Camping for Beginners

Here's what you should bring, wear and know for your first campout.

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This article is part of our series: How to Go Camping

Illustration of a view looking out of a tent: camp chair, campfire, rising sun and coffee.

Even if you're the most urban of creatures, the urge to get out of the city—to camp out, in fact—can seize your imagination at any time. If you find yourself contemplating car camping for the first time, but find gear selection and prep to be a little daunting, don't despair. We're here to help.

The ultimate essential for beginner campers is an experienced outdoorsy person to help you. If you're lucky enough to have a friend with a campground reservation and a garage full of gear to share, then you already have a head start. If you don't, REI offers classes and guided campouts to get you started.

If you want to learn more about camping in anticipation of a future trip, you're in the right place. Here, we'll cover everything from what gear you'll need and what to wear to meal-prepping tips and guidance on finding a campsite.

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Illustration of a tent, lantern, coffee mug and camp chair

Essential Gear

Camping is like staying in a primitive cabin, minus the cabin itself. So, in addition to your tent, pack as though you're going to stay someplace where there's little or no furniture, no electricity, no stove or refrigerator, and the cupboards are bare. In a developed campground you will have running water and a community bathroom a few hundred yards away. A typical campsite has a table (if not, you'll want to bring one), a place to park a car and a place to pitch your tent.

You can keep your initial investment low if you borrow or rent the priciest items—typically, the tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Renting is often a better strategy than paying bottom dollar for something that might not last through a single camping trip. Plus, renting allows you to test out different gear to get a feel for what you like. That said, if you are ready to invest in your very own camp kit, here are a few tips to help you decide exactly what to buy.

Tent: If your budget can go a little bigger, then go bigger with your tent. Consider choosing a tent with a capacity larger than what you envision needing. For instance, if you're camping with just one other person, a 3-person shelter will provide you both with a little extra breathing room. And a family of four can more easily achieve harmony in a 6-person tent. You can also check the tent's peak height if you want a shelter you can stand up in, which can make getting dressed and moving around easier. Other nice-to-have features: Vestibules outside the doors are great for stowing muddy shoes, and having a tent with two doors can help you avoid climbing over sleeping tentmates for late-night bathroom breaks. For a deeper dive into tent factors, read How to Choose a Camping Tent.

Tip: Practice setting up your tent at home before you head outside. And don't forget to purchase a properly sized footprint—if you have a ground sheet that's too small, it won't fully protect your tent floor from debris like rocks and sticks. if you have one that's too big, it can catch rainwater and pool it underneath your tent.

Sleeping Bag: When selecting your bag, temperature rating is a good place to start. If you're planning on only going fair-weather camping, a summer bag is probably all you'll need. But a 3-season bag will give you more leeway for unpredictable shoulder-season weather. If you're always cold (or always hot), adjust accordingly. And no need to go with a super-snug mummy bag like backpackers use. A rectangular camping bag will give your body more room to roam. To learn more, read How to Choose a Camping Bag.

Tip: If you're someone who runs cold, fill a Nalgene bottle with hot water and toss it into your sleeping bag at night. This will add an extra dose of warmth. Related reading: 22 Camping Hacks from REI Experts

Sleeping Pad: A good sleeping pad provides comfort, but it also has high-tech insulation to prevent you from losing body heat to the cold ground. Big air mattresses, like what your guests sleep on at home, might look temptingly plush, but their lack of insulation will likely leave you feeling chilly. Take a look at specs when comparing sleeping pads, paying close attention to thickness, length, width and insulation value (known as the R-value). For more guidance, read How to Choose a Sleeping Pad. Prefer to be off the ground? Consider bringing a cot as well.

Tip: Setup your tent, bag and pad as soon as you arrive at camp, so you don't have to do it in the dark.

Lighting: Campsites don't have illumination, so you have to bring your own. A flashlight is OK, but a headlamp frees up your hands for camp tasks. A lantern is nice for ambient light. Or you can build a campfire, but research fire restrictions ahead of time. Related reading: How to Choose a Headlamp and How to Choose a Lantern

Tip: If you only want to invest in one type of illumination to start, go with the headlamp. Then, if you want dispersed light for a bit of ambience, add your headlamp to an empty Nalgene bottle. Voilà: You just made your own lantern.

Stove: A classic two-burner propane camp stove should do the trick. You won't spend a fortune, and you can cook breakfast and prepare your morning brew at the same time. Bring at least a couple of fuel canisters and a lighter.

Tip: Test your camp stove in your backyard or patio ahead of your trip to get a feel for how it works. It's easier (and safer) to problem solve at home before you're out in the wilderness.

Cooler: You probably already have a cooler at home that will work just fine for a camping trip. Just be sure you have enough capacity for your perishable food and a few cold ones, along with enough ice to keep 'em chilled. If you're in the market for a new one, there are plenty of options. Some have extra-thick insulation to keep things colder for longer. Others are designed to be worn like backpacks, making them easier to tote from car to campground. Related reading: Best Coolers of 2023: Staff Picks and How to Pack Your Cooler

Tip: Freeze as much of your food as possible before you pack it and let it thaw throughout the day. The frozen items will act as ice blocks and keep the rest of your food cold.

Pots, Plates, Cups and Sporks: You should bring everything necessary for food prep and consumption. You can raid your home kitchen for these items, but leave the fina china at home. You can also invest in camp-specific dinnerware, cutlery and cookware. These items are typically more durable, lightweight and compact than what you would use at home. And unless you plan on taking dirty dishes home, you'll need a scrubber, biodegradable soap, a towel and a small washtub or two (one for dirty, one for clean).

Tip: Pack all your kitchen gear in a large storage bin with a lid. That way, it's all in one place the next time you want to camp.

Camp Chairs: These are optional, but downtime will be a little more enjoyable if you have a comfy place to perch. You can also consider a hammock, which is great for afternoon naps. Related reading: How to Choose a Camp Chair and The Best Camping Chairs of 2023: Tested

Tip: Mesh camp chairs let water drain easily, and they dry quickly if left out in the rain or morning dew.

Illustration of a winter jacket, hat, sock, glove and hiking boot

Clothing

Choosing the right clothing is key to staying warm and comfortable on your camping trip. First, you'll want to factor in the weather. If the forecast includes rain, consider a rain jacket and rain pants. If it's slated to be sunny and hot, bring a hat and UPF clothing. (Related reading: How to Choose Sun-Protection (UPF) Clothing) You'll also want to consider your clothing's materials. Cotton is usually a no-no because wet cotton can make you cold and miserable, even in surprisingly mild weather. Do bring a warm coat, and consider bringing long underwear, gloves, a beanie and warm socks for nighttime (you can tailor this to the weather and how cold or hot you run). Also pack some sturdy shoes with solid traction for any hiking you do around camp. Related reading: What to Wear Hiking

Tip: Pack a pair of cozy slip-ons for relaxing around camp and taking late-night bathroom breaks.

Illustration of a toothbrush, toilet paper and other toiletries

Toiletries

It's easy to overlook the small stuff when packing your gear. But don't forget hygeine products and other toiletries, whether that's prescription medication, a toothbrush or deodorant. You can also bring bandages and other medicines from home, or you can purchase a separate first-aid kit that has comprehensive supplies in a compact case. Always plan for sun and prepare for bugs by bringing sunscreen and insect repellent. Because campground bathrooms sometimes run out of supplies, you should bring your own soap, toilet paper and a small towel. Hand sanitizer is nice to keep in your kitchen area.

Tip: Replenish your first-aid kit after every camping trip to ensure you have what you need for your next outing.

Illustration of a camp stove, trail mix and coffee pot

Meal Planning

Whether you're an accomplished chef (campfire paella anyone?) or a fan of takeout, every new camper can benefit from a little bit of meal prepping and planning. This can be as simple as deciding to grab dinner on the drive to camp, then packing a dehydrated breakfast and lunch sandwich for the following day.

You can go with boxed or canned entrees and side dishes, fresh food or a combination. Be sure to bring plenty of snacks, plus fixings for s'mores.

If you need a morning cup of caffeine, there are plenty of ways to make tea and coffee, from instant options to brewing with a stovetop percolator or teakettle. Related reading: The Best Camp Coffee Makers of 2023: Tested

Tip: Critters that hang around campgrounds are accomplished raiders, so don't leave food or garbage out overnight or unattended. Seal up everything in a large bin anytime you're away from camp and lock it in your vehicle at night. In bear country, check the local regulations—there might be food lockers available if bears in the area have been known to break into vehicles. To learn more, read Food Storage and Handling for Campers and Backpackers.


Illustration of a map and compass

Guided Campouts

If you're feeling hesitant about your first camping trip or want a seasoned camper to show you the ropes, consider starting with a guided trip. REI offers a variety of guided group camping trips in places like Zion National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains. There are even women-specific trips. Not only are these excursions great for exploring a new area and gaining confidence outside, but they provide a chance to meet like-minded friends (and future camping buddies).

Illustration of a campsite sign and a camp faucet

Where to Camp

From national forests to RV parks, the possibilities are endless. Humanity's enthusiasm for camping is also endless, though, so it's best to make your campground reservations well in advance. For more detail about places you can pitch a tent, read Where Can I Camp?

A few tips for securing campsites:

  • Recreation.gov is an online site that covers public lands campsite reservations nationwide.
  • Hipcamp is a great resource for finding and reserving private lands campsites nationwide. Related reading: Find Your Next Adventure with Hipcamp
  • Some campgrounds are only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Booking months ahead isn't required, but it's a good idea to check with the campground to get tips on the best time to show up in order to snag a spot.

You can also camp at a dispersed site, which is any place that allows camping outside of a designated campground. (Related reading: What is Dispersed Camping?) Dispersed camping requires more skills, gear and comfortability outside, so it's not recommended for people new to the activity. Most first-time campers are more at ease in a developed campground.

Tip: For your first camping trip, look for a site with flush toilets and running water. Having these creature comforts will make your first outing a little easier. It's also important to verify whether the water coming from a spigot is treated. If it isn't, you will have to treat the water with a filter or purifier before drinking it. Related reading: How to Treat Water in the Backcountry


Camping Checklist

Packing for your first trip can feel daunting, but having a list of everything you might need can help alleviate some of that stress. That's why we created our Camping Checklist, which includes everything from clothing and hygeine products to camp games and more.

Tip: Print this list and laminate it, then use a dry erase marker to check off items as you pack them. Wipe it clean after, so you can use it each time you gear up for a trip.


camping essential checklist