Camping Checklist: 101

Get Ready To Rough It

Camping is by in large the most popular outdoor activity in America, and upwards of a half a billion Americans go camping in some regard every year. Yet people who are new to camping can be easily discouraged by a lack of proper preparation. It may seem elementary, but a well thought out camping set up is instrumental to a successful camping trip. Naturally the weather can play a big part as well, but that we unfortunately cannot control. Let's outline a simple "car camping" scenario, let's say 50 feet or less from where you packed your vehicle.

Many different reasons could lead you out to this spot to camp. From getting away for the weekend to an extended vacation to even sleeping closer to your morning hunting spot, whatever brings you camping, you'll want to make it comfortable as possible. This checklist basically applies to both established camping and primitive camping, but do yourself and your family a favor and try primitive camping sometime if it is available in your chosen area. National Forests and BLM Land areas offer ample opportunities to camp away from the crowds, and it'll give you the best chance to truly “get away from it all” for a while. Let's start with the common essentials to start, and then move on to extras you may not have thought about that can really improve any camping trip.

Tent Selection

While trailer campers and RVs are a big part of the American camping culture, let's stick to tent camping for this article. We'll be the first to say there is a big difference between a cheap tent you pull off the big box store shelf at the last minute and a Tent you actually research and spend decent money on to camp in comfort. Before you decide to buy something cheap and inferior, ask yourself a few questions. Is this the only time you plan to camp in the next five to ten years? The likely answer is probably not. So why do you keep buying cheap tent brands every time a big camping trip comes up? The zippers snag way too easily, the cheap canvas rips, and worst of all they are a pain to set up with their over-complicated set ups that force you to slide tent poles through long sheathes that always snag. Camping trips are supposed to be enjoyable, but the cheap tent brands seem to have missed that memo when they task you with a frustrating 2-3 hour tent set up time.

Camping Tent

Sleeping Bag - Sleeping Pad

Sleeping Bag and sleeping pad. Sleeping bags are rated based upon the minimum temperature they can handle, and a 15 degree sleeping bag is perfect for temperatures 15 degrees and above, although at much warmer temperatures it will naturally become uncomfortable. On warmer nights such as that, most campers will be comfortable sleeping on top of the bag as an alternative. Modern sleeping bags are typically composed of synthetic materials and pack up tight, but as opposed to the tent where you really are much better buying something advanced, you can get away with a cheaper sleeping bag if you only plan to sleep in warmer temperatures. Ask yourself once again how often you plan to camp in the next five years. Likely you'll be much better served to invest in a 30 or 15 degree rated bag with a quality design. Once again, you won't have to worry as much about zippers snagging or the material failing. Bags rated below zero will probably be overkill for car camping situations unless you plan to snow camp or camp at high altitude.

Sleeping Bags

Most beginner campers don't realize that the sleeping pad is just as important as the sleeping bag itself. On colder nights a sleeping pad provides a vital cushion of air between you and the cold ground, and this is usually the difference between shivering all night and sleeping soundly. The other big mistake made with sleeping pads is buying the traditional air mattresses that are really better suited for accommodating extra guests at home. These mattresses seem appealing because they provide a lot of padding between you and the ground, but they almost never hold air properly throughout the night, and they are bulky and a pain to inflate. Once again smaller but more durable camping specific pads are the better option. They pack up small but many are self inflating, and while they provide what seems like less of a cushion, they actually feel more comfortable to sleep on then a constantly leaking and swaying air mattress. Today many companies even bundle their sleeping bags and pads together in an all-in-one solution.

Other Camping Amenities

A tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad is all you really need to camp. But ideally you want to make your campsite feel like home, and there's a lot more to add to your kit to make things more comfortable. Extra water is the number one asset you'll always need no matter what. Even if you're camping at an established campground, be sure to invest in a couple water containers (20 gallon or more) and fill them up once you arrive at the site. Things can get tense if water runs low, and water containers are a very cheap investment that will always pay off. If you plan on camping near a reliable water source, you can also explore water filtration options like two bladder systems, water filtration pens, or even products like Lifestraw. Remember, even if you're camping somewhere established, plan for the uncertain and be ready to seek a back up water source, even if it is only for the night.

Camping Essentials

Camping chairs are also a must, but they are pretty self explanatory. If you plan on having a bigger group, a pop up tent and a couple folding tables are always a hit for food preparation as well as cards later. Of course don't forget about illumination options like Headlamps and lanterns. A decent cooler that is proven to hold ice for several days is also a wise investment, but always avoid cheap Styrofoam coolers absolutely and skip fabric coolers if you're going on an extended trip. A reliable Knife and extra cordage will always come in handy, and never skimp on the first aid kit. Self assembled first aid kits are the best because you know you filled them with items you can trust, but many professional kits will work fine as long as they aren't overly cheap or small.

Always Be Prepared

We could go on and on about what is necessary to bring along, but let's finish up with a basic checklist of items that could come in handy on any trip. Just remember to prepare for just about anything. When the rain hits or spirits dampen, the fact that you went the extra mile will save the day and show friends and family that camping really can be a blast. Don't forget to pull out the ingredients for s’mores once the sun sets either.

Basic Checklist:

  1. Quality Tent 4 – 6 person capacity for car camping
  2. Warm sleeping bags for all occupants, generally 15 – 30 degree rated is a good guideline
  3. Sleeping pads to match each bag, wider pads are more pleasant to sleep on as you won't roll off as easily
  4. Water jugs and alternative filtration methods
  5. Several lighting options including headlamps, lanterns, and flashlights
  6. Coolers proven to hold ice for 2 – 3 days effectively
  7. Pop up tent, or alternatively extra tarps and cordage
  8. Fold up tables
  9. Camping chairs
  10. Sharp, reliable knife
  11. Bug repellent and sunscreen
  12. Several camping chairs for your guests
  13. Complete first aid kit
  14. Sun hats and sunglasses
  15. Camp stove or fire grate for cooking (a fire pan can be a great environmentally friendly alternative
  16. Camp cookware and biodegradable soap to clean it with
  17. Finally, and most importantly, your spirit of adventure and love of the outdoors