When you go camping, there are a few camping must-haves that shouldn’t be left behind. Sure, there’s food, water, shelter, and clothing. But what about all of the other gear?
What do you need to make your time in the great outdoors comfortable, enjoyable, and safe?
Here is a list of 37 popular car camping must-have items: some essential camping supplies and some just-for-fun camping accessories to help you have an amazing time on your next camping trip.
- Shelter and Sleeping Must-Haves
- Camp Cooking and Eating Must-Haves
- First-Aid and Safety Must-Haves
- Camping Comfort Must-Haves
- Hygiene Camping Must-Haves
- Inclement Weather Must-Haves
- Entertainment Must-Haves
- Camping Tool Must-Haves
- Let’s Wrap Things Up
Shelter and Sleeping Must-Haves
1. Tent (with Footprint and Rainfly)
With the exception of hammock-campers, this one is at the top of most camping gear lists.
There are many tent styles and sizes available, so make sure you choose the one that fits your and your family’s needs.
For instance, if you prefer warm weather camping, opt for a three-season tent because it offers better ventilation. However, for winter campers, a four-season tent is better for keeping warm.
Make sure your tent is equipped with a reinforced floor or tent footprint as well as a rainfly if it is not built in.
Check out our post on Best Instant Tents of 2022 for some great ideas!
2. Sleeping Bag
Second only to the tent, the sleeping bag is an essential piece of camping gear for keeping warm and comfortable through the night.
Of course, the options are plenty, and your choice depends on preference and climate.
Need extra space? Rectangular sleeping bags are for you. Need a snugger fit? Try the mummy bag.
And of course, a double sleeping bag provides an opportunity for getting roasty-and-toasty with that certain someone. Woo-woo!
Hey, cut that out! This is a family show!
3. Sleeping Pad
Any self-respecting camping gear list must have a sleeping pad. Whether an inflatable or foam pad, this piece of camping gear prevents the morning grumps by keeping your shoulders and hip bones from drilling straight through the earth’s bedrock all night.
A good sleeping pad will do more than soften your time on the ground, it will also provide added insulation during chilly nights. If space is an issue, opt for an inflatable sleeping pad that can deflate and roll up to an efficient compact size.
4. Camping Pillow
Speaking of preventing the morning grumps: get a camping pillow! It will elevate your neck and head so you can wake up humming to the tune of “It’s a Wonderful World” rather than “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend.”
A good camping pillow can be inflatable, made from self-lofting poly-fil, or memory foam.
Oh, and, be sure to get a pillow that’s washable, ’cause it will get funky after a few trips.
While a tent is a more practical option for families with young children, those with older children may consider hammocks as a great addition to their camping essentials.
Hammocks are more versatile than tents in that they are better for midday naps in warm weather and dry out faster after a good rain. They also clean up easier (since they are suspended from the dusty or muddy ground) and pack down smaller than a tent.
When camping in cool weather, lining the hammock with a good sleeping bag will transform it into a toasty cocoon.
We recommend the Firiner Camping Hammock: it includes a rainfly and mosquito net.
Camp Cooking and Eating Must-Haves
Some of today’s best camping gear and cutting-edge camping gadgets fall in the mess (cooking and eating) category. Food always tastes better when you’re camping … if you have the right gear!
6. Camping Cookware Set
Cooking for car campers can either be fun or absolute misery. Equipping your camp kitchen with a few kitchen essentials will ensure that you and the meal are something your family wants to be around at dinner time!
A good cookware set includes everything you need to prepare a meal including a pot, skillet, cooking spoon, and spatula.
Many camping cookware kits don’t include cutlery. To complete the kit, check out our Best Camping Knife Guide when selecting a solid folding or fixed blade pocket knife for camping.
7. Camping Mess Kit
A list of must-have camping gear is incomplete without eating utensils … unless eating soup with a stick is your idea fun.
A good mess kit will have enough plates, bowls, forks, knives and spoons to go around.
If you plan to cook with fresh ingredients such as raw meats and fresh vegetables and want to keep some frosty beverages … well, frosty … get a GOOD cooler.
A GOOD cooler doesn’t have to traumatize your wallet. The Coleman Xtreme 5-Day Cooler can get the job done in 80°- 90°F for less than $100.
9. Camping Stove
No morning on a family camping trip is complete without a cup of hot coffee and an ol’ fashioned skillet breakfast
And a hot meal after a long day of hiking, swimming, and kayaking … oh yeah. Life is good!
The most popular camping stoves run on propane, have two burners, and can be set up virtually anywhere making meal prep for a family more efficient.
Our personal favorite is the classic Coleman Two-Burner Triton Camping Stove.
10. Camp Coffee Percolator
Coffee was never meant to be instant. Whatever those brown crusty bits are in a cup of Maxwell House … that ain’t coffee.
Compliment your camp stove with a basic coffee percolator and take some fresh-ground coffee beans in an airtight container.
Or, for my fellow coffee-snobs out there, equip yourself with a portable espresso maker.
While other campers are gagging down their instant dirt-water, you’ll be getting your morning jolt from something Starbucks couldn’t hold a candle to.
11. Roasting Sticks
One of the best camping accessories ever invented was the indispensable roasting stick.
Instead of one person cooking for everyone, divvy out the franks or sausages, or lay out the fixings for DIY shish-kabobs and let everyone cook their own!
Break out the marshmallows and wash it all down with some s’mores … like I said, best camping accessory ever.
If you ever want to sabotage your own camping trip, leave the lighter at home.
While most camp stoves have an integrated push-button lighter, they have been known to fail. And that campfire you plan on having tonight won’t happen unless you’re good with a flint-and-steel or can rub sticks like Bear Gryllis.
Get a good water-and-wind-proof lighter. Keep it handy. Good advice.
13. Collapsible Sink
Here’s a bad idea: convince yourself that you can wash all those dishes and cookware from the family meal EFFECTIVELY with that cold water coming out of the campground spigot.
Cleaning up after a family-sized camping meal is the absolute pits without a collapsible sink or bucket.
Warm up some water on the camp stove and add it to some cooler water in the collapsible sink. Add some biodegradable camp soap.
Wash. Dry. Be happy.
14. Water Purifier
A water purifier is truly essential if you are camping where potable water is not accessible (i.e., many National Forests).
Otherwise, this is a convenience. Still, having one on hand for emergencies is a smart move.
15. Reusable Water Bottle
PLEASE don’t pack along cases of disposable plastic water bottles! Whether they make it into a trash can or not, these have become a global environmental threat.
Each member of your family should have their own reusable water bottle or hydration pack to carry with them on hikes or while around the campsite.
This is responsible, cost-effective, and all-around much better than introducing more plastic into our environment.
First-Aid and Safety Must-Haves
16. First-Aid Kit(s)
Out of all the camping gear on your list, the First-Aid Kit(s) must be prioritized, familiarized, and maintained before ever leaving home.
We recommend keeping a family-sized First-Aid Kit at the campsite while packing a smaller First-Aid Kit in each adult’s backpack for outings.
While most common camping injuries are minor cuts, bruises, insect bites, and burns, a small injury in the outdoors can become a major problem if left untreated.
I’ll say it: Sunburns suck.
Even on an overcast day, UV rays can wreak havoc on unprotected skin when outside all day leaving a person miserable and exhausted.
Keep everyone happy. Apply generously and often.
18. Insect Repellant
Itchy red bug bites are just as sucky as sunburns.
Select a repellant that is all-natural and free of harmful chemicals like DEET.
There are also repellants for your tent. These are applied to the surface of the tent so you don’t have to worry about those buggers sneaking into your sleep space when the door flap is open.
Spray, spray, spray.
19. Flashlight and Headlamp
We’ve dedicated a whole post to the Best Camping Flashlights. Have a look!
It’s ideal to ensure every responsible family member has one on their person at all times. Smaller children can be given an LED light stick with a neck lanyard to help them keep up with it.
To make cooking and searching for gear in the dark easier, grab a good LED headlamp to keep both your hands-free. Your non-stubbed toes will thank you.
20. Portable Power Station
In the outdoors, your cell phone becomes more of a piece of safety equipment than a convenience. Keep it charged.
Many power banks can charge multiple ways. We recommend selecting one that can charge via DC in your car and via equipped solar panels.
Camping Comfort Must-Haves
This is camping we’re talking about. Not survival school. It’s cool to be comfy.
21. Camping Chairs
Natural seating arrangements in your typical campsite consist of pointy boulders, bumpy logs, and the good ol’ dusty earth. Maybe a stiff ol’ picnic table.
Do your back, bum, and family an epic favor and take along some comfy camp chairs.
We’ve got some great suggestions in our Best Camping Rocking Chair post!
Your bum … and family … will love you.
22. Portable Table(s)
Not all campgrounds are equipped with picnic tables. And not all meals can be eaten (gracefully) while standing.
Plus, you’ll need a surface to prepare meals on.
There are tons of innovative folding table designs that are lightweight and don’t take up too much space when stored.
23. Portable Fire Pit
Most campgrounds provide an in-ground fire ring. Some don’t.
A portable, light-weight fire pit is a convenient option, especially if you’re just having a one-night backyard campout!
Hygiene Camping Must-Haves
You can rough it without smelling like it. It doesn’t hurt to get a little dirty; in fact, it can be more healthy than staying super-clean all the time.
Still, please think about the other people in the tent.
24. Wipes and Sanitizers
Not to scare off the germ-a-phobes out there; but, your hands come into contact with a lot of things when you’re camping.
And little kids mine for nuggets in the wild just as often as they do at home.
Camp boogers. Ew.
Since not all campground facilities are equipped for a respectable hand-washing, it’s wise to bring your own hand wipes and sanitizer.
25. Portable Camping Shower
A solar camping shower may not be a must-have if the campgrounds you are staying at provides showers. Check the park or campground website to determine if this is something you need.
Then, ask your family if it’s something YOU need.
26. Camping Towels
Here’s a veteran-camper wisdom-nugget: everything takes longer to dry when you’re camping.
If you thought taking along your plush Egyptian cotton bath towels was a good idea, you’re in for a funky surprise.
Camping towels are engineered to be super absorbant, quick-drying, and compact.
Get ya some.
Camp breath is a real mood killer.
There’s a whole community of health-conscious people out there who have sworn off all deodorants, even the natural plant-based varieties.
I support them 100%.
As long as they camp downwind.
Inclement Weather Must-Haves
Sometimes the weather cooperates. Sometimes …
29. Portable Fan
Spend one night in Joshua Tree National Park in the dead of June and you’ll know why this can be considered essential.
Moving air is better than stale air, especially if it’s warm. More so if it’s humid.
A good battery-powered or rechargeable fan will make sleeping on warm, humid nights less like sleeping in a giant armpit and more like …well, not an armpit.
30. Portable Heater
Now, try camping overnight in Rocky Mountain National Park in March.
The next time you tell yourself that you’re too tough for a portable camp heater, reminisce about your time as a human popsicle.
Helpful Tip: Be sure you understand how to use a propane-powered heater inside of a tent before doing so. Read the instructions carefully!
31. Rain Jacket
All frequent campers know it: eventually, the rain will find you.
You may be a mile from the trailhead or ten feet from your tent. Still, inevitably, something will get left outside in the pouring rain and you’ll have to run out and save it.
Keep yourself dry while rain-proofing the campsite. Get a rain jacket.
Entertainment becomes more of a must-have for longer camping trips.
For those days on the trip you want to just kick back: no strenuous hiking, exploring, or … anything … you need something to keep the kids engaged and having a good time, too.
Check out our 51+ Best Things to Do While Camping to prevent the “I’M BORED” alarm from going off.
Camping Tool Must-Haves
Trust me: neglecting to pack the following items will cause your ratings as an effective camping trip planner to plummet.
Earn camp cred. Pack it!
32. Camping Knife
Consider this: when camping, a simple fixed-blade knife can be used for:
- preparing food
- eating food
- administering first aid (cutting clothing, etc.)
- cutting paracord (for numerous applications)
- shaving tinder
- cutting kindling
- repairing camp equipment
- crafting other tools
- opening cans
- opening bottles
- clearing a campsite of brush
- cutting fishing line
- cleaning fish
- self defense
Need one? We poured a ton of research into our post on Best Camping Knives. Check it out!
33. Camping Shovel
A camping shovel is more of a multipurpose tool. A worthwhile one will be equipped with features that allow it to be used in numerable situations, even emergencies.
34. Compass and Map
While maps of established State and National Parks, National Forests, and preserves will have published maps available on-site (or online), you’ll need to procure your own compass.
Get a good one (not the one woven into your survival bracelet) and learn how to use it.
Every member of your family that is capable of carrying their own gear should be equipped with a backpack or hydration pack.
Anytime you leave the campsite, be sure it is packed with:
- sufficient water
- sufficient food
- first aid
- safety whistle
- personal identification
- flashlight with extra batteries
- charged cell phone
- bug spray.
We’ve reviewed the Best Hydration Packs for Kids on the market. Check it out!
36. Durable Footwear
If you plan to do any exploring beyond the bounds of your campsite, be sure to equip yourself with footwear that is appropriate for the weather and terrain.
Save the flops and the Crocs for the campsite.
37. Weather Appropriate Clothes
Pull up the weather forecast for the area you will be camping in. Be sure that each member of your family has clothing suitable for any type of weather you may encounter.
Let’s Wrap Things Up
I have been on countless camping trips (alone and with family) for over 25 years. My list of must-haves changes with each trip depending on where I’m going, how long I’ll be out, and who I’ll be with.
This list is much less exhaustive than my Essential Camping Checklist for Families. I encourage you to read through it as you’re composing your own list, thoughtfully considering what items you’ll need or not for your particular situation.
Be safe. Have fun.
Now, get out there!