While I didn’t go on my first proper camping trip until I was in college, I’ve always been curious about the outdoors. I joined Girl Scouts in hopes of learning to survive in the wilderness (turns out you just sell cookies and make friendship bracelets) and I read books that taught me how to tie various knots and survival skills.
As an adult, I began regularly camping when I traveled to rock climbing areas all along the East Coast. Not only did it feel like a natural extension of our outdoor adventures, but it also saved us tons of money when we didn’t have to pay for a place with an actual bed. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that there’s no right or wrong way to camp. While some of the older, self-described dirtbag campers might turn their noses up at creature comforts like plush sleeping pads or a decked out camping stove, getting that stuff can help make the experience feel more comfortable and accessible.
If you’re ready to head off for an adventure of your own, I’ve put together a list of all the camping essentials I can’t live without, plus a few extras that can help you feel more at ease while cooking, eating, and staying in the wilderness.
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A Travel-Friendly Pack
To call this duffel bag my ride or die would be an understatement. It converts into a backpack and is made with a super durable fabric that I honestly think could survive a nuclear blast. I once brought home a case of local barbecue sauces and beer from Austin, and while my poor padding skills caused a few bottles to break during the bag’s journey, the bag itself was so watertight I didn’t discover the damage until I opened it.
If I’m squeezing into a smaller tent, I’ll keep this bag outside and rest easy knowing my stuff will stay dry during morning drizzles. Outside of camping, I’ll bring it as a spare bag on my trips since it folds up into a much smaller pouch.
A Tote Bag, If You Don't Want A Pack
If you’re car camping and want an all-purpose travel bag, get this tote from Lo & Sons. The canvas handles are comfortable to carry over short to moderate distances, and the zippered shoe compartment lets you further divide and organize your gear. I’ll use it in tandem with my Patagonia duffel for smaller essentials like toiletries, notebooks, and electronics or pack my clothes into it for a quick overnight or weekend trip.
A Spacious Tent
My Eagle Scout boyfriend has taught me that the capacity listed on a tent is kind of a lie. A 2-person tent techncially fits two adult bodies, but you’re probably going to be much more comfortable in a 4-person tent. This tent from Coleman only takes a few minutes to set up, and is spacious enough to fit a queen-sized air mattress for a truly luxe car camping experience.
A Lightweight Tent For Backpacking
If your camping trip involves hiking a significant distance from your vehicle, you’ll want a lightweight tent that takes up less space in your pack. This 2-person can fit a couple pretty snugly, but would also be great for solo camping trips.
A Super Plush Sleeping Pad
I loved dirt bagging with my ultralight sleeping pad in my early 20s, but nowadays I prefer to not feel every rock and crevice under my back when I’m trying to sleep. This thicker pad turns your tent into a cozy bed, and has 4 inches of foam to ensure you actually get a good night’s sleep.
An Ultra Cozy Sleeping Bag
This sleeping bag can handle temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than warm enough for most casual camping trips, and is made with 50% post-consumer recycled materials. I prefer the hood style sleeping bags when I camp, because it helps keep your head warm, or you can stuff sweatshirts to make a pillow.
A Less Snug Sleeping Experience
Some people might find the hoodie design of most traditional sleeping bags to be too restrictive or claustrophobic, which is totally understandable. This extra-wide sleeping bag from Snow Peak gives you plenty of wiggle room, and the insulation keeps you warm in temperatures down to 40 degrees.
Easy To Clean Camp Sandals
I once made the mistake of taking my cork sandals on a camping trip, then leaving them wet in a plastic bag for a month and by then I’m pretty sure something was growing on them. These EVA Birkenstocks are now my go-to camping sandals for quick walks to campsite showers or a nearby swimming hole, and they’re much easier to clean. I have the sandals in bright orange color reminiscent of mac and cheese, and they not only protect my feet everywhere from the climbing gym to the campsite, but they also earn me tons of compliments.
A Sturdy Table For Car Camping
If your campsite doesn’t have a picnic table, make sure to bring your own for eating meals, playing card games, or for placing your drinks while hanging out. This roll top table easily breaks down into a compact bag so you can save trunk space for other essentials.
Let There Be String Lights
These string lights can help illuminate your campsite for ideal visibility (and vibes). They can be hung anywhere from tree branches to inside of your tent.
An Ultrachic Flask
If you and your camping companions drink, you’ll also want to bring along a durable flask. This brushed titanium one from Snow Peak gets the job done, while looking especially elegant.
An Entire Portable Prep Station
I’m of the opinion that you need at least two tables to make a proper campsite feast: one for eating, and another for cooking and prepping. This camp kitchen from Eureka is ideal for the latter task, with tons of surface area and shelves for camp stoves, a cutting board, or your dishwashing station.
A Lightweight Cookware Solution
Cast Iron is typically the first thing people think of when it comes to camp cooking, but they can be heavy and unwieldy when you use them yourself in the great outdoors. These pots and pans are made with hard anodized aluminum that’s super lightweight, and has a nonstick coating for easy clean up.
A Minimal Food Prep Station
You don’t realize how essential it is to bring a proper cutting board and chef’s knife while camping until you’re trying to cut up vegetables with a multitool. This birchwood cutting board also stores the included stainless steel chef’s knife, so there’s no loose sharp objects rattling around.
A Deet-Free Bug Spray
As the person who always leaves a camping trip dotted with mosquito bites, I’ve tried nearly every type of bug spray and repellent and this one is my favorite. The Lemon Eucalyptus scent doesn’t smell like DEET-based repellents, and actually leaves a cool, almost tingly effect on my skin. Plus, it actually works as I’ve seen visible results on my own skin on days I forget to apply this repellent in the woods.
A Necessity For Forest Hikes
If you plan on camping anywhere with bushes, tall grass, or trees, you may encounter ticks. They need to be removed as soon as you see them, and this tool helps remove the pest, head and all, with ease. If you regularly go on hikes in wooded areas, it also wouldn’t hurt to always have one with you on a keyring.
BYO Fire Pit
Campfires are 90% of why I love camping, but not all sites have built in fire pits. BioLite’s fire pits can use charcoal or wood, and you can control the airflow to minimize smoke. The Hibachi style grill is also great for cooking all your campsite’s meals, and the adjustable fuel rack gives you plenty of control when it comes to cooking your protein to perfection.
Or If You Prefer A Camp Stove
If open fire cooking seems overwhelming, you can always bring the creature comforts of your kitchen with you. This two-burner camping stove is lightweight and small enough to easily stow away in your car
Because You’ll Want To Savor Every Last Drop Of Your Meal
Sure, you could spring for a proper melamine camping dinnerware set, but that’s not really in the spirit of “roughing it,” is it? I typically bring a single bowl and spork on my camping trips, but you should consider this 3-in-1 set that seals shut and comes with a bow, plate, and a versatile eating utensil.
If You’re Inspired By Those Forest Cooking TikTokkers
This TikTok account of two dudes making meals in the forest helped me get through my quarantine malaise when we were all stuck at home. If, like me, you want to embody their adventure cooking videos, this deep dutch oven can be placed over a campfire or in your fire pit for the ultimate fireside meal.
Keep Your Tools Organized
My boyfriend and I will typically keep all our camping supplies in plastic tote containers so stuff doesn’t rattle around in our car, but it’s still frustrating when you’re trying to cook and can’t find your only set of tongs. This set keeps everything you need in one convenient bag, and comes with all the essentials like scissors, a spatula, knives and a cutting board.
Our Favorite Way To Make Camp Coffee
Our Editor in Chief prefers making coffee with an AeroPress, even when she’s not in the wilderness. However, this simple but effective coffee maker truly shines when you’re waking up at your campsite, since it takes minimal effort to set up and produces great tasting coffee that blows away what you can make with instant coffee packets or a percolator.
A Refined Thermos
You’re also probably going to want to take an insulated thermos to enjoy your camp coffee either by your tent or at the top of a casual morning hike. I love this mug from Fellow that has a wide mouth for a more mug-like drinking experience, and keeps your beverage piping hot for hours when sealed.
Wash Dishes, Shower, And More With This Soap
Instead of bringing individual bottles of shampoo, soap, and dish soap, I bring a mini bottle of Dr. Bronners that I can dilute and use for just about any cleaning task. The versatile castile soap helps me feel clean and fresh after a night in the woods, and has a pleasant lavender scent. The soap is biodegradable and made with all natural ingredients, so it’s less harmful to natural ecosystems if you have to bathe in a freshwater source like a river or lake.
Portable, Flavorful Hot Sauces
Yellowbird’s hot sauces are the number one item I always pack on a camping trip, whether it be an overnight in Upstate New York or a week long excursion to a National Forest. Not only do their sauces travel well, but I’ve found that sharing them with fellow campers is the best way to make new friends.
A Handy Headlamp
When the sun goes down, you’ll want to make sure you have a reliable headlamp to light your way when walking down paths or working on a grill. I prefer headlamps like this one from Black Diamond that have a red light function, so that you can see your surroundings more clearly without ruining your natural low-light vision.
Roast Some Marshmallows for S'mores
My brother recently introduced me to these telescoping campfire sticks that are excellent for making s’mores and other campfire foods. The 32-inch length is long enough that his kids can roast marshmallows without getting too close to the fire, while the two-pronged fork helps secure the food so it doesn’t accidentally fall into your fire pit.
Don’t Forget to Hydrate
If there isn’t a potable water source at your campsite, you’re going to need to bring one with you. You should bring at least one gallon per person per day, plus some extra for tasks like washing up or brushing your teeth. This water cube can store more than 5 gallons, and you can easily carry it from your car to your campsite with the convenient carrying handle.
A Chic Serving Bowl For Dishing Out Meals
Nothing quite asserts your dominance at the campground like pulling out a Hydroflask serving bowl to dish out your meal. Of course, do you need an insulated 5-quart serving bowl? No, but it’s helpful for transporting ingredients or pre-made dishes.
A Solid, Bear Proof Cooler
Not only should your cooler keep your food and ingredients chilled, but it should also keep curious critters out of your food supply. Different parks and campgrounds will have various rules regarding how to store your food, but Yeti’s Tundra cooler not only has unparalleled durability and insulation, but it also is certified as Bear Resistant when used with padlocks.
An Easy-To-Reapply Sunscreen
I’m all about sun protection so I like to pack a sunscreen that doesn’t have a whitecast (because I’m trying to hike, not cosplay Casper the Friendly Ghost). It also has to be easy to reapply throughout the day. I’ve been loving the Supergoop Glowstick, which essentially looks like a giant clear lip balm. I swipe it across my face every few hours to stay protected from the sun. Bonus: if you like to maintain a minimal skincare/makeup routine while on your adventures, you can reapply without smudging your whole look.
A Lux Camping Chair
This wood and canvas chair looks like something you’d find at a Jackson Hole resort or packed into a very expensive converted Sprinter Van. While I haven’t been able to test this chair on a campground yet, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and sturdy this chair feels when I’ve used it on my apartment’s outdoor space. I can easily see myself enjoying a fire-side cup of coffee or journaling in the morning while tucked into the durable, but soft, canvas seat.
A More Traditional Camping Chair
If you prefer a more plush seat around your campsite, I also like this padded chair that has a cup holder and pockets to store a drink.
If You Get A Bit Chilly
It’s always a good idea to bring a warm, insulating blanket, even if you’re camping in the heat of summer. You can use it to further pad your sleeping area or roll it up for a makeshift blanket. This blanket packs down into a compact sack, so you can easily keep it in your car for when the desire for an impromptu picnic strikes.
A Flashlight That’s More Than Meets The Eye
This waterproof flashlight can help you be prepared for just about mishap your camping trip throws at you. There’s a fire starting kit, a candle, a mini first aid kit, fishing tackle, and more all tucked into its nondescript container.
The Just In Case Solution
Duct tape is the ultimate problem solver. Don’t question this. It’s better to have and not need duct tape than to need duct tape and not have it on hand. I’ll also keep a handful of zip ties in my backpack, because you never know when you’re going to need to secure something together on your adventures.