Camping doesn’t need to mean sleeping uncomfortably and dining plainly. Having the right camping equipment can make even the most camping averse person enjoy the great outdoors. Many travelers find that they actually enjoy camping if they are prepared and have all the necessary gear – plus tossing in a few luxury camping items can’t hurt (despite what some campers say, camping doesn’t have to mean roughing it).
Camping gear has evolved incredibly through the years, but the essentials remain the same. From having a comfortable place to lay your head to having all the basics for exploring from base camp – here are the top 10 camping items you need to keep safe and comfortable during your next camping trip.
Unless your definition of camping is hopping in the RV, complete with a plasma screen TV and full bath, you’re going to need a tent. There are plenty of things to think about when choosing a tent. For starters, decide whether or not you want a tent that can be used for backpacking. If not, the weight of the tent doesn’t really matter. Second, decide how much room you need. Tents are sized by their per-person capacity so a 4-person tent will fit four people snugly. If you want a spacious tent, consider going up a person (or two) size.
Also, consider the type of climate you will be camping in. All tents do not protect from the elements equally. If you will be camping in a lot of rain, choose a tent with plenty of ventilation and rain coverage. Need protection from the wind? Choose a tent with excellent stability and extra guylines.
Tents can range from as little as $50 to well over $500. Sure you can pick up a pretty roomy tent for cheap at Wal-Mart, but these tents will weigh a ton, won’t last very long, and will not protect you as well from the elements. If you only plan on camping once a year, are trying camping out for your first time, or only planning on driving to a campground while camping right next to your car, then a Wal-Mart cheap-o will work just fine for you.
We recommend the Ledge Scorpion tent as a first backpacking tent, plus it doesn’t have as steep of price tag as other lightweight backpacking tents. My current dream tent is the Big Anges Fly Creek – it only weighs 2lbs. 2oz. For small families, the Kelty Trail Ridge is a pretty affordable 4-person tent with excellent performance in rainy and windy conditions.
When it comes to choosing a sleeping bag for camping, it is easy to get overwhelmed with all the choices like synthetic vs. down, zero degree vs. warm weather, or ultralight. Really there are only 3 things you need to consider: temperature, insulation, and weight.
Every sleeping bag made comes with a temperature rating that identifies the coldest temperature that the bag will keep the average sleeper comfortable to. So a zero degree bag will keep the average person comfortable down to zero degrees. To select a bag, simply estimate the coldest temps you expect to sleep in and then subtract 10 degrees. If you tend to be cold sleeping you will probably be happy choosing an even warmer bag.
As far as insulation goes, there are two types: down and synthetic. I personally swear by down since they are lighter, more compressible, and just more comfy when compared to synthetics. Down bags do come with a steeper price tag and don’t perform as well as synthetics in wet and humid conditions.
Weight may or may not be a factor for you. If you plan on mostly car camping, then the weight of the bag doesn’t really matter. If you will be backpacking long distances with your bag, choose a sleeping bag in the 2-3 pound range.
Sleeping bags can run anywhere from $100 to well over $400. You can pick up a bag at a department store for as little as $30, but these bags will not last as long or keep you as warm as higher end bags. The Marmot Trestles is a great bag at only $129 and will keep sleepers cozy down to zero degrees. The Marmot Helium is one of the best lightweight 15-degree bags on the market, but it does come with a high price tag of $398.
Sleeping pads not only cushion you from the hard ground but they also provide insulation. There are many different types of sleeping pads from self-inflating pads and manually inflating air pads to foam pads and air mattresses. In selecting a sleeping pad, it really only comes down to the level of comfort you want and the amount you want to pay. If you will be car camping, by all means go comfy with an air mattress since they are the closest you can get to a real bed. Air pads are the latest rage in sleeping pads, but they come with a hefty price tag. Self-inflating pads and foam pads are great for backpacking with foam pads being the cheapest option.
If you plan on lugging your sleeping pad on an airplane, you will definitely want to choose either a self-inflating pad or an air pad. The Exped DownMat is the cadillac of all sleeping pads with its down filled interior.
You will need a quality daypack for forays beyond camp. The latest hiking backpacks are designed for comfort and packed with so many features that you almost can’t choose a bad pack. Daypacks typically hold from 15-35 liters worth of gear and are great for day trips and short jaunts. My only advice is to find a bag that is comfortable and filled with the features that you prefer.
The Osprey Talon 22 fits a hydration bladder and a day’s worth of gear plus zippered pockets on the hipbelt give you easy access to a camera, snacks, or whatever you can cram in the pocket. The REI Flash 18 is a lightweight pack that also doubles as a stuff sack. The pack is hydration system compatible and has plenty of loops and chains to secure gear to the outside of your pack.
There is nothing better than rolling out of the tent to fresh coffee and pancakes so you are going to need a good camp stove if your fire building skills aren’t phenomenal.
As far as camp stoves go, you have a choice between a single-burner backpacking stove and a two-burner stove. Two-burner stoves are great for cooking up some gourmet camp meals, whereas single-burner backpacking stoves are ideal for meals that don’t require much more than boiled water. The Coleman Propane Stove is a classic and great for family campouts. The MSR WhisperLite is a good option if you are thinking about doing some backpacking trips as well.
As far as taking a camp stove on an airplane, TSA guidelines actually permit stoves but they need to be flushed of all residual fuel. Unfortunately airlines are able to make their own rules, which I found out recently when I got my MSR Whisperlite confiscated by Hawaiian Air, some airlines just don’t permit it. I recommend checking with your airline and have a backup plan in case your stove doesn’t happen to make it to your final destination.
Backcountry cooking kit
I absolutely love camping kitchen gear – there are just so many cute and handy inventions. The GSI Deluxe Kitchen Set has it all from a tiny cutting board and cheese grater to a whisk and spice shakers. The GSI Bugaboo Camper Cooksets are a great intro set to camp cooking. The sets include a variety of pots, skillets, plates, bowls, and cups that all fit together in a compact set.
I always seem to get something taken from airport security usually because I fail to unpack my bag fully before packing it again for the next trip. A few years ago I had a utensil kit at the bottom of my bag with a plastic knife in it, which freaked out TSA. So if you will be carrying on all your camping gear I recommend leaving your knives at home even if they are just plastic.
You are probably going to want to find something more comfy than a log for a night around the campfire. The Kelty Loveseat is wide enough to sit two comfortably plus it is complete with cup holders for each person. For those wanting their own space, REI’s new Mesh Camp Chair is awesome. It is quick drying, super rugged, and the cup holder is big enough for a coffee cup.
I am personally obsessed with backpacking hammocks. They are incredibly light, comfy, and easy to set up as long as you aren’t headed to any treeless desert environment. The Hammock Bliss Travel Hammock is a fabulous place for an afternoon siesta and can quite honestly keep your kids entertained for hours.
For after sunset tent pitching and midnight bathroom runs, you are definitely going to need an LED headlamp. Headlamps have come a long way from their cave mining roots and are now super light, comfy, and crazy bright.
Compact digital camera
You will absolutely want to capture those special camp moments with a compact digital camera. But you will need a camera that can withstand freak downpours, sand storms, and accidental drops off cliffs – all those pleasant things that come with the great outdoors.
Waterproof digital cameras are designed with the outdoor adventure traveler in mind. In particular the Olympus Stylus Tough 8010 is the ultimate waterproof, shockproof, and crushproof camera. The waterproof camera can withstand 220 pounds of pressure and falls from 6.6-feet high not to mention that it takes photos as deep as 33-feet underwater.
First aid kit
I would highly recommend investing in a quality first aid kit like the Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Day Tripper for the occasional blister, bug bite, or laceration. The Day Tripper includes all the essentials like Moleskin patches, antibiotic ointment, antihistamine tablets, and plenty of bandages.
Authorities in hiking and backcountry travel have come up with the Ten Essentials list, a list of ten items that should always be carried during outdoor travel. In addition to a first aid kit, experts recommend always carrying a map and compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, extra food and weather, a headlamp, fire starter and matches, and a knife.
Wow, this list makes camping look gear intensive – good thing there are plenty of ways to find great deals on outdoor travel gear.
For tips on camping, check out:
- How to Travel Very Lightly
- Why Travelers Should Never Leave Home Without Duct Tape
- Why We Camp: An Ode to the Joy and Sorrow of the Great Outdoors
- The First-Timer’s Guide to Planning a National Parks Vacation
- Camping in Europe