• Hannah Smentkowski

Car Camping 101: The top 10 items you need for camping

While I believe it is best to be almost overly prepared when camping in the wilderness, there are ways to make it happen with only the necessities. This list is my attempt to get anyone outside, for the complete beginner with no budget, that wants to experience the beauty that is sleeping under the stars.

Of course, this list should be modified based on where and how long you plan to stay out, and if you're starting in a campground or the backcountry. But this list will give you the bare minimum of what you need to get outside!

1. "Non - Perishable" Food

For food, think of healthy items that require no cooking. Such as trail mix, power bars, and fruit, not twinkies and snickers. This way you don't have to bring any cooking or preparing supplies and they still give you the energy to take on the day.

Also, bring beyond your normal caloric intake, since you'll probably be moving around and using more calories than you normally would.

2. Water

Always bring your own water, even if you're in a campground that says it has fresh potable water, bringing a gallon or two never hurts. On Small Car Camp, they suggest bringing 1 gallon for each person, per day just for drinking. Then, an extra gallon each for other water needs.

Plus, when that gallon is empty you can use that container to carry more fresh water to your camping spot. Also, make sure to filter any water coming from a natural source such as a stream or lake. Never drink straight from natural sources, as you are risking serious diseases that can be easily prevented by boiling it for a solid minute before drinking.

3. Shelter

Of course, you can sleep in your car overnight if you really can't afford a tent or aren't sure you want to make the investment quite yet, but the tent is what really brings you into that camping mindset when you're sleeping in the outdoors.

Also, when buying a tent, consider that a 2 person tent really only sleeps one person comfortably, and a 3 person is best for 2 people, and so on. So if you're going with multiple people or pets, think about getting a bigger tent than the recommended sizes.

You can also consider hammocks as an option, if you know it will be a clear night, and you have a good spot for setting one up, you can simply layout in your hammock all night. there are more complex setups that can create a shelter around your hammock, but they are not necessary if you're sure of the weather for the night.

4. Sleeping Bag

It's not completely necessary to have an actual sleeping bag your first time going out, a big warm blanket will do the trick. However, it is nice to have the knowledge that sleeping bags are rated for certain temperatures so when you go to sleep, you'll actually be warm for the entire night. Plus, sleeping bags surround your body keeping your body heat closer to you as opposed to a blanket with only one side to it.

While I'm on the subject of sleeping, I say it's mandatory to have some sort of pad to sleep on. While you can sleep on the ground without it, not only will your back will thank you in the morning, the bare ground is also very cold. So if you want to actually sleep through the night without tossing and turning from the cold and pain of a rock digging into your shoulder, I suggest grabbing one.

5. Fire Starter

Assuming you'll want to have a campfire on this venture, you'll want to bring items to start this fire. While most campgrounds sell firewood or let you scavenge the wood around your site, you can't have a campfire without the means to start it. I suggest a lighter, but matches and flint also work. Just make sure to bring backups.

And don't forget to grab some newspaper, or an actual fire starter of some kind to light in order to get the wood going. Trust me, holding a lighter to a log is not going to get you the results you want. And leaves and grass create a lot of smoke and burn rather quickly to be considered helpful.

6. Clothes

Bringing extra clothes other than the ones you are wearing is essential. Always bring layers of some kind, even a hoodie will do, and extra socks. If you were to get wet, without a change of clothes, this could lead to hypothermia and overall a crappy day.

As for the socks, athletes foot is no joke, give your feet time to breath and change your socks regularly to avoid infecting your feet. I suggest getting wool socks because the fibers wick sweat away from your body, but your first time out, any clean socks will do.

7. Light Source

You will need some sort of light source for when the sun goes down. While my top suggestions would be either a lantern or a headlamp for ease of use, a flashlight will do just fine. You really don't realize what dark is until you're out in the woods with no artificial light sources.

Also, always bring extra batteries! It is always a best practice to bring extra batteries or a way to recharge your light source. I know you will want to use your phone flashlight, but I'm going to tell you right now, get a real rechargeable or regular battery-powered light source, you do not want to kill your phone battery just because you wanted some light at night to go pee.

Quick tip: If you bring a headlamp, you can wrap it around a gallon of water (facing the water inside) and create a lantern out of it!

8. First Aid Kit

I say the first aid kit is absolutely mandatory. I can't in good conscience send anyone out camping without one. I'm not saying that if you're staying in a campground and just sitting around reading a book all day that you're going to lose a limb or something serious, but a minimal amount of health items never hurt.

Bare minimum:

  • 10 - 15 regular bandaids of various sizes

  • Neosporin (antibacterial medication)

  • Ibuprophen (pain reliever)

  • Benedryl (antihistamine)

9. Personal Items

While not all personal items are totally necessary, such as makeup or a razor, for a day or two out in the woods there are a couple of things to consider.

  • medication

  • feminine products

  • glasses/contacts

  • chargers

  • hand sanitizer

  • sunscreen/mosquito spray

10. A Good Attitude

I'm not going to sugar coat it, you may get bored or frustrated just sitting out in the woods all day. While some people do this once and never again, some people really find themselves while camping and absolutely love it. So, maintaining optimism and a good attitude towards your time spent outdoors will really make your time so much better.

If you're spending your first few times out in campgrounds, which I highly suggest, look around at all of the other campers, they are some of the nicest and happiest people you will meet. So even if you can't get your fire started, maybe a friendly neighbor can help you! This happened to me when I tried to start a fire with wet wood in a rainforest, my camping neighbor saw I was struggling and came over to give me some dry wood to get the fire going. I've also had another camper offer me their ax when I was chopping wood with a tiny hatchet, or when my boyfriend forgot a lighter and we borrowed one from the people next door.

Just stay optimistic and ask for help if you need it, I'm super introverted and stubborn, so it's difficult for me to ask a stranger for help but in the outdoors we are all in this together. Just keep an open mind and a positive attitude and you'll have a great time.

Getting started with camping doesn't need to be overwhelming. You can get all of these items at your local Walmart for under $100, and some of these things you might already have. Just make sure to thoroughly research your camping location and double-check your packed items and the weather before you leave, and you'll have a great time!

If you're looking for a more comprehensive list of camping items needed to expand your camping repertoire, you can download my list here.

Also, feel free to contact me directly or comment below with any camping questions or more tips you may have!

Until next time,

Happy Travels!

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Hey there! My name is Hannah Smentkowski, I'm an adventure travel photographer, and a huge plant nerd! 

Here I share my traveling, camping, and hiking adventures in hopes of inspiring you to go outside and explore.

Even introverts are social sometimes...

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