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Camping 101: What to Bring, Planning Tips, and a Printable Camping Checklist

Planning a camping trip shouldn’t be stressful – camping is all about unwinding.

Camping Checklist - printable PDF

A little preparation helps a lot. I’ve camped for most of my life, and I still use a checklist every time we go camping to make sure I bring all my camping essentials.

If you’re a first-time camper, a beginning camper, or an experienced camper who wants to simplify, this post is for you. Think of it as a Camping for Dummies book in a blog post. 🙂

I’ll show you how to prepare for your camping trip with the easy system I use to keep it simple while making sure I have everything I need.

Camping must-haves. What camping gear do I need to bring and where do I start?

When you’re camping for the first time, the temptation to pack too much (and spend too much!) with all the great gear available these days can be overwhelming.

Just remember that all of those cool camping items will need to be loaded up, unloaded, set up on your campsite then reloaded and unloaded again when your camping trip ends.

Whether you camp in a tent, RV, or campervan, you can simplify by focusing on the three main activities involved in camping:

  1. Spending time in nature
  2. Sleeping
  3. Eating
Camping for beginners

Start by thinking about how you will spend your time during each of those activities and plan your gear accordingly.

For example, spending time in nature. Hiking, biking, canoeing, fishing, and swimming are popular pursuits and require different gear.

Plan the activities for your camping trip and jot down the gear you need.

canoe at a streambank
Photo credit: Taryn Elliott

This “camping to take” list helps keep you on track and serves as your camping packing list.

I created my checklist after years of editing our camping set-up. It isn’t an I-thought-of-everything kind of list … it’s more designed to keep you sane and your setup simple. It’s all on one page, and there are blank spaces so you can personalize it.

Grab my camping checklist 🏕️

Now back to those three core camping activities and some guidance to steer you toward some seriously good gear.

First up, sleeping.

Sleeping

  1. Tent or RV/van rental
  2. Sleeping bag
  3. Mattress pad or cot
  4. Pillows
  5. Mat for entrance to sleeping space

The first experience for many new campers will be tent camping, but don’t rule out renting an RV or camper van. It’s never been easier to rent them!

Rentals come with insurance and roadside service; if you’ve never driven a vehicle larger than a car, this can help put your mind at ease.

Renting a camper is also a great way to try out a new kind of camping if you’re thinking about moving from a tent to a camper.

RV & van camper rental

The “big three” RV and camper van rental companies are Outdoorsy, RVshare, and RVezy. The inventory of vehicles to choose from varies according to your location. Check all three for the best selection.

Tent camping

Tents top my list of camping essentials: a good tent means you can have a great camping trip, no matter the weather.

A quality tent that’s the right size will keep you comfortable and last for years. We still use the tent from Sierra Designs that I used when I camped my way across the country in my 20s! (My son sleeps in it when he doesn’t want to bunk with us in the van. 🙂

Factors to consider when shopping for a tent are size, weight, cost, quality, and ease of use.

Size. My rule of thumb is to think about how many people will be sleeping in the tent and increase by a minimum of one. Our tent is advertised as a three-person tent, but to me, it comfortably sleeps two. It’s tempting to buy a huge tent, but consider that it will take more time to set up, and you likely will only be using it to sleep.

If you’re interested in backpacking or camping in a “walk-in” site (where you’ll park your vehicle away from your site and walk your gear in), buy a lightweight tent. Being lightweight doesn’t mean it’s not as durable; in fact, the opposite is often true!

Quality. Tip: Many of the best-quality tents are made for backpackers who don’t want to carry anything heavy. A general rule of thumb is the lighter the tent, the better the quality.

My old tent falls into this category. It’s lasted so long because the zippers are heavy-duty, the poles are lightweight and strong and the seams are well-made.

Another reason it’s held up so well is that we make sure it’s dry when we pack it.

Tip: Never pack a tent when it’s wet: mildew does a lot of harm, even to the best tents.

Ease of use. High-quality tents are easier to assemble because they have been designed with fewer pieces that fit expertly together. This will make setting up your tent easier, and it will last longer.

Tip: set up your tent at home before you go camping a few weeks before your trip. If you find it difficult, get another tent.

When setting up your tent, be sure to put up the rainfly – that’s the piece of nylon that goes over the top. It protects you from rain and moisture. If you do use a tarp, string it between trees over your tent. Tarps placed under tents will trap water between your tent and the tarp.

Always check to make sure you have your tent stakes. They’re easily lost but critical to your setup. Often, the stakes that come with your tent won’t be the best quality.

Tip: Buy extra stakes. We use these heavy-duty stakes for the sleeping tent but also to stake our pop-up garbage can and our bathroom tent.

Here are the leading tent retailers:

Sleeping bags

LLBean-Classic-Flannel-Sleeping-Bag
Classic all-season sleeping bag

It’s tempting to blow the budget here, with lots of high-end options available. My tip for buying a good sleeping bag is the opposite of my tip for tent shopping: don’t buy what the backpackers buy. You don’t need to spend that much money unless you plan to camp in extreme cold, which many of us will never do.

Sleeping bags are rated by temperature. The more expensive bags claim to keep you warm in very low temperatures. Before you spend lots of money, ask yourself if you’re going to be camping in below-zero weather.

Tip: No need to overspend on a sleeping bag. Save some money and go with comfort over performance.

My favorite sleeping bag is the same kind of sleeping bag I’ve used since I was a child, the LL Bean Flannel Lined Sleeping Bag. It’s sooo comfortable and works for all seasons. On the hottest nights, I leave it unzipped. No need to buy different bags for different seasons. 🙂

Camping cot or sleeping pad. No matter where you’ll be sleeping, you can easily upgrade your comfort with a pad or cot.

There are a wide variety of highly-rated air mattresses in different price ranges. This Sleepingo is beloved by many campers and costs around $40. For those with a higher budget, Therm-A-Rest is the gold standard. The company has been around since the 70s – and likely so have many of their mattresses! They are built to last. My Therm-A-Rest pad is over 30 years old and is good as new. These mattresses are self-inflating.

A camping cot is a popular option if you want to sleep off the ground and have space for it. Be sure to check weight ratings and dimensions; not all cots will fit all tents – or bodies. 🙂

Camping mat. Putting a mat in front of the door to your tent or RV reduces the amount of dirt you’ll track in. These mats also work great at picnics or the beach!

Speaking of picnics, let’s move on to eating. This is definitely an area where gear needs vary greatly according to the chef who will be creating your camping meals. But there are some basics every cook will need, and that’s where I’ll start.

Cooking and Eating

  1. Food
  2. Heat source: fire, camp stove or grill
  3. Cold source: Cooler or fridge
  4. Plates and bowls
  5. Utensils
  6. Cups
  7. Cutting board
  8. Frying pan and pot
  9. Dishwashing bucket
  10. Knife
  11. Dish soap
  12. Sponge and dishtowel
  13. Trash bags
  14. Water jug

Eating is a big part of camping, and it can be tough to know what to bring.

Tip: An easy way to wrap your head around food packing is to think about the meals you’ll be making and work backward. Make two lists – a grocery list for shopping, and an equipment list for cooking.

If you want to keep it super simple, bring grillables, cook them over a fire, and store your drinks and food in a cooler. You don’t even need utensils!

Essential cookware

You don’t have to get fancy here. A place setting for each camper, a frying pan, and a pot are the essentials. Other items to add to the list are a sharp knife, cutting board, can opener, dish soap, sponge, and dish towel.

Utensils and mess kits
Stanley Basecamp Mess Kit for camping
Stanley Basecamp Mess Kit

An easy way for new campers to quickly cover cooking equipment basics is by buying a “mess kit”.

These all-in-one kits feature nesting cookware to save on space. Head’s up that many of these kits contain pots that are Teflon-coated. Because you’ll be cooking over direct flame, you may want to consider a metal set like this one from Stanley. The Teflon-free pot can be set up directly over flames with its swinging handle. Instructions on how to put the kit back together are etched on the pot lid. Genius!

One area where mess kits fall short is utensils. I don’t love eating all my food with a spoon, how about you? A camping utensil set pairs nicely with a basic mess kit. Another quick item to mention – telescoping marshmallow roasting sticks – one of our faves! Our son can whip up a meal of hotdogs and s’mores with these little sticks that instantly transform him into a campground chef. 🙂

Because we camp in a van, we are able to store our cooking equipment there and don’t have to repack it every time. With just a little prep, you can pack this way if you don’t have a van.

Tip: Gather essential cooking gear together and store it in a tub between camping trips. You’ll save time packing and will be sure to have what you need.

Coolers

Many new campers will already have a cooler or two, so hopefully, this is an item you can cross off your shopping list.

We rarely use our cooler when camping because our van has a built-in fridge. If you are in the market for a cooler, check out this Wirecutter review. I was surprised by its top pick, the Coleman Xtreme 5 Cooler – a $70 cooler that keeps food cold for five days!

Cooking – grills, stoves or flames

Coleman single burner camping stove
This Coleman cutie is a steal for around $30

There are so many options here. Start by going back to your meals and think about what you like to cook.

Most campsites will have a fire ring, but not all of them come with a metal grill so you can cook over the ring. If you plan on cooking your meals over a fire, check with your campground ahead of your trip; it’s no fun cooking hamburgers on a stick, lol!

Tip: wait to buy cooking equipment until you’ve gone camping several times. Walk around your campsite to get a sense of the options available and ask your neighbors for advice. Campers are friendly folks and love to talk equipment – I’m sure you’ll find people to share their opinions, and you will likely get other camping tips, too!

Cooking over a fire is the best kind of camping cooking. But a basic stove will save you if it rains.

A word about firewood: don’t bring it – buy it at the campground.

firewood for camping
Photo credit Josh Clemence

This is actually a rule at some campgrounds because wood can bring with it tree-killing insects. Best to play it safe.

Spending time in nature – campsite and recreation gear

  1. Chairs
  2. Lantern
  3. Flashlights
  4. Firestarters or fuel for stoves
  5. Hatchet for splitting wood
  6. Recreation and activity gear – bikes, kayaks, hiking boots, fishing gear, games

Chairs

Helinox Chair One
My favorite chair, the Helinox Chair One XL

I learned the hard way that chairs are crucial for a relaxing camping trip.

Years ago, my husband and I packed our camping gear into a giant duffle and flew down to Disney World to stay at the wonderful Fort Wilderness campground.

Our crazy idea turned out surprisingly well except for one thing: we had no chairs.

We made the rookie mistake of thinking we’d just sit at the picnic table. After walking around the parks all day, we really missed being able to sit back and kick our feet up.

Tip: bring a chair for each person camping. Every time. 🙂

Chairs can take up a lot of space, so check the dimensions before buying. Our favorite chair is the Helinox Chair One XL. They are extremely well-made and portable. We take them to our son’s baseball games, bike with them to picnics and use them for parties in our backyard.

Because they are made for backpacking, the smaller models of Chair One are lower to the ground, a little too low for my liking. There are many knock-offs of this chair, and I’ve tried a few, but none come close to being as comfortable.

Flashlights and lanterns

uco-candlelier-deluxe-candle-lantern for camping

Same tip goes for flashlights as chairs: Bring at least one per person camping.

Take your flashlight into your tent with you at night. That will keep it out of the elements and help guide your way if you need to get up in the dark.

You’ll also want to bring lighting for your campsite. A good lantern is a must for late evening meals and will set a cozy tone for your campsite. We’ve experimented with different lanterns and found that many LED-powered lanterns give off a harsh, white light.

Our favorite lantern is powered by good-old-fashioned candles. The UCO Candlelier Deluxe Candle Lantern comes in different colors and has spring-loaded candles to keep the flame at a steady height. The glow from real candles is amazing!

Recreational gear and games

There are so many ways to enjoy time in nature. Swinging in a hammock, hiking the trails, kayaking on the lake. Or none of the above!

The great thing about camping is you can still have fun just hanging out, doing nothing. Some of my favorite camping memories happen around the fire, cooking, eating, reading and spending time with friends and family.

Here are some items to consider adding to your checklist:

  • Books and magazines
  • Movies downloaded on tablets
  • Board games
  • Deck of cards
  • Bikes and scooters
  • Nylon hammock to string between trees

Kids often meet up with other kids at campgrounds and spend hours together, playing outdoor games like tag or capture the flag. There are even cool glow-in-the-dark games that keep them active after the sun goes down. It’s so nice to see what they come up with when given a little bit of freedom!

Personal items

  1. Clothing
  2. Rain gear
  3. Flip flops for showering
  4. Towels
  5. Toiletries & shampoo
  6. Bug spray
  7. Sunscreen
person camping
Photo credit Dave Herring

Whatever the season, the two items of clothing I always bring are a hoodie and my rain jacket. Camping in the rain is challenging, but with the right rain gear, you can still have fun. The old Finnish saying comes to mind here:

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

Tip: Always bring a hoodie. Even in summer. When it cools down at night or in case temperatures take a dip, you’ll be glad to have it.

Planning your camping trip

1. Make a reservation

When I was a kid, it was common to roll into a campground without a reservation just before the gate closed to set up our tent before nightfall.

Those days are over; the best campgrounds are often sold-out weeks or months in advance. Where you camp will dictate the kind of camping trip you’ll take – and the gear you need. If you can, book your campsite before you buy your gear, especially recreation gear.

Many campgrounds will have recreation equipment, such as kayaks and canoes, for rent.

When making a campground reservation give yourself as much lead time as you can and don’t give up if your desired campground is sold-out.

Tip: Use a campsite tracker tool like Campnab to find campsites at sold-out campgrounds when reservations open up. You can read more about campsite tracker tools in my review of campsite trackers.

State and national parks offer some of the finest camping. ReserveAmerica is the online booking system used by many states.

Private campgrounds have upped their game in recent years, with some offering more than just a place to pitch your tent or park your RV. You can stay in a treehouse or on a farm through HipCamp, known as the “Airbnb of camping.” Tentrr is the site to visit if your looking for a glamping experience.

2. Trip planning

Once you have your reservation, go to Google maps and download a map of the area where you’ll be staying so you can refer to it offline if needed. Get into the habit of doing this right after you make the reservation. If you wait to do this later, you may forget! Many times you won’t need it. The one time you do will be a lifesaver. 🙂

Remember to bring your EZ Pass or some cash for tolls. If you’re traveling with pets, bring proof of rabies vaccination; some campgrounds will require it for entry.

If possible, plan your trip so you arrive in daylight. Download some movies on your device before you leave – campground wifi tends to be slow, spotty or nonexistent.

That’s it!

I hope you found this post helpful, and that you will enjoy many wonderful camping trips! Below is a little recap video.

Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

John Muir


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