Illustration by Emily Blevins
Illustration by Emily Blevins
Plus a detailed, downloadable version that you can use for your next campout
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Camping means different things to different people. Some travelers relish the idea of roughing it with only the basics; some haul around bed frames, generators, and other (burdensome) comforts. We prefer a happy medium: This list is for the camper who wants to gaze at the Big Dipper instead of an LCD screen and who prefers a comfy chair to the ground. Our gear recommendations soften camping’s roughest edges without eclipsing nature itself—and without overburdening travelers with bulky, fussy items. Our in-field testing prioritized performance, aesthetics, and innovation and compared the latest inventions to the standbys we’ve used over more than two decades of camping in cabins, campgrounds, and backcountry corners. Here’s what you need to pack for camping made comfortable.
Like your house, your tent must provide reliable protection from the elements and space to store your stuff. The Big Agnes Big House 4 ($380) does all that—and the soaring, 68-inch-high ceiling even lets you walk around inside. Whereas many large tents collapse in high winds, the four-person Big House is stable in storms. You can keep the interior clean and organized thanks to a doormat and 10 interior pockets—we love the optional clip-in Corner Bar ($20) accessory that keeps your beverage upright—and the whole shelter packs into a carry on–sized shoulder bag.
For something a little smaller, the 106-pound Thule Tepui Ayer 2 ($1,200) clips to a car’s roof rack and sets up faster than traditional ground-level models. However, the access ladder can complicate nighttime potty missions. The Mountainsmith Bear Creek 4 ($180) boasts a 70-square-foot floor that gives two occupants plenty of elbow room, and a small vestibule shields shoes from rain. You can also pitch just the fly and ground cloth to create a breezy sunshade for beaches and picnics.
Yes, you can get a great night’s sleep while camping, but you’ll need comfortable bedding that’s not constrictive. As with your bed at home, the NEMO Tango Duo ($400) system wraps a cloudlike comforter around a mattress—in this case, two 20-inch inflatable air pads held together by a soft and breathable slipcover, creating a surface a few inches narrower than a standard full-sized bed. Filled with responsibly-harvested 650-fill down insulation, the comforter features stretchy stitching that lets sleepers move freely. And the removable, machine-washable slipcover makes laundering easy.
The North Face One Bag ($289; $399 long, pictured at top), on the other hand, 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.
Mummy bags feel like straightjackets to side sleepers, who need extra space to curl their knees. The unique hourglass shape of the NEMO Disco 30 ($260; $280 long) makes it lighter and more packable than rectangular bags, while still allowing sleepers the freedom to bend their legs and change positions throughout the night.
Sleeping on the ground is a sticking point for many would-be campers, but the 5.4-pound Helinox Cot One ($300) offers an appealing alternative: Its lightweight aluminum struts support a stretched-fabric cot that hovers 6.5 inches off the ground. (An optional $90 leg-extender kit increases the height to 19 inches.) The resulting air space keeps you cooler on hot nights, and the taut design doesn’t sag, so it’s 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.
If you are sleeping on the ground, roll out the Exped MegaMat 10 ($199), which some campers claim 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.
One way to make camping feel luxurious is to bring your pillow from home. But when cargo space is limited, opt for the collapsible Big Agnes Sleeping Giant Pillow Deluxe ($40), an air pillow with a sleeve of memory foam that soothes weary heads.
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You can’t flick a wall switch to light up a campsite, but you can brighten tents, tables, and tasks with a range of battery-powered lamps. A clever magnetic lanyard built into its base lets the UCO Madrona+ Hang-Out Lantern ($50) function as tabletop or pendant lighting: a 6400mAh, rechargeable lithium-ion battery pumps out a wide, 300-lumen beam that amply illuminates a cooking area, and a dial dims the light for soft, mealtime ambience. The subtler blue-light mode is ideal for middle-of-the-night bathroom trips or a child’s night light.
Another option for ambient lighting: MPOWERD Luci Solar String Lights ($45) 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 (eight hours) or direct sunlight (14 hours).
Headlamps let you take your lighting with you. The strap on the Petzl e+LITE ($30) may be thin, but for occasional use around the campsite, you can’t beat the size and versatility of the e+LITE, which emits 50-lumen white and red beams in steady and blinking versions that light up a cutting board or guide your evening strolls away from the fire pit.
Like many folding chairs, the Snow Peak Take! ($160) collapses into a tidy cylinder that takes up precious little space in your trunk or truck bed. But unlike the rest, this chair’s laminated bamboo legs, aluminum supports, and comfortable cotton canvas seat are as aesthetically pleasing as they are functional. For an extra plush experience, the packable Snow Peak Campfield Futon ($750) lets couples and families cuddle and can also morph into two cushioned chairs and bamboo-topped side table, or three stacking shelves for organizing cooking gear.
The Snow Peak Single Action Long Table ($400) features graceful aluminum legs that support a gleaming bamboo surface perfect for dining with a group; it also instantly folds away into a thin (two inches) package for stowage.
Some camp stoves put out a puny flame that frustrates skilled cooks, but the Primus Tupike ($250) is powerful enough for real chefs, with no fancy fuel required (it runs on widely available propane canisters). Oak panels and brass trims make it spiffier than most portable stoves, and it packs away into a super-slim parcel.
The BioLite CampStove 2 Bundle ($230) is an excellent option for those low on space. This ingenious stove captures a wood fire’s exhaust and converts it into electricity that grills burgers, boils water, and even recharges your phone via USB.
And don’t forget matches! The UCO Sweetfire ($6) is strikable like a match but plump with flammable vegetable wax and bagasse (a sugarcane by-product), which makes these fire-starters burn for seven minutes.
A camp kitchen includes a few workhorse elements that combine function with lightweight packability—like the nesting Kelty Camp Kitchen ($90). Its 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.
While your choice of cooking utensils (spatula, tongs, etc.) is best left a personal one, it’s worth investing in dedicated cutlery—especially ones with built-in blade covers, as found in the Opinel Nomad Cooking Kit ($85). The set includes three beech-handled folding knives (a serrated blade, straight blade, and vegetable peeler) and a beechwood cutting board for meal prep and picnics.
For drinkware, consider the shatterproof Kupilka Slow Down Set ($65). These gorgeous Finnish-made plates and magpie cups blend wood cellulose with polypropylene in a heat- and water-tolerant material that’s as light and durable as plastic—but more sustainable. Or the YETI Rambler Lowball ($20), which uses 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.
And to clean it all up, use sudsy, biodegradable, plant-based Joshua Tree Eco-Soap ($12) (jojoba and other essential oils make it nice for washing bodies, too).
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 ($49) makes coffee for a crowd (48 ounces) and keeps it hot for the late risers. Or park the stainless steel GSI Moka Espresso Pot ($50) over your camp stove to brew six double-shot servings. And no need for paper filters with the Sea to Summit X-Brew Coffee Dripper ($22); the collapsible silicone funnel screens out grounds using double-mesh stainless steel and perches atop a mug to brew proper pour-over coffee.
Most coolers hog storage space, but the soft-sided 45-liter Kelty Folding Cooler ($110) collapses to just four inches high after use, making it easy to stash in an overcrowded closet or garage. And hard-sided, super-insulating coolers are heavy even when empty—but wheels and a tug-handle on the YETI Tundra Haul ($400) make it easy to transport from trunk to picnic table. Plus, it preserves ice for days.
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Prepping and shopping for camp meals can be a time-consuming chore, unless you score the Patagonia Provisions Pantry Stocker Gift Box ($99). This motherlode of shelf-stable goodies simplifies food prep with zero compromise to flavor: Wild salmon, dehydrated bean soups, breakfast grains, even canned mussels create gourmet picnic fare. Add fresh fruit and you’ve got a weekend’s worth of low-fuss foods for two. If you’re headed into the backcountry, try the Good To-Go meals (from $8). Created by a chef who trained at the French Culinary Institute before cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants, these gourmet pouch meals include quinoa bowls, risottos, curries, and pasta marinara that taste good enough for restaurant settings.
Mineral-based sunscreens are healthiest for your skin and the planet, but they can be paste-like and inhibit perspiration in hot weather. The easy-to-apply Thinksport Safe Sunscreen ($13 for 3 ounces) feels sport-ready, like chemical versions, but earns the Environmental Working Group’s highest rating, which measures efficacy and health risks posed by the ingredients. We also love the tinted ThinkSun Everyday Face ($13 for 2 ounces), which avoids the ghostly hue on cheeks and noses.
Most DEET-free insect repellents don’t effectively repel insects, but Picaridin-based Natrapel ($7 for 3.4 ounces) actually keeps mosquitoes and ticks at bay. Its active ingredient blocks insects’ ability to sense humans and gets the stamp of approval from the Centers for Disease Control for the protection it offers against illness-causing insects. The substance doesn’t feel greasy, is nonirritating, and doesn’t break down plastics and synthetics as DEET does, so it’s safer for your skin and your gear.
If you’re hoping to skip the sprays and lotions, opt for Thermacell’s Scout Mosquito Repellent Lantern ($40). It seems too good to be true, but we can confirm the manufacturer’s claims: This 220-lumen light burns an odorless, smokeless repellent that actually creates a small bug-free zone in a cabin or around a picnic table.
Always bring a basic first aid kit with you. The Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .7 Medical Kit ($29) includes adhesive bandages, moleskin, and pain relievers and is wrapped in a package that’s impervious to the elements.
Any Rubbermaid bin can contain your gear and help you tote it from car trunk to campsite, but the Kelty Big G ($90) looks much better, thanks to two-toned polyester fabric and a contrasting zippered lid. The box’s padded handles don’t dig into your palms as rigid plastic does, and when it’s not in use, the Big G collapses flat for convenient storage.
Similar to the Big G, but for compulsive organizers, the collapsible Thule Go Box ($70) has multiple compartments to separate stuff, so you can keep your cutting board from toppling onto your tortilla chips and partition your snacks from your cooking pots. The open-topped design also lets you see at a glance what’s inside, while a pack-away rain cover provides weather protection.
And for toting lunch down to the lake and other short jaunts from the cooler, the canvas Diamond Brand Double Take ($64–$69) with removable insulated roll-top “Chilly Bag” is better than a picnic basket: Carry it like a shoulder bag or strap it to your cruiser bike.
Once your campsite is set up, it’s time to kick back, and lounging in a hammock is the epitome of camp relaxation. Delightfully soft, breathable fabric makes the Kammok Hang at Home Kit ($100) better than most hammocks—and the adjustable Python straps simplify setup and work no matter how far apart your trees are spaced.
When your phone, lanterns, or other devices run low on juice, plug them into the Lifeproof Lifeactív Power Pack 10 ($65). 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.
No access to hot showers? The NEMO Helio Pressure Shower ($100) provides a portable, solar-heated solution. Fill this collapsible jug with water and park it in the sun for a few hours, and you’ve got hot water on demand: The pressurized hose and spray nozzle deliver a jet of water that’s handy for washing bodies and dishes.
Come evening, staring at the campfire isn’t the only entertainment option. Tenalach Night & Day Bocce ($100) includes lighted balls that let you emulate a kicked-back Italian grandfather even after the sun’s gone down.
Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. AFAR may earn a commission if you buy through our links, which helps support our independent publication.
This article originally appeared in July 2019. It was updated on July 9, 2020 to include current information.
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