What if you didn’t have to wonder exactly what to bring camping?
We know it can seem overwhelming when you’re heading out camping for the first time – or even the 10th time.
For years, every time we started packing, I was sure I was missing something – and, usually, I was. But, after many years, we’ve developed a pretty good system for making sure we pack all the essentials.
The best news? Even though it seems like there are a million things you need for a camping trip, it doesn’t have to be that complicated – even if you’re going with kids. In the next few minutes, we’ll share what you really need to take on your next camping trip and a free family camping checklist to keep you on track while you’re packing.
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What to Bring Camping
Car Camping Essentials for Sleeping
When it comes to car camping, there are a few things that can make your night a million times more comfortable….at least when you’re old like us. 🤪
When you’re first getting started, camping in a tent is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to go. You could also choose to sleep in hammocks, which might be a great option if you have older kids. But, by and large, camping in a tent is one of the simplest ways to get started.
When you’re looking for a tent, you’ll want to think about a few things.
First, where do you plan to camp, and during what seasons? If you plan to do winter camping, for instance, you’ll want to make sure you get a four-season tent.
Another thing to consider is single vs. double-walled. In general, double-walled tends to be better as it creates a second layer to divert moisture away from your sleeping quarters. This can be extremely helpful, even if it’s not raining, as it will help to prevent early morning dew from seeping in.
If you’re a family of four looking at a four-person tent and you also have a dog, you may want to bump up to a six-man tent. In general, most tents have enough room for sleeping bag space for the number of people listed. So, if you think you’ll need extra space for gear that you won’t be leaving in the car, for a pack-n-play, or the family dog, you may want to go bigger.
Having a vestibule is also incredibly helpful. If you can at least have enough room to put everyone’s shoes under the vestibule, it helps a TON.
Kelty Dirt Motel Lightweight Tent for Backpacking or Car Camping
Alps Mountaineering Budget Friendly 6 Person Tent
Big Agnes Big House Large, Extremely Versatile Tent
Sleeping Pad or Cot
We’ve found that having a quality camping pad is nice and works just fine, but a cot is much more comfortable. If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, these are the ones we have. Or, we even have friends who’ve taken an air mattress with them!
You might be tempted to skimp on the price of a sleeping bag. And, if the weather where you’re headed is pretty mild, you might be okay.
BUT, if you’re expecting your nights to get chilly, you’re going to be much more comfortable with a quality sleeping bag and/or blanket that is rated for colder weather. Even when it’s only down in the 50’s at night, I’m most comfortable in my 30-degree sleeping bag.
Last year, I picked up a Rumpl blanket, and it was terrific for those cool camping nights where I needed just a little bit more warmth. Plus, it’s perfect for around the campsite as well. I literally use it everywhere. Camping, in the car, on the couch…EVERYWHERE!
Mini Broom and Dustpan
I know, I know…this doesn’t seem like a sleeping essential, but hear me out.
When you have kids (of the human or furry variety), I hate to break it to you, but they aren’t going to be the best at remembering to leave their shoes outside every time…or brushing their paws off, whichever the case may be.
If you’ve ever been beach camping, you really know what I mean. It’s fantastic to be steps from the ocean and to fall asleep to the sound of the waves. It’s less awesome to have the entire beach IN your tent. 😝
Having a mini-dust pan and broom helps to keep the worst of the mess out of your sleeping area, and has saved my kids’ lives sanity more than once. It’s perfect for sweeping out the dirt, pine needles, and everything that they’ll inevitably drag into the tent. Plus, it works great to brush off your storage bins or anything else before you put them back in your car.
Last but not least, if you are going car camping and you have space, take a real pillow. Sure, you can save on space with a camping pillow (and John will a lot of the time), but I sleep soooo much better with a real pillow. So, whenever we have the room, it comes with me.
Camping Gear for Cooking
Camp Stove & Fuel
We’ve had a vintage Coleman camp stove for years. Seriously. This stove belonged to my great-grandfather, then my grandfather, and now me. Unfortunately, it seems to have finally reached the end of its life – though, if you know of anyone who works on them, I’d love to know!
We’ve replaced our vintage stove with the Genesis Camp Stove System by Jet Boil. And – let me tell you – it’s a game-changer! Being able to individually control each burner, have the option to add on a backpacking stove with the same fuel source, and having everything packed in one small bag is fantastic. We’re in love!
Pots and Pans
When we go camping, we typically don’t take a ton of pots and pans. A skillet and a medium-size pot generally are what we take. Between those two things, we can do just about anything we need to. Occasionally we will take a dutch oven or iron skillet, as well, when we have space and weight isn’t an issue.
Bonus: Our new Genesis Camp System has it all in one!
Camping Kitchen Must-Haves
Cooler & Ice Packs
It may seem obvious, but an excellent cooling solution can make a huge difference in how you feel on a camping trip. We upgraded our cooler a year or two ago to a cooler that is rated for 4-5 days. One of these days, maybe we’ll upgrade to a Yeti. 😉
We also added these ice packs for the cooler that are supposed to be the equivalent of dry ice. They work incredibly well and stood up to an entire 5-day trip through Grand Teton & Yellowstone! I can’t tell you how nice it is to not have everything full of water and sloshing around in the cooler. And, not having to refill with ice almost daily is huge!
Plates and Utensils
In the past, we used disposable plates and utensils for ease of use, but we are trying to reduce our footprint and produce less waste. So, we have a couple sets of plates that are the perfect blend of plate and bowl. Deep enough for cereal or oatmeal, but wide enough for dinner. In fact, one set we picked up from Target for less than $1 a plate! The other plates are these from Sea to Summit.
We take a plate for everyone and a spork and just wash after every meal. They clean up very quickly, and we feel so much better not creating so much waste.
Can Opener and/or Bottle Opener
Wanna know how long it takes to open a can with a knife?
Way too long when you have hungry kids, that’s for sure. We’ve forgotten the can opener waaaay too many times in the past – in fact, it’s one of the biggest reasons that I have to have a list to double-check before we leave now.
Knife and Cutting Board
We love lightweight, flexible cutting boards like these. As far as knives go, we leave our nice kitchen knives at home, so they don’t get lost, and we tend to go with something reasonably priced that has a sheath.
Mugs and Water Bottles
Our favorite mugs and cups to travel with, hands-down, are Hydro Flasks. They keep coffee hot and water cold, and you can get away with one per person. Right now, the kids have a cheaper option, though, since they’ve lost too many…🙄
For many years, we’ve taken a french press with us on camping trips, and they work great for making plenty of coffee for 2-4 people at once. And, clean-up is relatively easy, since you only have leftover grounds to dispose of.
However, lately, we’ve been leaning towards taking our Aeropress. You can only make coffee for 1 person at a time, but it goes incredibly fast, and the clean-up is even easier than the french press since the grounds literally pop out in a hockey puck of coffee grounds, with little to no water left over.
Our other favorite option and best when you want to limit how much gear you’re taking is instant coffee. And, I’m not talking about the kind of instant coffee your grandma used to have in her cabinet. 🥴 The instant coffee world goes way beyond Folgers and even Starbucks Via now. In fact, one of the best instant coffees we’ve had is from Black & White Roasters, and we don’t feel like we’re compromising when we use it.
Hot Dog/Marshmallow Forks
Our kids love making S’mores when we are camping (sometimes we change it up and make S’moreos or S’mores Ahoy), even though one of them hates hotdogs…🤷♀️ So, anytime we can have a fire, we make sure to take hot dog forks. Ours are collapsable options similar to this that are great because they take up so little space, but are always easy to toss in.
When it comes to camp kitchen clean-up, we try to take what we need to be self-sufficient. You never know how far away the water will be from you in a campground, and if you choose to disperse camp, you’ll want to be prepared as well. Here are the things we have in our camp kitchen clean-up kit:
- Plenty of Trash Bags
- Paper Towels
- Sponge (we have a silicone version) and drying cloth(s)
- Biodegradable Soap
- Baby/Wet Wipes: These come in handy for so many things when camping – cleaning tables, surfaces, bodies, sticky marshmallow faces, and hands… Especially if you’re dry camping and conserving water.
Optional Camping Equipment
- Folding Table: A folding table is great to have in case your campsite does not have a picnic table. If we know we will have a table, we may leave this at home, but it’s nice to have extra prep space sometimes, too.
- Tablecloth: I really like having a tablecloth when we camp at a campground. It’s easier to clean off after meals. Plus, it makes the surface safer for our kiddo with food allergies in case someone missed cleaning up a smear of peanut butter.
- Camp Sink: In our experience, having a camp sink to rinse and clean your dishes at your campsite can be super helpful. Pay close attention to where you should dump the water, however. For instance, in Yellowstone, no water from food should be dumped anywhere other than in the designated sink area to discourage wildlife from venturing into camp. You can buy a collapsible sink for camp, but any shallow and wide container will do. We actually currently have small toy bins from Ikea that were cheap, and we use one for wash water and one for rinse water.
- Grill/Grill Rack: If you plan to cook around the campfire, you may want to bring a grill rack if there isn’t one already at your campsite.
- Dutch Oven: We only bring cast iron or dutch ovens when it’s not fire season. Otherwise, the space and weight just isn’t worth it for us. But, they are nice to have for a hot meal cooked straight in the fire!
Things to Bring Camping: Bathroom Essentials
For toiletries, we generally keep it pretty simple. Necessary shower supplies, deodorant, lip balm, and face care are usually all I take.
Unless we’re going to be gone an extended time, I generally don’t bother with a razor, shaving cream, makeup, etc. It just ends up being wasted space that I don’t use anyway.
When we are camping, I typically pare down my usual toiletries to the bare essentials. I used to take my makeup with me, but you know how many times I actually used it? Pretty much none. 🤪
Now, my face care routine when camping usually includes a cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen, and lip balm or gloss. If it’s winter or we’re in a dry area, I may add a hydrating toner and/or face oil.
I will say that if we’re going somewhere where we will be taking day trips into town, or if we’re in a National Park and planning to do a bunch of Visitors Centers, I may toss in concealer and mascara, but that’s about it.
We always bring small containers with these as the basics. I used to only pack one set for everyone to share, but now that the kids are older, I often will pack two sets – one for me and one for John and the boys. That way, we can all head into the showers at the same time without any issues if we need to.
ProTip: If you buy a few contact lens containers, you can put small amounts of your creams and cleansers in them, and it cuts down so much on space. And, if I’m taking a toner, I will go ahead and saturate a few cotton squares with toner and put them in a baggie, so I’m not dealing with a giant bottle.
Microfiber or Camping Towel
We used to take beach towels with us camping. But, a couple of years ago, I came across a great deal on some microfiber camping towels. The ones we have aren’t like a microfiber cleaning towel, though. They feel more like a “suede” or chamois texture….sort of. 😉 They are super soft and work like a dream! Plus, they take up less space than a single beach towel used to.
If we are going to be using campground showers, I always make sure to take a pair of shoes, like flip flops or Chacos that I can use in the shower. There’s less chance of getting athlete’s foot, but also a lot of the times, the shower floors can end up getting kind of grimy between cleans – just because everyone is outside and bringing it all in when they shower.
Feminine Hygiene and Bathroom Supplies
Okay, guys…this is TMI time, so you may want to skip on by.
Ladies, if you’re going to be experiencing that special time of the month during your trip, you have a few options to make your personal hygiene a bit easier. You can always take pads and tampons (just make sure to dispose of them properly and pack them out if you’re dispersed camping).
But, my favorite option for dealing with a period in the woods is a menstrual cup. I no longer have periods after needing surgery. However, that’s what I used when I still had them, and it was a game-changer for me. For me, I experienced less pain, less odor, and had less waste to deal with – win-win! I used a Diva Cup, but there are sooooo many more options available now. I suggest checking out this post about feminine hygiene in the woods from The Walking Mermaid as she has more recent experience with the other options out there.
I feel it’s also worth mentioning that if you’re not sure that bathrooms will be easily accessible, having a female urination device (a.k.a. pee funnel) on hand can be a lifesaver. It’s so nice to be able to go to the bathroom just about anywhere without having to drop your pants to your ankles, squat, and pray no one comes close enough to spot you…if you’ve been there, you know what I mean! I have this one, and it’s simple to clean, has a clip to hang on the outside of my pack, and is easy to use – though, I do recommend taking the time to practice with it at home before heading out for the first time.
Dispersed Camping Bathroom Supplies
If you plan on camping where there are no bathrooms handy, you’ll also want to think through how you’re going to take care of your waste. Make sure to check regulations and be prepared with the supplies you need. We typically take:
- A shovel (car camping) or trowel (hiking or backpacking)
- Biodegradeable toilet paper
- Sturdy plastic bag for carrying out anything additional (non-biodegradable toilet paper, tampons, wipes, etc.)
- Hand Sanitizer
Camping Gear List: Clothing
For clothing, we always make sure we have the essential items we would take for any trip. These include:
- Socks and underwear
- Pants and/or shorts
- Short and/or long sleeve shirts
However, we also find it helpful to take a few extra items to make the trip more comfortable and to be prepared for different types of weather. For instance, we will usually pack the following as well.
- Fleece pullover or hoodie
- Warm jacket, such as a down puffy
- Rain jacket
- Baselayers: We really love the Airblaster Ninja Suits, and they come with us on every camping trip. They work perfectly as sleepwear and keep you warmer on chilly nights, but they also are an excellent baselayer to layer under clothes. Plus, they are perfect for winter sports!
- Fleece pants or sweat pants: When sitting around the fire on a cool evening, sometimes having an extra layer can be helpful, even in the summer. Unless you live somewhere like Florida, that is. 😉
- Hat and Gloves: We will often toss in a beanie and a set of gloves for everyone as well, just in case it gets too chilly. They are also great to wear to sleep if you need extra warmth.
- Swimsuits: Having a swimsuit in case you are near a water source is excellent!
- Boots or Hiking shoes: Having a set of shoes specifically for hiking, if you plan to do any during your trip, is a great idea. We often will take two pairs of shoes each—our hiking shoes and flip-flops.
- Flip-flops: We mentioned bringing a pair of flip flops for shower shoes, but they are also great to have around camp.
Last but not least, we have found that bringing a lightweight laundry bag of some kind for dirty and wet clothes is incredibly helpful. When we get home, they go straight to the laundry room when we get back for easier unpacking.
Essential Camping Tools and Supplies
Over the years, I hate to admit how many we’ve bought.
At first, we bought cheap $5-10 options for the kids. They lasted about one camping trip before they completely quit working.
So, then we decided to invest in nicer Black Diamond Headlamps for them…and they both managed to lose them. Thankfully, one of them was found, but not before they asked to borrow mine…and lost it. 🙄
We’ve now decided that they get our hand-me-downs or an entry-level option from a trusted brand like Petzl or Black Diamond. We considered having them check them in at bedtime, but wanted them to have them for the middle of the night bathroom trips…so, I guess we just continue to watch for sales and stock up for the inevitable. Worst case scenario, we’ll have an extra for a friend. 😉
Additional Essential Camping Tools and Supplies
- First Aid Kit & Supplies
- Mallet or Hammer
- Knife and/or Multitool
- Matches or Lighter
- Extra Batteries and Fuel
- Bear spray: If you’re going to be staying in bear country, having bear spray (and properly storing your food) is a must.
Kids Camping Gear
Our kids have mostly the same gear that we have, just kid-sized, now that they are older. However, when they were younger, there were a few additional supplies on our kids checklist that we would make sure to take with us.
Camping With Babies and Toddlers
If you’re camping with a baby or toddler, there are a few extra things that can make your trip a lot easier.
- Diapers and Wipes
- Toys (just a couple of small toys such as a ball or a bucket and shovel)
- Pack ‘n Play
- Books for Bedtime
- Comfort Items for Bedtime
- White Noise App on our Phone
- Extra Clothes (they’re bound to get wet and dirty and need more changes than usual in the woods)
- Kid size camp chair
- Flashlight (or Headlamp) for kids
Camping with Older Kids
- Any particular sleep or comfort items
- Personal Camp Chairs and/or Hammock
- Book to read at night
- Personal Headlamp or Flashlight
- Frisbee, Ball, or Games to play at camp
Dog Camping Gear List
- Food and Water Dishes: We have a portable bottle with a bowl top (similar to this one) that works great for day hikes away from camp, but you can also use a collapsible dog bowl like this as well.
- Dog Bed
- Collar and Leash
- Pet Medications
- Dog Waste Bags: In some areas, you can bury your pet’s waste as you would your waste, but you will just want to be sure to check the regulations in your area before heading out.
- Treats and Misc: We always bring our dog’s favorite blanket and her jacket in case she gets cold at night, in addition to a few extra treats.
Personal Items & Camping Supplies
- Personal Medications: In addition to our first aid kit, we bring any prescriptions that we need, any vitamins needed, and additional pain medications.
- Portable chargers
- ID, Credit Card, and Cash: I typically pare down my wallet/purse to the essentials and take only my ID, Credit Card, and a bit of cash for firewood or parking fees.
Other Campsite Supplies
- Camp Chairs: Even if you’re trying to pack light, some kind of camp chair can be really nice to have. We have a lightweight camp chair by Alite, and the boys have a tri-leg chair like this. Alite has gone out of business, but this chair from Helinox is very similar. They are easy to carry and come with us often on day hikes as well.
Optional Campsite Supplies
- Field Guides and/or Books
- Tarp and Paracord: Handy if it’s supposed to rain or you need shade.
- Firewood: From nearby when safe to use
- Books: We all enjoy having a good book or Kindle to read at night around the fire or when we’re heading to bed.
- Games: If we have a large campsite, we may take a game like BulziBucket or Spike Ball. But, we always take playing cards, and the boys really have enjoyed this game from Melissa & Doug as well.
- Lanterns: If everyone has headlamps, a lantern is optional, but if you don’t all have them, I’d recommend bringing one for sure.
- Citronella Candles
- Hammocks: Our boys got hammocks for Christmas last year, and they are in love! They always take them on hikes and camping. They’re comfortable, lightweight, and perfect for hanging around camp. (Pun intended. 😉)
- Saw or Axe: If you plan on collecting downed wood from nearby for your fire, you may want to toss one of these in.
Food Preparation & Planning
When it comes to planning a great camping trip, one great thing we do to keep our stress levels down is to take a little bit of extra time to create a meal plan for our trip.
I’ll take into consideration a few things when I’m planning our meals, such as: our planned camping spot, whether there will be potable water, the amount of cooler space we will have, our group size, and the expected weather conditions (nobody wants hot soup on a 90°F day!)
Depending on the situation, I might choose camping foods that don’t need refrigeration. Or, if we’re planning to spend a lot of time camp cooking, our list of camp meals might be a bit more fun.
Once I’ve chosen our meals, I’ll put together a shopping list and head to the grocery store (or grocery stores – it seems like we always need a Costco run, too). Then, I’ll spend a little bit of time prepping any foods that will be easier to handle at home and pack the rest of the food in a good cooler.
Final Thoughts on What to Bring Camping
I know it can seem like a lot when you start thinking about all the camping gear you’ll need, but if you know ahead of time what you need and start putting together your kits ahead of time, you’ll be surprised at how simple it actually is to get it all ready. No matter where you’re heading to national forests, state parks, or somewhere else in the great outdoors, having a good packing list is a great way to save yourself some time.
Truth be told, I spend way more time prepping our food for the trip than anything else. But, that’s a post for another day…
The bottom line is that a good packing list can go a long way to saving your sanity and making sure you don’t forget any of those important items without bringing too much stuff.
Want our free Printable Camping Checklist? Grab it here.
Over to you – what’s one camping comfort you’d never go without?
Related Camping and Hiking Posts
- Ridiculously Easy Camping Food Ideas (That Don’t Require a Fridge!)
- Camping Etiquette 101: What You Should (And Shouldn’t) Do
- Camping in Oregon: Everything You Need to Know
- Hiking Etiquette 101: The Basics You Need to Know to Get Started
- What to Take Hiking (and What to Leave at Home) – A must-read if you plan to do any hiking during your camping trip!