A Beginner's Guide To Essential Camping Gear

Spring is in full swing, which means that camping trip you've been itching to take is just around the corner. Of course, you've also been meaning to buy the required gear too. Don't worry, whether you're a complete beginner or a vet looking to cover your bases, we have you covered.

Illustration by Sam Woolley. Photos by Zach Dischner and Maria Ly.

What you should take on your camping trip depends on what type of trip you have in mind. Driving somewhere and going on small day hikes from a populated base camp? You can bring a nice, big stove. Hiking 40km into the bush? You want something a little more portable. The distinction between the two is usually labelled as "camping" or "backpacking". Campers drive somewhere and camp out of that location. Backpackers hike in and then make camp with what they have brought.

The gear best suited for each usually has to do with weight and packability, so make sure you consider which you'll spend more time doing when you shop for gear. Backpacking gear tends to be pricier because it focuses on weight, but it's great for both camping and backpacking. That dual-use nature is good for anyone planning on doing both. You should consider your specific needs instead of relying on a generic checklist, but the list of essential items for most trips remains the same.

The Basics: Essential Camping and Hiking Equipment

Let's start with the most obvious camping-specific equipment: Tents, sleeping bags, backpacks and all that other stuff that immediately comes to mind when you think of camping. This is all the expensive gear you've been putting off buying until you really needed it. Thankfully, you can get by with a lot less you think.

  • Tents, Tarps, Poles, Tie Downs and Stakes: You'll need something to sleep in, so a tent should be at the top of your priority list. There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all tent though. Tents come in a variety of sizes and in a variety of types. Some ultralight tents are best suited for backpacking, while other, heavier tents come with spacious luxuries best suited for hanging out near a car. To confuse matters more, most tents come in two varieties: Three-season and four-season. Three-season tents are good for just about anything but the deep of winter, while four-season tents have more durable fabric that can handle snowdrifts. Good news though, as our friends over at The Wirecutter point out, most tents in the $300-$400 range are pretty good nowadays, so you pretty much can't go wrong. They suggest the now discontinued Big Agnes Blacktail 3 person tent, but you can still snag it as new-old-stock for around $360. If you want to dig into the specifics of the differences between tent types, Backcountry walks you through the different types of backpacking tents, what to look for in weight and how to choose the right seasonal variety for you. You'll also usually want a footprint to place beneath your tent to block out water. Any of these will do the job.
  • Sleeping Bags and Sleeping Pads: Like tents, sleeping bags come in different weights and handle different temperatures, so you have to do some research to find the one best suited for you, where you plan to camp and when. Outside Magazine's best sleeping bags or the Wirecutter's picks are good places to start. Wirecutter's a fan of the $US200 ($271) REI Radiant Sleeping Bag as a good all-around bag. Outside Magazine's top recommendation is the Marmot Electrum, which will usually run you around $220, though you may have difficulty finding it in Australia. You will probably spend around $200-275 for a decent sleeping bag. On top of that, most people will also want a sleeping pad, an air-filled pad that sits between your sleeping bag and the ground so you can get a little more comfortable. Our friends over at Gizmodo have a rundown of the best sleeping pads for various budgets and uses. Which is best for you depends on your size, but I'm personally a fan of the $190 Therma-Rest Prolite.
  • Backpacks: Backpacks are an area where the distinction between camping and backpacking matters. If you're camping, you arguably don't need a backpack at all (though you want a good day pack if you're planning on small hikes). In the backpack world, there are three main distinctions for sizes: Day packs, overnight and long haul. Which you need depends completely on what you plan on doing. Outside Magazine has a great rundown of some of the best packs for each type, but if you're new to backpacking and don't want to dish out a ton of cash, Gizmodo has a cheapskate guide that keeps things as budget-friendly as possible. They suggest the Kelty Redwing for $US140 ($189) as a solid but cheap bag that will hold what you need and won't kill your back.
  • Headlamps, Lanterns and Torches: Surprise! It gets dark in the bush, so you want something to help you see at night. Any cheap, sturdy, reliable torch will work here (LED is best, something like this $11 Mini CREE LED flashlight will do the job for most people), but having some extra gear is helpful too. A lantern like the Black Diamond Apollo Lantern for $80 is super useful for camping so you can make your way around the campsite and your tent easily in the dark, but it's far too bulky for backpacking. For that, a headlamp like the $63 Black Diamond Spot Headlamp is surprisingly useful, especially when you're trying to set up a tent after dark.
  • Water Filtration Systems and/or Treatment Tablets: If you're camping, you can (and should) bring along as much water as you'd possibly need in your car, so it's easily accessible. Some campsites even have fresh water available, but you should bring some anyway. If you're backpacking however, that's not an option, so you'll need a water filtration system. For something on the cheap end, the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System filters water and only costs $50. For a slightly more portable solution, Iodine tablets like these $20 Potable Aqua Treatment Tablets work too.
  • Hiking Boots or Shoes: Depending on the type of trip you're taking, you'll want to grab some hiking boots or shoes. Your sneakers will do just fine in many places, but if you're planning on going for a longer backpacking trip, dedicated shoes are much more comfortable since they offer more support, padding and stability for your ankles as your cross rough terrain. Of course, like everything else here, you have a million choices. In this case, your selection breaks down to boots, trail runners, approach shoes and hiking shoes. Boots are clunkier but sturdier, so they're good for people who like a lot of grip in their shoes and who like to jump into mud piles. Trail runners are light but have no real traction or ankle support, so they're best for the nimble-footed who prefer to jump around. Hiking shoes are the Goldilocks of each of those — they are lightweight, have good traction and solid durability. They also tend to have low longevity. Approach shoes are meant mostly for climbing but sit somewhere in-between boots and runners. If this was an RPG, boots are for your tank, trail runners are for your high DEX character and approach or hiking shoes are for your basic all around character. Each has their own list of merits and best use-cases, and Gizmodo compared the pros and cons of each type. For most people, they land on approach shoes as a suggestion, but more general all-around hiking shoes like any of these will do the job too.
  • Paper Maps: Regardless of whether you're camping or backpacking, there's a good chance you will not have mobile phone service. Get a map of wherever you're going before you get out there, then learn how to read it and not to rely on GPS, even if you bring a stand-alone satellite GPS unit. You can download the Avenza maps app, as suggested by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, or you can print them online. Either way, make sure you have one.
  • First Aid Kit: It shouldn't be a surprise that you need a first aid kit for camping. Include the usual aspirins, bandages and gauze here, but also toss in some hiking-specific stuff like moleskin for blisters, bug sprays and aloe vera for burns. The Washington Trails Association has a great checklist.

There are thousands of other gadgets, knick-knacks and other gear available for camping, but most people don't need more than what's listed here when it comes to the essentials.

Everything You'll Need to Cook Outdoors

You probably don't want to sustain yourself on Vegemite sandwiches during your camping trip, which means you also need some cooking gear. Here are some of the basics:

  • Stove, Fuel and Fire Starter: Sure, you've seen cartoons where campers cook right over a campfire, but most normal people are going to want a real stove. For camping, something big and bulky like Coleman's camping stoves are sturdy, reliable and easy to use. For backpacking, you want to grab something more portable like the absolutely tiny MSR PocketRocket Stove for about around $95 or the more all-purpose and more durable Jetboil MiniMo for around $211. For your first trip, it makes the most sense to start cheap and work up from there if you end up enjoying yourself.
  • Pots and Pans: Spoiler alert: If you're camping and have access to the storage of a vehicle, just use the pots and pans you already own. You don't need special camping cookware unless you need to separate your household cookware from your camping stuff. For backpacking however, you want special cookware that's effective and lightweight. GSI Outdoors' Bugaboo Camper 4 Person Cook set is $257 but includes mugs, bowls and plates. Pair that with the $95 GSI Outdoors Destination kitchen kit, which includes about every utensil you need. You'll be making your own gourmet MREs in no time.
  • Cups, Bowls and Utensils: Camping cups, bowls and utensils are the same as what you have at home, except they tend to be lightweight, plastic or stainless steel, and often have clever designs that make them easier to pack. You don't need much here. Just some all-in-one utensil sets like this $US19 ($26) set from REI, some mugs (these ones from REI are expensive at $US25 ($34), but multi-purpose), or just get a cheap table set like this $US13 ($18) one from GSI.
  • Coffee-Making Tools: Everyone's coffee needs are different, but if you drink coffee, you want something to make coffee with in the morning. The Wirecutter recommends this $US45 ($61) French Press from REI. Personally, that's too clunky for me, at least for backpacking. A $35 AeroPress works much better because it's way lighter, smaller and cleanup is less of a chore. Just make sure you grind your coffee ahead of time. If you don't care about anything other than the caffeine, instant coffee is easy to pack.
  • Scrubber, Dishcloths, Garbage Bags and Other Cleaning Gear: Just because you're out in the bush doesn't mean you won't have to do the dishes or tidy up. Bring along some dishcloths, some type of scrub brush and garbage bags. There's no magic camping-specific stuff here, just bring along whatever you already have, and try to leave the campsite better than you found it.

You'll also need food to cook. That part's up to you, but meal planning for backpacking trips is a skill in its own right. REI has a good guide, as does Backpacker. Both walk you through meal planning, which is important not only so you don't die from starvation, but also so you get the nutrients necessary for the outdoor workout you'll be doing. You'll need to get used to bland freeze-dried instant meals, but it's surprising how great a good cup of coffee and some decent oatmeal will improve your outlook for a day. Personally, two things I always overlooked but that I've found useful are foil pack tuna and a good, reasonably priced bourbon. Of course, if you're just camping, anything you can grill works. Just make sure you bring along a cooler to store any perishables in.

Everything Else

Whatever you buy and pack, just make sure to consider your climate, needs and environment. If you're heading off to the desert for a long weekend in December, you can skip the rain jacket, but doing so would be foolish if you're heading into the rainforest. Perhaps you want to get some fishing in, in which case you'll need a pole, licence and some bait. Maybe you're going on a big bike camping trip, which requires not only camping gear, but also a slew of cycling-specific extras. The fact is, regardless of the millions of generic camping checklists out there, they're all pretty much garbage because they're just massive lists of almost random items. For everything beyond the basics above, you're much better off searching for checklists suited to the specific trip you're planning. Here are a few examples to get you started:

Remember, your needs are likely a little different than everyone else's so adapt and make your own lists. Don't forget things like medication, hygiene products (often left off of those checklists) or anything else that makes you feel a little more human after being out in the bush for days at a time. The basic rule of thumb is simple though: If you're backpacking, you want to keep the list down the bare minimum of essential tools and needs. If you're camping, feel free to pack that car with as much junk as you can, because you're not going to have to carry it anywhere.


Comments

    Shoes: kt26's or other sneakers. Sturdy sole, quick to dry. Good for everything except snow or deep mud.

    Water: tablets aren't reliable. Boil it. Or use the WHO method of sunlight purification: put a coke bottle full of suspect water in the Sun for 6 hours. On that note, coke bottles ( or any carbonated drink bottle) are light and tough for carrying your water. Non-carbonated drink bottles aren't as tough.

    People carry so much and spend such ridiculous amounts of money on stuff for backpacking. It makes me laugh. I've never spent more than $120 on a tent or half that on a sleeping bag and my favourite tent is one that only cost me $59. Unless you are doing serious alpine hiking, it just doesn't matter. Get the lightest, cheapest tent you can find and prioritise comfort in your sleeping bag over anything else. I prefer a bag that unzips into a flat blanket because they are far more comfortable, especially on a hot night. I only zip mine up when it gets really cold.

    I don't carry pots and pans, just two canteen cups that fit over my army water bottles. I can cook and eat my food in one and make my coffee in the other, although if I am eating canned food, I usually cook it in the can and eat it our of the can. You just put a big dent in it before you put it on your coooker, rotate it regularly and get it off the heat as soon as the dent pops out.

    I don't do camp fires so I don't need a torch. I just let my eyes adjust to the darkness and I'm fine. I carry a small torch with a red filter for digging around in my pack or reading a map at night (because a soft red light won't kill your night vision) but that's it.

    The problem with modern backpacks is that they have lost all the external pockets older models used to have. That means you have to unpack the whole damned thing to find what you are looking for, unless you invest in a few individual internal bags. Sea-to-Summit make waterproof bags in all different sizes and colours for quick identification. Everything in my pack is also in one of those bags (or in it's own bag if it has one). Compression sacks for extra clothing are a good idea, too.

    The really important thing overall, though, is to prioritise comfort. Your clothes, your backpack and everything else need to be the most comfortable you have ever encountered. Otherwise, over the course of a four or five day hike, they will make your life misery.

    For me, the essentials include good mates, an EPIRB, a plan and to leave an estimated itinerary and time of return so that someone will look for me if I don't make it back!

      Really? You have so little faith in yourself and your mates? I never bother telling anyone where I'm going and I sure as hell wouldn't bother with an EPIRB. There is absolutely no excuse for being lost, navigation is the no. 1 most importantly skill anyone going off the beaten track has to master.

      When I was a kid, we used to spend entire days hiking in the bush near home, just with the clothes on our backs. As long as we were back for dinner nobody cared where we were or what we were doing. Even after my best friend fell off a waterfall and died, when I was 10, my parents never put any limits on where we could go and what we could do. These days they'd spend millions fencing in the whole National Park if somethgn like that happened but in 1969 people understood both that accidents happen, as well as that risk and responsibility were part of life, even for kids.

      I remember one time we got turned around and walked up the wrong side of the valley, ending up in St Ives, about 15km by road from where we started (Frenchs Forest). It was a very long walk home that day. We tried hitch-hiking but I think my large machete probably put people off.

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