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Camping checklist: everything you need for a successful trip

Make sure you have everything you need with this camping checklist
(Image credit: Getty)

Whether you create your camping checklist as a colour-coded spreadsheet or jot notes on the back of your hand while stuffing things almost randomly into a backpack, kit lists should always be compiled according to the conditions you’re expecting to encounter on an upcoming trip. 

Although its obvious function is to make sure you don’t forget things, a good camping checklist is also a great way to get excited about a trip

On a purely practical level, a camping checklist is the best planning tool for ranking items as ‘essential’, ‘necessary’ or ‘luxury’. To find the sweet spot between carrying everything you need and nothing you don’t, aim to take everything in the first (ideally short) category, most of the ‘necessary’ stuff, but only add ‘luxuries’ if the pleasure they’ll bring measurably outweighs the effort of carrying them.

Of course, if you are car camping, then weight is much less of a consideration – and you can go nuts and bring as many toys as you can fit into the vehicle. Our first item on the car camping checklist is always a set of large plastic containers for stashing stuff neatly in – including, for the end of the trip, one designated for dirty/wet gear you’d rather deal with back home.

But for backpacking adventures, the choice of any one piece of kit can impact on what else you might take or leave behind; for instance, carrying a lighter sleeping bag can be offset by taking more layers of clothing, which are also useful when you’re not in your bag. Camping checklists can help work out that kind of trade-off, and for that reason, always start with the big and critical stuff – shelter and sleeping – and work down to smaller or less essential items.

Finally, when you return from a camping trip, it can be instructive to go back over your checklist to note which pieces really were essential, which could be replaced or improved and – often most useful – what proved completely unnecessary or under-used, and so could be left behind in the future. That information can feed into future checklists and improve your next adventure. 

SHELTER

The adventure you’re planning will suggest the first item on your camping checklist; what you’re going to be sleeping in. With shelter, as with all kit, you often have to decide between specialist items that do one job brilliantly – a particular high-tech tent, for example – and kit that can be used in multiple ways, such as a tarp-poncho and bivvy bag combination, or a hammock and flysheet. What you choose will have a bearing on most of your other kit choices, making your camping checklist a dynamic work.

Your checklist style will dictate whether you put in separate headings for pegs, hammock ropes or tarp bungees, or just scribble ‘bivvy bag’ and move on.

SLEEPING

Choices of sleeping kit will be affected by what shelter you’ve opted for. Tents – especially small, double-layer tents – retain some of your warmth if correctly pitched. So do bivvy bags, but only if roomy enough to let your sleeping bag loft properly. Tarps, however cunningly set up, don’t keep much heat in.

So, with sleeping bags you’ll be considering whether to take one with warmer, lighter (and more expensive) down filling, which is useless if it gets wet (though modern hydrophobic treatments are changing that), or a bag with artificial fill which is heavier and bulkier to carry, but remains an adequate insulator even if soaked. Overall though, more warmth always costs in weight, and no bag is actually comfortable when soaked, so get your shelter right for the expected – and unexpected but possible – trip conditions.

Tip: A sleeping bag liner – silk, especially – adds warmth, and can be washed far more easily than a sleeping bag after a trip.

Closed-cell foam sleeping mats are bulky but cheap, close to indestructible, light and versatile (they can also be cut up for padding or used as a stove wind-break). Inflatable mats – such as those made by Thermarest, Alpkit, Vango, Mountain Equipment etc – have had the cold spots, bounce and slow leaks of the old-style lilo knocked out of them by new technology and new materials, but remain vulnerable to puncturing. Pick a mat for the climate and conditions you expect.

PACK

The bulk you end up with after making your tent and sleeping kit choices will set the parameters for what size backpack you’re going to need. Innovations in pack design, particularly in weight saving (Osprey, OM) and in waterproofing to drybag level (Sea to Summit) might threaten your favourite old-style backpack, but not necessarily; carrying weight in too-light backpacks is far from comfortable whatever the temptation to shave ounces. Don’t skimp on volume because wrestling all your kit into a too-small backpack every morning will drive you mad.

Tip: Put a full-size drybag liner inside your backpack, and then smaller drybags inside that again for delicate items you really don’t want to get damp, like sleeping bags.

Drybags aside, organising kit inside your pack can be as simple and cheap as using Zip-loc bags, or light storage bags, preferably using different colours for quick identification.

A super-light daypack is always useful – especially slung over your front to carry extra food to camp or for side-trips. Sea To Summit’s ultra-sil pack compresses to the size of a tangerine.

KITCHEN

How you’re going to be preparing food – on an open fire, camping stove or just eaten cold and raw – has a bearing on whether you need fuel, lighters/matches and maintenance kits. Your heat source and your culinary ambitions also affect what other kitchen kit you need.

Pots and pans can double up as bowls if you’re weight saving. Nesting sets save space. A one-pot solution can be a single three-quarter litre pot (the MSR Titan is a good example) big enough to cook for one, and use as a (big) mug.

An aluminium or titanium spoon with a long handle can shovel most foods into your mouth as well as stirring and turning cooking food. A separate knife for preparing food – or just getting into those pesky vacuum packs – can be far smaller and lighter than your everyday carry. Few tins need a tin opener nowadays, but some do – and ditto with some bottles needing a corkscrew – so a Swiss army knife/multitool is always a potential lifesaver.

Food

Working out your meals for a backpacking trip might require a whole new list. A lot of people put a huge emphasis on travelling light, but enjoying a warm feast at the end of a day on the trails is a sublime pleasure, so don’t skimp too much.

Pre-prepared dehydrated or freeze-dried meals are one option, and there are some excellent options out there these days, but some backpackers prefer to DIY their menu. Either way, a small bottle of Tabasco sauce or some herbs and spices can inject a new level of flavour to any meal, and they weigh very little.

Tip: Zip-loc bags are good for storing dry ingredients such as tea bags and mixed salt and pepper, and they can be reused.

Hydration

Modern hydration packs are robust and generously proportioned, but carrying enough water for an entire camping trip is a very heavy exercise. Depending on where you’re travelling you might consider a filter system (LifeStraw, Katadyn, Steripen, Sawyer Mini), or chemical water treatments to ensure you have enough safe drinking water for all your needs.

Tip: Water containers such as Nalgene bottles can be filled with boiling water at night, used (carefully!) as a sleeping-bag warmer on colder nights, and will be there ready and full of perfectly safe drinking water for the next day.

If you can’t get out of your sleeping bag in the morning without the Siren-like call of caffeine, then various camping-appropriate coffee makers are available, from simple cafetières to barista-pleasing, dedicated kits including grinders, Aeropresses and Italian-style ‘moka’ pressure brewers, complete with milk heating tubes designed for camping stoves.

Leave no trace

Don’t forget a sponge-scourer (or other cleaning material), and above all a waste bag (a tough plastic bag, or better, an old drybag that won’t leak, has a solid closure and can be reused) to take out everything you brought in.

Camping checklist

(Image credit: Getty)

PRACTICALITIES

Main torch

Headlamps are the most practical option – powered by replaceable or rechargeable batteries (depending on personal choice and where you travelling). A red light option for preserving night vision when map reading is a definite plus.

Knife

Needed for cooking, medical matters, (think more cutting medical tape rather than a DIY appendectomy here), cutting cord, whittling pot-stirrers and an infinity of other camping tasks. Legally and practically you’re as well off with a small but strong and well-designed knife than a huge ‘survival’ style blade.

Spares and repairs

A hank of paracord, some duct tape (wrap a length around a water bottle or pencil to save weight and space), a few cable ties and a needle and thread can all save the day.

Trekking poles

Excellent, of course, for use on the trail, but also surprisingly handy around the campsite for setting up tarps, extra shelter and drying lines.

HYGIENE AND HEALTH

Making like a bear is usually a fact of life when you’re camping (at least outside of commercial sites) so be prepared. Take unscented/untreated plain toilet paper in a ziplock bag and possibly a trowel for digging a cat hole (sticks usually work too).  Fine. If it’s safe to burn the used paper, you’ll need a lighter. If following full Leave No Trace principles, make sure you have the necessary to carry out your waste hygenically. Take eco-friendly handwash.

Your wash kit will include all those products and items you reckon you need in the outdoors, whether that’s just basic soap and toothpaste or a whole range of unguents, lotions and perfumes – it’s subjective, but try and use eco-friendly potions where possible (they make you more beautiful). Tweezers and scissors are very useful tools for all sorts of things.

Tip: Using refillable and reusable containers full of products from your own home-sized bottles is better ecologically (and cheaper) than buying ‘travel size’ products.

Having a cotton sheet towel or large-sized microfibre towel is handy, especially if you’re a wild swimmer, and towels (as fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy well know) have tens of other uses (sling, picnic blanket, sarong).

Sunglasses and insect repellent are the yin to the yang of wet-weather gear; when you need them, you really need them. And in some locations – Scottish highlands, Scandinavia, New Zealand during midges/mosquito season – life will be almost unbearable without some defence against the locals. A tick remover is always a good thing to have to hand.

In these Covid-19 times carry a reusable mask to use in shops or when interacting with people.

Safety

Careful choice of basic everyday kit (clothing for all weathers, shelter, navigation equipment) should help you avoid emergency situations. As does knowing your options, if any, for bailing out of a trip or changing plans if the weather is far worse than expected, or if other unexpected events throw up challenges. But still consider the following items, especially on remote camping trips.

  • A first aid kit appropriate to your needs and the trip, with the knowledge needed to use it.
  • Communications and emergency navigation system (a very personal area as there are issues around reliance on phone signals, the ability to call out a full-scale rescue for something relatively minor, and over-reliance on GPS units – but then camping checklists are all about personal experience and choice).
  • An emergency bivvy bag can be a life saver, especially for backcountry and wilderness travel.
  • Back-up flashlight/torch with flash/signal capability.

Tech

Once camping tech was a film camera and a few coins for a pay phone. Now for many people it’s a key part of their equipment and spans everything from smart phones, tablets, GPS units and watches to the separate power-storage devices and solar charging units that are required to keep it all working.

Tech kit is fragile so it requires protection (drybags or Pelican cases) and usually needs extras, (chargers, micro-SD cards cables, connections or whatever else) – make sure you bring the right peripherals, because forgetting just one element can render it useless dead weight.

Technical kit is also the most personal of choices. Some people revel in the chance to take none and get away from it all, others put all their faith in their phone for camera, navigation, communication and entertainment. We would advise always having a back-up system.

Luxuries

Right down at the end of the camping checklist you put the stuff that you really don’t need, but which makes life under canvas that little bit nicer (you are doing this for recreational purposes, after all). This is a catch-all part of the list, and of course it’s very subjective. For one person that might be an MP3 player, maybe, or bottle of whiskey, a sit-mat or pack of cards. This writer has often gone to extreme lengths to cut weight and bulk when setting off on a multi-day walk, and then happily added books and binoculars for birdwatching, and – more than once – have set off with a travel-sized guitar slung over one shoulder.