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How to Pack for a Weekend Camping Trip

Camping expert Eric Bergdoll tells you all about the essential gear you'll need for your next weekend camping trip.

Photo by Kevin Ianeselli

Weekend trips, with the right preparation, can be one of the best ways to unwind, relax, and decompress after a long week at work. Without the right prep work, they can be just as stressful as the work week we strive to distance ourselves from. Whether you are a seasoned ultralight backpacker or a family going car camping for the first time, there are a couple of items your weekend trip can’t go smoothly without. Here are the camping essentials that I bring on every trip, from multi-day descents of slot canyons in the Grand Canyon to car camping gatherings with friends. This list is less a camping checklist, which is worthwhile to remember specific items, and more a list of essential camping gear I wouldn't go on a trip without.

1. Sleeping Bag

A man sits while wearing a sleeping bag
Photo by Eric Bergdoll

This is the most important camping essential as a good sleeping bag can really make or break a trip. With or without a tent, the sleeping bag is the barrier holding back the elements. Matching temperature ratings to weather conditions and changing elevation can be tricky, and bringing a slightly warmer bag than you think you need is usually a good call to avoid waking up at 1am and shivering until sunrise. (Not that I’ve experienced that or anything…) Sleeping bag liners such as the Sea to Summit Reactor series are also a great tool to have if you want to use a light bag where it might be colder than the degree rating.

2. Sleeping Pad & Pillow

This goes hand in hand with the sleeping bag. Your pad keeps you up and off the ground, or blocks the wind if you are sleeping in a hammock. The insulating effect of a sleeping pad is published as its “R-value.” This is the amount of heat that the pad will reflect back at you, instead of losing heat to the often-cold ground or air below. For the pillow, I am a big fan of an inflatable pillow such as the Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight pillow or a puffy coat rolled up in a t-shirt.

3. Shelter

A tent sits amongst the trees on a small island
Photo by Eric Bergdoll

This can be a standard double-wall dome tent, an ultralight backpacking tent, a hammock with rainfly, a bivouac sack (often shortened to “Bivy”, such as the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy) or a high-tech tarp. Shelters keep you and your gear dry in the event of a storm, and sometimes, depending on construction, away from bugs. Don’t forget a tent footprint or ground cloth! This will dramatically increase the life of a tent and keep your gear out of the dirt.

4. Food, Water, and Cookset

A camp cooking set up
When you forget your pot for boiling water… improvise. Photo by Eric Bergdoll

Your food and cookset can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it. For backpacking, you can boil water with a Jetboil and make dehydrated meals ready to eat in 10 minutes. For car camping, a camp stove such as the Camp Chef Everest can cook anything you would at home on the stovetop. And for dishes, I usually bring a bowl with a screw-on lid to keep any leftovers for the next meal and a metal spork. Hot drinks are also a great tool to warm back up when temperatures dip below what was expected.

When it comes to water filtration, my go-to is the Platypus Gravityworks, which in my experience is the fastest and easiest way to make potable water for the entire group, while still being pretty lightweight. Six to 10 gallon water jugs are great to store water in the car, but a Nalgene bottle and water bladder (when packability is important) are nice to have for on-the-trail or around camp. Other options to a camp stove setup is a dutch oven in the fire pit. Extra water bottles are also an important thing to remember for storage around camp.

5. Headlamp (with extra batteries)

A lit up tent glows in the darkness while a figure with a headlamp stands next to it
Photo by Rahul Bhosale

Whenever you don’t have a headlamp is when you end up needing one. A headlamp makes everything easy when the sun goes down, ranging from finding camp after getting lost to locating a water bottle after waking up in the middle of the night. Extra batteries are a must for when it inevitably turns itself on in your bag. I tape 3 batteries to the strap of my headlamp so they are accessible and easy to find when needed. The Black Diamond Storm headlamp features an easy to use locking feature for when it is stored to avoid unintentional Illumination.

6. Multi-Tool & First Aid Kit

People walk through a desert valley
Photo by Eric Bergdoll

Another item for the “need it most when you don’t have it” category, a good multi-tool packs a bunch of different tools into an easy to use configuration. The Leatherman Wingman has lots of features for the price and a sleek, compact package. Ultralight and waterproof first aid kits, like the Adventure Medical Kit Medical Kit .5, are great for weekend trips, as long as you remember to replace things as you use them. A couple other items that could fall into this category are insect repellent, prescription medications, Duct tape, and maybe some toilet paper.

7. Layers

A man hikes
Photo by Eric Bergdoll

Even 35 and rain showers can be enjoyable with the right layers. The layers you bring will depend on the season, but I like to bring a waterproof shell jacket regardless. When a storm hits temperatures can drop quick, and staying dry should be top priority. Staying dry will help you avoid hypothermia or being soaked through, making the rest of the trip much less enjoyable. With a nice, lightweight and waterproof shell jacket, staying dry through rain is easy, and it just might save the trip!

With these essentials, your next camping trip, to a local state park or a remote national forest across the country will be an enjoyable camping experience.

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Written By
Growing up in Colorado then later Western Pennsylvania, my family would go camping in the mountains most weekends. In spring 2015 I decided to ramp things up a notch by enrolling in a National Outdoor Leadership School semester, which consisted of 87 days in the wilderness. Since that trip, I have f...

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