There is so much information out there about camping equipment and it can be a bit overwhelming for would-be campers. Don't let them fool you; camping is not that complicated. There are a few basics that you need and everything else is a nice-to-have. In this post, I've included a few tips for newbies who are thinking about setting up camp for the first time.
Borrow or Rent equipment
Camping is a cheap activity but only after you've stocked up on all the equipment you need. It can be tough to spend a bunch of money up front if you're not even sure if you're going to like it or do it often. I recommend either borrowing equipment from a generous friend or renting the equipment. Companies like Logistics in Nature (serves Austin/Houston area) and Lower Gear will rent equipment for you for a fraction of what it would cost you to go out and buy all your own.
If you do decide to buy equipment rather than borrowing or renting, don't do what I did and just go buy the cheapest of each item. If you enjoy camping, you'll just end up re-buying everything because you bought crappy stuff the first time around. Take the time to do a little research first. I often use Outdoor Gear Lab to help make decisions in this department and they haven't steered me wrong yet.
Don't skimp on the Sleeping Pad
Just because you're sleeping outside doesn't mean you have to be uncomfortable. A good sleeping pad will go a long way to help you catch all the zzzz's. Skimp on the sleeping pad and you'll find yourself crawling out of your tent in the morning having not caught a wink, swearing off camping and hoping your campmates have already started on the coffee. Speaking of coffee, that's another piece of vital camping equipment I wouldn't be caught without; but that's for another post.
I've tried a few different sleeping pads and I've landed on the Big Agnes Q-Core. It's super light, compact, and is about four inches thick when inflated. I'm a side sleeper so the extra cushion keeps my hips from digging into the ground. My only complaint is that it's a bit loud when you move around on it. If you want to read more about selecting the right sleeping pad for you, I recommend checking out REI's post here.
When I'm car camping, I bring a real pillow as well. Ok, maybe sometimes more than one pillow. That's one of the upsides of car camping! Bring all the pillows!
Let there be light!
It's sometimes easy to forget since we live most of our lives under fluorescent lighting, but it actually gets dark outside. Like, really dark. Like, holy crap that bush just moved are we about to get attacked by a pack of rabid coyotes who were drawn by the smell of our delicious hot-dogs dark. Bring a headlamp, and you'll easily be able to tell that the rabid coyotes are actually just a small raccoon who is trying to steal your dog's food from under the picnic table. Pro tip: most headlamps have a regular light and a red light on them; use the red setting to avoid blinding your fellow campers.
It's also a huge pain to set up camp once it's already dark, especially if you aren't practiced. Get to camp before dark so you have plenty of sunlight and don't have to rely on headlamps or flashlights.
Learn as you go
I can give you all the tips in the world, but you're still going to forget the toilet paper, the matches, or some other piece of equipment. Don't stress about it. Part of the fun is developing your own camping style and learning your own tricks. The bottom line is you don't need to be an expert to camp. You belong outside! Get out there.