Camping Essentials at a Glance
- Light sources
- A decent fixed-blade knife
- Tools for starting a fire
- A way to carry and collect water
- The super-versatile shemagh
I don’t have the numbers to prove it, but I’ll bet COVID-19 has done wonders for camping. Without the option of easy air travel, my family looked close to home. And we set a record for camping this year.
And I’ve heard of a few new-to-camping who are wondering what they need to get started.
That’s a huge topic, especially because smart campers could write massic tomes about “shelter systems” (tents, to the layperson, and tents to the slightly-less-laypeople). I’ll get into selecting a hammock in a future post — I’ve been through the beginner learning curve, and I’d love to help some people flatten that curve so they can start hanging with confidence. (That sounded terrible, but there’s now way I’m deleting it.)
I’m going to focus this particular post on the type of stuff nobody really mentions, yet will still be incredibly handy.
Here is my list of items I consider camping essentials, and highly recommend for any camper who is doing some short-range backpacking or car camping. This isn’t for RV people.
Go to the Light
Campers absolutely need light. I recommend a minimum of two types: a head-mounted light that allows you to operate hands free, and a lantern of some sort.
I’m largely brand- and model-agnostic about head lights.
But I am a hardcore fan of the MPOWERD Luci solar-powered inflatable lantern. Stick it in the sun for 8 hours to get about 12 hours of charge out of it. Heck, hang it deflated on your backpack.
It’s waterproof, low-fuss gear that will not let you down. It’s also cheap, with models starting below $20.
Get an Edge on the Nature
A good knife is a camping essential. And no, I’m not talking about a Swiss Army knife. I don’t trust any folding knife at all. I’m also not talking about some stupid phallus extension straight out of a Rambo or Crocodile Dundee movie.
While my personal preference is a full-tang fixed blade like an ESEE-4, they can be a bit spendy. I also like the tiny little ESEE Izula.
For a new camper looking for a good deal, I recommend the Swedish Fireknife, a simple, low-cost, decent-quality knife with a firestarting flint built into the hilt. It’s made by Mora of Sweden, and you simply can’t go wrong with it.
You won’t feel guilty treating it mean, and you can do anything with it. Need to turn a biggish branch into small branches? You can use the FireKnife and another branch to baton that branch into a manageable size. It’s easy to sharpen, and it keeps its edge well.
Keep the Fire Burning (Carefully)
Making a fire (when conditions allow) is a huge part of the camping experience. From cooking your evening meal to simply keeping warm, this is an important skill you’ll need to master.
Good firemaking tools are next-level camping essentials. I mentioned the flint in the Swedish FireKnife, which is great for making fires with one caveat: You have to be skilled enough to make a tinder bundle and have the patience to get the whole thing going.
There’s also weather conditions to consider. Sometimes, it’s hard to use the flint in sloppy, wet conditions.
So I advise keeping a second way to start a fire. REI has all sorts of heavy-duty camp matches that come in sealed containers. If you really want to prepare, bring a few cotton balls and a tube of Vaseline. A dab of Vaseline on the cotton ball can get your tinder going quickly and easily.
An Even Better Way to Carry Water
Right now, I know most people prefer hydration packs for carrying water. Fair enough. They’re handy and hands-free.
But let’s say something pokes a hole in it. You’re in trouble.
Even if you carry a hydration pack, bring two 32-ounce Nalgene bottles with you. They are indestructible. It’s also far easier to refill them from streams and other sources – they also give you a very easy way to disinfect water – a few drops of 2% tincture of iodine (another overlooked camping item) in each bottle and a half hour of waiting is enough to disinfect water from many sources.
You can also get some other uses out of the bottle: If you use a bit of paracord secured to the bottle with duct tape, you have a way to carry extra duct tape for any of thousands of uses. Hang the whole setup from your backpack with a carabiner.
Keep Yourself Covered
Imagine a giant bandana that is software and more comfy than a bandana.
That’s a shemagh, a familiar sight to anyone who has seen news coverage from the Middle East. It is a tool of infinite use, and your creativity is its only limit.
You can turn it into a headwrap to keep the sun off your noggin. You can do an even fancier wrap to cover your face if you’re dealing with smoke or airborne dust. And it’s perfect for hauling a big bundle of pine cones for your fire.
A shemagh can even be a good way to filter water. One of the most-effective, low-cost camping essentials I can recommend.
Tie One On
Sometimes, you just need to tie something up. Like a shemagh, cordage of any kind is only limited by your creativity.
I’ve used it to string up a few LUCI lights to illuminate a campsite in areas with fire restrictions. It’s also helped me secure the ends of my hammock fly to the ground. That’s just to name a few.
Warning: Not all paracord is created equal. Here’s a nice guide to buying paracord.
Connecting Everything Together
“By golly, I brought too many carabiners,” said absolutely no camper ever.
I’ve already mentioned hanging water bottles from them. They’re also handy for hanging my hammock, storing gear inside my tent or hammock so I can find it quickly, keeping my keys where they belong, hanging my LUCI lights at night – you name it.
Be sure to get carabiners that are rated for climbing if you plan to use them for hanging a hammock or anything like that.
Considering that a decent Metolius carabiner is only a few bucks more than a light-duty one, it makes sense to simply go heavy for all of them.
How many do you need? Start with a 10. You won’t regret it.
Cooking Something Up
My home state of Arizona has been absolutely plagued with fires. That means fire restrictions.
That’s a bit of a bummer. But you can still cook with a decent camp stove. I use this
MSI Whisperlite setup along with one of their cookware sets. The cookware comes with collapsible utensils. Don’t rely on them. Get a set that’s more durable, even if they’re less convenient.
I’m also a bit brand and model-agnostic on camp stoves. This is the only one I’ve ever owned.
Go to your friendly outdoor outfitter. Get some advice and see what works for you.
Wrapping up the Camping Essentials List
I could probably go a lot further than this in listing some of my favorite camping essentials. Let me know if you want to know about anything not on this list.
But before I go – there’s one camping essential you can’t buy.
All this gear is only as good as your ability to use it. Camp with people who are more experienced and can show you what works for them – in person! A blog post is great to get you started, but working with this stuff hands-on is the way to go.
To supplement the hands-on experience, I also recommend picking up a copy of Cody Lundin’s 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive. It’s a survival book, and there’s admittedly a difference between camping and survival.
That said, his info on shelter, first-aid kits, selecting a knife, disinfecting water and even choosing clothing have a lot of overlap with camping comfortably and safely.
I also took the Provident Primitive class at his Aboriginal Living Skills School. Even though I’d been camping for decades, I still took away an amazing amount of new skills. And I had a stupid amount of fun.