In this guide to camping gear for first-timers we look at what equipment you need to get started. This beginner camping essentials list offers advice on the basics you require in order to be a happy camper.
One positive of the COVID-19 pandemic is more people are looking towards camping and open air holidays this summer. Having been cooped up in quarantine for so long we’re all itching for adventure.
More people than ever are trading their summer trip abroad for a holiday in their home country. And rather than city breaks, hotels and theme parks people are getting into camping. Often for the first time.
I certainly wish my fellow campers would have dipped their toes into the great outdoors under better circumstances. But as an outdoors enthusiast, I’m happy to see so many people spending their summer under canvas and in the flickering glow of campfires and starlight.
Are you one of the many folk who are heading off camping for the first time? Then you’ve probably realised that you’ll need to invest in a lot of gear to make it happen. And that’s exactly how you should view this – as an investment in outdoor adventures for years to come.
Sure, it can be quite a hit all in one go, but it will still cost you less than a week in a hotel abroad. And if you plan a few camping trips every year, you’ll quickly realise what a shrewd investment you have made. Particularly when you wake up somewhere like this!
This guide to camping gear for first-timers is aimed at those who have not camped before or have not been for a long time. The items below you will need to buy – or borrow – in order to have a successful first camping trip. We have also included plenty of advice in helping you choose what gear to buy.
Please note, this is by no means an all-inclusive beginner camping essentials list as there are many other items you may want to take camping. However, it is the essentials you’ll need to at least have all of the basics covered.
Obviously you will need a tent, but they come in many different shapes, sizes and styles. It is the biggest single expense, so try to borrow one for your first trip. That way you can check if you like camping before splashing out.
Now there are many types of tents, but they fall into two categories. Those built to be lightweight and offering shelter for trekkers and backpackers who are carrying all their gear. And those that are built for comfort and practicality which are used by car campers.
Are you going to be trekking with a 20kg (50-pound) pack on your shoulders? Then it’s all about minimizing bulk and weight. Pick the most compact, and lightweight, tent you can afford. Don’t expect lots of headroom, but you’ll thanks us for every half a kilo/pound saved.
On the other hand, car-campers have the luxury of parking right next to their campsite so don’t need to worry about size and weight. So go for comfort, headroom – being able to stand makes a huge difference – and ideally a separate living and sleeping space.
In this guide to camping gear for first-timers we thought it best to talk about the key features of a tent:
For both types of camping look for a tent that’s spacious enough to house your group and your gear. Tents are sized by the number of people they fit, but in my experience you need to go up a size to be comfortable.
For example, a four person tent is usually a tight squeeze with four people, just about comfortable for three and spacious for two. Some tents come with a seperate living area which can be used for storing all of your gear which make sizing less of an issue. But typically a four person tent has enough room for four people laying shoulder to shoulder and not much else.
Obviously if you are going to be carrying all your gear upsizing will increase the weight. But when you try to squeeze two people and all your hiking gear into a compact two person tent you’ll wish you’d gone for a three person.
For car camping it is easy to take a large tent. Personally for my family of four we go for a six person tent for a few nights but prefer an eight person tent when camping for a week or longer. It is also nice to have to have an awning like this Skandika Gotland tent to provide covered outside space.
In camping nomenclature, your camping sleep system refers to everything you need to get a good night’s rest. For most campers, that means a sleeping bag and mattress or camp bed/cot of some kind.
Of course some people hang a hammock between two trees. You can then either sleep sans-tent under the stars or set up a tarp. There are also specific tents or bivvies for hammock camping – but we won’t get into that in this beginner camping essentials list!
Arguably the most important aspect for your comfort is the mattress. If you have ever camped without one you will know that not only is it uncomfortable but without insulation between you and the floor it can also get very cold.
When it comes to your bed for the night comfort and weight/bulkiness go hand in hand. So if you are trekking or backpacking what you can carry is likely to be less comfortable than if you are car camping.
At the bottom end of the scale are simple foam mattresses which are lightweight and roll up to attach to your backpack. Next up are inflatable mattresses – these pack up small but can be quite heavy, are a pain to blow up, often go down and don’t provide much insulation.
These days self inflating mattresses are all the rage, they are a bit bulkier but small ones can be very lightweight. They range greatly in thickness and size so you can choose the level of comfort that you are able to transport. I have an excellent double self inflating mattress that we use for car camping.
Beyond that a camp bed – also known as a cot – it more like sleeping at home. You are off the ground and most are more comfy than any air bed style mattress. You can even get bunk bed cots for the kids.
If you’re unsure which way to go, visit camping stores to try out a few mattresses and cots in person. Remember you will spend a lot of time in your bed so it is worth getting something that suits your needs.
Your sleeping bag is a key item that you don’t want to skimp on. You can survive with a cheap air mattress or cot, and in good weather you’ll be okay slumbering inside a cheap-as-dirt tent. But if your sleeping bag doesn’t keep you warm then you’re going to be miserable.
So, how do you buy the right sleeping bag? Think carefully about where/when you’ll be camping and what the temperature is likely to be. Then buy a sleeping bag that’s temperature range is well below the coldest you are likely to experience.
Down sleeping bags are the gold standard, but they are heavier, bulkier and much more expensive. They also don’t handle getting wet. So if you’re going to be in a damp environment (or if you sweat buckets in your sleep), go for a synthetic bag.
Synthetic sleeping bags are not usually as warm but they are lighter, cheaper and pack up smaller. They also do a much better job of wicking out moisture if you sweat. Plus they can get wet but still keep you warm.
While your sleeping bag and mattress are most important there are some other things to consider. While is isn’t something to include on every beginner camping essentials list, if you forget your little ones cuddly toy you could be in trouble…
For many people a pillow makes the world of difference. There are inflatable pillows you can buy that are good for lightweight packing. I even used the bag inside a box of wine for a couple of nights on one trip. For car camping I take pillows from home as a little luxury.
When camping the sun can wake you up very early, so an eye mask is a good addition. Plus sound really travels in campsites so if you are a light sleeper take some earplugs. To complement this guide to camping gear for first-timers check out these useful tent sleeping tips.
Now that you’ve got your tent and sleep system in order, let’s talk about camping cuisine. Yet again there is a difference between trekkers/backpackers and car campers.
If you’re carrying your own gear, keep your kitchen simple. All you need is a lightweight backpacking stove that can boil water for dehydrated meals or heat up tinned food. You’ll also need specialized cookware to match the stove’s small size.
If you’re car camping you can expand your horizons! Take a table and have a full on kitchen set up. There is everything from single to multi-burner camp stoves to choose from and you can even take a BBQ. You can use your own pots and pans from home with these larger stoves.
Of course, you can skip the stoves to cook on the campfire. Consider getting an elevated grate to cook directly over the fire, or bring a dutch oven that you can set on the coals. You can also keep it simple with tin foil dinners that cook beside the fire.
Whichever way you choose to cook, be sure to consider where you’ll get your water from. Campgrounds will usually supply water, but if not you need to find a source and have a way of purifying it. Sometimes you will need to bring enough water with you.
You’ll also want a cooler to keep your perishable food fresh, this takes some planning for a multi-night trip. And don’t forget cooking utensils plus of course cups, plates, bowls and cutlery for each person in your group.
That covers all of the big stuff, so now it’s time to consider the nitty-gritty items that you’ll need around the campsite. First up bring a multi-use utility tool like a Swiss Army Knife. An axe or hatchet for chopping wood is very useful if having a fire. Plus always take a couple of fire lighting methods – a lighter and matches in a waterproof container will do.
Depending on where you are camping you might need to bring a compact shovel to dig a fire pit and/or latrine. Also a mallett, rubber hammer (or even normal hammer) is very useful for getting pegs into hard ground.
You’ll need adequate lighting at night. So invest in a good torch/flashlight and/or lantern. Personally I really like a headlamp as this means you can keep your hands free – very useful when cooking or pouring drinks after dark.
A beginner camping essentials list would not be complete without a first aid kit. How big your kit is depends on you, but you should be able to treat cuts, burns, allergies and minor aches and pains. Bring plenty of sunscreen, and don’t forget the bug spray to keep pests away at night. And don’t forget to bring bin bags – always dispose of your rubbish.
Last but certainly not least, you’ll need a comfortable place to plant your rear-end while you’re lazing around the campsite. While there might be some convenient rocks, stumps or logs to sit on there is no guarantee. Plus they are not going to be comfortable for very long.
So it’s always a good idea to bring a camp chair for each person – this is easy when car camping. If you are trekking or backpacking you can pick up lightweight seating that don’t take up much space but make a whole world of difference to your comfort.
That covers all of the essentials, but as I said earlier it’s certainly not an all-inclusive list. To make sure you don’t miss anything ask your friends and family what they like to take camping. For example, dustpan and brush, frisbee and bucket are always on our camping essentials list.
If you’re heading to an established campground, there should also be information online about what amenities are available (water, bathrooms, farm shop etc.). They will also recommend anything specific you should bring for a safe and comfortable stay.
The best parting advice for new campers is to have a dry run in your backyard before heading out on your trip. You don’t have to spend the night in your tent (but it is fun to do so!). However, just setting everything up gives you a good feel of what will be required.
We hope you found this beginner camping essentials list useful. If you have any essentials let us know in the comments below. If this guide to camping gear for first-timers has you raring to invest in equipment then check out our camping gear articles for more advice.