The Ultimate Camping Checklist
Camping is a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. A way to reset and have an awesome time outdoors. But if you’ve never been camping before, it can seem a little daunting. If you’re thinking, “where the heck do I begin? How do I find campsites? What do I need in my camping kit?” Then you’re in the right place.
In this post, I’ll walk you through what to pack on a camping trip. Whether you’re backpacking or just tenting at a campground, this post will give you a look into everything that you’ll need to have an awesome time outdoors. (And to be sure that you don’t have that “uh-oh… I forgot,” moment on your trip!)
Topics I’ll Cover:
- The difference between backpacking and car camping
- How do I find campsites and campgrounds
- Do I need to buy all new gear?
- The best gear to wear on a camping trip
- What food and snacks should I bring?
- What type of camp stove should I bring?
Backpacking vs. Car/Tent Camping
Before we get into the packing car camping checklist, let’s talk about the two main types of camping: Backpacking and car camping.
When you Backpack, you pack all your supplies into one bag and carry it with you for your entire trip. This includes clothes, food, toiletries, sleeping gear, etc. This may be difficult if you’re a beginner or don’t have the proper gear. Because you will likely be hiking to a camping spot in the backcountry, it’s important to have small, lightweight gear. Backpacking will need a bit more preparation than the second option.
The next option is car camping or tent camping. This type of camping usually involves drive-up campsites where you’ll have access to your car and the supplies in it throughout your trip. Some people sleep in their car while car camping while others choose to pitch a tent. This option allows you to pack more and heavier items (like BBQ’s, blankets, pillows, speakers, etc.), because you don’t have to carry it all on your back! This is a great option for beginner campers.
What is Dispersed Camping?
Great question! The US has large sections of publicly owned and operated land that allows campers to pitch a tent for FREE! No joke. It’s called dispersed camping because it offers none of the amenities of a typical campground such as bathrooms, water, showers, etc. You’ll have to bring in everything you’d need for a safe and comfortable experience. National forests and the Bureau of Land Management are two types of public land that allows dispersed camping.
How to Find a Campsite
There are many ways to find a campsite. Some sites are reservable (like those in campgrounds), some are first-come, first-served, and others are dispersed. Here are a few sites to check out when looking for a place to pitch your tent:
- Recreation.gov: This is where you’ll find campsites for national and state parks. There are tons of gorgeous parks in all states that are just waiting to be camped in! These sites usually cost between $20-30 per night but can vary depending on where you’re staying.
- Hipcamp: Similar to Airbnb, but for camping! These sites are privately owned and offered to potential campers by their owners. Hipcamp is a great place to find a campsite for a reasonable price, and you might even get to talk to the host (a local who can give you alllll the tips on the best things to do nearby!).
- iOverlander: This is a great app for finding free, dispersed camping. I used this to find a campsite every night on a two-month road-trip!
- Search for local sites: Another great option is to just do a quick search for “campsites near [insert location]. You might come up with some interesting finds.
In this section you’ll find your absolute essentials for every camping trip. These are the “bones” of your camping setup.
Remember: If you’re purchasing camp gear, you don’t have to spend a fortune! Purchasing secondhand gear is a great way to save a few bucks and help the environment too. To find used, quality gear, check out online consignment shops such as REI Good & Used or Gear Trade, or use things that you already own!
Of course, how could you go camping without a shelter? A tent is the first essential of your car camping checklist. I highly recommend sticking with a lightweight tent, even if you’re not a backpacker! The heavier and bulkier the tent, the more space it takes up in your car. Plus- if you ever do decide to backpack, you’ll have the proper gear.
Having a quality sleeping bag is a must. The last thing you want to do after a long day of hiking is crawl into a cold bed. Since you’ll already be sleeping on the ground, it’s so important to have something warm and comfy! Check out temperature ratings on any bag you look at and be sure that it will work for you!
Sleeping pad/air mattress:
What you choose to bring for your “bed” depends on how you’re planning on camping. If you’re backpacking, an inflatable sleeping pad is a great option. This mat packs down to the size of a water bottle–we love easy storage! If you plan to car camp, you have a little more flexibility. You could still choose something like the mat I just mentioned, or you could go with something like an inflatable air mattress for maximum comfort.
If you go the sleeping bag route, you won’t necessarily need blankets. But a pillow is a must when car camping! There’s a variety of options out there such as inflatable, foam, or stuff sacks. Or, bring along the pillow you use at home because you can.
Stocking Your Camp Kitchen
Here’s a little pro tip: Just because you’re camping doesn’t mean your meals have to be boring! There are so many options out there to help make sure that you’re well-fed, even when out in the middle of the woods! Having a nice “kitchen” setup will help ensure this.
Choose a camp stove based on which type of camping you think you’ll do most. There are several types to choose from. The Coleman 2-Burner is on the bigger end of camp stoves with two burners, allowing you to cook more at once. But because of its size, this is a car-camping only item. Imagine carrying that thing on your back? Yeeesh, no thanks.
A great backpacking option is this JetBoil Flash. It’s compact, lightweight, and of good quality. A similar, more affordable option is this MSR Pocket Rocket.
You’ll need something to light your stove and a campfire!
Having a great set of pots, pans, plates, etc. will help you actually enjoy your food. You can find sets meant for backpacking, which tend to be lighter and more compact–great for on the go. I also recommend packing an all-in-one fork/spoon/knife.
Wash bins/biodegradable soap:
Biodegradable soap is so important when you’re out in the wilderness. A little goes a long way when you’re using soap outside. Always remember to be at least 200’ away from any water source when washing dishes and preferably dispose of your wastewater in a 6-8” hole.
If you’re backpacking, skip this one. But as a car camper, filling up a cooler with ice and cold foods and maybe even a couple of brews is a great way to still enjoy some of your everyday foods while outdoors!
If you’re a coffee drinker, you probably can’t imagine a day without a cup to start your morning. I’m not a big coffee fan, but I’ve heard the Aeropress is a great option for a cup of joe on the go.
Planning meals for a camping trip can get tricky. With a limited “kitchen” and no refrigeration, you’ll need to plan ahead. Here are some options for great meals and snacks to pack for a camping trip to avoid getting hangry:
- Freeze dried meals (Mountain House and Peak Refuel are popular brands)
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (get the squeezable containers for easy sandwich making!)
- Tuna packets
- Apples and oranges
- Beef jerky or summer sausage (doesn’t need to be refrigerated until opened)
- Protein bars, meal replacement bars, granola bars, etc.
- Instant rice or pasta
Water filtration system:
Water is perhaps one of the most important things to pack when camping. If you’re car camping, you can fill some water jugs at home and bring those. If backpacking, do some research on where you’ll be staying and any nearby water sources. Some national or state parks or trailheads may have potable water. If not, you’ll need to carry a water filtration system with you. The Grayl, Sawyer, and Katyden have great filtration systems.
This is only necessary if you’re camping in bear country and each park has different food storage protocols. Check on the park’s website to see whether or not you’ll need to use a bear canister (many parks offer them to campers for free), and if there will be bear lockboxes for you to use at your campsite.
*Bonus* S’mores supplies:
A camping trip isn’t complete without toasting the day away with some s’mores, am I right? Marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers, and a roasting stick make for the ultimate camping dessert. (I like to add strawberries to mine or swap out the Hershey’s for a Reese’s Cup!
Camping Clothes for Women
Having the right clothing is SO important. It could honestly make or break the trip. Check the weather (multiple times) before you head out and pack accordingly. And then some!
I was born and raised in Minnesota and have always been told “always dress in layers!” And isn’t that the truth. You can always take a layer off, but you can’t add one if you didn’t pack it. Here are the camping clothes for women I’d recommend.
These are your smartwool tanks, tees, long sleeves, sweatshirts, etc. Always pack clothing you’re comfortable in. If you don’t wear it at home, you won’t wear it on the trail, trust me. If you’re backpacking, pack more versatile clothes with multiple uses. With car camping, you have a bit more flexibility to pack almost any clothes that you want.
Depending where you are and the climates you’ll be hiking it, the temperature could drop dramatically as soon as the sun dips below the horizon. Even if the days are hot, packing a good insulating jacket is super important for those chillier mornings and evenings! For backpacking, having a puffer jacket that can easily roll up and fit in your pack is ideal.
If it ends up raining, you’ll thank the adventure gods you packed appropriately. There’s nothing worse than being cold and soaked to the bone out in the elements. Gore-Tex is an awesome waterproof material if you’re not sure where to start!
Pro tip: Purchase your rain gear a little big so there’s room to layer a puffy coat underneath for added warmth on those colder adventures!
If you plan to do any hiking, I HIGHLY recommend investing in a good pair of hiking boots. There are many options out there and all have different purposes, so I’d recommend hitting up an REI to try each style on–you’ll also have a sales rep handy to ask any questions!
Wool keeps your feet warm on cold days and cool on hot days. There’s nothing worse than having freezing cold feet when you’re sleeping. Smartwool is my favorite brand–they’re also moisture wicking, literally built for the adventure. Check ‘em out!
Ditching your hiking boots for a pair of slip-on sandals for around camp is a game changer. Consider purchasing a pair that allows you to keep your socks on in case you want the hiking boot freedom but aren’t ready to give up toasty toes. Tevas or Birkenstocks are great options.
Miscellaneous Gear Items to Pack
Protecting your skin from the sun is SO important. Never leave the house without sunscreen. And to avoid being eaten alive by bugs, grab yourself some bug spray, especially on spring hikes.
A solar-powered battery pack is great if you’re bringing along speakers or want to stay connected while outdoors.
Small, lightweight, quick-drying, and pretty good absorption, a microfiber towel is great to have along if you’re thinking about taking a dip!
Headlamps are awesome for camping! Especially if you’re someone that always has to use the bathroom at night–packing one is a must.
If your clothes get wet, you need to hang a towel, or you have a gravity filtration system, consider bringing along a clothesline. It has endless possibilities and is easy to pack into a side pocket on your pack or in your car! It also doubles as rope in case of an emergency.
These are tricky to pack for backpacking, but a must for a car camper! You’ll have somewhere to sit and relax at the end of the day. I’d recommend getting a lightweight one in case you want to backpack with it someday!
All too often campground pit toilets run out of toilet paper, and if you’re backpacking, you’re likely digging a hole to do your business and will want a wad of it for the trip. Remember, always pack out your toilet paper in the backcountry! And grab a bottle of hand sanitizer while you’re at it!
After reading everything else that you’ll need on a camping trip, it can be easy to forget the simple things, like your toothbrush. (Guilty.) Remember to grab your toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, face wipes, medications, etc. before heading out.
Another easy thing to forget. You’ll have trash and you will need to pack it all out with you. Read more Leave No Trace Principles here.
First aid kit:
You can create your own or purchase a pre-made one from an outdoors store like REI. Add small items like band-aids, first aid cream, an ice pack, etc. You hope you won’t need it, but it’s good to be prepared just in case!
This is an optional item, but I love hammocks! They’re a great place to relax at the end of a long day and can be set up almost anywhere (with trees, of course!).
For those moments where you’re not busy hiking, cooking, or exploring.
Simple entertainment like a deck of cards or a book are great to have along on camping trips.
Additional Pro Tips for a Successful Camping Trip
Once you’ve packed everything mentioned above, you’re ready to set up camp! But before you go, I’d love to leave you with a few pro tips to ensure an unforgettable experience.
- Research where you’ll be staying: This seems obvious but remember to research everything. Are there fire restrictions? Are there restrictions on where you can camp? Is it reservation only or first come, first served? Also be sure to understand the water sources nearby. This will help you gauge how much water you need to bring with you, if you can use a water filter, or if there’s potable water available. Water is SO important!
- Check the weather: Do this multiple times! Weather can change fast and it’s important to know the predictions so you can be prepared.
- Pack for the worst: Even if it’s not supposed to rain, I recommend packing rain gear. Even if you don’t think you’ll trip and fall, I recommend packing a first aid kit. It’s best to pack these and never touch them than forget them and need them.
- Purchase versatile gear: If you’re in the market to purchase camping gear, I recommend finding gear that can be used for multiple types of camping. It’s best to go for the smaller, lightweight options so if you do choose to try backpacking someday, you already have the gear! Backpacking gear can be car camping gear, but not vice versa.
- Use what you have: As I said previously, you don’t have to buy all the gear all right now. Use what you already have at home and then purchase or rent whatever is left on your car camping checklist. Using second hand outdoor gear sites are great ways to get good deals on gently used gear. Plenty of outdoors stores also offer rentals. REI and Eddie Bauer for example have great rates if you think you’ll only need it once or want to try before you buy.
- Purchase quality gear. You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg, but you should pay attention to gear quality. Buying high quality gear will be a better investment in the long run!
- Understand the Leave No Trace principles: LNT is very important for everyone to understand and practice, not just on epic outdoor adventures but even on walks around the neighborhood or trips to the store. It’s our job to protect our earth and reduce our impact. These include disposing of waste properly and camping only on durable surfaces. All seven LNT principles can be found here.
Now, Get After It!
I know, I know, it’s a lot to take in, but think of it this way: packing is the hardest part! Start from the beginning and slowly make your way down the car camping checklist, crossing off the items you already own. Then, decide which gear items you want to rent (like maybe the more expensive ones like a tent or sleeping bag) and the items you want to buy (things you’ll use more than just once).
Now get out there and have an awesome time outdoors!
Author: Outdoorsy Gals contributor Kassidy Olson
I’m Kassidy! I’m from northern Minnesota and I love all things nature, travel, and adventure. Hiking, skiing, camping, you name it, I’m there! The mountains are my happy place and I just spent two months road tripping through the U.S! I run a travel blog, Kassidy’s Journey, and teach English online.
Leave a Comment