A Beginner's Guide To Essential Camping Gear

December 06, 2017

A Beginner's Guide To Essential Camping Gear

Spring is in full swing, which means that camping trip you’ve been itching to take is just around the corner. Of course, you’ve also been meaning to buy the required gear too. Don’t worry, whether you’re a complete beginner or a vet looking to cover your bases, we’ve got you covered.

What you should take on your camping trip depends on what type of trip you have in mind. Driving somewhere and going on small day hikes from a populated base camp? You can bring a nice, big stove. Hiking 25 miles into the middle of the Grand Gulch? You want something a little more portable. The distinction between the two is usually labeled as “camping” or “backpacking.” Campers drive somewhere and camp out of that location. Backpackers hike in and then make camp with what they’ve brought.

The gear best suited for each usually has to do with weight and packability, so make sure you consider which you’ll spend more time doing when you shop for gear. Backpacking gear tends to be pricier because it focuses on weight, but it’s great for both camping and backpacking. That dual-use nature is good for anyone planning on doing both. You should consider your specific needs instead of relying on a generic checklist, but the list of essential items for most trips remains the same.

The Basics: Essential Camping and Hiking Equipment

Let’s start with the most obvious camping-specific equipment: Tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, and all that other stuff that immediately comes to mind when you think of camping. This is all the expensive gear you’ve been putting off buying until you really needed it. Thankfully, you can get by with a lot less you think.

  • Tents, Tarps, Poles, Tie Downs, and Stakes: You’ll need something to sleep in, so a tent should be at the top of your priority list. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all tent though. Tents come in a variety of sizes and in a variety of types. Some ultralight tents are best suited for backpacking, while other, heavier tents come with spacious luxuries best suited for hanging out near a car. To confuse matters more, most tents come in two varieties: three-season and four-season. Three-season tents are good for just about anything but the deep of winter, while four-season tents have more durable fabric that can handle snowdrifts. Good news though, as our friends over at The Wirecutter point out, most tents in the $200-$300 range are pretty good nowadays, so you pretty much can’t go wrong. They suggest the now discontinued Big Agnes Blacktail 3 person tent, but you can still snag it as new-old-stock for around $230. If you want to dig into the specifics of the differences between tent types, Backcountry walks you through the different types of backpacking tents, what to look for in weight, and how to choose the right seasonal variety for you. You’ll also usually want a footprint to place beneath your tent to block out water. Any of these will do the job.
  • Sleeping Bags and Sleeping Pads: Like tents, sleeping bags come in different weights and handle different temperatures, so you have to do some research to find the one best suited for you, where you plan to camp, and when. Outside Magazine’s best sleeping bags or the Wirecutter’s picksare good places to start. Wirecutter’s a fan of the $200 REI Radiant Sleeping Bag as a good all-around bag. Outside Magazine’s top recommendation is the Marmot Electrum, which you can usually track down for under $160. You will probably spend around $150-$200 for a decent sleeping bag. On top of that, most people will also want a sleeping pad, an air-filled pad that sits between your sleeping bag and the ground so you can get a little more comfortable. Our friends over at Indefinitely Wild have a rundown of the best sleeping pads for various budgets and uses. Which is best for you depends on your size, but I’m personally a fan of the $80 Therma-Rest Prolite.
  • Backpacks: Backpacks are an area where the distinction between camping and backpacking matters. If you’re camping, you arguably don’t need a backpack at all (though you want a good day pack if you’re planning on small hikes). In the backpack world, there are three main distinctions for sizes: day packs, overnight, and long haul. Which you need depends completely on what you plan on doing. Outside Magazine has a great rundown of some of the best packs for each type, but if you’re new to backpacking and don’t want to dish out a ton of cash, Indefinitely Wild has a cheapskate guide that keeps things as budget-friendly as possible. They suggest the Kelty Redwing for $140 as a solid but cheap bag that’ll hold what you need and won’t kill your back.
  • Headlamps, Lanterns, and Flashlights: Surprise! It gets dark in the woods, so you want something to help you see at night. Any cheap flashlight A sturdy, reliable flashlight will work here (LED is best, something like this $8 Mini CREE LED flashlight will do the job for most people), but having some extra gear is helpful too. A lantern like the Black Diamond Apollo Lantern for $44 is super useful for camping so you can make your way around the campsite and your tent easily in the dark, but it’s far too bulky for backpacking. For that, a headlamp like the $30 Black Diamond Spot Headlamp is surprisingly useful, especially when you’re trying to set up a tent after dark.
  • Water Filtration Systems and(or?) Treatment Tablets: If you’re camping, you can (and should) bring along as much water as you’d possibly need in your car, so it’s easily accessible. Some campsites even have fresh water available, but you should bring some anyway. If you’re backpacking however, that’s not an option, so you’ll need a water filtration system. For something on the cheap end, the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration Systemfilters water and only costs $20 at Amazon. For a slightly more portable solution, Iodine tablets like these $6 Potable Aqua Treatment Tablets work too.
  • Hiking Boots or Shoes: Depending on the type of trip you’re taking, you’ll want to grab some hiking boots or shoes. Your sneakers will do just fine in many places, but if you’re planning on going for a longer backpacking trip, dedicated shoes are much more comfortable since they offer more support, padding, and stability for your ankles as your cross rough terrain. Of course, like everything else here, you have a million choices. In this case, your selection breaks down to boots, trail runners, approach shoes, and hiking shoes. Boots are clunkier but sturdier, so they’re good for people who like a lot of grip in their shoes and who like to jump into mud piles. Trail runners are light but have no real traction or ankle support, so they’re best for the nimble-footed who prefer to jump around. Hiking shoes are the goldilocks of each of those, they are lightweight, have good traction, and solid durability. They also tend to have low longevity. Approach shoes are meant mostly for climbing but sit somewhere in-between boots and runners. If this was an RPG, boots are for your tank, trail runners are for your high DEX character, and approach or hiking shoes are for your basic all around character. Each has their own list of merits and best use-cases, and Gizmodo compared the pros and cons of each type. For most people, they land on approach shoes as a suggestion, but more general all-around hiking shoes like any of these will do the job too.
  • Paper Maps: Regardless of whether you’re camping or backpacking, there’s a good chance you will not have cell phone service. Get a map of wherever you’re going before you get out there, then learn how to read itand not to rely on GPS, even if you bring a stand-alone satellite GPS unit. You can typically find a map from the ranger station near any park entrance, or you can print them online. Either way, make sure you have one.
  • First Aid Kit: It shouldn’t be a surprise that you need a first aid kit for camping. Include the usual aspirins, bandages, and gauze here, but also toss in some hiking-specific stuff like moleskin for blisters, bug sprays, and aloe vera for burns. Indefinitely Wild has a guide to put together your own kit, and the Washington Trails Association has a great checklist as well.

There are thousands of other gadgets, knick-knacks, and other gear available for camping, but most people don’t need more than what’s listed here when it comes to the essentials.