Shopping for camping gear can be overwhelming (and expensive) but it doesn’t have but with some patience and good tips on what to buy, it doesn’t have to be!
I’ve been fortunate enough to have grown up camping so I have a lot of experience sleeping outside. However, it wasn’t until I was a broke college student that I started purchasing my own gear. And even though I have a steady job, I’m still thrifty and always looking for a good deal.
From the Walmart basics that have lasted me 8 years, to the big splurges that are actually worth it, here’s a look at what you need (and don’t) for camping.
Disclaimer: This blog contains affiliate links which means I earn a small percentage of every purchase at no cost to you.
Muti-purpose camping gear is the way to go
I love all types of camping – tent camping, car camping (sleeping in our Rav4), and backpacking! While it’s all camping, sleeping in or near your car and carrying your gear on your back for miles until you reach your campsite, are two very different things. With backpacking, the weight of your gear is very important.
So whether I’m going camping for a couple of nights in a campground (read about camping in Yosemite for my honeymoon) or backpacking 10 miles into a canyon, I want to have gear that does it all! It saves me money and closet space and allows me to spend more on higher-quality items.
Let’s talk quality camping gear
Like most things in life, quality over quantity. It’s the same thing with outdoor gear. Think about it – your gear is what’s keeping you fed, sheltered, clothed and protected while in nature. So while purchasing quality gear adds up quickly, it will last you a very long time!
But I get it – camping is expensive (every outdoor hobby I have is expensive lol) and it’s not always feasible to drop several hundred dollars on gear. So, here’s how I get my gear.
How I get camping gear
I am here to tell you that it is possible to get all of the camping gear you need – you just have to take it slow, shop wisely and know what you really need.
Even though I grew up camping, when I started camping with my friends in college, I didn’t own any gear. Until graduating college, I borrowed gear my parents had and gratefully took in hand-me-downs from an old neighbor (thanks, Andy!).
It wasn’t until my husband (then boyfriend) and I got last minute tickets to backpack to Havasupai, did we buy our own camping gear. In one trip, we purchased backpacking backpacks, a tent, kitchen gear, hiking boots, and sleeping pads. It was a very expensive trip to REI. But luckily, we went during their annual sale and got great deals on our backpacks and tent that we still use to this day.
Speaking of REI, we love their Garage Sales. You have to have a $ 20-lifetime membership to shop them but a couple of times a year, REI retail stores sell returned clothing, shoes, and camping gear for a majorly discounted price (like 60-80% off). That’s where we have picked up boots, down jackets, headlamps, sleeping bags and more!
If your location doesn’t offer Garage Sales, it’s worth checking out the used gear section on their website. I would also suggest checking out Backcountry – you get 15% off your first order with them!
In addition to shopping the sales and buying used, I have slowly added to my collection with birthdays and Christmas. So it might take some time, but eventually, you will have everything you need. I recommend out checking out this one and this one.
The camping gear basics you need
This is one thing that we have purchased several times because we didn’t have the money for our current bags in college. But that’s okay because we’ve lent out our extras out to friends and family!
Our first sleeping bags were purchased from Costco and were wonderfully affordable! We purchased our current sleeping bags during an REI sale and made sure they were fit for backpacking (I.e. lightweight). While they are both discontinued, I can tell you that they are mummy style bags with a tested lower limit of 30 degrees (F).
Like I said, we are multi-use-gear people so our tent is suited for backpacking. We have used the two-person REI Co-Op Half Dome 2 tent since 2016 and really like it. It can be pitched and taken down by one person, is lightweight, breathable, has lots of convenient mesh pockets on the inside, and features two doors.
If you’re looking for something more affordable, we got our very first tent from Walmart for about $50. It’s held up well and is excellent for traditional camping trips (and when we want more room than we get in our backpacking tent).
This was another item that we purchased a couple of times. Our first sleeping pads were from Big 5 and they just okay. I believe they were the same price as the ones we currently use and love. We like that they are lightweight and actually easy to blow up and put back into the tiny stuff sack when you are done with them! And when we want some extra comfort, or know it’s going to be a cold night, we bring along these foam pads.
TIP: REI sells our backpacking tent in a bundle with a sleeping bag and sleeping pad for less than $300. The bundle ends up saving you $50 and is a great starter kit!
This is one item that we have two of because we don’t like cooking on a tiny backpacking stove when we don’t have to!
Our tent camping stove is a two-burner that we picked up at Walmart and it’s held up well for about 8 years.
While there are fancy backpacking stoves, we like this one from Amazon. It’s around $20 and held up for 4 years of trips.
We got this GSI Outdoors cooking set as a wedding gift and I’m OBSESSED with it. It’s tiny, yet has literally everything you will ever need! We also have this pot from GSI that we love for all types of camping!
A final piece of camping gear that you’ll need is a good headlamp. My husband and I got ours for dirt cheap at REI’s Garage Sale but even full price, this Black Diamond headlamp is rechargeable and only $20.
A list of basic camping gear that you don’t *need* (but will want)
Ohh there are few things I love better than laying in a hammock with a book in the woods! There are a ton of awesome hammock companies out there at variety of price points. I got the Eno Doublenest hammock for my birthday a couple of years ago and love it.
I use the Osprey Aura Ag 50 Pack for women, which holds 50 liters. I LOVE this backpack! Every time I get to use it, I get excited because it is so innovative and comfortable! This pack has anti-gravity technology which helps balance heavy loads and provides cooling comfort through a mesh backing. One awesome feature of this pack is there is a removable compartment at the top so it could be used as a day pack. I’m all about gear with multiple functions!
When buying a backpack, I recommend trying one on in-store to make sure you get the right fit. For reference, I’m 5’8, 135 pounds, and have a medium.
A cooler will really change your camping game! For years, we used cheap soft-sided coolers that couldn’t hold ice. We mentioned to our parents that we needed one and ended up getting two for Christmas! We have this super cute one from Coleman and a Yeti. Even though the Coleman is half the price, they work the same.
A camp chair
We were gifted these nifty camp chairs for Christmas last year and we love them!!! They are surprisingly comfortable, are easy to put together, and are light enough to take backpacking.
TIP: These chairs almost always go on 50% off sale around the holidays!
These storage buckets were a hand-me-down from our old neighbor and they are perfect for the people like me who love to be organized. We have two: one contains all of our cooking stuff and the other is used as needed. Sometimes we fill it with food, other times, it’s where we keep all of our bedding on long road trips. No matter how you use them, they are amazing and very durable!
As basic as it is, this blue water jug was the most recent addition to our car camping gear collection. Before our jug (which can be bought just about anywhere), we filled up all the reusable water bottles we had. 😅 It was a PAIN! Now, we just fill this up at the gas station on our way out of town and never have to worry about running low on water.
What’s cozy, lightweight and folds into the size of my nalgine? My down blanket!
I don’t go on any backpacking or camping trips without a down blanket. My favorite way to use it is to shove it *inside* my sleeping bag to provide extra cozy insulation. And if I’m warm enough, I’ll roll it up to use as a pillow (instead of using my dirty clothes as a pillow). It’s another great multi-use piece of gear that I couldn’t live without.
I’m sorry to say I couldn’t find a link to mine (I got it on sale at Costco a couple of years ago) but here is a similar one at REI.
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There are few things I love more than spending time in nature. So while gear can be expensive, I view it as an investment – in my mental health, my memories and my time spent with friends and family. I hope this article helped you prepare for future camping trips and provided you insight on what you really need for camping.
In your opinion, did I miss anything that you can’t go camping without? Let me know in the comments and feel free to ask any questions you have!