Bare minimum gear for camping: what you really need

A lot of folks who rent our gear are beginners to the great outdoors. So we thought we’d do a quick write up on what is absolutely essential for camping (note in the end on backpacking).

In the same vein as our protip on What gear do you really need for skiing or snowboarding, we will focus on what you really need, and what stuff you can probably make do with. If you’re thinking of buying anything, use our calculator to figure out if the purchase is worth it.

What you definitely need to bring

Clothing

Chances are you’ll have whatever you need in the closet and won’t need to buy anything. We’ll talk more about what “outdoors-specific clothing” is like later. You will want to bring:

  • Activity-specific clothing for your daytime plans. For hiking, you can usually bring what you wear to the gym
  • Clean, comfy camp clothes. You’ll thank me if your day clothes get very dirty or wet! Also a pair of sandals will feel much better than shoes (especially if you have long hikes planned!)
  • Warm layers. Nights & mornings are chilly outside, bring a fleece, sweater, or thick hoodie

Shoes: if you’re hiking a relatively well maintained (certainly paved paths qualify) trail without a lot of obstacles, and without a steep incline, you’ll probably be fine wearing gym shoes. As with everything, know yourself and your limits! (I have hiked steep paths wearing flip flops and survived.)

Gear

Basic gear for camping

Camping is a popular getaway activity precisely because it’s very low maintenance! These 3 are the bare minimum:

  • Tent. Your home away from home! Make sure the tent has a tarp or footprint (to put under the tent and protect the floor as well as give an extra layer against the bumpy ground), and a rainfly (just in case, nobody likes sleeping wet!)
  • Sleeping bag. Know yourself and your body to get one with the right temperature rating for you. I prefer to get bags rated to higher temperatures, because I can always wear clothes to sleep (or do crunches in the bag to generate heat), but if the bag is rated for 0 degrees and it's not anywhere close to that cold, you'll just be uncomfortable--sweating when you're in the bag, freezing when you've kicked it off. If you’re renting from us, you can specify a temperature rating; also note that our sleeping bags come with liners for hygiene that will also add additional warmth
  • Sleeping pad. I get asked a lot—do you really need a pad? Yes! Sleeping on the bare ground is extremely uncomfortable. Our bodies are no longer used to hard, not to mention unsmooth surfaces. A pad will lift you 2-3 inches off the ground with some much needed cushioning!

Note, the one exception is that if conditions allow (e.g., you know there will be trees to hang up on, you can sleep comfortably in one all night long), a hammock can substitute for all the above!

What you probably won’t need to bring

Packing lists always seem scary because it skews toward prepared for anything. We want to be honest with you about what you probably won’t need, especially as a beginner who doesn't go camping very often and probably not aggressively.

Clothing

Outdoors specific clothing is basically lightweight and breathable (think the quick-dry kinds of fabric you find in modern gym clothing). The more specific types of outdoors clothes you’ll see really boils down to fabric that will render clothing:

  • Waterproof: fabric that has been treated with a layer of waterproofing material (note there’s a difference between water resistant and waterproof clothing. The former is commonly found in snow apparel, and while it will keep you dry in powder, is not meant to be worn in rain)
  • Windproof: fabric is woven so tight air can’t pass through at high speeds, as such it's pretty insulating as well
  • Insulating: materials that trap heat (but are also breathable), like wool or down (careful to not get them wet; down loses insulating properties when wet and wool becomes really heavy)

But again, rather than spend the hundreds of dollars, you can just wear layers (assuming you are probably not planning to hike in wet weather. If you are, best to bring a waterproof jacket, in my experience those cheap ponchos rip in 30 minutes)

Shoes: Just so you know, hiking specific shoes are designed to:

  • Prevent slips or skids with extra treading on the soles
  • Protect you from rolling your ankle with a high shaft
  • Resist water entry (only if specified on the shoe)
  • Keep your feet warm while aerated with thicker yet breathable lining
  • Be more durable all-around since the outdoors are not like a gym

Given all that, bear in mind these shoes are much heavier than regular ones.

Gear

For each gear item below, we’ll explain why you can make do without buying real gear.

  • Inflatable pillow. Just stuff extra clothing inside the stuff sack for the sleeping bag and use that
  • Trekking poles. Most people don’t need these anyway unless they’re going on a very rigorous hike. Sometimes even then, a large, sturdy branch will make do
  • Portable chairs or table. Most popular car-camping sites have picnic style tables and benches for you. Some even have fire pits or rings and grills
  • Bear canister. Most popular car-camping sites in bear territory have bear lockers for use. Always check in advance, because in bear territory, designated lockers or cans are the only way of keeping bears out & to protect your property from being damaged! Read more in our protip on bear safety at the campsite
  • Headlamp. While convenient, unless you’re hiking in the dark or need your hands to do something, you can make do with a phone flashlight or regular flashlight around the campsite

For backpackers

Backpacking gear

For backpacking, lightweight is key, so you'll still need good clothes, a tent, sleeping bag, and pad, but you want to find as lightweight as possible. When renting from us, you can specify that you're going backpacking and we'll automatically get you the lightest versions we can find! The gear below may or may not be needed, depending on your circumstances:

  • A backpacking backpack. You will more likely than not need this. Regular backpacks are not designed for so much weight, and so you carry more of the weight on your shoulders. Backpacking backpacks distribute weight but also allow you to carry the burden on your hips
  • Bear canister. Again, as long as you’re in bear country, you need a canister to store food & other odorous items (e.g., personal care products). Keep the canister at least 100 yards away from you and preferably downwind
  • Water purifier or water bag. Research the route you’re doing well in advance. If there are no flowing water sources, you may have to bring in all your water, in which case a water bag is much lighter than several bottles.

A note on food

In the vein of knowing yourself and your preferences, food outdoors can be anything you want it to be. If you want a feast, you can bring a portable burner stove or grill with pots and pans and a cooler full of meats and veggies. On the other end, you can also survive a few days on nothing but dried foods (e.g., energy bars, nuts, etc.) that require nothing else but the food items themselves.

Ultimately, bring what you will need to be comfortable in the great outdoors. That way, you'll be fully focused on the amazing views ahead!

Happy trails!

Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, and we'll do our best to get you ouside!


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