Ah, camping. S’mores over the campfire and waking up to the sounds of nature, right? But without comfortable gear and preparation, tent camping (aka car camping), can feel a lot more like work than a vacation. Assembling the ultimate tent camping setup can be a challenge, especially for beginners. That’s why I put together this guide, complete with all my favorite tips, comfortable gear recommendations, and the ultimate tent camping setup packing list to get you started!
Special thanks to Slumberjack Gear, who sent me some of their camping gear to test for this post. As always, all opinions are entirely honest and my own. This post may also contain some affiliate links, which means if you buy something, my blog will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. I will never recommend products or links on this blog that I have not personally used or fully endorse.
What is Tent Camping vs Car Camping vs RVs vs Backpacking?
“Camping” can mean a lot of different things, depending on your setup. Usually, tent camping means sleeping in a tent (duh) instead of an RV, or other vehicle.
Tent camping is also commonly called “car camping.” When I say car camping, I don’t mean sleeping inside your car – although that is a popular option for many campers. I mean camping where you can drive directly to, or very near to your campsite.
This guide covers everything you need to get started on a relaxing and enjoyable tent camping trip.
Backpacking is an entirely different kind of adventure than car camping, and requires some specialized, lightweight gear not listed here. Interested in backpacking? Check out my Backpacking Tips for Beginners for the best beginner backpacking tips and gear suggestions.
Tent Camping Checklist
Preparation is the name of the game when it comes to a fun and comfortable camping trip. While some essentials like firewood and bug spray can usually be purchased at the campground store, forgetting big items like your sleeping bag or tent stove can be a disaster!
Before you begin packing your camping gear, make sure to create and check a packing list with all your necessary gear, food, and personal items. This guide covers all these items in detail further on.
Your basic tent camping checklist should include (click to jump straight to details about each item)
- Tent Accessories: ground cover, rain cover, guy lines, & stakes
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Pad, Cot, or Air Mattress
- Camp Chairs
- Camp Blanket
- Lighting: Headlamp, Lantern & Camp Lights
- Power Source
- Cooler and Food Storage
- Camp Stove & Fuel
- Cookware: pots, pans, utensils
- Plates, Cups, Silverware
- Soap & Hand Sanitizer
- Towels or Paper Towels & Sponge
- Trash Bag
- Bucket or portable sink
- Water, Water Storage, Water Filter (if needed) & Ice
- Food, Spices, & Oils
- Fire Items: Wood, Fire starter, lighter
- First Aid Kit
- Gear Repair
- Mallet / Hammer
Luckily, I’ve done the work for you and created a printable Ultimate Camping Setup packing list! Download this list to your phone or print it out and check your gear before you go.
Camping tents come in a huge variety, from 1 person ultralight tents for backpacking, to multi-room 10 person dome tents. When choosing a tent, consider questions like:
- How many people will use the tent?
- Do I plan to bring children and / or dogs?
- Will I want a tent that works for both backpacking and car camping?
- Do I value comfort or simplicity?
A good rule for car camping is to buy a tent that sleeps at least 1 person more than you need. For example, if 2 people will be using the tent, choose a 3 person tent.
If you plan on backpacking, consider investing in a tent that can be used for both car camping and backpacking.
If you’re looking to invest in your first camping tent, check out my favorite options:
REI Half Dome SL 2: The REI Half Dome is a favorite among car campers and thru-hikers alike. The Half Dome’s decently low price ($329 as of May 2023) makes it a great entry-level lightweight tent at a packaged weight of 4lbs 11oz. This tent is perfect for 3 seasons camping and features lots of thoughtful features, like gear pockets and extra room to spread out, or bring your furry friend.
Marmot Tungsten 2P: The Marmot Tungsten is a great tent that is affordable (almost $100 less than the REI Half Dome) and lightweight enough for backpacking, and comfortable enough for car camping. The 2P Tungsten Tent weighs 5lbs 14oz (packaged weight), making it the heaviest tent on this list, but still manageable, especially if split between 2 people.
We use an older version of Marmot 3p for our car camping adventures. Marmot’s tents are reliable, affordable, and easy to set up and take down.
REI Trailmade 2P: REI also recently launched their “Trailmade” collection, aimed at providing quality backpacking gear for beginners, including 2 Person and 1 Person free-standing tents suitable for car camping and backpacking at less than $200. At a packaged weight of 5lbs and 7oz, this tent isn’t as lightweight as the Half Dome, but it is by far the cheapest reliable tent on the list.
Camping as a family or a group? Check out the Slumberjack 10p Riverbend Tent. I recently tested out this massive home-away-from-home on a camping trip. This tent has 2 removable room dividers, 3 doors, windows for views and ventilation, and the 80″ center height means even the tall campers can completely stand inside. I’d recommend this tent for up to 6 people, including gear.
Don’t forget tent stakes, guylines (cord or rope to secure the tent to the stakes), and a ground cover or tent footprint. Ground covers protect the bottom of the tent from wear and tear and help prevent rain water and condensation from entering the tent.
Tent Camping Sleep System Setup
A comfortable sleeping set-up is a camping essential. A sleep system includes a sleeping bag + something to insulate and cushion you from the ground.
Sleeping bags come in a variety of shapes and temperature ratings. Rectangular bags are roomy and perfect for summer car camping, but not as warm or lightweight as other styles. Some rectangular bags can be fully unzipped and used as a quilt.
Semi-rectangular and Mummy style sleeping bags fit snugly around head and body. These bags are warmer and lighter and more often used for backpacking or cold weather camping.
Double sleeping bags are made for two sleepers and are best for car camping couples who want to share a bed.
If you are a cold sleeper, choose a sleeping bag that is rated at least 10 degrees warmer than your expected nighttime temps. You can always unzip a sleeping bag that is too warm.
Because your body compresses the bottom of the sleeping bag while you are inside, sleeping bags alone are not sufficient to insulate you against the ground. A comfortable camping sleep setup should always include an insulating layer.
The simplest and most common type of insulation is a sleeping pad. Sleeping pads come in 3 styles:
- Air Pads – inflatable air pads are compact, lightweight, and usually pack down to the size of a water bottle. Make sure to test your air pads before your backpacking trip to identify any leaks or punctures.
- Self-Inflating – self-inflating sleeping pads are a combination of air pads with foam insulation. These pads are “self-inflating” because opening the valve allows the foam to expand and brings in air. These pads are often bulkier and heavier than air pads, making them better suited to car camping than backpacking.
- Closed Cell Foam Mats – These pads are made of dense foam. They are less comfortable than air pads, but are lightweight, inexpensive, and you don’t have to worry about punctures.
What is R-Value?
The warmth of a sleeping pad is measured in “R-Value.” The higher the R-Value of a sleeping pad, the more it insulates against the cold.
For warm weather camping, an R-value of 3 is usually sufficient. For high-altitude or cold weather camping, look for an R value of 4+.
R value is also cumulative. Which means that you can stack multiple sleeping pads on top of each other and add up their combined R value for additional warmth.
Camping Cots & Air Mattresses
As much as I love camping, I’ve never truly been able to get a great night’s sleep using a sleeping pad alone. It’s the curse of being a light, side-sleeper.
If you have room and can’t sleep comfortably on a sleeping pad, consider investing in a camping cot or air mattress. Sure, this might feel more like “glamping” than camping. But nothing ruins my camping trips faster than a sleepless night, so to me the space and weight are worth it.
Camping cots range from the lightweight and basic, to the heavy but deluxe.
Air mattresses are a comfortable and usually more space-effective alternative to cots. But don’t forget to consider how you will inflate your mattress – especially in Park campgrounds where there is no electricity. The Slumberjack Grand Mesa has its own removable, battery-powered air pump, so there’s no need to scramble and find a generator or electrical outlet.
If rain is forecast, consider bringing a tarp or free standing shelter to protect your cooking and eating space outside your tent. Don’t forget a rain fly for your tent if one isn’t included.
Camp Chairs + Blanket
Relax in camp after a long day of hiking in a folding camp chair, or snuggle by the fire in a folding loveseat. Don’t forget a quilt or blanket to warm up on chilly evenings.
Illuminate your campsite (and find your way to the bathroom at night) with a lantern and headlamp. A string of camping lights give extra light and a little charm to your campsite.
Make sure to check any batteries before you leave (and it doesn’t hurt to bring a backup.) When choosing a lamp or headlamp, the brightness of the light is measured in lumens. The more lumens, the stronger the light.
Bring a power bank to charge your electronics and camp lights, even in campgrounds without electric hook-ups. A small power bank will charge your cell phone and lights, or invest in a portable, solar-powered, power station for extended off-the-grid trips.
Water, Water Storage, and Water Filter
Most established campgrounds provide safe drinking water, although it never hurts to bring a gallon of backup water just in case. Storing your water in a large container means less trips back and forth to the water supply. Choose a container that has an easy pour spigot for cooking and cleaning.
If potable water is not provided at the campground, make sure to bring equipment for safely filtering your own water, or bring enough filtered water with you for all your cooking, cleaning, and drinking.
Tent Camping Food + Food Storage
For short one night trips, a smaller soft sided cooler will fit your snacks, drinks and a meal or two. For longer trips, I recommend investing in the ultra-light hard sided cooler.
Don’t forget commonly used (but often forgotten) spices and oils, like salt, pepper and seasonings and olive oil. Use a small reusable bag like Stasher to carry enough oils and sauces, without having to pack the entire bottle.
Ultimate Camping Setup Tip: Prep your food at home for quick, easy, and more sanitary cooking at camp!
Camp Stove + Fuel
Unless you plan on cooking over a campfire, bring along a camp stove and fuel to prepare your meals and coffee.
If you plan on preparing more than one-pot meals or meals for more than two people, a multi-burner stove, like this classic Coleman setup comes in handy.
Camping Cookware Setup
If you plan on using a camp stove, you don’t need to buy camping specific pots and pans – just grab your lightest and cheapest at-home cookware and throw them in with your gear.
Or, bring a dedicated camp cookware set which is lightweight and packable, and can be used on both camp stoves and backpackers stoves.
Cooking utensils like knives, cutting boards, spatulas, tongs, and spoons can also be raided from your own kitchen. But if you camp frequently, consider keeping a dedicated set of cooking utensils with your camping gear.
Ditch single-use paper plates for reusable plates, bowls and cups, and finally, don’t forget a mug or thermos for coffee and hot chocolate.
Dirt and dust are part of the camping experience. But keeping yourself and your gear reasonably clean should be priority number one. Not only does this extend the life of your gear, you avoid illness, contamination, and just feeling icky yourself.
A clean camp also keeps away unwanted pests like ants, mice and raccoons, and more serious predators like bears and coyotes.
Keep the following on hand for a clean camp:
- Hand Sanitizer
- Paper Towels
- Trash Bag / Garbage Bag
- Bucket or sink for Washing Dishes
- Biodegradable Soap (optional)
Make sure to dispose of dirty, or “grey” water properly! Never wash your dishes with regular dish soap like you would at home. Instead use biodegradable soap or camp soap that is less harmful to the environment.
Most developed campgrounds will provide an area to dump your grey water. Always dump grey water using designated areas whenever available! If no grey water dump is available, avoid using any dish soap, even biodegradable, and make sure to dump your grey water at least 200 feet from any water source.
Before starting any fire, be sure to know and follow all fire regulations. Some campgrounds, especially in the American West and National Parks do not allow open flame during fire season. Never leave a campfire unattended, and completely extinguish your fire before bed!
Don’t make the mistake of arriving at your campsite without wood. While some areas allow the collection of dead wood and branches for fires, others do not. If camping in a popular area, you run the risk of not finding enough firewood freely available.
Where required, buy local wood only to avoid bringing non-native insects and plant diseases to the area.
Your fire starter kit should include:
A spark source, like a lighter, striker rod, or waterproof matches
Fire starter material – start with small, flammable materials like leaves, shaved bark, or a fuel block, like Duraflame.
First Aid Kit
Accidents happen, whether on the trail or back at camp. Any ultimate tent camping first aid setup should include the following:
- Adhesive bandages (In multiple sizes)
- Gauze pads
- Antiseptic Wipes
- Antibacterial Ointment, like Neosporin
- Medical tape (Leukotape is a favorite among backpackers & hikers)
- Blister Treatment (use Leukotape or Moleskin on hot spots before the blister forms. Use bandaids and Neosporin on an open wound)
- Ibuprofin/Pain Reliever
- Aspirin (for a response to a heart attack)
- Antihistamine for allergic reactions – Get and carry a prescription EpiPen if you have a known allergy!
- Rolled elastic bandage for sprains
- Clotting Gauze
- Surgical gloves
- Hand sanitizer
- Don’t forget any prescription medications, as well as a waterproof bag to keep it organized.
On a budget? Most first aid items can already be found in your home. Package them in a gallon plastic or reusable silicone bag.
Make sure to always label any medication, such as ibuprofen or antihistamine such as Benadryl and include the dosage of each pill (usually in mg).
I also carry a Pocket Guide to Emergency First Aid that covers common scenarios like sprains, bone injuries, heat and cold injuries, and snake bites.
Camping with your dog? Don’t forget to include first aid for your four-legged best friend too! Adventure Medical Kits’ “Me and My Dog” kit includes everything both you and your dog might need during common emergencies.
Gear Repair Kit
Even the best gear can rip or break, and usually at the most inconvenient time. Bring some repair items to keep your gear in one piece until you get home.
I bring a small roll of duct tape, or Gear Aid’s Tenacious Tape, a multi-tool, and some extra paracord.
Misc Gear Items
Mallet: A good mallet is invaluable for setting up and breaking down your tent. The hammer side helps secure your tent stakes into the ground. Camp mallets can have a tent stake removal hook on the bottom end to make yanking those stakes out of the ground much easier.
Insect Repellent: Bug protection can make or break your camping trip. As someone who has some kind of invisible “All You Can Eat Buffet” sign above my head that only mosquitos can see, I use repellant sprays with DEET or Picaridin. Some campers prefer a DEET-free spray made with essential oils such as lemon and eucalyptus.
If ticks and bugs are a particular concern in your area, consider spraying your gear, including tent and clothes with Permetherin spray.
I also bring a portable little mosquito repeller to make the outdoors bearable for us in the summer months in the South.
The Thermacell works like a smell-free essential oil diffuser and creates a 15-foot mosquito protection zone with DEET-free repellant mats. The Patio Shield runs on small butane cartridges that provide 12 hours of protection.
3 Ultimate Tent Camping Setup Tips
Test Your Gear – BEFORE You Go!
Most tent camping gear is fairly straightforward to assemble, but it can be a little confusing the first few times you try and pitch a new tent. Bringing the ultimate tent camping setup doesn’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it.
Arriving to your campsite, in the rain, at night, is not the time to find out for the first time that your tent is missing a pole or that your camp stove is out of fuel! Test out all your gear before you leave on an overnight trip.
I like to try out a new tent in my backyard first. If you don’t have a yard, don’t panic! I used to bring my tent to the local park in Brooklyn to make sure I was comfortable setting it up myself. Yes, I did look a little strange pitching a tent in Prospect Park, but by the time we arrived at our campsite in New Hampshire, I was comfortable pitching and breaking down a tent, even in the dark.
Don’t Be Afraid to Prioritize Comfort
While an element of “roughing it” is part of the fun of camping, that doesn’t mean you need to suffer for the sake of suffering. Consider bringing a few “comfort” items to elevate your ultimate tent camping setup.
Are you a foodie? Consider bringing a more robust camp kitchen.
Restless sleeper? When space allows, you can opt for my camp cot or air mattress instead of the usual inflatable sleeping pad.
I’m happier camper, literally, after a good night’s sleep, and it elevates my whole camping experience so I can spend more time having fun instead of chugging ibuprofen for my back.
Keep Your Gear Organized and Clean
Keep your gear clean and organized at home and at the campsite.
Storing your gear in plastic bins is a great way to keep your gear easily accessible and clean. Bins mean you can easily pack your camping setup at a moment’s notice, double your gear checklist, pack your food, clothes, and toiletries and hit the road. Keeping your items in bins at the campsite prevents dirt and critters from getting into your gear.
When you get home, make sure to thoroughly clean and dry all gear to avoid mold, dirt, and insects from ruining your items.
Ultimate Tent Camping Setup Guide Wrap Up
There you have it, the ultimate tent camping setup guide to make your next camping adventure a piece of cake! Have a gear question or favorite tent camping accessory that wasn’t mentioned? Drop a comment below!
And don’t forget to download your printable Ultimate Tent Camping Setup Packing List!