After a recent camping trip to one of my favorite lakes with a friend visiting from out of town, I had an epiphany. It happened while I was halfway into a mile-long hike to our campsite. I was huffing and puffing on the uphill trail when it dawned on me that I felt miserable, hot, and super pissed that we had packed so much crap on this camping trip. I assessed the literal weight of my load to keep my mind off being angry and giving up—it was at least 100 pounds, backpack full, both arms full. I could barely take another step. What was I even carrying?
I wanted to drop everything and go back to the car. My poor friend was struggling with her little pack ahead, and my boyfriend was silently dying every time he had to hoist the full-size cooler over a boulder. What a bunch of idiots we were.
When we reached the campsite (which was a first-come, first-served situation), I dropped the junk and mulled over the mistakes we’d made in overpacking while I chugged a cold beer.
Expert campers we are not, but seasoned and experienced campers we are. Despite this fact, we still screwed up and overpacked for our trip. Overpacking on a hike into camp can make the experience terrible, while underpacking can leave you freezing or hungry or unprepared—which is just as bad. There is a fine balance. Let’s review some basics:
First, assess what type of camping you are doing. A lot of people think camping is just throwing a blanket, some clean underwear, and a bottle of whiskey into a backpack and getting out into the woods. And for some, this is enough. The two or three people I know for whom this is enough are white men.
Are you car camping or backpacking? What’s the water situation like? Are there toilets? Does it require reservations or is it a walk-in? Will you need firewood? Will the temperature drop drastically in the evenings?
Backpacking: pack a water filter
Car Camping: make sure the campsite has drinking water, or pack your own gallon jug
Car camping sites usually have running and drinkable water (amongst many other luxuries like showers, flushable toilets, etc), whereas backpacking will require you to hike your own water in or bring a water filter for any lake, river, or stream nearby. Water filters are an amazing camping-gear option and are lightweight and portable. Water purification tablets are also an easy-to-pack option, and you can also boil the water if you have a pan. If the idea of having to prepare your own drinking water freaks you out too much, then ease into the experience by camping at sites with running water.
Backpacking: pack your own toilet paper, small shovel, and hand sanitizer
Car Camping: check if the site’s toilets are flushable or pit
Campsites either have flushable toilets, pit toilets, or no toilets. You will need to pack your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer for the latter, and it’s good etiquette to bury waste. That’s what the hand shovel is for.
Backpacking: pack a small hatchet and lighter/matches
Car Camping: in addition, buy wood from the camp host
If you’re car camping, your site will most likely have a fire pit, and the campsite hosts will probably sell bundles of firewood for about $5. If you’re backpacking, bring a small hatchet or travel with someone who has one. You’ll need to gather your own wood for your fires each night.
Backpacking: 1 good jacket
Car Camping: all the jackets, you’ll have space to pack for all types of weather
Always expect the temperature to drop at night, even in the middle of summer. Invest in and bring one good outdoor insulated jacket (preferably water repellent) or vest that has a hood and some lining to keep your core warm. These squish down and pack easily. Leave heavy cotton hoodies and sweaters at home. Everyone has different style preferences while camping, but minimal is truly the way to go because you will most likely find yourself wearing the same outfit each day. My suggestion is one good pair of leggings, one sports bra, one pair of pants or shorts, one long-sleeve shirt, one or two T-shirts, clean underwear, and one or two pairs of warm, thick socks. A swimsuit, beanie, or sunhat are great bonuses. Reese Witherspoon’s outfit in Wild is basic for a reason.
Backpacking: stock up on dry goods
Car Camping: bring the whole kitchen
Do bring a full-size cooler if you’re car camping; you’ll probably have a picnic table to set up a full kitchen on with a camp stove. You might be able to buy ice from the camp host for a few bucks or bring it with you. If you’re backpacking, consider one-pot meals like Tasty Bites, granola bars, lightweight dry snacks, and fruit. You may also want to look into an all-in-one, single-burner stove to cook on. Some are small enough to fit in a backpack.
Backpacking: 1 sleeping bag
Car Camping: sleeping bag and the extra blankets to lounge on
Wool blankets are a secret weapon for camping; they lock in heat and don’t absorb moisture from the night air. But they are often heavy, so finding a lightweight one that can roll up and work for either situation is ideal. Roll up your jacket to use as a pillow or buy a small inflatable camp pillow. You can be more elaborate with your sleep setup when car camping, so bring a pad, cot, pillows, sleeping bag—whatever makes you comfy and cozy.
- Basecamp Items
Backpacking: 1 lightweight tent, 1 solar-powered lantern, 1 headlamp with 1 pair of extra batteries, 1 book or pen/journal, 1 map, 1 backpack to put it all in
Car Camping: 1 tent, easy-up canopy, or camp hammock; 1 propane or battery-fueled lantern, headlamp, or flashlight; camp chairs; portable phone charger; 1 portable speaker; battery-powered party lights
If you haven’t noticed by now, car camping gives you a lot of the comforts of home because you can load up your vehicle, park in your campsite, and unload. However, I personally prefer the challenge of backpacking and the efficiency of fitting all of your needs for a few nights into one large bag that goes onto your back. It’s all a matter of taste and comfort preferences. Camping should be a fun experience that can be introspective and peaceful or social and communal. Whatever you decide, pack up, pack smart, and GTFO of town and into nature!