Whether you're preparing for a multi-day adventure in the backcountry or getting ready for a low-key overnight trip to an outfitted campground, the first rule of camping is to plan ahead. Having a plan increases the likelihood of a safe and enjoyable outdoor excursion. Prepare for sudden changes in weather conditions, unexpected injuries, and scenarios that necessitate camping for more days than you originally scheduled. Nature can be unpredictable, so it’s critical to prepare for the worst. You want to avoid getting stuck in a snowstorm wearing only a cotton sweatshirt and jeans, or enduring an especially bug-ridden area without insect repellent, or waking up in a soggy down sleeping bag drenched by rain from a leaky tent. While sleeping under the stars without a roof over your head is something every camper should try, weather can shift quickly and it’s also hard to get a good night’s sleep with a mosquito buzzing in your ear. Invest in the right gear for the outdoor activities you’re most likely to undertake, and pack the essential items necessary to keep you comfortable, in high spirits, and most importantly—safe.
What to bring
When camping in a camper van, it’s tempting to pack too much, while every backpacker struggles to eliminate items to lighten the load they must carry. The trick is to pack the right things for the type of camping you plan to pursue. And there are certain items that you just don’t want to leave home without.
For example, once you’re out in the wilderness, there’s no simple substitute for a lighter or matches. That’s why it’s critically important to remember to bring—at the bare minimum—the 10 Essentials, listed below. Minimalist campers will bring little else.
The original 10 Essentials list first appeared in 1974 in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, which was written by 40 outdoor experts. Over the years, the list has evolved to adapt to gear trends and new modes of camping. The original list is now referred to as the “classic” essentials, and is recommended for the bare minimum gear to take, whether camping in the backcountry or in an established campground. The classic essentials follow:
1. Map 2. Compass 3. Sunglasses and sunscreen 4. Extra clothing 5. Headlamp (or flashlight) 6. First-aid kit 7. Fire starter 8. Matches 9. Knife 10. Extra food
The new and improved 10 Essentials list has been updated with a more functional, systems-based approach to include the following:
Map, compass, and GPS system (optional)
Navigation tools are used for trip and route planning, as well as for orienting to your map and surroundings. Before leaving home, learn how to use a compass (and GPS unit if you have one), in addition to being able to read a topographical or relief map.
2. Sun protection
Sunglasses, sunscreen, and hat
Sun protection includes items that are essential for shielding your skin and eyes against damaging UV rays. To prevent sunburns and minimize skin cancer risk, be sure to take and use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Protect your ears and face and other areas with an SPF 50 lotion if you have sensitive skin. Covering your skin with sun-protection clothing, like long-sleeve shirts, lightweight pants, and hats, will help reduce your exposure. Wear sunglasses in sunny weather, especially near water or snow, where the reflective glare can hurt your eyes.
Jacket, warm hat, gloves, rain jacket, and thermal underwear
Anticipate sudden changes in weather by bringing appropriate clothing for all types of conditions, and pack extra layers.
Flashlight, lanterns, and headlamp
Artificial lighting is essential for safety at night. It’s best not to leave it behind. The only substitute for artificial lighting is a fire, which is difficult to control as a light source. Headlamps can be more convenient than flashlights, because they’re hands-free. Lanterns are best for illuminating a larger circumference. It’s always a good idea to bring a backup light and extra batteries.
5. First-aid supplies
First-aid kit, insect repellent, and prescription medications
Pack first-aid supplies and a guide for how to handle medical emergencies. You can purchase a premade kit and modify it by adding items specific to your trip and your medical needs, such as an EpiPen or inhaler. Be sure to replace any expired supplies before you head out. See here for a more detailed list of first-aid supplies and emergency procedures.
Matches, lighter, and fire starters
In addition to using fire as a heat source for staying warm and cooking, it can be used as an emergency signal. Cover your bases by packing waterproof matches, a lighter, and fire starters.
7. Repair kit and tools
Knives, scissors, screwdriver, pliers, multi-tool, trowel/shovel, duct tape, cable ties
Pack a kit that includes all the tools necessary to repair your gear. A multi-tool is handy because it includes several useful tools like a knife, can opener, and screwdriver. Don’t forget to pack tools specific to your trip or activity, like a bike pump and tire patch kit if you plan to go mountain biking or bikepacking.
Meals for every day of the trip and extra food for one additional day
Bring enough food to cover every meal of every day of your trip, plus at least one extra day as a precaution. No-cook items such as dehydrated foods are lightweight and compact, and just require adding water. Salty and high-energy snacks like nuts, trail mix, and granola bars are ideal for sustained outdoor activity.
Water and water purification supplies
Pack water treatment supplies and enough water to cook with and drink. Dehydration is a greater risk during physical activity because your body loses water and salts at a higher rate. To prevent dehydration, drink one-half liter to a full liter every hour if you’re participating in an outdoor activity like running, swimming, biking, or hiking. One liter equals approximately four cups, or two standard 16.9-ounce water bottles. If you’re well hydrated, your urine should be a pale color. Calculate how much water you should pack if you’re planning to camp in an area without a nearby water source. If you’re camping in a place where you will need to purify the water yourself, locate the water sources you plan to use on a map ahead of time. Be sure to prepare the water and drink it before getting thirsty. Pack an extra two liters of water for one additional day, to be used in case of emergency.
10. Emergency shelter
Tent, space blanket, tarp, and bivy
While it can be memorable to sleep under the stars without a roof over your head, shelter will protect you from harsh conditions and exposure to the elements in an emergency situation. Pack a tent at the very least, and bring a tarp, bivy sack (personal-sized waterproof shelter), or emergency Mylar space blanket as backup.