What in the world do you take with you into the wild?
Bring too much gear and you become a miserable, slow snail.
Every single step becomes exhausting not to mention, a pain with the weight of an elephant on your back. Bring too little gear, and you run the risk of not making it out of the woods alive.
When it comes to covering all the bases, there are a handful of general camping essentials that are critical to carry. These include: Navigation, shelter, insulation, illumination, repair kits/tools, hydration, nutrition, fire, fire-aid, and sun protection items.
In this camping checklist below you’ll find a complete list of items that cover all of these areas. Best of all, you’ll find everything you need and nothing you don’t, so that you can really cut the excessive weight away. While there are a lot of car camping themed checklists out there, this isn’t one of them. Sure it covers all the bases anyone would ever need to be a car camper, but it doesn’t include all the unnecessary luxuries that seriously weigh you down when backpacking in great outdoors.
If you want to know how to ensure that your next backcountry adventure is enjoyable, not to mention safe, then this checklist below is your best bet!
The best thing any camper can be equipped with is knowledge. Don’t adventure out into the wild without first having an understanding of the area, weather conditions, bear activity, and so on.
The last thing you want to do is to venture out miles and miles only to realize that there are no water sources nearby. If you plan to hike in an area with a high bear activity, it’s wise to know what to do when you come across a bear in person. Not just for your own safety, but also for the safety of others who encounter them in the future. The truth is, your actions matter!
Consider the terrain, your personal limits, the amount of food needed, alternative clothing, and so on. While having a camping checklist and acquiring all these essentials below is a great thing, knowing how to actually use these tools and survive with them is everything!
Don’t let the gear give you a false sense of confidence. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s going to save you in every single situation.
2. Trip Itinerary
Before heading out to go camping, put together an itinerary and make two additional copies. Give one to a close family member or friend. Put the second copy under the seat of your car.
3. Camping Tent
Consider what type of shelter you’d prefer to own: Tent, hammock or tree tent (Tentsile). Next, decide on how many people your shelter will need to house: 1 person, 2 persons, and so on. Understand that not all 2-person tents fit 2 fully grown adults with room to spare, instead, they can be rather snug instead. Of course, this varies by each manufacturer and model.
Take a moment to discover which seasons you plan on going camping. The answer will determine if need to purchase a 2 season, or 4 season, etc. tent. Once you have gone over all of the above, consider the total weight for your shelter. Keep in mind that the lighter your shelter is, the better.
Lastly, take note of all the materials, flame retardants and construction of your shelter. Some are sold with rather toxic chemicals and plastics, and lack any kind of durability.
One of my personal favorites is the Abisko Lite 2 by Fjallraven. It’s made without PVC plastic or toxic flame retardants, and its impregnations if fluorocarbon free. Best of all, it’s a 4 Season that can sleep 2 people while weighing just around 3 pounds. The durability and construction are top notch while the interior is generously spaciousness.
22-30 liter packs work well for day hikes, while 60-75 liter packs are excellent for multi-day backpacking. The camping backpack you choose will ultimately depend on how much space you need and how much weight you want to carry. Some ultra-lightweight backpackers will cut off extra pull tabs, remove buckles and trim away material to save every single gram possible.
5. Bear Sack
In areas like the Adirondack Mountains, bear resistant canisters simply don’t work. Consider giving Ursack’s bear resistant sack bags a try instead.
6. Biodegradable Soap
Wash up with a biodegradable soap that’s gentle on the environment. If Dr. Bronner’s isn’t your thing, then give Camsuds a try.
7. Dry Bag
Nothing is worse than sopping wet gear. Keep your camping gear protected by investing in a simple dry bag. They weigh next to nothing and come in just about any size to fit your individual needs while camping.
8. Lighter / Fire Starer
Cook food and keep warm; fire is your best friend. Unless you’re an expert in making it the old-fashioned way outdoors, invest in a lighter or fire starter. While windproof Zippo lighters last a lifetime, the fuel inside of them won’t. The downside to these lighters is that you must constantly refill the fuel after it evaporates out. Of course, they do make butane inserts or you can always go with a classic Bic lighter instead.
In addition to a lighter, it’s a fire starter can be an essential camping item to own. Let’s face it, lighter fluid and butane don’t last forever, eventually, they run out. With a fire starter, you’ll be able to strike away time after time after time. My personal favorite is the new Zippo fire starter.
9. Sanitation Trowel
Leave no trace behind by burying your waste while out in the wilderness. A sanitation trowel makes digging a hole in the ground and covering it back up easy work.
Chapstick is one of those camping essentials you just can’t live without during the winter and fall season. Chapped lips are a pain to deal with and being stuck outdoors where they can only get worse, makes for one miserable trip.
When it comes to cookware, there are all sorts of materials to choose from. Unfortunately, there’s pluses and minuses to them all. Aluminum is extremely lightweight and doesn’t rust. However, it warps with high heat and ultimately has an anodized plating that will eventually fail. Stainless steel lasts forever, yet, it weighs a ton! Nothing beats cooking bacon and eggs over cast iron, but good luck carrying all that weigh around.
Titanium weighs next to nothing, doesn’t rust or warp easily, and is my personal favorite choice. Of course, it does come with two downsides: One, it’s expensive and two, it doesn’t retain heat as long as the materials above do. When it comes to essential camping cookware, going the Titanium route makes for a great long-term investment in your gear. You can’t go wrong with it.
While having a headlamp is an essential camping item on this checklist, a backup flashlight is just as important. We can’t always predict what will work and what won’t when out the trail with 100% accuracy. My personal favorite is the rechargeable Coast HP5R.
It takes a single rechargeable Li-polymer battery in addition to your standard AA battery should the first run out. If you have a solar panel on the back of your bag you may be able to recharge the flashlight while on the go. It also features 185 lumens on high and 19 on low and runs from 4.5 hours to 14 hours. Best of all, the essential item only weighs 2.6oz and fits easily in your hand or pocket.
If you’re looking for something a little more powerful, I’d suggest the Coast HP7R or HP8R.
13. Insulated Sleeping Pad
Regardless if you’re camping in a tent or in a hammock, an insulated sleeping pad is an essential item to own. When lying in a hammock, the material will stretch down and expose your back and butt to the frigid wind. An insulated sleeping pad solves this problem. When it comes to sleeping in a camping tent, nothing is worse than waking up in the morning with a painful back and sore body. An insulated sleeping pad keeps you warm plus comfortable throughout the night.
14. Lightweight Camping Chair
Perhaps some of you can get by sitting down on a log or spending your downtime inside of your tent. For other folks, a lightweight camping chair is essential. My personal favorites include anything by Helinox and REI’s Co-op Flexlite Macro chair. There are all sorts of other “camping chairs” out there, but these two really cut the weight.
If you think you can get away with carrying one of those folding sports chairs while camping, think again. Unless your car camping, those steel framed chairs are going to be a major pain to lug around on your back.
16. Multi Tool
When it comes to multi-tools, I prefer the ones with a decent set of pliers. They come in handy for moving around hot to the touch items like wood-fired stoves, cookware, etc.
While you can get away with sleeping on a jacket or pile of covered leaves, a sleeping pillow just makes camping more comfortable. Sure, it’s not a truly essential piece of camping gear, but it’s nice to have.
From Chili mac with beef to fried dried ice cream, when it comes to food choices for camping your options are endless.
19. Personal Effects
These essentials items can include your house and car keys, wallet with both credit cards and cash and so on.
While you might think cash or credit cards would be useless outdoors, they can come in handy if things don’t go as planned. Imagine a bear tearing through all your food and leaving you stuck with nothing to eat. Your options could be walking a short distance into the next town to pay for an emergency meal and ride or backtracking miles without food to your car.
20. First Aid Kit
Antihistamine and anti-diarrheal medications are two essential items to bring with you when camping. Band-Aids, super glue, burn kits and blister pads also make for great additions to any medical kit. If you want to include things like splints or a tourniquet, it’s entirely up to you to decide.
21. Bear Spray / Firearm
Sometimes being armed with knowledge isn’t enough to cut it. While some would argue 10mm isn’t going to take down a bear immediately, the truth is, it’s better than nothing. Personally, I prefer to carry a firearm. If you’re not into that kind of thing, then consider bear spray as a second option.
Understand that it can take hours for someone to come and recuse you while out the in the wild. The local police department isn’t going to be there at a moment’s notice. The only person who can come to your rescue when seconds matter the most is well, you!
If you drink any kind of heated beverage, a cup is essential to bring along. My personal favorite is the double walled Snow Peak titanium cup. It’s extremely lightweight and retains heat remarkably well.
While water will get you through anything, one essential camping item I like to bring along is Drip Drops. These little hydration powder packages are essentially Gatorade on steroids. I’ve heard stories of medics carrying them during combat tours overseas. My personal favorites are lemon and berry, granted the flavors aren’t the best-tasting thing you’ll ever sip on.
Consider bring along coffee, tea, and so on if that suits you better. While those things might not be true camping essentials, they can easily make your checklist for comfort gear.
24. Dromedary Bag
Let’s face it, a 32oz Nalgene water bottle isn’t going to always cut it. When water sources aren’t nearby, a dromedary bag can be a lifesaver. With up to 10 liters of water storage, you’ll have the option to go further without having to worry about dehydration.
While a dromedary bag like the MSR one above is an essential piece of camping gear, you can always elect to go with a CamelBak instead. The reason I highlight the dromedary bag above is that the durability and construction are miles ahead of a CamelBak. Think firehouse material vs plastic; the difference is dramatic. Sure, CamelBaks come with a lifetime warranty, but when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, that warranty is not going to help much!
25. Duct Tape / Repair Kits / Sewing Needle
A roll of duct tape will fix just about anything while out camping. If that doesn’t solve it, then consider bringing along a repair kit or sewing needle and thread.
26. Hiking Boots
Blisters and lack of comfort when it comes to feet are no fun. Consider investing in a good pair of hiking boots if you plan on walking for a long period of time. While gym shoes will keep your feet covered to a point, they don’t offer the essential protection from ankle and foot injuries.
27. Sleeping Bag
When it comes to sleeping bags, consider the temperature rating you need alongside the weight of the bag. Some sleeping bags are notoriously heavy and chunky, making them a real pain to lug around.
28. Fuel / Tinder
Your stove choice will determine what kind of fuel you need to bring along while camping. If you’re using a Jetboil stove for instance, then having a fuel canister in your bag is essential. If you’re using a wood-powered stove, then tinder should be in your bag. For my wood-powered stove, I also bring along Esbit fuel cubes in addition to tinder. They burn for quite a while and are powerful enough to boil water.
30. GPS Navigation / Compass / Maps
It’s rather easy to get lost while out in the wild. A GPS navigation system is essential for camping, alongside a map and compass. However, while a compass and map may be essential camping items, they are almost worthless if you don’t know how to use them. Also, take note that a GPS device relies on batteries, and batteries alongside electronics can fail from time to time. When it comes to navigating your way out of the woods, it’s always best to have a backup plan and know how to execute it.
31. Hand Sanitizer
When water is precious, you simply can’t waste it away. Hand sanitizer will keep you protected from germs and bacteria while using none of your water supply.
Sometimes you can’t afford to waste that second hand holding a flashlight. A headlamp frees up both your hands to do whatever your heart desires in the nighttime without being physically challenged (one handed).
Nobody needs a knife until they actually start carrying around one. When one’s in your pocket, suddenly you start finding all sorts of uses for it. Daily carry aside, the same can be same for camping outdoors.
While most multi-tools feature a tiny pocket-sized knife, it’s often not going to cut it. Personally, I dislike those and wish they didn’t come standard on most. Step up to a larger blade; a 3” or under length is fine.
Paracord has all kinds of uses when camping, from spare bear bag rope to spare shoelaces, and beyond. Needless to say, it’s essential to bring along in your bag. Best of all, paracord weighs next to nothing. Just remember, that while 550 paracord may be rated strength-wise for up to 550 pounds, that’s static weight. If you think it’s going to prevent you from a fall, think again, as it will snap!
35. Phone / Personal Locator Beacon / Two Way Radio
Break a leg? Get lost? Fall down into a pit and can’t get out? Having an emergency backup plan is essential for any camper. While cell phone signals have improved over the years, you can’t really count on being covered everywhere you go. A two-way radio makes for a good backup solution, although, a personal locator beacon is perhaps the best investment you can make.
36. Quick Snacks
Let’s face it, you can’t always stop to cook food, and even if you can, it doesn’t always mean you’ll want to. Small snacks like protein bars, candy bars, and so on can be worth their weight in gold while moving along and taking a delicious, refreshing bite. Sometimes a quite snack is all it takes to power on forward.
While there are a lot of protein and snack bars out there, my personal favorites are Epic Bars. Unlike most, they don’t have gobs of sugar and tons of questionable ingredients. Their sea salt venison is my first choice. Some flavors like cranberry bison taste unpleasant, but you might like them.
When it comes to cooking over an open flame, a windscreen is an essential piece of camping gear. To save weight, opt for a titanium or aluminum version over stainless steel.
39. Water Purification Tablets
Portable water filters are great until they break. While humans can go without food for an estimated 3 weeks, most experts say the limit without water is a mere 3 days.
Let’s face it, if the immediate dehydration doesn’t get you, diarrhea and vomiting from all the viruses and bacteria just might. Don’t risk drinking unpurified water when these tablets take up virtually no weight in your bag and weight next to nothing.
With that said, it’s essential to carry water purification tablets in your camping bag as a spare backup.
40. Water Filter
When it comes to portable water filters, there are quite a few to choose from. My personal favorites are the MSR Guardian, Sawyer Mini and Katadyn Pocket. Each has their own pluses and minuses. Regardless of which you choose, bringing one along in your bag is an essential task.
41. Water Bottle
Store your water on the go. Nalgene 32oz and Camelbak’s Chute are my two top choices.
Don’t eat with your hands! Utensils are essential for any camper’s checklist. While the spork is perhaps the most popular item in most camping bags, I prefer the traditional three utensil setup: A spoon, knife and fork; all in titanium.
43. Camping Towel
Keep clean with a simple camping towel. Unlike a regular bath towel, you could compare these to microfiber. They dry fast, weigh next to nothing and are compact.
44. Toilet Paper
If this item isn’t on your camping checklist, then your only option left is to wipe with leaves.
There are all kinds of different stoves with all kinds of different sizes, weights, functionalities and so on. For fuel canisters my favorite stove is the MSR Windburner. For wood burning, my essential camping stove is the Bushcraft Essentials Titanium XL.
When it comes to staying protected outdoors sunscreen is essential. Sawyer’s SPF 30 Stay Put sunscreen lotion makes for a great choice while camping.
49. Rain Poncho
While water-resistant and rainproof clothing is essential for any camper to own, it’s always nice to have a backup solution on hand.
50. Ear Plugs
You might be thinking ear plugs as an essential camping item, really? Yes, really. Let’s face it, for first-time campers and those with anxiety, sleeping overnight can be a rather freighting experience. Unlike spending the night in the comfort of your own home, you won’t find the outdoors to be completely silent.
There are all sorts of strange noises and sounds that can plague you throughout the night. The easiest way to filter them out and get a good night’s rests is to simply pop in some soft foam earplugs and sleep away like a baby. Of course, a little booze helps to soothe the mind too!
51. Tent Footprint
A tent footprint provides extra waterproofing, helping you stay warm and dry at night. It also protects your tent, making it a particularly good investment if you’re camping on rough or rocky ground.
52. Folding Saw / Hatchet
If you’re going camping with a wood powered stove, then gathering wood is an essential task. While you can take the trip with a hatchet instead, they can be significantly heavier than a folding saw. Not to mention, often slower when it comes to cutting through branches and logs.
Personally, I prefer a Silky brand folding saw. Their latest version arrives with a curved blade to make sawing through wood far easier than the previous models. Best of all, you can order replacement blades, though, their factory blades tend to last forever.
53. Alternative / Spare Clothing