Packing 101: Pay Attention to the Small Stuff

Few things can ruin a would-be stellar trip like realizing you forgot something really important. With this guide to packing, you won't have to learn the hard way.

Even the most experienced campers can benefit from taking the time to write out a packing list in advance. (Isaac Lane Koval/iStock)
backpacking

Since childhood I’ve prided myself on being a great “big picture” adventure companion. I’ll carry heavy loads without complaint but I can’t remember the finer points like packing sunscreen, TP, or a change of socks. So maybe I shouldn’t have been put in charge of utensils for a little team of three on my first trip to the summit of Mt. Shasta ten years ago.

We hiked a solid half-day up to our 10,400-foot-high camp at Helen Lake before I realized I’d forgotten the utensils. Our group dynamic deteriorated fast when we started discussing how we’d eat boiled foods with our hands as the sun was setting. Just as voices began to rise, a stranger named Haiku appeared with an extra set of plastic ware he had lifted from Taco Bell.

The lesson? I now make a physical list of necessities that I cross off with a pen as they enter my pack or vehicle before heading out on a camping adventure. This is a particularly helpful tip for the new campers because it makes getting ready for your first car camping trips way less overwhelming. Sit by a computer and research what you need to bring and take a good hour or so to put a list together. The time it takes to craft the list will decrease dramatically the more you go camping. 

Pay close attention to the smaller camping accessories because, while you rarely forget the Yeti Cooler or the Coleman Stove, the things you’ll to need to eat the food you cook can be nearly as important. 

Don’t be scared to over-pack as a beginner. My lifeline for efficient car camping is an $8 plastic bin from Home Depot that I keep filled with all of my cookware and accessories that I know I will need. That bin used to be extremely full, but I have culled it down to exactly what I need over the years. No matter what you bring the first time, you can remove things like the specialty S’mores roaster (a stick works great) that you don’t use. 

There are, however, a few items you should take right off the bat. Wrap a lighter in duct tape and throw it in your bin. That combo has proved to be one of my most essential pieces of camping gear. Make sure you bring at least one tarp that is big enough to cover your tent and one that can go under it. They won’t cost you more than $15 and may be the difference between a fun, adventurous rainy camping trip, and a soggy nightmare (literally). Finally, and perhaps most important, a nice multi-tool like the Leatherman Wave will serve you well in a variety of situations, from cutting up salami to fixing your stove. Trust me.

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