What to Take on Your First Camping Trip
When you’re heading into the backcountry for your first camping trip, accurate and careful preparation is key. There’s nothing more frustrating than arriving at your destination, whether a local, provincial park or remote wilderness region abroad, then remembering that you’ve forgotten something at home.
Equally vexing is the realization that you’ve packed in a heap of gear you have no use for, wasting space and weight. Experienced campers make these mistakes all the time, so don’t be overconfident.
Whether it’s your first camping trip with kids, a significant other, friends or family, or you’re going alone, if you’re thinking, “What Do I Take on My First Camping Trip?” don’t stress.
You’re in the right place.
Although specific technical gear may vary, depending on your activity, location, and companions, the essential camping gear doesn’t vary that much. The core gear for a first time camping trip for families is almost the same as the core gear for a hardened wilderness explorer.
From shelter to cooking essentials, sleeping bags and pads, lighting sources, toiletries, and more, in this article, we’ll make sure you know exactly what to take on your first camping trip (and what not to).
Camping Checklist: How to be Prepared
The best way to be prepared when camping for the first time is to create an exhaustive checklist. The ideal first camping trip checklist should be broken down into various categories.
A critical part of working through your list isn’t just ensuring that you have the right gear but that it’s all working properly. For example, that means making sure your headlamps work and have spare batteries, checking that your stove is operational and that you have the correct fuel, and ensuring that your sleeping pad is inflating properly and not leaking air.
Don’t check off ANY gear on your list until:
- You confirm the item is in your possession.
- You confirm the item is in working order, and you have all accessories needed for it to function properly (fuel, batteries, etc.)
- The item is securely packed into your backpack or vehicle.
Essential Camping Gear
The gear you take camping will vary based on your location and activity, but at the baseline, there are a number of essential camping items you always need to take with you, whether you’re camping in the mountains of southern Mexico, the frosty Mongolian steppe, or at home in the forests of Vancouver. Don’t leave home without the essentials from our first time camping trip starting packing list below.
Remember, it’s easy to get caught up in all the exciting accessories you might bring to enjoy adventure activities while camping, such as rock climbing gear, kayaks, or mountain bikes, but the camping essentials have top priority. Make sure that you have your basic camping essentials before you worry about anything else. Now, let’s dive in!
Shelter, along with food and water, is the most critical piece of camping gear. You can probably survive without the other items on this list, but if things go south and you don’t have a tent… Well, you’re in trouble.
A tent should have adequate waterproofing and breathability, space for your gear and companions, and should be easy to put up and take down.
If you’re car camping (setting up a tent near your vehicle), then weight isn’t much of a concern. If you’re backpacking (hiking several miles or more into the wilderness with your gear before camping), then weight is a critical factor.
Modern tents have five main components. The tent fly, tent body, poles, stakes, and ground cloth (or footprint). The fly is the exterior lining, which keeps out rain and blocks wind. The tent body is the main structure of the tent. The poles give the body a frame, while stakes hold the tent down to the ground. Finally, a ground cloth acts as a base layer between the tent floor and the earth, keeping out moisture. Some tents have a built-in ground cloth, others come with the ground cloth as a separate item.
There are a number of other shelters you can use when camping, such as hammocks or bivvy bags, but tents are the tried and true camping shelter and the best place to start for first time campers.
Your sleeping bag keeps you warm at night. When buying a sleeping bag, be sure to check the temperature rating (the temperature that the bag will keep you warm at), and the fill level, which tells you how densely the filling is packed into your bag. Generally, a higher fill means a warmer sleeping bag.
Sleeping bags consist of a lining and outer shell. Between these two layers lies the filling, which provides insulation. Filling can be either down or synthetic.
Down sleeping bag filling is warmer than synthetic, but is also more expensive, and dries slower if it becomes wet. Down filling is also less eco-friendly, since it relies on natural goose or duck down (that said, many RDS, or ‘Responsible Down Standard’ fillings are available for the eco-conscious).
Synthetic sleeping bags are usually more affordable than down bags, but consequentially less warm. That said, there are counterexamples of bags in each category. The best choice for you will depend on the time of year, your budget, style of camping (backpacking vs. car camping), and camping location.
Your sleeping pad serves two purposes. First, it keeps you comfortable, offering a soft and supportive sleeping surface. Second, it keeps you up off the ground, because the ground will sap your body’s heat on cold nights. Sleeping pads are either foam or inflatable.
Foam sleeping pads are both the cheaper option and easier to take out and pack up (since they require no inflation). They’re also nigh impervious to damage. Cuts and scrapes that would puncture an inflatable pad will do nothing to a foam pad. That said, they’re much bulkier when packed, and almost always less comfortable.
Inflatable pads are much more comfortable than foam, but they’re naturally more expensive, as well. They also require you to inflate them, either with your breath or a pump, and deflating them and packing them away is a process that can take time. That said, inflatable pads take up less space in your pack, if you pack them down properly.
In decades past, inflatable sleeping pads were known for acquiring numerous punctures, and most didn’t last very long without having to be patched up or otherwise repaired. In recent years, however, inflatable sleeping pad technology has improved dramatically, and now a quality inflatable pad will last for years even in harsh conditions.
No camping trip is complete without good camp food. Ensure you have a camping stove that suits your cooking needs.
Our Outbound Single Burner Portable Camping Stove is a great example of a compact, portable, lightweight stove for backpacking, but the downside is the meals you can cook are limited on one-burner, small pot stoves like this. They’re useful for boiling water for drinks and dehydrated food, heating up canned meals, or cooking simple fresh basics.
If you’re car camping, you’ll want a larger, multi-burner camp stove like our Woods Portable Propane Camping Stove With 2 Burners or our Woods 2-in-1 Grill & Burner Propane Camping Stove, which give you the burner space and output to make more traditional meals.
In addition to a stove, make sure you have the correct fuel to power it, the cookware you need to make your meals (pots, pans, etc.), and a mess kit to eat with. Standard camping mess kits consist of cutlery (often a multi-use spork), a mug, and a bowl.
Toiletries will vary depending on your personal situation. In addition to the essentials like toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and floss, make sure you have everything you need for your day-to-day life at home, such as prescription medications, feminine hygiene items, and contact lenses. Bringing a small baggy of wet wipes is a smart choice, too. Whether you use them to wipe with, clean gear, or sanitize your hands before a meal, they’ll come in handy.
A camp trowel is also required, so you can dig catholes (See Below FAQ: Where do I go to the bathroom?).
Headlamp and Lantern
Lighting sources like headlamps and lanterns are must have items for a first camping trip. When the sun goes down, you have to be able to see, right?
Regardless of the type of camping, you’ll always want a headlamp. Make sure it’s lightweight, comfortable, and that it has at least 100 to 150 lumens of power. If you’re going car camping for your first time camping, however, you probably will want a lantern or other large, central light as well. Backpackers won’t want to waste space or weight with that, and headlamps will do the job.
Above all, ensure you have spare batteries, and that your headlamp/lantern and spare batteries are fully charged.
We’re putting camp chairs last on the list because although many campers enjoy bringing them, plenty of campers go without them, and choose to sit on a tree stump, fallen log, rock, the ground, or somewhere else.
When planning a first camping trip, the quality of your camp chair is entirely up to you. Do you want a heavy, bulky camp chair that maximizes comfort? Do you want a lightweight, minimalist camp chair that’s a bit less comfy, but is easy to pack? The choice is yours.
Camp chairs aren’t one of those must have items for first camping trips, but they do make the experience a lot more enjoyable, particularly if you’re car camping for the first time. When car camping, I highly recommend a camp chair, and we have an extensive collection.
That said, if you’re backpacking, you definitely don’t want to bring a traditional camp chair. They’re simply too bulky and heavy. There are options for lightweight, portable seating for backpackers, however, like tripod stands.
Camping Clothing Tips
Apparel is as important as any of your camping gear, if not more so. Your clothing is your first line of defense against the elements. Lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing is always advisable, regardless of your location or camping style.
If you’re car camping, however, apparel is more about comfort than performance. If you’re backpacking, you’ll want to put more focus on fine-tuning your apparel, since you can only bring a few items with you. Naturally, weight and packability also become a concern. Below, we’ll cover overall first time camping apparel tips, as well as specific tips for both summer and winter trips.
First Time Camping Clothing Tips
- Always bring extra socks, and make sure they’re breathable to avoid blisters.
- Bring rain gear, such as a lightweight poncho, no matter the weather forecast.
- Expect days to be warmer than you anticipate, expect nights to be colder. Pack accordingly.
- Ensure your shoes are fitting for your intended activity. If backpacking, look for supportive, above-the-ankle boots. Waterproofing is important, as well.
- In addition to boots or whatever your primary shoes are, bring a pair of waterproof sandals or flip-flops for lounging around camp.
Summer-Specific Camping Clothing Tips
- Pack a hat with a wide brim to protect against the sun. Bandanas are also great to protect the back of the neck and can double as a dishrag.
- While shorts and t-shirts are great to stay cool, a couple of long sleeve shirts can help prevent sunburn.
- Lightweight fabrics like cotton and linen, or cotton-polyester blends, are good options in summer. They absorb sweat and don’t heat up when the temperatures do.
- Stick to light colors, since they reflect sunlight.
Winter-Specific Camping Clothing Tips
- Bring a scarf to guard your face from the cold, as well as a hat and gloves.
- Layers are your friend. Your innermost layer should be moisture-wicking and allow sweat to evaporate quickly, or else it will cool on your skin and make you even colder.
- Plan food and drink options that are warm (i.e. tea, coffee, hot chocolate, soup, oatmeal, etc.)
Do’s and Don'ts while Camping
DO: Pack out ALL trash and food waste from your campsite.
DO: Check local fire regulations and restrictions before building a fire (See Below FAQ: How do I set up a campfire?)
DO: Use the allotted campground restroom facilities, or bury waste properly (See Below FAQ: Where do I go to the bathroom?)
DO: Check local wildlife information, as you may need to bring a bear bag or bear canister, for example, to protect your food and smellables from bears. Give a wide berth to (and avoid harassing) any wild animals encountered.
DON’T: Drink from natural water sources without purifying the water first.
DON’T: Burn plastic, any other synthetic waste, or used toilet paper.
DON’T: Leave a visible trace of your campsite. Knockdown used fire rings and, once completely cool to the touch, disperse ashes and charred fire remains among the surrounding wilderness.
DON’T: Play loud music, particularly in public campgrounds where other campers are nearby.
How to Choose the Best Place for a Camp
The best campsite should be out of the wind, on level ground, and high and away from slopes where rain runoff could wash into your camp. Trees provide great wind cover. A clearing in the middle of a dense copse of trees makes for an excellent site. Always set up camp on soft, dry ground, typically grass, dirt, or leaves. Avoid rocky campsites. You also want to set up far enough from water sources that any sudden water level rise won’t flood your camp.
You’ll also want to camp near adequate fuel for your fire (fallen logs, branches, sticks, dry leaves, etc). If you didn’t bring a camp chair, logs or stumps are great seats, in addition to serving as fire fuel.
There are also factors of convenience to consider. For example, while you want to be far enough from water that your camp won’t flood, you always want to be close enough to pump any water you might need. If you see a previously built fire ring, it likely indicates a decent campsite. Always use a pre-built fire ring instead of building a new one, if possible.
Exploring New Places vs. Being Close to Home
So you’re heading on your first camping trip, but... Where should you go? Well, exploring new areas is always exciting, and it can be appealing to want to travel far from home and enter rugged wilderness, but that’s probably best saved for a time when you have more experience.
For your first time camping, a well-known locale close to home will probably offer all the adventure you need. This way, you’ll be more aware of the weather to expect, the typical terrain and surroundings, local rules and regulations, and any endemic flora and fauna you might encounter. You’ll also be able to run home and grab gear if you forget any of the gear from this camping trip checklist.
Frequently Asked Questions
Setting up a tent varies depending on the model of tent you have, but the basic steps are the same.
First, lay out the ground cloth, and stake it down taut. Then, spread out the tent body atop the ground cloth, attaching it to the stakes as well, and run the poles through the guide holes on the tent frame to give the tent structure, clipping the body to the poles when needed. Next, attach the rain fly to the outside of the tent body, inserting any supporting poles if required, and stake the fly out as well.
It’s usually not a question of “if” the weather changes, but “when,” which is why you should always bring rain gear. Short storms can be waited out in your tent, just ensure that all your non-water resistant gear is covered, either under the rain fly in the outer vestibule or inside the tent with you.
If you’re car camping, you can wait out the weather in your car, too. Avoid getting boots and other apparel wet, if at all possible, however. Above all, NEVER leave your campsite with camping gear unattended (i.e. to drive home and return later after the storm). Inclement weather can blow gear away, or it may be damaged by curious animals.
The best meal to eat when camping really depends on what the best meal for you is!
Bacon, pancakes, and eggs always make for an outstanding car camping breakfast. Sandwiches are a solid choice for quick and easy lunches. Grilling hot dogs makes for a scrumptious dinner, but frying up fish and veggies in a pan is quite easy as well. Of course, at the end of a long day, you can’t beat smores over an open fire!
If you’re backpacking, brands like Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry offer dehydrated meals that (sometimes) taste just as good as the real thing.
To go #2 in the wilderness, you’ll need to create your own mini toilet, called a cat hole.
Place your cathole at least 200 feet (approximately 60 adult paces) from the nearest water sources, campsites, or trails. Dig a hole at least 6 to 8 inches deep. Squat above the cathole and take care of your business. Bury your toilet paper in your cathole along with your waste, or pack it out, depending on local regulations. Finally, fill the cathole back in and properly disguise it.
In some places, such as arid desert regions, regulations prohibit the use of catholes, in which case you’ll have to use a W.A.G. bag to pack out your waste.
Building a campfire is a critical camping skill and one that takes time to master. There’s more to the process than we can go into here, but we’ll quickly cover the basics.
- Find or Build a Fire Ring
Only build your fire in designated fire rings. Most developed campgrounds have them. Using a fire ring will lessen your impact on the land, and keep your fire contained. In the backcountry, if no fire ring exists you may be able to build your own, depending on local regulations.
- Gather Fuel (Firewood)
Firewood consists of three types, tinder (twigs, dry leaves, pine needles, etc.), kindling (small sticks and branches, typically less than one inch around), and firewood (larger wood pieces that will keep your fire going once it reaches its full size).
Remember, all this fuel has to be dry. Wet wood won’t burn well.
- Build Your Campfire
Building the campfire is easy if you’ve gathered the proper material. Start with the tinder, and build on top of it with the kindling, then add one or two large pieces of firewood. Use a teepee or log cabin formation to stack your larger pieces of kindling or firewood. Ensure the wood has enough air flow and oxygen to burn.
- Light Your Campfire
Now, light the fire and blow gently at the base to give it oxygen to grow, adding tinder and kindling as needed.
- Extinguish Your Campfire and Clean Up
Pour water on your fire, stir the ashes, then apply more water until all embers have been extinguished. When the ashes are cool to the touch, scatter the ashes and charcoal remnants over a wide area away from your campsite, and dismantle any fire ring you might have built.
There is no single best time of the year to go camping! You can go camping any time of the year and have a safe and enjoyable wilderness experience if you plan and prepare properly. That said, in most temperate climes winter is the most difficult time to camp, simply because of the cold weather and potential for snow. Spring, also, can be quite rainy and snow may not have melted in alpine regions, while summer can bring extremes of heat, as well as bugs.
As such, early to mid-fall is arguably the best season for first time campers. The leaves are changing color and falling (leaving a nice soft covering on the ground for you to set up your tent), and foliage is gone, so visibility has improved. Also, temperature and weather are generally the most moderate in the early fall.