Camping Equipment Basics

So you want to go camping?  But aren’t sure what camping equipment you are going to need first time out?  What size of tent?  Do I need an air mattress?  Should I cook over an open fire?

The purpose of this post is to selfishly describe the items that I researched and purchased in advance of my first camping trip.  So far I’ve made 4 trips this year, 2 in the mountains, one by the beach and one in the desert, all located in Southern California.

So your mileage most definitely will vary.  However, I’ll describe what I bought and why, and why I think it is (or is not) necessary for that first trip.

This post covers major equipment items.  Look for future posts on other things you may want to being for cooking etc.


Must Have Camping Equipment

These are things that I believe you must get in order to make your camping trip enjoyable enough to want to go again.  You might be able to skip some of these, but you risk misery of yourself or your family.  You have been warned…


Obviously… but what kind of tent to get?  Firstly, tent sizes are described in terms of “person” occupancy.  But that seems to be entirely divorced from the reality of how many people could comfortably fit in the tent.  I got an “8 person” tent.  Its just right for 4 people including gear brought for a long weekend, although its most roomy with only 2 people, effectively diving up into a sleeping quarters and a storage/changing area.

I also got one that was tall enough in the center to stand up in, which makes it a lot easier to dress and undress without being hunched over.

You can review the tents here to form an opinion of the differences between tents at different price points.

Best Tent for Family and Car Camping – The Wirecutter

As you search for tents, you’ll want to look for Car Camping tents.  You’ll also have to choose between instant popup cabin tents and more traditional tents that you have to assemble with pole and pegs.  I was on the brink of purchasing a popup tent from Costco, but some of the reviews were mixed and indicated they had defects.  If you have time and space to test assembly of the tent, you may want to try a popup.

My goal was to purchase a tent that would go up without issues, first time.  I settled on a pick between these two:

And ultimately selected the Coleman tent, partly based on brand recognition.  It has been assembled 4 times now, and while one of the poles developed a crack in one of its segments, its doing fine.

This tent is spacious, comfortable for 4 people and gear and, as mentioned above, I can stand up in the middle.  There are 4 main poles to hold the structure, one to provide structure to the “porch” of the flysheet and a few more to provide a rigid door.

It has two small zip windows, one on each end, and a zip window on the door.  The door can “latch” with velcro for easy in-and-out.  It came with a square of grey material that I must believe is some kind of “door mat”, but I’d recommend buying a cheap doormat to stop the trail of dirt entering your tent.  The flysheet porch is large enough where you can leave shoes outside.

By the way, the bag the Coleman tent comes in is a joke.  The tent will _never_ fit back in the bag.  I’m considering buying some general-purpose holdall to stuff the tent inside.

Oh, and pro-tip:  Don’t drive all the way to the campground and realize you forgot to bring the tent poles.  See above about purchasing a bag to keep all your tent stuff in.


Tarp (aka “Footprint”)

Industrial Tarp – 2 pack

You should get a tarp to lay on the ground under the tent.  The tarp will help smooth out any roughness at your site, especially if it is large enough to double-over and it will protect the bottom of the tent.

I was able to buy a two-pack at Costco.  They each are huge, so I fold one of them in two to use as the base.  Similar to this:

Rubber Mallet

You will definitely need a rubber mallet to hammer in those tent pegs.  A camping mallet will also have a hook on the end to make it easier to pull the pegs out when you’re packing up.

Sleeping Bags

Coleman 2-IN-1 30°-70° Sleeping Bag

Researching various websites, sleeping bags seemed pretty expensive, especially for some basic Southern California camping.  As luck would have it, Costco was selling some basic Coleman sleeping bags, so I bought those.

This sleeping bag is fine for Southern California temperatures, but not going to be great in the cold.  I slept in this in the mountains where the temperatures dipped to mid-40s.  I wore thermals, socks, and multiple layers, inside the bag, covered by a blanket.

I can survive some pretty wide temperature swings (grew up in Ireland) but my rule-of-thumb is now camping only if the low is likely to reach no lower than 50F.  Anything less starts to get uncomfortable.

If you don’t have a Costco membership, you may consider this:

Air Mattress

So I’m sure you could lay the sleeping bag on the ground, or on a foam mat.  You’d be crazy.  Nothing can ruin a camping trip more than a terrible night’s sleep.  You should get some air mattresses plus a battery-operated pump.

This mattress is fine, it stays inflated well enough all night, it’ll need topped-up each night though.

Oh and bring some spare batteries in case your pump runs out (although I’ve now used this pump to fill effectively the Queen mattress 4 times over and a twin mattress 5 times over on the same set of batteries):

AmazonBasics D Cell Everyday Alkaline Batteries (12-Pack)


Tip:  I pretty much always buy used on Amazon if I can, exclusively from Amazon Warehouse Deals.  When you see a product you like, click on “Used & New… from $nnn”, then Prime shipping checkbox, then click Used.

Look for products Like New or Very Good.  I’ve never purchased Good or Acceptable.  You can often buy at a significant discount, presumably you don’t really care if the thing was returned and repackaged or the box is damaged.


Camping Chairs

You’ll want these to sit around the campfire.  I was looking for something that was good value and would last a few trips.  These have a cupholder in one arm and a cooler pouch in the other.  Never really used the cooler pouch, at least not for anything that needed cooling.

They fold up nicely into a storage bag.

Propane Stove

On my first two camping trips, I did not have one of these.  I had a charcoal grill and a grate that went over the fire pit.  I used the fire pit to heat water and cook things in a pan.  It sounds incredibly rustic and romantic to cook your food over the open flame.

However, its incredibly inconvenient to have to start a fire just to boil some water.  And your water and food will have a smokey flavor, not great for making coffee and tea.

Getting the propane stove is a must-have.  I got one that operates on small 4lb propane tanks.  So far a single tank (which are only a few bucks each) has lasted for two trips, so it seems pretty cost-effective.

Two-pack propane fuel tank

The stove heats food incredibly quickly, faster than my home cooktop.  The control knobs are very sensitive, so its kind of off or on, perhaps they can be adjusted but I haven’t spent the time to figure out how to do that.

This stove folds down compactly, and secures itself with a little latch that continually comes undone.  Not enough to bug me, but I’ll probably get some kind of elastic cord to wrap around it and hold it shut.

Lighting (Flashlights, headlights)

It gets dark outside.  Yes, really.  And depending on where you’re camping you likely won’t have any source of light.  You need some.  I recommend all of these:

  • Some lights to hand inside your tent so you can get dressed and play games in the tent
  • A lantern to place on your table or hang from any structure at the campsite
  • Headlamps for handsfree lighting, allowing you to cook at night, or carry items to the faucet for washing
  • Flashlights as backup, or additional lighting if you’re going for a nighttime walk


Optional Camping Equipment

These things aren’t strictly necessary, but may make your camping trip more enjoyable.


The first time out the weather was looking chilly at night so I got a heater.  It was very much needed.  Temperatures dipped to mid-40s this heater was perfect for warming the tent at bedtime.

It runs on the same propane tanks as the camping stove, so you can just get a bunch of those tanks.  It goes through propane pretty quickly, so I’d budget one propane tank for every night, and worst case you may have too much.  Better that than running out on your last night…


A hammock is pretty nice for taking lazy naps outside.  In the heat of the midday sun, your tent will feel like an oven and its hard to get comfortable.  A hammock, preferably under some shade, is perfect.

You’ll see plenty of hammocks that attach to a tree or some kind of structure.  I’ve never camped at a site where I’ve seen a structure suitable for hanging a hammock.  So I got one with its own stand.  It comes apart and fits in a neat bag.  It only takes a few minutes to put up and down.

Fire grate

My first time out, I didn’t have the propane stove and chose to cook with a charcoal grill and everything else over an open fire.  It sucked having to light a fire to boil water for coffee, a fire is hard to control the heat and it burned through wood quicker.  Everything tastes like smoke.

Also, many iron fire rings come with a grate anyway.  Save yourself the bother and just get the propane stove instead.


Folding Table

Lifetime 4′ Fold-In-Half Cooking Table

All the sites I’ve camped at have a sizeable picnic table, but its useful to have an additional folding table for more space, a more hygenic food prep surface or somewhere to place your propane stove for cooking.

This model isn’t particularly sturdy and the tabletop is detaching from the frame, but it has survived 4 trips now.

Charcoal Grill

For me this is a must-have, but its not strictly necessary if you have a propane stove.  However I like to grill and its handy to be able to grill meat here while the propane stove is used for heating other items.

The weber grill sits low to the ground, it has a large surface area and has a special metal rod that holds the lid in place when you’re traveling.  I put mine inside a large black trash bag to prevent ash messing up the car.

I love Weber grills and this one is great for cooking for 4 people.


I bought a canopy for a desert camping trip.  It did provide some much-needed shade and was perfect for napping in the hammock.  Your tent will be baking hot in the midday sun.  So useful, but not strictly necessary.
This one is 10’x10′, pretty easy to put up once you know how and comes in a carrying case.  Its pretty heavy and bulky though, but could fit lengthways behind the front seats of a VW Jetta so not too large.


So that pretty much sums it up for must-haves and optional equipment for your first trip.  We didn’t cover things like cooking, cleaning and hiking, but those things are a lot easier to plan for.