A Beginner’s Guide to Camping Gear

Gathering gear for your first camping trip can be part exciting and a little nerve-wracking all at the same time. What exactly is needed to cover all the bases? When you visit a gear store or shop online, you’re going to find a mountain of choices. If you're like most folks, you don't have unlimited funds so purchasing everything isn’t an option. What can you rent or borrow from friends to save a few bucks? You might even have supplies in the house that will work.

With the right strategy, you can pull together the perfect pieces of gear to suit your needs and your budget. The key is to first focus on critical things that you should take on any camping trip. Once you have these essentials, you can relax knowing you’ve covered the basics. Then, you can consult websites and books to find comprehensive packing lists that will help fill in all the little extras.

To help you get started, we’ve highlighted the most important pieces of camping gear and shared thoughts on whether to invest your money in them, borrow them, or use what’s at home.

1. Tent

A good tent is crucial because it will protect you from the elements to keep you dry, warm and comfortable. Here’s what you should keep in mind when choosing your first tent:

  • Elbow Room: If bad weather hits, you might huddle inside your tent for hours, so choose one that’s not cramped and allows decent space for each person. Make sure it’s high enough and long enough so that the tallest person in your group can sit up straight and stretch out completely.

  • Three-season shelter: For spring, summer, and fall go for a “three-season” shelter, which typically has a tent body, a rainfly, and mesh panels, which provide critical ventilation and prevent the interior from getting stuffy and damp.

  • Car camping vs. backpacking: If you’re car camping with small kids, you can go big with a cabin-style tent that’s designed to sleep several people. Consider getting older kids their own modest-sized tent for more space and privacy. For backpacking, choose a lightweight tent with some extra room to store gear (two people can use a three-person tent). You can split tent pieces between multiple people to reduce backpack weight.

  • Buy, rent, or borrow? If you camp frequently, you’ll want to invest in a high-quality tent. For your first trip, you can borrow or rent one to save money.

2. Sleeping Bag

Gear that affects your sleep takes top priority when camping. If you don’t sleep well, you won’t enjoy your trip. Here’s what you should be thinking about when looking at bags:

  • Temperature rating: Bags are rated to be comfortable in a certain temperature range, so choose one that handles the coolest temps you’ll face. If you tend to be cold, buy a bag that’s 10-15 degrees warmer than the lowest temperature you’ll encounter.

  • Rectangular vs. Mummy: If you camp where temperatures won’t drop below 40 degrees, you can use a less expensive rectangular bag. For colder conditions, choose a mummy shaped bag, which hugs your body to eliminate pockets where cold air can accumulate. Also, backpackers will find that mummy bags are lighter and less bulky.

  • Gender-specific bags: Top brands offer bags with torso and hip areas tailored to fit a man or woman. Also, avoid a bag that’s too long, because you’ll be colder if there’s lots of empty air space in the foot area.

  • Synthetic vs. down insulation: If you need to save money, buy a bag with synthetic insulation, rather than down. Synthetic insulation bags are sometimes heavier and bulkier, but they’re still lightweight enough for backpacking, and they'll keep you warm if they get wet from the rain. While traditional down bags won't insulate well when they're wet, they're lighter than synthetic models and compress more to occupy less pack space.

  • Rent or buy? Backpackers will eventually want to invest in a high-quality bag that’s really lightweight and warm. For a first backpacking trip, rent one if you can find a bag that fits your body type and offers the right temperature rating. There are many affordable bags for car campers to purchase.

3. Sleeping Pad/Mattress

A sleeping pad or mattress is crucial because it puts a layer of cushioning and insulating air between your body and the cold, hard ground. Here are some tips for picking the right one:

  • Car camping vs. backpacking: For car camping, go as plush as you'd like and get the thickest, most comfy air mattress or pad that you can stuff into your tent. If you have an inflatable mattress for guests in your house, you could make that work. But, backpackers need a lightweight, durable pad that's either inflatable or made of foam. If you tend to be uncomfortable when sleeping on a floor, or your hips get sore easily, go for a thicker pad, but keep in mind that it will take more space and add more weight to your pack.

  • Insulated pads: If you sleep cold or plan to do lots of camping in frigid weather, consider getting an inflatable pad that includes insulation.

  • Buy, rent, or borrow? If you are backpacking, invest in the best pad you can afford because it can significantly affect how well you'll sleep.

4. Camping Hammocks

Hammocks have become a popular alternative to using a traditional tent, sleeping bag, and pad. With a hammock, you don’t have to sleep on the hard ground, so it’s a little easier on your body. Plus, you get to enjoy the fresh air.

  • Hammock size: Modern lightweight hammocks are available in single and double sizes. Choose a double so you’ll have a little more fabric to wrap around you in cool weather.

  • Accessories: You’ll need to buy straps to hang the hammock. For cool or cold weather, get a top quilt and underquilt made for hammock camping, rather than using a sleeping bag. The underquilt hangs beneath your hammock to trap heat and provide insulation. Also, consider using a hammock rainfly to block moisture and wind. If mosquitoes might be a factor, you can also get a hammock bug screen.

  • Buy, rent, or borrow? Buy a two-person hammock because you can hang it on your porch or in the backyard when you’re not camping.

5. Stove

While you can cook over a grill or fire, a stove allows you to cook meals easily and quickly. A stove can also be used to purify water and make warm drinks to keep your core temperature up in cold climates.

  • Car camping vs. backpacking: For car camping, a large dual-burner propane stove will hold multiple pots and simmer well, so you can prepare more complex meals for several people at once. For backpacking, you need a lightweight liquid-fuel stove, a canister stove, or integrated canister system.

  • Liquid-fuel stoves operate more efficiently than canister stoves in cold weather, but they’re a bit heavier, messier, and more challenging to operate.

  • Canister stoves work well in moderate weather, they’re lightweight, easy to use, and typically allow you to fine tune the flame and simmer.

  • Integrated canister systems (like the Jetboil) are best for trips where you’ll eat only freeze-dried food. They transfer heat from the burner to the cook pot efficiently and boil water in a couple of minutes, but they don’t usually simmer well.

  • Buy, rent, or borrow? You can save $60 to $100 by renting, but you’ll need to buy fuel and practice using your rental stove before you hit the trail. Keep in mind that camp stoves come in handy for tailgating and emergency situations at home.

6. Camp Kitchen

Newcomers to camping can save money by using their own kitchen supplies, such as plastic cutlery, bowls, and cups. For backpacking, invest in lightweight pots made for the outdoors. Because kitchen gear gets dinged up while camping, you’ll eventually want to replace your home items with durable products that you only use outdoors.

  • Car camping: When you’ve planned your menu, fill a plastic storage container with necessary items, like a skillet, medium and large cook pots, a pasta strainer, plastic bowls, plates and cutlery, a kitchen knife (with sheath) for food prep, a spatula, measuring cup, and insulated mugs for hot drinks.

  • Backpacking: If you're prepping elaborate meals, bring a medium-sized lightweight bowl, plus a small personal bowl, utensils and an insulated mug. If you're just eating freeze-dried food, you don't need the medium bowl.

7. Headlamp/Lantern

Lights not only allow you to do tasks in the dark but also serve as signal devices in emergency situations.

  • Headlamp: A headlamp will allow you to keep your hands free as you do various things in the dark, whether you’re eating, answering nature’s call or scrambling over rocks. For general use around camp, most headlamps on the market will perform just fine, but if you spend about $30 or more, you can get a headlamp with greater “lumens” (how brightly it glows) and more beam distance, which is helpful for climbing and hiking in darkness.

  • Lantern: Whether you're car camping or backpacking it's helpful to have a battery-powered lantern for common eating areas and the interior of your tent. With the soft glow from a lantern, you can eat or read without blinding fellow campers. While most people are familiar with large battery powered lanterns, be aware that several lightweight backpacking lanterns have hit the market in recent years.

  • Buy, rent, or borrow? If you buy a headlamp, you'll find a million uses for it in camp as well as around the house.

8. Water Container

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “hydrate or die”? It’s essential to have something to hold water and other drinks while camping, whether you use bottles or a hydration reservoir (or both).

  • Bottles: For decades, campers and backpackers have relied on durable plastic water bottles, which are not only handy for drinking but also filtering water and pouring liquids while cooking. In recent years, the bottle market has exploded, and you'll find hundreds of shapes and styles made of glass, steel, and rugged plastic. For car camping, steel or plastic works fine, but backpackers will want plastic to reduce weight.

  • Hydration reservoirs: When you’re walking or biking, it’s more convenient to use a hydration reservoir, which allows you to drink from a tube without stopping or reaching to grab your water. For backpacking, get a reservoir that holds two or three liters, so you don’t have to refill it as often. Also, if you use a reservoir, consider taking a bottle as well for filtering and food prep. To save space in your pack, you can use a collapsible plastic bottle.

  • Buy, rent, or borrow? Buy a couple of water bottles for all types of camping, and invest in a reservoir if you start backpacking.

9. First-Aid Supplies

Cuts, stings, and other pains are common while camping, so you should always pack a first-aid kit. If you have time, you can build your own kit from store-bought items. But, be aware there are pre-assembled kits with helpful books that explain how to use the contents. To choose the right kit, you need to consider the length of your outing, how many people the kit will serve, any special circumstances you might encounter and the particular needs of people in the group. Gear stores and online sellers offer a wide range of kits from super-lightweight pouches for solo travelers, to beefy family kits.

Whether you build your own or buy a kit, be sure to include special items that people might need, such as prescription medicines or an epi pen. Also, bring extra moleskin or other products to address blisters. If someone does develop a blister, you can go through supplies quickly. Be sure to bring a pair of scissors to cut the moleskin.

10. Knife

Whether you need to slice potatoes, cut nylon cord or spread cream cheese on a bagel, you’re eventually going to need a knife or multi-tool for camping.

  • Car camping: You’ll mostly use a knife for food prep, and you can use something from your kitchen (just be sure there’s a way to cover the blade for safety). Also, pack a fixed-blade knife, folding knife, or multi-tool (such as a Leatherman) for utility situations.

  • Backpacking: A lightweight folding knife or multi-tool with a blade will work when prepping meals or doing random jobs, like cutting cord to make a tent guyline. For safety, make sure any folding knife locks into place when the blade is deployed.

11. Camp Chair

After you sit for a few minutes on a bench or the hard ground, you’ll wish you’d brought some type of camp chair.

  • Car camping: For your first trip, you can use any folding chair that you carry to the beach or tailgate parties. If you want to up your comfort level, invest in a high-quality chair that’s made of mesh or breathable material, which will prevent a swampy butt and back. Also, chairs made of lighter colors don’t get as hot. To keep your drinks away from ants, get a chair with a built-in cup holder.

  • Backpacking: For many backpackers, a lightweight chair or chair kit makes a trip so much more comfortable that it’s worth toting the extra weight. While some companies make collapsible fabric and aluminum backpacking chairs, the lightest option is a kit, or fabric sleeve, that allows you to transform a sleeping pad into a chair.

Written by Marcus Woolf for Matcha in partnership with Foxelli Outdoor Gear.