Top Ten List of Essential Camping Items for Beginners
Have you ever been camping? Ever had the experience of living at one with nature, sleeping in a tent, waking up to the brilliant sunshine and birds joyfully singing? If not, then this post is for you! With all of the current events, we got to thinking that maybe this is the year that non-campers become camping experts! Instead of taking your family to a hotel or theme park, maybe this is the year you decide to ‘social distance’ yourselves, unplug, and spend some quality time together in nature.
While Jake and I have both had the good fortune to grow up camping, we take for granted the fact that we’ve just always done it and have grown up knowing how. In fact, we're so comfortable with camping that we camp at PRPC in the summertime in a canvas outfitters tent! But, we realize that not everyone knows exactly how to camp. Since this might be the year that a plethora of folks jump into camping, we decided to put together this blog post, as well as a YouTube video, in order to help take the worry and stress out of planning your family’s first camping trip. We’ve compiled a list of our personal ‘Essentials’ – a Top Ten list- of the must-have items for a successful camping trip. While you probably have some of these items already, some of them you may need to acquire.
The very first rule of thumb for those of you who may be completely new to camping is: DO NOT OVERTHINK IT! It really is NOT that complicated. If you Google ‘must-have camping gear’, I am sure Google will bring up a myriad of results that can become very overwhelming very quickly. There is SO much camping gear available out there, but do not become stressed. You do not need to acquire all the fancy camping gear before you go camping! As long as you head off into the woods with the right equipment, the right food, the right people, and, most importantly, the right ATTITUDE – your trip is sure to be GREAT! And, the memories you will make with your family will be treasured for years to come. And that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it? Now for that Essentials List….
1. The Tent
There are SO many different types of tents out there – some are 3-season, some are 4-season, some have vestibules, some come with a ground cloth, etc. With so many options, we know that this can feel overwhelming. So, you must narrow down your search options. First, how many people will be in the tent? As long as you aren’t backpack camping (which would have a much different ‘Top Ten’ list!), then our rule of thumb is to purchase a tent that is sized for 2 more people than you are planning on having. For example, if you there are just two of you, purchase a 4-man tent, if there are 4 of you, consider a 6-man tent. That little extra room will provide you with additional comfort and space (and trust us, you’ll thank us later!).
As for a 3-season vs a 4-season tent - if you aren’t planning on doing any winter camping, then there is no need to spend the extra money on a 4-season tent. A 3-season will work just fine for your purposes.
The tent that we personally use has a vestibule with a zipper – we love this feature because it allows for a space to place our shoes and gear that we don’t want to take in the tent with us, while still keeping the dew off of them. However, a vestibule is not essential, it is just an added bonus.
Tents come in a wide range of prices. This is an example of a 4-man tent that is on the lower end of the price spectrum. Check it out here. It doesn’t come with a vestibule, it is 3-season, and it has great reviews. While we love the feature of a vestibule, this could be a great tent to ease into camping with.
This tent is on the higher end of the 3-season price spectrum. It is the tent that we personally own and use, and it is the one we took to Grand Island (check out that video here). It’s a great tent, but again, it is not necessary when you are just starting out to spend this much!
Another great idea is to keep an eye out on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace – many times people have multiple tents, and with all of the spring cleaning happening right now, they may be looking to get rid of one!
2. Sleeping Pads:
Marshmallows for roasting over the campfire probably would have ranked higher than sleeping pads on our top ten list when we were ten years old….but, we’re not ten years old anymore and we LOVE our sleeping pads! They truly do so much to add to the comfort of your trip.
Sometimes it is hard to find a spot on the ground that doesn’t have a root or divet below the tent. These are awesome for covering up the discomfort so you can get some rest! And good rest goes a long way to making your trip enjoyable.
Like most things, there is a wide range ofsleeping pads from which to choose. The lower end of self-inflatable sleeping pads run around $35 - $40. This style is similar to the kind I use – it comes with an inflatable pillow.
The inflatable pillow is definitely not necessary (I always bring my pillow from home anyway), so this is an example of one without a pillow that is $39.95.
The other end of the spectrum is this one around $80. The fact that it is three inches thick makes it appealling, but again, it is not required. The price for sleeping pads can go up from there, very easily reaching almost $200. But, just know that it is not necessary to spend that much to have a wonderful camping experience! An alternative to spending the extra money on sleeping pads is to bring some extra blankets from home to use as padding – feel free to get creative! There is no right or wrong way, just so long as you can find some comfort while sleeping 😊
3. The Cooler:
Technically, you could bring all freeze-dried foods or food that doesn’t have to refrigerated…but, who says you have to eat sub-par food while camping? The most important feature of a cooler is to make sure you get the appropriate size for you and your needs. The other variations in the cooler world besides the size is how long it keeps ice and whether or not it has a lock. A critter lock on the cooler is nice for raccoons, but again, not a necessity. The cooler we have used for years does not have a lock and it has served us just fine. The best place for your cooler is to place it underneath the picnic table bench if it fits, or even better, in the car!
Most coolers these days do a pretty decent job of keeping ice. You will see lots of coolers that will cost extra due to how long they are able to keep ice frozen. However, keep in mind that it is not necessary to spend extra money on a cooler that keeps ice for 7 days if you are only going to be camping for 3 days. This is the cooler that we use. We have been impressed with how long it keep the ice, as well as its durability. It is a good size for the two of us for multi-day trips, but feel free to go bigger or smaller as needed.
Ahh, yes, a good light is SO important for camping. We always use two types of lights when camping: a solar light and a headlamp. We have a wonderful, inflatable solar light that is great for hanging from the roof of the tent (works great when getting ready for bed or playing a game at night in the tent). We love it because we throw it out on the picnic table or on the outside of the tent during the day so it can charge back up. This is the solar light that we use, and we have been so impressed with it. We've had it for about 3.5 years now and it's worked great. The second light we use all of the time is a headlamp (midnight bathroom breaks are SO much easier with a headlamp!). Petzl is a common brand that we have used in the past. Here is a link to one of their cheaper models, for around $30. You do not NEED both lights – you would be able to make do with one or the other. These are the products we use, and you can make the decision of what you will need for your camping trip. If you are not keen on spending money on a light, a good old-fashioned flashlight will get the job done, too! Just be sure to bring along some fresh batteries before you leave for your trip.
They are now also making rechargeable headlamps that are usually a bit more expensive. While you have the advantage of not having to buy batteries, batteries are easy to take while camping. Recharging your light with electricity may not always be an option. Just something to consider!
5. Means to start a fire!
Notice that we didn’t say ‘Matches’ or a ‘lighter’ – this one is entirely up to you. Feel free to bring household matches, a lighter, or even old-fashioned flint and steel (though we would suggest a back-up plan if you go with the latter! Ha!). Bringing along some extra tinder (dryer lint works fantastic!) can be a good idea, especially if you haven’t been able to practice starting a fire.
6. Cooking Items/utensils (pots/pans):
Feel free to bring your kitchen pots and pans if you wish! There is no ‘wrong’ pot or pan to use for cooking. However, keep in mind that if you are cooking over a campfire, the fire WILL blacken the bottom of your stainless steel cookware, and it can be a royal pain to washoff! Our FAVORITE camping pan is a large cast iron skillet – we can cook up bacon and eggs for breakfast, sauté some fresh trout for lunch, and make a sweet potato hash for dinner – all in the same pan. The best part about cast iron for camping? No washing needed. Simply put some oil in the pan, heat it up, and scrap out the food remnants with a metal spatula. This is the slightly smaller version of the cast iron pan we use for camping.
Mess kits are popular to use for camping, but again, they are not necessary for a camping trip. Most mess kits are designed to be used as both your cookware and your dinnerware, such as this kit. But again, this is not a necessary piece of equipment – so don’t stress yourself out about not having it. Bringing plates, silverware and cups from your kitchen at home will work just as well (but we would strongly discourage bringing along any glass!).
7. Camp Stove with Cooking Fly/Tarp
A camping stove and a cooking fly/tarp can quickly become essential items if it starts to rain on your camping trip.
We recommend, and use, a two-burner propane stove while we are camping. While cooking over a campfire is fun, if you are in a hurry or if it is raining, a camp stove is wonderful to have on hand. There are one-burner stoves out there, which would work just fine. We prefer the two-burner because it allows us to cook two dishes at once – or in many cases, coffee on one burner and eggs and bacon on the other!
A cooking tarp or fly is a nice asset to have in case it starts to rain - it allows you to prepare your food while staying dry, as well as providing a shelter for your cook stove in the event of rain. You can either simply bring a tarp you have in the garage with some rope to tie it up, or you can purchase a cooking fly specifically for this purpose. This is a tarp made for camping, starting at $25. But once again, the common theme here in this post is that if you don’t have this and do not want to spend the money, NO PROBLEM! Just grab an old tarp from the garage, check it for holes, find some rope, and GO!
8. First Aid Kit:
Not that you should ever need a First Aid Kit while camping….but it is better to have it and not need it, then to need it and not have it! There are handy, pre-made first aid kits such as this waterproof kit for $17.95. Or, you may already have what you need on hand. Look at the products in the first aid kit above, and make your own DIY first aid kit with the products you have in your home! We also like to add Tea Tree oil and Lavender oil as part of our first aid kit arsenal when camping.
Another product we HIGHLY recommend as part of your first aid protocol is the product Tecnu for Poison Ivy. If you or any of your fellow campers unknowingly get into some Poison Ivy, Tecnu does wonders for preventing it from spreading and manifesting. Here is a link to a bottle of Tecnu - we highly recommend it!
9. A GOOD MENU!
Camping is not the time to grab random items from your fridge and ‘wing it’ for the meals. A well-planned menu, that includes all three meals for each day as well as snacks (especially portable snacks if you are going to be doing any hiking) is guaranteed to make your camping trip that much smoother. Also, doing any food prep that can be done beforehand, such as cutting up veggies, is always nice to get done at home while you have the convenience of your kitchen sink or dishwasher! Check back here on our blog and YouTube channel over the next couple of weeks as we design a sample menu for you!
10. Biodegradable camp soap:
Though this is a small item, we decided to include it because some folks may not know that you do not want to use your typical, synthetic dish soap in the outdoors. The environmentally-responsible action is to purchase some biodegradable dish soap that will break down naturally and harmlessly in nature. Our favorite soap for this purpose is by Young Living (one of our favorite companies!) – Thieves Dish Soap. It is non-toxic and biodegradable, and can be diluted up to 3 times with water. Thieves dish soap can be found here. If you need help getting started with Young Living, Alaney is well versed in the subject, so feel free to reach out to us on here or on Facebook for help!
Another popular option is the typical green camp soap found here.
11. Sleeping Bags
The fact that Sleeping bags only received an honorable mention and did not make it on our Top Ten list may seem a little strange to some of you. However, they are not necessary for camping! You can simply bring bedding from home if you are trying to ease into the camping experience and not buy everything at one time. Just be sure to look up the ‘low’ temps for the nights you will be camping, and bring enough blankets!
12. Camp Chairs
Camp chairs receive an honorable mention because most campgrounds offer picnic tables at their sites. However, if you are simply camping in the National Forest, or the campground does not have picnic tables, camp chairs make a welcome addition to the camping gear arsenal. If you do not have camp chairs and there are no picnic tables, a log, the cooler, and 5 gallon buckets can all work in a pinch!
13. Bug Spray
Again, not a necessity, but certainly a convenience! Be sure to look up what type of bugs you can expect, and in what months, in the area that you are planning to camp. For example, at our campground at the Pine River Paddlesports Center, mosquitos and black flies are usually the most prevalent in May and June. There are lots of options out there for bug spray – we choose to make our own non-toxic bug spray with witch hazel, water, and essential oils (we camped all summer and it’s the only bug spray we used!). But there are lots of different kinds on the market, both with and without deet.
This is not a necessity by any means, but we decided to include it because some first-time campers may not think of it as they are packing. A backpack is awesome to have along if you plan on doing any sort of activity away from camp. You can throw water bottles, snacks, bug spray, camera, etc, all into the backpack. It makes day hikes much more pleasant if you aren’t trying to carry all those items with your two hands!
In the end, going on your first camping trip does not need to be complicated, stressful, or expensive. Much of the camping gear sold today, while convenient and nice, can easily be substituted with materials from home. Also, keep in mind that the initial cost of getting into camping is quickly offset by the inexpensiveness of a campsite vs. a hotel or a cottage. We hope you found this article helpful, and that 2020 will be YOUR year to jump out into the great outdoors and make some AMAZING memories!!