What Gear Do You Really Need For Camping

Our 'what do you really need' series of protips is designed to help you get outside & save money. We talk honestly & frankly about the purpose that different items are designed to fulfill, as well as help you evaluate your needs, which there isn't always a good formula for, every body is different! Our goal is that you don't feel like you have to spend $100s before every trip buying all new gear, especially when many existing items may work (and for everything else, you can always rent outdoor gear from us)! On our individual gear guides, we also have specific info on alternatives you can use. If you're looking to buy, check out our calculator first to see if it's a good deal!

Let's start & define the 4 basic needs everyone has, in any context, that you need to fulfill outdoors:

  • Shelter
  • Security
  • Water
  • Food (prep)

There are various ways to address each need above, not necessarily with gear (sometimes household items, like bedding, are sufficient). We have comprehensive gear guides, individually linked below, that talk specifically about what you could use to address each (e.g., household item vs outdoor-specific gear), how to choose, how to use the outdoor-specific gear, and more! In this protip, we simplify & highlight the outdoor-specific gear that is generally preferred over household items, and the situations you'd need them for.

Trip type* Non-backpacking
If you can drive to camp, weight & size less of a concern
If you have to walk to camp, you'll want to optimize weight & size
Essential for any trip* Tent
Sleeping bag
Sleeping pad
Sleeping bag
Sleeping pad

A tent is your home away from home & both the sleeping bag + pad are important for warmth & comfort in night. (Don't skip the pad. You'll probably be very uncomfortable & cold, since the bag doesn't insulate well from the bottom, read the gear guide for more info.) That said there are alternatives you can bring from home, rather than getting these specific gear items, click on the gear pages for more info and also on the different styles you may want to bring for non-backpacking vs backpacking trips (where weight & size matter more)

Essential for certain trips Dry bag Bear canister

Dry bags are essential for water-based trips, like kayaking to camp. In bear country, a bearproof storage device is mandated.

At many car campsites, bear lockers are provided, but if you're backpacking out into the wild to set up camp, you'll need to have a portable bear canister to avoid fines

Highly recommended Headlamp Headlamp
Hiking backpack
Water bag and/or Water treatment device

A headlamp is just so much better than a flashlight! Darkness can fall quickly & using one hand to set up a tent or go to the bathroom can be... rough.

Depending on the length of your backpacking trip, you might need a hiking-specific backpack to fit all your stuff (and save your back) & something for water (there's a trade-off between a bag & treatment device, click the gear guides to learn more)

*We recommend a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad as the essential 3 for most anyone. But of course, it's all personalized, if you click into each gear guide, you can learn about strategies for camping without a traditional tent, sleeping bag, or pad

That's it?! What about all those things that people buy & talk about? What about food?

Truthfully, in terms of gear, the minimum essentials are mostly for Shelter & Security. Depending on your trip, you may be able to bring the entirety of your Food & Water with you. That means you don't have to get stoves, cookware, coolers, or water treatment devices (though of course if you can rent for a few dollars from Last Minute Gear, might as well). For example:

  • I, the author, have spent a 3 day moderately difficult backpacking trip entirely surviving on energy bars & some trail mix
  • We at Last Minute Gear have had customers do a backpacking trip with a full on portable stove & 12 inch skillet because they were planning on cooking steaks!
  • Even car campers who drive right into the site might not cook, and just prepare sandwiches
  • Many ultralight backpackers consider a stove too heavy. They bring backpacking meals but rehydrate them using cold methods (kind of like overnight oats or cold-brewed coffee)

When it comes to gear, it's all based on you (and your companions)...

  • Your itinerary (what resources are available at camp or on trail? is it hard or easy)
  • Your experience & skill level
  • Your preferences & the experience you want to have (do you eat or drink a lot? do you want hot food?)
  • Your budget

Only you should be answering these questions, or else you might not like the result of what someone else plans for you! (Most of my friends, for example, don't want to eat energy bars for 3 days straight. In case you're wondering, I had about 20.)

If you must have a list, especially for backpacking which is more technical, you should get pretty much one of every item on our Catalog page in the Backpacking sub-category! At Last Minute Gear, we try hard to focus on the essentials, rather than throwing hundreds of products at you. We're not here to sell you gear--we're here to get you outside.