Here at Secrets of Survival, we’re obviously big fans of the outdoors. That’s why we have an entire section of wilderness survival – personally, I grew up going camping and fishing with my father, and that was one of the first places where I started picking up on many of the survival skills that we try to pass on through this website today.
It’s important to keep in mind that not all our interactions with the wilderness/countryside need to be about survival though. Not every outdoors adventure needs to be a matter of life or death – in fact, if you prepare properly, very few of your forays into the wild should have any element of survival involved (unless of course they are part of the plan e.g you’re deliberately trying to acquire new wilderness survival skills). Obviously, here at SoS, our focus is on the survival aspect of wilderness knowledge, but for this article will focus on a more recreational aspect of adventuring in the outdoors – camping.
Pretty much anybody who’s any kind of outdoors enthusiast enjoys sleeping under the stars… even better if there’s a warm campfire going and the only thing you can hear is the crickets and the breeze running through the trees. Camping is one of the most accessible and popular outdoors activities – it’s suitable for all ages, it doesn’t need to be challenging or difficult (unless you want it to be), and it’s a great way of bonding with friends and family.
Still, even though camping isn’t typically what we’d consider a “survival” activity (particularly when you’re car camping), it’s important to keep safety and security in mind when preparing for any kind of camping trip. Outside of safety, there are also other considerations that you should take into account in your planning your trip – like comfort and fun! After all, camping is a recreational activity, so it should be comfortable and fun for everyone involved. This is particularly true if you’re taking your kids camping – a little bit of comfort goes a long way towards making it a fun and memorable experience (rather than a miserable one full of complaining and whining).
So – how do we prepare for a camping trip to maximize the chances are that it will go safely and be comfortable and pleasant for all involved? We make sure that we’re bringing all the things we need. Much like with anything survival related, preparing properly now will prevent danger and suffering later. With camping, the danger and suffering might be less severe than you’d face in a true survival situation, but the principle still holds.
Proper preparation means making sure you have all the tools and supplies you need for both safety and enjoyment. The best way to make sure you have everything you need is to make a camping checklist. Nothing ruins a camping trip like finding out you’ve forgotten your sleeping bags just as you pull into the campsite, and nothing would disappoint your kids more than finding out that you hadn’t packed marshmallows just as it gets to time for smores. If you have a proper list of camping essentials, you’ll never put yourself in a situation where you’ve forgotten this or that.
In the best case, forgetting a “camping essential” means disappointment. In the worst case, it could mean that you’re jeopardizing the safety of yourself and your family.
That’s why we’ve put together this checklist of camping essentials – so that the next time you go on a camping trip, you can guarantee that you’ve not left anything important behind. Obviously, feel free to add to or subtract from this list – each person has their own preferences. We also have a list of “honorable mentions” that aren’t exactly essential, but definitely add to the experience of sitting around a campfire with friends or family.
If you want to skip straight to the list, we have the full list at the bottom of this article.
Camping Essentials: The Ultimate Camping Gear Checklist
This is probably the very first item you think of when you conjure up the idea of camping. While it’s not impossible to camp without a tent (you can improvise shelter with tarp, or even just sleep outside in a sleeping bag) – the very idea of camping outdoors is undeniably tied to the idea of pitching a tent when you arrive and zipping it up before you go to sleep. In fact, say the word camping and virtually everybody thinks of tent camping (as opposed to RV camping or backpacking). Tents are also important from a practical standpoint. They shield you from the cold, and more importantly, they protect you from the elements. Being wet while you’re in the wilderness is extremely dangerous – it doesn’t take a lot for hypothermia to set in if you’re soaked. The tent is the quintessential camping shelter – a roof over your head to protect you from wind and rain. While we wouldn’t necessarily include a tent in a list of essential survival items, this is a camping checklist, and we’re sure that nobody would disagree that a tent is absolutely an essential item when it comes to camping.
A sleeping bag is another piece of outdoor gear that comes immediately to mind when you think about the classic camping experience. The weather almost always feels colder than you expect when you’re outdoors, even in the summer, and there’s nothing quite like getting snug in your sleeping bag after a few hours sat next to the warmth of a campfire. For kids, sleeping bags are also useful when you’re sharing tents with friends or siblings – they make sure that each person sticks to their own space. The parents among us will know that this can help prevent squabbling. While sleeping bags are a bit of a luxury for any true survival wilderness situation because they’re unnecessarily bulky and weighty compared to something like an emergency survival blanket, camping is about recreation, and sleeping bags make sleeping in the wild a much more comfortable experience.
Some folks might also want to think about sleeping pads – we don’t think they’re necessary, but if someone in your group has specific back issues or really relies on their creature comforts, then you might consider bringing a sleeping pad as well.
Water, water filter, and canteen
Depending on where you’re camping, there might be water available on site, or you may need to bring your own water. Either way, you definitely want a source of clean, safe drinking water any time you go camping. Also, the water isn’t just for drinking – in a lot of cases, you’ll want to cook with the water too, and while boiling water can kill germs, it does not remove things like heavy metals or dirt and sediment from water. That’s why it’s ideal that you have a planned supply of safe water that you can both drink and cook with. You’ll also want a container to drink from, so each person in your group should have their own water canteen. We like stainless steel water canteens for a variety of reasons, but on a camping trip it doesn’t matter as much what kind of canteen you have as long as you have one.
We also strongly recommend that you bring a survival style water filter with you. While on most camping trips you won’t end up needing it, it’s a good, lightweight option to have as an emergency backup option. If for whatever reason you find yourself without easy access to clean drinking water, having a water filter on you could end up saving your life. A survival water filter lets you take almost any source of water in the wild and turn it into safe drinking water. It’s definitely not as convenient as having an actual source of water, but in an emergency you’ll be thankful you’ve got it.
Something to start a fire with (firestarter, lighter, matches)
The one thing that’s probably most associated with going camping is having a campfire. If you don’t have a fire, it almost doesn’t feel like camping. When my family used to go camping, even in the middle of summer, we’d wait until it got cool enough (once the sun started setting) and start a fire anyway – and if it go too warm we’d just sit further back. There’s something primal about sitting around a fire and chatting, or sharing a meal – its an experience that seems to transcend cultures. Our ancestors did it, and while we probably do it less than them, the communal fire still speaks to most of us in a deep way.
So, if we’re all in agreement that a campfire is pretty essential to any kind of camping experience, then it follows that you’ll want to have an easy way to start a campfire. Obviously, there are many ways to start a fire without matches or a lighter, but on a camping trip, there’s no point in making your own life more difficult (it’s also not particularly safe to venture into the wilderness without a method of starting a fire even if you’re not going camping – fire is an important survival tool).
When it comes to how you start your fire, different people have different preferences. Our “favorite” firestarting tool is the ferro rod (because it works even in wet conditions), but a lighter or even matches are all valid options.
Our recommendation is to just pack all three. None of these items weigh that much or take up that much space, so throw a ferro rod, a pack of bic lighters, and a box of matches into your backpack and call it a day. It never hurts to have a backup, and with these items, they’re small enough that they’re not costing you anything.
First aid kit
This one is an obvious one – anytime you take a trip into the wilderness, regardless of whether it’s a challenging and dangerous hike or a relaxed weekend camping trip – you should absolutely have a first aid kit on you. Minor wounds, injuries, and illnesses can easily turn into major problems when your in the wild, and that’s why you should make sure you always have the means to treat or deal with any medical issue that you come up against when on any kind of outdoors trip. That includes camping. Along with whatever’s already in your first aid kit, don’t forget to pack any essential medicines that you or members of your family might need.
Don’t venture into the wilderness without a good knife. It’s the most important survival tool you’ll find. It can be used to achieve wide variety of survival related tasks, and with some improvisation and knowledge it can take the place of a broad range of other survival tools. There’s literally no reason to not have at least a pocket knife on you anytime you’re in the wild. That includes when you go camping. If you don’t have one, go get one.
Compass & map
Yes, you have a smartphone that has GPS on it. But phones can run out of battery, or get wet, or get smashed, or lose signal. A phone is an electronic gadget, and gadgets can break or fail. The simpler the tool, the more failsafe it is – which is why even if you don’t have any plans to use them, you should always have same basic navigational equipment on you when you venture into the wild. A compass and a map don’t take much space at all, and on most camping trips you probably won’t even end up using them, but if for whatever reason you ever end up stranded or lost, you’ll thank the stars that you have them on you as an emergency backup navigation tools.
Rain jacket/waterproof clothing/poncho
One of the biggest killers in the wilderness is cold. And the reason why the danger of being cold is so severely underestimated is because it’s not just about temperature. When you’re out in the wild hypothermia can sneak up on you because in many cases, it’s not the temperature that’s dangerous, it’s the rain (or high humidity) that’s doing the damage.
We’re not going to delve deep into the science of body temperature and hypothermia here – but the short story is that even at ‘comfortable’ temperatures like 65-70F, if you’re soaked through, hypothermia can set in – because water conducts heat better than the air does. That’s why we often feel cold coming out of swimming pools or showers. If you’re wet, the temperature doesn’t need to be “cold” at all for hypothermia to become a risk. Most people don’t know this, and that’s why cold is such a danger in the wilderness. You might pack the right clothing for the temperature, but in the event of high humidity or rain, suddenly whatever temperature you had planned for will be much more dangerous to your body than it was when you were dry.
The purpose of the entire explanation above is to tell you to pack a rain jacket, poncho, or other kind of water proof clothing anytime you venture into the outdoors. That includes if you’re going camping. Do this even if the weather report doesn’t say it’s going to rain – the weather isn’t perfectly predictable. If it rains, put on your waterproof layers. Too many people are completely unaware of the danger that moisture plays in the wilderness.
One of our biggest pet peeves when it comes to the outdoors is people who wear inappropriate footwear when they go into the wild. You want shoes that are 1. are comfortable 2. do OK in rain (so sandals and flip flops are inadvisable as your “main” footwear), and 3. are reasonably durable. We’re not asking for a lot here, but the number of times we’ve observed people who complain about wet feet, shoe malfunctions or blisters (even with minimal walking) makes it seem like its worth emphasizing in this list. We’re not asking for hiking boots or outdoor specific shoes – obviously if you have them, they are preferred, but even a typical pair of sneakers might be perfectly acceptable. Again, just make sure that your shoes are comfortable, reasonably water resistant and reasonably durable.
The one caveat here is that if you’re hiking or trekking to your campsite then you’re obviously going to want hiking boots. But for just walking around a campsite, sneakers or other comfortable shoes are perfectly fine.
Flashlight / headlamp / camp lantern
After the sun sets, you need a source of light. A campfire isn’t a portable source of light and it’s generally inadvisable to use a flame-based torch unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so. A source of light becomes even more important in any kind of emergency or survival situation. Only a truly unprepared or unreasonable person would try to go camping without some kind of light source.
So you definitely shouldn’t forget to pack a flashlight, headlamp, or camp lantern.
Also bring spare batteries… even if you just replaced the batteries. Always bring spare batteries.
While this isn’t a “survival” essential, we consider it a camping essential for obvious reasons. Camping is relaxation, not a wilderness survival challenge, and while basic things like toilet paper and soap would obviously be unavailable in a genuine wilderness survival situation, there’s a big different between camping and survival training. Camping should be fun and relaxing, s bring whatever toiletries you need to make the experience comfortable – toilet paper, soap, shampoo, toothpaste/toothbrush, feminine hygiene products if there are women in your group, deodorant, etc… Anything you consider “basic toiletries” should probably be included in your list on camping toiletries.
While you might not end up using any cordage on a typical camping trip, every survivalist worth his or her salt knows that cordage is a pretty essential and indispensable piece of survival gear. It’s super lightweight so there’s no reason to to have it with you during any outdoors activity. We like having a couple of paracord bracelets on hand (even if you’re not wearing them as bracelets) – or just get a coil of cordage and put it in your backpack. Either way, cordage is one of those “better safe than sorry” items – they’re more geared towards survival, but if your camping trip goes awry, you’ll probably want the utility that comes with good cordage. Plus it’s so lightweight and compact there’s no reason not to include it in your camping gear checklist.
While a camp stove isn’t strictly “necessary” for a good camping experience, it definitely makes it easier. Cooking over a campfire can be a great experience, but campfires take time to build properly, and by the time your fire is burning decently, everyone in your party might already be grumpy from the lack of food. A camping stove allows you to very easily and quickly get a source of heat going for small tasks like boiling water or heating up a good old can of beans. Whether you want a portable wood or gas stove is up to you. Obviously a gas stove also requires you to bring a canister of gas, but wood camp stoves are definitely less reliable. Generally we recommend wood stoves for survival situations because the fuel is all around you, but for camping purposes, either one works.
At least one small pot or pan
Along with your camping stove, you’ll need something to cook in. What type of pot or pan (and what size) will depend on the size of your party and what you want to cook. Obviously if you want to have a campfire feast, then multiple pots and pans will be required. If you’re keeping the cooking very straightforward, then a small pot should be enough. We prefer aluminum or stainless steel camping cookware, but that’s down to personal preference – the only thing we’d advise against is any sort of non-stick cookware. Using non-stick means you’ll need to bring extra cooking utensils (or damage your cookware).
Utensils for cooking and eating
To go along with the two items above, you’ll need utensils for cooking and eating the food you’ve prepared with your camp stove. A fork and a spoon for each person probably covers you, or if you want to be more efficient, you can bring sporks.
Whether it’s tupperware, zip top bags or something else, you’ll want to have a couple of airtight container with you to hold any opened, unused food. Leaving open containers of uneaten food lying about your campsite is how you end up with unwanted visitors in the middle of the night. If you’re lucky, these will be raccoons. If you’re unlucky, a bear might visit your campsite and you’ve put everybody at the campsite in danger. So – bring containers that won’t let any smells out that might attract animals. Some campsites might have bear-safe metal containers which you can choose to use as well.
Sunscreen & insect repellent
The number of fully grown adults who are resistant to putting on sunscreen and bug spray is astonishing. Regardless of whether or not they end up being necessary, you should always pack sunscreen and insect repellent on any outdoors trip that you take. If it turns out the campsite is shady, or that there aren’t any insects around because the temperature isn’t right then don’t use them. But both sunscreen and bug spray have the ability to both save your camping trip from turning extremely unpleasant (via sun burns and bug bites). More importantly, they can help prevent easily avoidable but very serious medical conditions (skin cancer and various mosquito borne diseases like malarie, EEE, zika, etc). Pack them, and use them if they’re needed.
Anytime you go camping, you should be cleaning up after yourself. It doesn’t matter what kind of campsite you’re at – this is pretty much universal, basic camping etiquette. Bring a bunch of trash bags and always make sure you’re not leaving anything behind. Campsites (and the outdoors in general) rely on those of us who enjoy them to maintain them – so that our children and future generations can continue to enjoy them. Always clean up your campground and never leave any trash behind.
Camping Gear List: Honorable Mentions
We were this close to putting a multi tool on the actual camping checklist, but we decided to stick with a knife as the only truly “essential” tool. That being said, a multi tool will almost definitely come in handy at some point – whether you’re simply using it as a bottle opener or you end up needing to use it as a wrench or screwdriver or something more unexpected. The point is, a multi tool useful across many common and uncommon situations because it’s an extremely versatile item, and that versatility will likely prove useful on your camping trip as well.
While camping chairs are obviously not a necessity, it’s nice to have a place to sit. Sometimes you can fashion makeshift “chairs” or seating areas out of the environment, and it’s perfectly fine to sit on the floor as well – but having actual chairs doesn’t hurt. Depending on how comfortable you want to be (and how much weight you’re willing to carry to and from the campsite), you might want to consider bringing a few camp chairs with you. They definitely make sitting around a fire an easier thing to do.
Survival hatchet/Camp axe
An axe or hatchet likely won’t make or break your camping trip, but they can come in useful, particularly if you want to start a fire with wood that you find yourself (rather than purchased firewood). Having a survival hatchet or camp axe will definitely make it easier to split logs, and they can also come in handy with other tasks like hammering tent stakes (with the bulk end) and so forth. Not a necessity, but nice to have.
A cooler will go a long way towards turning the food you eat at a campsite from mediocre to pretty good. Without a cooler, you’re limited to canned and shelf-stable goods – which mostly means stuff that’s OK at best from a taste perspective. With a cooler, you open up a whole new world – suddenly grilling steaks on your campfire is very achievable.
Not to mention the necessity of having a cooler if you’re planning to have a few beers around the campfire. Personally speaking, if I’m planning a relaxed camping trip for the weekend, then a few cold beers are definitely on the menu, and those beers aren’t going too stay cold without a cooler.
If you have a tent with you, then tarp isn’t a necessity, but as a general rule we like to have a decently sized sheet of tarp with us on any outdoors trip. It’s not super heavy and it gives you the ability to improvise a shelter in a wide variety of different environments and situations. Even if you don’t have any other use for it, you can always use it as an improvised picnic blanket. From a survival perspective, we prefer tarp to tents because it’s lighter weight and more versatile. For camping, obviously a tent is more practical, but it doesn’t hurt to have tarp available just in case, particularly if you’re not doing any hiking or trekking on your trip.
Maybe this is our survival mindset kicking in, but we like the idea of bringing a field guide along with us on any outdoors excursion (including camping trips) because they can turn survival “theory” into practice without it feeling like work. This is especially true with kids – having a field guide of edible plants for example, and trying to teach your kids to recognize and identify wild food is both educational and useful from a survival standpoint. For experienced survivalists, it never hurts to brush up on your skills even if the trip you’re taking is a more relaxed one (you can find out more about survivalism if you’re not familiar with the term).
Ingredients for smores
If you have children, then bump this up from honorable mentions to an absolute camping essential. Smores are the quintessential campfire food, and let’s be honest – even the most hardened wilderness expert can enjoy some toasty marshmallows and melted chocolate. If you have kids, having smores could be the camping memory that keeps them excited and engaged with the outdoors. Even if you don’t have kids, smores are an easy, quick campfire dessert. They may not be strictly ‘essential’, but anytime we go camping with our families, we’re probably bringing a bag marshmallows, chocolate, and a box of graham crackers with us.
Full Checklist of Camping Essentials
- Sleeping Bag
- Basic Necessities
- Water, Water Filter & Canteen
- Firestarter, Lighter, and/or Matches
- Trash Bags
- Health & Hygiene
- First Aid Kit
- Sunscreen / Insect Repellent
- Tools & Clothing
- Survival Knife
- Compass & Map
- Survival flashlight / Camp Latnern / Headlamp
- Rainjacket / Poncho / Waterproof Clothing
- Proper Footwear (water resistant, durable, comfortable)
- Cooking Equipment
- Camp Stove
- Small Pot/Pan
- Cooking Utensils
- Air Tight Containers for Opened Food
- Honorable Mentions
- Multi Tool
- Camp Chairs
- Survival Hatchet/Camp Axe
- Field Guides
- Smores Ingredients