Backpacking Essentials: A Camping Checklist for Beginners

View of tent opening peering into forest outside.

Take a buddy, wash your hands, and pack appropriate clothing

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

Camping out can be a wonderful experience when you exercise safety precautions. Connecting with nature is one great feature of this activity. Connecting with family members or friends you camp with is another. Camping usually drums up lots of fun, but the occurrence of an unfortunate event can take the fun right out of a tent camping trip. Knowing what to do to prevent an unpleasant occurrence can be a lifesaver. If vacationing in a tent is in your future plans, let the following guide help aid you in preventing an unhappy ending to your camping trip in one of America's great national parks.

Make sure you're physically fit.

Man grips rowing handles in gym.

Make sure everyone going on the camping is fit enough to engage in camping activities like hiking and climbing. Anyone who is expecting to do strenuous activities such as these should be in good health. People who have health issues would be wise to tell their doctor about the trip prior to leaving to see if their doctor feels camping is a good idea.

Take appropriate clothing and sleeping gear.

Backpacking essentials lying on the table.

Pack appropriate clothing and sleeping gear for your camping trip. If the temperature drops during the night, you want to make sure you stay warm by layering extra clothes and by covering yourself with a proper sleeping bag. You also want to protect your body from the damp ground when you sleep by placing a plastic ground cover under your tent and a sleeping pad under your body. Be sure to pack a water bottle or water jug, and when the temperature rises, drink lots of water. Avoid excessive alcohol, and never drink water from a stream that could be a source of parasites and microorganisms - be sure to use a water filter to filter it first. Wear light clothing to stay cool. Protect your skin from the sun by wearing a hat with a brim, sunglasses, and at least SPF 30 sunscreen. Try to stay in the shade during the middle part of the day whenever possible. When hiking, be sure to wear proper hiking shoes, and be careful around cliffs and slippery rocks.

Use the buddy system.

Two people walk down snowy path with trees on right and left. Backpacking essentials; the buddy system while hiking.

Never leave your camp grounds alone. Your survival in an emergency situation may depend on having someone by your side to help you. Before you venture into unfamiliar terrain, examine the area to make sure it is free of broken glass, sharp or pointy objects, poison ivy, or harmful insects and animals. Do not wear perfume since it attracts bugs, but do wear a bug repellent, along with a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Do not leave food around your campsite as food attracts bears.

Watch for changing weather.

Lightning strikes in the distance over the Grand Canyon.

Be mindful of storms and stay away from tall trees that stand alone if a lightning storm strikes. Avoid contact with metal during a lightning storm. Stay a minimum of 100 yards away from all bodies of water. Execute these precautions a little while longer after the storm ends to play it safe.  

Use proper hygiene.

Man holding fish underwater to wash off.

Prevent food illnesses by using proper food storage. Take a cutting board, if going on a short trip, and a camp stove or dutch oven, and be sure to keep food surfaces clean in your camp kitchen. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with biodegradable soap. Take a first aid kit (with a fire starter) for any emergencies.

Other essentials include a tent repair kit, insect repellent or jacket, extra batteries for your headlamp, a multi-tool, and any trash bags (we recommend Ziploc plastic bags) for packing trash out. If going on a shorter trip, some people add a frying pan to their camping list / personal items. Toilet paper and baby wipes are also necessary hygiene items, as is a trowel.

If car camping, you may pack additional items like camp chairs, duct tape (you never know), paper towels (be sure to pack out), an air mattress (for extra comfort), a can opener (if taking canned food), potholders (to prevent any burns), biodegradable dish soap, cooking oil and measuring cups (for the gourmet chefs among us), a coffee pot (for those who don't enjoy the instant), aluminum foil, and dish towels.

Backpacking Essentials: A Camping Checklist for Beginners

Campfire burns brightly in the night.

You can further help prevent a less than happy ending to your camping trip by being sure to keep any appliances you cook with and fires you use for cooking a safe distance away from your tent. A propane appliance can be dangerous, so be careful when using one. Have a survival whistle handy in case you need help or want to send an animal away. Be prepared to take care of an injury by having an emergency kit with you.

For further reading, check out the CDC's Camping Health & Safety Tips or U.S. Forest Service's Outdoor Safety Tips.

Looking for more on backpacking essentials / camping checklists and other outdoor activities? Try these:

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

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