Do you want to get outdoors and take your family on their first camping trip but aren’t quite sure where to start? Or maybe you’ve camped before but need a reminder of what to pack on your next trip? Either way, this essential camping checklist is for you. We want to make it as easy as possible to get you started with some obvious essentials and maybe some other items that you haven’t considered but will find very useful on your next car camping trip! Keep in mind, some of these items can be rented from your local outdoor retailer as well as purchased. REI Rentals is a good place to start.
We’ve created an excellent, FREE Camping Checklist for you to download just for joining our email list! Use it in conjunction with all of the tips below!
Your tent is your home away from home. There is no need to feel cramped assuming you have a campsite that can accommodate a larger tent. Consider how much space your family would like and work from there. You will likely spend very little time in the tent beyond sleeping hours. Hopefully you are out exploring or just hanging around the campsite enjoying the outdoors. Our experience is that a slightly larger tent will give you a little more room and make you feel more at home. Our family of four uses a 6-person tent. We really love our Big Agnes Tensleep Station 6.
Tent footprint – protects the floor of your tent from rocks and jagged site conditions. Not all tents come with a footprint, you may need to buy it separately.
Ground tarp – place this under your tent footprint for additional protection from rough ground conditions and rainwater on the ground. Just be sure that it doesn’t extend out past your tent’s fly otherwise it may collect water when it rains!
Stakes – keeps your tent from flying away!
Mallet – to drive those stakes into the ground
It’s important to select the appropriate temperature rating. Depending on the weather where you’re camping, you’ll want to ensure warmth and comfort. Keep in mind, the rating of a bag might be it’s limit but not necessarily it’s most comfortable point. We have a few different sleeping bags but are really fond of our Nemo Forte 20 sleeping bags for cooler weather camping. They have a bit more width than a mummy bag so you can sleep comfortably on your side. If you’re looking for something at a lower price point to get started, check out Kelty or Coleman bags.
Sleeping Pad / Air Mattress
Our family has used inflatable, queen-sized air mattresses for many years. They roll up very small and provide a decent amount of comfort. A variety of sleeping pads are available that either inflate or fold-up and provide good insulation between you and the ground. Something to consider is that air mattresses aren’t ideal in cold weather camping, the air inside gets cold so you’ll want a layer between the mattress and your bag.
Battery-operated air pump to inflate air mattresses.
Extra blankets if you’re camping in cooler weather
Meals at the campsite should be something to look forward to, not to dread. With the right tools, many of them right here on our essential camping checklist, and some advance meal preparation, you can ensure a group of happy campers!
Camp Stove / Grill We have been really happy with our “classic” Coleman propane stove. Ours has a griddle accessory (for all important pancakes!) as well as the grill for hamburgers, etc! Most car camping appropriate models come with two burners which is quite useful when cooking for a larger group. There are smaller single burner models if you’re a minimalist and larger grills if you need to feed a larger group.
Small propane tanks
Dutch Oven If you’re up for cooking over the campfire then you’ll want a cast-iron Dutch Oven that can handle the heat. These come in a variety of sizes, we’re quite fond of our 6-quart Lodge Dutch Oven.
Knife & Cutting Board There are some very cost-effective chef knives that work splendidly on the campsite. You’ll also want a decent cutting board to accompany that knife.
Utensils & Dinnerware Forks, knives and spoons are all essential. Buy durable, reusable utensils and avoid the waste that comes with using disposable plasticware. The same goes for plates, bowls and cups. Either use what you have at home or invest in a decent set of reusable dinnerware. Also, don’t forget your favorite coffee mug!
Cookware Cooking on a camp stove or campsite is much like cooking at home and you’ll need some pots and pans to get the job done. Use what you have at home or purchase a compact set of camping pots/pans that nest into each other for ease of transport and storage. For skillet cooking on the campfire, we like to use our 12″ Lodge carbon steel skillet.
Corkscrew / bottle opener (this is critical to get that bottle of wine open!)
Sponge and dish soap, preferably the biodegradable type.
Garbage bags (for waste and recycling)
Food / Drink Plan your meals in advance, you won’t always have access to a store. Be sure to have the ingredients for all your meals on-hand. Prepare what you can in advance to cut down on prep time at the campsite. Bring your favorite beverages along as well to accompany every meal.
It’s always a good idea to have basic spices permanently in your camp kit such as salt and pepper and your other favorite spices.
Cooler / Ice Chest You’ll need to keep your food and drink cold and a decent cooler is critical. You may want to have two coolers, one for drinks and one for food. The more insulation your cooler has, the longer your ice will last. With a typical thin-walled cooler you can expect to add new ice daily if you’re in a reasonably warm climate. This can be fine if you have easy access to ice near your campsite. Your other option is to invest in heavily-insulated cooler like a something from Yeti which can hold ice for several days.
Firewood is the obvious first thing you’ll need. After that you’ll need a few other key accessories for a safe experience around the fire. It can take a bit of experience and practice to get comfortable with working the fire, so be careful until you’ve become well practiced. Our essential camping checklist includes some basics, but bring whatever you need to be safe around fire.
Fire starter / lighter (Match Light charcoal can be a good fire starter in the absence of good kindling)
Fire gloves or a good stick to move the wood around
Folding camping chairs to sit around the fire
Smores ingredients! – Marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers – Long roasting sticks (we like the telescoping camp forks)
Hygiene & Personal Items
We all have different standards for cleanliness and hygiene at the campsite. We find that once we’re there, our standards drop quickly. After all, it’s about making the most of having the least gear possible. We’re adding some basic, typical hygiene items to this essential camping checklist but feel free to rough it as much as feels appropriate. Just take your family’s enjoyment into consideration when you decide to stop wearing deodorant for 5 days!
Baby wipes for cleaning
Travel potty – small or adult size, when you need to go pee in the middle of the night, getting out of your warm tent and walking to the bathroom isn’t desirable – especially with kids! Consider having a small travel potty that can allow you or your kiddo relieve themselves at night. It will help you all stay warmer!
Appropriate clothes for local temperature – if it will be cold, consider extra layers for added warmth – Hats, gloves, jackets. If you’re camping warmer temperatures, have cooler clothing to ensure you’re not overheating
Safety / Emergency
Here are some items to consider to keep you safe on the road and at the campground. Especially if you’re doing a lot of driving on your trip, you’ll find these items can provide a bit of peace of mind and belong firmly on any essential camping checklist.
Emergency tire repair kit
Multi-purpose portable car jump starter with USB charging capability
Medication / first-aid kit
Satellite-based GPS device for when there is no cell signal
Cash (never know when you’ll find yourself somewhere that doesn’t accept credit cards)
Emergency beacon and/or satellite cell phone / walkie talkies – if camping in remote areas without cell signals
Here are a few more general items to consider packing along. You probably already have most of these in your home and don’t need to run out and buy more.
Good hiking shoes / regular athletic shoes will do for beginners
Flashlights / headlamps / lanterns – We have found that headlamps are helpful when you need your hands free – cooking in the dark, going to the bathroom or getting ready for bed. These are pretty much all LED-type lights now and are very bright and efficient.
Camera – your phone may do the trick but if you’re into capturing higher quality images, a proper camera would be ideal. Also consider bringing a tripod to capture moments of the whole family.
Bluetooth speakers for music (be sure to keep the volume low so as not to disturb other campers)
CASH – Campgrounds may not take a credit card for the site or firewood. Make sure you have some cash available. ATMs are not always around
Device charging packs / cords
Extra Batteries for flashlights / devices
Camping multi-tool and/or small knife
Shade canopy – if there isn’t much tree cover at the campground, you might appreciate having a tarp strung-up from trees which is something that packs small.
Each time you get out camping, you’ll learn what special items your family needs and prefers to have along on your trips. You’ll quickly develop your own essential camping checklist that you edit regularly and add or delete items as you see fit. For your first trip, use what you have around the house or rent/borrow gear before investing in expensive equipment to make sure it’s something you and your family want to try again.
Let us know what you find to be the most critical items to pack for a car camping trip and what you’ve found you can do without!
We're a typical family of four that enjoys being outdoors and exploring all the amazing natural places that surround us. When life allows, we road trip, we camp, we hike. We're helping other families get outdoors by sharing our experiences because if we can do it, so can you! As we develop our blog this year, we'll be moving more into advocacy and generating support for the parks we love. We hope you'll join us and lend a hand.
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