“Honey, We Forgot the Tent!”: Preparing for Camping

Two Asian women toasting bottles of beer to each other to celebrate a good time with a group of friends while traveling on a camping tent on holiday.

Key Points

  • When you learn to camp, a thoughtful approach to packing will prepare you better than a standard camping list.

  • There are six important areas to consider before you load your luxury items: vehicle, fuel, warmth, food and water, shelter, and camping supplies.

  • Keep in mind that every environment is different, with different needs and things to consider.

You spend three months planning the perfect getaway for you and the family to appreciate the wonders of nature. You spend as much on equipment as you would a week-long beach vacation, but it's going to be worth it. Then as you pull into the camp area more than 10 miles from the nearest store, you realize you forgot something.

Forgetting even the smallest thing, like a fire starter, can throw a wrench into your whole trip. It's better to learn to camp before hitting the road instead of during the trip.

But most people aren't Santa Claus. They hate making lists and checking them twice. Even worse? Having to turn around hours into a trip because you forgot your comfy pillow.

Whether written or mental, checklists are the best way to make sure you're as ready as can be. But what should you put on your list? This article reveals several best items to include.

What's Important?

Your pre-camping checklist should be more than just a general list of camping items. When and where you're going is as important as what you're packing, if not more so.

Outlining the obstacles to your trip is the first thing you want to do to get mentally ready. Ask yourself, "Is it colder than most environments? Are there seasonal hazards? Will water or fuel be readily available?" 

When forming a checklist the most important thing is to have a thoughtful approach. Though it's convenient at the moment, mindless list-making does not prepare you for the varied environments you might face.

You may also end up missing crucial items and wasting time, energy, and space by bringing unnecessary things.

To keep it simple, consider two main sections: Safety & Survival, and Luxury & Convenience. 

Safety and survival — the most important for obvious reasons — can best be divided into five categories: vehicle, fuel, warmth, consumables (food and water), shelter, and ancillary needs.

Campsite complete with fire, grill, and tent


You can’t go on a road trip without a vehicle, right? The first thing to focus on is dealing with vehicle-related issues. This includes checking the engine (fluid levels), tires (pressure and spare), and wiper blades. Be sure you have jumper cables and seriously consider bringing a backup battery — just in case the battery konks and there's no good samaritan around to give you a jump.

If you're heading into colder climes, don't forget snow chains and other wintry weather safety equipment.

Without all these things functioning properly, you may not be able to go on your trip or, even worse, get home again! It's also crucial to have –or be — a safe and confident driver. Even better: Bring along a capable partner who can take over the driving if you are tired.


Vehicles act as your shelter on the way to and sometimes at your destination. This means they take priority in being prepped and ready for the trip. 

Even the most well-prepared and well-equipped vehicle isn't worth much without fuel. Make sure you have a full tank and at least one gas can in reserve before you leave the driveway. If you’re going somewhere really remote, bringing several extra gas cans can be the difference between making it to the gas station and, well, not making it. 

Consider additional consumption needs. For example, are you cooking with gas? Are you riding dirtbikes or ATVs? 

Just like packing a backup battery in the trunk, it is never a bad idea to have extra fuel on hand even if you don’t think you’ll need it. Better to have and not need than to need and not have.  

This category isn't just about gasoline for your vehicle. It also includes firewood and/or propane for camp stoves and canisters for your gas lamps if you brought them. 

If you have an electric vehicle or other important electrical items, consider bringing a generator as your “extra fuel.” Of course, don’t forget to bring fuel for the generator!

People enjoy a campfire near their tent and lake


Next on your checklist is warmth and the things that create it. Ensuring you and your campmates remain warm is a priority. Your car can act as a tent if needed, but will still be extremely cold without proper layers and heating. That means clothes, blankets, heaters, wet weather gear, and anything that adds protection from the cold. 

Unless you are beach camping in the middle of summer, you will need some sort of layering to avoid hypothermia. This is not only true in the snow-capped mountains where you would expect frigid temps.

Many believe the blistering heat is the main threat in the desert, but it is actually the cold at night that poses the most danger to campers. Temperatures in the desert can change drastically from high daytime heat levels to sub-freezing at night.

Instead of just making a list of clothing items you may not need, consider where you are going and what the weather is expected to be like. To be even more prepared, do some research to determine what conditions might occur.

For example, if the forecast calls for sun during your visit but your research indicates that this time of year is usually rainy, bring rain gear just in case. 

Your body loses most of its heat through the head and the feet. In addition to having a warm hat or cap on hand, it won't hurt to grab an extra pair of boots just in case your favorite pair gets wet, lost, or damaged.

If you get snowed in, you’ll certainly be glad you brought jackets, blankets, and pillows. More importantly, be sure to have an emergency fire setup of a candle and firestarter. This can save your life.

Even though they are not for warmth, it makes sense to include your toiletries (toothbrush, etc.) with your clothes. In theory, these would fall under ancillary needs, but they're easier to remember when grouped with these important items.

People enjoy campsite with guitar, food, and drinks


Though certainly necessary for basic survival, you’ll only need consumables — food and water — if everything else mentioned is packed and your trip is underway.

Water is more crucial than food, so take about 50 percent more water than you think you'll need. Unless you’re backpacking a great distance or are naturally inclined, bring your water purifier. 

It’s hard to forget water, but it happens to the best. Putting your water supply (or supplier) with your food will eliminate this possibility since it is not likely you will forget your favorite snack for the trip. Keeping your "like" items together in small groups will reduce the clutter on your checklist, reducing the chance you will overlook an item.

As for food, if you have a vehicle you can bring more food with you. If you are trekking into the Appalachians on foot, you’ll need to estimate much closer to your actual consumption needs so you don’t carry around a bunch of extra weight. 

Most campers are simply out for a weekend getaway or a day hike, so a good rule of thumb is to estimate what you expect to eat on the trip, then add either one extra meal per day or 20 percent more, whichever makes more sense.

The longer the trip, the more extra food and water you should pack. You always hear stories of people running out of food, but you never hear of a trip being ruined because the hikers had too many granola bars.  

Car, tent, and foldable chairs at riverside campsite


Of all the things to forget, the worst would be neglecting to bring the tent.

If you are overlanding or cross-country traveling in an RV, this is not a problem. While you can't forget your shelter if you're driving it, ensuring sufficient fuel and warmth are even more important since they keep your shelter functioning.

If your trip involves overnighting away from the vehicle, a tent is of utmost importance.

Throwing a tarp under your tent provides protection and comfort. A good night's sleep guarantees you are a "happy camper," while a restless night might make you grouchier than that bear standing behind that tree.

Being rested and alert will also ensure you don't misread the map and end up on the wrong mountain!

Remember to check your tent for poles, working zippers, etc. It’s no fun being one pole short and having to search the woods for a long, skinny branch to carve into a usable shape. A tent is dead weight unless you can use it. The same is true for a bed.

If you bring an airbed, blow it up before the trip to ensure it holds air. Even right out of the box, there can be small holes or a defective motor that render it useless.  

Like tarps, a rainfly is typically a must for water protection. Even the morning dew will penetrate your tent without one. Waking up to this is one bitter cup of coffee, but even worse is getting unexpected midnight showers.

Whether you think you won’t need a rainfly or not, bring it and set it up. It also acts as a great wind barrier and a privacy wall (unless you want the squirrels to see you naked).

Bringing extra tarps as ground cover can be a great idea. It allows you to walk around your camp barefoot without fear of being poked by a pinecone or stuck by pine needles.

Nightsky above campers with their tent and campfire

Ancillary Needs

Often grouped with shelter items, ancillaries include lights, tables, chairs, fire extinguishers, and anything else needed for basic daily activities. These are more person-specific than destination-based. You might feel lost without your DJ setup while your campmate might bring only a flint to make fire and a Bowie knife.

To each their own.

You know best what items you need on your trip, but some good ones to consider are lighting, cooking, furniture, tools, and safety items

Basic survival tools like a knife are a must, but consider anything extra that the environment may call for — a fishing pole, wood axe, extra tarps, etc.

Safety items should always include a basic med kit, and make sure you know exactly where it is. You don't want to be looking through all your junk for 20 minutes while your friend has a splinter the size of their arm.

Animal repellant is sometimes required, but always a good idea. Bring a bear whistle or spray if you’re in a bear-populated area. Bug repellant will keep you from getting eaten alive, and is particularly useful in the spring and summer when most insects are born.

Be aware of wildlife where you are camping. Remember that "woodland creatures" are wild animals. Raccoons, possums, and chipmunks might be cute but are not your friends — and certainly not your pets. You're in their house, so be careful and considerate.

Last And Least: Convenience

Of course, you mustn't forget your luxury goods — those things that make your home-away-from-home feel that way. Unless you're an aspiring caveman or some kind of eco-zealot (and if you are, more power to you), surely you don't want to go into the wilderness and rough it like Davy Crockett.

What will make you feel more comfortable, more relaxed, more "on vacation"? Is it your music system or drone? Bring them. It's your vacation. Though keep in mind that making human noise in the wilderness can be disrespectful and frustrating to other campers and the animal life around you.

These little conveniences are important because they enhance your experience, encouraging you to take another outdoor adventure in the future.

Just make sure to pack them last, if at all.

Camping backpack and supplies outside a tent in woods

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re just visiting for the day or leaving on a month-long excursion, a lot goes into outdoor preparation. Sticking to standard, repeatable camping lists can help you bring the basics. This system of planning can also have blind spots that leave you unprepared for anything out of the ordinary. 

Applying a thoughtful approach to outdoor preparation is the best practice. Adopting a philosophy of "expect the unexpected" will serve you well on any trip — whether to the remote outdoors or the big city.

Learning to camp is half the battle. Getting there with everything you need is the other!

Was this article helpful?

My Outdoor Gear is the go-to source for in-depth outdoor gear reviews. Join us as we review some of the best outdoor gear items on the market.