Best Camping Gear for Beginners in 2020

Fresh air, no other people nearby, space to move and breathe. Nope, not describing a 2020 daydream—just a standard camping trip. Camping is an activity that’s naturally well-suited for social distancing. Even if you’re staying at a campground with other people nearby, chances are your assigned spot is well over six feet from your neighbors. (That’s sort of the point of camping!) So it’s no surprise that many Americans are packing up their cars and venturing into the great outdoors this fall.

As an avid camper, I am personally very excited that more people are willing to give up their creature comforts to enjoy a blissful weekend in nature. There’s really nothing more calming for me than sitting in a camp chair, drinking my morning coffee, and enjoying absolute silence other than the birds literally singing me awake. And I promise, as long as you have the right gear with you, the experience will be well worth the planning (and the whole sleeping on the ground thing).

How to Know What Camping Gear You Actually Need

While a successful camping trip does require some basic items, you definitely don’t need to go out and splurge on top-of-the-line equipment to have a good time. “Those name brands and logos can be tempting, but there is always another option!” says Sarah Strohmeyer, sales lead for REI in the camping and climbing departments (and also an experienced outdoor guide). “Entry-level price point options no longer just ‘suffice’ but are, in many cases, excellent.” Even brands known for selling expensive gear are starting to do a better job making their clothing and gear more affordable, says Strohmeyer. “Some of the flashy brands have different lines that are made to be less expensive and perform just as well.”

Like many other recreational activities, camping gear can be broken down into must-haves and nice-to-haves. I asked Strohmeyer, as well as Jenny Martindale, experienced canoe-tripping guide and partnerships manager at Wild Women Expeditions, and Andrea Dumais, park ranger at Staunton State Park in Pine, Colorado, to tell me what’s absolutely essential. On the must-haves list we’ve got:

  • a warm and dry shelter

  • bedding

  • cooking essentials

  • food and water storage

The nice-to-haves list can get long—speaking as someone who personally has slowly acquired more and more “luxurious” camping gear over the past five or six years—but it includes:

  • a sun/rain shelter

  • camp chairs

  • a hammock

  • a coffee maker

Know that you don’t have to necessarily buy camping-specific items to use them for camping. For example, you may have some old pots and pans, plates, bowls, and plasticware that you can take camping, says Martindale. “Just avoid bringing anything that’s breakable.” If you’re camping in warm weather, you can bring a bunch of blankets instead of a sleeping bag and maybe even an air mattress if you have a way to blow it up, Martindale says. The one thing you definitely don’t want to ever skimp on is a tent that will keep you dry.

How to Shop for Camping Gear

It can be daunting to have to shop for an activity you have no experience with. But there are some ways to make it feel more manageable and less overwhelming. Strohmeyer suggests making a list breaking your shopping up into smaller trips. “Shopping for everything at once can burn you out before you even go camping.” When you do go shopping, whether in person or online, look for deals and sales, she says. “Don’t be afraid to go into a store to talk to someone about brands, specifications, et cetera, then head home and check online for a better deal.” If you can support a local small business, even better!

Strohmeyer also suggests seeing what you can find at secondhand shops when you can, so that you don’t need to buy everything brand new (though that unfortunately might not be feasible right now, during the pandemic). Just be cautious—you want to make sure for something like a tent that there are no holes, the seams are intact, poles in good shape, and it’s still waterproof, says Martindale.

Martindale’s biggest piece of advice: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. “I absolutely love helping people find what they need for their adventures, whether it’s car camping for the first time or summiting a mountain for the tenth time.” And don’t hesitate to bring up budget, she adds—”there is good quality gear at your price point, and we can help you find it.”

While you may be totally ready to go out there and buy camping gear on your own, we’re here to help. (You didn’t think we’d just toss you into the wild to figure it out 100% on your own, did you?!) These entry-level camping-gear options will keep you dry, well rested, and well fed, and most importantly, set you up for a fun and relaxing camping trip.

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