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 Basic Needs      Tents      Sleeping Bags   Food and Water     Clothing     Useful Items   Luxury Items 


Everyone is bound to have different ideas about what to bring on a trip, but here is a general (and opinionated!) list I've developed over the years, starting with the survival basics and working downwards to the luxury items. I've also added a few tips along the way.

Basic Needs:
For every trip you will need shelter, food, clean water and proper clothing.

The shelter will most likely be a tent, but, depending on the time and location, could also be a cabin, trailer, bivy or yurt. Each camper will need a sleeping bag or equivalent.


When choosing a tent, consider the type of camper you are, how many people will be using it and at what location and time of year. Be sure that the tent fly (the outer fabric layer) reaches down to the ground so that rainy days are dry days inside the tent, and add liquid seam sealer to all the seams at the beginning of each season. Look for shock-corded aluminum poles rather than more fragile fibreglass poles which tend to splinter. A tent that allows for adequate ventilation will keep you dryer from condensation (from your breath and perspiration). For this reason, tossing a plastic tarp directly on your tent is not a good way to stay dry! Air your tent after each trip, and hang it up to store it, or bundle it loosely (do not roll it) in a larger bag (not the bag it came with). Occasionally washing out the tent in a bathtub can further extend its useful life. Occasionally rubbing a bar of soap up and down the zipper may help extend its life.

Sleeping Bags

When choosing a sleeping bag, avoid those with the seams sewn through all the layers. Bulk doesn't always mean warmth, and the temperature ratings can vary between manufacturers and with the size of the person using the bag. Cotton or flannel linings tend to hold moisture from sweat, humidity and dampness and are best avoided. Look for coordinating sleeping bags that can zip together. Couples can stretch out better and stay warmer when zipped together. This once helped when one of us (who shall remain nameless) developed hypothermia.
You can get away with a cheaper bag if you only camp a night or two a year, and only in good summer weather, but beyond that, consider purchasing a better quality bag.
A makeshift sleeping bag can also be fashioned by pinning wool and/or fleece blankets together, but isn't the best long-term solution. Fibrefill (hollofill & other synthetics) are good choices if there is any possibility of moisture in your travels. Synthetics will stay fluffed and retain their insulating quality when wet. Down bags are more natural and stuff smaller, but do not retain their insulation quality when wet, and can take a long time to dry.
Always stuff rather than roll your bag to avoid stressing the same seams and bunching up the fill in the same places. Store hanging up or stuffed loosely in an oversized breathable fabric bag. To wash, do not dryclean! To machine wash, the best bet is to take it to a laundromat and use an oversized front-loading machine.Use biodegradable unscented detergent and no fabric softener (fabric softener should never be used on outdoor wear or gear as it compromises water repellancy and slows drying). Bring the bag home wet and hang it to dry outside. Alternatively, wash it out in a bathtub with mild detergent then squeeze out excess water and hang outdoors to dry.

Food Preparation

Along with your food, you will need all tools necessary for preparation and clean the water. This could include a single burner butane, white gas or propane stove with fuel, or a larger Coleman-style stove. Do not depend on a wood fire to cook our food as you could find there is a fire ban in effect, and also because many popular areas have been over-scavenged. Don't forget camp pots, plates, cutlery and a means of lighting the stove. Some parks near urban areas may have municipally treated drinking water but most often you will need to purify the water yourself. Best is a filter designed for the purpose, such as a Katadyn filter (a Britta filter will not suffice). Other options are to boil the water, or treat it with iodine (only for very short trips!) or chlorine bleach (temperature will affect the reliability of this method). You will also need cooking pots. Camping pots often nest together and lids can double as dishes. Use your largest pot as your sink when washing dishes. Never wash dishes in a lake or river--always dump dishwater in your toilet area or fire pit, far from water ways. Use sand (if available) to help scrub pots clean.


Proper clothing will vary depending on the weather, length of trip, and the activities you intend to do. If you want to swim in a more public area, you will need a bathing suit and either a camp towel or regular towel. Do any washing away from the lake and dump soapy water well away from any waterways. Be sure to have warmer and cooler wear. Canoeists and backpackers usually minimize and just bring a single change of clothing and perhaps extra socks and underwear. Be sure to consider the fabric of the clothing you choose. Heavy cotton and denim take a long time to dry and lose their insulation value when wet, making them impractical and at times, dangerous choices. Even if it is hot, portaging wet clothing is much harder than portaging dry clothing. Opt instead for quick-dry fabrics, polyester or other synthetic fleece, or wool. Kids may need an extra change of clothing in case of mud or food "incidents". Be sure to pack sun hats, sun protection and suitable footwear for everyone. Rain gear is also a very good idea, but if you are boating, do not wear rain ponchos as they become a drowning hazard in the case of a dump.

Younger kids will need diapers--for shorter trips, cloth are best. Longer trips may require laundering (not a big deal when car camping, but a bit of a hassle in the wilderness). If you camp often, it may be worth investing in old-fashioned cloth diapers that you fold yourself as they can be unfolded to a single layer that dries much faster than newer types of diapers. Alternatively, you can bring a few disposables for that last day. Neither option make for light carrying as all will need to be packed out of the wilderness, just as your used toilet paper will be carried out. You can burn toilet paper; don't try and burn disposable diapers!

Other Essentials

If you depend on medication, it is a good idea to bring along an extra day's worth.

A simple first aid kit is a good idea. Be sure that you know how to use everything that is inside or you will be carting around extra useless weight. Also remember to restock it after every trip as necessary.

Sunscreen or other means of sun protection are important, and insect repellant may be a necessity or just a luxury depending on where and when you are travelling. If you opt to use a deet based repellant, bring along a cotton bandana and put the repellant on it, then tie it around your neck. This helps keeps the deet off of your skin. Remember that deet will readily melt many synthetic materials.

Almost Essential, Very Useful Items
These are items you can survive without, but might seriously inhibit the enjoyment of the trip if left behind.

Any paddling? You will need the boat, paddles, pfds for everyone (professional floatation devices), a whistle and a bailer (any pot or container will do, kayakers may wish to use a simple bilge pump) and rope for securing the boat and lining if necessary. Whitewater paddlers will also need throw ropes, spray skirts, and additional floatation.

A personal water bottle can help to ensure that everyone stays hydrated. Dehydration is very common for campers. Be sure that everyone gets enough fluids, and remember that salt and other electrolytes are an essential part of everyone's diet.

If you are travelling at all during the trip, a detailed map of the area is essential, and a compass is a very good idea as well.

Flashlights make night time trips safer and more comfortable. Be sure to have enough battery power to last the entire trip, or better yet, use a hand-wound light. A red light (or red cellophane attached to filter the light) allows you to have light yet not lose your night vision when stargazing.

Kids should carry a whistle with them to be used only in emergencies. This is also a good idea for the adults.

A tarp can make a rainy day more bearable. Try adapting a regular one by adding extra grommets and/or webbing loops to make it easier to set up (Coughlan sells grommet kits just for this purpose). Nylon is preferred over plastic as it packs lighter and is less bulky. A tent fly can double as a tarp, but in wet weather, you will likely want both a fly and a tarp.

Rope (avoid the plastic yellow type as it doesn't hold knots very well) will help in many ways, from allowing you to hang your food for bear-proofing, rig up a tarp, make a quick clothesline and to use as painters on the canoe.

Good quality duct tape has been know to help with the temporary repair of anything from canoes to sleeping pads and tent zippers. You canalso use it on "hot spots" on your feet in a pinch.

A sharp pocket knife can be useful. Look for the attachments you are most likely to use.

A larger candle, candle lantern or battery lantern may come in handy when there are fire bans, or you choose not to light a fire. Never depend on fire for your cooking needs!

Sleeping pads, from the closed-cell mats, to the self-inflating luxury pads can make sleep more comfortable. One friend brings a huge bed-sized air mattress and foot pump. This works only for car camping though, not wilderness trips!

If it works for you, bring along insect repellant. Also bring a cotton bandana so any Deet products can be applied to it & tied around your neck (& extras around your annkles if needed) rather than directly onto your skin. If not, consider using bug nets. You can get these that cover just your head, your entire torso and head, and even bug pants. Be careful around open flames though, as most bug nets are not fire retardant.

A bear bell on your pack may give you peace of mind when backpacking in bear country.

A camera to record your memories.

Child carrier (backpack or sling).

Personal toiletries including biodegradable soap. Toothpaste is not necessary--brushing with water will do the trick.

Toilet paper. You can survive without it, and most campgrounds supply it. Wilderness campers will need to bring their own and either burn it or pack it out again with them. If your site has a thunder box on it, you can leave used toilet paper in the thunder box, but don't save it all up from the whole trip and dump it there, and never, ever leave diapers behind! Burying toilet paper isn't a good solution. Toilet paper, even the most biodegradable versions, takes a long time to break down. Many animals like to dig up anything that has been buried. Even if they don't, weather etc. often has a way of bringing the stuff to the surface. No one likes to set up camp among wads of used toilet paper! If you choose natural substitutes, aka leaves, pinecones, etc. be sure to avoid poison ivy and poison oak. Always relieve yourself in the designated area, or if there is none, at least 200 feet from any water source, and well away from the campsite and any trails. Bury your waste in the top 15 cm of soil but pack out or burn the toilet paper.
For more info on this delicate issue, I recommend the books: Soft Paths by Bruce Hampton and David Cole and How to Sh*t in the Woods (sorry, I didn't name it!) by Kathleen Meyer.

Feminine hygiene equipment: Best choice is a reusable silicone cup, such as a Diva cup that you empty and wash as you go. Next best choice is 100% cotton tampons packaged in cellulose that do not come with applicators (health food stores carry these). Avoid any products that have excess material and/or plastic of any sort. Pack out or burn used materials (but do not burn plastic!) . Remember that the smell of blood can attract animals, and proceed accordingly.

Luxury Items

Most of these are best left for car camping, although you might wish to take a treasured luxury or two from this list into the wilderness.
  • Binoculars
  • Field guides (stars, birds, wildflowers, fish, etc.)
  • Camp chairs
  • Screened dining tent
  • GPS system
  • Outback oven
  • Bucket and/or sand pail and shovel
  • Toy boat and other water toys
  • Table cloths
  • Plastic dishtubs
  • Dishtowels
  • Small wisk and pan
  • Extra towels and blankets
  • Toddler-sized toilet seat (might be considered an essential!)
  • Child booster seat (the kid used at the dining table, not the car kind)
  • Trip journal
  • Bicycles and helmets
  • Frisbee
  • Solar shower system
  • Picnic cooler
  • Badminton or volleyball set
  • Assorted sports balls
  • Butterfly net