Create the Ultimate Campsite with the Right Gear
From the bare necessities, to the extra luxury elements, here’s how to create a fun and comfortable campsite that’ll have you rethinking booking a hotel room.
When it comes to putting together a campsite, one has to make sure that everything is meticulously planned and nothing is overlooked, especially if you’re going to spend more than one night in it. Of course, there are the basic elements like a tent, sleeping bag, lamps, etc., but while these items are a great starting point, there are other things to consider when it comes to making your outdoor setup feel just like home.
Your camping setup can make or break how you feel about spending the night outdoors, and that’s just not fair considering how important it is for us humans to stay connected with nature. To avoid having a bad experience that’ll make you give up on camping altogether, all you have to do is arm yourself with the right information and camping gear to turn your campsite into a veritable oasis in the woods.
Before we really dive in, it should be mentioned that this info is primarily for car camping (rather than backpacking), but — like the cars you'll see parked at most campsites — there will be some crossovers. Now let's get into it.
The Bare Necessities
Let’s start with the basics. Whether you’re new to camping or consider yourself one with nature, a good quality tent is a must. There are tons to choose from out there but we’ve tried REI’s Half Dome SL 2+ and we highly recommend it to anyone. It boasts a spacious floor plan, enough to fit three people, and you’ll still have enough space for your gear. If you don’t feel like spending the big bucks, check out Coleman’s line of shelters—they run the gamut from small two-person tents to palatial 12-person tents that can fit four air mattresses..
Next up is your sleeping bag. If you're going to be car camping in the more temperate months, look for something comfortable, warm, and dry. We recommend Mountain Hardware's Bishop Pass because it's unbelievably warm and packs down to easily fit in a backpack, but you can find great deals on sleeping bags from REI, Backcountry, Walmart, Amazon, etc. Throw that bag on top of something like Sea to Summit's self-inflating mat, and you'll be out in no time. If that still sounds a bit too rugged for you, grab an air mattress, throw some sheets on it, and bring a blanket and pillows from home. In terms of camp chairs, one of our favorites is Nemo's Stargaze Recliner. It is to camp chairs what the Rolls-Royce Phantom is to cars. And while it’s easy to take the cheap route here and buy one of those $15 portable chairs that'll break in a month but believe us, a proper camp chair is worth the investment. Pay a little more and pick up something that's way more comfortable and will last a lot longer. REI is a good place to start.
When the sun goes down and you need to see what the heck you're doing, go ahead and grab a flashlight. But more importantly, snag a solid headlamp. We’re big fans of Petzel, Black Diamond, Princeton Tec, and Third Eye. For more general lighting, we’d recommend taking a Coleman lantern, tying it to a rope, and lifting it about 6 feet off the ground with the help of a branch. This creates a nice vibe without being too bright. If you're in the mood for some more intimate lighting, definitely check out BioLite AlpenGlow 500 Lantern. It's rechargeable, small, yet mighty.
As far as food/drink storage goes, it's hard to beat YETI's Tundra 45. It's not cheap, but it is the next generation of cooler to be passed down to future generations. But if that price is making you think about going back to eating packets of ramen for dinner for a month to save money, check out RTIC's line of coolers as well as the original classic workhorse: Coleman. Finally, as you begin to see your distinguished campsite take form, you'll want to round it out with a couple more things we've unapologetically deemed essential: a hatchet and a portable charger. Some might say these items are luxuries, but we’d have to disagree. A quality hatchet like this one from SOG will make quick work of creating kindling. A small portable charger is also a necessity, as we live in a tech-driven world and everything from your phone and lantern to your headlamp and portable speaker can be charged via USB. Check out this model from INIU that'll charge multiple devices at once, so you can worry less about battery life and more about the sounds of twigs snapping you keep hearing in the distance.
Eating and Drinking Essentials
Of course, you can have the good ol’ hotdog on a stick type of meal. After all, staying in the woods is all about the simple things in life. However, if you want to take on the fun project of cooking a delicious meal outdoors, upgrades in camp cookware have basically made it so that you can cook a five-course meal with limited tools. The first thing you'll want to pick up is the Bugaboo Base Camper Cookset by GSI Outdoors. It's a 3-pound set that includes a 5-liter pot, a 3-liter pot, a 9-inch frying pan, two lids, a cutting board, a pot gripper, and a storage sack. If this seems a bit extraneous to you, perhaps you'd be better off picking up a cast iron from Lodge and keeping it simple.
GSI makes a great table set (which is a great way to cut back on plastic cups and plates), but you can also use recycled paper plates and this Case 52 flatware set/pocket knife. It creates less to pack and makes cleaning up — the worst part of camp dinner — a total breeze.
And who could forget about morning coffee? A French press is a must-have. Specifically Stanley's Classic 48-ounce Stay Hot. It makes enough for four to six people (or one very amped-up solo camper) and is easily cleaned and packed away when you don't need it. As for what to pour your joe into, we recommend Miir's 12-ounce Camp Cup (which can also double as a whiskey cup). It keeps coffee piping hot down to the last sip and can easily be attached to a pack via carabiner.
For post-coffee beverages, you can't go wrong with YETI's Rambler for ice water (also great for mixed drinks by the fire) and RTIC's Can Cooler—which is just so much better than the ubiquitous neoprene koozies.
A Little Bit of Luxury
You've taken care of the essentials and your eating and drinking needs. But this is the ultimate campsite. Not the "this'll do" campsite. To elevate your outdoor abode to another level, there are a few more things you'll absolutely need. First is a hammock. At this point, so many companies are creating portable camping hammocks, it's almost impossible to not buy one. One of our favorites has to be the ENO DoubleNest Hammock. It's the OG of portable camping hammocks and it lasts you a lifetime. It hangs up in minutes and is great for post-hikes naps or spending a lazy morning reading.
When it comes to setting the mood, portable speakers are a must. While one of the joys of staying in the woods is having the luxury of experiencing the most soothing nature sounds, sometimes the moment requires some enjoyable beats. Music brings people together. Plus, have you ever had a fireside dance party in the middle of the woods? It's amazing. A speaker we’ve always been a fan of — for its great battery life, durability in the elements, and portability — is JBL's Charge 4. You can leave this out in the rain all night and it'll start right up the next morning. And if someone else brings their JBL speaker, you can sync them together… which is perfect for fireside dance parties.
Another luxury you may want to bring is a power station — like one of these from Jackery. These things are equipped with AC outlets, a DC carport charger, and USB charging ports. It's an entire off-the-grid power supply that can support appliances, small grills, small refrigerators, and all your tech gear (should you be bringing cameras, a laptop, etc).
You'll also want to bring a pocket knife. Now, I know this seems like an essential, but when you're car camping and bring a hatchet, you won't really be using a pocket knife that often — unless you're really into whittling. Which is cool. We always recommend the CRKT knife because it's small, sharp, and designed with minimalism in mind. Everything you want from a pocket knife, and nothing you don't. Opinel also makes a great one that'll always be a conversation starter. The final item in this category is the gazebo. It's a bit bulky to pack, so you'll want to make sure you have the room, but if a storm approaches and people need a place to stay dry, the gazebo becomes a sort of town hall. Everyone gathers under it, you can cook under it, drink under it, talk about when you think the storm will pass under it, and of course, stay dry under it. Bonus points if you add string lights around it.
These last items are kind of afterthoughts but nevertheless things you'll want to consider based on the size of your party, amount of room in your vehicle, and size of your campsite (including proximity to neighbors). Let's start with KanJam—a game where you literally throw a frisbee at a can. This is the most fun game you’ll ever play at a campsite. You'll find yourself playing for hours, and the cans fold down flat for simple storage.
A pop-up table is also something you’ll find yourself using time and time again. Most sites will have picnic tables, but they're often covered in old food, scraps, and signs of animals. A pop-up table is an efficient way to stay organized, provides a place for your cookware, and offers extra space for the things you might want to keep at the ready — like a flashlight, first aid kit, or portable charger. A portable gas grill is also something we love bringing out. Cooking over the fire pit is always fun and somewhat of a challenge, but when you're cooking for 5-plus people, it's always good to have an extra set of burners. Coleman makes an excellent camp stove that can run on high for over an hour and fit both 10- and 12-inch pans.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the camp blanket. You’ll be surprised how handy this item comes when you don’t pack enough warm items, especially in the mountains where temps drop significantly. For that we’d recommend Rumpl's NanoLoft camp blanket. It compresses down to about the size of a water bottle and, when needed, will warm you up in minutes and keep you toasty throughout the night. It's also a great extra layer of warmth if your sleeping bag is on the cheaper side and the night gets a bit chillier than anticipated.
Of course there are many more items you can bring camping, which is what makes it such a fun hobby. Your collection of gear will grow, evolve, and change over time with your needs. But no matter the size of your gear collection, the most important rule of thumb is this: bring only what you need as long as it gives you joy. A well-made campsite can rival a hotel room — that is, if you have the right stuff.