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 great 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 haul a ton of stuff with you. Not so.

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

Worry not! Your essential sleeping equipment – a tent, sleeping bag(s), and sleeping pad(s) can be rented.

If there’s an REI close to you, start there. Equipment rentals at REI are pretty low cost, especially if you’re a member. To find out what you can rent from your local REI, go here and find your state.

Quick aside: If you’re not a member what are you doing with your life?! Find out why you need to be an REI member and other ways to save on gear here.


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. They have phenomenal customer service and offer gear rentals in their stores.

If you don’t have an REI or an EMS nearby, you can still rent online. Yes, mail-order camping gear! Lower Gear is based out of Arizona, but will ship your gear to you wherever you may be. Obviously, this requires a bit more planning since you need to have time to get your items shipped to you.

How To Pack For Your First Camping Trip

No matter where you rent from, do not go without the three essentials: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad. Sleeping without a pad doesn’t make you a hardass, it just makes you incredibly cold and uncomfortable.

Okay. So What Do I Pack to Wear Camping?

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. It did not go well.

As with hiking, layers are key. If you have some good base layer clothing (i.e. Under Armour layers or something similar), throw those in your duffle bag. Other overnight sleepwear essentials include a heavier pair of socks, a warm beanie, and long underwear to wear under whatever pants you happen to be wearing to sleep in.

In the event that you aren’t camping in the mountains, or if you’ve checked the weather and it will still be blisteringly hot all night, ignore everything I just said and just sleep in your underwear. Perhaps bring a battery-operated personal misting fan…uh yeah, I’m talkin’ ’bout Squeeze Breeze.

These bad boys are the reason I made it through summer camp as a child. One night last summer when the LOW was 90 degrees, I was wishing I still had mine.
These bad boys are the reason I made it through summer camp as a child. One night last summer when the LOW was 90 degrees, I was wishing I still had mine.

The great thing about beginner camping (aka car camping aka camping at a regular campground) is that you can bring as many layers as you want and just leave them in the car. You’ll never be sorry that you packed a raincoat just in case.

If you’re planning a hike and are unsure what to wear and pack, I’ve got you covered.

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

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

If you want to go full-outdoor bum, just bring mouthwash (literally no one will judge you). If you’d rather brush your teeth, your campground may not have running or drinkable water, so bring some with you to dunk your toothbrush in.

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. These wipes from Target are cheap and do the job. Other than that, I throw some 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 makeup, 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. 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.

Ok, but I need more than a tent, right?

Yes, most importantly bring a flashlight.

Learn more about campground light, lantern, and headlamp options here.

No matter what you bring, make sure everyone in your group has one, that the flashlights have fresh batteries, and bring extra batteries with you just in case. On that note, bring extra batteries for whatever you are bringing that is battery operated (for cell phones, make sure to pack a car charger).

Also essential – chairs. If you’re a sports fan, soccer mom, or tailgating college student, you probably already have some sort of camper chair. If not, they’re pretty cheap on Amazon and at Walmart. Getting one with cupholders is handy if you want to have a few drinks around the campfire (alcoholic or otherwise).

You will most likely be able to find firewood on the campground, either at the campground host’s site, the ranger station, or camp store. If you’re a worrier like I am, you can stop at any gas station or grocery store within a 50-mile radius will do. Do not bring wood from home. It can damage the ecosystem, and you definitely don’t want to be that guy (or girl).

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, it never hurts to grab two.

But what about food?

Remember to KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Make it easy on yourself and get hot dogs, buns, and your choice of condiments. It’s impossible to botch making hot dogs and camping is the perfect excuse to eat like a ten-year-old.

What else should be on my list?
– S’mores supplies. Duh.
– Beverages (boozy or non, whatever floats your boat)

Actually Essential Items:
– Bug spray and anti-itch cream, in case the former doesn’t work.
– Water – don’t bother with bottled water, just get a gallon jug of it. That should be enough for two people on an overnight trip.
– Ice and a cooler of any size. This small lunchbox is a great one, and if you are in the market for a full-size cooler, you can’t go wrong with this one (here’s my review of it).
– Kindling for your fire. Cheat and use these ultra-cheap wooden skewers.
– Easy fire starter (ie something highly flammable to get things going)
– Lighter (the larger variety like this one)
– Skewer for marshmallows and hot dogs: cheap and worth it, even if you decide you hate camping and never use it again (unlikely!).
– Pillows
– Extra blankets
– A roll of paper towels (s’mores get sticky!)
– Garbage bags. If you went to the store to pick up any food on the way, just use the grocery bags!
– Hand sanitizer (most campgrounds don’t have a place to wash your hands)
– Cash money to pay for firewood if you plan on buying it at the campsite. Spoiler alert: there are no ATMs when you’re out in the woods!

Feel free to 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. First, you probably won’t have service and you definitely don’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 follow my lead and stick to the basics for your first outing – and don’t forget to have a blast!

Oh, and if you need help picking out and reserving your first campsite, go here next.

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

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