Camping Checklist: Must-Have Gear for Beginners

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Camping can really fun—until you realize that you forgot to bring water, or you don’t have a mug for your morning coffee. I am the type that overprepares (just ask my husband…) but inevitably I find myself wishing I had brought a dish towel or a sharp knife—both of which you should make sure you have. I’ve put together some suggestions for the more specialized items you’ll want on your trip.

Tent

The most important thing about a tent? Set it up before your first camping trip. You don’t want to pull into your destination at dusk, poles flying everywhere, with no idea how they go together. Also, you need a tarp underneath your tent—but make sure you tuck it in beneath the footprint. Because if it sticks out, and it rains, it will efficiently collect water in a pond underneath. My first tent as an adult was a two-person Eddie Bauer, which I still have. I like them for compact ease-of-set-up at a reasonable price. The Stargazer 2 ($369) has vestibules in the front and back for gear, and steep walls (so more space inside, if you need to keep your pack in with you). Color-coded poles make it easy to set up fast—really fast (like five minutes), if you’ve practiced ahead of time.

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Headlamp

You might feel silly when you first put a headlamp on, but you’ll be so happy to have it on your first late-night trip to the “bathroom.” Or if your tent starts to leak in the middle of the night—not that I speak from experience or anything. The most important thing is to make sure your headlamp has a red light function—like the Black Diamond Spot 325—which preserves your night vision, so you can still appreciate the stars.

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Portable Stove

There may be a fire ring at your campsite, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that getting water to boil over an open flame fast enough to satisfy early morning caffeine cravings is less than ideal. Unless you’re planning on cooking gourmet meals, a single-burner canister-mounted unit like the MSR PocketRocket Deluxe should work out fine. It boils water fast, has a push-start igniter and a broad burner head for better heat distribution and simmering. Not to mention a wind shield so you can light it when it’s breezy. It also works for car-camping, but it’s really light, making it good for backcountry expeditions as well. Bring waterproof matches—sometimes even the best igniters don’t work.

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Water Jugs

Please don’t be that person who goes off into the wilderness with a case of plastic water bottles. After years of using a two-gallon refillable plastic water jug (which gave my water a plastic-y taste), I upgraded last summer to the Dromedary Bag Water Reservoir. Made of tightly woven fabric with a BPA-free liner, it is drop-proof, can be frozen, folds flat when you don’t need it and I don’t find it imparts any flavor to the water. Spring for the large one—you don’t always have to fill it all the way.

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Camp Chair

This item is strictly for car campers. There are many different folding chair options—lightweight, heavy duty, low, high—but I’m a fan of the Kijaro Rok-It. It’s sturdy and comfortable, and the back legs are designed so you can rock without risk of tipping over. It has padded armrests, a tall mesh back, and a cup holder. However, it folds down quite a bit longer than a standard camp chair, and it is pretty heavy. This is not the chair to pack if you’re hiking more than a couple of minutes in.

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Coffee

The first time you sleep in the woods, the last thing you want to mess with is your morning Joe. The coffee bag from Steeped, Inc. is nothing like instant coffee. Each individual packet is sealed with nitrogen, which keeps the coffee fresh. Brewed similar to tea, the coffee was developed as an answer to individual-serving coffee pods, but I like them as an on-the-go option. They come in light, medium, dark, extra dark and decaf blends, and cost about $1.50 per serving. Boiling water just a little bit too much for you? Get your coffee fix from La Colombe. I love these because they aren’t too sweet—some of the blends are completely unsweetened, and even the sweetened ones have less than half the sugar of your average Starbucks canned Frappucino.  About $3 per can, but you can feel good about it—a recent partnership with the National Park Foundation is going to generate at least $100,000 to support America’s parks.

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Sleeping Bag

A “mummy bag”—wider at the shoulders and narrower at the feet – is important if you’re planning to camp when it’s chilly out. The bag narrows in order to keep your feet snug. But being wrapped up like that isn’t for everyone – and isn’t necessary if the temperature is going to stay above 50 degrees or so. So if your plans are not for chilly nights, go with L.L. Bean’s new Mountain Classic Camp Sleeping Bag. It’s lightweight, roomy and perfect for warm weather camping. Oh, and it has a pocket to keep your headlamp or phone (sigh!) close.

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Sleep Pad

Being one with the great outdoors takes on a new meaning when you find a tree root digging into your hip. Sleep pads not only cushion you from the hard ground, but they also provide insulation, which will become important as the sun sets earlier, bringing a nip to the night air. Get a sleep pad that matches the shape of your bag—so don’t get a mummy bag pad for your rectangular sleeping bag. If weight and bulk are no object, go with the Therm-A-Rest Dreamtime. It has a foam pillow-top with an inflatable core, ensuring you won’t feel the lumps in the night.

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Insect-Repelling Clothing

Between Lyme and Zika and all the other nasties carried by bugs in the woods, it’s important to use insect repellent. In addition, wilderness camp instructors and wildlife biologists swear by treating clothes with Permethrin—a synthetic form of an insecticide produced by chrysanthemums. It is odorless, kills ticks and mosquitoes on contact, and safe for humans. (Even the CDC recommends it.) You can buy Permethrin and treat your clothes yourself, or you can buy clothes that are pre-treated, which is much easier and lasts longer. Right now, I love the Royal Robbins Bug Barrier collection, which employs special technology to bond the Permethrin to the clothes for up to 70 washings—the expected life of the product. The women’s Bug Barrier Jammer Pant has ruching at the cuff, so short people like me can adjust—or tall people can have capri pants. The Bug Barrier Tech Travel shirt is soft and hangs well.

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Drinkware

 Sipping wine from a red Solo cup just doesn’t cut it anymore–it’s bad for the Sauvignon Blanc and the environment. Instead, bring along some wine glasses from SnowFox. Made from insulated stainless steel, these tumblers keep your wine at just the right temperature, and if you like an ice cube on a hot day, it will slow the ice melting into your rosé. A thin 1-millimeter rim allows you to taste the wine, not the glass. SnowFox also offers rocks glasses, as well as vessels for beer, cocktails and champagne. 

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Cookware

Sure, you can bring a pot from home for boiling water, and a big, old-school cast-iron frying pan is always awesome over an open flame. But cookware made specifically for camping is usually lighter weight, with pieces that nest together and are multifunctional. They are also generally made from metal that is specifically chosen to conduct heat—meaning water boils faster. If you are hiking in, be selective and think seriously about what you’ll be cooking. Choose the lightest, best-conducting cookware you can afford. If you’re car-camping, you can bring a couple different pans. I like the GSI Outdoors Glacier Base Camper Cookset (Medium). You get two cook pots and a frying pan—enough to prepare a meal for four to six people—in a lightweight package that weighs in at a little under 3 pounds. So you could hike with it, too.

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