Essential Camping Checklist

Read this handy dandy article? Check.
Read this handy dandy article? Check.

You know that satisfied feeling you get when you completely reorganize your closet? When you've finally discarded your collection of flannel from the '90s ("Been there, entertained that, Nirvana!") and carefully organized and replaced the rest of your gear? We think that completing a checklist inspires the same type of nerdy, satisfied joy.

Furthermore, checking off a camping checklist inspires glee in almost anyone because camping gear is just, well, cool. It's modular and miniaturized, like Legos. From tiny, lightweight stoves to collapsible cups and pocketknives with forks and spoons, camping gear is as delightful and full of potential for discovery as camping itself.


Checking off a list of essential camping do's and don'ts could also potentially save your life. Like stepping onto the world's biggest roller coaster with a weak stomach or driving a car on Interstate 95 for the first time, camping is one of those activities where it pays to be prepared. When you round a switchback and find yourself face-to-face with a bear, what should you do? When a thunderstorm sends lightning slashing down around your campsite, should you run into the open or stay amongst the trees? We'll tell you, and we'll also give you tools that will keep you from overlooking the essentials (and not-so-essentials!) that could determine whether your camping excursion is a dismal disappointment or a fun-filled frolic. After all, who wants to be waylaid by a stupid blister when simply remembering to pack the anti-chafe topical could have kept you hiking another day?

In this article, you'll find checklists for everything from wildlife to weather, as well as what to pack for the trip itself. Is it really necessary to pack a portable toilet? Find out next.


Camping Checklist: Packing Essentials

Is this what your house looks like before a camping trip?
Is this what your house looks like before a camping trip?
Jupiterimages/Getty Images/Thinkstock

In Jean Craighead George's 1959 novel "My Side of the Mountain," protagonist Sam Gribley flees to the mountains with nothing but a penknife, flint, steel and string. At the other extreme, in Madeleine L'Engle's 1963 camping novel "The Moon by Night," the Greys, a family of city slickers, roar into a campsite and unload a ridiculous abundance of gear. As far as we know, however, not even the Greys considered a portable toilet essential.

Whether you're an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink or a bare-essentials packer, here's a checklist of packing basics you won't want to camp without:


  • tent (unless you plan to sleep in a trailer or an RV, a lightweight, portable tent is a must)
  • sleeping bags (rated for 10 degrees below the coldest temperatures you anticipate)
  • pillows
  • backpacks (for hiking excursions)
  • matches and/or a butane lighter
  • lantern, preferably battery-operated
  • map (GPS systems are great, but keep an old-fashioned paper map for emergencies!)
  • flashlights
  • extra batteries
  • water bottles
  • bug spray (mosquito coils and portable insect repellant diffusers are also good to have)
  • sunblock
  • sunglasses
  • toothpaste and toothbrushes
  • shaving supplies (razors, shaving cream)
  • small mirror
  • soap (liquid soap or bar soap in a plastic box or bag)
  • towels
  • toilet paper
  • flip-flops or water shoes to wear in public shower facilities
  • hair care products such as shampoo and conditioner

Clothing is also essential. In general, a layered approach is best. If it's cold (or if you're just cold-natured), layer pants and shirts over thermal underwear and have waterproof outer shells, jackets, hats and gloves available in case you need them. Even if it's warm, consider bringing long pants and long-sleeved shirts to supplement your summer wear and protect you from sun and insects.

One final basic is so essential that it deserves its own page. Find your essential camp kitchen checklist next!


Camping Checklist: Camp Kitchen Essentials

Whether it's the smell of open-pot coffee or the delight of toasting marshmallows over a campfire, the novelty of camp cooking is a big part of what makes camping so enjoyable. If you're camping in an RV, certain camp kitchen essentials (a stove and sink, for instance) are already right at your fingertips. Tent campers will want to consider packing a camp stove. Even if you enjoy cooking over a fire, portable, lightweight canister stoves are good to have handy in case conditions are wet. RV campers may also enjoy the versatility of these stoves; some are actually small enough to load into a backpack!

Here's a checklist of camp kitchen essentials that both RV and tent campers will find useful:


  • canisters of fuel for your camp stove
  • plastic or metal tub for dish washing
  • can opener
  • bottle opener /corkscrew
  • cooler (consider packing two coolers -- one for cold items and one for storing dry goods)
  • ice
  • dish towels and dish cloths
  • dish detergent
  • charcoal
  • long, fire-resistant tongs and forks for cooking over a campfire
  • oven mitts
  • large utensils for cooking and serving
  • kitchen knife for chopping
  • a pot for boiling water
  • a cast iron skillet or nonstick pan
  • coffeepot
  • cutting board
  • utensils (forks, knives and spoons)
  • dishes (plates, cups)
  • aluminum foil
  • Ziploc bags and/or storage containers for leftovers
  • dry goods (rice, oatmeal, pasta)
  • seasonings (salt, pepper, soy sauce)

You don't have to be a gourmet chef to create great meals at camp. Season fresh salmon fillets, double wrap them in aluminum foil and tuck them into the coals of your camp fire for one of the best and easiest meals you'll ever taste. Other camping favorites include flatbread pizza, beans and rice, and grilled foods like hamburgers or hotdogs. While Snakes on a Stick (refrigerator biscuits toasted over an open fire) are a camp kitchen favorite, most of us prefer to avoid actual snakes when camping.

Your camping checklist for dealing with outdoor wildlife is next!


Camping Checklist: Much Ado About Wildlife

It probably goes without saying, but you don't want to invite a bear to lunch if you can help it.
It probably goes without saying, but you don't want to invite a bear to lunch if you can help it.
Altrendo Nature/Getty Images

"Be Prepared:" The Boy Scout motto is especially appropriate when applied to camping. All outdoor activities -- especially those involving unknown terrain and conditions -- come with risks. One such risk is wildlife. Below we offer several short checklists for staying safe around different kinds of wildlife:



  • When not in use, store your food in bear-proof containers, or inside your vehicle.
  • Never leave garbage or open containers around your campsite.
  • Hike in groups and make noise; let the bears know you're coming.
  • If you see a bear, make a lot of noise and back away slowly. Never run.


  • Do not try to approach an alligator.
  • Avoid swimming at night.
  • Alligators camouflage themselves along heavily vegetated shorelines. Avoid these areas.
  • Never feed an alligator.


  • Always wear closed-toe shoes when hiking.
  • Wear long pants.
  • Snakes come out most frequently at dusk and nighttime. Do not hike at night.
  • Stay on established trails when hiking, and watch where you're stepping.


  • Tuck pants legs into socks to keep bugs out.
  • Wear insect repellant with DEET.
  • Ticks lurk in tall grass and brush; wearing light clothes helps you spot ticks.
  • Shake out clothing and bedding to expel unwanted spiders and scorpions.
  • Avoid camping at the base of trees; these can be habitats for fire ants.
  • Leave the perfume at home; it may attract bees.

Sometimes, in spite of all your careful attention to preparedness, accidents and emergencies happen anyway. On the next page, find your essential camping checklist for first aid and emergencies.


Camping Checklist: Emergency Gear

Duct tape -- Man, that stuff is handy!
Duct tape -- Man, that stuff is handy!

If you're filling coolers full of beer in preparation for your camping trip, it may occur to you to throw in a bottle of aspirin in case you happen to have one too many. However, it might never cross your mind that a silly little blister could derail an entire weekend of camping fun. Luckily, you have this checklist to help you remember everything you'll need for basic first aid and minor repairs:

  • duct tape
  • tool kit that includes a hammer, screw drivers, pliers and wrenches
  • superglue
  • nylon cord
  • string
  • wire
  • razor blades
  • needle and thread
  • scissors
  • tweezers
  • band-aids
  • gauze pads
  • adhesive tape
  • Ace bandages
  • latex gloves
  • antibiotic cream
  • antihistamine
  • moleskin
  • Body Glide or other anti-chafe topical
  • anti-itch cream
  • pain relief (aspirin or similar)
  • antacids
  • hand sanitizer

In the event of an accident or medical emergency, assess the scene before doing anything, and do not move a victim until you know the extent of his injuries. Next, check the victim's ABC's (airway, breathing, circulation). If he's not breathing or if his heart isn't beating, call for help before starting chest compressions and/or artificial respiration. If the victim is bleeding freely, apply the cleanest material you can find (a sterile gauze pad is best, but a relatively clean tee shirt also works) to the wound and administer direct pressure. If you plan to do a lot of camping, consider taking a class in CPR at the American Red Cross or your local hospital. Basic first-aid skills like CPR will serve you well in camping and a host of other kinds of emergencies.


In some situations, you could risk serious injury to yourself trying to come to the aid of someone else. In these instances, it may be better to request rescue rather than attempt to handle the situation yourself. We talk about how to handle flash floods, lightning, avalanches and other weather-related emergencies next.


Camping Checklist: What You Need to Know About Weather

OK, this is pretty funny, but in general, flash floods are no joke.
OK, this is pretty funny, but in general, flash floods are no joke.

The whole point of going camping is to get closer to nature and enjoy the great outdoors. But sometimes, nature can be fickle. Here are a few types of weather to watch out for while camping:



Thirty-six people died in avalanches in the U.S. over the 2009-2010 winter [source: Forest Service]. Here are a few red flags for avalanche risk:

  • high winds or recent heavy snowfall
  • recent avalanche activity
  • cracks in the snow surface
  • rising temperatures

Flash Floods

Flash floods strike without warning and can be deadly. Here are some things you should know:

  • Don't camp in dry river beds.
  • A flash flood watch means that flash flooding is possible; a warning signals that flooding is imminent.
  • Don't try to outrun a flash flood in your car. Instead, climb to higher ground.


Did you know that nearby forest fires can generate enough dust to create a static charge and cause lightning? Here are some other lightning basics:

  • Lightning strikes whatever is tallest.
  • Drop any metal objects you're carrying, including backpacks with metal frames.
  • Get off bicycles and motorbikes.
  • Avoid lakes and rivers.


  • It is not safe to be outside during a tornado.
  • If a tornado watch is issued in your campground, take shelter inside a sturdy building.
  • If this is not possible, find a ditch or gully and lie down.
  • Do not attempt to outrun a tornado in your vehicle.

There are other things that are OK to outrun on a camping trip, however. From kites to bikes, find our list of not-so-essential (but fun!) stuff to pack next.


Camping Checklist: Not-So-Essential (But Fun and Helpful) Things to Pack

Nothing says camping fun like a friendly game of chess.
Nothing says camping fun like a friendly game of chess.
Jupiterimages/Getty Images/Thinkstock

Besides bringing you closer to nature, another great reason to camp is to get front-row access to some of your favorite outdoor pursuits -- like singing folk songs by the campfire, geocaching, prospecting for gold and whispering ghost stories by flashlight. For your added camping enjoyment, we offer two secondary lists of items that might be fun or helpful (but not strictly essential) to pack on your next camping trip:

Helpful Non-Essentials


  • 10 x 10 canopy for portable outdoor shade
  • air mattress
  • bungie cords and carabineers
  • camp chairs
  • collapsible shovel
  • flint and steel for making fire without matches
  • headlamp for spelunking, or hands-free restroom navigation
  • Magic Fire Starter
  • multifunction knife
  • multifunction watch with compass and altimeter
  • personal locater beacons
  • pocket water filtration
  • small folding table for setting up your camp kitchen
  • small hand axe for cutting firewood
  • umbrella

Fun Non-Essentials

  • board games and games in general (here are some ideas)
  • bicycles
  • binoculars
  • books
  • camera and/or film
  • geocaching instructions
  • guitar, hand drums and other musical instruments
  • hammock
  • hiking staff
  • kite
  • mesh pan for gold prospecting
  • mobile app for stargazing, such as SkySafari
  • playing cards
  • radio
  • telescope
  • walkie-talkies

Now, let's review to see how much essential camping knowledge you've retained. Surprise a bear on the trail? Check -- back away slowly and make a lot of noise. Creek's rising fast? Check -- climb to higher ground. Snakes on a Stick? Check -- they're not reptiles; they're just refrigerator biscuits baked over an open fire! Do you really need to pack a portable toilet? Well, it's probably not strictly necessary, but plenty of campers prefer it to squatting in the woods.

You know what else campers prefer? More knowledge about camping! Find it on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Dooley, Tammy. "Camping 101: Knowing What to Pack." April 2009. (Feb. 14, 2012)
  • George, Jean Craighead. "My Side of the Mountain." Puffin Books. 1959.
  • U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center. "Learn How to Identify Red Flags." (Feb. 14, 2012)
  • L'Engle, Madeleine. "The Moon by Night." Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. 1963.
  • Sutton, Keith. "What to Pack for Camping." (Feb. 14, 2012)
  • USDA Forest Service. "Safety Around Wildlife." (Feb. 14, 2012)
  • USDA Forest Service. "Weather Safety." (Feb. 14, 2012)