The first time I went camping I had visions of the scene in The Parent Trap where the twins are trying to get rid of their stepmother. You know, where they push her out into the lake on her air mattress while she’s sleeping.
This is what I thought Tyler was trying to do to me. Get rid of me by taking me on this camping trip.
We got there after dark, there were bugs that looked like they came straight out of The Lion King, and my sleeping pad was sub-par.
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But when I saw that sun come up the next morning and the light reflecting off the river, I was hooked.
A camping trip does take a good bit more prep work than your typical vacation but it’s totally worth it. I’ve put together a list of all the tent camping essentials that you might need so you’re not scrambling to try and figure it all out the night before.
This list focuses on all car camping essentials so you definitely don’t want to use it if you’re going backpacking. I would hate to see how heavy that pack would be.
Camping Gear for the Campsite
The campsite gear is truly a list of your tent camping essentials. Meaning these are the ones that you really don’t want to leave at home or you’ll be sleeping out under the stars. Literally.
Obviously for tent camping you’ll need a tent. For most climates a three season tent is fine and you’ll need to make sure that your tent has a rain fly.
If you’re car camping, your tent won’t need to be super compact or lightweight so any regular three season tent that’s large enough for all your people is fine.
When looking at the size of tent to buy a two person tent is large enough for one person and their gear or two people, a three person tent is large enough for two people and their gear or three people and so on.
A good quality tent will last you for a few seasons so make sure to invest wisely.
You’ll need something to go under your tent to make sure that if it rains the water doesn’t pool up under you. This can be done with a large tarp or you can buy a dedicated ground cover.
The tarp should be laid out where none of the edges are showing outside of your tent under the rain fly.
This all-purpose tarp will work just fine, it’s cheap, and comes in multiple sizes.
A table is helpful especially if you plan on cooking most of your meals. Some sites already have a picnic table so make sure that you check before you pack one.
Otherwise a folding lifetime table works just fine.
A good camping chair is completely underrated in my opinion. After a long day of outdoor adventures you don’t want to sit in an uncomfortable chair around the fireplace.
Find a chair that is comfortable and you love to sit in and a bonus if it’s compact. I love my Sunset Chair by Helinox.
Being compact isn’t a huge deal when everything gets thrown in the car so that doesn’t have to be a factor. I also love the outdoor foldable rocker chairs.
Need some ideas on where to camp? Check out these top places to camp on the East Coast!
This gear will make or break your camping experience. If you don’t have good sleeping gear and aren’t getting a good night’s sleep you won’t be happy.
Or maybe that’s just me, I don’t know. I’m assuming other people are a grouch when they don’t get any sleep either.
A few things to think about when buying a sleeping bag are how cold will the weather be, what shape bag would you like, and what material.
You should purchase a bag that is rated at least 10° colder than the weather that you plan on being in. The ratings on the bag mean they will keep you alive at that temperature – not comfortable.
If you don’t plan on sleeping in super cold weather, you can also buy a rectangular sleeping bag and lay it out over your sleeping pads then take a quilt or fleece blanket for your top layer to sleep under.
If you want to think about sleeping the traditional way though, you’ll need to figure out if you want a rectangular or a mummy sleeping bag. For colder weather a mummy bag is best but rectangular gives you more room.
The two materials you can buy are down or synthetic. There are pros and cons to each material and REI goes into detail about both.
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Finding the right sleeping pad can make a heck of a difference in your camping experience. I’m all for roughing it and sleeping in the woods but I’d like to be comfortable while I do it.
Some would say I’m a weenie. I’ll take it.
There’s a wide range of sleeping pads from ones that are compact, ones made from memory foam, self-inflating, etc. The list goes on.
By far and away the best sleeping pad I’ve found is the Sea to Summit Comfort Plus Self-Inflating Sleeping Mat.
I am sure there are other good ones (and even better ones) out there, but this one blew me away the first time I tried it.
You can use a blanket a few different ways. The first is like I’ve already described – if you want to lay your sleeping bag out and use a blanket as the top cover.
The next is you can sleep in your sleeping bag like normal and use the quilt or blanket for additional warmth.
As long as it isn’t a really nice blanket you can use it outside while you’re at the fire if it’s supposed to get really cold at night. I would only do this with an old blanket as I’m funny about my blankets getting dirty.
I love the patterns on these cute blankets.
You don’t have to bring a pillow because you can actually use the bag that your sleeping bag comes in. When you stuff it with clothes it works just fine.
If you want to be super comfortable though then you can bring your pillow from home or they make inflatable camping pillows that are pretty nice.
If you want to try out the inflatable pillows you can check the reviews here.
I had no idea how much fun cooking was when you go camping. There are so many fun camping recipes to try and getting everyone involved in the cooking process makes it even better.
When you are car camping you can carry a much larger camp stove than if you were backpacking. My husband uses the same one that his Dad used when they would go on camping trips together.
It’s a Coleman and has held up incredibly well. Another go-to that we use is a Weber charcoal grill. It’s small and perfect for two people.
You want to think about what type of fuel you’ll want to carry around with you because that determines what you can cook on.
Some people love cooking over the campfire but that just takes too long for me. I get hangry easily.
Like I said, the fuel is important because it determines what you will bring to cook on. Make sure you also have plenty of fuel especially if you’ll be far from a store.
A few different fuel types are gas, propane, charcoal, or a mix of propane and other fuels like butane. There are pros and cons to each and REI does a great job of explaining how to choose between the fuel types.
Dutch Oven or Cast Iron Pan
Tyler won’t go anywhere without a cast iron pan. Until I met him I actually had no idea how useful cast iron was.
A dutch oven or regular cast iron pan comes in so handy while camping because it cooks evenly, is easy to clean, and doesn’t stick when you get the pan hot enough.
The key is having the pan hot when you put your food in it.
They are so versatile as well. You can literally cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner in it. Truly a handy piece of cookware to have around.
When it comes to cast iron I think Lodge is the only way. They make a sturdy and durable dutch oven. If you plan on cooking something messy then don’t forget the liners. They make cleanup much easier.
We love bringing along a good metal spatula. It’s tough to cook when you forget this one. Make sure to bring one that you can use with your cast iron and on a grill.
We like bringing a large spatula that will work for hamburgers or steaks but also work for cooking eggs in the mornings.
Reusable Plates & Utensils
We are really trying to think about our environmental impact and create less waste and recycle where we can.
There are some great utensil kits that pack up pretty small and easily stackable plates. You can also buy the whole mess kit set that comes with a plate, bowl, utensils, and sometimes a cup.
If you have trouble keeping things together then get a clear plastic bin and keep all your camp cookware in it. When you’re ready to go camping you just toss that in the back of the truck or car.
Gallon Jugs of Water
People underestimate how much water you need for a camping trip. Always bring more than you think you should.
If you are front country camping then it isn’t as big of a deal, but running out of water without a store nearby can be dangerous.
You can also bring your own water purification system whether that is the LifesStraw or the purifying tablets.
We usually pack a cooler with sandwich meat, eggs, bacon, and condiments as the basics. Then we’ll also bring bread and then some Clif Bars for snacks.
All that’s left is what you plan on eating for dinner. If you bring along your dutch oven, then you can also make some delicious desserts pretty easily.
Clothes & Personal Items
I won’t expand on these too much as it’s all pretty standard for any trip you take. You just need to make sure that you bring clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
When I go camping I always pack leggings, quick-dry shorts, and t-shirts. I’m obsessed with this Lululemon tank and these shorts right now. If it’s cool then make sure to pack plenty of warm clothes and a jacket.
During the summer it’s always good to bring along a bathing suit. For colder months bring toboggans, gloves, and scarves.
Since you’ll have plenty of room in your vehicle for clothes might as well be over-prepared.
Headed camping in cold weather? Check out how to plan a winter camping trip!
Always bring other clothes that are dedicated to sleep in. You wouldn’t want to get your everyday clothes wet and then have to sleep in them.
This is usually just an extra set of t-shirt and shorts for me or thermals in the fall or spring.
Bring PLENTY of socks! It is so important to keep your feet clean and dry. I love the crew cut socks with my hiking boots and Darn Tough has some fun patterns.
If your feet get cold at night then you may want to bring some extra socks to sleep in as well.
Another basic necessity. Don’t forget underwear and girls bring plenty of sports bras. Personally, I like to bring a little more than one pair per day.
I was a hiking shoe skeptic. For a long time I was just too cheap to buy a pair of hiking boots.
Let me tell you though – I bought the Merrell Moab 2 boots last summer and am a converted believer.
Hiking boots give you so much more support and stability when you’re walking over uneven ground. Well worth the price paid in my opinion.
If you don’t have a toiletry bag already put together then I highly recommend that you make one. Mine is as simple as a quart Ziploc bag.
I keep shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, shaving cream, and hair mousse all in this little bag. They are all travel size and whenever I go anywhere I just toss that in my backpack.
One reason I love car camping is there are typically shower houses at most campgrounds. I love being able to take a hot shower each morning.
Miscellaneous Camping Gear
Some things just don’t belong in a category. Nevertheless, they are important too.
If you are camping in one of the areas that don’t have a bathhouse then it’s important to bring your own toilet paper.
Probably a good idea to bring it anyways and you’ll want to store it in a resealable bag or container so it doesn’t get wet.
First Aid Kit
You never know what could happen so it’s always nice to be prepared. You can either make your own first aid kit or buy one that’s premade.
Keep this with you at all times so if you go out on a day hike from camp or anything else just make sure to toss it in your pack.
Portable Charging Bank
Yes, some people think you should completely disconnect while camping. However, I like to have my phone in case of an emergency and to take photos.
A portable charging bank comes in handy if you don’t have good service all day which can quickly run the battery down or if you have to use your phone for GPS or something like that.
Check out this portable power bank if you need one for your next trip.
I am a huge fan of The North Face backpacks. Mine is an aqua blue color that I used in college and now it’s basically my adventure bag.
I’ve had this thing since 2013 and it’s still going strong. You can find the Borealis backpack at this link but they don’t have the bright blue color anymore. Shame.
My traveling backpack that I purchased for my trip to Europe is the Osprey Farpoint 40L. I am equally as impressed with it but I just haven’t had it quite as long.
They come in handy when walking around camp after dark like getting in your tent or if you need to walk up to the bathhouse.
Make sure you bring some extra batteries with you too.
Fun Things to Bring Camping
None of these items are really “essentials” but they enhance the experience. So why not bring them?
This is great for when you’re all just hanging around camp or fixing dinner. A little background music is always good.
I would only bring a speaker that’s waterproof just in case it randomly starts to rain and especially if you are near a lake or river.
Do be mindful of other campers. If you are close by to other sites then this may not be the best idea. Don’t disturb other people’s peace.
We have this JBL speaker and it’s fantastic. Waterproof, good sound quality, and plenty loud.
I LOVE hanging up my Eno hammock when we go camping. It honestly may be one of my favorite things.
It’s so peaceful just to hang out and read or take a nap. These are great to throw in your daypack for a hike as well. Take a picnic and you’ve got the perfect spot to eat lunch.
Games can be fun to bring for any downtime in the afternoon or even after dinner when you’re sitting around the campfire.
A few fun ones are cornhole, ladder ball, giant tic tac toe, or Jenga games. These can just add a little bit to the experience.
One thing we’ve had a lot of fun with lately is a new stargazing app. It’s called SkyView and when you open it up on your phone and point it at the sky it shows the constellations you are looking at.
What’s neat is that the constellations are almost shown as art work in the app.
I am a huge fan of packing sandwiches when you go out on a hike and eat somewhere scenic.
You’ll want somewhere to sit though and if there’s nowhere to hang up your hammock you can throw out a picnic blanket. These are also useful if there isn’t a picnic table at your campsite.
A generic outdoor blanket like this one will work well.
Is there anything else fun that you consider in your tent camping essentials?
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