With Memorial Day just around the corner, we are rapidly approaching the unofficial start of summer and, with it, the start of camping season. Of course, many people go camping all year long and either live in perpetually warm climates or simply don’t mind bundling up and enduring the cold. The vast majority of campers, however, eagerly await the arrival of Summer so that we can pack up our cars, hit up our favorite campsites and enjoy as many weekends as possible in the great outdoors.
Several of us Gadlingers are psyched about the arrival of camping season (while others who shall remain nameless prefer to stay only in luxury hotels and bathe regularly), so I polled the team on what gear is most essential when heading out on a camping trip. Our list is primarily geared towards car camping, which allows for more (and heavier) gear. But even backpackers will want to grab some of the equipment listed below before heading out on their treks.
We touched on some camping basics in an episode of Travel Talk, but now we’re going to help you pack everything you need before you leave the city (or suburbs) behind.A roof above your head
When you think about camping, what’s the first image that pops into your mind? If you said, “Getting killed by Michael Myers,” then you’ve watched too many horror movies. Most likely, visions of tents pop into your head. While some people choose RVs or campers, most people hunker down for the night in a tent. There are countless tent manufacturers and styles from which to choose.
If you only plan to camp in pristine conditions and perhaps only once or twice a year, you can probably get away with a cheaper, less durable tent. However, investing in a good tent ensures that you will have it for years to come. Meaning that it will have a chance to eventually pay for itself in the enjoyment that it provides over time.
For your large tent needs, the Big Agnes Big House 6 is phenomenal. With 90 square feet of space, you won’t be piled on top of your friends and it’s good for gathering the whole group together for a game of UNO if it rains. Add the optional vestibule and you’ll have a total of 154 square feet of space, meaning you can keep all of your gear close by and covered. For more information, read the full Gadling review of the Big Agnes Big House 6.
For two person trips, the Mountain Hardwear Raven 2 has plenty of room and is fantastically lightweight (only five pounds). Meaning that it’s also a terrific option for trekking. With two doors, two dry-entry vestibules and a color-coded pole system, the Raven 2 is easy-to-use and sacrifices nothing with its light weight.
Both of the tents recommended above come with a rain fly included. Rain flies are essential for keeping you and your gear dry in inclement weather. We also recommend purchasing a footprint for your tent to provide an additional layer of material between you and the ground.
Sleep like a mummy
Once it’s time for bed, you’ll want to curl up in something warm. A comfortable sleeping bag along with a quality pad will help you forget that you’re far away from your expensive Swedish sleep system. Sleeping bags are rated by the minimum temperature at which you would still be safe from the elements. If you are a casual camper planning on camping only in the spring and summer, there is no need to shell out the money for a 0° bag. You want comfort for the conditions in which you will be camping. Anything beyond that will leave your wallet emptier and you sweatier.
The EMS Solstice Switchback 25/45 is my personal sleeping bag of choice. It has thicker insulation on one side, meaning it can keep you warm should you elect to use it during the shoulder seasons or in the midst of an unexpected cold snap. The less insulated side is more than warm enough for your typical summer evenings in the woods.
If you plan to take your significant other into nature with you, you’ll enjoy The North Face’s Twin Peaks two-person sleeping bag. More than warm enough (it’s 20° rated), it allows for a little romance and coziness in the wild. If you’re joining a group on an excursion, an invitation to share your Twin Peaks may be the perfect way to escalate things with a new friend. The extra size does mean that it’s significantly heavier than other packs, but you won’t mind the weight once you get to the cuddling.
Under any sleeping bag, you will want to place a pad. The Big Agnes Air Core pad is durable, lightweight and doesn’t leave you winded after inflating it. If you prefer a pad that is self-inflating, the Big Agnes Hinman pad is incredibly comfortable. It even comes in a double-wide (50″) size which is perfect for pairing with The North Face Twin Peaks bag.
Let there be light
Your bladder doesn’t care what time it is. Come nightfall, that walk to the bathroom facility (or into the deeper woods) is going to be pitch black. Campfires provide some light, but they sit in one spot and burn out once you call it a day. Portable light sources keep you safe and also allow you to enjoy time in your tent before falling asleep.
Headlamps keep your hands free to cook dinner, do emergency repairs on your gear or simply unzip your pants. The Black Diamond Cosmo headlamp is perfect for the casual camper or the hardcore outdoorsman. It offers three brightness settings so that you don’t accidentally blind your tentmates.
If you prefer a good old-fashioned flashlight, the Gerber Option 60 may be the last flashlight you ever purchase. It’s water-resistant, bright, lightweight and can take AA, AAA or CR123 batteries. It can handle being dropped and is sturdy enough to use as a weapon should someone try to steal the last hot dog.
When it comes time to retire to your tent to study maps of hiking trails or simply talk with your companions, a lantern is the best lighting option. The Black Diamond Apollo lantern is small yet powerful enough to illuminate even the largest tents. It’s easy to pack and its collapsible loop makes hanging it from your tent a cinch.
Plenty of campers cook all of their meals on an open fire. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, though it does add an element of danger and diminishes the control you have on the cooking conditions. If you want to make some eggs for breakfast or brew some coffee without singeing your fingers, you’ll want to pack a camping stove.
A camping grill with one stove top will provide you with all of the flexibility that you’ll need when cooking outdoors. The Brunton Profile Duo can whip up a full breakfast, lunch and dinner even if you can’t get that campfire started. At only ten pounds, it’s easy to pack and can burn for an hour-and-a-half on a single gas tank. It provides a spacious grill and a sturdy burner to meet all of your cooking needs. Obviously, you’ll need to pack a propane or butane tank (or two) to power the grill.
As far as what cookware you’ll use on that grill, it all comes down to how persnickety you are with your pots and pans. I have never used a dedicated camping cookware set. I’ve always packed one pot and one pan from home. However, if you are going to be cooking on the fire, using a cookset with a removable handle will save you from having to worry about ruining your home cookware and scalding your hands.
When it’s time to eat, there may be no better camping utensil than then Light My Fire XM Spork. It’s heat resistant, doesn’t melt, won’t scratch your cookware, comes in an array of colors and it’s a spork that has a serrated knife edge on one its fork prongs! It works perfectly with Sea to Summit’s X Bowl and X Plate. Both are collapsible, which makes them easy to store and perfect for car camping or backpacking. They’re the right size for hearty meals by the fire, easily rinse clean and can take a pretty good beating.
Never go camping without a first aid kit. It’s that simple. The Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight/Watertight .9 has all the basics and then some should something go wrong on your trip. We cannot stress enough that a first aid kit is a must-have when camping.
Bug spray is another necessity. Ben’s Insect Repellents keep mosquitoes, ticks and other potentially disease-carrying bugs at bay. They do, however, contain DEET. If you’re not a fan, there are plenty of DEET-free alternatives out there. Like first aid kits, bug spray is a must-have. Whatever your brand or chemical preferences, be sure to pack some kind of repellent to be safe.
In that same vein, you’ll want to pack enough sunscreen to last you the weekend. Something waterproof if you plan to enjoy a nearby lake or will be sweating while you hike. Shoot for something SPF 30 or higher for proper protection.
If you’re in bear country, be sure to bring gear to suspend your food above your site. Regardless of wildlife, pack containers to seal up any food and be sure to keep perishables on ice in a cooler.
Whether you’re simply driving in multiple cars on the way to the campsite or splitting up on a hike, maintaining the ability to communicate outside of civilization is critical. A couple of sets of Motorola Talkabout MR350R two-way radios will ensure that your whole party can stay in touch even when cellphones lose signal. With a 35-mile range in optimal conditions, 22 channels, 11 emergency weather channels and 121 privacy codes, these two-way radios will allow you to find an unused channel for communication and track any storms that may be heading your way. 10-4, good buddy.
The benefit of car camping is that your entire car becomes your pack. However, for the day hikes and short treks that you’ll be taking on your camping trips, you’ll want a solid pack to carry your water bottles, lunch and that first aid kit we talked about. The Black Diamond Nitro pack is comfortable, sturdy and big enough for a day spent away from camp. Available in 22 liter and 24 liter sizes, it’s spacious while not being unwieldy.
Since hydration is key and you won’t have a faucet handy, you always want to have water with you while you’re at camp and when you set out for the day’s activities. The Camelbak Octane 18X hydration pack can carry up to two liters of water while also providing 18 liters of storage space for snacks, trails maps and the Cabbage Patch Kid that you’ve taken everywhere since you were six.
Odds & ends
Any list of camping gear could go on forever. You can truly pack just about anything and make the case for why you need it in the wild. But these items will be handier than others:
A good multi-tool is great for minor gear repairs and saves you from having to pack an entire toolkit. The Leatherman Juice S2 is a pocket-sized dynamo that even the most casual of campers will enjoy. It may not have all of the bells and whistles of its big brothers, but it has scissors, screwdrivers, pliers and a can opener. All of which may come in handy when you’re roughing it for the weekend.
Do not leave home without several books of matches, a couple of lighters and, if you really want to cover all of your bases, a DOAN Magnesium Firestarters Tool. Unless you want to spend half of your trip rubbing sticks together, you need to pack your own fire.
A camping/travel pillow goes a long way towards making your sleep more restful. The Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow significantly enhances the comfort level of your sleeping bag and pad setup.
Camping chairs provide more places to sit around the fire and, more importantly, dry spots to sit after a rain.
A camping hammock turns your campsite into a resort. Not in the mood to go for a swim or exhausted after a hike? Steal a nap on the Eagles Nest Outfitters Double Nest Hammock. At only 22 ounces, it’s easy to pack but holds up to 400 pounds.
Camping is about keeping things simple, so don’t go too overboard with the gear. Pack the essentials, be safe and then get out there. If you enjoy camping, then you know that adaptability is key. Follow our suggestions and you’ll be able to handle nearly any situation that comes your way and enjoy your time away from modern life.
Oh, we do have three more items that are 100% necessary for any camping trip: graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows. But those should go without saying.
What are your favorite pieces of camping gear? Did we leave out any essential items? Share your thoughts on camping equipment, suggestions about gear and tips in the comments below!