Eating s’mores around a crackling fire as stars twinkle overhead. Waking up with the birds at dawn to sip a mug of hot coffee and watch the sun rise. Camping is all about those quiet, peaceful moments of simplicity and bliss. Moments when you take the time to just breathe deeply, look around you – really look – and notice things for the first time. Like that gorgeous tree. And that fresh, fragrant air. And – is that a pack of raccoons making off with your s’mores supplies?!
OK, we admit it: not ALL of the moments in camping are peaceful. Like the time those three wily raccoons pillaged our campsite during my bachelorette weekend. Or the time Jeremy and I totalled our car on a windy mountain pass deep in the Sierra Nevadas and had to hitchhike on the back of a pickup truck with some friendly locals so we could use a sat phone to get a 10-hour tow back home. Or the time we tumbled out of our hammock in the middle of the night in Lake Tahoe and landed butt-first on a giant pile of jagged granite rocks.
Sometimes camping is just surviving in the wilderness for a night or two with your loved ones, so that you can get back home and finally, now that you’re safe and sound again, laugh about how much nature kicked your butt. Because if we’ve learned anything through our years of outdoor adventure, nature always, always wins. And as any Boy Scout will tell you, the best thing you can do is to be prepared!
So whether you’re going camping for the first time or the 50th time, here is an incredibly detailed list of what to pack for a camping trip to help protect you from the harshest lessons nature has to offer, so that you can look back on all those moments of your camping trip – the peaceful ones and the absolute disasters – and laugh and smile and think, “Gosh, I can’t wait to go camping again!”
Table of Contents
Psst: We’ve created a printable version of this post to help ensure you don’t forget anything on your next camping trip! Sign up below and we’ll send it directly to your inbox.
Looking for more outdoor adventures? Take a look at some of our other posts:
- The Best Camping in Big Sur, California
- The 8 Best Places to Camp in Colorado
- The Best Hikes in Northern California and also Southern California
We have also have several USA National Parks travel guides! Browse them all or take a look at these:
- The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park
- Day Hikes in Zion National Park
- Glacier National Park Itinerary
- Things to Do in Smoky Mountain National Park
Car Camping 101
There are several different types of camping, and each has its own unique challenges. The type of camping we’ll be focusing on in this post is a step above glamping or RV camping and a step below backcountry camping. It’s called Car Camping.
No, we’re not referring to sleeping in your car! Car Camping means you load up your car with gear, drive to a campsite, park, and unload your campsite close to your car. This is the most common kind of camping for new campers, and the one we’ll be focusing on in this post!
There are a few big advantages to car camping as opposed to backcountry or hike-in camping. Since you won’t be going far from your car, you’ll be able to pack all kinds of gear. And since you don’t have to worry about carrying stuff far, you don’t need to limit the weight of your supplies! This means you can buy cheaper camping gear, bring ordinary supplies from home, and load up on “fancy” campsite luxuries.
Another huge benefit of car camping is that you’ll be camping in designated areas, with managed bathroom facilities and firepits. It’s not glamping, but it’s certainly not remote, either.
That also serves as the main downside to car camping: you’ll be around people the entire time you’re camping. If the campsite next to you is loud, you’ll be hearing them all night long. If the people across from you didn’t put their food away before they went to sleep, their irresponsibility might attract curious bears that will lumber right past your tent.
With that in mind, you don’t want to be that obnoxious neighbor that ruins someone else’s trip, so take extra care to be respectful!
And in light of current health risks, you’ll also want to be extra cautious when using shared facilities, wash your hands frequently, and wear a mask if you’re within close proximity of other people.
- Note: For a detailed introduction to backpacking and backcountry camping, we recommend reading through REI’s series on Backpacking for Beginners. We don’t recommend going backpacking or back-country camping if you’re an inexperienced camper, and we won’t be focusing on that type of camping in this post.
Car Camping with Dogs
Although we’ve been avid campers for years, we are new to the joys of camping with dogs! This is our first year with our puppy Mulan (she’s the adorable floof you’ll see throughout this post). So we don’t yet have all the answers for camping with dogs, but based on our experience so far, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Can they be off-leash? The answer to this will depend entirely on the campsite you book, so make sure you look in advance to confirm that it’s both pet-friendly and allows off-leash pups. If off-leash isn’t OK, you might want to consider bringing an outdoor playpen or a tie-out cable and tether (our preferred option) so they have some space to enjoy freely.
- Where will they sleep? We recommend letting them sleep with you – dogs love cuddling up at night! Mulan typically sleeps in a crate, so it was a special treat for her to snuggle all night with us in a hammock. Otherwise, bring an outdoor dog bed (remember, they’ll need to sleep on-leash or in a tent) or a cozy crate. It helps to do place training in advance so they associate their bed, crate, or a blanket from home as a place they can relax and feel safe!
- What should you bring? You’ll need the basics: leash, harness, food for the duration of the trip, bowls for food and water, and toys or chews. We also recommend a few extras, like a lifejacket for water activities, a dog-specific first aid kit or supplies, and melatonin to help them sleep in unfamiliar surroundings.
Where to Book Campsites
Good news for carefree types: not all campsites must be reserved in advance – there are first-come, first-served campsites. That said, we have anxiety, and we don’t like to leave things up to chance.
Luckily, finding and booking campsites is fairly easy, if you know where to look!
- Recreation.Gov: We book the majority of our camping trips on publicly owned land using Recreation.gov, a government-run website containing the entirety of state and federal owned land and campsites. The photos aren’t always the best and occasionally the site is a little clunky, but once you get used to it it’s intuitive enough! One huge plus of using the site is that you can also reserve permits online, which are required in some destinations – even for casual day-hikes.
- The Dyrt: Acting as a giant campsite search engine, The Dyrt has a huge amount of information available about both publicly and privately-owned campgrounds. In one place, you’ll find everything from campground amenity details to the weather forecast for your campground to detailed reviews, all constantly kept up-to-date by other campers. Our favorite feature is the paid version of their mobile app, which lets you find camping from your vehicle even when you don’t have WiFi or cell services, with downloadable maps, offline campground locating, and even waived fees on campground bookings. If you plan to take a long road trip and camp along the way, The Dyrt Pro is a must-have app.
- Tentrr: Like AirBnB for campsites and glamping, Tentrr allows any landowner to turn their backyard – or farm, or vineyard, or cabin, or yurt, etc – into a bookable campground. We sometimes use Tentrr to find close-by alternatives for popular, hard-to-book public camping destinations, like just outside of National Parks. Another good option to browse is HipCamp.
One important tip to keep in mind: before you book a campsite, plot out your driving route on Google Maps!
We’ve made the mistake of booking far-away campsites just because they look beautiful without checking the driving route, and we ended up lost for hours and hours on windy mountain passes and, eventually, totalling our car. Here’s the whole sordid tale.
Chances are you aren’t as disaster-prone as we usually are, but we suggest double-checking just in case – and ensuring that your car is up to the journey. These days we prefer to rent a car for car camping trips – like the 2020 Mazda CX-30 that you see pictured in this post – so that we can ensure we have plenty of space for our camping gear, high-quality tires with good tread and traction, and very importantly, the ability to climb mountains.
Car Camping Essentials
Let’s cover all the categories of things you need for camping! Starting with…
Sleep & Shelter
Your “Sleep System” – a term you’ll hear used by gear-loving backpackers, backcountry aficionados, and thru-hikers – is the most important part of your camping essentials. It comprises the gear that you’ll sleep in, including shelter and bedding.
Your sleep system is typically the most expensive part of your camping set-up, and for good reason: it can also determine whether you enjoy or hate your camping experience, and make the difference between dreading your next camping trip and setting up your system to sleep in your backyard because you love it so much.
A good sleep system means you’ll wake up refreshed and energized, excited to explore the outdoors and befriend animals or whatever like a Disney Princess.
A bad sleep system means you’ll spend all night tossing and turning and wake up miserable, uncomfortable, cold, sore, and ready to throw a rock at the loud-AF birds yapping before the crack of dawn (lookin’ at you, Stellar’s Jays).
Whatever your preference, let’s break down pros, cons, and recommendations for both hammock & tent sleep systems so that you can determine what you already have, what you still need, and how to find the best gear for your ideal camping experience.
- Camping Tip: Just starting out or looking to upgrade your sleep system setup? REI has a fantastic deal called the Backpacking Bundle, which comes with a tent, and an insulated sleeping pad, and a sleeping bag, all rated for 3-season camping and backpacking. Along with REI’s generous return policy – no questions asked for up to a year after your purchase – this is the best way to dip your toe into tent camping with a solid set-up kit and see what works for you!
Most folks new to camping start with tent camping, and have fond memories of sleeping in a tent as a kid. There are a few major advantages to tent camping:
- Finding the gear is pretty easy
- It feels less scary to sleep outdoors all night when you’re cozied up inside your tent
- You can fit multiple people in a tent, perfect for family camping
- You can pitch a tent absolutely anywhere – all you need is a flat patch of ground
- Tents offer privacy, which is helpful in public campgrounds
- If it rains, you’ll have a place to hang out and relax while you wait for the weather to clear up
Here are the pieces you’ll need to build your tent camping sleep system:
When it comes to selecting a tent for camping, you’ll want to take into consideration whether you’ll be car camping or backpacking, because tents can be incredibly heavy! You’ll also need to consider how many people will need to sleep in your tent: tents are usually sized by person.
If you plan on always rolling up to your campsite in a packed car, weight doesn’t need to be a consideration. But if you plan to carry your campsite on your back, look for ultralight backpacking tents, which are more expensive but much easier to carry.
That said, it’s much easier to find a decent tent for camping at a reasonable price if you’re not worried about weight. You can snag a giant, multi-person tent at Costco for around $100 that will fit your entire extended family so you can all feel like you’re at the Quidditch World Cup (I hope my fellow Harry Potter nerds get that reference).
One more thing: think about set-up. The more complicated your tent, the longer it takes to get from arriving at your campsite to relaxing by the fire! As far as we’re concerned, the simpler, the better.
Here are two excellent tent options for 3 or even 4-season camping:
- Budget Pick: This budget-friendly 3-person tent is a surprisingly good deal, easy to set up, full protected from rain, and will get you out on a summer camping trip with minimal fuss. You can even fit a queen-size air mattress inside – which, honestly, I highly recommend.
- Long-Term Investment Pick: If you’re ready to get serious about your gear or want to eventually try backpacking, the REI Co-op Arete All Season Light Tent is a 4-season tent designed to protect you from more extreme elements while still being light and quick to set up. This tent also features additional vents to help reduce condensation. If you’re considering winter camping or want a more lightweight pick for backpacking, this tent is a fantastic option.
Anyone who has ever slept in a tent can attest that the worst part of tent camping is sleeping on the cold, hard ground. Which is why you should pack a sleeping pad! It’s exactly what it sounds like: a pad between you and the ground that provides both cushioning and warmth.
If you’re bougie and you have a big enough tent, you can absolutely pack an air mattress and camp in major style. No judgment from us.
But if you’re looking for a smaller solution, we recommend Therm-A-Rest sleeping pads. They specialize in high-tech, lightweight, packable, mountaineering-friendly sleeping pads, and we consider them the gold standard!
I actually inherited a Therm-A-Rest sleeping pad from my grandmother (who was a badass backpacker). We still use it – and it’s like, decades old. From a comfy self-inflating sleeping pad (which are WAY easier to set up than hauling a full air mattress with you) to an inexpensive lightweight foam mat, you can’t go wrong.
The final piece of your tent camping sleep system is your sleeping bag. Most folks probably have an inexpensive synthetic sleeping bag stuffed in a closet at home somewhere, and in warm-weather destinations, that’s probably fine.
But if temperatures typically drop overnight – like they do here in California – you’ll want something more robust, like an insulating, lightweight down sleeping bag. Down sleeping bags are rated down to certain temperatures – we usually look for 30-degree ratings, since nighttime temperatures in California regularly drop below 40 at night even in the dead of summer. This sleeping bag is a fantastic option.
- Note: Yes, down sleeping bags are pricier than the synthetic ones you’ll find for cheap at most stores. But trust us: even if you cheap out on your tent and use a yoga mat as your sleeping pad, you’ll want to splurge on your sleeping bag. It can mean the difference between a comfortable, restful night’s sleep and a night of freezing, wide-awake misery listening to animal noises and counting down the minutes until sunrise (we speak from experience).
I have a confession: for most of my life, I actually hated camping.
I mean, I enjoyed cooking things over a fire and hiking – all the stuff except for actually sleeping. But I hated sleeping in a tent SO MUCH I actively avoided it.
For me, sleeping in a tent meant constantly rolling off a tiny sleeping pad onto the freezing cold, hard, always slightly slanted ground; spend the entire night repositioning myself to avoid roots and rocks; musky odors; sand covering everything; and suffocating in a sleeping bag without being able to stretch out or using the One Leg trick to adjust my temperature.
In short, it sucked, and it made me dislike camping. No shade to tent lovers, but I hate tent camping.
Then I discovered hammock camping, and everything changed. Sleeping in a hammock meant being swaddled by warm, cozy down blankets; gently rocking myself to sleep; stretching my legs out in any direction; never needing to reposition myself; never worrying about critters crawling into my tent or slithering underneath me; no danger of sand getting in my sleeping bag; and waking up with a view of my surroundings and the gentle cawing of some loud-AF birds.
Sleeping in a hammock made me LOVE camping – for the first time! I purchased my beloved hammock, the Grand Trunk Skeeter Beeter, almost a decade ago – and it’s still going strong.
So, if you’re in the “love camping, hate tents” camp (bad-dum-ssh), I HIGHLY encourage you to join us in the hammock fan club. Give it a try!
That said, while I’ll argue with anyone that hammock camping is INFINITELY more comfortable and enjoyable than tent camping, there are a few notable downsides to hammock camping:
- You need more pieces of gear to build your sleep system.
- Hammock camping gear is often difficult to find and more pricey than tent camping gear – and it’s much harder to get away with using cheap gear.
- You’ll need 2 trees to set up your sleep system – or you’ll need to pack your own hammock stand
- Hammocks typically only fit 1 person (although there are double hammocks), making them better for solo or couple’s camping rather than families or bigger groups.
- There are weight limitations for hammocks & straps – generally speaking, they’re rated up to 300-400+ lbs. Above that, a tent may be a safer choice!
- There’s a bit of a shift adapting to sleeping in the open air rather than in the tent, and it can feel a little scary at first.
Cons aside, if you’d like to join us in the “being gentle rocked and swaddled comfortably to sleep” club, here’s what you’ll need.
Finding a comfortable hammock for camping isn’t as easy as sleeping in a backyard hammock. You’ll need to make sure that your hammock is made from durable material that is resistant to accidental puncturing and will help you retain warmth.
So unless you’re camping in a warm, tropical area, chances are that the 100% cotton hammock you bought in Colombia won’t cut it. That said: cotton hammocks are incredibly comfortable to sleep in when we’re in Colombia, and we definitely have one in our backyard.
Another consideration to keep in mind: bugs. Without any kind of netting, you may find yourself swatting away unwanted guests while you’re trying to sleep.
That’s why we recommend a hammock with a built-in bug net, like the Eno JungleNest Hammock or the Skeeter Beeter (cute, right?) The built-in mosquito net and ridgeline (so the net is held up above your head) provides that cozy feeling of safety and protection that I still kinda need when I’m sleeping outside. The built-in gear pocket is perfect for holding your headlamp, book, and phone close by. And it’s super freakin’ comfortable!
If you, like us, prefer to cuddle up and share a hammock, you’ll want to invest in a double hammock. We don’t recommend just squeezing uncomfortably into the same hammock and hoping for the best (which is what we did for years).
These days, we use the Eno Fuse Tandem Hammock System to hang next to each other from the same trees, so that still we’re close enough to hold hands like the disgustingly codependent married people we are.
- Note: The most comfortable way to lay in a hammock is diagonally, with your head on one side and your feet on another. Don’t ask me to explain the physics behind this; I truly don’t understand why – something about lying flat versus lying like a banana. Anyway, if you find yourself lying in your hammock and thinking “why isn’t this as comfortable as Lia and Jeremy said it would be,” chances are it’s because you’re not lying diagonally!
Although your hammock may come with straps and carabiners, you might still choose to upgrade to better straps – particularly if they’re a little on the short side and you tend to camp in giant trees like sequoias, like we do (that sounded like a flex but like, half of California is just covered in giant sequoias we can’t help it if California is the best state ever. OK, it was a flex).
When purchasing hammock straps, you’ll want to look for straps that are designed not to damage trees and are heavy enough to hold your weight.
We speak from painful experience on that last bit: as we mentioned, Jeremy and I have a habit of sharing a hammock. But both hammocks and hammock straps have weight limits, and our combined 500+ lbs straight-up broke our hammock straps on a camping trip in Lake Tahoe, sending us both tumbling onto the ground into a pile of jagged granite below.
Which was another big mistake on our part: never, ever hang your hammock above a pile of rocks, y’all. My thigh was bruised for a month.
So, if you do want to share your hammock, or you happen to be on the heavier side like us, double-check that your straps can handle it!
The Eno Atlas Hammock Suspension system ticks all our boxes: it’s easy to set up, tree-friendly, and it’s rated up to 400 lbs.
Tents do have one major advantage over hammocks, and that’s their ability to stay weather-proof and keep you dry all night long, even in crappy weather. Er, unless it floods or the ground is super wet, in which case you’re kinda still screwed.
Luckily, there’s a solution: any good hammock sleep system needs to include a rain fly. It hangs up over your hammock and directs water away from your campsite, keeping you – and your stuff – cozy and dry. We’ve used this Hennessy RainFly for years!
We prefer to wake up to a tree-top view instead of a view of an ugly brown rain fly. But even in nice weather, we’ve learned to halfway set up our rain fly so that it’s an easy, quick fix if it does start raining.
We’ve also learned – from our own stupid mistakes, of course – to fully set up your rain fly if you’ll be away from your campsite for the day. Because a rain fly does absolutely nothing if you return from a nice long day-hike to a soggy pillow and wet blanket, like we did on our very first hammock camping trip in Lassen National Park. (Luckily, by some miracle, there were laundry facilities onsite, so we were able to sheepishly toss our entire sleep system into the dryer. But that’s like … incredibly rare).
Underquilt & Topquilt
Unlike tent camping, hammock campers generally don’t sleep in sleeping bags. The primary reason for this is temperature.
You see, even if you have an ultra-warm packable down sleeping bag, sleeping on down compresses it, which makes it less effective and less warm – so you’ll end up with a cold butt swaying in the frigid breeze.
Instead, hammock campers use an underquilt which attaches outside of your hammock. The down stays fully insulating and protects your bum from midnight breezes.
On the flip side, when it’s hot out, you’ll get better airflow by not having anything underneath you but your hammock. In hot weather, that bum breeze can help keep you cool!
To decide which underquilt you should get – or if you need one at all – think about how cold it will get in the middle of the night when you’re camping:
- If you’re camping somewhere tropical where it’s comfortably warm at night, you probably don’t need an underquilt.
- If you’re the weather is unlikely to fall below 40 degrees at night, you’ll be perfectly comfortable with a synthetic underquilt, like this one.
- If you’re a multi-season camper or frequently go camping in places where it can get very cold at night, like us, we recommend a responsibly sourced down underquilt – we use one of these. It’s much pricier, but the comfort is well worth the expense!
Whether you’re camping in either hot or cold weather, you’ll also need a top-quilt. A top-quilt is pretty much just a fancy word for a blanket, and honestly, any blanket will work (or even just a sheet, in very warm or tropical weather).
In California, where it is always cold at night, we use a warm, packable down top quilt that has a nice little pocket for our feet, so that they never slip out from underneath our blanket and we stay toasty warm all night long.
- What about pillows? You might notice that we didn’t include anything about needing a pillow for either tent or hammock camping. That’s because we typically use our clothes stuffed into a packing cube or stuff sack as a pillow! It’s perfectly comfortable in our hammocks and helps keep our clothing warm, so that we don’t have to put on freezing cold clothes in the morning.
Food & Water (Camp Kitchen)
Your camp kitchen is probably the second most important part of your campsite after your sleep system. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from college psychology 101? Let’s put it this way: if you’re tired or hungry, you’re gonna have a sh*tty camping experience.
Unlike your sleep system, you won’t need to bring absolutely everything you need to eat – most car camping-friendly campsites are equipped with a firepit and a grate to cook on top of, as well as a picnic table for food prep and eating. Most campsites in bear country also include a bear box (and you may also need to bring along a bear canister).
But other than a heat source and a surface, you’ll be responsible for everything else you need to feed yourself! We always plan our menu out in advance to make sure that we bring not only the actual ingredients we need, but also the tools we’ll need for food prep and cooking.
We tend to get fancy with our camp meals, but there’s a reason why s’mores and hot dogs are a camping staple: they require almost no food prep and you can use sticks to cook them! We’ve included a basic setup that will expand your camping meals beyond the realm of basic meals, but for your first few camping trips, there is absolutely no shame in keeping things as simple as possible.
- Cast Iron Skillet: Not every frying pan can handle cooking on an open fire: if there’s plastic, leave it at home. A good rule of thumb is if you can’t finish it in the oven at home, you shouldn’t take it camping. Cast iron is the ideal material for a frying pan because it can quite literally take the heat. It also helps evenly distribute heat, which is important for cooking over open flames since your heat source is spread out.
- Dutch Oven: This might seem superfluous (and for some people it is) but depending on what you want to cook, a dutch oven might be necessary. These handy kitchen tools can be buried in the coals or flames to create…you guessed it, an oven. Anything that needs high, even heat for an extended period of time (i.e. baked goods, big pieces of meat, etc) will have to be done in the dutch oven. This cast iron cooking set puts the skillet and oven together for the perfect camping kitchen!
- Cutting Board: There was once a time when we chopped veggies on the lid of our gearbox. Don’t be like us. You can find cutting boards as large as platters or as small as postcards, and in a variety of materials. My recommendation is either wood (ideal for most cutting) or sturdy plastic (best for meat for safety/bacteria reasons). If you’re extra about your camping food (like we are), this wood knife & cutting board combo is perfect. Or, this folding plastic cutting board takes up very little space.
- Knife for Food Prep: Listen: I know you look cool opening your pocket knife to chop your food, and that works well for cheese and salami on a day hike, but for actual food prep a pocket knife won’t cut it (ha!) – plus, you’re dulling your knife at an alarming rate and contaminating your food. Instead, in a quality chef’s knife. Not a paring knife, not a steak knife, not a Swiss Army Knife. Your kitchen will thank us later. (Note: keep the blade guard on during transit to preserve sharpness and avoid a bloody accident.)
- Tongs and Spatula: It’s hard to cook anything without at least one of these. If you have to go with just one, make sure it’s the spatula. You can find wood, metal or plastic cooking tools – just make sure it’s sturdy.
- Aluminum Foil: An infinitely useful tool for a camping kitchen. Use it to wrap up leftovers, cover a pot, fashion makeshift utensils, or create a fun hat. Is there anything aluminum foil can’t do?
- Container for leftovers: The downside to just wrapping leftovers is that it’s left more open to air and critters. Bring some solid containers. Jars and glass tupperware with clasps are our go-tos.
- Lighter: Let’s be honest, lighters get a lot of use when you go camping. From lighting campfires to smoking perfectly legal substances, a lighter has a lot of very important roles on any successful camping trip. Any lighter will do, but I prefer a long reach style so I can navigate the firestarter easier, and I prefer a rechargeable lighter because it’s more environmentally friendly! A set of waterproof matches are also nice to have as a backup.
- Scissors: Forget a pair and you’ll regret it (probably while trying to open some food when you’re incredibly hungry). A pair of scissors lives permanently in our camping box.
- Trash Bag: Leave. No. Trace! You’ll need to bag up pretty much everything. Food scraps are the only thing that should go in the firepit, and even that should only happen if the fire is actively raging. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve entered camp to find beer cans and cigarettes littering a fire pit. Leaving trash is not only harmful to wildlife and the environment, but it can attract unwelcome visitors to your campsite as well. Like bears. And raccoons. So just bag it all up!
- Biodegradable Soap: Ordinary soap is harmful for the environment, so it’s important to use only biodegradable soap in designated areas within your campsite, like at a water spigot or in a bathroom or anywhere with a drain. We recommend Dr. Bronner’s soap because it’s the definition of utility. Don’t believe us? Just read the label and see all of the things they recommend using it for. We’ve used Dr. Bronners for years for everything from hand soap to dish soap to laundry detergent!
- Mug or Thermos: Drinking a cup of piping hot coffee while watching the sunrise is a quintessential camping experience – which you cannot do without a mug or thermos to put piping hot coffee in. We love this titanium mug because it can heat directly right on the fire (on top of a grate) which means you don’t need to pack a kettle.
- Mess Kit (Bowls/Plates): Sure, paper or compostable plates seem like a decent option, but reusable plates and bowls are even more eco-friendly and will save waste for years to come!
- Utensils: Same as above! Reusable is always more environmentally friendly. Find some sturdy camp utensils, or just bring some from your house.
- Emergency Water Filtration: Clean water is something a lot of people take for granted. But chances are you will very frequently be without clean water in the wilderness. Even if you’re car camping at a managed campsite with a potable water pump, I recommend having a backup on hand just in case. Tossing something like a Steri-pen, Lifestraw bottle, or purification tablets in your camping box will mean any faucet or body of water is yours for the drinking. (We bring our Steri-pen and Lifestraw bottle with us on most international trips, too.)
- Water Bottle/Container: There’s nothing more irritating than having to hike to the water spigot every time you need water. Even with a backup water purification system, you can’t exactly suck water out of a filter and then spit it into a kettle, right? We bring a clean, empty milk jug for water that can be used for everything from drinking to cleaning.
- Water Bottles or Hydration Daypack: You can never have too much water when you’re outdoors. I find a Camelbak with a large bladder is comfortable to carry – and makes us worry less.
- Washcloths or Rags: You’ll want to bring cleaning cloths for a variety of scenarios: basic cleaning, to use as oven mitts, to use as napkins, to use as pot scrubbers, and so on. We recommend reusable washcloths or rags made from old towels or clothing over paper towels because not only are they far more environmentally friendly, they’re also more effective! We’ve been using a drawer of rags instead of paper towels for both camping and at home for years now and we’ve never looked back.
- Spices and Condiments: Nothing ruins a good meal without seasoning or condiments – even a meal as basic as hot dogs. Create a basic meal plan before leaving and take all the spices and toppings you’re going to need. Alternatively, you can take the ones you use the most of. Our camping box has its own little supply of salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, cumin, and red pepper flakes.
- Cooking Oil: I don’t like to bring a whole bottle of olive oil, so I transfer some into a reasonable sized jar and I’m careful to ration.
- Food: This is pretty obvious right? But keep in mind how many calories you’ll need if you’re doing things like swimming or hiking. You also want plenty of protein and fat to keep you full! Some of our favorite camp breakfasts are shakshuka with feta; avocado toast with bacon and eggs; biscuits and gravy; or just a classic hash topped with an egg. Don’t underestimate snacks either! Chips are fun, but we also recommend bringing peanut butter pretzels, cheese sticks, fruit, or veggies and hummus. And, of course, bring plenty of fun snacks – because what is outdoor activity if not the best excuse to eat junk food?!
- Ice Chest/Cooler: You’ll need a way to keep perishable food cold, from meat to cheese to beer. Our RTIC cooler is a beast. It fits several days worth of food and keeps it perfectly cold for as long as we need! It’s our go-to cooler for camping.
- Ice or Reusable Alternatives: Ice is handy both to keep food cold and throw in a beverage, but it also gets everything wet and tends to get gross after a day or two. So, we like to throw in reusable ice packs or frozen water bottles instead, because things stay dry (and there’s less plastic waste!).
- Skewers: A camping trip is not complete without s’mores. Those are just like, the rules. But find some nice reusable skewers. Don’t be like us a few years ago and burn your hand using chopsticks or swallow bits of wood and dirt by opting for scavenged twigs. And while we’re giving you helpful tips: our favorite s’mores recipe is the S’Moreese: just use a Reese’s peanut butter cup instead of a plain chocolate bar. Trust us.
- Firestarter: Starting a fire is an art and a science. Seriously, there is a lot of work that goes into building a decent fire, including things like proper log stacking and such. You can make your life easier by packing some fire starter! You can buy firestarter bricks to get it going, or you can do what we do and collect dryer lint at home. Lint burns hot and gets your kindling lit in seconds. (Note: don’t feel bad if you struggle creating your fire on your first few trips – it took us a few years!)
- Firewood: Listen, this is really important: NEVER use firewood that wasn’t purchased near your campground! Here’s why – in short, doing so risks unintentionally causing devastating ecosystem damage. Purchasing firewood should be the last thing you do before pulling into your site. Some camp hosts even sell it themselves.
- Instant Coffee: We are grade-A coffee snobs. To the point where we used to be super extra and bring a hand grinder and a pour-over system. We even once brought a French Press on a camping trip (it ended up smashed against a tree). But we’re here to tell you: all of that is doing too much! Instead, bring a really good quality instant coffee. Our lives changed when we discovered Alpine Start – it’s coffee snob-levels of good, but you literally just mix it with hot or cold water! Since we literally can’t function without coffee, we bring a packet or container of Alpine Start with us on every trip – camping or otherwise.
Safety & First Aid
After sleeping and eating, basic safety and first aid should be your next priority! Since you’ll be car camping rather than wilderness camping, there’s a decent chance that you’ll probably never use most of the things on this list.
But they should have a permanent place in your camping box so that when you do need them – because a dangerous or dire situation can arise when you least expect it – you’re not caught empty-handed.
- Backup fire system: Sure, you packed a lighter. But what if it doesn’t work? What if the fluid runs out, or you lose it? Honestly, I can’t think of a more stress-inducing situation than being in the wilderness without having the ability to make fire. Luckily, there are plenty of options for backup systems so you don’t have to go all Tom Hanks with some driftwood. We always have a container of stormproof matches in our camping box, as well as a flint-strike lighter. All you need to do is to find kindling, tinder, and fuel.
- Compass: Wilderness rule of thumb: always, always, always bring a compass with you, even if you aren’t going into the backcountry. And no, you can’t just use your phone GPS. While technology has made our lives easier, the compass on our phones is unreliable. Get rid of “I think North is that way” and “What side does moss grow on again?” and just pack a lightweight compass. Hopefully, you’ll never need to use it.
- Bear Spray: Bears are one of my favorite animals; they’re also my biggest fear. The thing is, bear encounters do happen – and you need to be prepared. Read up on bear safety, know the bear species in the area you’re camping in so you know the best way to get rid of them. And just to be safe, you need to pack some bear spray. If things get bad, this spray is a last-ditch effort to GTFO.
- Paracord: You never know when you might need some rope! Chances are, you’ll never need to use it. But it’s an all-around great thing to have on hand. We keep some in our camping box just-in-case.
- Duct Tape: Much like rope, the utility of duct tape is handy enough to justify having a permanent place in our camping box. We recommend keeping a small roll – or wrapping some around a water bottle – so you don’t have to lug around the big one.
- Patch Repair Kit: Things rip in the wilderness, but it’s important to be prepared! The last thing you want is to discover a hole in your tent when it’s raining or windy. If you’re handy with duct tape, you just might be able to get away with using that – otherwise, bring some repair tape.
- First Aid Kit: “I have band-aids, I’m good” is not smart camping! You also need bandages, wraps, meds, ointment, forceps, alcohol, and a bunch more stuff. So much can happen in the wilderness – far away from the closest doctor or hospital – and you need to be prepared.
- Whistle: Cue Too Short. Not all whistles will do. You need to make sure it’s loud so it can be heard over wind, water, and vehicles.
Now that we’ve got the most basic and fundamental essentials out of the way, we can get to the fun stuff: how to make your campsite feel like a home-away-from-home!
There’s a magical thing that happens over the years, as you grow and add to your camping gear. You’ll find yourself developing a familiarity and connection with your beloved campsite gear so that eventually, no matter where you set up, any campsite will feel like home.
We’ve included campsite essentials for your very first trip, plus a few luxurious add-ons.
- Camp Chairs: While most car campsites will include a picnic table, most won’t include chairs – so you’ll need to bring one for each camper! These will be the heart of your campsite, where you sit around the fire, roast s’mores, laugh and talk and read and journal. We forgot our camp chairs on our most recent camping trip and spent an incredibly uncomfortable hour sitting around the fire on stumps feeling sorry for ourselves before finally giving up and heading to bed – we’ll never forget them again! We recommend a comfy chair with a built-in cupholder, or if you’re extra fancy, a camping loveseat!
- Headlamps: Whether you’re preparing food in the dark or just heading to the bathroom, a headlamp is the best hands-free option. That said, a flashlight will work just fine in a pinch – so long as you don’t need both hands, that is.
- Lantern (Optional): Consider a lantern an “optional but STRONGLY recommended” camping essential. Sure, you don’t NEED a lantern if everyone at your campsite has their own headlamp, but if you ever want to be able to see outside of where your face happens to be pointing, you’ll want to put a lantern up in your campsite. We’re partial to solar-powered lanterns, so you never have to worry about changing batteries or USB charging. There are several options, from a basic light to fancy shmancy ones that charge your phone or include a built-in speaker (another campsite luxury!).
- String of Lights (Optional): If you really want to take your campsite to the next level and join the ranks of all the campers we’ve envied over the years, bring a string of solar powered camping lights. Your campsite will instantly be transformed into a sparkling, Pinterest-worthy outdoor wonderland – and you’ll save yourself the hassle of stumbling around in the dark wearing a headlamp.
- Portable Battery: If you have a solar lantern that doubles as a phone charger, you’re good. Otherwise, bring along an external battery. We swear by these at home and on all of our travels.
- Clothesline: If you’ll be doing any water activities or bathing, a clothesline is a must-have for your campsite. This teeny tiny, lightweight little clothesline with built-in clothespins has traveled with us on every single trip we’ve ever taken, camping or otherwise. Just hang your wet gear up in the sun and it’ll dry in no time!
- Activities: Camping is all about disconnecting and relaxing, but that doesn’t mean you’ll want to do nothing! We recommend packing a deck of cards, a journal, and a good book or Kindle. Need more ideas? Cabin Critic has a great list of suggestions for fun camping games to play with a group!
- Optional: Waste Disposal System (trowel, hand wash, toilet paper): If you’ll be going to a campsite with safe, clean, well-managed bathroom facilities (like most car camping sites), you may not need to bring this. But if you’re not, or just to be safe, it’s a good idea to bring a little bathroom kit and study up on how to properly “cathole” your waste. Just sure to double-check that you’re allowed to cat-hole, because many parks will require you to pack out your waste as part of their leave-no-trace rules. If that’s the case, pack some compostable waste bags (like the ones you use for dogs) and an empty Pringles can.
Campsite Toiletries & Hygiene
We’re gonna be honest with you: toiletries are probably the smallest portion of what we bring on a camping trip. We fully expect to be dirty and smell like a campfire all weekend long. Feel free to judge us!
With that said, what we do bring is crucially important – and eco-friendly. Here’s what should be in your camping toiletry kit:
- Insect Repellant: Bugs can ruin an otherwise perfectly serene camping trip. But they’re not just a nuisance: if bug bites go unchecked, other things can happen that are far worse than itchy ankles! We swear by this insect-repelling lotion. While most insect repellents give you an unpleasant oily feeling you get after applying them, an icky hacking cough you develop after spraying them, and that skin-burning feeling you get after applying 100000% chemicals to your skin, this lightweight lotion absorbs crazy fast with no oily residue, lasts all day, is perfect for sensitive skin, and even has a pleasant scent.
- Mineral Sunscreen: The personal health reasons for sunscreen are obvious, but make sure you bring mineral sunscreen for the Earth’s health. “Leave no trace” includes leaving your chemical laden household sunscreen at home.
- Lip Balm with SPF: Wind, cold, sun, strenuous activity, not enough water, and elevation all lead to your lips needing some extra attention. Keep this handy and apply often.
- Baby Wipes: Maybe you’ll need these to brush the dirt of your skin. Or maybe you have a dog that likes to step in her own you-know-what. Whatever your reason, it’s smart to carry a little baggy of these guys! Just pack them out with you.
- Biodegradable Toothpaste: Flavored everyday toothpaste can seep into groundwater, as well as attract bears and wildlife to your camp. We use dry toothpaste tabs in order to keep our fresh breath.
- Toothbrushes: Even toothpaste tabs need a brush. Have one set aside just for camping so you never forget it.
- Shower Stuff: Listen, I’m gonna be honest with you: we rarely shower on camping trips. But if you’re less comfortable with being grimy than we are, we recommend repackaging your ordinary products in smaller containers before your trip. If your campsite doesn’t have a designated shower with a built-in-drain, you’ll need to use biodegradable soap and a bucket. And no – you absolutely cannot bathe with any kind of soap in a body of water!
- Camp Towel: Towels can get bulky and take ages to dry. So we opt for a lightweight microfiber travel towel, since they dry quickly and pack down small.
- Hand Sanitizer: Even before the year of obsessive hand-washing, hand sanitizer was a camping essential. Camping is dirtier than you realize, and a small bottle of sanitizer can be just what you need to stay clean.
- Disinfecting Wipes (for Shared Bathroom): A “year of the apocalypse” special addition to our camping box. Just be sure to bag up your trash and properly dispose of it.
- Face Mask: At least while we’re in a pandemic, DO NOT FORGET A MASK! While your ordinary cloth mask from home will do just fine, there are masks made especially for outdoor activities, like this one.
- Hand Soap: Soap usually isn’t included at most campsite bathrooms, so you’ll want to bring your own bar or bottle of biodegradable soap. Guess what we recommend … *ahem* Have I mention Dr. Bronner’s soap yet? We use it for EVERYTHING, y’all.
Clothing for Camping
Before you pack up and head out on an adventure, we want to make sure you’re properly outfitted. Because as dads and outdoor enthusiasts everywhere like to say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
With that in mind, we’ve got a few tried & tested recommendations for the best clothing for outdoor adventure – that also double as our favorite travel gear!
Here’s what you’ll want to pack to wear on your camping trip:
- Sandals: I grew up on the beach, so my idea of sandals was always flip-flops. And to that end, I thought “Why would anyone pack sandals for camping? You’re supposed to wear those when you stumble into the taqueria after surfing all day.” How wrong I was. A pair of good sandals (and socks, since wearing socks with sandals is finally cool!) can take you from a hike to the beach to the shower to the campfire, and everything in between! We always opt for durable, sustainable sandals made by Teva. The Universal Trail sandal is lightweight, super comfortable, and tough enough to handle hiking, swimming, climbing, and everything else we’ve thrown at them over the years – plus, they’re made from recycled plastic bottles for extra eco-friendliness. We wear them so much that each summer we have a telling white strip across our feet: a Teva Tan, which we consider a badge of honor and a mark of a summer well spent!
- Socks: Socks are way more important in the wilderness than you’d think. They can protect against poison oak, poison ivy, bug bites, cold, sun, and bear attacks. Okay maybe not the last one. My absolute favorite sock brand is Darn Tough. They’re sturdy, merino wool, and come with a lifetime guarantee. Seriously, if they tear just send them to the company and get new socks. And yes: we pair these with our Teva sandals for the most stylin’, cozy campwear ever.
- Clothing for Camp: We tend to wear clothing around the campsite that’s always slightly more comfy than tactical. You’ll want to be covered from sun and bugs, but warmth can be supplemented by sitting around the fire. You also aren’t moving around much, so you can get away with bulkier items, like your favorite cozy hoodie and lounge pants (these are my favorites). Something to keep in mind is bug bites: if you’re camping in a buggy area, spray all of your clothing (and sleeping gear) with permethrin before your trip!
- Clothing for Outdoor Activities: This is where you need to have a little more planning. What outdoor activities are you doing? Hiking? Kayaking? Rock climbing? Taking a “shortcut” with your wagon train and getting snowed in so your only choice for survival is to turn to cannibalism (ahem)? You’re going to need to dress properly. We recommend clothes that can do at all! Our favorite hiking pants for both men & women are both made by prAna, and we swear by merino wool t-shirts. Oh, and don’t forget a long-sleeved lightweight sun shirt!
- Pajamas: When camping, PJs are more than just your cozy sleepwear. Your pajamas may actually be the thing that separates you from a good night’s sleep and freezing all night. When it’s cold, we like to layer up with Darn Tough socks, Merino wool sweatpants, and either a hoodie or packable down jacket. If you have a fluffy dog, that helps too.
- Outer Layers: Weather in the wilderness, particularly in the mountains, fluctuates like crazy. You need lightweight clothes that can be swapped on and off at a moment’s notice. For this, you can’t get much better than a down vest or down jacket. I always bring a cozy fleece jacket too.
- Rain Layers: Temperature isn’t the only thing that can change in an instant. Come prepared with a waterproof layer! We keep a packable raincoat and pair of rain pants in our camping gear box.
- Waterproof Socks: There’s little use shielding yourself from rain if your feet get soaked. In fact, that could actually be what gets you sick! With that in mind, these waterproof socks are our go to choice. I love them so much I wear them snowboarding too.
- Hat: Depending on sun exposure, you might be able to get away with a baseball cap; however, if you’re going to be out in full sun you should think about getting an actual sun hat. They’re not fashionable, but they’re handy. We also recommend packing a beanie if you’re in the mountains to keep your head warm overnight.
- Bandana or Buff: This seems like a simple piece of fabric, but it can save you from sun exposure and it can double as a rag or facemask.
- Bathing Suit: Don’t be the one who has to go swimming wearing your regular clothes or your underwear. We’ve been there, and trust us, it makes everyone else feel weird. Just bring a bathing suit! (Psst: we’ve got a whole guide to the best swimsuits for curvy women.)
- Underwear: Underwear is underwear right? Wrong. When we go camping, we always opt for merino wool underwear. It’s warm, breathable, antifungal, antimicrobial, and antibacterial. Honestly, why isn’t all underwear merino wool? Here’s our favorite pair of undies for women and for men.
- Sunglasses: When you’re camping, sunglasses offer you more than a chance to punctuate a killer one-liner. No matter the weather, have a pair handy! Did you know snow blindness is a thing? No? Just ask Franklin Graves about it. Oh wait, you can’t, because he went snow blind in the winter of 1847, and couldn’t escape with the Forlorn Hope so his party had to EAT HIM! If you can’t tell, we’re a little bit obsessed with this story… listen to this podcast episode to find out why!
- Dry Bag: Having a dry bag handy will definitely pay off after a day in the water. You don’t want your other stuff to get wet! Our favorite has a mesh pocket for wet gear, straps to wear like. a backpack, and comes with a waterproof cell phone pouch.
Printable Camping Checklist
We want to make sure you don’t forget anything you need for a fun, safe camping trip. So we’ve created a printable version of our Camping Essentials packing list! Just drop your email in the box below and we’ll send it straight to your inbox, along with a few insider tips to help you plan more outdoor adventures.
Are you ready to fall asleep under the stars and wake up at dawn to drink coffee while watching the sun rise? What’s your favorite camping memory? Did we skip one of your favorite camping essentials? Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Looking for more outdoor adventures this summer? Take a look at some of our other posts:
- The Best Camping in Big Sur, California
- The 8 Best Places to Camp in Colorado
- The Best Hikes in Northern California and also Southern California
We have also have several USA National Parks travel guides! Browse them all or take a look at these:
- The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park
- Day Hikes in Zion National Park
- Glacier National Park Itinerary
- Things to Do in Smoky Mountain National Park
Disclaimer: This post was originally created in partnership with Teva & REI, two of our favorite companies that we’ve used for years and years. Although partnering with them is a dream come true for us, all opinions, suggestions, tips, disasters, and references to cannibalism are 100% our own and absolutely not their fault. We were also loaned a car by Mazda to use on our most recent camping trip, which we did not total, thank goodness.