Packing a few essential camping items, each and every time you head out for an overnighter or two, is critical to having fun.
Like the old gray mare, my memory ain’t what she used to be.
Oh, I packed the sleeping bags on our last camping trip. The pillows, though, never made it to the Jeep in the driveway, let alone the campground five hours from home.
They were sitting on the couch, right beside my wife’s forgotten toiletry bag.
And the trip before that, well, it’s surprising how useless a 16-ounce propane tank is at breakfast when the one-burner stove that was supposed to be sitting atop it is instead back home, on the garage floor.
Sure, you can rest your head on a balled up pile of clothes, brush your teeth with a finger and boil water for oatmeal over open flames. In theory, anyway.
But camping is easier – way, way easier — when your gear actually, you know, goes camping, too.
To be sure that it did when my kids were in scouts and prepping for a weekend or even a week away, we relied on a sort of master camping checklist to keep our gear in line.
Not everything on the list went on every trip. Planned activities, seasonal variations in weather, distance from the car or the trailhead to the campsite, whether we were traveling by vehicle, boat or foot and other factors all played a role in determining what went and what stayed behind.
But the list – unofficially yet reverentially known as “The List,” with a capital L – governed all.
Items bound for camp got checked once when placed in the growing pile on the living room floor. They got checked a second time when actually packed in the truck.
Then and only then were they considered good to go.
I got away from that on our last couple of trips and paid for it.
No more. It’s back to the List for me. On paper or in my phone, it’s going to be at the ready for every adventure from here on out.
As for what’s on it, there are some things every camper just has to have, no matter what. These are my 10 camping essentials.
Shelter. This might seem obvious, but – if you’re a tent or hammock camper – there’s nothing worse than getting to your site and realizing you have nothing to separate you from the elements.
That car or truck seat that’s comfortable enough for a quick cat nap in a roadside stop parking lot isn’t equipped for a full night’s rest.
Sleeping gear. This might be just a sleeping bag liner or even a sheet from home. Or it might be a mummy-style sleeping bag.
That all depends on the weather.
Check the forecast and take along the appropriate equipment to keep you warm, but not too warm, through the night. And when in doubt, take extra. If you’re car camping, and space isn’t such an issue, you can always layer up if needed.
Cutting tool. This doesn’t have to be a machete or an axe that would make a lumberjack proud.
But in any campsite, there is kindling to trim, rope to cut, packaging to open, and what have you. A good, solid knife can perform a lot of those chores.
A multi-tool isn’t a bad backup, either.
First aid kit. You can stop the bleeding from a cut by pressing your dirty sock up to it, or wrap it – and all the hair you’ll shortly lose when you remove it – with duct tape.
An adhesive bandage is so much better, though.
Packing those in a basic first aid kit, together with some things for upset stomachs, headaches, and other illnesses and injuries, can save a trip.
Sunscreen and bug spray. My wife and I need these in varying amounts. Sunscreen is a must for her fair skin, while I can often go without it. Bugs love me, though, and often drive me crazy while she goes unscathed.
Figure out who in your group needs what and plan accordingly.
Lights. If only gold prospectors had had it this easy.
I mean, if you want to find the gnarliest root or sharpest rock in the woods, try setting a tent up in the dark. It will invariably wind up under your floor, right in the small of your back when sleeping.
Lights – from headlamps or flashlights to a lantern – position you look at what will be under your tent, what might be hanging over it and generally help you find what you need when you need it amidst your gear.
Extra clothes, including rain gear. You’ve seen a movie or something surely where a guy visits a drought-stricken town, armed only with a forked stick, and promises to make it rain.
I don’t know if that actually works. But I’m sure if the guy showed up with a tent and no raincoat it would pour in short order. Prepare to stay dry and warm whenever you head out.
Toiletries. Want to find out who really loves you? Forgot to pack your deodorant and toothbrush when in the woods for a week.
Having to wear your contact lenses awake and asleep for several days because you have no way to cleanly take them in and out is no picnic either. So make sure to carry along all of the things you use daily to keep yourself clean and comfortable.
Water. Head out on a backpacking trip and you might carry some to start. But you’ll definitely need a way to treat more as you go.
Even when car camping, though, I always carry water. Many if not most campgrounds say they’ll have it available, and generally do. But occasionally you may find a spot that doesn’t.
Either way, it’s nice to have some to get started before you have to go looking.
Fire starters. You will, on occasion, find a campground that bans fires, for safety reasons. And you’ll have to make do.
But a campfire is a wonderful part of any outdoor experience when available. You want to be able to start one quickly. Pack kindling, a fire starter or two, and multiple sources of ignition, from matches to a lighter to a sparking tool of some kind.
Now, beyond those 10 camping essentials, there are a lot of other things I take along.
If my wife is tent camping with me, for example, our air mattress – the big one her back demands, not my smaller ones – is an absolute must. Snacks are a given, too, as is a daypack to carry things in when exploring away from the tent site. Our camp box is stocked full of cooking and kitchen essentials, and I’ll be sure to have fishing gear if there’s any water around.
But I can make do so long as the camping essentials are there.
And they will be next time. I’ve learned my lesson.
A cricky neck and lukewarm breakfast oatmeal are great reminders of the importance of having and heeding The List.
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