An orange tent on a campground

18 essentials for your camping trip

Safely immersing yourself in the simplicity of the great outdoors isn't actually very simple. Even if you set the packing bar low and only stick to the essentials, you'll still need quite a few items at your disposal.

This is an overview of what you should be bringing on any camping trip, be it driving, hiking, canoeing/kayaking, or any other type of backcountry expedition. Don't be the person that spends all that time preparing for a trip but then forgets to pack something critical on the departure date. Let this guide be your guide. Use it well.

1. First aid kit

You probably won't ever use 95 per cent of the items in a first aid kit, but it's the small chance of something going horribly wrong that makes a well-stocked kit a necessity. Canadian Red Cross provides a nice summary of what should go in one of these kits. Better yet, take some kind of first aid course that is appropriate for the remoteness of the trips you are planning to take.

2. Field guide

Even the most highly prepared and knowledgeable campers are prone to forgetfulness sometimes. That's why it makes so much sense to bring a field guide, which serves as a written resource of all the valuable information you would need in various medical emergencies. They are generally very compact and easy to transport. So there's no excuse for not bringing one along!

3. Map and map case

Maps are a no-brainer in the wilderness. Given how easy it is to stray from familiar territory and get lost, you should really never be without a map if you're venturing outside of a populated area. It's also important to keep in mind that your map will be useless if it is marred by rain or other elements, so it's wise to invest in a good map case as well.

4. Water purification method

Aside from oxygen, there's no compound more essential to the human body than water. We can survive for days—maybe weeks—without food, but not without water. You can't take chances when it comes to this key substance. No matter how much you pack or how short your trip will be, there's always a chance something could happen to your supply, leaving you water-less. To keep yourself hydrated under any circumstances, have a method of water purification such as filtering, tablets, or liquid treatment handy. In a worst-case scenario, be comfortable enough with your fire-building skills to purify water by boiling. 

5. Fire starter

On that note, always be equipped with at least one (but preferably multiple) tools to start fires with. This is a twofold challenge. Firstly, you'll need something that can spark the fire, like a lighter, matches, or some kind of flint device. But then you'll have to be able to build it up and keep it going too. Usually you can rely on wood and quick-burning natural finds like birch bark for that purpose, but there may be some situations where those are unavailable, or rendered useless from the rain. For those times, it's good to have some firestarter (an artificially-induced flame that lasts for at least a few minutes and can be used to get a fire going) or dry newspaper on hand.

6. Tent

This shouldn't require much explanation. While it can be tempting to sleep completely exposed under the stars on a clear, warm night, a tent is a must-have in the (very likely) event that conditions aren't that ideal.

7. Sleeping bag (and pillow?)

A tent is just one side of the sleeping coin. To truly sleep comfortably—and in cold conditions, safely—in the wilderness, you'll need a sleeping bag. But no good sleep is complete without a pillow. Sometimes you can make do with using a bulky sweater as a makeshift pillow, but it's not ideal. Consider picking up a small, portable pillow from an outdoor goods store. They're relatively inexpensive and make a huge difference.

8. Appropriate pack(s)

If you're camping with a car you have a little bit off leeway on this, since you can store your gear in there and travel with it easily when it's not set up at a campsite. Backpackers have a tougher time with this though, because they're limited by the amount that they themselves can reasonably lug around. Most of the time, campers should be able to get by with one spacious pack, which can hold a tent, clothing (which should be stored in a dry sack), and any other items that are being brought along. A separate type of pack one might consider bringing is a food barrel, which can be worn like a backpack and serves as a food storage unit that bears cannot typically penetrate. But there are other methods of food protection that may be provided or recommended based on which park you are visiting.

9. Tarp(s)

It's easy to find uses for tarps on a campsite—especially when there's rain involved. If it's raining or threating to rain when you'll be cooking, you can use some rope (more on this below!) to hang a spread-out tarp horizontally overtop the firepit. You could do it vertically as well, if you wanted to stop heavy gusts of wind from blowing through the fire. Tarps can also be used as protection for dry wood, as a means of preserving its dryness during rainy periods. Finally, having a tarp underneath your tent can be a good idea as well, since water sometimes seeps into it from the bottom during rainfall.

10. Rope

Where to begin with this invaluable tool? As mentioned above, it is essential for hanging a tarp. It can also be used to hang food, which is either suggested or mandatory in a lot of wilderness areas. Rope can always come in handy for makeshift repairs, whether it is for a tent, a canoe, or something else. And in all likelihood, you'll probably stumble across some sort of unforeseen situation in your camping travels where rope would be a huge help (and if you follow this list, you'll be grateful you brought it).

11. Toilet paper

Because nature calls, but the best she can provide you with in this department is leaves—which don't really cut it.

12. Bags

Littering in the wilderness is something you want to avoid unless absolutely necessary. These spaces are preserved for a reason, and as someone who is visiting them to appreciate their pristine quality, it would be rude and hypocritical to compromise that. Ending up with garbage is almost always unavoidable while camping. But instead of leaving it on your site, you should bring bags that you can use to store it in until you can find an actual garbage disposal to dump it in. Having bags is also useful for keeping valuable equipment contained or dry.

13. Cooking materials and food

Because of the rise in availability and variety of non-perishable food items, cooking materials might not be as essential as some of the other items on this list, but even someone munching on canned goods will need a can opener! Anyone who needs heat to cook their food will either need to bring along a gas stove or have other materials on hand: a grill, a pot and/or frying pan, pot grips, tongs, a spatula, bowls, plates, cutlery, etc. It's up to the camper to determine his or her needs in advance and have them covered.

14. Biodegradable soap and steel wool

When one cooks in the wilderness, one must also do the dishes. The most environmentally conscious way to do that is with biodegradable soap and steel wool. Rubbing soap and water on to dishes with the steel wool will get rid of all the food residue and have your dishes ready for the next meal.

15. Light source

Although many campers voluntarily choose to go to bed when it is still light out, well before when they would at home, you shouldn't bank on not needing an artificial light source. Whether it's because you're awake in the darkness, or you're forced to deal with something unexpected at night, a headlamp, lantern, or flashlight will be your best friend. It's always a good idea to pack some extra batteries for it as well.

16.  Hat/bandana

There's a lot of tools and resources on this list, but your brain is the most valuable of all when you're out in the wilderness. Too much sun exposure can give you migraines or heat exhaustion, meaning that you won't your sharpest or most capable self. By wearing a hat or bandana on your head, you'll severely decrease the chances of that happening.

17. Sun screen

Sun burns are another hindrance that will put a damper on your time outdoors. Burns to key areas of your body will prevent you from fulfilling the physical demands that camping requires, and just make things really uncomfortable. Moreover, not wearing sunscreen opens up the risk for skin cancer and other serious conditions. Make sure you always have some on you.

18.  Communication device and whistle

Each of these serves a distinct but necessary purpose for a camper. The former connects you to the urban world in times of distress. Whether it's a satellite phone, communicative radio, or cell phone with a powerful-enough signal, one of these devices could be your only method of survival if you require care that is only available in a built-up area. A whistle, meanwhile, could be the thing that saves you if you need the help of an additional person. The sharp sound of a whistle is a universal cry for help, and will surely help towards you if there is anyone in the area.

Bonus: Life jacket

This only applies to campers that are going to be going in or traveling over the water—but boy does it apply. It doesn't matter if you're an Olympic swimmer; when you're in the wilderness, you bring a life jacket. There are so many things that could go wrong and put you in a situation where drowning is a distinct possibility. When that situation arises, a life jacket is the best defense you have.