If you're conscious of your environmental impact, you know that air travel has a significant carbon footprint. Though I have spent the last year traveling, much of it on planes, now that I'll be settling in one location for a while, my goal is to cut down significantly on air travel, and focus more on exploring my immediate surroundings. Camping is one of the best ways to turn your home state, county, or local wilderness area into an exciting new destination, and is also one of the most affordable and eco-friendly ways to spend an adventurous night or weekend away from home.
For many years of my adult life, I was really into the idea of camping, but I never actually went camping. This could be because most of my friends were much less into the idea of camping than I was, but more likely it's because the thought of gathering all the necessary gear and planning for a camping trip was too overwhelming.
What will I do about food? How do you even pitch a tent anyway? Will bears eat me in my sleep? Do I have to poop in the woods?
Fortunately, a few years ago I made some camping savvy friends, and by borrowing their gear and gradually acquiring my own, I became fully equipped for any camping opportunity that might arise. I'm not an expert by any means, but below is my roundup of camping essentials for the eager beginner. Needless to say, camping is way better when you do it with friends, and it's helpful to start out with friends who have done this before (and who might be able to loan you a few things to get you started).
DRESS FOR THE OCCASION
What you’ll need to wear will depend on the location of your chosen campsite and the time of year. Check the weather forecast in advance of your trip. Often when you’re out in the woods, temperatures can drop significantly when the sun goes down, so it’s best to bring warm layers and add as needed. I never go camping without a wooly cap, even in the summer, and in colder weather I like bring gloves and long thermals to wear at night for extra warmth. It’s always a good idea to bring a lightweight, waterproof jacket.
CHOOSE APPROPRIATE FOOTWEAR
Your footwear choices will depend on where you’re camping, too. If you are driving to your campsite and pitching your tent close to your car, sneakers will suffice. If you are hiking to your campsite, I’d recommend hiking boots with plenty of ankle support.
BRING FRESH U-TROU
No matter how many days I’m camping, I always bring fresh socks and underwear for each day. They don’t take up much space and they go a long way toward keeping me feeling clean and comfortable, even if I’m wearing the same clothes multiple days in a row.
PLAN YOUR MEALS
CHOOSE YOUR COOKWEAR
Unless you’re packing prepared food that doesn’t need to be heated, you’ll want to bring a small camp stove and fuel. The kind of stove you choose will depend on how fancy you want to get with your meals. If you’re just starting out, I recommend a simple stove like this JetBoil. The fuel is easy to attach and use, it boils water quickly, and you can even buy an accompanying plunger attachment for making French press coffee. This is ideal if you’re cooking food that can be cooked or reconstituted with boiling water, like oatmeal, couscous, or prepared freeze-dried camp meals (though these tend to be packaged in fused bags that you can’t recycle, so are not ideal for zero waste campers). It’s also great for heating up soup, which is one of my favorite camping meals. I’ll make the soup ahead of time and pack it in an airtight container, and when it’s time to eat, I’ll pop it in the JetBoil and heat it up.
I like to keep it simple with dishes and cutlery, so I just bring an enamel camping mug which doubles up as a coffee mug and a soup/oatmeal bowl. My spork is my only utensil, and I’ll use it both for eating and for stirring food in the stove.
Bring a small (glass) bottle of dish soap and a natural scrubber for easy cleanup after meals. Be sure not to dump soapy water into any local rivers, streams, or lakes.
Sample Meal Plan for an Overnight Camping Trip
Hearty soup or stew like this one with plenty of protein, with some cheese on the side (cheese packs a lot of calories per weight, and therefore makes great hiking/camping food) and some chocolate (preferably paper-wrapped) for dessert
Coffee, oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins
Peanut butter oat bars like these (peanut butter also has a great calorie-to-weight ratio)
STORE FOOD SAFELY AWAY FROM YOUR TENT
It’s important to store your food at night in a place where it won’t attract the attention of local animals. Bring a drawstring stuff sack and a parachute cord, and gather everything in your pack that has a scent to it, including food, soap, and toiletries. Place all these things in the stuff sack, loop the parachute cord through it, and attach a rock to one end of the cord. Find a tree at least 100 feet from your tent, throw the rock over a high branch, and hoist the food bag up into the air, out of reach of ground animals and bears. Secure it in place by tying the cord to a tree trunk. For further clarity, see this adorable diagram.
If this is your first camping trip, it’s a good idea to borrow a tent from a friend, rather than buying a new one, as they can be expensive. However, if you do decide to invest, do your research and make sure you’re getting one that’s well made. It may cost a bit more than some of the generic options out there, but when it comes to protecting you from the elements, it’s worth it to invest in a quality tent. Mat and I love our Big Agnes two person tent; it’s easy to assemble, and has protected us perfectly from rain, wind, and cold.
It’s a good idea to practice pitching your tent before your camping trip, to make sure you have all the right pieces and will be able to assemble it easily when the time comes. You may want to bring a small mallet to help you hammer tent stakes into the ground, though I usually skip this and just use an obliging rock, if needed.
Here again, it’s a good idea to borrow rather than buy, as sleeping bags are an investment as well. When you do choose a sleeping bag, make sure you pay attention to the temperature rating, and choose one that will suit your needs. As with tents, with sleeping bags you get what you pay for, and it’s worthwhile to spring for a quality sleeping bag. Make sure to store your sleeping bag out of its drawstring pack when you’re not using it, especially if it’s down-filled. This will extend the life of your bag and help the feathers retain their loft.
The inflatable mats available these days are lightweight, easy to fill up, and can be the difference between a sleepless night and a restful one. There are many options on the market, so pay attention to the thickness of the mat, and its weight, and choose one that fits your priorities. To me, comfort is more important than weight, so I chose a slightly longer and thicker mat, and I love it. Some campers like inflatable camping pillows, but I usually get by with a fleece jacket folded up and tucked under my head.
PREPARE FOR THE UNEXPECTED
FIRST AID KIT
No matter the length of your camping trip, it’s a good idea to have a basic first aid kit with you. Some things you might include: gauze and compostable tape or compostable bandages, cotton wool, rubbing alcohol, anti-bacterial ointment, needle and thread, safety pins, tweezers, anti-inflammatory pain relievers, and an antihistamine like Benadryl in case of allergic reaction.
If you’re only going for an overnight camping trip and you’re not hiking far to your campsite, it may be possible to carry all the water you need with you without having to refill. Some campsites have access to safe drinking water, but if you’re going for a longer trip and you’re not sure where or when you’ll be able to fill up, it’s best to be prepared with a water filter pump or SteriPen. How you carry your water is up to you (some people prefer bottles, while some prefer bladders) and, again, may depend on the length of your trip and how much water you need to carry.
JUST IN CASE
If you’re thinking of building a fire at your campsite, you’ll want to bring a lighter or matches. Check with your campsite whether or not campfires are permitted at the time of your camping trip. In certain areas, and during times of drought, they may be prohibited. Always comply with park services regulations, as they are put in place to prevent wildfires. Make sure you follow proper fire-building protocol for your safety and the safety of those around you. Smokeybear.com offers this comprehensive guide.
It’s always a good idea to bring a sharp pocket knife. You’ll be surprised how often this comes in handy.
One other piece of indispensable camping gear is a good head lamp. City dwellers often forget that when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, it gets very dark at night. A head lamp allows you to see what you’re doing while keeping your hands free to find things in your bag, secure guy ropes on your tent, read your guidebook, etc.
When I’m camping, especially if I’m hiking or if my trip is more than one night, I like to go as light as I can on toiletries and personal grooming articles. Camping is not the time for makeup or elaborate self-care routines, as much as I love them. I stick to the basics: toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, moisturizer and lip balm (my skin tends to get very dry), sunscreen, and insect repellant. A small, packable camping towel comes in handy for drying hands and faces, and a roll of plain white, unscented toilet paper (packed in a dry bag in case it rains) is essential.
DOING YOUR BUSINESS IN THE WOODS
Truth time: unless your campsite has toilet facilities or port-a-potties, you're probably going to have to poop in the woods, which I promise is not as scary as it sounds. It is, however, important to bury the evidence, not just for the sake of the next camper to use your campsite, but to prevent water contamination and the spread of disease. Choose a spot at least 200 feet from any water source, and dig a small hole, about 6 inches deep (you may want to pack a small trowel for this purpose). Do your business in the hole, and bury it, along with your toilet paper, using the dirt you excavated. You'll feel a strange sense of pride the first time you accomplish this.
There are certainly other things you can bring on a camping trip (books, playing cards, camp stools, a hip flask filled with your favorite whiskey, portable speakers for an impromptu dance party in the woods), but the above are the things I deem essential. I've compiled them all into an easy-to-read packing list here.
Get ready to impress your friends with your preparedness, and once you get the hang of it, spread the love to another camping newbie!