First Time Camping Checklist – Don’t Pack Before Reading This

It’s Thursday night, you have reserved a campsite, and made plans to meet your friends in the woods to have an epic first weekend camping under the stars. Your mind is probably racing, trying to think of everything you need to bring on your first camping trip. 

Take a deep breath and relax! As long as you bring a good attitude and some basic necessities, you will have a great time communing with Mother Nature. 

First-time campers should always bring a tent, a sleeping bag or bedding, and a sleeping pad to be sure they get a good night’s rest. A camp stove, a light source, a camp chair, a water container, a jacket, and a first aid kit complete the list of camping essentials. 

If you don’t have enough money for the big-ticket items like a tent and stove, or aren’t sure if you will like camping, consider renting gear from a local outdoor supplier. I can tell you from experience, however, that buying camping gear can be really fun! 

Before you hit the store or begin packing, however, read this guide to learn some tips for choosing the gear that will make your first foray into the awesome world of camping an epic success. 

First Time Camping Checklist

Cover Your Sleep Setup First 

Making sure that you can sleep comfortably in the woods is the first key to having a good camping trip. Even if you forget everything else, you can rest easy knowing you’ll have a warm sleeping bag, a pad to keep you off of the ground, and a tent over your head to protect you from bugs and the elements. 

Choose a Sleeping Bag to Match Your Activities 

If you are camping in warm weather, you don’t need to worry about having a fancy sleeping bag; in fact, you might be just fine bringing a sheet and a comforter from home. 

Having a sleeping bag does make camping seem more “official”, however. If nighttime temperatures will be in the 50’s (F) or warmer, consider buying a simple, rectangular sleeping bag. These old-school bags feature plenty of room to lounge in, and just enough insulation to keep you warm on a chilly night. 

If you are planning to go backpacking, or camping where the nighttime temps will dip into the 40’s or lower, you will need to rent or invest in an insulated mummy-style sleeping bag. These bags cut down on extra materials to save weight, and fit closer to your body to conserve warmth. 

Don’t be afraid to ask the associates at your local outdoor retailer for help choosing a bag to fit your needs; they get paid to answer your questions and make sure you have a positive experience with their products. 

A Sleeping Pad is as Important as a Good Bag

A good sleeping pad serves the same function as your mattress at home; it helps keep you warm at night, while also providing a soft spot to rest your weary bones. 

Choose a pad that has enough cushioning to keep you off of the ground. If you’re a skinny person, you might be fine with a simple roll of closed-cell foam. If you’re a heavier person, or prefer a more comfortable sleeping arrangement, look for an inflatable pad that is 3 to 4 inches thick. If you will be sleeping in cold weather, buy an insulated inflatable pad that features an R-value of at least 3.5. 

One note about air mattresses: Don’t. Just don’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen noobs fuss with an air mattress, insisting they need it for comfort, only to awaken cold and grumpy because it “lost air” overnight and did the exact opposite of insulating them. Cool air makes air mattresses go limp, and sleeping on a large air mass sucks precious warmth out of your body. 

Buying a Tent Requires Some Research

Buying a tent can be a big purchase. While there are many great ones on the market, there are also a lot of stinkers, so don’t jump into this decision lightly. Here are the key features to consider when buying (or renting) a tent: 

Buy a “three-season” shelter

These will have an inner body with mesh walls for ventilation and an outer rain fly to shed moisture. If you are worried about cold or wet weather, make sure you choose a tent that has a pronounced rain fly and adjustable vents. The more you close up vents, however, the more your breath will create condensation overnight. 

Look for a tent with plenty of room for your crew

You will need a place to hole up if the weather turns bad, so make sure you and your companions will have enough room to play cards, sip tea or whiskey, or just lounge about. If possible, crawl inside the tent at the store and picture yourself sleeping, changing clothes, etc. 

Go big if camping with kids

If you’re camping with kids, just bite the bullet and get a big tent. Whether they decide to turn it into a bouncy house, you need a backdrop for shadow puppets, or you need to park a stroller out of the rain, trust me, it will be worth having the extra space!  

Weight becomes a factor if you plan on backpacking

If you’re going to be carrying the tent on your back for any distance, other features will pale in comparison to how much your tent weighs. There are some extremely lightweight tents on the market, but they can cost a fortune. 2 pounds per person is a good measure to start with, then go lighter if your budget allows it. 


A Stove and Kitchenware Make a Campsite Feel Like Home 

After you have decided on the perfect sleep setup, it’s time to address the next most important part of camping: Cooking an awesome dinner! The type of stove and kitchenware that you need to bring will depend on whether you choose to simply boil water for freeze-dried meals, cook something a bit more involved, or prepare a 5-star backcountry dinner. 

Two-Burner Propane Stoves Will Serve Most Needs

Propane stoves are efficient in cold weather, burn inexpensive fuel, and can be turned down to simmer a sauce or cranked up to make an urgent pot of coffee. Opt for a two-burner stove to be able to prepare more complex meals, like bacon and eggs, or pasta and marinara. 

Canister Stoves are the Go-to for Backpacking

A bulky propane stove and 1-pound fuel bottle are far too heavy to carry into the backcountry. If you plan on backpacking, invest in a lightweight canister stove. It makes heating water for freeze-dried meals and coffee or tea a breeze, can be used to simmer or cook slightly more complex meals, and weighs less than 3 ounces. 

Don’t Forget the Utensils!

Having a cool new stove won’t do you much good without plates, bowls, cups, and eating utensils. For your first camping trip, raid your cabinets to find unbreakable items, and give them a quick rinse when you are done eating. You can give them a more thorough washing when you get home. 

Once you start camping more often, outfit a plastic tote with extra kitchen gear gleaned from thrift stores, or your garage sale pile. The tote will be easy to grab each time you go camping, and can double as a dish tub!

Shed Some Light on Your Campsite

Some of the most memorable parts of camping happen after the sun goes down. Even if you have a roaring fire (be sure to check local regulations), you’ll need to bring a couple sources of light to make your campsite feel cozy and safe.

Bring a Flashlight or a Headlamp 

No matter whether you are car camping or backpacking, you will need a portable light source like a flashlight or a headlamp. The flashlight from your kitchen junk drawer is perfect for beginners; just make sure it works before you leave, and bring extra batteries. A headlamp provides hands-free mobility for night hikes and cooking, and can be pretty inexpensive; there are many models that put out a lot of light and cost less than $30. 

A Good Lantern Makes a Basecamp Shine 

Nothing quite portrays camping like the soft glow of a lantern. The propane or kerosene lanterns of yesteryear have been replaced by modern rechargeable or battery-powered models. If you’re planning on backpacking, consider one of the lightweight, packable mini-lanterns that have hit the market in recent years. 

A Good Camping Chair Can Make the Trip 

I don’t know how many times I’ve gone car camping and forgotten to bring a chair; I swear, it’s my camping curse! There is nothing wrong with copping a squat on a cooler or a log for a bit, but before too long your buns will get tired and they’ll be begging for a comfy chair to relax in. 

Any Chair Will Work for Car Camping 

If you are just starting out, any old chair that you’d take to the beach or to a kid’s soccer game will work. As you become a seasoned camper, you’ll learn to bring a chair with a cup holder to keep your favorite beverage close. If you like gazing at the stars, consider buying a chair that reclines. 

A Backpacking Chair is Worth its Weight in Gold 

Backpackers, don’t fret: there are chairs for you as well! Many backpackers, myself included, gladly tote the extra pound or two to bring a folding stool or convertible sleeping pad kit to keep ourselves from having to sit on cold ground in the backcountry. For me, there is just something comforting about having a place to rest my back after a hard day’s hike. 

Bring Plenty of Water to Stay Hydrated

A good rule of thumb for camping is to bring one gallon of drinking water per person, per day. Remember to bring extra water for pets, doing dishes, or to put out the fire if you plan on having one (you should always have plenty of water close by if you choose to start a fire). 

A 5-gallon Container is Great for a Weekend Trip

If you’re going camping with one or two friends, be the cool kid and bring plenty of water for everybody. You might be surprised at how many people forget this precious resource, so a 5-gallon water container is a great investment. Your throat tends to get parched when sleeping in the crisp outdoor air, and if you plan on drinking any alcohol, having plenty of water to rehydrate can be a life-saver. 

Bring a Water Bottle for Personal Use 

Just as many people forget to bring plenty of drinking water, those same folks often forget to bring a portable water bottle to keep in the tent, or for taking on a day hike. There are hundreds of brands and styles out there, and any of them will work for your first car camping adventures. If you get into backpacking, get a lightweight plastic bottle that closes tightly. 

Pack a Jacket or Coat that Fits The Climate

One other item that is frequently forgotten by beginning campers is a waterproof jacket or coat. Being able to stay warm and dry is one of the keys to having a good camping trip. Consider dressing in layers that you can adjust to match changing temperatures. 

A First Aid Kit and Toiletries Can Save the Trip

Anyone who is going into the woods needs to pack some basic first aid items like adhesive bandages, antibacterial ointment, antihistamine, and over-the-counter painkillers. Don’t forget prescription medications, feminine hygiene products, and toilet paper. It is a rookie mistake to assume the restroom at your campground will be stocked with TP!

I suggest thinking about the types of medical and hygiene products you use on a daily basis, and double-checking to be sure you pack those at a bare minimum. Everyone’s first aid and toiletry kit will look different; just remember that you’ll be far from a pharmacy or grocery store, so bring what you think you might need.  

While no list of camping essentials can be definitive, hopefully I have shed some light on the basics you will need to ensure that your first few camping trips are safe and enjoyable. 

Although this list is not gender-specific, it is perfectly reasonable for ladies to wonder if there are any particular items that they need to bring on a camping trip. 

While most girls will be fine with bringing only the basic camping essentials, you might choose to pack additional items to enhance your safety and comfort, such as a satellite communication device, wet wipes to freshen up, and extra clothing layers.  

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