Camping Basics: Everything You Need (and Need to Know)
We cover the necessities, plus a few extras and friendly pointers
Maybe you’ve owned a sleeping bag and a headlamp for years, but you’ve never really had the full camp kit with all the necessities you need to sleep self-sufficiently in the woods. With summer rapidly approaching, it’s time you got yourself outfitted.
The Gear You Need
Opt for a lightweight two-person backpacking model if you’re planning on hiking to campsites. For this, we like REI Co-op’s Half Dome 2 Plus ($229) because it’s durable and packs small. If you’re car camping, don’t skimp on elbow room. A four-person tent like the Kelty Discovery 6 ($200) will be spacious for you, your SO, and your dog. Tarps can work in a pinch, but full tents are better for privacy at crowded campgrounds and protecting against bugs and rain.
Sleeping Bag and Pad
A 30-degree sleeping bag is a good middle-of-the-road option and should be warm enough to get you through most summer nights. But what you choose for fill—down or synthetic—depends on your preferences and where you camp most often. A down-stuffed bag, like the REI Co-op Magma 30 ($224), will be lighter, warmer, and more packable. And the synthetic kind—think Marmot’s Trestles Elite Eco 30 ($139)—can be less expensive and still insulate when wet. For a sleeping pad, find something that has plenty of loft for comfort if you’re car camping, like the self-inflating Therm-a-Rest BaseCamp ($65). A lighter option, such as the NEMO Switchback ($40), will serve you better when you’re backpacking.
Camp Chair and Table
Get a chair that’s comfortable and quick to set up around the fire—bonus if it has a cup holder and folds down small in the trunk of your car, like Alite’s Stonefly Armchair ($81). Most campgrounds already have picnic tables, but for dispersed camping you’ll want a sturdy compact surface like the REI Co-op Camp Roll table ($65) to prep and cook your food.
On the lighter end of the camp cooking spectrum are backpacking-friendly stoves—see MSR’s PocketRocket Deluxe ($115)—that mount onto small fuel canisters so you can boil water for coffee, oatmeal, and noodles. If you’re car camping and not sweating weight, upgrade to something like Eureka’s Ignite Two-Burner camp stove ($100). It’s bigger but better for cooking with multiple pans and for accommodating larger groups of people. In addition to a pot and pan, you’ll also need a simple set of nonbreakable dishware, including plates, bowls, mugs, and silverware. We like GSI Outdoors’ Bugaboo Camper set ($110), because it has most everything and is still fairly portable, and the brand’s full 3-Piece Ring cutlery set ($4). Lastly, you’ll want an ice chest like the Coleman Steel Belted cooler ($120) for keeping perishable foods on ice, a separate bin for storing non-perishables and things like tin foil (Rubbermaid’s Action Packer is hardy and costs only $30), and a big, easy-pour jug like Coleman’s 5 Gallon Water Carrier ($19) for drinking water.
A standing or hanging lantern like Goal Zero’s Lighthouse Mini V2 ($40) can be a nice touch for your picnic table or tent once the sun goes down. Or keep it simple and get a headlamp with good battery life, like Black Diamond’s ReVolt ($60) that you can use for midnight bathroom breaks.
The Gear You Don’t Need but Is Nice to Have
When you’re car camping, as long as everything fits in the trunk of your vehicle, you can bring some additional supplies that’ll help you settle into home away from home. Our favorite extras include Sea to Summit’s Aeros Ultralight pillow ($30), the Shammy towel from Rumpl ($59), the Kammok Roo hammock ($69) to string between two trees, a tablecloth to throw over the picnic table (this simple one from Ikea will do), the Prepworks Collapsible wash basin ($12) for doing dishes, and the NEMO Helio Pressure shower ($100). None of that is necessary, of course, but they make the difference between setting up a camp you’ll want to hang out in for the weekend versus a quick overnight place to crash.
What You Can Score for Cheap
Certain things aren’t worth splurging on. Camp kitchens have gotten high tech and intricate these days—everything from camp-friendly pizza ovens to elaborate fold-out shelving to stoves that’ll charge your cell phone. Those are great, but that simple Eureka two-burner we mentioned will last decades and cook like a champ. Same goes for dishware: be realistic about whether you actually need pricey plates and bowls that fold up like origami. Often plastic ones from Target will do just fine and last years.
Other Things to Know
Booking a Site
Once you’ve got all your essentials (and whatever extras you want), it’s time to camp. First, find a site—fortunately it just got a lot easier to book online. You’ll want to be aware of a handful of key things when securing the right site, like whether it has good access to water, ample flat ground to pitch a tent, and plenty of privacy. Many popular campsites require booking way ahead of time, while other lesser known spots are first-come, first-served and sometimes you can get them entirely to yourself.
Cooking Your Meals
Do some meal planning ahead of time, stocking up on the groceries you need in case there’s no store between you and camp. Start with a killer camp breakfast, pack simple lunch supplies you can take on a hike or prepare on the tailgate, and consider elevating your dinner game with dishes like Dutch oven enchiladas or cheesy asparagus orzo.
Setting Up Camp
Pitching a tent isn’t always as easy as it looks, so check the setup directions if they come included. If you’ve got kids with you, extras like yard games and swinging hammocks will make things even more fun. Build the perfect campfire and, if you choose, you can cook dinner over an open flame. S’mores for dessert are the standard, but there are plenty of other sweet options out there.
When it’s time to pack up, make sure you leave no trace so it looks like you were never there.