My goal in packing for a camping trip is not to travel light. It is to make sure I don’t forget anything. If I’m at a campsite miles from any retail outlets, there’s no easy way to replace what I forget to bring, so I make sure that I pack it all.
And if the wind is blowing, the rain is coming down hard, and it’s getting dark and cold outside, I don’t want to have to worry about having forgotten the pegs to hold the tent in the ground. So here’s my list of the 16 things you absolutely, positively want to make sure that you have on board before you hit the road for your camping trip.
1. A good tent
This is not something that you want to skimp on. It will effectively be your home for the whole of your camping trip. You want to make sure that it gives you enough room, that it is simple enough to set up quickly and that it does a great job of keeping out the elements. You also want to make sure that it is very stable and not likely to be upset by wind or rain.
2. Warm sleeping bag
Sleeping bags can be quite deceptive, particularly if you are looking at them online. REI offers a good online guide to picking the right sleeping bag to fit the kind of camping you will be doing. You don’t want something that will be too hot, but if you are camping in the spring or fall, you want to make sure that the sleeping bag will not leave you shivering in the middle of the night.
3. Inflatable mattress
Get a good inflatable mattress — and an easy way to inflate it. (It is no fun to get light-headed from blowing up an air bed on your own after a long day of traveling or hiking.) I recommend having a pump that you can plug into the car or an electrical outlet if your campground has them. If that conflicts with your notion of roughing it, look for a mattress that is “self-inflating” or comes with a hand pump to ensure that you can get to bed quickly and comfortably after a busy day. REI has a wide array of choices.
4. Power inverter
If you want any of the comforts of home while you are camping, some of them are likely to require electricity. By having a high amperage power inverter that you can plug into the cigarette lighter socket in your car, you ensure it’ll be easy to charge cellphones and blow up your inflatable bed with the electrical pump.
5. Vice grips
This tool may seem an unusual choice as a camping essential, but consider the benefits from a good pair of vice grips. Not only can locking pliers help when you need to fix anything in your camp site, but it can also double as a hammer for pounding in the tent pegs. Don’t leave home without it!
6. Camp chairs
Not having a comfortable place to sit can take away from the otherwise enjoyable time you are having while camping. Camp chairs don’t take up a whole lot of space, but they can make all the difference when you’re sitting around a fire relaxing at the end of the day. If you don’t have any chairs, you can always sit on a log, but I can assure you those don’t work for a nice afternoon nap.
7. Bottled water
You probably won’t need bottled water — as most camping sites will provide drinking water. But one of the most basic principles of camping (as well as being an old Scouting motto) is to be prepared. So make sure that you have an adequate supply of emergency drinking water.
Hopefully you will not need matches to light a campfire — and you’ll bring a camp stove to use for your cooking needs. But if you don’t have the matches, you may well find yourself in a situation where you wish you did.
9. Camp stove
Propane-based camp stoves came in a broad variety of shapes and sizes — and the model you choose will have a lot to do with how you plan to use it. If you’re going to camp by a lake for a few days, you may want to invest in a larger stove, with a bigger propane tank and multiple burners. For those who are hiking and will be making camp at a new spot every night, however, that is probably more than you want to lug around. You may be interested in this guide to lightweight backpacking stoves from REI.
10. Emergency kit
With any luck, you already have an emergency kit in your car. If you plan to camp with a tent — and have your car parked beside it the whole time — then that kit may be enough. If not, however, you might want to get something like this backpack emergency kit from Walmart, which sells for $34.94 and should have everything you need. Or, you could pull together a kit yourself, and just use this kit’s contents as a guide:
It comes with food and water, two 12-hour safety light sticks, emergency blankets, a first aid kit and dust masks. Ten cotton tip applicators, nitrile gloves, an emergency whistle, emergency ponchos and pocket tissues are also included. This portable outdoor emergency kit with backpack is designed to sustain two people for up to three days.
11. An ax
If you’re at a campsite where you can build your own fire — and have access to logs that you’re allowed to use — then make sure you take an ax. Building a fire will be vastly easier if you can chop your own kindling and get logs down to a more manageable size.
12. Toilet paper and paper towels
It’s been my experience that camp sites are just not very good at ensuring that restrooms and wash basins have what you need, so I would strongly advise bringing along your own toilet paper and paper towels. Depending on where you are camping, there also may be no dumpsters or bathroom facilities, so better bring along your own garbage bags and hand sanitizer.
13. Plates, cups and cutlery
I’ve never been a fan of plastic cutlery and paper plates — and find it much nicer to bring some hardy kitchen ware from home. You don’t need to bring a lot — and you’ll also want to bring along a few things to clean up with after you use it.
14. A really good flashlight
No one wants to fumble around in the dark in a tent in the middle of the night, or trip over a stump on the way to the outhouse. Bring a good flashlight with extra batteries. You may also want to make sure that your mobile phone is loaded with a good flashlight app, but those rely on your phone remaining charged, so consider it as a backup only.
15. A lockable cooler
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! If you are camping in a spot where you might encounter curious wildlife that will want to share your food, then you are well-advised to make sure that you get a cooler that locks. Even better, you may want to lock your cooler (and any food that doesn’t need to be kept in the cooler) inside your car. (Note: Some wilderness camping areas require you to have a bear-proof container for your food. Normally these parks will rent you these containers — typically barrels designed so critters can’t pry them open — or let you know where to buy them.)
16. A really good pillow
Who needs to completely rough it? On most car camping trips, there’s no reason you can’t bring nice sheets and pillows to go with your good air mattress and get a restful night’s sleep to prepare you for a great day exploring the wonders of the wilderness.
What’s on your list of camping essentials? Share your list in comments below or on our Facebook page.