How to pack for your first camping trip

white tent in the forest as sun rises through the pine trees

Sleeping under the stars seems like it should be simple, but if you’ve never gone camping before, the fear of the unknown may be keeping you from giving it a shot.

Social media doesn’t always give you the most realistic perspective on camping. Pinterest leads you to believe you need to bring half your kitchen and a ton of other stuff. Instagram tells you to just show up and #selfcare. In reality, it’s somewhere in the middle.

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 there’s an REI close to you, start there (members get an extra discount!).  As of November 2021, it costs REI Members $53 to rent a sleeping pad, two-person tent, and a sleeping bag for one night. 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.

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. This post from the Dyrt has a larger list of stores to rent from as well. If you have a favorite local store to rent from, please add it in the comments! My local favorite in Golden, CO is Mountain Side Gear Rental.

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 least one more person than the total number of people in your party. Most tents come in even-numbered sizes (e.g. two-, four-, six-person, etc).

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. In the mountains, I always 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 other campgrounds 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.

Female-identifying folks, Pinterest tells you there are a lot of other “essentials” to bring. And if you really love make-up, get after it. 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. These are an easy one to borrow from a neighbor or family member!

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?

You have two basic options: buy a dehydrated meal OR make your own meal.

Dehydrated meals aren’t super cost-effective, but they are very easy to make. You just add boiling water to the pouch of dehydrated food, wait a few minutes, and eat. The packages all say two servings, but they’re not nearly enough for my husband to split with me. I recommend buying one pouch per person eating.

My favorite dinner is Mountain House’s lasagna. For a vegetarian option, you could try their pasta primavera, although I haven’t personally tried it yet.

For breakfast, I really like Mountain House’s biscuits and gravy as well as their blueberry granola. To be honest, I also really like just driving to the closest coffee shop/diner/cafe and getting food and caffeine there!

If you want to make your own food, it’s easy to still keep it simple! For meat eaters, hot dogs and beans are about as easy as you can get. Vegeatrians, bring your favorite pre-made veggie burgers. Oh, and don’t forget s’mores for dessert!

Again, if cooking is your JAM and you’re excited to bring the whole kitchen with you, get after it (oh and bring me with you). But if not, just keep it simple until you get the hang of things and find out what you like!

Anything else?

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.

For a complete packing list, considering purchasing my clickable packing list for first-time campers. You’ll be emailed a link to the printable, clickable (whatever you prefer!) pdf immediately after purchasing:

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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