In today’s world where most of us are increasingly “plugged in” and stress levels are higher than ever, it’s extremely difficult to truly relax — to unplug, if you will. So it’s no surprise that camping is enjoying an unprecedented moment in the spotlight (and by association, so are camping must haves). After all, camping provides a long list of health and wellness benefits: it boosts your mood, reduces stress levels, increases self-confidence and self-sufficiency, helps you get more fresh air and vitamins from sunlight, and fosters a deep connection with nature.
The best news? Even if you can’t make it out to the woods or up to the mountains, you can enjoy all the benefits of camping. A quick overnight trip in town or even pitching a tent in your backyard still allows you to decompress from everyday stresses. That is, if you have the right camping essentials.
While I’m generally in the less-is-more “camp” (see what I did there?) in terms of just about everything, I also firmly believe that the right outdoor gear makes a world of difference. Think about it: if you’re comfortable and have a well-curated arsenal of camping gear, you’ll enjoy yourself more. A lot more. So to that end, I teamed up with several like-minded nature lovers, frequent campers, and outdoor bloggers to bring you this incredibly thorough list of camping must haves.
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Choosing and shopping for camping must haves
I know it sounds like a bit of an oxymoron that in order to disconnect, relax, and fully immerse yourself in nature, you first need to buy all sorts of camping gear. I’ll be the first to say that you don’t necessarily need a ton of camping essentials.
You do need some, but it’s important to buy only things you’ll actually use and that enhance your camping experience. I cannot emphasize this enough. Too much camping gear, or gear that isn’t functional for your personal needs, is cumbersome and can actually turn positive experiences into negative ones. Just because a camp stove has 15 functions doesn’t mean you’ll use them and oftentimes, you pay for those extras. Be honest with yourself about how often you’ll use particular features on your camping essentials, if at all. Not only will you save some money, but you’ll get more use and enjoyment out of the gear you do have if you use it fully and constantly.
Take it from me, I’ve been camping for many, many years and have run the gamut of camping styles. I’ve done minimalist backpacking, trailer camping with all the bells and whistles, car camping, tent camping, glamping, all the things. And finally, after lots of trial and error over all those years, I’ve found what seems to be the perfect solution, falling somewhere between minimalist and luxury. My family and I have everything we need, and we actually use everything when we camp. But believe me when I say I wasted a lot of money and time on camping gear that simply didn’t work for us! Learn from my mistakes!
As you dive into this camping checklist, keep a few things in mind. While it’s geared primarily toward tent and car camping, there are several camping must haves and tips that trailer and RV campers, and even van lifers, may find helpful. The guide also focuses on often-overlooked items, as we assume most people already have the basics — or at least know about them — like a tent and sleeping bag.
Next, I highly suggest looking for second-hand versions of some of these camping essentials. OfferUp, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and local thrift stores are excellent resources for gently used camping gear. Some items, like sleeping bags, you may want to buy new. But there’s no reason you need brand new camp chairs or lanterns!
Finally, here’s one last reminder to keep things simple. That’s one of the biggest reasons to go camping to begin with — its inherent simplicity. We have countless options for everything today, and it’s often both overwhelming and tempting. As you go through this list, make a note of everything that could make your life easier and enhance your camping trips, but resist the urge to buy all the gear. Remember, you really only need food, water, warm clothes, and a place to sleep, whether that’s a tent, campervan, hammock, rented RV, or heck, even a sleeping bag rolled out under the stars.
Ready to build your own camping checklist? Let’s get into it!
Checklist of camping must haves
So you have a tent you love and some high-quality sleeping bags, but that’s about it. If you’re wondering what other camping essentials you should add to your arsenal, this section is for you.
Psst…Wondering how to camp for free? My go-to’s for finding free campsites are The Dyrt and Campendium! Research ahead of time and have a few backups in case a campsite is occupied when you get there.
Add a top-quality cooler to your camping checklist
When putting together a list of camping must haves, a good cooler is a must. Roto-molded coolers keep ice cold for a very long time because they have one continuous thick wall, as opposed to separate panels. These types of coolers are designed to hold ice for a minimum of 3-5 days but can last up to 10 days depending on the conditions. Gone are the days of digging through melted ice for food while you’re camping!
Some of the top roto-molded coolers include Lifetime, RTIC, Pelican, and Yeti. I highly recommend both Lifetime and RTIC coolers, which cost a fraction of the price of Yeti but perform just as well — and some people think even better. Each brand has a wide variety of sizes and styles available, so choose the best one for your needs.
Ah, the humble tarp. How do we use you? Let me count the ways. There may truly not be a single item in the world of camping essentials that’s as functional or as versatile as a tarp. Use it on the ground to protect your tent floor from punctures, as a picnic blanket or game mat, over your tent or hammock to shelter it from rain (and direct sun!), or to shield your kitchen and dining area from wind and other elements. You’ll find that there are a dizzying number of options out there, but honestly all you need is a simple, inexpensive waterproof tarp. And some rope, you need that too!
I’m consistently surprised by the number of first-time campers I meet who plan to strictly cook over a campfire. Maybe it’s the Arizona in me, but my first concern is that there are fire restrictions and even bans in place a lot during the summer and fall — ya know, camping season. That means no campfires. At all. Even with no restrictions, you may arrive at a campsite and find that there are no fire rings, all the wood is wet or otherwise unusable, or it’s extremely windy and you can’t get a fire lit. In every one of these situations, a camp stove provides a perfect and simple solution.
Camp stoves, whether you use an ultralight JetBoil, a classic Coleman 2-burner, or a heavy-duty stand-up model like a Camp Chef, run on some type of fuel. You connect your fuel source, light the stove, and completely control the flame, turning it on, off, up, and down. Because of this, camp stoves are allowed even when fire bans are in place (trust me on this, I live in southern Arizona, where wildfires are a tremendous concern for over half the year).
I highly recommend adding at least one type of stove to your camping must haves. Personally, we have (and regularly use!) two —a stand-up Camp Chef and a classic Coleman. The Camp Chef is my go-to for meals and I use the Coleman when I’m only making coffee or need a third burner.
Propane fire pit
For all the same reasons you should get a camp stove, you may also want to consider adding a propane fire pit to your camping checklist. Remember, if fire restrictions are in effect where you’re camping, you cannot have a campfire. And really, what’s camping without a campfire?! Just like camp stoves, propane fire pits run on fuel, meaning you can still enjoy s’mores even under the most extreme fire restrictions.
The only downside to propane fire pits is that they take up a lot of room, especially because you also need to pack a propane tank. However, you can use one tank for both the fire pit and a propane camp stove. Another plus is that propane fire pits don’t produce any soot or that unmistakable smoky campfire smell. Listen, I love it just as much as the next camper — but not so much having to wash my hair several times to get it out.
Portable device chargers are camping must haves
By Martha from May Cause Wanderlust
Especially when you’re away for a few days, one of my most highly recommended camping must haves is a portable power bank or device charger. Charge it up before you leave, then use it to recharge your phone or other devices on your trip. There are also several excellent solar chargers, eliminating the need to find outlets for recharging. Depending on how many devices you use it for, you should get several charges from one fully-charged power bank.
I was so grateful for my portable device charger when I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru. I was able to use my phone for four full days of hiking, burning the battery taking lots of photos of the amazing scenery, then recharging each night.
Collapsible solar lantern
Whether you’re backpacking or tent camping, a collapsible solar lantern is one of our top camping must haves. It’s a perfect alternative to traditional (bulkier!) battery-operated versions when space is limited. Compressing down to a thin, lightweight disk, you can hook this handy device to the outside of your backpack to charge in the sun while you hike or set it outside at camp. When you’re ready to light up your tent or campsite, simply blow into the lantern to inflate it, hang it from the center pole, and turn it on to illuminate your space.
By Alison from Exploration Solo
For many people, sleeping in a tent seems to create the need for a 2:00 AM bathroom run. As luck would have it, campgrounds are really, really dark at that hour. You need to find your way to the restroom (whether that be an actual restroom or a particular tree) and even more importantly, avoid tent stakes.
A lantern is a bit too bright (although another item that belongs firmly on your list of camping must haves) and could wake everyone up, which is why I always carry a headlamp. It’s one of my favorite gifts for backpackers for several reasons. Headlamps are small and hands-free, weigh almost nothing, and provide just enough light to get you there and back safely without anyone knowing you left the tent.
A sleeping mat is one of the most important camping essentials
Over multiple camping trips, I’ve realized that a good night’s sleep is crucial to an enjoyable camping experience. The ground where many of us pitch tents often has uneven surfaces and gets very cold at night, resulting in disturbed sleep.
Taking a good, lightweight sleeping mat on camping trips makes a huge difference. A sleeping mat provides cushioning and acts as a smooth surface on uneven ground and rocks. It also provides insulation and an extra protective layer, particularly during cold and wet seasons. The sleeping mat that I use and love is the Hikenture Ultralight sleeping mat, which weighs just 20 ounces and is easy to carry and inflate.
By Nicole from Go Far, Grow Close
Nothing makes you more miserable than having wet, sore, or cold feet. This is especially true if you’re camping and there are no options other than staying outside. Accordingly, an amazing pair of hiking shoes or boots belongs at the top of your list of camping must haves — even if you’re not planning to do any actual hiking. In my opinion, Oboz makes some of the best hiking boots and shoes around.
The company uses exceptional designs and trademarked technology to supply everything someone could possibly want in their footwear for camping. This includes excellent comfort, support, and traction, plus a selection of hiking boots with insulation for cold weather and waterproofing. Oboz also uses sustainable, eco-friendly practices in its manufacturing and supply chain.
An Aeropress Go belongs on your list of camping must haves
By Anisa from Two Traveling Texans
You can still have a delicious cup of coffee even when you’re camping with the Aeropress Go. It’s not your typical coffee maker — the Aeropress is similar to a French press, but it’s made entirely of plastic and has a built-in plunger with an airtight silicone seal. The Aeropress Go is designed specifically for travelers (which is why we consider it one of our camping must haves!) and doesn’t require electricity. All you need is some hot water and your favorite ground coffee! This portable coffee maker is a great value, easy to operate, and cleanup is a breeze too. I even use mine at home!
Need a great coffee percolator to boil water for your Aeropress? I highly recommend the Stanley Adventure All-in-One Boil + Brew French Press. It boils plenty of water for multiple cups of coffee and works well for soup, too!
By Cecily from Groovy Mashed Potatoes
After setting up your tent and starting a fire, you are ecstatic to make that campfire meal you planned earlier. There’s just one problem: your camping spot doesn’t have a picnic table. How are you going to chop those onions for the hot dogs?! This is why a portable folding table, either a side table or a larger dining version, should be on your camping checklist. Its foldable legs make it simple to set up and tear down, plus easy to transport and store. It’s also a useful place to put your other camping essentials on so you don’t misplace them.
By Jessica from Uprooted Traveler
You may not think of a dry bag as one of the main must haves for camping, but it can serve multiple purposes while enjoying the outdoors. With some attached rope and a tall, wide tree, it becomes an excellent bear bag to store food and other items that emit smells in bear country.
Additionally, a dry bag is useful to protect your valuables from water damage in a variety of outdoor settings. For example, think of camping excursions that involve kayaking or other water activities or trails requiring a significant amount of hiking through water, like the iconic Narrows in Zion National Park.
There’s really nothing quite like cooking a meal in a Dutch oven over a campfire. Dutch ovens always seem to cook everything perfectly, not to mention the fact that they allow you to eat things while camping you otherwise wouldn’t be able to, like freshly-baked cobblers or pies.
If you’re new to Dutch oven cooking, or cooking in cast iron in general, it can be intimidating at first. But I promise it’s super easy — and that you’ll never go back! Cooking in a Dutch oven is more or less just dumping ingredients into the pot, stirring occasionally, and watching it slow cook. As simple as it is, though, you do want to make sure you get the right Dutch oven. Look for one that has a tight-fitting lid and a metal handle. I personally use and love this 5-quart Lodge cast iron Dutch oven. They are, admittedly, a bit bulky, but I store a few smaller items inside mine to save space.
Pro tip: clean your Dutch oven by simply wiping it out while it’s still warm. Don’t ever use soap or a brush on it!
Portable camping shower
When you’re camping, dirty for days on end, and must use an outhouse (or the bush!), things can start to become uncomfortable. A portable camp shower makes freshening up significantly easier and makes you feel so much better, which is why we consider it one of our top camping must haves! Camp showers range in price and functionality, but truthfully, you don’t need to spend a fortune to find one that will help you feel refreshed. And that is the most important thing, because the better you feel, the more you’ll enjoy the camping experience!
By Anukrati from Bulbul on the Wing
A travel hammock should definitely be added to your camping checklist! They also make great gifts for outdoor enthusiasts, frequent travelers, and anyone who loves camping or glamping. Look for great-quality hammocks that are designed with the newest technology and hold plenty of weight. While they should be spacious enough to hold an adult (or two, if you’re considering a double hammock), they should also be small enough to pack and take anywhere.
Entry-level hammocks come in under $30 and most include a set of tree straps, so they certainly won’t break the bank. Simply open the package, and you’re well on your way to lots of camping adventures! And for those more obsessed with hammocking, there are affordable models with a fully enclosed mosquito-proof net and rainfly.
Handy camping tips and hacks
Whether you’ve never spent a single night in a tent or you’re an avid camper, these camping hacks and tips will level-up your next trip to the wilderness.
Test out your tent ahead of time
By Alanna from Periodic Adventures
One of my best tips for beginner campers is to always test a new tent (or any gear really!) ahead of time. Set up your tent in your backyard or living room before your camping trip to make sure you know how to put it together. It’s much easier to do this at home for the first time, as opposed to a long day after you’ve been traveling. Plus, this will make it much easier if you end up needing to pitch the tent in the dark. A final tip is to lay down inside your tent while it’s set up at home. This will tell you if it’s too small or too big to be comfortable, as well as how many other camping must haves you can fit inside.
Looking for an awesome tent? I love The North Face Stormbreak 2 for an ultralight 2-person tent and this Coleman “Darkroom” 4-person Dome Tent with Screen Room for family camping.
Check fire restrictions
Regardless of where you live, you should make a habit of checking fire restrictions before you head out on a camping trip. You could even add this task as an item to your camping checklist — it’s that important. Depending on where you’re planning to camp, look up or call the national forest ranger district, the park or recreation area, the specific campground, or the city or county. Search for your city/county/state or the national forest and “fire restrictions.”
It should go without saying that even if there aren’t any fire restrictions, you should still exercise extreme caution. According to the U.S. Forest Service, an astonishing 9 out of 10 wildfires are human-caused. In line with Leave No Trace principles, never leave a campfire unattended, extinguish it fully before going to bed or leaving, and don’t leave any burned or partially burned debris behind.
BYOK (Bring Your Own Kindling)
One of the most important items on a list of camping must haves is kindling. Keep in mind, this applies only to true campfires with logs, assuming there are no fire restrictions. You may be able to gather kindling once you get to your campsite, but you also may not. I’ve camped several times where we couldn’t find enough usable kindling because it was too wet, too small and burned up too quickly, or there simply wasn’t enough.
Luckily, several common and inexpensive household items make excellent kindling. My favorites are birthday candles, dryer sheets, and dryer lint. Just collect it from your dryer trap several times and put it in a bag to add to your camping essentials. Alternatively, you could also buy a pack of fire starters.
Include rainy day activities on your camping checklist
The whole point of camping is to spend time outdoors. But sometimes Mother Nature has other plans and you might experience heavy rain or other inclement weather. It’s a good idea to have some rainy day activities on hand for this situation, in case you find yourselves stuck in the tent for extended periods.
Books, magazines, a deck of cards, and games are always excellent choices. Check out Qwixx and Pass the Pigs for fun, fast-paced, easy-to-learn, and compact travel games! Our family also likes to have one or two jigsaw puzzles, coloring supplies (for the adults too!), and craft kits. I’ve had really good luck with the ALEX and Made by Me brands from Amazon. Pro tip: add the ones you’re interested in to your wishlist or cart and save for later. When the price drops (and in my experience, these two brands regularly go on sale), you’ll get a notification!
Make the switch to reusable packaging
By Jaime from Earthful Life
Try to eliminate waste by using reusable baggies, Tupperware, or beeswax wrap to package your camp food. Along the same lines, bring reusable cups and dishes. If you absolutely have to bring disposable items, choose paper products rather than plastic — plastic contains a long list of toxins that are harmful to both people and the environment. It’s really easy to overlook these on your camping checklist, but this small change makes a big impact!
Final tip: try to avoid pre-packaged foods, which are admittedly convenient but produce a shocking amount of trash (packaging materials are often not recyclable). Slice your own fruit and veggies, prep sandwiches, and even make your own energy bars to be more eco-friendly.
Biodegradable baby wipes
Wipes are invaluable camping must haves. They’re handy for everything from cleaning up campsite spills to giving yourself a quick “bird bath” after a long, sweaty hike (or if it’s just been a few days since you showered!). There’s also nothing better for dealing with gooey, sticky s’mores fingers.
But did you know that traditional wipes contain polypropylene and polyester? I.e., plastic? I’m no scientist, but from what I understand, plastic is really, really bad for both people and the environment. Wipes can sit in a landfill for up to 100 years! Thankfully, there are several excellent biodegradable wipes out there. I’m a huge fan of the 100% plant-based Babo Botanicals wipes and Combat Wipes, which are extra tough and thick. They’re both completely biodegradable, so you can feel good about throwing them away or even burying them properly in the woods.
Make a DIY hand- and dishwashing station
There’s no sugarcoating it: camping comes with a lot of dirt and messes. Baby wipes are helpful here and there, but you need a better go-to solution for general handwashing and washing dishes. Create a simple wash station using a 5-gallon water container with a spigot, or even an empty laundry detergent jug (as long as it’s the kind with a dispenser!). If you’re using a water jug, simply set soap nearby. If you’re repurposing a laundry detergent bottle, all you need to do is add water to the jug — there should already be a bit of soap left inside! Keep a towel on top of the jug and voila, you’ve got a handwashing station!
The next step is to put a simple, inexpensive plastic bin (you may even find these at your local dollar store!) on the ground under your water jug. This catches the water and prevents mud or puddles from forming, but also works perfectly as your dish bin!
Use a purifying water bottle
By Nadine from Zero Waste Memoirs
Making sure you always have access to enough clean drinking water can be a hassle, especially if you’re camping somewhere remote. Water bottles take up space, there’s the hassle of lugging them around, and they create excess plastic waste! That’s where having a purifying water bottle can be an absolute game-changer. You can fill up your bottle anywhere — a river, lake, stream, hose — and almost instantly have safe drinking water free of pathogens, chemicals, and pesticides. We love the Grayl GEOPRESS water purifier bottle, but you can find more affordable alternatives, such as the Survimate filtered water bottle.
Set up fairy lights
I learned about this camping hack a couple of years ago and have been obsessed ever since. Buy some inexpensive “fairy” string lights and set them up at your campsite for easy, super dreamy (and highly effective!) lighting after dark. We like to set one up near our dining table and another one in or around our tent, depending on where exactly we pitch it.
There are several types and options available, so choose what you like best for your camping must haves. I actually have one battery-operated LED set and one solar set of lights, and love them both — honestly couldn’t recommend one over the other! The battery-operated set is still going strong on its original batteries, two summers and at least six camping trips later.
Pro camping tip: I use fairy lights in tandem with about six of these solar stake lights. I place them strategically around our site to create a pathway to the bathroom and mark any highly trip-able (it’s a word!) objects, like jagged tree stumps or large rocks. Just make sure they’ll get plenty of sun during the way, wherever you place them!
Pack a pop-up laundry hamper
This is one of my favorite camping tips, mostly because it’s so utterly simple and yet life-changing! Pack an inexpensive pop-up laundry hamper (or two) to keep your campsite organized. I like to keep one inside our tent to keep clutter to a minimum and one outside to serve as a makeshift trash can. Not only does this eliminate piles of clothes all over the tent, but it separates wet or muddy clothes and those that reek of campfire.
Switch to microfiber towels
By Victoria from Guide Your Travel
Towels take up a lot of space and are impractical to carry while you’re camping. They’re extremely useful, however, which is why microfiber towels are great alternatives. Microfiber towels are a lot thinner and smaller than regular towels, plus they dry faster. They also don’t hold onto much dirt, so you can use them as blankets or to shield the sun if needed. Even larger microfiber towels are only about the size of one or two t-shirts, and they dry extremely quickly in the sun. Definitely add some microfiber towels to your list of camping essentials!
Bring a shovel
Ah, the humble shovel. Perhaps the most under-appreciated — but undoubtedly one of the most important — of all camping must haves. A good camping shovel very literally does much of the dirty work at a campsite. It serves as a tool to turn logs in the fire pit, acts as a hammer for securing tent stakes, digs a trench and buries human waste in primitive campsites, and proves a valuable weapon for killing an aggressive rattlesnake, should it come to that. If that sounds absolutely horrific to you, clearly you are not from the Southwest… I’m a huge fan of this Gerber folding shovel, which is lightweight and compact, but exceptionally strong and durable.
Add comfy shoes to your camping checklist
By Val from Voyages With Val
One of the biggest mistakes you can make while backpacking or tent camping is to not bring a spare pair of comfy shoes or sandals! The last thing you want to do after setting up camp is keep your uncomfortable, tightly-laced hiking boots on. Having another pair of shoes lets your feet breathe and dry out, and also makes it easy to slip something on quickly if you need to leave your tent for a midnight bathroom trip. Tevas and Chacos are both popular camping sandals (that also double as excellent hiking sandals and river shoes!), but inexpensive rubber flip flops work, too.
Allow yourself to unplug
Whenever we go camping, our must-have items include great books and a few easy travel games. It’s nice to relax with a good book while the kids are playing, and classic games are an easy way to bring the family together and keep everyone entertained. Pack simple travel games that don’t take up too much space but are really fun, like Uno and a pack of cards to play snap or rummy.
Add Dr. Bronner’s to your camping checklist
By Megan from Packing up the Pieces
When camping or heading out for a multi-day trek, never leave home without Dr. Bronner’s pure castile soap. Carrying this soap is a total game-changer because it’s multi-purpose for your body, hair, dishes, and any other camping essentials you can think of. For best results, carry the soap in a small reusable toiletry bottle. You won’t need to pack more than that, as a small dab lathers up more than sufficiently.
Dr. Bronner’s is biodegradable and contains organic fair trade ingredients with no synthetic preservatives. It’s perfect for following Leave No Trace principles while camping and the company practices ethical supply chains and donates profits for social and environmental change. While it’s “clean,” always use Dr. Bronner’s at least 200 feet away from water sources to be extra safe!
A simple brush and dustpan are invaluable camping must haves
By Lotte from Gezond Weekmenu
Regardless of the type of camping accommodations (be it a campervan, traditional tent, yurt, or glamping tent), there are two camping must haves you should always bring: a small dustpan and brush.
Especially when you’re traveling with kids, sand and dirt get everywhere (usually in the blink of an eye!). Your kids may forget to take their shoes off before entering or may be too young to understand why that’s necessary. Luckily, a dustpan and brush help you quickly tidy up your camping space and keep it nice and clean. They’re simple, small, and easy to store, but indispensable to your camping checklist!
Phew…I warned you this camping checklist was thorough! Hopefully you got some useful tips and added a few things to your own list of camping must haves. I’d love to hear your favorite camping hacks and tips, so let me know in the comments below! Finally, pin this post for later reference as you build out your supply of camping essentials. Happy camping!