If you’re considering becoming a first-time camper (and more power to you!) you’re probably wondering exactly where to start. I’m here to help!
You’re probably not going to find me back-country camping off the Appalachian Trail any time soon, but I do thoroughly enjoy the memories we make when my family goes car camping a few times a year. Being out in the woods, cooking over a campfire, and sleeping under the stars (however uncomfortably, TBH) — there’s just nothing quite like unplugging and getting away from it all. Together.
That said, it can be an expensive hobby to start.
If you’re trying camping for the first time, borrow gear from a friend or rent it from a sporting goods store nearby before you buy. Then, once you’re ready to start making some purchases, I would start with these 8 affordable camping essentials.
This is by no means a complete packing list for your trip. You’ll still need bug spray and extra batteries, toilet paper and cooking utensils — you get the picture. But you probably have those kinds of things around the house already.
Instead, these are the items you probably don’t already own but will want to add to your camping gear collection over time, to ensure you have a safe and very fun time making memories with your kids.
CMP is an rstyle affiliate
1. A basic family tent (with a ground cover)
The most basic item you need is, of course, a good family tent. This particular 10-person Wenzel tent is huge, and so is the discount on Amazon right now.
Of course, you can click around to find the size you really need. I like to get them bigger than the actual number of campers, so we have plenty of room to be comfortable.
That said, if you’re all about the throw-back vibe of camping, you might like Wenzel’s Shenanigan 5-person tent, shown at very top. They recently sent us this teepee style tent to try out for editorial consideration, and I’m very impressed with the price and quality. It sets up very easily with plenty of room for us. And at 11’x10′, it gives you nearly double the square footage of Coleman’s popular 4-Person Sundome tent (9’x7′), and the Wenzel only costs a little bit more.
But honestly, if you’re camping for the first time, borrow any tent at all provided you have enough room for the family. Just be sure t bring along some kind of good ground cover to lay under the tent to keep you and your gear dry.
2. A comfortable sleeping pad
In my opinion, investing in a good night’s sleep is more important than anything else on your supply list — except maybe that bug spray and first aid kit! Even for my very first time out, I’d spend my money on this Hybern 8 Ultralight self-inflating sleeping pad from EcoTek. It slides right inside your sleeping bag, cushioning you from the ground overnight. And you can use it again at home, whenever your kids “camp out” on the floor with friends or cousins.
That said, you probably don’t need one for every family member. I’d invest in these for the adults, and let the kids rough it with a pile of blankets or some yoga mats we already have.
Or if you have a Dock-a-Tot for a baby or toddler (if you’re daring enough t o take your little one camping!), or a preschool nap mat or even yoga mat at home, bring them along too. After a day of running around outside, it’s not going to be too hard for the kids to fall asleep.
3. A warm sleeping bag
A sleeping bag is a pretty basic necessity for camping, and good ones can be pricey. So skip the bags made for sub-zero temperatures if you’re a first-time camper. This Coleman sleeping bag will keep you warm on nights as cool as 30º F, so it’s all you need. Plus, it fits adults as tall as 6′ 4″ — for under $40!
If you’re camping out on a warm night, you might be fine with just a blanket and sheet. But I assure you, your kids are going to want the sleeping bag no matter what. This basic Wenzel sleeping bag is just their size, and right in my price range. (Tip: It’s 50% off right now, so grab the deal while you can.)
4. Basic cooking equipment
What are you planning to eat? Start there and plan. If you’re good enjoying burgers and hot dogs, all you’ll need is a basic camp grill like this one, from Texsport, plus I highly recommend picking up telescoping skewers. They’re also great for s’mores, by the way. Yum!
That said, if you love cooking and want to try some delicious campfire recipes — dutch oven cake, anyone? — then a cast iron dutch oven is an essential for me. It’s heavy and can be pricey, depending on the size you get, but yours will last forever. In my opinion, if you’re going to camp more than once, this is a must-have.
5. Comfy chairs
The best part of camping for me is sitting around the fire, chatting with your kids in the moonlight. And a comfortable chair makes you want to linger longer. You don’t need to invest in an ultralight chair, unless you’re planning to do some serious hiking, so I think this Coleman cooler chair, complete with a cup holder and insulated pocket to keep your beer or LaCroix on ice, is perfect. And right now, it’s more than 60% off, whoo!
For the kids, we’ve found kid-sized camping chairs, like these from Mountain Warehouse, in the clearance bin at our local sporting goods store. You might check there first or you can hit Amazon or your favorite box store.
I know it may sound like an indulgence to get chairs for camping but trust me, it really makes it sooooo much more enjoyable — especially if your alternatives are small pointy rocks or wet ground after a surprise rainfall. Plus, you’ll get to use your chairs so many other times too. Just, get them. Really.Alternative: My kids’ favorite fun way to hang around the campsite is in their own kid-sized hammocks from Sluice. Plus when we’re not camping, we get tons of backyard use out of them.
6. Lighting for every part of your campsite
Do not forget lights! Good ones! Friends, this is one area I don’t skimp on.
We bring one big lantern for our food-prep area when we camp, then one of the small handheld lanterns from Etekcity (above) for each person in our family. They’re my favorite of all the lanterns I’ve tried, because you just slide them open and they turn on, making them easy for the kids to operate on their own.
I always bring some carabiners too, so we can hang the lanterns in our tent at night before bed.
Of course, headlamps for the kids are always a huge hit, and helpful for after-dark bathroom runs and post-s’mores clean-up. But since my kids tend to lose them, I don’t spend a lot on them.
Pro tip:At night we break out some glow sticks for the kids to play with. They have fun, and it makes it so much easier for me to see them in the twilight.
7. Unplugged entertainment
Shown here: Spectrix, a fave with my family
Family camping is all about getting unplugged and having fun, so even if your campsite or car has a power source, try to skip it and give into the camping experience, you know?
I’ve shared my favorite family board games for travel, which I love in part because they all come in small boxes — perfect for camping! Of course, a regular deck of cards works just fine too.
I also like to pack a draw-and-write journal and some colored pencils, so our younger kids can draw what they discover out in nature or fill out their science journals. It also can keep them busy in their tents, should bad weather hit.
Check out these great tips for creating a science journal for kids of all ages!
Of course you can use your imaginations too, playing charades, name that tune, i Spy, you name it. When we camp with friends, my kids always enjoy performing silly campfire skits for the adults — and they’re always terribly awesome.
8. A complete first aid kit, with trauma care supplies
I’ve saved this for last, but it’s actually the most important: do not go campaign without a really solid first aid kit. Look for one that includes all the supplies you need for emergency trauma care, in case you end up with some sort of a wound, bee sting, or while you’re out exploring. (Trust me, it can happen when you least expect it.) This one from Aootek goes way beyond a typical first aid kit, including a compass, fire starter, fishing lures, wire saw, emergency whistle, and even an emergency mylar blanket.
Having the right tools on hand to take care of the problem right away will save you lots of money and pain down the road. And really, staves off a lot of that “what if…” anxiety, especially for first-time campers.
How to save even more on camping supplies: A few tips.
I’ve also found fantastic deals on brand-new, never-used equipment on my local Facebook Marketplace pages or Craigslist. And if you have that one friend who thought they were going to love camping, but ended up hating it, ask if they’d be willing to loan or sell their equipment to you.
Then, here’s the good news: once you get your all your gear, car camping can become one of your least expensive family hobbies. Most campsites are generally less than $20 a night. Can’t beat that kind of deal, for a memorable vacation for the whole family. S’mores not included, of course.