My Camping Essentials: The Basics, The Wishlist, And The Things I Never Thought I’d Need But Can’t Live Without

Getting involved in camping since the spring has done a lot for me. I’ve developed new skills, found greater relaxation and mental clarity, and become closer with friends. But, to get those benefits, first I needed a tent!

There are certain pieces of equipment that are non-negotiable must haves for camping. Other things are nice to have, and some things you’d never even think of as camping equipment but are extremely useful in the woods.

The Basics:

  • You need a tent. Why? The tent traps your body heat and keeps you warm. It keeps insects and rain out. Just get one. Here’s the one I have, from Ozark Trails, the Wal-Mart house brand of camping equipment. I highly recommend this brand for the new camper who isn’t sure if they’ll go often…or ever again. The cost is rock bottom and the quality is surprisingly good, better than comparable products I’ve seen from Amazon. If you wind up going often, you’ll likely replace this stuff with higher-end equipment.
  • Sleeping pad. You have to have this because it insulates you from the cold ground and provides cushioning. You’ll freeze on the lumpy ground without it. Mine is similar to this (my model is no longer sold).
  • Sleeping bag. Without a sleeping bag, you risk hypothermia and death even in relatively mild weather. A friend of mine tried to go bagless once and woke up shivering uncontrollably in what was likely a full-blown case of hypothermia. We cuffed him, dragged him to Wal-Mart, and forced him to buy a sleeping bag for the 2nd night. I started out with an Ozark Trails 40F sleeping bag, similar to this. I’m keeping it for warmer weather trips. Note that because a bag is rated to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees celsius) doesn’t mean you’ll be comfortable at 40. Overshoot some on the sleeping bag. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Safety whistle. It’s dirt cheap and you’ll need it to scare off bears, find others if you’re lost, etc. DO NOT blow it unless it’s an emergency, as it is very bad for the ears. I didn’t have this for my first few trips and I really wish I did. It would’ve given me peace of mind when a buck walked through our campsite at 4:00 am in the Catskills and I first thought it was a bear.

Recent Additions:

  • The beast of all sleeping bags: Coleman 0 degree mummy sleeping bag. Strongly recommended. Very comfortable, soft, high quality zipper. This is a mummy bag, unlike the conventional bag I linked above. The advantage is it heats up from your body heat dramatically faster. I’d recommend you just go with a bag like this from the outset if you’re going to be camping in the cold. A weak bag will make you a miserable person in the morning. This bag is heavy so it’s not good for backpacking.
  • YETI cooler. Not mine, not even my friends’, but their parents’ cooler. Shockingly expensive but incredibly effective. They kindly let us borrow it. Ice takes a long, long time to melt and you can eat tastier, fresher food on the campsite. There are certainly cheap coolers that can do a decent job.
  • Larger knife. This was an early Christmas gift from a friend and more advanced woodsman. Mine is not a Mora but it’s similar to this (I actually don’t know what brand mine is). It’s great for food prep or cutting sticks to make a firestick (used to start camp fires). Don’t walk around town with it unless your local laws allow.
  • Headlamp, much easier than a flashlight because it’s hands free. You can substitute a phone flashlight but I’d recommend this. It’s easier to use with a longer battery life. I have this one.
  • Inflatable pillow, huge help in getting a good night’s sleep at minimal cost, size, and weight. Mine is here.

  • Tent footprint. Just bought this for my most recent trip, which was last weekend. It’s a plastic painter’s drop cloth. It stops moisture from coming up out of the ground into your tent. I also found it kept me dramatically warmer despite being a mere 2 mm thick and costing almost nothing. Definitely recommended, especially if there’s rain forecasted during your trip. Here’s how to use that plastic sheet to make the tent footprint. It sounds complicated but is actually quite easy.
  • Uniqlo down jacket, a wonderful gift from my mother in law that seals in your heat like nothing else.

Things I Never Thought I’d Need But Can’t Live Without:

  • Necessaire eucalyptus body wash. Kindly provided by my wife. I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. If this is a little too pricey, anything with essential oils like eucalpytus or tea tree oil should do nicely. There are many cheaper options but this stuff is divine, assuming you have showers at your campsite.
  • Electrolyte packets. I experienced dehydration and electrolyte depletion on a recent trip, which was a difficult experience. I strongly recommend having some kind of electrolyte supplementation on hand, just in case. Pedialyte might be an even better choice.
  • Weekender bag, another lovely gift from the missus. The rectangular shape makes it easier to find things in the weekender than in a backpack, and the extra pockets are handy. My electrolyte packets go in the tiny one.


  • Warbonnet hammock. Expensive but awesome and the one exception to the “you need a tent” rule. Should last many years. The experienced camper I mentioned above has it and swears by it. This is made in America by a small company and the quality is very high.

What items do you guys love for camping? What questions do you have about camping gear or camping in general? Let me know in the comments!


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