How to Create the Ultimate Campsite
Believe it or not, camping can be a borderline lavish hobby—so long as you have the right gear. We're going to tell you how to create a fun & comfortable campsite that'll have you rethinking booking that hotel room.
You're probably thinking this is going to be some hyperbolic article with a list of things that seem more obvious than using wood to make a fire. Of course there's going to be a tent, sleeping bag, camp chair, etc. These items are the foundation upon which The Greatest Campsite Ever is built. Okay, that was a bit hyperbolic, but let's carry on.
A lot of people give up on camping because they don't have the right equipment or end up buying cheap gear that gives out quicker than a $20 tent in a light breeze. However, armed with the right information, the right gear, and "You Got It (The Right Stuff)" saved on your phone, you can turn a dirty ol' campsite into a veritable oasis in the woods that you'll never want to leave.
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'll be some crossovers. Now, let's take a gander.
The Bare Necessities
I know you can technically camp by laying down atop the earth and sleeping there for a night. But we're going to assume you're not an outlaw on the run in the 1800s and talk more about the essential comforts. First, you'll need a tent (I've been using REI's Half Dome SL for a few years and love it). There are a ton of tents to choose from out there, and if you don't feel like spending the big bucks on one, check out Coleman's line of shelters—they run the gamut of small, 2-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. I like Mountain Hardware's Bishop Pass because it's unbelievably warm and packs down to easily fit in my 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 stil sounds a bit too rugged for you, grab an air mattress, throw some sheets on it, and bring a blanket and pillows from home.
Now you'll need a camp chair. My favorite is—and has been for a while—Nemo's Stargaze Recliner. It is to camp chairs with the Rolls-Royce Phantom is to cars. And don't take the cheap route here and buy one of those $15 portable chairs that'll break in a month. 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 hell you're doing, grab a flashlight. But more importantly, snag a solid headlamp. I'm a big fan of Petzel, Black Diamond, Princeton Tec, and Third Eye. For more general lighting, I like to grab my Coleman lantern, tie it to a rope I've thrown over a branch, and lift it to about six feet. This creates a nice vibe without being too bright. If you're in the mood for some more intimate lighting, definitely check out UCO's Sitka 500. It's rechargeable, small yet mighty, and can also cycle through red, green, and blue light.
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 I've unapologetically deemed essential: a hatchet and a portable charger. Some might say these items are luxuries, and I'd say to those people: Nuh uh. A quality hatchet like this one from SOG will make quick work of creating kindling and can be used as a defensive measure should wildlife decide your camp looks like a place they'd also like to enjoy. A small, portable charger is also a necessity as we live in 2021 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 breaking you keep hearing in the distance.
Eating and Drinking Essentials
There's absolutely nothing wrong with putting a hotdog on a stick, holding it over a fire, and calling that dinner. It's probably in my top five dishes, just below lobster mac n cheese but just above steak tartare. However, 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 from GSI Outdoors. It's a three pound set that includes a five liter pot, a three liter pot, a 9-inch frying pan, two lids, a cutting board, a pot gripper, and 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 also makes a great table set (which is a great way to cut back on plastic cups and plates), but I'm a big fan of using recycled paper plates and this Case 52 flatware set (a.k.a. a hobo 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 my go-to. Specifically Stanley's Classic 48oz Stay Hot. It makes enough for 4-6 people (or one very amped up solo camper) and is easily cleaned and packed away when you don't need it. As for what I pour my joe into, I'm a big fan of Miir's 12oz 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. Save those for weddings and bachelor/bachelorette parties.
A Little Bit of Luxuries
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 will be a few 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. My personal favorite is the ENO DoubleNest Hammock. It's the OG of portable camping hammocks and I've had mine for almost six years at this point with zero issues. It hangs up in minutes and is great for post-hikes naps or spending a lazy morning reading.
Now let's talk portable speakers. I've been with people who harbor an intense disdain for the speaker because they think it takes away from this intangible notion of disconnecting. I disagree. I think music brings people together. Plus, have you ever had a fireside dance party in the middle of the woods? It's amazing. A speaker I've always liked—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 these ones 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. I always bring my CRKT with me 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 pocket knife that'll always be a conversation starter.
The final item in this category is something I first thought to be extremely extraneous and then grew to love: 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 string lights around it.
I know what you're thinking: Let's wrap it up, pal. Heard ya loud and clear. These last items are kind of afterthoughts but nevertheless things you'll want to consider based on the size of your party, room in your vehicle, and over size of your campsite (including proximity to neighbors). I own all the items I'm going to tell you about and can tell you I bring most of them everytime I go car camping. Let's start with KanJam—a game where you literally throw a frisbee at a can. This is the most fun game to 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 I've found myself 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, place your cookware, and provide 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 I love bringing out. Cooking over the fire pit is always fun and somewhat of a challenge, but when you're cooking for 5+ 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 a 10" and a 12" pan.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the camp blanket. I can't tell you how many times I've gone into the mountains with someone who didn't pack enough warm items and forgot that temps drop significantly in the mountains. A camp blanket is their lifeline, and as far as I'm concerned, it's hard to beat Rumpl's NanoLoft blanket. It compresses down to about the size of a water bottle and, when needed, will warm you up in minutes and keep you warm 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 more chilly than you 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 what remains the most important thing is this: bring only what you need as long as it gives you joy. A well-made campsite can rival that of a hotel room—if you have the right stuff.