Our camping pack list (now available in PDF format) has everything you need for an awesome camping trip!
The size of your vehicle, number of passengers, and activities you want to do will determine what you can and can’t bring on a camping trip. If you have a smaller vehicle, prioritizing essentials, consumables, and luxuries will help with packing. What can you do without? What can you buy along the way or at your destination? My downfall is packing half the pantry when it would be easier to buy groceries in a few days. Our pack list (below) is broken into several categories with essentials at the beginning and nice-to-haves at the end.
Before kids, our epic road trips were done in a 1995 Honda Civic hatchback. Since it was just the two of us, and we had compact backpacking gear, we had plenty of room for everything we needed. Bikes or skis could go on the roof; everything else could be safely stowed in the vehicle. We got used to stooping to get into our backcountry tent, and cooking one small pot over an ultralight campstove.
When we had kids, we lost the back seat cargo space and needed more stuff… from a bigger tent and two-burner stove to travel cribs, toys, diapers, and clothes.. so many extra clothes (how do kids get so dirty?!)… so we needed a larger vehicle. We sprang for a small SUV; installed a hitch, bike rack, roof rack, and roof box; and were finally ready to travel in style. With this setup, the four of us went road tripping for weeks at a time.
We now have a minivan which is so roomy we don’t need the roofbox, but we still rely on a camping pack list so we don’t forget anything. Scroll down for product recommendations, or download the PDF pack list here:
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Car Camping Pack List
1. Tent + Footprint
Get a tent with a reinforced “bathtub” floor, two doors, and fly that goes down to the ground (see photo above). You will also need a footprint/groundsheet that is the same size as your tent. As for size, the taller the tent, the less stable it will be in strong winds. While you won’t be standing up in your tent much except to get changed, large vestibules and doors will make it easier to get in and out (especially when it’s raining). For more information on getting the best tent for your budget, please read our story: Choosing a Tent.
Pro Tip: Practice setting up your tent before your first trip, so you can set it up properly in any conditions. You will appreciate knowing how to set your tent up fast when it’s dark, a storm is rolling in, or you are being eaten alive by mosquitoes! Also, remember to peg the fly out and tighten guy lines to keep rain out. The most expensive tent will not keep you dry if you fail to put the fly on right.
2. Sleep System
Most of the time, when I ask people why they don’t like camping, they say it’s because they don’t like sleeping on the cold, hard ground. There is no reason to be uncomfortable just because you are sleeping in a tent! There are several great options for camping bedding, and while some of them are costly, high quality sleeping pads / self-inflating mattresses / cots and sleeping bags will last for several years.
We recommend -7 C down mummy bags, Therm-A-Rest self-inflating mattresses, and Therm-A-Rest pillows for camping in Alberta. If you camp in warmer climates, however, you may prefer a barrel bag for extra space – and the ability to zip two sleeping bags together. Products we own and love include the following:
- Western Mountaineering Ultralite -7C Down Sleeping Bag: This incredibly light and compact sleeping bag, insulated with 850+ fill power down is perfect for backcountry or bikepacking trips but can also be used for frontcountry camping. The draft collar keeps cold air out and narrow profile allows you to warm up quickly. Tip: Use the sleeping bag with a silk liner so you don’t have to clean it as often. Small fits to 5′ 6″ (168 cm) and weighs 795g; Regular fits to 6′ 0″ (183 cm) and weights 820g (Regular Left Zip); Long fits to 6′ 6″ (198 cm) and weighs only 880g. The only downside is its pricetag.
- MEC Aquilina -7C Down Sleeping Bag – Women’s (discontinued): If you can find it 2nd hand, this is a great sleeping bag for its price! With 575 fill power down, this sleeping bag is a bit bulky compared to down sleeping bags with higher fill power down, but it’s so warm for its weight and the storm flap keeps drafts out. Small fits to 5′ 4″ (163 cm) and Regular fits to 5′ 10″ (178 cm).
- MEC Draco Jr.-5 Down Sleeping Bag – Youths: 650 fill power down, Regular fits to 5′ 0″ (154 cm), Small fits to 3′ 10″ (118 cm). The sleeping bag + 8 L compression sack (not included) weighs just over 1 kg.
- Therm-a-Rest Neoair Xtherm Regular Sleeping Mat “offers the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any air sleeping pad construction.” This sleeping pad is a favorite of backcountry campers because it weighs only 0.4 kg (15 oz) and packs down the size of a Nalgene bottle, but inflates to 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) thick and boasts a 6.9 R-value. Although the material is a bit crinkly, I don’t mind because I’m so comfy!
- If the Neoair Xtherm is the Lexus of self-inflating sleeping pads, the MEC Reactor 6.5 Sleeping Pad – Unisex is the reliable Toyota. With durable 150-denier ripstop polyester, 6.5 cm thickness for comfort, great insulation (5.0 R-Value), and rectangular shape that allows you to place mats side by side to cover the tent floor, the MEC Reactor 6.5 Sleeping Pad is ideal for car camping. Weight: 1.6 kg.
- For a lightweight, affordable option, try the MEC Reactor 3.8 Sleeping Pad – Unisex. 3.8 cm thick, 3.4 R-Value, weight: 690 grams.
- Never forget pillows again when you keep a Therm-a-Rest Compressible Medium Pillow for each person with your camping gear. These pillows are super comfortable and fit perfectly inside a mummy sleeping bag. Available at MEC and Sport Chek.
Top Rated Value Pick (not tested by us)
- Marmot Women’s Angel Fire 25 Down Sleeping Bag is rated 6th in Outdoor Gear Lab’s Top 15 Women’s Sleeping Bags. Fairly roomy for a mummy bag, Tested Comfort: 21.9°F / -5.6°C, and insulated with 650 fill power down, it’s a solid, affordable option. Regular weighs 1.2 kg (also available in short and long).
Learn more about camping sleep systems (sleeping bag + sleeping pad) and what baby should sleep in in our story: Camping Sleep Systems.
3. Clothes and Sleepwear
- Bring 1 pair of socks and underwear for each day of your trip, and clothes that mix and match and dry quickly. Don’t forget a midlayer and waterproof/windproof layer.
- Sleepwear: Bring a change of clothes, clean toque, socks, and liner gloves. Do not sleep in the clothes you wore during the day; for bear safety as well as comfort (clothes you hiked in all day might be sweaty and damp, making you feel cold!). Since it’s so chilly in the mountains at night, I usually sleep in Patagonia Midweight Capilene base layers or microfleece long underwear.
- Baby sleepwear: Dress babies and toddlers in PJs and a fleece sleepsack or fleece bunting suit with fold-over mitts and booties. If necessary, put booties and mitts on baby’s hands and feet. We loved a blanket sleeper with the MEC Ursus Bunting Suit. Columbia and North Face also make quality fleece bunting suits.
4. Camp Kitchen
- Something to make coffee in: I like my collapsible silicone coffee dripper. You still need coffee filters (size 1 or 2), but the coffee dripper hardly takes up any space when it’s collapsed.
- Cooler & block of ice (lasts longer than cubes): For extra cooling capacity, get the 12V plug-in type by Koolatron or Coleman. We have the Koolatron P95 45-Quart 12 V Electric Cooler and find it works well and reduces the amount of ice we need to buy. A good camping hack is to freeze (clean) milk jugs full of water so you have drinking water when they melt.
- Camp Stove: Camp stoves are preferred for car camping for stability and simmering capability. The Coleman Triton Series Two Burner Stove is affordable and reliable. Ours is almost 20 years old and still going! If you don’t have room, the Coleman Bottle Top Propane Stove (single burner) is excellent and reasonably priced. You can simmer on it, it is very stable, and the propane cans can readily be found at hardware/outdoor stores and even some gas stations in the summer.
- Stove backup: In the event your camp stove fails, it’s good to have an extra stove (backcountry stove), folding emergency stove, or hotdog sticks and pie iron to cook over the fire.
- Fire making kit: Lighters, waterproof matches, flint and steel; purchase or make your own fire starters and pack them in a Ziploc bag or sealed plastic container; hatchet/axe
- Water filter/purification device: For family or group camping, I like the Katadyn Hiker Pro Water Filter
and SteriPEN Handheld UV Water Purifier. Bring extra batteries for the Steripen. Other alternatives are to boil or treat your water with chlorine or iodine. Even if drinking water is readily available at camp, it is useful to carry a water filter in hot weather so you can refill your water bottles on a long hike.
- Sturdy bins for your nonperishables. Shopping bags rip or allow your cereal and chips to get crushed. Clear bins allow you to find things quickly, but we use mostly Rubbermaid Roughneck bins because they’re so durable.
- Dishes, cutlery, and cookware should go in a separate bin from your food for convenience. Don’t forget a tablecloth, can opener, spatula, cutting board, colander, sharp knife with cover, potholders, cooking oil, and spices. Learn how to make a cutlery roll here (saves space and can be brought on picnics).
- Cookware: Backpacking pots that nest inside each other save space! If space/weight are not an issue, a medium-sized cast iron skillet can be used over a fire or 2-burner camp stove.
- Dishwashing kit: Bring biodegradable dish soap (Campsuds) and a small dish scrubber in a ziploc bag (dries faster than a washcloth and some are made of antibacterial materials); Collapsible bucket for hauling dishwater; quick drying dishtowels or camp towels
- Roll of aluminum foil
- Roll of paper towels
- Hotdog roasting sticks: Get extendible roasting sticks to keep kids a safer distance from the fire.
- Ziploc bags of varying sizes for packing lunches or snacks
- Small/medium sized garbage bags (bring extra for dirty laundry)
- Nylon rope and clothespins for a camp laundry line
- Waterproof stuff sacks keep clothes and sleeping bags dry. They’re also useful for backcountry and walk-in camping if you have to hang food up or keep items with a scent separate from everything else. Put food items at least 100 metres from your tent and never cook near your tent. Best practice is to also hang up clothes you have cooked in.
- Finally, FOOD! Make a meal plan for your trip so you don’t forget anything. Keep spices, cooking oil, and non-perishables like coffee, tea, hot chocolate, marshmallows, macaroni, and canned soup permanently in the food bin so you don’t forget them. Pro Tip: Pack several extra dehydrated meals in case of emergency. Also good for when you want to camp an extra day but don’t want to drive back into town for groceries.
5. Other Necessities
- LED headlamps – one per person + extra batteries
- LED lantern + extra batteries (far nicer than making do with headlamps); battery lanterns can be brought in your tent at night, gas powered ones cannot.
- Tarp and lengths of rope for a rain shelter. Steal: 12′ x 16′ Guard Polytarp made of woven polyethylene (most affordable), Splurge: MEC Scout tarp (size M is 12.8′ x 9.5′) made of 75-denier polyester ripstop or MEC Silicone Scout Tarp (Size M is 12.8′ x 9.5′) is made of silicone coated 30-denier nylon ripstop.
- car charger(s) for cell phones and tablets
- Backpacks– for a daypack checklist, click here. Don’t forget a first aid kit, bear spray, rain poncho or emergency blanket, and signalling devices (whistle and mirror).
- water bottles or hydration packs – one each
- camp towels or bath towels, washcloths
- coins/tokens for showers, shower sandals/flip flops
- toiletries -soap or body wash, shampoo and conditioner, razor
- sunscreen and bug spray
- baby wipes
- rope and clothespins to make a clothesline
- potty or bucket for emergencies
- duct tape
- hand sanitizer
- folding camp chairs or stools
- dust pan and broom
- tarp/mat for tent/trailer entrance
6. Nice to Have
- bug screen house
- pie iron
- solar gear for recharging cell phones etc. / battery booster
- Fishing gear & fishing licenses
- firewood hammock
- air compressor for filling air mattresses, balls, rafts
- Raft/air mattress, floaties, snorkelling gear, wetsuits for lakeside trips
7. Fun Stuff
- Magical Flames
- Glow sticks
- Your camera, with extra batteries and memory cards, and charger
- Sturdy digital camera so kids can take their own photos. Create a photo scavenger hunt and make a photo book after the trip for priceless memories.
- Fishing gear
- Coloring books, sketch books, pencils, crayons, markers
- Binoculars, magnifying glass
- Bikes and helmets if you have room; at the very least, bikes for the kids make getting around camp quicker.
- Smartphone, iPad or tablet loaded with bedtime stories. There’s no need to give up a good bedtime routine.
- Apps to consider: Geocaching app, Merlin Bird ID, The Night Sky
- audiobooks for the drive
- Phone / tablet chargers
- Board games or cards
- For the beach: Life jackets, sand toys, inflatable beach ball, kite
- Soccer ball, frisbee, bubbles
Finally, don’t forget car safety kit & essentials such as battery booster, cell phone charger, and first aid kit. Pump up your spare tire too. See this story for more details on getting your vehicle ready for an epic road trip.
Don’t forget to bookmark or pin this post for handy reference! ⤵️
- Epic Road Trip Planning Part 1: Vehicle Check
- Epic Road Trip Planning Part 2: Budgeting Tools & Tips
- Epic Road Trip Planning Part 3: Embrace the Journey
- Epic Road Trip Planning Part 4: Deciding Where to Stay
- How to Choose a Tent
- Camping Sleep Systems: sleeping bags, sleeping pads, travel cribs
- Walk-In Campgrounds Near Calgary
- Where to Camp in Alberta & BC