Spring is in full swing, which means that camping trip you’ve been itching to take is just around the corner. Of course, you’ve also been meaning to buy the required gear too. Don’t worry, whether you’re a complete beginner or a vet looking to cover your bases, we’ve got you covered.
What you should take on your camping trip depends on what type of trip you have in mind. Driving somewhere and going on small day hikes from a populated base camp? You can bring a nice, big stove. Hiking 25 miles into the middle of the Grand Gulch? You want something a little more portable. The distinction between the two is usually labeled as “camping” or “backpacking.” Campers drive somewhere and camp out of that location. Backpackers hike in and then make camp with what they’ve brought.
The gear best suited for each usually has to do with weight and packability, so make sure you consider which you’ll spend more time doing when you shop for gear. Backpacking gear tends to be pricier because it focuses on weight, but it’s great for both camping and backpacking. That dual-use nature is good for anyone planning on doing both. You should consider your specific needs instead of relying on a generic checklist, but the list of essential items for most trips remains the same.
The Basics: Essential Camping and Hiking Equipment
Let’s start with the most obvious camping-specific equipment: Tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, and all that other stuff that immediately comes to mind when you think of camping. This is all the expensive gear you’ve been putting off buying until you really needed it. Thankfully, you can get by with a lot less you think.
- Tents, Tarps, Poles, Tie Downs, and Stakes: You’ll need something to sleep in, so a tent should be at the top of your priority list. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all tent though. Tents come in a variety of sizes and in a variety of types. Some ultralight tents are best suited for backpacking, while other, heavier tents come with spacious luxuries best suited for hanging out near a car. To confuse matters more, most tents come in two varieties: three-season and four-season. Three-season tents are good for just about anything but the deep of winter, while four-season tents have more durable fabric that can handle snowdrifts. Good news though, as our friends over at The Wirecutter point out, most tents in the $200-$300 range are pretty good nowadays, so you pretty much can’t go wrong. They suggest the now discontinued Big Agnes Blacktail 3 person tent, but you can still snag it as new-old-stock for around $230. If you want to dig into the specifics of the differences between tent types, Backcountry walks you through the different types of backpacking tents, what to look for in weight, and how to choose the right seasonal variety for you. You’ll also usually want a footprint to place beneath your tent to block out water.
- Sleeping Bags and Sleeping Pads: Like tents, sleeping bags come in different weights and handle different temperatures, so you have to do some research to find the one best suited for you, where you plan to camp, and when. Outside Magazine’s best sleeping bags or the Wirecutter’s picks are good places to start. Wirecutter’s a fan of the $200 REI Radiant Sleeping Bag as a good all-around bag. Outside Magazine’s top recommendation is the Marmot Electrum, which you can usually track down for under $160. You will probably spend around $150-$200 for a decent sleeping bag. On top of that, most people will also want a sleeping pad, an air-filled pad that sits between your sleeping bag and the ground so you can get a little more comfortable. Our friends over at Indefinitely Wild have a rundown of the best sleeping pads for various budgets and uses. Which is best for you depends on your size, and you should try this under $30 foam foldable sleeping pad.
- Backpacks: Backpacks are an area where the distinction between camping and backpacking matters. If you’re camping, you arguably don’t need a backpack at all (though you want a good day pack if you’re planning on small hikes). In the backpack world, there are three main distinctions for sizes: day packs, overnight, and long haul. Which you need depends completely on what you plan on doing. Outside Magazine has a great rundown of some of the best packs for each type, but if you’re new to backpacking and don’t want to dish out a ton of cash, Indefinitely Wild has a cheapskate guide that keeps things as budget-friendly as possible. This BeGrit 40L overnight backpack as a solid but cheap bag that’ll hold what you need and won’t kill your back.
- Headlamps, Lanterns, and Flashlights: Surprise! It gets dark in the woods, so you want something to help you see at night. Any cheap flashlight A sturdy, reliable flashlight will work here (LED is best, something like this $8 Mini CREE LED flashlight will do the job for most people), but having some extra gear is helpful too. A lantern like the Black Diamond Apollo Lantern for $44 is super useful for camping so you can make your way around the campsite and your tent easily in the dark, but it’s far too bulky for backpacking. For that, a headlamp like the $30 Black Diamond Spot Headlamp is surprisingly useful, especially when you’re trying to set up a tent after dark.
- Water Filtration Systems and(or?) Treatment Tablets: If you’re camping, you can (and should) bring along as much water as you’d possibly need in your car, so it’s easily accessible. Some campsites even have fresh water available, but you should bring some anyway. If you’re backpacking however, that’s not an option, so you’ll need a water filtration system. For something on the cheap end, the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System filters water and only costs $20 at Amazon. For a slightly more portable solution, Iodine tablets like these $6 Potable Aqua Treatment Tablets work too.
- Hiking Boots or Shoes: Depending on the type of trip you’re taking, you’ll want to grab some hiking boots or shoes. Your sneakers will do just fine in many places, but if you’re planning on going for a longer backpacking trip, dedicated shoes are much more comfortable since they offer more support, padding, and stability for your ankles as your cross rough terrain. Of course, like everything else here, you have a million choices. In this case, your selection breaks down to boots, trail runners, approach shoes, and hiking shoes. Boots are clunkier but sturdier, so they’re good for people who like a lot of grip in their shoes and who like to jump into mud piles. Trail runners are light but have no real traction or ankle support, so they’re best for the nimble-footed who prefer to jump around. Hiking shoes are the goldilocks of each of those, they are lightweight, have good traction, and solid durability. They also tend to have low longevity. Approach shoes are meant mostly for climbing but sit somewhere in-between boots and runners. If this was an RPG, boots are for your tank, trail runners are for your high DEX character, and approach or hiking shoes are for your basic all around character. Each has their own list of merits and best use-cases, and Gizmodo compared the pros and cons of each type. For most people, they land on approach shoes as a suggestion, but more general all-around hiking shoes like any of these will do the job too.
- Paper Maps: Regardless of whether you’re camping or backpacking, there’s a good chance you will not have cell phone service. Get a map of wherever you’re going before you get out there, then learn how to read it and not to rely on GPS, even if you bring a stand-alone satellite GPS unit. You can typically find a map from the ranger station near any park entrance, or you can print them online. Either way, make sure you have one.
- First Aid Kit: It shouldn’t be a surprise that you need a first aid kit for camping. Include the usual aspirins, bandages, and gauze here, but also toss in some hiking-specific stuff like moleskin for blisters, bug sprays, and aloe vera for burns. Indefinitely Wild has a guide to put together your own kit, and the Washington Trails Association has a great checklist as well.
There are thousands of other gadgets, knick-knacks, and other gear available for camping, but most people don’t need more than what’s listed here when it comes to the essentials.
Everything You’ll Need to Cook Outdoors
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You probably don’t want to sustain yourself on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during your camping trip, which means you also need some cooking gear. Here are some of the basics:
- Stove, Fuel, and Fire Starter: Sure, you’ve seen cartoons where campers cook right over a campfire, but most normal people are going to want a real stove. For camping, something big and bulky like Coleman’s camping stoves are sturdy, reliable, and easy to use. They range in price from the classic propane stove for $40 to the more powerful Powerhouse model for $180. For backpacking, you want to grab something more portable like the absolutely tiny MSR PocketRocket Stove for about around $35 or the more all-purpose and more durable Jetboil MiniMo for around $130. For your first trip, it makes the most sense to start cheap and work up from there if you end up enjoying yourself.
- Pots and Pans: Spoiler alert: If you’re camping and have access to the storage of a vehicle, just use the pots and pans you already own. You don’t need special camping cookware unless you need to separate your household cookware from your camping stuff. For backpacking however, you want special cookware that’s effective and lightweight. For a super cheap and packable system, BeGrit’s $20 8PCS cookset does the job. GSI Outdoors’ Pinnacle Cookware set is $120 but also includes mugs, bowls, and plates. Pair that with the $42 GSI Outdoors Destination kitchen kit, which includes about every utensil you need.
- Cups, Bowls, and Utensils: Camping cups, bowls, and utensils are the same as what you have at home, except they tend to be lightweight, plastic or stainless steel, and often have clever designs that make them easier to pack. You don’t need much here. Just some all-in-one utensil sets like this $19 set from BeGrit, some mugs (these ones from REI are expensive at $25, but multi-purpose), or just get a cheap table set like this $20 one from BeGrit.
- Coffee-Making Tools: Everyone’s coffee needs are different, but if you drink coffee, you want something to make coffee with in the morning. The Wirecutter recommends this $45 French Press from REI. Personally, that’s too clunky for me, at least for backpacking. A $30 AeroPress works much better because it’s way lighter, smaller, and cleanup is less of a chore. Just make sure you grind your coffee ahead of time. If you don’t care about anything other than the caffeine, instant coffee is easy to pack.
- Scrubber, Dishcloths, Trash Bags, and Other Cleaning Gear: Just because you’re out in the woods doesn’t mean you won’t have to do the dishes or tidy up. Bring along some dishcloths, some type of scrub brush, and trash bags. There’s no magic camping-specific stuff here, just bring along whatever you already have, and try to leave the campsite better than you found it.
You’ll also need food to cook. That part’s up to you, but meal planning for backpacking trips is a skill in its own right. REI has a good guide, as does Backpacker. Both walk you through meal planning, which is important not only so you don’t die from starvation, but also so you get the nutrients necessary for the outdoor workout you’ll be doing. You’ll need to get used to bland freeze-dried instant meals, but it’s surprising how great a good cup of coffee and some decent oatmeal will improve your outlook for a day. Personally, two things I always overlooked but that I’ve found useful are foil pack tuna and a good, reasonably priced bourbon. Of course, if you’re just camping, anything you can grill works. Just make sure you bring along a cooler to store any perishables in.
Whatever you buy and pack, just make sure to consider your climate, needs, and environment. If you’re heading off to the desert for a long weekend in June, you can skip the rain jacket, but doing so would be foolish if you’re heading into the rainforest. Perhaps you want to get some fishing in, in which case you’ll need a pole, permit, and some bait. Maybe you’re going on a big bike camping trip, which requires not only camping gear, but also a slew of cycling-specific extras. The fact is, regardless of the millions of generic camping checklists out there, they’re all pretty much garbage because they’re just massive lists of almost random items. For everything beyond the basics above, you’re much better off searching for checklists suited to the specific trip you’re planning. Here are a few examples to get you started:
- Backpacking through Europe checklist
- Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiking checklist
- Bikepacking checklists for various climates
- High desert camping checklist
- Basic car camping checklist
- Basic fishing checklist
- Rainforest backpacking checklist
Remember, your needs are likely a little different than everyone else’s so adapt and make your own lists. Don’t forget things like medication, hygiene products (often left off of those checklists), or anything else that makes you feel a little more human after being out in the woods for days at a time. The basic rule of thumb is simple though: if you’re backpacking, you want to keep the list down the bare minimum of essential tools and needs. If you’re camping, feel free to pack that car with as much junk as you can, because you’re not going to have to carry it anywhere.