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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 mealtime, 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.
Camp kitchen: cookware, tables, and tasty food
For cooking, serving, and enjoying those meals, the extensive line of functional, space-saving cook sets, 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. A few other kitchen essentials round out our kitchen list, including trash bags, paper towels, and Campsuds for cleanup.
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 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 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.
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. And we keep our kit packed, clean, and ready to go in a large duffel bag, so we can hit the road for mountains and fresh air whenever we get the urge. (As often as possible!)
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.
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.