8 Versatile Camping Essentials for New Campers

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
  • Cordage
  • Carabiners
  • Cookwear

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 hammocks 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 no 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

camping essentials
The MPOWERD Luci solar-powered camping lantern boggles my mind with awesomeness.

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.

camping essentials
A camping knife doesn’t need to be big. The little ESEE Izula – the little green one – is among my favorite camping knives.

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.

camping essentials
This water-carrying setup is reliable and versatile – and uses many items on this list: Paracord, carabiner and water bottle.

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.

That’s knowledge.

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.

The Great Camping Lantern Review of 2015

camping lantern
A camping lantern trio ready for testing.

A few months ago, my neighborhood had a blackout. And true to Murphy’s Law, I had a much harder time than necessary finding any of my flashlights or candles. It took some irritating groping in the dark – and I don’t mean the fun kind – before I found a flashlight.

This got me thinking that I need to have some light sources around in conspicuous places. I headed to a few outdoor stores to pick up compact camping lantern sampler. I wanted to see which ones would be good for stashing around the house, stuffing in a backpack/car or even doing both. I wound up with a UCO (pronounced "you-coe," which I get wrong in the video below) Clarus lantern/flashlight combo, the tiny little NEBO Tools LUMO and the MPOWERD Luci Solar Light. Each one has multiple light levels and easy ways to attach a carabiner so you can dangle it from a handy spot inside your house or the roof of your tent.

camping lantern
The UCO Clarus camping lantern/flashlight combi impresses me – a lot.

Before you watch the video, be aware that I could see better than the GoPro camera could. So the tent appears brighter in person than in the video. ANOTHER NOTE ON THE VIDEO: ANY AND ALL LENS FLARE IS ACCIDENTAL – I AM NOT CHANNELING JAR-JAR ABRAMS!

Let’s take a quick run through each camping lantern. The Clarus has a neat metal loop in the handle. Clip it to a carabiner and hang it from the rough of your tent, give it a little downward tug and it expands into a mini camping lantern. Push it back in, and it focuses the beam flashlight style. For $19.99, it’s hard to argue with the value of having one of these. 150 lumens, 3 AAA batteries.

camping lantern
The super-cool and compact LUMO camping lantern.

The tiny little LUMO is quite a deal. For $5.99, why not have one of these in every room of the house, in your car an in your backpack? It’s not the sort of gizmo you’ll regret buying. It’s the least-bright camping lantern of the three, but it’s also unbelievably small and inexpensive and comes with its own little carabiner. It’s only 25 lumens, but that’s better than zero lumens while fumbling in the dark for a 300-lumen flashlight you can’t find.

As you can tell, I really like the Clarus and the LUMO. But it’s the Luci that blows my mind. And why not? I mean, it’s an inflatable, waterproof, solar-powered camping lantern. Attach it to your backpack to charge, which it will in about 8 hours. It’ll then give you about 12 hours of light, or you can let it sit somewhere and hold its charge for a year until you need it.

camping lantern
The MPOWERD Luci solar-powered camping lantern boggles my mind with awesomeness.

MPOWERD is also positioning Luci as a serious helping hand to bring lighting to people in areas that don’t have reliable – or any – access to electricity. What I think of as a camping lantern is a primary lighting source to some people around the world. I’d say get a bunch for yourself and as gifts for your outdoorsy friends, and maybe throw a few bucks at MPOWERD to put a Luci in the hands of a family in need of some light. $10 – $25, lumens not listed. Or I missed it.

Honestly, each camping lantern in this post deserves a place in your gear stash. Any of them will also make a great gift for anyone, even those who think “If the outdoors are so great, why did we invent the indoors?”.

What Gear Do I Need in My Daypack?

Outside magazine claims that a reader wrote in to ask "What Gear Do I Need in My Daypack?" It’s answer shocked me, and reaffirmed why I don’t read Outside magazine.

Go look. OK, you don’t feel like giving Outside magazine the click? Fair enough. To adapt a phrase from Joan Jett, I hate myself for clicking them, too. I’ll just list some of the more egregiously ludicrous items:

  • $50 underwear – Because adventures are born from overpriced undies.
  • $140 sunglasses – They’ll save your life. OK, maybe not. Scratch that: Definitely not.
  • Ultra-light quarter socks – Anything less than Darn Tough socks are foolish. These flimsy things will have holes in them inside of three months.
  • $40 sandals – Oh, just cross the stream barefoot. You’ll be fine. (What’s that, Outside? "The Therm-a-Rest footbeds feel like they’re massaging your feet?")

Here are the fairly legit items:

  • A handful of Kind bars – Everybody needs food. But you’re better off cranking out homemade batches of pemmican. Or just getting some nuts and dried fruit.
  • A Bic lighter with duct tape wrapped around it – Better yet, wrap your duct tape around a Nalgene bottle. And skip the lighter -- get yourself some flint and learn how to use it.

Here are the only items I agree with, no strings attached:

  • A decent day pack – Fairly obvious, right?
  • A Petzl headland – Always a must.
  • Sunscreen – Well, yeah.

Outside magazine, in its rush to load expensive items from its advertisers into its "What Gear Do I Need in My Daypack?" list, left out some potential life-savers.

  • A high-quality fixed-blade knife – Too many uses to list.
  • Tincture of iodine 2% – Good for disinfecting water and treating wounds.
  • Something to cover your head – Hat, bandana, shemagh, whatever. All have multiple uses.
  • At least a small first-aid kit.
  • I already mentioned flint and a Nalgene bottle.
  • Some knowledge – You can’t really put it in your pack. Learn before you go.

Look, this stuff is important. How many stories have you heard about people being unprepared when a "simple day hike" turns pear-shaped? You need warmth. You need shelter. You need calories. The items in your pack should give you a fighting chance to create some of these on the fly. Fifty-dollar underwear can’t do that; get caught unprepared, and your ass will be just as dead in it as someone wearing used Fruit of the Looms from a Goodwill store.

In a future post, I’ll break down everything in my pack for my own solution to the "What Gear Do I Need in My Daypack?" question.

Scandinavia – My Travel Packing List

Epic trips require epic backpacks. Store that away for a rainy day, eh?

Scandinavia is less than a month away. Well, same for Finland, which is really a Nordic country. No matter what you call this trip, it’s time to mentally pack my bags for a trip through Sweden, Finland, Norway and possibly a bit of Estonia.

We like camping and hiking when we travel, which adds challenges people who go on laid-back beach vacations won’t ever encounter. So, what’s on the packing list for Scandinavia? Pretty much the same stuff I brought to Iceland with a few new additions …

  • Cook stove (MSR Whisperlite International) – I’ll never go on a camping vacation without it after seeing a French family whip up a gourmet meal with one -- while I choked down a cold military MRE pack. It sounds like bottles and fuel are readily available in Scandinavia. There’s no reason to eat bad when you travel!
  • t-shirts and underwear (tasc Performance) – I wind up wearing the same stuff for many days. The bamboo blend of the tasc Performance gear resists funky stench. And it’s super-comfortable. tasc sent me some of its latest bamboo/merino wool blends to test out above the Arctic circle. It’s not on the tasc website yet, but you can check here for other tasc goodies. Watch for a full review later. I expect they’ll be great for hiking and camping.
  • Shirts (Kuhl Breakaway Cafe) – These follow the "no stink allowed" theme. They’re made from something called Coffeenna, which incorporates recycled coffee grounds to beat the stink. Also comfortable to the max. I flogged them without mercy in the humidity of Asia and stayed fresh the whole while. A perfect travel shirt.

I’ll also bring a few packets of freeze-dried foods to get us started. But we may switch to canned stuff once we’re on the ground … I imagine all sorts of canned fish products in Scandinavia. Lutefisk, anyone?

And my travel pillow stays home this time. I’ll bring an inflatable pillow instead, and use a stuff sack as either a pillowcase or a second pillow. I might also skip my infamous hat and just roll with a decent stocking cap instead. But that should do it for the big Scandinavia trip.

Camping adds Natural Flavor to International Travel

Camping makes international travel better. You won't get this experience in a Reykjavik hotel.

I don’t travel without a sleeping bag – and I even prefer to bring my own tent.

Ever since my trip to New Zealand, I’ve tried to work camping into my travel itinerary. That’s where I first discovered that international travel is a good chance to break away from staying in hotels. And New Zealand’s system of hiking huts in its national parks also impressed me. I regretted that I didn’t think to bring a sleeping bag every time I saw a tent off in some quiet spot.

My Kiwi camping revelation made me re-think the possibilities of where to lay my head at night. My next trip was a summertime jaunt to Iceland. I know – it’s not the first place most people would think to camp. But the days I spent camping in Iceland were some of my most memorable experiences. I slept in my tent near the noses of glaciers at Skaftafell, on the shores of Myvatn, even in the remote highlands along the Laugavegur. Hotels in Iceland aren’t exactly cheap, so I was able to save a fistful of króna while getting a little closer to the landscape.

wandering justin myvatn iceland
On the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

For my recent trip to South Korea and Japan, I knew the chances of camping were more remote. Still, my tent and sleeping bag were the first items in my backpack. I didn’t wind up getting a chance to camp, but I was ready for anything.

When I finally get to the UK, my camping gear will go with me. I’ll find some good campsites and be ready for some outdoor fun. Iceland was nearly silent since there’s very little wildlife scampering about – I imagine a forest in Ireland or the UK would be much more alive with the sound of creatures.

Give camping a try on your next trip. You don’t even have to bring your tent. New Zealand, Iceland and the UK all have sites with huts, yurts and other accommodations far more fun than the typical hotel or hostel experience. You’ll save some weight in your backpack and still have a close-to-nature place to sleep.

This post is featured by Pitchup.com. Pitchup.com is your free guide to all types of camping and caravanning in the UK and Ireland – judged Best UK Travel Website of the Year 2011 and Best UK Travel Information Site 2010. With 5,000 campsites and holiday parks (including more than 200 to book), nifty searching and loads of offers, it has never been easier to find and book the perfect site – and rediscover the glee in camping and caravanning.

Gear Review – The North Face Rock 22 Tent

The North Face Rock 22 tent
Sarah lounges by The North Face Rock 22 tent in Skaftafell National Park, Iceland.

It’s been about 10 years since I first met my wife – that meeting, though, spelled doom for my old tent. It was an aging model from The North Face; it was so old that I can’t even remember the model. But it had room for three, a main door and two sphincter-like hatches your could escape from should a bear attack the front door (I’m presuming that’s why there were there) -- and the grimy funk of more than a decade of teenage/twenty-ish male flatulation, sweat and abuse.

Anyway, I loaned my then-girlfriend my tent for an expedition to the Grand Canyon with her friends. The first night they pitched it, said grimy funk angrily awakened from its tent tomb like Elvis might’ve after hearing that the late Michael Jackson married his daughter.

"Does your dude smell like that?" one of the campers pointedly asked.

My wife-to-be defended my hygiene, but spent the next few years jabbing withering insults at my beloved tent, which was less than portable shelter and more a repository of memories.

I eventually wound up at the late, fairly great Popular Outdoor. There, I scored a deal on a more modern tent – this one The North Face Rock 22 tent.

Over the past few years, I’ve had some chances to use The North Face Rock 22 tent in a variety of places and weather conditions. And I can’t help being even more pleased with it than I was with its smelly predecessor. It’s been nearly blown aloft by strong winds in Prescott, Ariz. It’s been subjected to freezing temperatures in the high desert. It’s been pelted by rain in the Landmannalaugar highlands of Iceland.

Not a drop of water has leaked into it. No pole has broken. There’s not a rip or tear anywhere. And it can endure being compressed to a size small enough to fit into a pack loaded for two weeks of mixed backpacking and civilized vacationing.

That makes The North Face Rock 22 tent pretty impressive. Even better, it only needs two poles. That’s fewer things to lose or break. It goes up in moments, which is really nice when you want nothing more that to dive into a comfy sleeping bag for a good night of sleep.

If I my Rock 22 disappeared or met some horrible fate that made it as smelly as my original tent, I’d buy another one in a second. According to The North Face Web site, it’s going for $189.

That makes The North Face Rock 22 tent a good buy for two adults who don’t camp in the snow. Pair it with quality sleeping bags, and you’ll still be able to use it when he temperatures plummet.

Enhanced by Zemanta