Packing the car and heading to one of our favorite camping spots has always been our favorite way to decompress, relax, and disconnect from the grid. And, with our gear organized and ready to go, we’re always up for the adventure. It’s amazing how a few nights nestled in the forest can leave us feeling so refreshed and appreciative of the simpler things in life: family, friends, good food, and nature’s beauty. And there’s nothing better than waking up at sunrise and enjoying a steaming cup of coffee beside the fire, watching the world come to life.
Our adventures take us all over the South, exploring remote islands on the Atlantic coast to the highest mountains of the Blue Ridge, like the towering Mount Mitchell, and pretty much everywhere in between. And our travels have given us ample time to test a ton of equipment and gear, from warm nights at the beach to below-freezing wintertime adventures on windy mountain summits.
Not sure what to pack for a great night (or few) in the forest? Our camping checklist swaps out some of our favorite backpacking gear list for some heavier essentials, making for an extra comfy, decadent adventure. Some luxuries just aren’t practical when we’re backpacking and carrying every ounce in our backpacks. So when we’re relaxing in a campground, we do it in style, with coolers, tables, chairs, spacious tents, luxuriously thick sleeping pads, and, of course, a full cooking set and plenty of snacks for fireside munching.
Camping essentials: our favorite tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads
We’ve had many different tents over the years but have absolutely loved our new Big Agnes Yellow Jacket 4 mtnGLO. It’s one of the largest and heaviest tents we’ve slept in, weighing 10 pounds, but it’s luxuriously spacious, easily fitting up to four people and a dog with a spacious floor area of 60 square feet. The tent’s ceiling height is lofty at 5′ 5″, offering plenty of headroom, and room to move around and change clothes. And the tent features mtnGLO integrated LED lighting in the two-pole roof, providing a soft, ambient light that’s perfect for nighttime reading or relaxation after the sun sets. The Yellow Jacket 4’s single door is tall and wide, allowing for easy entry and exit, and the tent’s ample ventilation and large screen door have provided some extremely comfortable nights under the stars. (Check out our Big Agnes Yellow Jacket 4 review for more details.)
Our favorite smaller, lightweight tent is the two-pole Sierra Designs Summer Moon 3 Tent, which weighs only 4 pounds and packing down small for a loaded-car adventure. The Summer Moon 3 offers just over 40 square feet of floor area, plus a vestibule for gear storage, and comfortably sleeps two humans and a dog. And the tent’s set-up and tear-down are a breeze, leaving more time for campsite fun. (Check out our full Sierra Designs Summer Moon 3 review for more details.)
No matter which tent we camp with, we always pack a tent footprint to protect the tent’s bottom from rocks, roots, or other sharp objects that may damage the tent’s fabric. (A thick tarp can work well, too – but is usually bulkier to pack, and sometimes a hassle to position perfectly.)
There’s nothing like climbing into a soft, warm sleeping bag after a day of adventure. We love the Sierra Designs Frontcountry Bed – especially our editor Rob, who is more comfortable sleeping on his side or stomach, and usually feels constrained by mummy-shaped bag. The zipper-free sleeping bag features an oversized comforter that makes the bag feel more like a traditional bed and lets us sleep comfortably in just about any position. A pad sleeve helps keep the bed anchored to our sleeping pad as we shift around at night. And the Frontcountry Bed is available in many sizes and fills, including an ultra-roomy queen bed size for some snuggly nights. (Check out our Sierra Designs Frontcountry Bed review for more details.)
We’re also big fans of the Big Agnes Wiley SL 30 Sleeping Bag, a traditional mummy style bag. It’s filled with ultra-soft 650-fill DownTek insulation, a water-repellant down technology that helps the bag retain its warmth even when wet. The Wiley SL 30 also features an attached pad sleeve that fits sleeping pads like our favorite Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra, helping to prevent the bag from shifting off the pad at night. This pad/bag combo from Big Agnes has fully won over our editor, Eric, who says that the Insulated Air Core Ultra and Wiley SL 30 have offered the soundest sleep that he’s ever had in the outdoors.
To help keep our sleeping bags clean, we often sleep in our Sea to Summit Thermolite Sleeping Bag Liner, which is easy to wash, and keeps sweat and body oils from building up in the bag. And for an extra dreamy night under the stars, the Therm-a-Rest Compression Pillow offers a soft spot to lay our heads.
Sleeping bags and tents are expensive, so keeping them clean and maintained is important to protect our investment in quality outdoor gear. Find out how to clean and maintain tents and sleeping bags in our outdoor gear cleaning guide.
Hammocks, chairs, and lighting
Relaxing by the tent after a great hike is what car camping is all about. We love to set up our site, start a fire, and just unwind and reconnect with nature. And there’s no better way to relax than with an ENO DoubleNest Hammock, so we always include at least a few on our list. They’re super easy to hang: find two healthy trees, set up the ENO Atlas hammock straps, and we’re chilling in no time.
To quickly and easily get the fire started, we always pack some firestarters that burn long and slow, perfect for getting those first flames crackling under a blanket of tinder.
For hanging out around the fire and meal time, the Chair One by Helinox is great for comfy seating. It’s super lightweight (1.9 pounds), packable, and has become a staple on our adventures – and it’s light enough to carry on short backpacking adventures, too.
Nothing can ruin a relaxing outdoor experience faster than pesky mosquitos. We’ve been adventuring with the Thermacell Backpacker Mosquito Repeller this season, and have been loving the way it helps keep our site mosquito free. The Thermacell attaches to the standard isobutane/propane fuel canisters we pack for our cooking stove and heats an insect repellent-filled mat, creating a 15-foot mosquito free barrier.
Lighting is one of our favorite ways to make our site feel homey and bright. BioLite’s line of campsite lighting is our favorite for ambient and task lighting. BioLite SiteLights and SiteLight Minis provide focused lighting for cooking, reading, and anywhere task light might be needed. And the SiteLight XL provides an ambient glow that’s perfect for lighting up gathering areas or inside the tent. Best of all, the SiteLight series can be daisy chained together and run from a single power source, the BioLite PowerLight, which also functions as a lantern, torch light, and power hub for charging other small devices.
And for that little bit of magic, the ENO Eclipse Lantern mixes fun and function in one great lantern. The retro-shaped lantern features a bright white mode for task lighting and wayfinding. And the lava-lamp-like, multi-colored mode provides fun, retro-inspired illumination around the site or in the tent.
Camp kitchen: cookware, tables, and tasty food
An organized outdoor kitchen is a must for a relaxing (and delicious) adventure. The foundation of our kitchen setup is the REI Kingdom Table which offers plenty of room for cooking, prepping, and serving an amazing meal.
For cooking, serving, and enjoying those meals, the extensive line of functional, space saving cooksets, stoves, dishes, and utensils from GSI Outdoors top our list in the camp kitchen. The Halulite Microdualist Cookset is perfect for two people, and features a 1.4 liter cookpot, two insulated mugs with lids, two bowls, and two fork/spoon combos. Everything nests neatly together with space for our GSI Pinnacle 4 Season Stove and a micro fuel canister. Paired with our GSI Outdoors Gourmet Kitchen Set 11 utensil set, we have everything we need for a weekend of cooking.
We think it’s undeniably true: everything tastes better when camping. From basic backpacking fare, like oatmeal and instant rice, to gourmet dinners of strip steaks and pineapple upside down cake, we’ve loved the challenge of preparing our favorite meals in the forest. But when we’re not feeling gourmet (or flat out beat after a great hike), we love preparing the ultra-delicious meals from Good To-Go. Created by an Iron Chef, these restaurant-worthy meals are a staple on our adventures. They’re all pretty amazing, but our favorites include the Thai Curry, Bibimbap, and for breakfast, the extra delicious Granola. (They’re seriously so good, we have to stash them away when we’re at home. The Thai Curry is incredible as a late night snack!)
We love waking up to a mountain sunrise and a steaming cup of pour-over coffee. Kuju Coffee makes that first cup quick and easy, with premium grounds packaged in a unique, outdoor-friendly pour-over package. And when our morning adventures take us out on the trail, the GSI Microlite 500 and the GSI Glacier .5L Vacuum Bottle keep our coffee hot for hours.
A few shelf-stable condiments like olive oil, salt, pepper and dried spices add to our cooking recipes and have a permanent home in our duffel bag, stored in our GSI Outdoors Kitchen Set 11. A few other kitchen essentials round out our kitchen list, including trash bags, paper towels, and Campsuds for cleanup.
And while they’re not necessary, our adventures usually include adult beverages of some sort. There’s nothing better than a cold beer or glass of wine while sitting around the fire. The MiiR line of cups, insulated bottles, growlers, and tumblers keep all of our favorite beverages cold while chilling around the fire. MiiR products are exceptional, beautifully designed pieces. They’re not only great for morning coffee or a post-hike brew, but each purchase funds a giving project, too.
Campsite first aid, toiletries & safety
While a fall on the trail or a run-in with wildlife is never expected, it’s best to be prepared. We always pack the Adventure Medical Ultralight Watertight First Aid Kit when we’re out chasing adventure: it contains the basic essentials for minor issues on the trail. We also love Green Goo Travel Packs which contain all-natural first aid salves, lip balm, and bug spray.
Our first aid kit also contains essentials like Sawyer sunscreen and Sawyer insect repellant, an Adventure Medical Fire Lite Kit, a Gerber serrated folding knife, a mini roll of duct tape for repairs, and a length of paracord for hanging a bear bag or securing a rain tarp. And while we’ve never needed it, we always adventure with bear spray in the case of an unlikely run in with a bear.
For safety in the dark, we always pack our Black Diamond Spot headlamps. They’re lightweight and bright, perfect for cooking, reading, scouting for firewood, or anytime we need a hands-free light.
Our toiletries bag is minimal but essential for backcountry adventures, including Colgate Wisp waterless toothbrushes, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, deodorant, and Campsuds soap. Unless we’re roughing it deep in the woods, we also pack toiletries, towels, and a pair of sandals for some protection from the floor of the shower – and the basic toiletries we’d usually pack when spending the night in a hotel.
Outdoor gear for dogs
We almost always camp with our adventure buddy, Jake, who loves to be outdoors as much as we do. Jake loves all things Ruffwear, and we love the brand’s thoughtfully designed outdoor gear for dogs. The Ruffwear Bivy Bowl is a lightweight, collapsible dish that works for water and food, and it dries quickly making it equally great for dinner time at the campsite or on the trail. And when it’s time to say good night, the ultra-soft Urban Sprawl Bed has Jake drifting off to sweet dreams in comfort.
To keep him happy and on the go, we typically pack pre-portioned zip-lock bags of dog food. We also always include a stash of Jake’s favorite TuboPUP Bars for easy mealtime substitutes on the trail, or extra special treats by the fire.
Jake overheats easily in the hot, humid summers of the South, so we always pack the Ruffwear Swamp Cooler to him cool on warm-weather adventures. We also love the new Ruffwear Jet Stream, a lighter-weight vest that works much the same way as the Swamp Cooler, for adventures that aren’t as hot or as strenuous.
Packed and ready to go: duffels and organization
Keeping things organized is essential when we’re packing for a trip, and inevitably, small gear tends to get lost at the bottom of a pack. Sea to Summit Ultra-Mesh Stuff Sacks are perfect for keeping small gear, utensils, and first aid essentials neatly organized and easily available, and their lightweight see-through mesh helps identify the contents easily.
The Tepui Expedition Duffel Bag is perfect for camping trips and adventure travel. This ultra-durable duffel neatly fits the gear on our list and makes packing and unpacking quick and easy. A heavy-duty polyester canvas and resin coating create a tough water and abrasion resistant exterior that cleans up easy. Padded shoulder straps and handles make carrying even heavy loads manageable. And the duffel’s tough construction has survived travels of all kind, from rough airline baggage handlers to mucky, muddy sites, and has held together like a champ.
We always carry a tote bag or daypack to stash water bottles, snacks, and extra layers when we’re exploring away from the campsite. The Flowfold Zip Tote is perfect for loading up on groceries, hauling dinner and snacks over to our friends’ campsite, or carrying towels and toiletries to the campground shower.
The Cotopaxi Luzon 18L Del Dia and Osprey Daylite Backpack are two of our favorite day packs: they’re both roomy and durable, with plenty of space for snacks, water, a rain shell, and essentials for a day hike. And they both pack up small, for easy storage in our duffel.
After the adventure
At the end of each trip, we spend some time cleaning up our bags, double checking our supplies, and making sure our packs and duffels are ready for the next adventure. Learn how to keep all of your favorite outdoor gear clean and maintained with our outdoor gear cleaning and waterproofing guide. And check out our other outdoor gear lists to see the favorite gear that tops our hiking gear list and backpacking gear list.
Please remember to leave no trace
When enjoying the natural beauty of our parks and wilderness, please pack out everything you pack in, and leave your site clean. Follow these easy steps to Leave No Trace and please practice good trail and campsite etiquette to help ensure everyone has a great adventure.Some links on Atlanta Trails are affiliate links, which means that the merchant might pay us a commission if you purchase a product after clicking our links, at no extra cost to you. We only recommend gear that we personally use and love.
Thanks for your support! - the Atlanta Trails crew