camping and having to attempt the old “rubbing two sticks together” trick is a real pain.
9. Pots & Pans
Even if you’re car camping and don’t care about weight or how compact your pots and pans are, if you’re a frequent camper, you’ll want a set of dedicated camping pots and pans. Cooking outdoors, potentially over an open campfire, can do a number on nice cookware designed for the home chef and a real oven. If you’re not interested in buying a set of camping cookware, 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 that can be your camping cooking gear. That way, if they get beat up or dropped in the fire, you won’t be too upset.
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. For this function, I recommend the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Soloist II Cookset, which I have and use frequently. 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
One piece of gear that’s non-optional for me is a camping French press. I cannot function without coffee, especially after sleeping on the ground all night, so whenever I’m camping, I bring along my trusty camping French press and some coarse ground coffee. The Snow Peak Titanium French Press gets great reviews.
If you’re not a French press person, something like the super lightweight MSR MugMate Coffee/Tea Filter will do the trick for making 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 or check your local thrift store to pick up some stuff you won’t 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, and you’ll be ready to eat no matter what the meal is. I have the Snow Peak Titanium Spork, which was a great addition to my camping kit and comes in fun colors too.
12. Water or a Water Filtration System
One of the first things you’ll want to investigate once you make your camping plans is if there will be water available or if you’ll 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’ll need a good water filtration system in your pack. I highly recommend the Platypus GravityWorks 2.0L Water Filter Kit, a lightweight, pump-free water filtration system that works well for two to four people. I’ve used this system on my camping trips for years.
Optional: 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. Anything from a basic folding chair such as the Kijaro Dual Lock Chair to the deluxe Helinox Beach Chair with all the bells and whistles will help you relax in style instead of sitting on the ground getting your pants dirty.
The best camping trip can quickly turn into the worst if you’re not prepared with some basic 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. Here’s the bare minimum survival gear you’ll need.
The number of uses you’ll find for a sharp knife is almost endless. You can use it to slice open plastic-wrapped food, sharpen a stick into a point for roasting hot dogs or marshmallows over the fire, peel off thin wood shavings for tinder to start that fire, cut up food, and more. 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.
14. Emergency Blanket
If you’re camping, hiking, or even just spending a lot of time outdoors for the day, 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 these 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 is designed to reflect your body heat back to you, and the flashy side can even be used 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 good 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 your type of camping trip, you may only need to pack a headlamp instead of a bulky flashlight. Headlamps are perfect for making your way to the facilities 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 is designed to help preserve your night vision and won’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 late at night. And a good headlamp won’t break the bank. The Yalumi Spark Pro is a great basic, inexpensive model, but if you’re looking for something with a few more bells and whistles, the Black Diamond Storm375 is a good bet too.
16. First Aid Kit
No matter what kind of camping you’re doing, it’s important to have a few first aid essentials on hand in case someone in your group gets hurt or sick. You can either buy a pre-assembled first aid kit such as 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:
- Different sizes of bandages
- 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 in extra items that make sense for your specific trip based on your needs and how much space you have.
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 a number of durable, easy-to-use options. The Goal Zero Lighthouse 400 Lantern can provide light for a group, or if you’re just looking for a little lantern to bring into the tent with you at the end of the night, try the cute and compact Black Diamond Moji.
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 good deal on everything you’ll 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’ll 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 piece of equipment you’ve ever forgotten to bring with you on a hiking or camping trip?