Most people start out camping because it is an inexpensive way to explore the Great Outdoors; after all, first-time campers don’t need to spend a ton of money to have a fun and safe overnight car camping trip.
Many beginners find that they like camping so much, they are willing to invest a bit more money to increase their comfort level; this is where “glamping” comes in, where experienced campers spare no expense to bring the comforts of home into the outdoors.
Whether basic car camping or glamping, there are three main pieces of equipment that you will need to acquire: a tent, a sleeping bag, and a cooking setup. Items for car camping can be sourced for $100-$200, while gear for glamping can vary widely, depending on how much comfort you require.
I always suggest beginning campers start out with a few simple items to make sure their initial forays into the wilderness are safe and fun. If they discover that they enjoy it, then it’s a good idea to buy equipment that makes that experience more comfortable, or allows them to spend more than just one or two nights communing with nature.
No matter if you are a first-time camper, or a glamper looking for ideas on how to make your setup even better, read on to discover the types of gear you will need for each type of camping experience.
Car Camping is Inexpensive Outdoor Fun
Whether you call it car camping, family camping, or tent camping, the way most people start out is basically the same: You set up a tent and other camping gear in a developed campground that features a restroom, picnic table, and a fire ring.
Starting out in car camping shouldn’t cost more than $100-$200.
The best tents for car camping are roomy and inexpensive
Depending on your experience level, you might be ready to jump into buying a tent, or you may be hesitant. If you aren’t ready to buy a tent, consider renting one from a local outfitter first, or, if you have a car or truck big enough to sleep in, maybe even ditch the tent entirely for your first few trips.
Either way, you definitely need some sort of structure to keep you safe from insects and the elements, but there’s no reason to break the bank here. Brands like Coleman, Ozark Trail (Wal-mart’s house brand), and Kelty all offer reasonably priced dome tents that are great for beginners. Don’t spend more than $100 on a tent if you are just starting out camping.
There are several important features to look for in a tent:
- Decide what size tent you need. Tents are generally categorized by the number of people they can accommodate, but this usually means everyone is packed in like sardines. Since you’re carrying your tent in a car, you don’t need to be concerned about weight or the space the tent takes. Buy an 8-person tent for 4-5 people, a 4-person tent for 2-3 people, etc.
- Choose a dome-shaped or larger A-frame, or cabin-style, style tent. Make sure the tent has plenty of room to change clothes, and to stand up if that is important to you.
- Next, make sure the tent is waterproof. Are the seams taped or otherwise sealed? Does the rain fly completely cover any mesh areas?
- Most tents in this category will feature mesh doors that can be zipped open or shut. Make sure the zipper is made of metal, and is easy to operate. Far too many camping trips have been ruined by a zipper malfunction!
- While you want to be sure any tent you buy has sturdy poles and a quality staking system, you’re not looking for top-of-the-line here. You may need to buy more robust stakes and guy lines to secure your tent if you anticipate stormy weather.
- If camping in warm, humid climates, be sure the tent has plenty of mesh areas for ventilation. There is nothing worse than trying to sleep in a stuffy tent.
Sleeping bags for car camping can be a minimal investment
Most people who go camping for the first few times don’t need to worry about buying a sleeping bag. If you are camping on a summer night in good weather, just bring a sheet and a comforter from home.
If you are looking for a sleeping bag to snuggle in around the campfire, or for lounging in the tent, look for one with these features:
- Traditional rectangular sleeping bags have plenty of room to stretch out, while also being able to zip up if the weather gets chilly.
- Look for a sleeping bag rated for 40°F if you are camping in a warm climate. If you think the nights may get chilly, spend a bit more to get a bag rated at 30°F.
- There are many good name brand bags that can be purchased for about $50.
Pro tip: Remember to bring a pillow, and if you are concerned about sleeping on hard ground, pack an extra comforter or exercise pad to put underneath you. Bring whatever you think you’ll need to be comfortable; after all, this should be a fun experience!
Keep your cooking setup simple
The most fun part of camping is getting to eat a hot meal around a campfire. With a little preparation, you can pull this off without spending very much money at all.
Cooking over a campfire can be a little intimidating at first, and you never know for certain that you will be able to have a fire (there may be restrictions, the wood could be wet, or it’s too windy). You should always have a backup plan for camp cooking.
An inexpensive charcoal grill or single-burner propane stove should cost between $30-$100.
Buy a cheap charcoal grill in case you need it
Pick up a small hibachi grill, some charcoal, and some lighter fluid for an inexpensive way to grill up some steaks, and even heat water in a pinch. These are also great for cooking at home if you have an apartment with a balcony, or just want to grill up a meal for one person.
Single burner propane grills are also inexpensive.
For a bit more money than a charcoal grill, you can buy a single burner propane camp stove. These are fueled by the small green 1-pound propane tanks and are easy to transport and set up. They are also very safe to use.
If you have a bigger group, or like to tailgate, consider buying a pop-up propane grill, or a two-burner propane camp stove.
Follow this recipe for tasty campfire “hobo” dinners:
If you are planning to have a campfire and are looking for a cheap, convenient dinner, grab some aluminum foil and follow these steps to make easy hobo dinners:
- Step 1: Dice enough bell peppers, onions, and potatoes to feed each member of your group.
- Step 2: Cook enough sausage, chicken, ground beef, etc for everyone. Make sure your meat ingredients are properly cooked for food safety.
- Step 3: Have each person take an 18-inch wide piece of aluminum foil, and lightly coat with cooking oil.
- Step 4: Pile ingredients into the center of foil. Fold the foil over, pinch, and roll to create a tight seal. Try to make a tight pouch that food cannot escape from.
- Step 5: Gently set the packets onto hot coals and allow them to cook, usually 15 minutes per side.
- Step 6: Once cooked, carefully remove the pouches from the coals. Set on paper plates and give everyone a fork to dig in!
- Step 7: The beauty of this technique is in the cleanup: simply toss everything into the trash!
Pro tip: Prepare your hobo dinners at home to completely eliminate the hassle of cooking at camp.
Glamping is Simply Next-level Car Camping
Once you have a few basic camping trips under your belt, you will get a sense of what you are looking for in a camping trip, and how to make it more comfortable for you and your family. Investing in quality camping gear can help everyone feel more at home while camping, and is a sure-fire way to make each trip more enjoyable.
Bringing all of the creature comforts of home, including a top-notch tent or camper, plush bedding, and a fully outfitted chef’s kitchen, is often referred to as glamping. Glamping is a perfectly reasonable evolution for any car camper: After all, who doesn’t want to be perfectly comfortable while having a great time out in the woods?
Glamping can easily cost between $200-$2,000, or more; it all depends on how much you want to spend, and how luxurious of an experience you want to have.
The sky’s the limit for your tent or camper
Depending on how much money you want to spend, the vehicle you drive, and where you plan to camp, you might opt for a high-end tent, or a teardrop-style camper. There are a ton of different options aimed at glampers, so I’ll list just a couple to whet your appetite.
Choose a tent that fits your lifestyle
The most important aspect of glamping is having the space to spread out; your tent or camper should be big enough to be a home away from home. After all, you will need a place to put your heater (or your fan), a couple of nice, full-sized cots, and maybe even a table for playing card games or mixing cocktails.
Expect to spend $300 to $1,000 or more on a glamping-worthy tent.
You should be able to set up a larger tent with a partner, but be sure to try it out in your backyard or a park before you attempt to set it up in a campground. These large tents often have guy wires to help keep them standing in high winds, and should feature a large vestibule to hold muddy camping gear, or to keep your oversized cooler out of the sun.
Other features to look for in a large freestanding tent are:
- Room to stand up, and maybe do some late night dancing, is key.
- Sturdy poles, double-wall construction, and a waterproof floor will keep the elements out.
- Some bonus features to look for are: interior pockets, a fold-out welcome mat, and even separate rooms.
If you plan on camping in one spot for a few days or more, look into buying a luxurious bell tent. These behemoths take some effort to set up, but they provide an unparalleled level of comfort. Originally intended for hunting outfitters, these large tents often feature heavy duty hardware, space for a wood stove, and the capability of being used even in the dead of winter.
Pro tip: Don’t get burned by spending a lot of money on a subpar tent that isn’t supported by a warranty and reliable customer service. Invest in one made by US-based companies like Big Agnes, Montana Canvas, or Springbar.
If you can afford a camper, go for it!
The next level up from glamping in a tent is to purchase a travel trailer. Literally a home on wheels, these rigs feature all of the comforts you could hope for, including a bed or two, a couch, a kitchen, and often a shower and/or a toilet.
Having a travel trailer really takes your camping experience to a different level, so we’ll talk more about those in our upcoming article on recreational vehicles.
Buy a nice sleeping bag to match your upscale tent
Once you decide to spare no expense for comfort, you will likely find that you are bringing a large cot or air mattress to keep you off of the ground at night. You should also splurge on a top-notch sleeping bag, as well.
You can find quality sleeping bags for anywhere between $150-$400.
There are a few key features to look for in a quality sleeping bag:
- Although you may not like the tighter fit of a mummy bag, look for a bag that has a hood to keep your head warm at night.
- If you will be camping in colder temperatures, consider a “spoon”-shaped bag instead of a rectangular one.
- A sleeping bag that is rated down to 15°F will keep you toasty on even the coldest nights. If you want to use it in the summer as well, look for one that has ventilation zippers near the footbox.
- If you are truly a comfort connoisseur, buy a down-filled sleeping bag instead of one filled with synthetic fibers.
- Look for a double sleeping bag for cuddling with your partner. Some brands even feature men’s and women’s bags that zip together!
One fun way to spend your nights glamping is to buy a one-piece sleeping bag, like a Selk Bag. One-piece sleeping bags blur the line between a sleeping bag and a winter onesie, and are great for those who want to lounge around the fire on a cool evening, then head straight to bed without losing any warmth.
Foodies should invest in a quality camp kitchen
If you are looking to feed a large crew, or you want to be able to cook a five-star meal, consider buying a camp kitchen. These foldable units feature a table for your two-burner propane stove, a table for meal prep, and a mini pantry to house canned goods and clean dishes.
A quality two-burner propane stove will run you around $100, while a basic camp kitchen can cost between $150-$300.
Nothing says luxury like being able to cook a complex meal in the backcountry! Be sure to bring plenty of camping-appropriate games, and a cocktail shaker for after dinner drinks.
The bottom line here is that camping should be fun. Don’t stress about spending a bunch of money to have the right gear on your first few car camping trips.
Your first few camping trips shouldn’t cost very much money at all, since you can bring basic gear from home, and even rent a tent if needed. As you gain experience, you’ll learn which activities make the trip special for you and your family, and you can start investing in gear to reflect that.