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 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.

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. You can also rent online. Yes, mail-order camping gear! Lower Gear will ship your gear to you wherever you may be.

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

Okay. So what clothes do I pack?

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.

As with hiking, layers are key. My staples for sleeping are a heavier pair of socks, a beanie, and long underwear. Your sleeping bag should keep you pretty warm, you’ll be much happier to have to shed layers than wishing you brought more.

In the event that you aren’t camping in the mountains and 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…

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.

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.

In general, when it comes to packing being a beginner camper (aka “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!

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. (In general, you should bring water with you for drinking purposes. More on that in a second.)

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.

Make sure everyone in your group has a light source (phone, headlamp, or lantern) with 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 you have your car charger).

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

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 and want to arrive with firewood, any gas station or grocery store within a 50-mile radius will do.

Do not bring wood from home. It can damage 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, it never hurts to grab two.

Alternatively: grab a bag of charcoal and don’t worry about woodsy diseases.

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 gallon should be plenty for two people to camp 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, you can’t go wrong with this one.
– Kindling for your fire. Cheat and use these ultra-cheap wooden skewers.
– Lighter (the larger variety)
– 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 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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