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12 Must Haves for Every Camping Trip

camping checklist

Nothing compares to the feeling we experience when we spend time with nature.  Disconnected from our chaotic, tightly-wound lives, time seems to move more slowly.  Our attention to the simplicities – and complexities – of our outside world is heightened.  We cannot deny the beauty of the wilderness, nor do we want to.

As an avid hiker and backpacker, I have found that my greatest connection with nature occurs when I am camping.  Now, I’m not talking about the type of “camping” where you stock an RV full of every modern nicety and stay overnight in a dirt parking lot, twelve inches from your neighbor.  I’m talking about true camping.  The kind where you leave behind the nonessentials, disappear into the wilderness and spend your nights in a tent.   If you haven’t tried it, you need to start now.

I’m going to warn you:  Preparing for your first camping experience will probably seem daunting.  What should you bring? How much is overkill?  What camping gear is the best?

Most of us started out with the same worries.  During one of my earliest camping experiences, the 22-mile roundtrip Kalalau Trail on Kauai, Hawaii, I opted to carry about 26 pounds of water in my pack.  After trekking for hours in extreme heat, I found myself repeatedly crossing running streams that would have been ideal for water purification.  Had I researched the terrain and resources more thoroughly and brought along gear for water filtration, I could have cut at least 21 pounds from my pack! 

Over the years, my family has camped in a range of environments – from the mountainous Bob Marshall Wilderness near Glacier National Park, to the colorful bubbling pools of Yellowstone, to the rugged cliffs of the tropical Nā Pali Coast. We have researched and tested a variety of camping gear on our expeditions, with failures and successes, modifying our list of essentials along the way.

Like anyone, we want to be comfortable on our trips but we don’t want to carry anything more than what we will need.  With this principle in mind, here is our thoroughly researched, field-tested camping checklist:

1) Maps, Terrain Research and Navigation Gear

It is essential to thoroughly research the area where you plan to camp, as well as your routes between campsites.  Do not underestimate the strenuousness of elevation gains, or the possible climate changes associated with mountainous areas.  Make sure your route provides access to water, and clearly note your indicated path on a weatherproof map. 

Before your excursion, provide someone else a copy of your route plan so you can be found in the event of an emergency situation.  Ensure you have secured any permits you may need for the area where you plan to explore.

Although we have not personally utilized GPS gear, there are numerous products available for those who choose to do so.  We prefer to carry an inexpensive, yet high-quality compass. 

2) Camping Tent and Footprint

Selecting the best tent depends on your specific needs and the type of camping you plan to enjoy.  Those of you who will be sleeping individually and plan to hike between campsites may appreciate the benefits of ultralight tents.  Many of these shelters tend to weigh between ten ounces and two pounds, generally sleeping one person comfortably. 

We have found that although two person ultralight tents will sleep two adults as intended, they tend to be quite confined.  It is our opinion that the weight of ultralight tents intended for three or four adults does not differ all that much from the weight of traditional three or four person backpacking tents, yet the ultralight tents are much more costly.

We have had our Greatland backpacking tent for nearly a decade.  It sleeps two adults comfortably, with room for two backpacks on the outer edges.  This tent weighs 7.5 pounds fits inside a Kelty Red Cloud 110 backpack with ease. 

Another great option is the Alps Mountaineering Chaos 3 tent, weighing just over 9 pounds.  Like the Greatland, this tent sleeps two adults with spare room for packs.  We especially enjoy the weather-protected areas just outside the doorways created by the positioning of the fly.  This space is perfect for leaving shoes outside your tent, but away from rain or condensation.

Regardless of which tent you choose, we recommend placing a footprint tarp between the ground and the bottom of your shelter.  Not only does provide additional protection for the floor of your tent, it also acts as an insulator between you and the ground

3) Backpack

Whether you are hiking long-distance or just need a simple means by which to transport your essentials, a sturdy backpack is a must.  Improper fit or inadequate design can wreak havoc on your back and your mood.  Make sure your body’s measurements coincide with the measurements of your pack, especially in the torso area from the base of your neck to the base of your spine.

The men in my family have all converted to the Kelty Red Cloud 110 backpack, which weighs less than 6 pounds and has a whopping 6,590 cubic inches of space.  This thing is enormous, without being bulky or unbalanced. 

As a woman, I prefer the Kelty Red Cloud 80 backpack, weighing in at less than 5.5 pounds.  Boasting 5,100 inches of space, it can hold at least a week’s worth of gear without a problem.  Although this pack is designed specifically for women, it also works well for teenaged males with smaller waists.

One of our favorite things about these packs is that they are capable of holding all of a single person’s camping gear internally, without having to strap items to the outside of the backpack.  The top lid also converts into a large “fanny pack” type bag for day trips or short excursions away from your campsite.

Both packs are top-loading, with front-panel access and numerous zippered pockets.  One of my favorite features is the waist-belt pocket, where I keep my camera for quick and easy access. 

4) Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Pad

Choosing a sleeping bag depends heavily on the environment in which you intend to camp.  Of utmost importance is ensuring you are selecting a bag which will keep you warm enough in the temperatures you anticipate you will experience. 

The United States tends to rate sleeping bags on a somewhat subjective system determined by product manufacturers.  Research indicates that most of these ratings indicate the bag will keep a person warm about ten degrees lower than the bag’s actual capability.  For example, a bag rated at -20 degrees Fahrenheit will more accurately keep an average male warm only to approximately -10 degrees Fahrenheit.    It should be noted that women tend to “sleep colder” than men, which means women require more insulation in order to stay comfortably warm while asleep. 

The European Norm (also referred to as EN 13537) is a range of temperature ratings based on standardized testing.  Some American companies are beginning to use this system, which provides consumers with substantially more information.  EN 13537 labels generally indicate a comfort rating, which indicates the lowest comfortable temperature for a female; a lower limit, which specifies the lowest comfortable temperature for a male; and an extreme rating, which is the lowest temperature at which a female could be expected to survive overnight.

My family members all use North Face Cat’s Meow sleeping bags, which are rated by the manufacturer at 20 degrees Fahrenheit.  The EN 13537 comfort rating for this bag is 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  It has a lower limit rating of 19.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and an extreme rating of -11.2 degrees Fahrenheit.  We have found this to be a very comfortable bag for summertime camping in the Rocky Mountains.

Although a sleeping pad may not be an essential survival item, you sure may regret not having one after a few nights of camping!  We have chosen Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout pads for our expeditions.  These pads are available in multiple sizes, are self-inflating, and come with their own stuff sack for easy storage in your pack.

5) Camp Stove and Fire Gear

We have fallen in love with the MSR Pocket Rocket camp stove, which weighs just three ounces (not including each eight ounce MSR Isopro fuel canister).   This stove produces an intense flame capable of boiling five cups of water in less than five minutes.  It is simple to operate and collapses easily into a small plastic container.  On our most recent outing, we boiled approximately 20 cups of water per day for four days, and used less than two eight ounce Isopro fuel canisters over the course of our trip. 

For many people, campfires are one of the most relaxing parts of camping.  Be aware of any fire restrictions that may be in effect for the area where you will be staying, and always carry a camp stove as a backup.

We recommend that your group carries a total of two lighters, as well as a fire starter tool.  The Light My Fire brand Firesteel Scout is a great tool option, should work for 3,000 strikes and is usable even when wet.

6) Water Purification

We all know we risk serious illness if we consume untreated water.  Bringing your water to a boil will kill microorganisms, while filtering systems are intended to remove them entirely.  It should be noted that none of these methods can purify water contaminated with chemical toxins.

We like the Katadyn Hiker Pro Water Microfilter pump system for use at the campsite.  This system will filter eight liters within approximately 20 minutes, is simple to clean and weighs only 11 ounces.  We have never experienced failures or complications with the system.

Our absolute favorite water filtration device, however, is the LifeStraw Go.  This product is a liter water bottle that uses a tube-shaped straw filter to remove microorganisms.  You simply fill the bottle from a water source and replace the lid containing the straw.  Your water is then filtered through suction as you draw water up the straw.

7) Food

Taking a stroll through the freeze-dried food section of any sporting goods store can be overwhelming.  With so many brands and meals on the market, knowing which to select can be confusing. 

We have found Mountain House pouch products to be the most palatable, and especially enjoy their breakfast menu.  These packages generally weigh a couple of ounces apiece, and even the men in our group agree that the portions are plenty large.  Because we’re on the move during the day, we tend to eat Mountain House meals for breakfast and dinner, and rely on one or two Cliff Bars throughout the day.  We have yet to go to sleep hungry!

Although far from being an essential item, I never venture into the wilderness without Folger’s coffee singles.  These teabag-like pouches weigh virtually nothing, and the indulgence of a hot cup of coffee on a brisk mountain morning is unparalleled.

8) Cooking Gear

It is easy to overload on dishes, utensils and other seemingly imperative cooking items.  In our experience, however, you really only need three items to have a comfortable camping meal:  

  • 12 ounce steel enamel mug (per person)
  • 9 cup steel enamel percolator
  • multi-use eating utensil (per person)

A mug of this size will hold approximately 1.5 cups of liquid, allowing you to properly measure water for your freeze-dried meals.  It will also retain the warmth of your coffee longer than a plastic cup can.

I leave all of the internal components of the percolator at home, and use the container itself for boiling water.  The lid helps to retain heat while boiling water on the camp stove, thereby using less fuel.  Because of its spout, I can pour measure water out into my mug without as much risk of spilling or burning myself.

A good multi-use eating utensil will have a butter knife-type handle, a spoon-shape on the opposite end, and small fork tines at the far tip of the spoon.  You can easily eat directly from your Mountain House pouch, eliminating the need for any other form of kitchenware.  Altogether, you can stock your camping kitchen with these three items for less than $30.

9) Clothing

Much like choosing a sleeping bag, selecting appropriate clothing for your camping trip will depend on the environment in which you plan on exploring.  We most frequently hike and camp in areas that can reach temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and sometimes drop as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit at night.   This doesn’t mean you need to pack more clothes – you just need to learn the art of layering!  In addition to whatever socks and undergarments you prefer, we recommend you bring only one of each of the following items:

  • Appropriate shoes or boots – Choosing the best footwear depends on the type of terrain at (and between) your campsites.  DO NOT WEAR NEW SHOES OR BOOTS FOR THE FIRST TIME WHEN YOU ARE OUT CAMPING! Blisters and raw sores on your feet are painful and impossible to ignore.  Break in your camping footwear well ahead of your trip. Any discomfort your footwear causes you prior to your camping trip, it will be amplified once you hit the trail.
  • Quick-drying T-shirt – The synthetic material helps to keep you cool, even on sweltering days.
  • Pants with zippers intended to convert into shorts – These are quite possibly the most ingenious  invention in the world.  Ever.
  • Quick-drying long-sleeved shirt – Comfortable and inexpensive, these will also help protect your arms from sun exposure
  • Hooded thermal sweatshirt and sweatpants - For chilly mornings at camp or cold nights in your tent, you’ll be thankful to have fleece.
  • “Boonie hat” or other sun-shielding headwear – In addition to blocking the sun from your head, face and eyes, you can wear your hat after submerging it in waterways along the trail to cool down on especially hot days.
  • Rain jacket and pants – We prefer Frog Toggs brand.  Don’t skimp and forgo the pants.  It is miserable to be cold and wet.
  • Sandals or water shoes – Bring an inexpensive pair of lightweight shoes you don’t mind getting wet.  You can clip them to the outside of your pack for easy access when crossing waterways, leaving your hiking boots dry.  Water shoes will also protect your feet if you decide to swim or bathe in areas with rocky shores.

We generally camp near water in the evenings, so washing dirty clothing is simple.  Dry clothing items not in use can be stored inside a pillow case and used as a makeshift (and surprisingly comfortable) pillow.

10) Backpack Cover

In the event of rain or snow, you will want to be able to make your backpack weather resistant quickly and easily.  You can find many products intended for this purpose, but we recommend using a large plastic garbage bag.  It will be all but unnoticed in your pack, and can be tied around your bag to serve as a quick rain cover.

11) Emergency Supplies

Camping in isolated settings comes with some inherent risk.  Completing a basic first aid course prior to your trip may sound extreme, right up until you find yourself in an emergency situation.  Know how to provide lifesaving care to yourself and others as a precaution.

We carry a first aid kit with enough basic items for everyone in our group.  Many sporting goods stores carry pre-packaged, soft-sided kits containing a variety of bandages, basic pain relievers and antibiotic ointment.  We recommend adding QuickClot mesh sponges to help stop bleeding in the event of a severe laceration.  Blister and burn adhesive dressings can help to relieve pain of trail-weary feet. 

Be aware of any predatory animals known to reside in the area you are exploring and consider what measures you are willing to take in order to protect yourself.  For example, bears are quite prevalent in one area we frequent, so we elect to carry a canister of oleoresin capsicum (more commonly known as pepper spray).  I also carry a firearm as a last resort.  Again, there is no right or wrong way to protect yourself and your partners while you are out camping.  You are the only one who can decide what tools you are willing to use.

12) Miscellaneous Necessities

  • Paracord – Be aware that some items in your campsite can be very attractive to certain animals, such as bears.  Use a 25-foot length of paracord to secure food and other scented items in a tree away from your sleeping area, and never store food in your tent.  Additionally, paracord works well as a clothesline when tied between two trees.
  • Sanitation shovel and biodegradable wet wipes – When you have to create your own bathroom area, the Glock Entrenching Tool is indispensable.  This shovel weighs only 24 ounces and contains a saw and screwdriver in the handle.  As for the wet wipes – trust me.  You will have a whole new appreciation for them after a few days in the wilderness.
  • Camera and notetakingWe put a smartphone into airplane mode and shut it down entirely at night.  This prolongs battery life, while also saving camping memories in one place.


With these essentials and a love of nature, you are ready to take on the camping experience. Enjoy!    

Maps/Terrain Research

□ GPS /Compass

□ Tent

□ Tent Footprint

□ Backpack

□ Sleeping Bag                                                                                 

□ Sleeping Pad

□ Pillowcase

□ Camp Stove and Fuel

□ 2 Lighters

□ Firestarter

□ Water Purification System

□ Water Bladders or Bottles

□ Freeze-Dried Meals

□ Energy Bars

□ 12-ounce Steel Enamel Mug

□ 9-cup Steel Enamel Percolator (container only)

□ Multi-Use Eating Utensil

□ Quick-Drying T-shirt

□ Pants with Zippers Intended to Convert into Shorts

□ Quick-Drying Long-Sleeved Shirt

□ Hooded Thermal Sweatshirt

□ Sweatpants or Thermal Pants

“Boonie Hat” or other Sun-Shielding Headwear

□ Rain Jacket and Pants

□ Sandals/ Water Shoes

□ Mesh Nylon Bag to Hang Food

□ Saw/Cutting Blade

□ Bug spray

□ Sunscreen                                                                                     

□ Sunglasses

□ Toilet paper

□ Biodegradable Soap

□ Garbage Bag for Empty Food Pouches

□ Garbage Bag for Backpack Cover

□ Extra Flashlight Batteries

□ Hand Sanitizer

□ Biodegradable Wet Wipes                                      

□ Flashlight

□ Multi-Tool

□ Shovel

□ Self-Protection Items

□ Cell Phone/Camera

□ First-Aid Kit   

□ Paracord         

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