Planning a camping trip but not sure what gear you need? Check out this list of the best beginner camping gear.
One of the best and seemingly most affordable ways to enjoy the outdoors is to go camping. However, if this is your first time pitching a tent, you’ll soon start to realize that all of that camping gear can really add up fast. And if you browse through all of the cool camping gear at REI, you’ll start thinking that you need a whole garage just to fit all your new stuff.
We’ve been using some of our camping gear for over 10 years now, so we have a pretty good idea of what we like and what we don’t, and what is going to keep us warm on a cold night, and last through sandstorms, windstorms and thunderstorms.
We’ve created a beginner’s guide to camping gear with all of the camping essentials you’ll need for your first trip. We’ve included great budget items we’ve used and loved if you’re trying to find the most affordable options. We also noted where it’s worth spending a little extra money if you plan to go camping often or are considering going backpacking.
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Unless you’re taking a night out under the stars literally, the first purchase you’ll likely make is a tent. We bought a Coleman 3-person dome tent over 10 years ago. This tent has withstood a huge thunderstorm in Nevada’s Mojave Desert, a crazy windy night in the sparkling dunes at White Sands National Monument, and plenty of typical summer campouts. It’s nothing fancy, but we’ve never had any problems with leaking and the dome setup is super quick and easy.
Coleman no longer sells this exact model, but the Flatwoods II and Sundome tent are pretty similar, just a little bit bigger as they are 4-person models.
If you’re looking for a roomier tent, or something lighter for backpacking, the price tag starts to climb pretty quickly. The 4-person Kelty Salida Camping and Backpacking Tent clocks in at 7 lbs, so it’s a great option if you do think you’ll do some backpacking in the future. It’s not terribly expensive with a price of $170.
The Marmot Limestone tent comes in sizes for 4, 6 and 8 people and a great option if you want something taller and roomier. It’s easy to set up and fully utilizes mesh to make this tent lighter and breezier, which is great if you’re camping in a warmer location. The 4-person Marmot Limestone tent costs $359.
Tip: You’ll also want to get a footprint for your tent, which is basically a ground cloth or tarp that fits right under your tent. This helps protect the bottom of your tent from all the rocks and sticks; it’s much cheaper to replace the footprint than get a whole new tent, so this is always a good idea and will save you money in the long run.
There a few basic decisions you need to make when you’re looking for a sleeping bag:
Rectangular vs Mummy: Rectangular sleeping bags will be a bit roomier, but a mummy will keep you warmer without the bulk.
Synthetic vs Down: Synthetic Insulation is much more affordable than down insulation and still very effective, so if you’re just starting out a sleeping bag with synthetic insulation is a great option.
Temperature ratings: It can still get cold at night on a summer camping trip, especially as you head higher up into the mountains. I’d opt for a 3-season sleeping bag that is meant to keep you warm down into the 30°Fs since these are going to be both cost effective and pretty much have you covered until you start winter camping.
The oft repeated advice I’ve heard when it comes to buying a sleeping bag is to buy the best and warmest bag you can afford. While you may be able pinch all your pennies together and splurge on a $500 bag, that really may not be the best option for you. If you’re just starting out and only plan on camping once a summer, then a budget sleeping will work just fine.
For a budget sleeping bag, I’ve used the Coleman North Rim Mummy Bag that can go as low as 0°F and works for people up to 6 ft 2 in. It’s hard to beat its price point of $40, but it is heavier and bulkier than most sleeping bags. But, if you’re car camping, weight and size aren’t a huge concern.
For something a bit more lightweight, check out the Marmot Trestles 15 Sleeping Bag. This sleeping bag has you covered for 3-season camping and at just over 3 lbs 6 oz, you could use it for a shorter backpacking trip as well.
We’ve recently upgraded our bags to the Sea to Summit down bags for a backpacking trip in Idaho. I have the Journey Women’s Down Sleeping Bag rated for 18F in size long. I’m about 5’7″, and I’m glad I went with the long bag because I think the regular would’ve felt pretty cramped. This bag is under 3lbs and compresses down super small, so it’s a great option for backpacking. It was below freezing at night during our trip and I was warm enough. Aaron has the Trek Down Sleeping Bag which is basically the men’s/unisex version of this sleeping bag. Note that the women’s sleeping bag has a lot more insulation at the same temperature rating as women tend to get colder more easily. You can also purchase the Sea to Summit sleeping bags from REI.
For a kids’ sleeping bag, the REI Co-op Kids’ Nodder 25 Sleeping Bag ($80) is a great option.
/// Budget: Coleman North Rim Mummy Bag
/// Better: Marmot Trestles 15 Sleeping Bag
I’ve slept on just about everything when camping, ranging from the cold hard ground to camping cots to a double high air mattress. The best night’s sleep I’ve had while camping is on the Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Air Sleeping Mat – and now I’ll never go camping without it.
This air mattress is insulated, so it’s a good barrier between you and the ground. It’s lightweight, (only 14.8 oz), so it’s good for both car camping and backpacking trips. Plus, this mat inflates with only a few breathes. Sea to Summit makes sleeping mats specifically geared towards women by making them a little bit warmer and creating a shape that’s more accommodating to wider hips.
While I’d usually forgo saving size and weight for cost and comfort with car camping, this is the most comfortable sleeping mat I’ve used while camping and has the benefit of also being great for backpacking.
Sea to Summit has a range of high-quality sleeping mats to fit your budget, including the Ultralight Air Sleeping Mat, which one the Gear of the Year by National Geographic Adventure in 2014.
/// Budget: Sea to Summit Ultralight Air Sleeping Mat
Sitting around a campfire, swapping stories and roasting s’mores is an essential part of the camping experience, and for that you need a seat. These compact camping chairs by Ozark Trail are sturdy and lightweight – and at $25, they’re a steal. You’ll find similar compact camping chairs by more well-known brand names that cost closer to $100, like the REI Co-op Flexlite Chair. Both fold up small and weigh less than two pounds, so they’re so easy to store at home and don’t take up a lot of room when you’re packing up the car.
/// Budget: Ozark Trail Himont Compact Camp Lite Chair
/// Better: REI Co-op Flexlite Chair
I know people can talk about how they’re “roughing it” when they camp, but we all need a good night’s sleep to really enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Do yourself a favor and bring a pillow. You may be tempted to steal the one off your bed for the occasional camping trip, but just think about all the dust, dirt and bugs you’ll be bringing back into your bed with you.
We’ve used some Eddie Bauer stuffable camping pillows that are no longer sold, but the TETON Sport Camp Pillow is similar and very affordable. For the best combination of comfort and weight, the Nemo Fillo Inflatable Travel Pillow is always a camper favorite and next on our camping gear wish list.
/// Budget: TETON Sports Camp Pillow
/// Better: Nemo Fillo Inflatable Travel Pillow
If you don’t already have a water bottle you use day-to-day that you love, then a camping trip is a great excuse to invest in a good one.
For a lightweight bottle, the Nalgene Wide-Mouth Water Bottle is simple bottle that’s leakproof and has a lifetime guarantee.
For a stainless-steel vacuum insulated water bottle, we like the RTIC ones (work great and they’re really affordable), and the Hydro Flask water bottles. I like to fill my insulated bottle up with hot water at night so I have something to warm me up right before hopping into my sleeping bag.
/// Better: Hydro Flask Vacuum Insulated Water Bottle
Cut down on waste from paper plates or single use plastics by picking up a mess kit.
This GSI Outdoors Glacier Stainless 1-Person Mess Kit includes a 1-liter pot, a folding-handle frypan, a bowl, a 12 fl. oz. cup. For a utensil that does it all, check out the Sea To Summit Titanium Spork.
Unless you’re planning on living off of granola bars and apples (which we’ve totally done a time or two), you’ll want a cooler to pack anything that needs to stay cold or frozen.
The Igloo Maxcold Fold Fusion Cooler has been a great size for our family of three, and with dry ice we’ve been able to pack some pre-made cowboy dinners, yogurts, or even meals we’ve assembled and frozen ahead of time for longer keeping.
If you have a bigger budget and want the luxury of having regular ice hold for 72 hours, opt for a YETI Tundra 45 Cooler. Everyone we’ve talked to that has one loves it, and it gives you more flexibility if you’re camping where you can’t buy new ice every day or so. Plus, YETI coolers are about as durable as you can get and made to handle lots of abuse, so you can consider this a lifetime investment.
/// Budget: Igloo Maxcold Cool Fusion Cooler
/// Better: YETI Tundra 45 Cooler
I don’t know why it took me so long to get a headlamp, but I love it. Walking around without having to carry a flashlight in the dark is so convenient. Plus, most headlamps have a few different settings including a red-light mode for those midnight bathroom runs when you don’t want your beam flashing through everyone’s tent and waking them up.
/// Budget: Luminolite LED Headlamp
/// Better: Black Diamond Cosmo 225 Headlamp
It’s really helpful to have a few lanterns to stick up on the picnic table while you’re trying to pull out your stuff for s’mores, or to hang up at the top of your tent for late night card games on the tent floor.
These solar Luci lights are amazing– charge them up on your dashboard on the drive out to your campsite and have power for up to 24 hours without having to worry about if you have enough AA batteries every time you take a trip. They’re also completely collapsible, so they take up hardly any space and work well for backpacking too.
Luci lights were originally created to help the three billion people on this planet that still do not have reliable access to electricity. These are awesome for camping, but with your purchase, you also have the opportunity to give the gift of light to people that need it. Learn more about the Give Luci program here.
For a traditional, battery-powered lantern, we like the Cascade Mountain Tech Collapsible LED Lanterns. They’re lightweight, compact, and very bright. These lanterns have high, low, and red-light modes.
/// Budget: Cascade Mountain Tech Collapsible LED Lantern
/// Better: Luci Inflatable Solar Lantern
First aid kit
Chances are something is going to happen to someone with all the shenanigans you’ll be up to in the woods or desert or wherever you decide to camp, so be smart and bring a first aid kit. You can assemble your own, or buy a pre-made first aid kit like this one from REI that comes in a handy nylon bag. We add sunscreen, hand sanitizer, and this antiseptic spray for kids that doesn’t sting.
If you have any tried and true camping gear you love, let us know in the comments below.