How to pack for your first camping trip

So you’ve gone hiking, and you didn’t hate it. In fact, you kinda sorta fell in love with the outdoors (it’s easy, don’t be afraid to fall hard).

Now, you want to go camping.

Pinterest will lead you to believe that you must either buy a ton of stuff or bring half your kitchen with you. Not so.

Download the printable for this post here >>

But I don’t have a tent and don’t want to drop a bunch of money.

Worry not! Your essential equipment – a tent, sleeping bag(s), and sleeping pad(s) can be rented. If you’re camping somewhere warm, you won’t necessarily need a sleeping bag, though. More on that in a second.

If there’s an REI close to you, start there (members get an extra discount!).  As of November 2019, it’ll run $68 to rent a sleeping pad, four-person tent, and a sleeping bag from REI for a one-night trip. Obviously still not what I would consider cheap. But it’s certainly less then buying it all! To find out what you can rent from your local REI, go here and find your state.

If you don’t have an REI – don’t worry you still have options! Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) has stores in the Northeastern United States as well as the Mid-Atlantic region. EMS doesn’t publish their prices online, so call ahead to find out more. This post from the Dyrt has a larger list of stores to rent from as well.

You can also rent online from places like Lower Gear that will ship gear to you wherever you may be – the same three pieces of equipment will run you $61 plus shipping. They’re based in Phoenix, so if you happen to live there, you can avoid shipping costs and simply pick up your gear in-store. Another online option is OutdoorsGeek.

No matter where you rent from, do not go without the three essentials: tent, sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad. 

What size tent do I need?

Tents are pretty liberal with their estimations of how many people can fit in them. A two-person tent is in fact VERY snug for two people. A good rule of thumb is to get a tent that is rated for at at least more person than you will have in the tent with you. Most tents come in even-numbered sizes (e.g. two-, four-, six-person, etc). If it’s just you and a friend, or you and a partner, a four-person tent will be ideal.

What is car camping versus backpacking?

Car camping is the most beginner-friendly option. It means you’re driving your car right up to a campsite (maybe walking 10-20 yards) and camping there. You can bring as much as you want and it doesn’t matter how much it weighs because everything is being packed and carried in your car.

Backpacking means you’re carrying everything you need in a backpack and hiking (usually multiple miles) to a random place to camp along a trail. For this reason, camping equipment labeled “backpacking” just means that it’s lighter and, in the case of tents, smaller.

This post is for car camping. If you’re interested in trying backpacking, I highly recommend this book. Beyond that I can’t help you!

Okay. So what clothes do I bring?

If you’re going camping in the mountains, never underestimate how cold it can get at night. I made this mistake my first trip – 40 degrees didn’t sound THAT cold, so I brought no hat, yoga pants, and a light jacket to sleep in. It did not go well.

Alternatively, if you aren’t camping in the mountains and the lows are in the 70s or above, you probably won’t need a sleeping bag and could just bring some blankets from home to sleep in and normal pajamas/leisure wear/underwear.

Regardless, layers are key.

I always pack more than I think I’ll need because it’s way better to shed layers when you’re hot than to be shivering wishing you brought more. I make sure to always have a thick pair of socks, a beanie, and long underwear for sleeping.

In general, when it comes to packing, being a car camper is great because you just drive up to your campsite and have your whole car accessible to you. You can bring as much as you want and leave what you don’t need in the car, so don’t be afraid to overpack while you figure out what works for you!

One last thing – make sure to bring a change of underwear as well as a few pairs of socks since (spoiler alert) you most likely won’t be showering.

If I’m not showering, what toiletries should I bring?

Well, some campgrounds do have showers. These are typically at big national parks like Yellowstone or at KOAs/other places with of facilities. Most Forest Service campgrounds, and many less popular national parks, won’t even have running water. Make sure to check beforehand (learn how to scout out a campground here).

This post assumes your campground does not have running or drinkable water. First, make sure to bring some with you to dunk your toothbrush in. (In general, you should bring water with you for drinking purposes. More on that shortly.)

I have acne-prone skin (one adulthood secret that no one told me….acne follows you after puberty!) so I never go anywhere without face wipes. Other than that, I throw some moisturizer, deodorant, and sunblock in my duffle bag and call it a day.

Ladies, Pinterest tells you there are a lot of other “essentials” to bring. And if you really love make-up, you go girl. But the best part (for me) about camping is that you get a break from all the beauty standards of regular life and just get to be. So I leave all that at home. But if you’d prefer to swipe on some mascara, you should live your truth. There is no one definition of what makes you outdoorsy.

A weekend of no make-up is a liberating experience that I recommend for everyone.
A weekend of no make-up is a liberating experience that I recommend for everyone.

I need to bring more gear though, right?

Yes! But nothing too involved.

Make sure everyone in your group has a light source (phone, headlamp, or lantern). Make sure that light source has fresh batteries, a way to charge them, and an extra set of batteries (the last one is not applicable for your phone).

Also essential – chairs. If you’re a sports fan, soccer mom, or tail-gating college student, you probably already have some sort of folding/camp chair. If not, they’re pretty cheap at REI and Walmart. In general, Walmart has great cheap camping stuff.

Firewood and a way to light it. Sometimes, you can buy firewood at the campground with cash. But that varies wildly. If you’re a worrier like I am and want to arrive with firewood, any gas station or grocery store within a 50-mile radius will do. Don’t forget a lighter!

Do not bring wood from home. It can bring in funky plant diseases if you live far away from where you’re camping, and obviously that’s not cool to do. One large bundle is enough for two people to have a decent s’mores and beer sesh for one night, but if you plan on having the fire going for several hours, grab two.

But what about food?

I have a post all about that! Read it here >>

Basically: Make it easy on yourself. It’s impossible to botch making hot dogs and camping is the perfect excuse to eat like a ten-year-old.

Anything else?

– Bug spray and anti-itch cream, in case the former doesn’t work.

– A small first-aid kit. Read my post about making your own DIY kit for cheaper >> 

– Water: get gallon jugs to cut down on plastic waste. Two gallons should be plenty for two people to camp over night and hike. If you’re not planning on hiking, you’re probably safe with one.

– Ice and a cooler of any size. If you are in the market for a new cooler, you can’t go wrong with this one.

– Kindling for your fire. Cheat and use ultra-cheap wooden skewers.

– Lighter (the big kind with the long neck)

– Skewer for marshmallows and hot dogs. They’re cheap and worth it. Even if you decide you hate camping, you can always use it for a backyard fire pit.

– Pillows and extra blankets.

– A roll of paper towels.

– A garbage bag. If you went to the store to pick up any food on the way, just reuse the grocery bags!

– Hand sanitizer. Most campgrounds don’t have a place to wash your hands.

– Cash money. Once you’re out in the woods, less places take credit cards. And, cash can just be faster where the internet connection is slow!

Bring whatever entertainment you deem necessary. Hiking and a campfire are usually enough for me. It’s totally cliche, but conversations around the campfire are really some of the best you’ll ever have. Partially because of the good conversation, but also because I have the sleep schedule of a 90-year-old woman, I don’t really bring anything else.

You can bring a book (make sure you have a reading light) for bedtime, a deck of cards, something to play catch with, etc. I strenuously object to bringing any technology with you besides a phone. First, you probably won’t have service and you definitely won’t have wifi. But like with makeup, camping is my time to unplug from “normal” life and all its demands. Try it.

But what about all those cool gadgets Pinterest and the rest of the internet says I need?

Keep it simple for your first camping trip, particularly if you’re not sure whether you’re going to like it enough to go again. Plus, there’s plenty of time to spend all your money on things at REI, so stick to the basics for your first outing – and don’t forget to have fun!

Oh, and if you need help picking out and reserving your first campsite, read this next.

I can smell the s'mores from here.
I can smell the s’mores from here.

12 thoughts on “How to pack for your first camping trip

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