Camping 101: Top 5 packing tips for first-time campers

Camping is fun, affordable and requires surprisingly little planning. In fact, you probably own many camping supplies already!

As a “city girl” (raised in the New York suburbs) I developed a love of camping rather late in life. At first the thought of sleeping under the stars sounded like an ordeal– but I soon discovered that you don’t need expensive gear or high-tech gadgets to enjoy the great outdoors. I’ve camped in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Colombia with supplies purchased at Kmart, discount stores and supermarkets.

These are my top 5 camping essentials. Have I missed something? Please share your advice by leaving a comment below!

The author camping at Yellowstone National Park.

#5. Know your destination

What you pack for a camping trip will largely depend on your destination. Beach camping in Colombia’s tropical Tayrona National Park won’t require the same gear as a stay in the Australian Outback, which gets incredibly chilly at night. When packing for your trip, check the weather at your destination on or a smartphone app and find out as much about the local conditions as possible. Ask yourself:

  • Is it a desert climate that is piping hot during the day but freezing cold at night? You’ll need a warm sleeping bag and plenty of clothing layers.
  • Are you camping in a region known for its heavy rainfall, like the Pacific Northwest? Make sure you have a rain-proof tent with a reinforced bottom instead of a simple backyard model.
  • Are there tons of flies at your destination, like in Australia’s Kakadu National Park? You may want to bring a mesh net that attaches to your hat to keep them at bay.  If mosquitoes are a concern, make sure you have insect repellant spray.

If you take one message away from this article, it is this: don’t stress over the packing list. Part of the joy of camping is dealing with unexpected challenges.

#4. Bring the essentials

When you venture into the great outdoors you always want to bring a few basic supplies:

  • A tent, campervan or RV… unless you prefer to sleep under the stars
  • A sleeping bag (or in a pinch, a duvet and sheets; for warm climates you can make do with a thin sleep sack)
  • A water bottle (refillable at parks, campsites or public restrooms) or a pack of disposable water bottles
  • Sunscreen (sweatproof with an SPF of 30 or above)
  • A hat with a brim, like a baseball hat (for sun and glare)
  • Sunglasses
  • Flashlight and/or headlamp (the latter comes in handy if you are using a dark restroom at night or reading a book– activities that require free hands)
  • If you are self-catering, a set of dishware for each camper (plate, bowl, mug, utensils) and a cooler (you can pick up ice at supermarkets or gas stations)
  • A Swiss Army Knife is a helpful all-purpose tool and can even be used in a pinch as a kitchen knife to make a PB&J sandwich (Make sure not to bring the knife in your carry-on if you are flying)
  • Tools for keeping clean: tissues, baby wipes, hand sanitizer. You might also bring toilet paper just in case
  • Basic toiletry kit including toothbrush, toothpaste, washcloth and soap (the latter is usually not provided at US national park campsite bathrooms)
  • Maps of hiking trails and area attractions (you can pick these up at visitor’s center on the road)
  • Guidebooks (it’s great to have two brands of guidebooks for a destination, to get different perspectives and a full range of tips)

#3. Dress appropriately

When I first started camping as a 20-something New Yorker, I worried excessively about having the right gear. Guide books recommended fast-drying, non-cotton underwear; bloggers raved about multipocket vests; and travelers I met on the trails looked ready to scale Kilimanjaro. The honest truth: high-end campaign gear and expensive gadgets aren’t necessary for most camping trips. In fact, I buy most of my camping and hiking clothing at “normal” stores instead of REI, EMS and other specialty retailers.

The local climate should be your guide, but there are a few items on my must-pack list:

  • Cotton t-shirts (Contrary to popular opinion, wearing short-sleeved tees is actually more comfortable in hot, sweaty conditions than wearing tank tops)
  • A lightweight pullover for layering (preferably fleece)
  • Lightweight, quick-drying cotton pants or shorts, preferably with many pockets and a draw string (I usually buy mine for about $20 at discount fashion chains like Strawberry’s or Daffy’s in New York; I’ve also picked up pairs at Walmart and H&M)
  • Shoes with treads: hiking boots or trail runner-style shoes (During my round-the-world trip I hiked in flat sneakers with no tread, but this was not ideal; having the right shoes is essential on moderate to difficult trails and can save you from sprains and other injuries)
  • Flip flops to wear in grimy showers and around the campsite (especially after a long day of hiking in heavy boots)
  • Lots of cotton underwear (You may not have access to showers and may not have clean clothes to change into, so a fresh pair of underwear is key)
  • PJs appropriate for the weather (usually a t-shirt and a pair of cotton draw-string yoga pants fits the bill)
  • Cotton or wool socks high enough to cover the tops of your shoes (so you don’t get scratches on your ankles)
  • A hat for sun-protection
  • For the ladies: a comfortable bra (for the trails) and a normal bra for hanging out at the campsite

If you are camping in a cold or wet climate, like Alaska’s Denali National Park, you’ll want to bring extras like a rain jacket and rain pants, wool socks and weatherproof hiking boots. However, on a recent trip to arid Zion National Park in southern Utah, I found my clunky hiking boots to be too heavy; they took days to dry after a river hike.

Make sure to check the conditions at your destination before heading out. Fortunately, it’s easy to buy last-minute items when camping in the US; I often find myself picking up forgotten supplies at a Walmart or supermarket en route to the campground or park.

Bedouin tourist camp outside of Petra Jordan

Tents outside of Petra, Jordan.

#2. Bring low-tech accessories

Camping is, by nature, a low-tech activity. It’s your chance to escape from the city grind and commune with nature– so don’t bring an apartment’s worth of gadgets with you!

When you are nestled inside your tent with a trusty headlamp, you’ll want to curl up with a book or magazine (made of actual paper), a deck of cards for a game of Solitaire or Gin Rummy, or a  journal to jot down your thoughts. Leave your headphones and iTunes playlist for another day– you’ll want to fall asleep to the sound of silence (and crickets).

Don’t stress over your evening activities, as you might not have much free time to enjoy any gadgets. After a full day of hiking or kayaking, you’ll spend a good chunk of your evening arranging your muddy gear, starting a fire, cooking and washing up. Most campers head to bed early and many campsites enforce quiet hours starting around 8PM.

Beachside camping in Australia's Queensland Coast.

#1. Don’t forget your camera

Whether you prefer snapping pics on a fancy DSLR  or a cell phone, don’t forget to bring a camera to capture the memories!

I always bring my iPhone along on camping trips since I can use the Maps feature for driving directions and free apps like Yelp and Trip Advisor to find restaurants, supermarkets and area attractions.

When on a tricky hike (like the wet Narrows hike in Zion National Park), I find it easier to bring a camera phone that can be secured in a pocket or waterproof bag, rather than lug around a large camera.

What’s the 1 item you wouldn’t camp without?

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About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.