now that summer is upon us, it’s the perfect time to talk camping. we have always loved camping — from our respective time at summer camp as kids, to our adventures together in high altitude mountaineering. we loved camping before we cared about what things cost, and only realized later that our love of camping has saved us loads of money over the years, compared to what we might have spent on “traditional” vacations. that said, camping comes with the allure of lots of gear, and can easily go from economical to money pit. fortunately, though, you don’t need much of that gear.
we’ve realized in recent years that the world is divided into people who think of themselves as campers, and those who don’t. and the latter group may find the very concept of camping intimidating for a whole host of reasons. we’re here to tell you non-campers that it’s much easier than you think, it’s not as dirty as you might imagine, there are ways to make it plenty comfortable, and you can really take camping to any level you want, starting simple and working up to more advanced forms. and besides saving loads of cash, you’ll also have tons of fun, see amazingly beautiful places that most people never see, and develop more self-confidence through self-reliance. and you’ll pick up some great stories.
this post was inspired by a request for camping info from steve at think save retire, who is an awesome nature photographer, and wants to learn to camp with his wife to spend more time in photographable places. thanks for the suggestion, steve!
types of camping
first off, perhaps before you even consider camping, it’s good to know that there are a bunch of different ways to camp, and which way you choose affects the difficulty and the amount of gear you need. here’s the basic rundown, from easy to difficult:
- rv camping — with an rv, you basically bring a moveable house along with you to campgrounds, and really just need to pack food and clothing. the bed and kitchen are all built in. if you’re absolutely terrified of sleeping outdoors, rv camping could be a good place to start, and lots of places will rent them for a weekend or longer. we think rv camping doesn’t save much money over hotel stays, though, so won’t go into it here.
- car camping — this is the best beginner form of camping for anyone who is willing to sleep in a tent. basically, you camp near your car, usually in a developed campground. the huge benefit of car camping is that you don’t have to carry your stuff for any distance, and so weight is completely unimportant. you can bring heavy stuff that you wouldn’t want to carry, and you can also bring more stuff than you’d bring backpacking, in order to increase your comfort. and you almost always have an official place to go to the bathroom, usually with a place to wash your hands, and often even with showers and laundry.
- backpacking — a more advanced form of camping in which you carry all of your gear with you, and often move your camp from night to night. weight is of paramount importance in backpacking, since the weight of your pack will make all the difference between a great trip and a miserable one. backpacking requires a higher degree of self-reliance, depending on how remote a place you trek through, and also specialized gear, so it can be more of an investment, unless you can borrow gear.
- specialized backcountry camping (winter, high altitude, etc.) — we won’t go into this in detail today, but with the many forms of specialized camping, you’re generally adding more gear to your backpacking set-up and increasing your investment and weight. not something you want to jump right into without having backpacked quite a bit. but super rewarding if you love the outdoors and want to get to even more remote places.
those are the four basic types of camping, and we can’t stress enough: start simple.
you might first try camping in your own backyard. then move up to camping in a local park that has campsites, and then maybe a state park or national park near you. ramping up slowly will help you feel more comfortable as you gradually move farther afield, and will help you recognize what you need to have or do in order to feel safe and well-equipped on your camping adventures. after all, camping is fun all on its own, even if you’re walking distance from your house. there’s something magical about cooking and sleeping outdoors, and you don’t have to travel far to capture that.
the gear you’ll need — some considerations before you buy
we’ll confess: we’re suckers for awesome outdoor gear, and we have to make a conscious decision not to keep buying it. but the fact is: you really don’t need a lot of gear to go camping. though outdoor retailers might try to tell you otherwise, there is absolutely zero need for specialized gear beyond your basic sleeping setup, especially if you’re car camping. we recommend, like with any new activity, buying as little as possible in the beginning, and investing mindfully over time only after you know that you really and truly love that activity. translation: don’t buy much until you’re positive you’ll use it.
here are some basic things to consider:
what you don’t need — virtually every campground site will provide you with a fire pit, usually with a cooking grate over it, and access to water, toilets and usually washrooms. you can and should buy your firewood on-site, and they all have it for sale. you can easily cook over the fire, meaning you don’t need a special stove, and so all you really need is a place to sleep. most campsites also have a picnic table, so you don’t even need chairs, though if you already have beach chairs or folding lounge chairs, go ahead and bring ’em. what you for sure don’t need is special clothing or shoes. just wear clothes you’d normally wear for outdoor activities, gardening, hiking, etc. you have to be on a pretty rocky path with a pretty heavy pack before you really need hiking boots. sneakers work just fine. know the weather where you’re headed and pack accordingly — bringing sun hats, rain jackets, or warm jackets and gloves, depending on the conditions. and you don’t need sleeping bags if you’re car camping — just bring sheets and blankets from home, along with your favorite pillow. if you have an air mattress from a guest room, bring that, and don’t buy a unitasker just for camping. if you have an old tent, or can borrow one, bring that. don’t spend money on some fancy new tent. if you ever get into backpacking, you’ll want to buy a specialized tent for that, so save your money with an eye toward the future.
cooking — the best way to avoid having to purchase special gear is to cook over the fire. you can wrap just about anything in foil and cook it in the coals of the fire, which avoids dirtying any cookware (search “hobo meals” for directions and ideas). if you want to cook but aren’t sure if you love camping yet and therefore don’t want to invest in special cookware, you can coat your regular kitchen pots and pans with a thin coat of dish soap (only on the outside, not where food will touch!), and then the fire soot will wash right off. however, if you decide you love camping, and want to do lots of it, we recommend buying a basic coleman-style stove or a more sturdy version like ours in the picture. we hate throwing out those little green gas bottles for coleman stoves (they are notoriously hard to recycle), and like that the big stove is both easier to cook on and lets us use an infinitely reusable propane tank instead. (ours is made by camp chef, and we see similar ones frequently on craigslist.) another idea: maybe while you’re new to camping, you don’t cook at all. bring a cooler full of things like hummus, tortillas, fresh fruit, milk or nondairy alternative, and you can enjoy wraps, cereal and more without having to cook. we once did an entire camping trip eating just pb&j, which we don’t recommend, but it sure simplified packing and meant virtually zero dishes. and you can enjoy s’mores with just a campfire and a stick.
nice-to-have items — if and only if you decide you love car camping, it’s worth considering a few basic purchases that will make things more comfortable:
- battery powered lantern and headlamps (until then just use flashlights you already have around the house)
- collapsible tubs for doing dishes (until then just wash dishes in the campground sinks)
- collapsible water jugs (until then just use your cooking pot and water bottles)
- folding beach chairs (until then, use what you have, or use the picnic table provided)
- camping cookware and cutlery (we prefer metal, because it won’t break and still works if it gets dented, plus it’s safer than plastic — until then just use your least fancy dishes and silverware from home, and you can always use your regular cookware. there is nothing magical about camping cookware, especially if you’re cooking on a stove.)
- tent with the features you want, such as multiple rooms for kids and adults, a big vestibule area which keeps things dry in rainy climates, etc. (until then just use whatever tents you can borrow, or pull out of a basement.)
if you get into backpacking, you will want some specialized gear, both for comfort (lighter gear = happier backpackers) and safety (technical clothing, for example, will help keep you from getting hypothermia or heat stroke, and some form of water purification is essential to prevent illness). but the key here is: buy as little as possible. taking a minimalist view toward backpacking will save you money, and make the experience a lot more enjoyable, since a heavy pack is the worst thing in the world. (not literally, but if you’re slogging up some mountain with a heavy pack, it feels like the worst thing possible.)
here is our packing list that we use for summer backpacking trips, with specifics on brand and model, for those who are curious:
ultralight tent (big agnes fishhook 2 ul)
- inflatable air pads (exped ul 7)
- sleeping bags (rei kilo plus and an old marmot)
- packs (kelty haiku 4000 and osprey atmos 50)
- first aid kit (mostly just bandaids and tape — we can improvise the rest)
- water filter (an old katadyn model)
- toiletry kit (toothbrush and paste, floss, ibuprofen, sunscreen, hair ties)
- toilet bag (small trowel/shovel, toilet paper, baggies to pack up toilet paper, hand wipes)
- map and compass
- stove (msr pocket rocket, plus fuel canister), plus lighter and folding windscreen (comes with stove)
- single cooking pot (evernew titanium 1.3L)
- cups for eating and drinking (evernew titanium)
- sporks for cooking and eating (snow peak titanium)
- camelbak bags for our backpacks, and to filter water into
- camp soap and small scrubby pad
- tiny pocket knife
- bear can, only when required, like in yosemite (garcia backpacker’s cache)
- miniature deck of cards
- book or kindle
- cell phones
- sun hats
- 2-3 shirts each, mostly longsleeve
- hiking pants, 1 pair each
- 2-3 pairs underwear plus 1 sports bra
- long underwear pants and shirts, 1 set each
- 2-3 pairs of technical socks
- hiking shoes or boots, 1 pair each
- lightweight flip flops, 1 pair each
- down or fleece jacket, 1 each
- rain shell jacket, 1 each
notice the things that are not on our list:
- chairs or “chair kits” (camp near rocks that you can sit on)
- pillows (just use your jacket or some extra clothes)
- lots of dishes — just one pot, two cups and sporks are all we use
- solar charger — just keep your phone off for the most part, or keep it in airplane mode if you want to use it as a camera
- lots of clothes — we take a minimum to keep it light
- multiple pairs of shoes — it’s not a fashion contest, and shoes are heavy
- specialty items like gaiters, crampons, etc. — you only need those for true mountaineering. you’ll get rocks in your shoes sometimes, even with gaiters, so save the money and weight.
- a million emergency/safety gadgets — read up on wilderness rescue techniques before you go, know your local threats, and use common sense. but don’t bring a safety beacon, a snakebite kit, a splint and tourniquet kit, a massive first aid kit, and a weather radio and expect to have a good time. your pack will be too heavy.
where to get gear
we’ve said it here already, but we’ll say it again: borrow as much as possible. there’s no reason to spend a fortune to do something that humans have been doing since the dawn of time! also consider renting bigger items like tents and camping stoves — outdoors stores can point you toward outfitters in the area where you’re camping.
if you do need to buy something, we recommend not buying the cheapest items. camping, and especially backpacking, will put your gear through more stress than your average at-home living, and buying cheap stuff will guarantee you come back with broken gear. we’ve also stressed the importance of weight throughout this post, and lighter items typically come with a higher price. don’t feel like you have to spring for the lightest and priciest of everything, but compare weights to prices, and find the best value for you.
for things you must purchase, we recommend the following sources:
- thrift stores, especially in outdoorsy towns
- campmor (great selection of past year models, which are discounted)
- sierra trading post (similar to campmor)
- steep and cheap (flash sales on outdoor gear — not always incredible deals, but sometimes have huge discounts)
- rei outlet (especially great deals if you shop during their 20% off sales)
- the clymb (another flash sale site)
our goal is to inspire you to get out there and camp, especially if you’ve never done it before, and to show you that you don’t need to buy a whole lot of stuff to do it. but we definitely recommend doing just a little bit more reading before you head out into the wilderness. here are some of our favorite resources:
- car camping for everyone
- the backpackers field manual
- lipsmakin backpackin and lipsmakin vegetarian backpackin (camping cookbooks)
- mountaineering: the freedom of the hills (for those who want to get more advanced)
- nols wilderness medicine (only necessary for those going far afield)
we’re now 2500 words in, so you get a medal if you’re still reading! let us know — think you’ll start camping soon? for those who are still hesitating, what’s holding you back? for the experts out there, what did we miss?