A Beginner’s Guide to Packing For A Camping Trip

In Blog, Camping Tips, National Parks, Travel Tips by Kay0 Comments

You’ve decided roll up your sleeves and go on a good, old-fashioned camping trip, eh?

The first time I went camping, it was freezing cold, the weather was crap, and I’d never camped before. Needless to say, I was vastly unprepared for the experience. You could find me on any given night, fidgeting with tent poles and a rain fly in the pouring rain, without any kind of inkling on how it was supposed to be done. Soon enough, after looking like fools for several days in a row, my sister and I gave up and splurged on hostels.

Typical.

After freezing my ass off for two weeks in the valleys of Iceland, I decided to do some research on the things I should be bringing with me to have a pleasurable camping experience. A sleeping mat?! Whoa – we’d been sleeping on flimsy yoga mats the whole time. A compressible pillow? Genius. Battery packs?!?!!?! Wow…you’ve got me floored with your brilliance.

When I took my second camping trip to Banff National Park, I felt a bit better about things. I knew how to set up the tent quickly, and I packed a sleeping mat and a pillow this time! However, we realized quickly that starting a fire was no easy feat, and therefore we ended up eating out for every single meal (expensive) and shivering through the evenings and nights (cold).

With each camping trip thereafter, I learned a bit more about how to pack, what to bring, and new gear that would be worthwhile to invest in. Although my first few adventures in the outdoors were pretty rough, I learned to love it, and now camping is ultimate bliss for me. After several camping trips in Iceland, Canada, the US, and Patagonia, I feel like I’ve nailed my perfect setup for multi-day camping trips.

If I could watch myself in those early days of outdoor adventure knowing what I know now, I’d probably laugh my ass off and then lend a helping hand to my former self. I wish I’d had someone to teach me the ropes of how to properly prepare for a camping trip. So, for you non-outdoorsy friends who want to give camping a try, here’s my comprehensive guide on what you should bring.

Essentials for A Camping Trip

A Tent (With A Rain Fly)

Typically, when you camp, you’ll need a place to sleep. A tent is a great place to start. When buying a tent, I’d make sure of two things: first, it needs to have a waterproof rain fly in case of poor weather conditions, and second, it needs to have a waterproof liner for the bottom of the tent in case of a wet ground. The most important thing to remember when buying a tent is that it MUST have protection against the wind and the rain, because in mountainous areas the weather is often unpredictable at best.

For my camping trips, I use the Marmot Catalyst 2P tent, which is lightweight but spacious enough for two people (in case I decide to bring a friend). Although it’s a great value for the price, my tent is not the most compact tent you could own. If you’re looking to invest a bit more money into a more “backpacking-oriented” tent, I recommend the Big Agnes Backpacking Tent. My friend has a Big Agnes tent and every time I see it, I get insanely jealous. It’s SUPER lightweight, but it comes with a hefty price tag, too.

A Sleeping Bag

You’ll want to get a good 3-season sleeping bag, too. For these, you’ll want to test them out to find one that feels comfortable and lightweight to you. Depending on where you’re planning on camping, I’d invest in one that goes down to 20 degrees or so, because you never know when the temperature will dip on you! There are two main types of sleeping bags: down sleeping bags and synthetic sleeping bags. Down bags are typically more compressible, but if they get wet their insulation gets a bit weaker. Synthetic bags are a bit bulkier, but they are less likely to get messed up from water or humidity.

I use a Kelty Cosmic 20-degree sleeping bag, and I like that it’s pretty compact at an affordable price. (Plus, it’s my favorite color!) In the past, I’ve also used the Marmot Trestles 15, which is a super fluffy and comfy bag, but is a little bit more bulky than my current one. If you think your trip will be colder than 15 degrees, I’d also recommend grabbing a thermal liner for your sleeping bag, which will add a few more degrees of warmth to your bag.

An Inflatable Sleeping Mat

Like I mentioned before, I spent an entire two weeks in freezing Iceland sleeping on a yoga mat. Yup…never doing that again. After that trip, I invested in an inflatable sleeping mat from REI to sleep more comfortably and warmly at night. It was one of the best purchases I’ve made thus far – sometimes I even sleep better with my tent, sleeping mat, and sleeping bag than I do in a bed!

A Compressible Pillow

On my first camping trip, I slept on a bundle of rolled up clothes. On my second trip, I brought a pillow pet, which was a cute but impractical headrest. Finally, on my fifth or sixth camping trip, I finally invested in a Thermarest compressible pillow. I bring it everywhere with me, even when I’m not camping. It’s a great tool for hostels and airplanes, too. This thing packs down to the size of a small sweater, but ‘inflates’ to almost the size of a normal pillow. Highly recommend grabbing yourself one of these – it’s worth the investment for those few extra Zzzs.

I’d lend you mine, but it’s probably got some drool on it.

A Backpack

OK, confession – a backpack isn’t really an essential, especially if you’re going on a road trip to your desired destination. However, a large backpack does help you carry your stuff if you’re doing any sort of backcountry camping or if your campsite requires walking a bit and carrying your stuff. When I was trekking in Patagonia, I had to carry all of me stuff with me for close to 100 km, and I was REALLY glad I had my trusty Osprey backpack to keep everything in one place. It probably would have been impossible to do that trek without a backpack.

Stuff Sacks or Packing Cubes

I was never a huge fan of packing cubes before, but in a moment of desperation during a night with some bedbugs, I went to the nearest tourist shop and purchased of Eagle Creek cubes to separate my clothes from the rest of my bag and carry them elsewhere.

Now, I love them. I use them wherever I travel. They help me stay organized and they compress all of the unnecessary crap I bring with me into a nice, compact nugget. When camping, these can be especially important because you’ll have limited space in your backpack to carry your clothes alongside your tent, your mat, and your sleeping bag.

A Headlamp

One thing to note about campsites is that at night they’re really dark. Usually, they’re far away from towns and cities, and are often located in wooded or rocky areas. You could be that person who tries to use the bathroom in the woods at night while holding their cell phone camera light in their hands…orrrrrr you could make it easier for yourself and bring a headlamp. Headlamps are a fantastic tool for camping because instead of holding them like a flashlight, they’re held onto your forehead using an elastic strap. I use a Black Diamond headlamp and it’s been super great so far.

Carabiners

These little guys come in handy in almost any occasion. You can use them to strap things onto your backpack. You can hang things onto trees with them. You can strap them to elastic for some compressive qualities. You can hook them onto your jackets, your water bottles, your shoelaces, and more. Carabiners are the outdoorsy person’s best friend. Bring a couple when you go camping next!

A Water Filtration System

In some more remote areas, clean water isn’t readily available from water fountains or faucets, and buying plastic water bottles is bad for the environment. Instead, bring your own water bottle and a water filtration system so you can drink straight from the rivers and streams. There are many types of water filtration systems, but I use a SteriPen combined with Aqua Mira drops. Do your research on the place you’re going and what the water situation there is, and you can decide on the best system for yourself.

Extra (Charged) Battery Packs

In the wilderness, there are no power outlets to charge your devices. Therefore, it’s smart to bring a couple of fully-charged battery packs to charge your small devices, such as a camera or a phone. I typically bring 2-3 of these on a multi-day camping trip (I take a lot of photos), plus a few extra Sony batteries for my camera.

A Crap Ton Of Plastic Bags

Just when you think the weather on a camping trip is absolutely perfect, it can turn on you in an instant. The best way to keep your valuables dry is by putting a waterproof protective cover on them. You can invest in expensive dry bags for your stuff, or you can be cheap like me and just bring a TON of plastic bags and double (or triple…or quadruple) bag your electronics and valuables so they don’t get destroyed. Plastic bags can also help you when you have laundry, wet clothing, or trash that you need to separate from your other stuff.

Matches and/or A Lighter

Often, during a camping trip, you’ll have the opportunity to start a fire. Unfortunately, newbie Kay didn’t realize that in order to start a fire, she needed matches or a lighter. Now, I make sure to stop by the nearest convenience store and pick up some matches before the start of any camping trip. They come in handy!

Now, starting the fire itself is a whole different beast…

Bear Spray

In certain wildlife areas, you may be susceptible to bears if you don’t arm yourself appropriately. While there is no foolproof way to prevent a bear attack, there are some precautionary measures you can take. First of all, come armed with bear spray, which is a kind of pepper spray you can use if a bear is nearby. Read up on local wildlife to see if bear spray will be necessary. Second, you should NEVER leave food outside (or inside) of your tent overnight. Put it in a bear box or hang it from a tree, but don’t put yourself in danger by having available food for hungry bears near your tent.

Cookware

This may or may not be necessary, depending how close you are to civilization, but I thought I’d throw it on here because it may be necessary to bring or cook your own food. You can buy a stove head that you can attach to gas canisters, or you can simply bring a mess kit and cook over a fire.

Other Camping Gadgets

Hammock

If your objective is to take a nap in some beautiful places, a hammock is your perfect sidekick. On my 22nd birthday, 3 different people gave me hammocks as gifts because they knew how much I loved the outdoors! I still use them and love them. When I was up in Banff National Park, I spent an entire afternoon taking a nap next to a lake, curled up in one of my 2-person ENO hammocks. I think that was one of the closest things to perfection that I’ve ever experienced…

Foldable Backpacking Chair

I don’t actually own one of these, but one of my friends brought his when we were hiking in Patagonia and I was pretty impressed by how comfy and lightweight it was. I enjoyed sitting in it some evenings and reading or cooking our meals. I’m not sure exactly which brand he had, but here’s a similar one that you can indulge in if you so desire.

Phew, that’s a lot of stuff! Did I miss anything? Share your camping essentials and tips with us in the comments!

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