When we first started car camping (that means driving to the camping spot — not camping in your car, although you could do that too) I thought we needed all the things. All of them. Part of this was because buying new things for camping sounded like a lot of fun. Part of it was because I had no idea what the heck we were doing.
Fortunately I had Luke, camper extraordinare. New problem: Luke also liked to buy new things. Therefore, we did.
While we did buy some things we didn’t really need (example: gas lantern) and some of it was nicer than required (example: fancy cots) most of it was a good call.
Do you have what you need to go camping for the first time? Time for a shopping trip? Through trial and error, here are our tips.
What You Need to Go Camping
Hold up. Before we go any farther let’s get this question out of the way: do you actually need to buy new stuff? Should you buy the nicest stuff? What about the Goodwill?
And here’s my two cents: if you have friends who camp and have gear you can borrow for your first trip, do that. If you don’t like camping or it’s not right for your family right now, borrowing stuff means you don’t own stuff you’ll never use again.
If you can’t borrow, look into renting. Many outfitters (and if you’re in the military, your local MWR) and websites rent gear at a low cost. Some camp stores at campgrounds also rent gear. Renting is a great way to get your hands on the more expensive things to buy like a tent and a camp stove and even sleeping pads.
If you’re going to buy gear, research tent options that match with the time of year you plan to go out. If you want to buy sleeping bags, think about what temperature it is going to be at night, and buy a bag meant to keep you warm at that temperature.
So what do you really need?
A tent. Or some other form of shelter. Some campgrounds rent out small, rustic cabin-like shelters. If you used something like that, you could avoid buying a tent.
If you’re going to buy or rent a tent, a “three season tent” is a good place to start. It should provide enough warmth, ventilation and rain cover (with a rain fly) for most weather you’ll encounter.
You also want to consider how many people need to fit in the tent. When tent makers say “two person tent” what they really mean is “a tent in which two people sorta fit if you’re both skinny and like breathing on each other.” Consider buying or renting a tent for one person more than you want to fit in there. Another option is to split your group into multiple tents — adults-only tent and a kids’ tent, for example.
Something to sleep on. You don’t need to be fancy like us with the cots. Most people use a sleeping mat, a cot or an air mattress when they car camp. But if you don’t have any of those things, you could just use a big pile of blankets. Bottom line: you’re going to want something between you and God’s good green earth when it’s time for some shut-eye.
Something to sleep in. It gets chilly at night in almost every place. You’re going to want a sleeping bag or, at the very least, blankets to under. Stay cozy!
A way to heat food. You could bring food that doesn’t need to be cooked (sad!). You could bring food that’s easy to cook over a fire on a stick or a grill like hot dogs, marshmallows for s’mores and steak. (Yummy! But still complicated.)
Or you could bring a camp stove. See, I require coffee. At least two cups. It is a glorious, glorious thing in the morning next to a campfire and a lake. So that means I also want some kind of camp stove to heat water over. A camp stove also enables us to cook eggs for breakfast.
If you’re going to camp more than once, spring for your own stove. If you’re going to just go this one time, think about keeping with the food-on-a-stick theme or renting one. But if you go without, be prepared to feel sad without coffee.
Somewhere to sit. You probably already have lawn chairs, camping chairs or beach chairs in your garage. Bring those. While most campgrounds have picnic tables, you’re going to want a different chair. If you have small people, don’t worry about buying small chairs (although we sure like ours!).
A way to eat food. Plates and silverware (disposable is great — keep it simple) and refillable water bottles all will be just fine.
Water. Maybe. Do a little research to find out if the campground you’re visiting has water at your site. If so, don’t worry about bringing water. If not, bring a few gallon jugs full.
A place to put trash. At the risk of stating the obvious, bring a trash bag. Leave the campsite cleaner than you found it.
Flashlights. Remember our lantern? It’s stupid. It’s hard to light and we’ve used it maybe three times in several years. Fail. Skip that silliness and bring a few flashlights or, if you have them, headlamp. Don’t own any flashlights or head lamps? Go buy a flashlight, silly — you should have one in your house in case the power goes out. Geez.
Firewood. You can probably buy firewood at the camp store, and most places ask that you not bring in felled wood from other locations (in an attempt to stop the spread of tree destroying pests).
You can look for felled wood near your camp site. And you can usually bring bagged wood that you bought at the local home supply store (Lowes, for example, generally carries some), or a treated “8-hour” type log. You’ll also want to bring a way to start the fire — a lighter and newspaper, at the least. We like to bring treated fire starters. It may not be very hardcore, but it sure makes things easier.
A sleep aid. I’m not even kidding. I pack me a big ol’ sleeping pill just in case the campground is noisy or I’m having trouble falling asleep.
Clothes. Other than the normal clothes – shoes, shorts, you know the drill — even if it’s warm in the day, you’ll probably want at least a light sweatshirt in the morning.
A super flexible attitude. Things rarely go as exactly as planned on any camping trip. Take it moment-by-moment, revel in that campfire smell, enjoy the quiet of the morning.