Being outdoors camping is one of the most pure experiences. Shedding the modern trappings of home and being constantly connected, you get to embed yourself with mother nature where your screen is the sunset in front of you and conference calls turn into bird calls.
Yes, there are many levels to camping including everything from car camping to the backcountry but it's always handy to have that camping must haves packing list in front of you, even if it's a brief review to make sure you have everything you need because in many ways, there's no turning back!
Read more tips on camping
- Pinery Provincial Park guide and review
- Top 10 things to pack for any camping trip
- Guide to making coffee while camping
- Winter adventures in Muskoka
- Winter gear for winter adventures
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- You probably don't know this but you've been ripped off on car rentals this whole time. Make sure you know about car rental coupon codes.
Table of contents
- Camping Must Haves Packing List
- Camping Must Haves Packing Tips
- What You Should Do Before Leaving The House
- Frequently Asked Questions
Camping Must Haves Packing List
There are a lot of similarities when it comes to building a cottage packing list and one for camping but there are a ton of key differences that make building a camping packing list quite a bit more challenging.
With cottaging, comfort and turning your rental in Muskoka, into your home away from home. What's nice though is that even if you forgot something, the cottage is quite forgiving because they're usually stocked with more than you think and if anything you can just head to the nearby local store
With camping, there are certainly a lot of different approaches but the key difference is that you've got to be lighter, optimized for the outdoors, you'll have far fewer comfort items, and you won't have a constant power source.
This camping must haves packing list is focused on car camping but can certainly be adapted to your own style as well.
Make sure you have all of your important documents with you before you leave your house.
- Driver’s license
- Health card
- Campsite reservation – Print out is good to have in case you lose connection.
- Fishing permits
- Travel insurance if out-of-province (make sure to read where and how to buy travel insurance)
- Credit cards
- Cash for local purchases such as firewood or worms for fishing
- Tent – I currently use the more spacious Marmot Crane Creek 2P compared to the backpacking Big Agnes Fly Creek UL which you should look into if you're doing something like Zion NP's The Narrows.
- Tent footprint – A footprint designed for your tent is the best but a standard blue tarp underneath works just as well and in fact, if you get a footprint larger than your tent, you get a nice handy landing spot that's clean of dirt. The footprint also keeps the bottom of your tent clean and away from moisture.
- Sleeping pad – You don't want to sleep on the ground. Make sure you pick up a Therm-A-Rest NeoAir or Klymit Static.
- Trail quilt – In modern camping, this replaces the sleeping bag because they are so versatile. They can be used as a sleeping bag, poncho, blanket, and overquilt/underquilt for your hammock. The one I recommend is the Kammok Firebelly. For a warm underquilt, read our Kammok Arctos review.
- Hammock + straps – Combination of the Kammok Roo Single with Python straps is all you'll need but if you plan on sleeping in a hammock, you might want to consider the Mantis set up or pick up a Dragonfly on top for the bugs.
- Portable hammock stand – If you're car camping in an area without many trees, why not set up your hammock anywhere with the Swiftlet?
- Sleeping bag liner – If you're camping during colder climate or want to keep your trail quilt/sleeping bag clean, this is an option.
- Pillow – I swear by the Therm-A-Rest compressible travel pillow.
- Rope – A camper's best friend as there are so many uses for them. Primarily, you'll need them to create a clothesline but you'll also need it to say hang garbage up on a tree if bears are an issue and also for setting up an overhead tarp.
- Extra stakes – Buying additional DAC lightweight stakes are useful because tents don't often come with enough for those extra guy cords. You might also find other uses for them to say tie down tarp.
- Tarp – There's a bit of an art to tying up tarp to create a canopy at your campsite to provide shade or protection against the rain but especially for car camping, you'll learn about “tarp city”.
- Carabiners – There are various loops in the tent and carabiners are handy to put a light, or any of your gear that has their own loops.
- Instant screenhouse – This is essentially a gazebo that covers the picnic bench that'll give you more protection against rain and bugs.
Around the Campsite & Firepit
- Camping chairs – Helinox makes lightweight and portable camping chairs that I swear by but if you're on a budget, these replicas are just as good.
- Portable table – Super handy to have a small table by the campfire or as part of your cleaning station. These also roll up into a really small package that easily fits into a backpack.
- Cooler – You'll want to keep your food cold and undoubtedly the best in the market are the YETI Tundra Hard Coolers that use a rotomolded construction that are the ultimate insulation design and also strong enough to withstand bears.
- Solar-powered lanterns – Small LED lanterns and even string lights around the campsite can really enhance the space and also allow you to see at night.
- Headlamp – BioLite 330 is great all-around at the cottage or on other outdoor trips.
- Thermacell Mosquito Repeller – The Thermacell E55 creates a 20 feet zone of protection and is incredible at keeping mosquitoes at bay.
- Mosquito zapper – To complement the E55, these portable zappers are so small and easy to set up and work particularly well at night.
- Fly swatter – Kind of a crazy thing to bring camping but we've found this incredibly useful to fling things like caterpillars away from the tent, chairs, and bench.
- Citronella candles – Use this if you'd rather us an alternative form of mosquito repellent.
- Firestarter – These blocks making starter fires a cinch.
- Cardboard – You might have extra cardboard boxes at home. These make good fans to get your fire going and also as burning material to layer with your firestarter.
- Skewers – These telescoping roasting sticks are super handy for marshmallows and s'mores.
- Axe/hatchet – A chopping axe is useful to split firewood to create smaller logs or kindling.
- Clothes pins – Once you have your drying rope set up between trees, you can use these pins to keep your clothes and towel from falling off.
- Firewood – Not all campsites allow this but if you have access to cheap firewood or perhaps free wood in your neighborhood, go for it!
- Powerbank – Since you won't have access to electrical outlets, you'll want to make sure you have enough juice to charge all of your devices throughout your camping trip. This Anker powerbank is a good small power bank to have but you'll also want a giant powerbank that'll be good enough to charge multiple things at once and has at least 20,000 mAh. You also might want to compliment this set with a powerbank that can be charged by solar power. This one with multiple panels is recommended because single panel ones just don't charge fast enough. Bring as many as you can.
- Chargers for all your devices – Make sure any of your battery chargers have USB connections so you can use your powerbanks.
- Charging blocks – Don't forget your electrical outlet powerblocks because if you're at a campground with a comfort station, you might find outlets there for a recharge of your powerbank.
- Wifi hotspot – If you're paranoid about not having signal for your specific carrier, you might want to consider bringing a wifi hotspot that might be able to get signal with another provider. Something like the Pokefi or Skyroam are recommended.
- Camera + batteries – I shoot with the Olympus OMD EM-1 Mark 3 and I bring at least 5 batteries with me. You'll need more if you're planning on doing any astrophotography or shooting video.
- Portable Bluetooth speaker – The Bose SoundLink Revolve+ is excellent although be aware of noise restrictions at your campsite.
- Extra batteries – These are AA or AAA batteries that could be for your headlamp or flashlight.
- Portable car starter – This car starter and power bank combination should just be in your car at all times.
In terms of camping must haves, you'll want to keep your cooking tools pretty simple. For car camping specifically, doing everything with a portable grill will be your best bet.
- Napoleon TravelQ Portable Grill – The Napoleon TravelQ 285 is the best on the market and what you'll like about it is that it has two separate burners you can control, and has an option griddle (for bacon and eggs) and rack you can add to make it feel like you're grilling in your own backyard. I compared it with the Weber and Napoleon beats those hands down.
- Propane – Bring more mini propane tanks than you think you need.
- Mini-stove – Use one of these ultralight backpacking stoves to handle your hot water needs.
- Butane – The stove above uses the smaller butane canisters.
- GSI Outdoor Kit – The GSI Dualist set is highly recommended or you can go with the smaller MicroDualist.
- Aluminum foil
- Saran wrap
- Ziplock bags – We use this for things like packing trail mix in our day pack.
- Food containers – A collection of tupperware can be handy for things like leftovers or to use as bowls.
- Kitchen scissors
- Chef’s knife – The worst is going to a cottage and having really bad blunt knives. A quality Santoku knife is a staple in our household and we highly recommend it as something you can pack for your cottage trip.
- Cutting board – A collapsible cutting board works really well
- BBQ set – You can totally bring your grill set from home which should have a burger flipper and tongs
Things to eat with
- Real utensils – Depending on what you're cooking, you may want to consider real forks, spoons, and knives. For instance, if you're cooking steak, you will need a proper steak knife.
- Camping utensils – You can also invest in camping-optimized utensils such as the Light My Fire spork. The GSI outdoor kit as we mentioned earlier can also double as a cup and comes with its own bowls/containers.
- Insulated water bottle for hot/cold beverages – You might want a few of these for around the campsite or for your daily adventures hiking, biking, at the beach, or on a canoe/kayak.
- Paper plates – We always pack these as backup but almost always end up using our glass tupperware containers.
- Plastic utensils – Again, try to avoid these but if you have a few at home, you can pack some as backup.
Food & Drinks
There are so many different approaches to cooking at camp from the most basic meals (mac & cheese) to extravagant feasts (fish tacos and steak).
I'm somewhere in the middle and most of the meals we plan for camping is inspired from our cottage trips.
The key to cooking at camp is to have as much pre-prepared at home and at the same time to keep things simple. That usually means just taking advantage of your portable grill.
- Cooler – Depending on how many days your camping trip is, you'll want a giant cooler to store all of your food and also keep it cold. On the luxury end of things you have the YETI Tundra and then you also have the classic Coleman coolers. If your trip is 3-4 days long, I'd recommend at least 65 quarts in size.
- Ice – I recommend that you think ahead of time and pre-make your ice in the fridge throughout the week or you can also buy it along the way to your campsite at a supermarket or gas station.
- Meals – I won't put too much detail here since you'll be doing your own meal planning for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Don't bring as much as you would in your cottage packing list but you can have fun with it too with things like making your own Ham and Egg McMuffin and crescent rolls on a stick.
- Snacks – Trail mix is a great around the campsite or if you're going out on the water, at the beach, or while hiking.
- S’mores including graham crackers, chocolate, marshmallows – Buy more than you think you need. 1 box is never enough! There are a ton of different kits you can buy but you can save money by picking up the supplies individually as well.
- Water – You can certainly boil water that comes from the campground tap but you'll also want some of your own bottled water. I also recommend filling up a bunch of your jugs and water bottles with water before you leave home.
- Beverages – Think juices, Arnold palmers, and pre-made cold teas.
- Hot chocolate
- Coffee – The Aeropress GO is currently my go-to coffee maker while camping.
- Soy milk – If you need milk for your coffee or any recipes, this is a great alternative because it doesn't have to be refrigerated.
- Cooking oil / butter
- Spices + condiments – Think about all the different toppings you want on your burger or hotdog as a starting point.
- Alcoholic beverages – Cheers!
TIP: To keep your food cold in the cooler, you want to pre-chill it a day or two ahead of time with ice.
You're not going to have a proper kitchen or sink so you'll have to create your own make-shift cleaning station.
Typically, we'll set one up away from the tents and picnic bench because you'll need an area where you don't mind getting a little wet.
- Bucket – You should have at least 3. One for clean soapy water, another for clean rinse water, and a third for dirty water.
- Kitchen towels – These can be your standard kitchen towels or microfiber towels.
- Paper towels – A roll or two of these is good to have in case you need to do a quick clean up or maybe get rid of a bug.
- Hand sanitizer
- Hand sanitizer wipes
- Hand soap
- Dish soap
- Cleaning sponge
- Garbage bags
- Drying mat – I know, a bit of a luxury but using this or a cloth is handy to just place you clean dishes.
- Dustpan and brush – If you like a clean campsite, a mini sweep and dustpan is a camping must have.
- Packable day bag – I've found that if you're going to be using the comfort station for showering, you'll want a packable backpack where you can throw in your toiletry bag, towel, and change of clothes.
- Toiletry bag – If your campground has comfort stations, you'll want a toiletry bag that has a hook so you can have it off the ground and table when you can.
- Sunblock – The best sunscreen on the market is the Sun Bum. Use 50 SPF for your face and 50 SPF for body. I recommend different ones because the ones for your face are less oily.
- After-sun aloe vera
- Insect repellent – The spring and summer is when mosquitoes thrive so make sure you have the right protection. These days, you also have to think about ticks. Here's what I recommend: In the US, use Repel. In Canada, use Deep Woods.
- Ointment for bug bites – Mosquitoes love me and have found that After-Bite helps with the itchiness.
- Lip balm with SPF
- Hair dryer – You'll have to use this at the comfort station.
- Hair shampoo and conditioner
- Shower gel or soap
- Toothbrush + toothpaste + floss + mouthwash
- Face wash + face cream
- Body/hand lotion – If it's anything like up in northern Ontario, it's insanely dry in cottage country.
- Quick dry towel – A travel towel is camping must have. You can use it for the beach and comfort station showers.
- Nail clipper
- Razor and shaving cream
- Eye shades + ear plugs
- Pocket knife – The most reliable pocket knife has got to be the Camper Swiss Army. You always want to have this by your side.
- Toilet paper – Most comfort stations should have this stocked but you should pack one roll in case.
- Q-tips + cotton pads
- Feminine products – If you're far from a town, these will not be that easy to buy last minute or at night.
- Prescription glasses / contact lenses + case + solution
- Eye drops
First Aid Gear
Since you won't have the comforts of having an extensive first aid kit, make sure to pack your own essentials. here are a few common things you'll want to have.
- Antibacterial ointment
- Medicine for common cold
- Medicine for common cough
- Medicine for upset stomach
- Medicine for nausea
- Allergy pills
- Your prescription medication
Recreation and Fun
Beach and Water
- Beach towel
- Picnic mat
- Beach bag
- Dry bag – It's handy to have a dry bag on your kayak/canoe/paddleboard or if you're at the beach.
- Sand toys – For building that epic sand castle!
- Water craft – If you have your own kayak, canoe, paddleboard, or inflatables.
- Water toys – Think floaties, boogie boards, and water guns.
- Life jackets – If you plan on renting, these are included most of the time but if you have your own, pack them.
- Fishing gear + bait
Fun around the campsite
- Board games – Here are a few of our favourites: Code Names, Jenga, Love Letter, and Bears vs Babies.
- Deck of cards
- Sketchbook + pen / pencil – You have to keep score right?
- Sport balls – Think volleyball, football, spike ball, and soccer.
- Yoga mat – When we travel, we opt for a foldable yoga mat that is compact and lightweight.
- Day backpack – An alternative to dry bag if you're doing more extensive sports on the water.
- Hiking stick
- Bicycle + helmet
When it comes to clothes for your camping packing list, the best recommendation I have is to think about what you can fit inside your tent. In most cases, it'll be tight quarters so your best bet is a duffle bag or a backpack.
Remember, anything you can fit inside your tent, you'll have to leave it outside or you can keep it in your car.
- T-shirts and shorts
- Long sleeves and pants – Don't forget these because weather can unexpectedly turn cold or you'll want protection from the sun or mosquitoes. Long pants are also important for protection against ticks especially if you're doing a lot of hiking.
- Jacket/hoodie/sweater – The evenings get a lot colder than you think it will so make sure you have this layer.
- Underwear – ExOfficio makes the best travel underwear on the market.
- Sunglasses – I've recently fallen in love with Maui Jim for their best-in-class optical clarity and style.
- Swimsuit + goggles – For swimming in the lake.
For spring and summer, your camping must haves packing list should include clothing that are quick drying. I would still recommend at least a set of long sleeve shirt and pants for cool nights, or if you want to avoid mosquitoes.
- Running Shoes
- Hiking shoes
- Water shoes
- Flip flops
- Hat – For the best sun cover, wide brim hats are a good investment such as the Tilley LTM6.
- Buff Headwear – There's a reason why every trip needs a Buff. Read my review to understand why.
- Rain jacket + rain boots
- Warm clothes – Things cool down considerably in the evening and cold fronts can come in when you least expect it so always make sure you pack a few sweaters and light jacket in case.
For fall and winter, it's all about the layers. You may under-estimate the cold and wind chill, so pack those base layers!
- Toque – Yes, that's what we call them ;)
- Wool socks
- Base layer tops
- Base layer bottoms
- Fleece sweater
- Winter boots
- Crampons – These ice cleats slip onto your boots to create better traction on icy trails.
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Camping Must Haves Packing Tips
Once you have all of the things you need for your upcoming cottage trip, the fun part is figuring out a way to load it into your car.
While this won't cover ever single case because every trip is different, the number of vehicles you'll be driving to your cottage, and the size of your car, here are a couple of generalized tips to go along with your cottage packing list.
- Use bins – Whether it's the collapsible CleverMade bins or your regular ones, you'll want to keep your things organized with these. They also help in moving things in and out of the car if you're car camping. For instance, use one for dry food, another for cooking and eating tools/utensils, and use another one for recycle and garbage. Plastic bins with lids also make great mini tables.
- Stay organized – As best as you can, try to keep common-themed items together so you can find things easily when you arrive at the cottage.
- Pack clothes like you would for a trip – Make use of smart minimalist packing tips and put your clothes in a duffle bag or backpack.
- Heavy things on the bottom – As you're loading the car, make a point to put the heavy stuff first so they don't crush anything else.
- Pretend it's Tetris – You may not get it right the first time but if you rearrange a few things, you might be able to fit more.
- Remember the ice – Start thinking about ice early especially if you want to save money and make ice with your fridge. It takes time to build up a large supply.
- Pack less than you think you need – You'll feel like you'll want to bring everything “in case” but try to resist that urge and keep things as simple as possible. Tailor your list to the type of camping you're doing.
What You Should Do Before Leaving The House
We're often in such a rush to pack for a trip that we often forget to review what needs to be done in your house before you go.
Here's a checklist of things to think about before heading out for camping:
- Turn off any power bars that make sense to save on energy.
- Set any smart appliances and thermostat to vacation mode if available.
- If you're away for long, have a plan for family or neighbor to collect your mail.
- Unplug any appliances or tools that you really don't need running while you're away
- Set a timer for your lights. You can use either a smart plug or a wall timer to make it look like there's someone at home in the evening.
- Pre-register at your campsite. Ontario Parks now has a way of pre-registering individual people and vehicle before you show up which makes registration a lot faster.
- Download maps and make documents available offline. Always assume you'll be losing cellular data signal when you're at the campsite so any important maps, documents, trip plans, or things you need for work should be downloaded and made available offline. Remember the “Ok Maps” trick!
Frequently Asked Questions
Campsites are outdoors and so there shouldn't be any particular cleaning you'll need to do when you arrive. If anything, you could bring a sanitizer spray for the picnic bench.
This will depend on the park/campground. Some places allow pets but only in specific areas while others don't allow pets at all. Also pay attention to where dogs are allowed in the park such as the beach.
Yes, this is allowed as long as your guests don't plan on staying overnight. Campsites typically only include a fixed number of vehicles. Also, your visitors may need to reserve a day pass to visit the park.
Every province and state has different fishing rules and limits. Permit prices will vary for residents and non-residents, adults and seniors, freshwater and tidal water. Visit your local fishing and wildlife website to get more information on how to obtain a fishing license (i.e. Ontario, British Columbia, and United States).
It is worth checking with your park/campground whether outside wood is allowed. Some have strict rules about this while others have this as a recommendation. The idea is that outside wood might carry certain unwanted bugs or diseases so it's usually not a good idea.
When leaving your campsite, always have hand sanitizer and mask available.
I hope you found this camping must haves packing list useful. If there's anything I've missed, don't hesitate to drop a comment down below. Happy camping!
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