The joys of camping run deep. It can be a lifelong pursuit, as it is for countless folks who were introduced to the routines and rituals of roughing it as kids. But it’s also the kind of universal activity people of essentially any age (and any walk of life) can start doing at any point—and, more likely than not, it’s going to stick.
No special skills or expensive equipment are necessary to give camping a try, though of course they come in handy for certain kinds of camping. But having basic supplies is essential. Here we’ve put together a beginner-friendly camping gear list that hopefully will help you plan out an introductory night out in the woods.
Keeping Camping Necessities in Context
This may or may not go without saying, but keep in mind that “camping” encompasses a mighty broad spectrum of forms and settings. Front-country camping can be a plush stay at a heavily developed commercial or county-park campground, or primitive boondocking off some middle-of-nowhere backroad. And then there’s backpacking, which sees you lugging everything you need right on your shoulders, or any number of other nonmotorized wilderness forays by horse or mule or raft or kayak. Obviously there’s a lot of equipment specific to the particular kind of camping you’re engaging in, and the length of your journey, relative remoteness, and a host of other factors will influence what you bring along.
All that said, the following camping essentials are likely to come in handy for just about any overnight trip in the great outdoors.
Besides the whole life-sustaining thing, food’s at the heart of any camping trip because of the hearty appetites inspired by outdoor living and the rich opportunities for shared experience that a trailside picnic or campfire meal presents. Plus, that old adage about everything tasting better outside happens to be true.
When it comes to campsite cookery, some go impressively elaborate, while others prefer to keep things simple in the interest of packing space and time. However you approach the camp kitchen, it’s vital to make a meal plan. Keep in mind the dietary needs and preferences of your party, how and where mealtimes will fit into your planned itinerary (e.g., Do you need picnic-friendly fare? Will you mostly be eating at the campsite?), and just how much energy you’ll be burning through (consider a leisurely campsite-focused idyll vs. a weeklong backpacking adventure).
It must be said, meantime: From the established campground to the deep wilderness, Mountain House entrees, sides, and snacks are convenient-as-can-be camping foods.
Here we’re talking about stoves (or not), dishware, utensils, and all the other cooking-and-eating essentials. You can cook everything over a fire (in the interest of Leave-No-Trace principles, better pursued in a developed campground than a backcountry campsite), in which case you’ll need firestarting materials such as matches or a lighter. Cookstove-wise, there’s a range of sizes and fuel types. In terms of pots and pans, backpackers get by with a modern-day nested cookware set or an old-school mess kit; car campers can afford to bring a much more extensive arsenal, if they so choose.
With a fully equipped camp kitchen, you can be just about as fancy as you want in the meal-preparation department. Many campers, though, go the one-pot route, in which case—hey, how about a just-add-hot-water Mountain House feast?
Critical to planning a camping trip is identifying the water resources available at the campsite(s) you’ll be using. Established campgrounds may or may not have water available via faucets or hand pumps. If not, you’ll have to bring your own water for drinking, cooking, and washing. Backcountry camping generally requires treating/purifying water from natural sources such as creeks, rivers, or lakes, although such sources aren’t always available (underscoring the need to thoroughly research the environment you’ll be trekking through).
(4) First-Aid Kit
Too many campers neglect to include a first-aid kit among their essential camping gear. It’s a piece of equipment you only miss when an on-trail stumble results in a scraped knee, or the kids play hide-and-seek in a poison-ivy patch on the edge of the campground, or that whittling knife makes a small but costly slip. You can buy a prepackaged first-aid kit or assemble one yourself. Don’t forget to assess the kit periodically and to re-up on any constituent supplies that are running low or depleted.
Obviously you RV-campers don’t necessarily need a tent. But otherwise a tent’s pretty much part-and-parcel of the camping experience. (And yes, for sure, there are outdoorspeople who prefer tarp shelters, bivy sacks, or no shelter at all.) Needless to say, tents come in all shapes and sizes, from barely-there solo backpacker ultralight setups to huge family-size tents.
Tent considerations include the number of people in your party, the kind of camping you’re pursuing (car-camping vs. backpacking), and the season(s) you plan to be out and about in. Those who typically camp in summer or early fall can typically get by with a three-season tent; winter campers need a more robust four-season structure.
(6) Sleeping Bag
Like tents, sleeping bags come in a wide range of quality. Penny pinchers can certainly make a cheap and poorly insulated bag work if they’re camping inclement conditions, but regular campers usually end up deciding to invest in a higher-quality sack. Choosing a sleeping bag means considering its temperature rating, composition (down vs. synthetic), and shape. For example, are you looking to zip together a pair of rectangular sleeping bags to make room for two? Or are you interested in the maximal warmth and efficiency of a mummy bag (the go-to style for backpackers, but one some claustrophobic types find disagreeable)?
Flashlights, headlamps, and lanterns: You need illumination of some kind, and preferably several kinds and a couple of backups. Many novice campers underestimate their lighting needs, only to find themselves fumbling around the cookstove or trying to set up a tent in near-total darkness. Don’t forget those extra batteries; it’s nice to have hand-crank and/or solar-powered options along, too.
Hey, you’ve got your smartphone with its GPS and online-mapping capabilities: Why do you need to bother with an out-of-fashion paper map? Well, such a resource is actually essential: You may be out of cellular range, for instance, or your digital map may be inaccurate. An up-to-date, properly scaled paper map is a safeguard for campers, most especially for anyone venturing into more isolated country. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get utterly turned around on the drive to a Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management campsite: A maze of rough backwoods roads can get you as thoroughly lost as trackless terrain, believe it or not.
Human beings have relied on knives of one kind or another for thousands of years, and their utility hasn’t diminished in the modern age. A high-quality, full-tang camping knife can be (with no hyperbole) a lifesaver if things go sour on your wilderness getaway, but it’s also a practical, everyday aid for wielding heated pots and whittling s’mores sticks.
Put an adequate length of sturdy rope in the same category as a knife: a ridiculously versatile survival tool, most importantly, and also an endlessly handy around-the-campsite aid. From rigging tarps to fashioning an emergency sling, you definitely don’t want to embark on a camping trip without 100 feet or so of 550 paracord. (Check out our blogpost on the survival facility of a paracord bracelet, in case you aren’t convinced.)