Camping Gear

11 Camping Essentials You Need: The Beginner’s Guide to Camping Gear

August 5, 2019
Tent lit up at night at Joshua Tree National Park

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.   

View out of tent at Joshua Tree National Park

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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Planning a weekend camping but not sure what gear you need? Check out this beginner's guide to camping gear. We've rounded up a list of camping essentials that includes both budget and better options. #camping #campinggear #campingsupplies

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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.  

Coleman Flatwoods Tent
Coleman Sundome 4 person tent

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.  

Kelty Salida Camping and Backpacking Tent
Marmot Limestone 4 person Tent

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.  

/// Budget: Coleman Flatwoods II 4 Person Tent or Coleman Sundome 4 Person Tent 

/// Better: Kelty Salida Camping and Backpacking Tent (for backpacking), or Marmot Limestone (for more room) 

Hudson in Sleeping Bag at Joshua Tree National Park

Sleeping bag 

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. 

Coleman North Rim Sleeping Bag

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.  

Marmot Trestles Sleeping Bag

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

/// Best: Sea to Summit Women’s Journey or Men’s Trek Sleeping Bags

Sleeping mat 

I’ve slept on just about everything when camping, ranging from the cold hard ground to camping cots to a double high air mattress. If you’re backpacking, I recommend the Sea to Summit backpacking air mattresses. The Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Air Sleeping Mat weighs 14.8 oz, so it’s still lightweight and compact enough for backpacking, but it doesn’t compromise on comfort or warmth. Plus, this mat inflates with only a few breaths. 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.  

The Sea to Summit Ultralight Air Sleeping Mat is also a really great option if you really want to slim down on the weight, but still want something comfortable (Aaron uses this one).Sea to Summit Womens Ether Light XT Insulated Sleeping Mat for Camping

For car camping when weight isn’t as much of an issue, the UST Fillmatic Sleeping Mat uses both air and foam cushion for an extra comfy night of sleep. It’s a self-inflating mat, and the exterior material is strong but not squeaky. You can hook two of these mats together to make a larger mattress, or so they don’t shift around.

UST Gear Self-Inflating Sleeping Mat great for car camping

/// Backpacking: Sea to Summit Ultralight Air Sleeping MatSea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Air Sleeping Mat 

/// Car Camping: UST Fillmatic Sleeping Mat

Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Mat in Tent

Camp Chair 

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 

Ozark Trail Himont Camp Chair
REI Flexlite Camp Chair

Camping Pillow 

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 

Water bottle 

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.  

Nalgene Wide Mouth Water Bottle from REI

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. 

/// Budget: Nalgene Wide-Mouth Water Bottle, RTIC Vacuum Insulated Water Bottle

/// Better: Hydro Flask Vacuum Insulated Water Bottle 

Hydro Flask stainless-steel vacuum insulated water bottle


Hudson Sand Sledding by Tent at White Sands National Monument

Mess kit 

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.  

GSI Mess Kit for Camping


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

Igloo Maxcold Fold Fusion Cooler
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. 

The Black Diamond Astro 250 is a great budget option at about $20. This lamp runs on 3 AAA batteries, and will last a little over 4 hours on high and up to 200 on low.

The UST Brila LED Headlamp is great option if you use your headlamp a lot because it comes with a rechargeable battery. It charges up pretty fast, and lasts about 3 on high, over 5 on medium, and 18 on low. You can also use 3 AAA batteries as backup. It also has a couple of other cool features like being able to zoom the light in for a more focused beam, and a separate red light. 

/// Budget: Black Diamond Astro 250 Headlamp

/// Better: UST Brila Dual Power LED Headlamp

UST Headlamp with rechargeable battery

UST gear headlamp
the view of the moon at four mile beach, Santa Cruz, CA


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 Solar Lantern

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

Cascade Mountain Lantern

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.  

REI First Aid Medical Kit

If you have any tried and true camping gear you love, let us know in the comments below. 

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Planning a weekend camping but not sure what gear you need? Check out this beginner's guide to camping gear. We've rounded up a list of camping essentials that includes both budget and better options. #camping #campinggear #campingsupplies
Planning a weekend camping but not sure what gear you need? Check out this beginner's guide to camping gear. We've rounded up a list of camping essentials that includes both budget and better options. #camping #campinggear #campingsupplies

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  • Reply Bernadette July 31, 2020 at 9:36 pm

    Thank you for the article
    Do you have any suggestions for a solo wannabe camper?
    It’s been 2 decades since I’ve camped.i long for the stars and the sound of crickets
    My husband isn’t the outdoorsy type and I don’t have friends (yet) that I can ask
    Warm regards

    • Reply nomanbefore August 4, 2020 at 3:01 pm

      Hi Bernadette! I think the best advice is to just go! If you’re a little uncomfortable camping by yourself for the first time, then I’d make a reservation at a campground somewhat close to home with a few amenities like running water and flush toilets. I’d still opt for a two or three person tent so you have room in the future for friends or family to join. Hope you can plan a camping trip soon!

  • Reply Erica September 20, 2020 at 6:02 pm

    Ive never camped but I suddenly have the urge to go. No friends or family with camping experience, so this was truly helpful. I plan to try a local campground. Thank you

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