Camping is something we look forward to every year. Whether it’s car camping or RV camping, we are always ready to go and I check my camping list before every trip. Last year we camped for 45 nights. That is a lot of camping! Over the years since our first camping trips, we have learned a lot about what gear we do and do not need. We have also picked up a lot of camping tips and tricks on our adventures. There are lots of really cool things out there, but there really are just a few basic things that you need in the way of car camping essentials and gear. **If you scroll to the bottom, I have included my personal camping gear list, which is perfect for beginners. This post was updated 4/10/2021.
Camping is meant to be fun. And you can’t have fun if you are wet, cold, and hungry. These camping essentials should get you prepared for your first or next camping trip. These tips are great for anyone, including families. To find affordable gear, check out this post on how to save money on camping gear. Camping gear should be affordable and a good investment. You’ll find that I like to purchase things once and not have to do it again. Any of the items mentioned here are personal recommendations and items that we have tried as a family or currently own. Here are the thirteen camping essentials you need for car and tent camping:
Sleeping Bag and Mats
Cookware and Dishes
When purchasing a tent, keep the following in mind: size, weather, and durability. We outgrew our two-person tent years ago. When we purchased a new one, we had to consider how big our family is. I did not want to get anything too large, because it would have cost more, but we didn’t need the space. We still had our two-person tent if we needed extra room. I also wanted one with a rain fly, to keep out rain or snow, but also for shade. And I considered if it had openings for ventilation. I checked out the pop-up tents, but I do not find them very durable and they cannot be repaired if they are bent or broken. Tents can last for a very long time if they are taken care of. Tents should be affordable, but any money spent should be considered an investment. We have a two-person Kelty and a four-person Alps. For a cheaper alternative, Coleman has a four-person tent as well and also has some great six-person tents. When I am looking for a tent, I like to research reviews on the best camping tents.
Sleeping Bag and Mats
Sleeping Bags and Mats – When thinking of a sleeping bag, size does matter, as well as the weather rating. You also want something that is soft. Because we camp in all weather and temperatures, this is a factor when choosing a sleeping bag. You can get really expensive ones, but again, I like affordable and I have sleeping bags that we purchased very affordably and have lasted a lot longer than some of the expensive ones we have had. (Sleeping bags are just not durable for sliding down the stairs, again and again.) I like to get sleeping bags that are rated at least -20, because if it gets too hot then I can just open it. But, you can also get sleeping bag liners for extra warmth.
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Other Sleeping Bag Options
There is always the option of getting double sleeping bags, which we use for car or RV camping only and not for backpacking. I have multiple single ones and have never purchased the children’s sizes. The children’s size bags are usually not rated for cold weather and I just use paracord tied below their feet to make the bag smaller for little kids because kids grow and if I am going to invest in a sleeping bag, why not have the bag “grow” with them. It’s ridiculous to spend $100.00 or more on something that won’t last very long.
Depending on how well you sleep on hard surfaces, you might want to consider a sleeping mat or even an air mattress. I can honestly sleep on a rock, but my husband has gotten older, and so we have a full air-mattress that fits our four-person tent very well. The two-person bag that we currently own is no longer being made, but I really like the Teton Mammoth as an alternative. For a single-person bag, for car camping and backpacking, my favorite is the Teton Sports Trailhead. And if you’re really picky and don’t like using your jacket for a pillow, you can find some really great inflatable camping pillows, that can also be used on long car trips.
Totes – I like to keep my camping gear organized and ready to go. Plastic totes are great for keeping everything together like your small items and gear. A good, durable tote can also be used as a table or even seating. I have one tote for gear and one for non-perishable food. For stuff like sleeping bags or clothes and blankets, I use a big tote bag.
Camp Stove – I love cooking over a campfire, but because of fire-restrictions and forest fire season, I take a camp stove instead. My dad has a Coleman stove that is over 50 years old which is great for family cooking, but I also have a Jetboil for backpacking.
Paracord – Almost as useful as duct-tape,paracord is a must-have for any camping trip. Use it to tie stuff down, hang or suspend things like a bear bag, make a make-shift clothesline, and much more.
Leather Gloves – Good leather gloves are handy when it comes to camping. They not only keep your hands safe if you are fixing something or cutting wood, but they are helpful to have when handling cast iron or cooking on the campfire.
Walkie Talkies – We use walkie talkies for all of our outdoor adventures. They are nice to have for safety purposes, such as hiking, backpacking, or off-roading, to keep in touch with each other and even radio for help if needed. There is usually no service when we go camping, so I like to have these if we get separated or even if my husband heads out camping a few hours before I do. We always have a set channel that we agree upon beforehand.
Shovel – A shovel is a wonderful tool to have while camping. It can be used to clean up around an area, dig a cat hole for human waste, dig dirt for putting out or controlling a fire, and even for removing tin foil meals from a fire.
Tarp – A
Cooler – A cooler is a camping necessity to keep your food and drinks cool. Having a cooler that is durable and keeps things cold is important, especially if you are far away from the store to get ice. There are a lot of great alternatives out there, but I can’t bring myself to get a really expensive cooler. Coleman is an excellent brand, and I have two coolers that have lasted me for the last 20 years. I really like the steel cooler because it hasn’t cracked or fallen apart like some of the plastic ones I have had.
Cookware and Dishes – Cookware and dishes are a must-have for camping. I prefer using cast-iron for cooking because I can use it on a stove or over the fire, as I mentioned in my “Castiron Camping Cookbook”. I also prefer enamel cookware for eating because it is durable, and the enamel pans are great for cooking on a gas stove. I have had the same enamel and castiron sets since we started camping as a family. For backpacking, because I have a Jetboil, I use the Jetbowl cooking set.
Multi-tool – In case something breaks or I need a pocket knife, I like to have a multi-tool. I use one for both car camping and backpacking, and keep it in my pack for day hiking. I use my multi-tool for fishing and everyday use. I have carried one since I was in the Israeli military.
First Aid Kit
First Aid Kit – This is one thing that we take everywhere with us. A first aid kit is so important when you are camping and we have used ours a lot. We have had cuts, bruises, sunburns, headaches, to name a few minor injuries, that I usually have to restock after our weekends, but it is considered one of my top essentials. First aid kits should always be the color red for easier identification.
There are other essentials you should take on your next camping trip, but these are items that you don’t necessarily need. These are camping items that can make your camping trip easier and more comfortable. All of these items are our favorite brands and have held up well over the years. We average about 45 nights of camping each year, so we need items that can last for all of our camping trips.
Other Essential Camping Gear for Car Camping
Camping Chairs – There are many different types of camping chairs. Pick one that is comfortable and suits your needs. Stadium chairs and camping stools are ideal for backpacking.
Folding Table – You can always use your tail gate or cooler as a table, but it’s much better when you have a table. Try to choose one that is light-weight and folds down.
Tool Kit – A basic tool kit is good to have in case of emergencies or something breaks. You also never know if there is another camper who needs a hand nearby.
Water Jug or Purifier – Water is the most important essential when camping. When our family is car camping, I always take enough water for camping even if we are near water. I also always take a water purifier system with me. You can live seven days without food but only three without water.
Camping Lights – It doesn’t matter where you go, you always need light for when you are camping. There are multiple lighting solutions for camping. I usually take at least one headlamp per person, as well as a lantern. For tent or mood lighting, I love string lights.
Pellet Grill – During fire season, having a campfire is not an option. Instead, if there is a fire ban, pellet grills are a good option for grilling meat. There are many options out there, but only a few good options for pellet grills that are made for camping.
Portable Charger – I have tried so many portable chargers and to be honest, my favorite has been the myCharge Adventure Max. I haven’t found any other charger that lasts longer or is more durable than this one than the myCharge brand chargers. My biggest problem with solar chargers is that they don’t work well unless they are in direct sunlight, so you are always moving them around and you are SOL on a cloudy day. The one solar charger that I think does the best job is the one from Big Blue, it’s not as finicky as other brands and they recently came out with an upgraded one.
Hammock – A hammock is not something that I think you need, but is a luxury item. We love hanging out in hammocks and the kids love hammock camping when they are older. Hammocks are also a good camping solution for backpacking. Be sure to check regulations in the area, as some places do not allow hammocks. Always be sure if you are hanging your hammock, to hang it up appropriately with tree straps.
Fire Starters and Firekit – Always be prepared. Fire, water and food are the most important things that you need for camping. Fire can be used for heat, purifying water, keeping away wildlife and cooking food. I always have at least a lighter and matches, but sometimes if the wood is wet, a fire starter is a great tool to have.
Bear Spray – This should be an essential item for any outdoor adventure. Bear danger is real, so it is important to be prepared. Do not leave bear spray in your vehicle, it is sensitive to heat and is known to combust if it gets too hot. Also, learn how to use bear spray. It is not efficient if you do not know how to use or if you accidentally spray yourself.
Bear Canister or Hanging System – If you are camping in bear country, be sure that your food is secure. Unfortunately, too many people leave food outside and the bears become food trained. If this happens, they are usually euthanized which is a shame. Bears can also be very dangerous.
My Personal Car Camping Gear List
If you are lookikng for recommended gear, this is my list of camping gear that I currently use. It’s a great list for beginners that are just starting out and this is what we use for all of our family camping:
If you are looking for more essential or camping gear, I have an essential hiking gear list and a post on reader recommended gear that has some really great camping items as well. The most essential part about camping is to have the right camping supplies and to be prepared.
What are some things that you can’t camp without? Do you have any great ideas or suggestions of camping gear you can’t live without? Be sure to drop them in the comments below. And as always, be outside with no limits.
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