So, you have hiked a trail or two and went camping when you were younger, but now you want to experience the great outdoors again. There are all kinds of things that you need to know, like which tent to buy, whether to use a sleeping bag or sleeping mat and most importantly, how best to consume caffeine.
We are just like you, some of us backcountry camp every chance we get, while others are more about good food, good beer and car-camping when the weather is good. To us, as long as you are having fun outdoors, then it is good enough. Along the way, though, you may have burning questions about all types of things. Some of those things we will have answers for, and others will have us researching until we are bleary-eyed, or mud-soaked on the trail.
To clarify, some of the options or methods listed are suggestions; if you want to buy the most expensive gear, then we will not argue with you. On the other hand, if you purchase affordable equipment just know that it may not hold up as well, or not last as long. Focus on the gear you will use the most, and try to future proof if you can. If you plan on camping in the cold, you should focus on warmth, which will come with a higher price tag. Upgrade what you can, and always be prepared.
Use this page to learn, to communicate with others, or to ask all those things you have been wondering. Just leave the outdoors like you found it or better, and we’ll be all right.
To start, we will do a brief rundown of where to begin, which gear to have, which gear is optional and other minor details that will help you on your journey to camp.
No matter what gear you choose to bring, a first aid kit should be a top priority. This kit has all the basics, and it’s way cheaper than building your own—it comes in a dry bag too, just in case. The kit states it is for one person for up to two days, but they sell bigger kits as well as smaller ones for shorter activities. Everyone makes mistakes sooner or later, and an excellent first aid kit can make a world of difference.
With tents you don’t want to go cheap, you don’t have to spend $600 either on a tent made for alpine climbing, but something in the $200-$350 range will be good for a beginner—there are cheaper tents out there, but be wary if it is under $100. Brands like The Northface offer higher-quality tents regarding design and construction, but REI and Big Agnes are good from a cost perspective. As a newcomer you will probably bring more than you need and placing all that gear in your one-person tent with you in it will be a tight and uncomfortable mess. Instead, pick something roomy like a 2-3 person tent for all your gear and even a friend. A three-person tent will be more cumbersome and expensive, but let the ultra-light hikers worry about weight. You will thank us when you get a good night’s sleep.
This has been a recent trend, but some people have chosen to ditch the tent entirely and use a hammock. ENO and Serac are two brands that offer reliable and lightweight hammocks, which you can read about here. The tent-makers sell accessories like lights, mosquito netting, and a comforter that goes underneath the hammock for those cold nights. This is something to consider if you hate to sleep on the floor or want to save money. An ENO Doublenest hammock and set of straps are $100 as opposed to the $500+ you might spend on a tent and sleeping bag.
I was shocked at how expensive some of these sleeping bags can get, but remember, just because something is priced high it does not mean you need it. Those expensive sleeping bags are for freezing temperatures, and while some of our colder neighbors may need them, most people in warm states probably don’t. Stick to an affordable bag like one from REI, or invest in a decent sleeping pad. Personally, I don’t like to be zipped up and look like a mummy, so sleeping on a pad and sleeping as I do at home sounds way better. Of course, in colder months this may not be the most ideal. For sleeping pads, like most outdoor gear, the lighter and more compact it is the more you will pay, for a complete breakdown on pads check out this in-depth article by REI.
Also, our intern Avery breaks down the different methods for sleeping while camping, and even by the season. Check it out.
For me, I would recommend using a cast-iron pan like this one from Lodge, which I own and absolutely love—I take better care of it than I of myself. The cast iron is a timeless cooking staple and versatile too; you can make pasta, cornbread and even pizza on it. With the cast iron, if you take care of it, it will take care of you, and although I will not get into the various methods of cast iron care, this article should do a good job. Just remember, that for this kind of cooking you will need fire and a way to place the pan above it, so it’s not most convenient, plus it’s heavy as hell. Only use this when you car-camp, don’t ruin your back.
If you plan on hiking before you get to your campsite, then there’s only one option really; a stove system like one from MSR or Jetboil. These little isobutane-fueled—a mix of butane and propane—stoves will boil your water quickly so you can have a cup of coffee, treat stream water or rehydrate your favorite Backpacker’s Pantry package. They even sell pots and pans, so you can cook even more types of food like eggs or potato hash, or whatever you are craving. These stoves are designed to be compact, apart from being functional, but don’t forget to bring extra fuel.
Alternatively, try a backpacking stove like MSR’s Pocket Rocket. This little thing is a beast and has built-in pot holders that should, for the most part, handle whatever you put on it. Also, for basecamps with multiple people, it might be worth looking into the Camp Chef Everest for some real home cooking. The Everest has two 20,000 BTU burners for most of your cooking needs, and then some.
TIP #1: Get yourself one of these long spoons from GSI to reach the bottom of the bag when eating from a Mountain House or Backpacker’s Pantry bag, and it is also a tool for the stove.
TIP #2: Jetboil’s $15 Jetgauge weighs the contents of your isobutane cannister and tells you the amount of fuel left in it.
Tip #3: Check out our breakdown of camp coffee methods.
If the campground you are staying in has fresh water, or if you bring your own in gallon jugs then you skip this part. However, if you are planning on hiking deeper in the wilderness, then it is good to plan things out. You could, like me, buy a Lifestraw water bottle, which will filter out any harsh chemicals and contaminants. There are other options you may want to consider but boiling your water or using chlorine tablets also does the job and it is inexpensive. Although filters clean your water, just remember that stagnant or murky water is still not a safe option, nor is salt water. And to be safe, purchase a product that not only filters out bacteria but also chemicals and viruses.
Tip: This MSR filter let’s you slurp right from the stream if you are an ultralight hiker or runner.
At some point in your adventures you will need to cut some rope, filet a fish, skin a squirrel or chop some wood. Only one tool can do all those things: a knife. I could go on for days about knives and their importance in the outdoors but I digress—just get one you can use for multiple tasks. You do not necessarily need to go over the $100 mark and buy a tactical knife with serrated teeth and all these other crazy features, which are mostly designed for self-defense and not survival. Preferably, get a fixed-blade knife with a drop-point edge that is longer than three inches. As far as steel goes, carbon steel holds up exceptionally well to all kinds of abuse, while thinner blades with crappy steel will snap easily. You want something you can trust. Benchmade’s Bugout is a quality light-weight blade that will handle most tasks.
For more laborious tasks like chopping wood, or all-around badassery, get yourself a hatchet like this one from CRKT or this one from Gerber. You should probably not use this for cooking, but it is your hatchet, so do you—we will not judge.
If you are anything like me, you organize your pack like a fugitive running from the law; just a mess of items stuffed rapidly into a bag. You know what’s worse? Looking through that bag at night with no light source. Most headlamps will be under $30 and provide different lighting modes, like a soft LED, bright LED, and a red light—the latter is handy if you do not want bugs on your face. Black Diamond makes some outstanding ones, but I bought a Coleman headlamp and it’s good enough for most tasks—it has a 175 lumen output and three different modes: soft, bright, and red. You will thank me later when mother nature calls and you do not get lost in the woods.
Hiker uses the SunLite from Biolite. Image: courtesy of BioLite
A headlamp is a critical piece of gear for some activities and will make navigating through your camp at night so much easier, but it does have drawbacks. For one, it only illuminates in whichever direction you are facing, and if you are cooking or just trying to have a conversation, it can be difficult. To solve this problem, there are camp lighting options like the Black Diamond Moji, which attaches to the top of your tent, or BioLite’s SiteLite product line, which offers several camp lighting solutions. We recently wrote about BioLite's new product, the solar-powered SunLite, which has 40 hours of battery life and is perfect for camp lighting, and it's only $25.
Almost every gear maker has a bag or pack for camping/hiking. Although I cannot recommend any specific bags because everyone’s needs are different, I will name drop a few brands that deserve mention. For packable bags that are colorful and well-made first I would go with Cotopaxi, they make bags for day-hiking, traveling and backpacking. Osprey has packs with integrated rain covers and hydration compartments, both of which are vital features to consider. Moreover, I hate to sound like a broken record, but there’s nothing wrong with choosing an REI bag. Just make sure the bag fits you well and has the features you need.
That is it for gear, but how do you start camping, where do you go and how do you get a spot? We will answer all this and more.
So, you finally set up camp and build yourself a nice fire; maybe someone even brought a guitar. And after that long hike you just want to sit, but not on the hard ground. You can buy yourself one of those cheap camp chairs that people use for tailgates, or you can boss up and get yourself something nice for your butt. These new kinds of chairs are designed to be extremely packable and lightweight, and comfortable too. You may think sitting on the hard floor might not be so bad, but you deserve the rest; you earned it.
If you have ever stayed at an Air BnB, then you know how it easy it is to book a room or a house. Hipcamp is basically the same thing, but for campsites. Pick from thousands of campsites across the country, so when you finally reach your destination, you will not be turned away because the campground is full. Plus, the site offers information about the campground such as available amenities, pictures, and whether it is pet-friendly or not.
If you do not want to pay money to set up your tent on someone else’s patch of dirt, then do some digging. Most national and state parks have campgrounds although these usually fill up fast. Some of them are free, while others charge per night. The NPS website has all the information you need, just do your homework.
Recently, I purchased a bundle of Lonely Planet books online, and I have been learning about all the national parks and landmarks. If you want to get out there and you still don’t know where to go, this is a great resource, and it comes with plenty of useful information.
The land you are camping on may be public land, but it does not mean you can treat it however you want. To preserve public lands, Leave No Trace is a nonprofit and movement in the outdoors to leave the land just as you saw it. They have a code of conduct, which you can read about, but don’t be a jerk and clean up after yourself.
Breaking down the different Camp Coffee methods: French press, camp stove or instant packets, we have all the dirt on how you should make coffee outdoors.
Why you need a hammock in your life: Trust me, whether you just want to relax or sleep in it, a hammock is worth it.
Gear Review of Gear Aid’s Buri Knife: A no-nonsense knife for only $30.
Camp Sleeping Methods You Should Know: Avery breaks down sleeping in the backcountry.