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Camping Checklist

Okay, so here you are staring your first camping trip in the eyes.  It’s only a month away, and you’re trying to figure out what you need to bring with you in order to really enjoy nature at its finest.  We have you covered. 

Quick Camping Checklist:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Stove / Fuel
  • Lantern, Flashlight, and Headlamp
  • Ample Food
  • Camping Knife
  • Layered Clothes

Checklist Details:

Tent: 

You’re going to need a place to sleep, and unless you want to sleep under the stars (which can be amazing on a warmer night), a tent should be first on your list of things to get.  When selecting a tent, there are a couple of things to think about:

  • The general climate and forecasted seasonal weather. Tents come in a variety of styles, sizes, and seasons.  A three-season tent will mean that it’ll keep up with the weather from Spring through Autumn.  Two seasons is Spring and Summer, and four seasons is, well, all year.  The difference really is the thickness and water repellent nature of the tent walls and roof. 

A two-season tent is meant for warmer weather, so the tent material will generally be a bit thinner.  You’ll also have more ventilation because you’re not worried as much about the cold and rain.  It’s also, generally, going to be a bit lighter.  For the casual camper, this is probably the ideal season rating because you’ll likely be taking your vacation in the Spring or Summer.

A three-season tent will use a heavier material for the tent walls and roof.  Ventilation is a bit more restricted than the two-season tent because it’s expected to perform well in wetter and colder weather.  This is also a good option for first-timers.

  • The number of people who will be sharing the tent.  Size ratings can be a bit deceiving.  Tents are sized based solely on the number of people sleeping in the tent.  It does not account for any luggage or bags you will bring into the tent with you.  If you want some elbow room, take the number of people using the tent and add two.  We know, that seems like it might be overkill; however, tent manufacturers assume that you don’t mind sleeping shoulder to shoulder.  A one-person increase is just fine, but it’ll still be a little cramped. 

One thing that we want to call out in this section is that you should NEVER have food or toiletries in your tent.  Wildlife will sniff out the smallest amount of food or toothpaste and tear through the walls to get it.  One of our editors had this happen to his tent in Mammoth Lakes, California.  Thankfully, it was during the day, and his part was not at camp, but the tent was ruined.

Sleeping Bag: 

A comfortable sleep is crucial if you’re going to get the best out of your camping trip.  A cold night is a great thing to talk and laugh about the next day, but it’s not a lot of fun when you’re trying to sleep.  Some sleeping bag basics:

  • Style.  There are two general styles of sleeping bags:  rectangular and mummy.  There are others, but for the majority of camping, these two styles are enough.
    • Rectangular.  If you like to move around or sleep on your stomach or side, this is the style for you.  Due to the basic design, there is more room in the arms and legs for you to position yourself for the best night’s sleep.  Some can be fully unzipped and paired with another rectangular sleeping bag to create a double, which is awesome for couples or good friends to keep each other warm.
    • Mummy.  The mummy bag design is intended to provide a smaller air pocket around you, which will heat up a lot faster than a rectangular sleeping bag.  There isn’t a lot of space to move around, but it’s not going to be uncomfortably restrictive at all.  These are ideal for colder weather.
  • Cold Rating.  You know how we suggest that you should always go up a size in tents in order to be more comfortable?  Well, the same concept applies for cold ratings.  Whatever the manufacturer says it’s good to (e.g. 35°F), assume that they are about 10°F overconfident.  We suggest purchasing a sleeping bag that’s good to 0°F.  As an example, one of our editors has a 20°F rated mummy bag, and he had to put on most of his clothes at night in order to get comfortable during a night that probably dropped to just above 20°F. 

Now, you may think “but I’m going to the desert, that’s not going to be cold.”  Well, unless it’s in the middle of Summer, nights can still be chilly.  When you’re camping, it’s always easier to cool down than to warm up. 

Stove: 

A stove is the real heart of camping.  Yes, we know it should be the fire, but a hot breakfast on a cold morning is AMAZING, and it’s a lot easier to get the stove up and running than it is a fire.  Thankfully, camping stoves are pretty straight forward.  We suggest a 2-burner so you can prepare a complete meal at one time.  You can’t imagine how quickly food cools down, so a 2-burner stove means that you’ll have a hot meal all at once.  The main difference in stoves is fuel type.

  • Propane / Butane.  These stoves are ubiquitous.  Both propane and butane come in canisters of compressed gas that attach to your stove through a hose or pipe.  They’re super easy to operate, and there’s no possibility of spilling the fuel. 
  • Liquid Fuel.  These stoves are thought to be more efficient than compressed gas stoves because they don’t rely on the pressure of the tank to work properly.  Our opinion is that gas runs out in either stove, so this isn’t a deal breaker for us at all.  A liquid stove often requires priming to get the gas to the burner, which is not a concern with compressed gas since the fuel is already under pressure.

Something else to consider when purchasing your stove is how much wind protection there is.  There have been many, all too many, occasions when the stove is positioned the wrong way, and the wind blows out the flame with every gust.  Stoves should have some type of wings that connect the foldable lid to the base in order to create three ‘walls’ of protection against the elements.  Backpacking stoves are a whole other story, so we’re going to hold off on that discussion for now.

Access to Light:

Because you’re away from city light pollution, night is actually pretty dark.  Always make sure that you have an assortment of lighting to make camping at night safer.  This should include:

  • Lantern.  A good lantern is vital for camping.  Technically, we think there should be two, one for the table and stove and one for the tent. 
    • For the outside lantern, it can be gas (propane or liquid) or battery powered.  While the following is true for both types, it’s particularly important for gas lanterns:  Lanterns should always have a stable base.  The risk of fire is very real with lanterns, and a narrow base or top-heavy lantern that can easily fall over is a real hazard. 
    • A tent lantern can be smaller and more portable than an outside lantern.  It doesn’t need to be as bright because you’re using it for your tent or trips to the bathroom; however, don’t assume that they are going to be dim.  Even the cheaper battery powered lanterns emit ample lighting and can last for hours with minimal battery usage.

Tent lanterns SHOULD NEVER be gas.  Just because it’s lit doesn’t mean that the flame is consuming all of the gas that’s being pumped out.  Plus, there could be unknown leaks.  Bringing a gas lantern into the tent is just stupid.  Don’t do it. 

  • Headlamp and Flashlight.  It may seem redundant to have both a flashlight AND a headlamp, but there’s a reason:
    • Headlamps.  These things are a lifesaver.  Having your hands free makes camping a whole lot easier.  You’ll use this while cooking at night (especially if you only have one lantern), on the trail, or headed to the backroom.  Typically, they have a broader focus than flashlights, which is perfect for the various tasks around the camp like cooking, starting a fire, digging through your gear, etc.
    • Flashlights.  Flashlights are more versatile than headlamps, and usually have better focusing capabilities.  Obviously, you’re familiar with a flashlight, so we’re going to skip the bigger write up.  Just bring one or two.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Adequate Food.  Plan your meals ahead of time.  Know what you’re going to cook for each meal for each day.  Make sure you talk to your camping party to ensure that everyone will be well fed.
  • Sleeping Pad.  No, this isn’t a necessity, but it’ll make your night a lot better.  Basic foam pads will make the uneven ground a bit softer, but inflated pads are the way to go.  Many self-inflating pads still need a little extra air from you, but they’re well worth the small price difference.
  • Clothes.  Dress in layers.  Temperatures shift a lot, and you’ll want to be able to take off or put on clothes easily.  If you’re hiking, wear long sleeves.  This gives you extra protection from the sun.  Also, cotton does a great job of staying wet.  It may feel good when you’re hiking, but when it’s time to set up camp, and the sun goes down, it’s going to get cold.  We suggest non-cotton, water wicking material whenever possible.