Courtesy of Big Agnes
Photo by Anatoliy Gleb
If you’re new to camping, skip the ultra light backpacking gear; consider these tried-and-true essentials instead.
Skip the ultra-technical backpacking gear and add a bit of ease and comfort to your camping trip with camping gear designed for your kind of adventure.
If you’re new to camping, it can be hard to figure out what kind of gear is right for you. Chances are, you’re testing the waters with some easy drive-in campsites. Even so, you want to be prepared and comfortable while spending a night or two outdoors. But do you really need a tent with ultra-lightweight carbon fiber poles? What temperature rating for your sleeping bag will suffice? What do you even need to cook your food at night? Navigating the wide range of camping gear options is intimidating—we know, we’ve been in your boots.
With this in mind, we compared the latest inventions to the standbys we’ve used over more than two decades of camping in cabins and campgrounds, usually with our car, almost always with friends or family in tow. Our in-field testing prioritized performance, aesthetics, and innovation. If you too are looking to improve your setup this summer, here’s the best camping gear for casual car camping.
When car camping, you don’t have to worry as much about weight or pack-down size as you would when backpacking. Instead, focus on how easy it is to pack up and down, how well it will stand up to the elements, and—of course—whether or not it fits the needs of you and your camping companions. You’ll still want to invest in good quality pieces that can last you for many seasons, but you don’t necessarily need the top-of-the line, lightest-weight (and often most expensive) equipment.
No matter what kind of camper you are, make sure you have gear for shelter, lighting, cooking, and outdoor-ready clothes. Not sure what to pack? Our camping checklist can help.
Buy now: $380, rei.com
The Big Agnes Big House 4 is a spacious, four-person tent with 68-inch ceilings that can fit the whole family. It also protects from the elements and is stable in storms. You can keep the interior clean and organized thanks to a doormat and 10 interior pockets—and the whole shelter packs into a carry-on–sized shoulder bag.
Buy now: $279, rei.com
While some say REI’s line of tents has declined in quality over the years, we still stand by their light, packable, and easy-to-set up REI Co-op Half Dome Tent. It’s perfect for three-season camping and fits up to two people comfortably. And, in true REI-fashion, you have up to a year to return or exchange your tent if it doesn’t live up to expectations—even if you’ve tested it out in the field.
Buy now: $90, backcountry.com
If the idea of sleeping in a “mummy bag”—a sleeping bag that is tapered at the bottom to give you a snug fit—feels too restrictive, look for a rectangular bag like the Kelty Kush 30. This stylish, versatile three-in-one bag can unzip fully to become a cozy comforter or tucked away in its bag to be used as a pillow. With a temperature rating of 30°F, it will sleep most people comfortably spring, summer, and fall. At four pounds six ounces, it’s not the lightest or most compact sleeping bag, but that isn’t a problem for car campers. Overall, it’s a solid, affordable sleeping bag for newbies.
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The North Face One Bag ($290; $399 long) is multiple sleeping bags in one. The three interchangeable layers adapt to varying temperatures: Combine them all for a 5°F rating, zip away the top layer for 20° nights, or remove the cozy middle layer (stuffed with premium 850-fill down) for a warm-weather 40°F bag. The whole system weighs less than four pounds and packs as small as a fireplace log.
Sleeping on the ground is a sticking point for many would-be campers, but the 5.4-pound Helinox Cot One offers an appealing alternative: Its lightweight aluminum struts support a stretched-fabric cot that hovers 6.5 inches off the ground. The resulting air space keeps you cooler on hot nights, and the taut design is supportive yet comfortable. Place any sleeping pad on top, and you’ve got an enviably plush sleeping surface that packs to the size of a 24-ounce water bottle.
A sleeping pad is essential not just for comfort, but also to keep you warm. Roll out the Exped MegaMat 10, which one of our testers claimed is comfier than their bed at home. The air-and-foam combo stays flat and supportive when sleepers change positions, and four-inch-thick cushioning cradles their hips and shoulders. It also has a duo version that sleeps two people.
Buy now: $45, rei.com
For ambient lighting, the Mpowerd Luci Solar String Lights lend a festive vibe to the tent or table. The 18-foot string of glittering LED lamps packs into a fist-sized spool and recharges via USB (8 hours) or direct sunlight (14 hours). Bring along a couple to illuminate your campsite in a soft, romantic glow, or string one up for ambient lighting while you sit around the fire.
Buy now: $70, rei.com
Headlamps let you take your lighting with you and are always much appreciated if cooking after dark. The brand, Petzl, is our go-to for well-made headlamps, with the Actik Core Headlamp standing out at the top of the pack. This headlamp emits 450-lumen white and red flood lighting with a beam distance of up to 90 meters, making it one of the brightest by Petzl.
If you’re not ready to commit to the $70 price tag, the Tikka ($30, rei.com) is a solid, though less bright, alternative. Both are compatible with AAA batteries as well as a USB-rechargeable battery (sold separately, $30, rei.com).
Buy now: $220, backcountry.com
Like many folding chairs, the Snow Peak Take! chair collapses into a tidy cylinder that takes up little space in your trunk or truck bed. But unlike the rest, this stylish piece of camping gear has laminated bamboo legs, aluminum supports, and comfortable cotton canvas seats as aesthetically pleasing as they are functional.
If you’re keeping your camp meals simple—think campfire-roasted hot dogs; no-cook sandwiches; Danish-style smørrebrøds; or instant, super-charged oatmeal—skip the large camp grills in favor a small single-burner stove like the GigaPower 2.0 by Snow Peak. Although made for backpacking, this durable, pocket-size, and super easy-to-use stove works just as well for car campers who aren’t cooking much (fuel not included).
Many will also recommend the highly rated Jetboil line for a simple single-burner camp stove. But we find the Snow Peak GigaPower more versatile because you can use any fire-ready pot or pan with it.
Buy now: $75, backcountry.com
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A camp kitchen includes a few workhorse elements that combine function with lightweight packability—like the nesting Kelty Camp Kitchen. Four plates and four bowls made of recycled plastic nest inside a three-item set of stainless-steel pots and pans. (Kelty collaborated with Preserve, a certified B Corp that recycles plastic into housewares.) The kit even includes flatware, each set strung on an organizing keyring.
Buy now: From $17, opinel.com
Nothing says backcountry readiness like a pocket knife, and those by Opinel, such as the No.08 Stainless Steel Folding Knife ($19, opinel-usa.com), are one of the best quality—and affordable—options out there. Invented by their namesake, Joseph Opinel, in the French Alps, these knives have been around since 1890—reflected in their timeless design. But they’re not just easy on the eyes, they’re practical too. Made from carbon or stainless steel, these compact, foldable knives are designed to last. Plus, they just work: We’ve used them in the great outdoors for everything from filleting a freshly caught trout to whittling the perfect s’more-roasting stick.
For oenophiles, consider upgrading to the No.10 Corkscrew Stainless Steel Folding Knife ($35, opinel-usa.com) whose nifty corkscrew tucked into the handle is sturdy enough to open even the most stubborn bottle of wine.
Buy now: From $20, yeti.com
For a campside cup, consider one of those from the Yeti Rambler collection, such as the Yeti Rambler Lowball ($20, yeti.com) or Yeti wine tumbler ($25, yeti.com). All of the Yeti Ramblers use double-walled insulation to keep coffee hot and cocktails cold: The morning after our campfire sipping sessions, we’ve found unmelted ice lingering in our Lowball. Plus, as our favorite travel mug, you may be packing this travel accessory for more than your camping trips.
Buy now: $65, backcountry.com
Bring your morning cup on the road with an outdoor-ready French press: Insulated and more durable than glass versions, the Stanley Classic Stay-Hot French Press makes coffee for a crowd (48 ounces) and keeps it hot for the late risers.
Buy now: $184, otterbox.com
The OtterBox Venture 25 is one of a few of our favorite coolers, but for newbie campers, it stands out for its chef-friendly features and outdoor readiness. With add-ons like a cutting board, cupholders, and dry storage trays, it does more than just keep your beers cold (though rest assured, it does that as well).
For those of you camping in bear country, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has also certified this cooler to be bear-resistant when secured with a specially designed lock, sold separately.
Buy now: $120, kammok.com
Delightfully soft, breathable fabric makes the Kammok Hang at Home Kit better than most hammocks—and the adjustable Python straps simplify setup and work no matter how far apart your trees are spaced. Bring it along for a comfy place to read, nap, or look at the stars.
Buy now: $64, lifeproof.com
When your phone, lanterns, or other devices run low on juice, plug them into the Lifeproof Lifeactív Power Pack 10. This battery pack (and emergency flashlight) is impervious to spills, dirt, and drops, so it’s perfect for camp life. Plus, it maintains its charge for weeks, and can replenish several phones and tablets.
This article originally appeared in July 2019. It was updated on April 27, 2021, to include current information. Kelly Bastone, Maggie Fuller, Katherine LaGrave, and Jessie Beck contributed to the reporting of this story.
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