Want to go camping but need a simple, minimalist, budget-friendly packing list? Here is the list (free printable!) our family uses when we visit the Great Outdoors.
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Honestly, until a few years ago, camping – the mother of all cheap vacations – was an extravagant expense we didn’t prioritize.
But as our kids got older, there were fewer diapers and people started sleeping through the night. We learned that it’s good for all of us to drop $60 on a little vacation.
However, we have a small vehicle, no camper, no trailer, and no car-top carrier. So we need to pack minimally and efficiently in order to go camping. Believe it or not, it’s possible!
Here’s what we’ve learned about minimalist camping on a budget.
Simple, Minimalist Camping
I love camping for many reasons:
- It’s a CHEAP way to get away for a couple of days
- Raising small, loud humans is better with outdoor activities where it’s okay to be dirty
- As a country girl, I crave nature
- Hammock naps
- The woods are my very favorite place
- Playing with fire is fun (don’t tell the small, loud humans)
- Cooking food on sticks over the fire
Primitive Camping with Kids
But for all of you who hate camping (ahem, Chris), I get it.
I would rather skip these parts when camping:
- That 1/4 mile walk to the bathroom
- Ax murderers
- Rustling leaves in the dark
- Hot sun
- Sweaty hammock naps
- Sand everywhere
- Dirt everywhere
- Rain in the tent
- Skunks that aren’t afraid of people
- Raccoons that aren’t afraid of people
- The squirrel that scatters trash all over the campsite and breaks into my oatmeal box
Camping is an adventure whether you love it like me or have to be dragged into it like Chris.
But while it can be a cheap way to vacation, it gets really expensive if you don’t have any of the equipment.
So what equipment do you need to camp simply and minimally?
Camping requires a certain amount of gear. One of the main reasons we didn’t camp until a few years ago was because we didn’t have the funds or space in our small house (750 square feet) to buy and store camping gear.
Since we were minimalists before it was trendy, we didn’t want to invest in camping gear until we knew exactly what we needed.
Here is how we baby-stepped our way into minimalist camping on a budget.
1. Go Camping with Friends First
On our very first camping trip, we stayed with friends who are veteran campers. They had everything – including the screened-in kitchen tent, folding tables, and an enthusiastic number of string lights that turned the terrifying nighttime campsite absolutely cozy.
This trip helped show me what was really important to me (like string lights), and what all of this gear looked like in real life.
2. Borrow Camping Gear Before You Buy it
We borrowed a lot of gear during the first few camping trips. In American culture, we prefer to be independent and not ask for help when we need it. But sometimes, it’s okay to need help.
If I can, I always borrow gear from a friend and use it for one trip before buying it. This helps me decide what is worth the investment (and storage).
My family is deeply grateful for the friends who held our hands while we learned how to camp – and let me borrow their air mattress pump again.
3. Minimalist Camping Packing
You don’t need a kitchen tent. You don’t need a butane stove. You don’t even need lanterns (just wrap a headlamp around a gallon of water. Boom.)
Doing Steps 1 and 2 helped me learn exactly what I needed while I was camping. While there are a lot of things that make our campsite even better (more string lights?), the reality is that we don’t need much.
Packing for Camping
I have a free printable for you that lists exactly what you need for minimalist, budget-friendly camping. You can follow it exactly or tweak it for your needs.
I also have a second-tier list for items I’ve slowly purchased over the years that make BIG difference in our camping experience. You don’t need them, but I love them.
You don’t need much while camping. But these items help us stay clean, dry, relaxed, fed, and happy.
Travel toiletry bag with a hook – the hook comes in handy when you’re in bathrooms without counter space. Just hang the hook over a stall wall. Tall enough to fit full-size bottles, but small enough to not be ridiculous. This fits everything our family of 5 needs (we even brought it to Greece)
Winner Outfitter Camping Hammock – every camping trip is better with a hammock. I love this one.
Sterilite Storage Bins – the best and easiest way to pack and keep your campsite tidy and rain-proof.
3-Drawer stacking storage bin – to optimize floor space in the tent and keep clothes clean and dry (we proved it with 2 rainy camping trips).
Instant Pot – serves as our cooktop, slow cooker, oatmeal-maker, and even water boiler. On our last trip, it got left out in an unexpected downpour while we were in the showers, and I thought it was a goner. Nope. Still works perfectly.
Electric griddle – because pancakes are important while camping, and I don’t always cook over the fire.
Rope lights – far less breakable than string lights and they make the campsite extremely cozy at night.
3-Way Outdoor Extension Cord – I love this one because it’s like having 3-4 extension cords for the price and hassle of one.
Small Electric Fan – I have a very difficult time sleeping outside. This small fan provides white noise (and excellent sleep!) and gives us airflow inside the tent on warm nights.
Everyone is different, so what matters to me might not matter to you.
I might say string lights are important to keep the ax murderers away, but you might prefer to see the stars all evening.
Air mattresses are a non-negotiable for me. When the kids were younger, we got away with just one air mattress for me, and a couple of extra blankets for the littles. But now, everyone wants an air mattress. That’s reasonable. The kids sleep on a big queen-size mattress and I have a small twin mattress.
The last time we went camping, it rained (actually, it DOWNPOURED) through our open tent windows. If we didn’t have air mattresses, we would have been floating in a pool of wet blankets all night.
(I bet you really want to go camping now.)
Minimalist Family Camping Checklist
One of the most difficult parts of beginning to camp is figuring out what you need to pack. It’s so easy to overpack. So I made a checklist for you!
This is not the Minimalist-all-I-need-is-a-hammock-and-canned-beans packing list. Rather, it is a checklist of all the simple basics for newbie campers who want to know what they need to have a comfortable, fun camping trip.
This list assumes you have electricity at your site and that you’d rather sleep on an air mattress than the hard ground.
Download the Minimalist Camping Packing List Here:
Simple Camping Tips
This is my absolute favorite way to pack for camping.
Pack in Bins
The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s easier to pack your camping gear in storage bins like this. This keeps everything organized, mostly animal proof (unless you are camping somewhere with bears), and simple.
If you decide to invest in separate camping items from your day-to-day household items (knife, cutting board, cups, plates, etc.), you can even store these bins already packed, then pull them out and toss them in the back of your car.
Depending on the size of your family, you might need more than one bin for each category. Here is an overview of the bins on our Minimalist Packing Camping List:
1. Kitchen Bin
This holds all of the cooking supplies, salt, pepper, plates, plates, forks, water bottles, dishwashing supplies, etc.
2. Tent Bin
Everything you need inside the tent – towels, flashlights, dustpan, and handheld broom (trust me, you’ll need it), games, and even the air mattresses if you can fit them. Don’t forget the pump!
Tip: I always pack the bedding together, then I have a small bin for my clothing and a three drawer bin like this for the boys’ clothes that stay in the tent. It’s a little bulky, but it helps keep everything organized, clean, and dry in case it rains. I’ve been really grateful for this setup several times.
3. Campsite Bin
This includes general campsite gear like string lights, clothesline, extension cords, the hammer, etc.
4. Camping Food Bin & Cooler (Not Included in the List)
The food bin holds all of the shelf-stable food – cans, boxes, beans, fruit, and veggies that don’t need to be refrigerated. We didn’t include the food or cooler on the list, because that changes depending on what you pack to eat.
Generally, we use the same basic menu plan every time we camp! It’s simple, easy, budget-friendly, and balances real food (burrito bowls!) and fun camping food (s’mores!) really well.
We made you a downloadable Camping Menu Plan (with the packing list!) here!
Download the Minimalist Family Camping Packing List Here!
However you choose to camp, go about it intentionally. Start small, try it with friends, and borrow before you buy. This way you know you have exactly what you care about and nothing that you don’t. You can enjoy your camping trip knowing you guarded your budget, time, and prevented ax murderers.
What You Can Do Now:
Do you like camping? What are your must-haves?
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My mm tentcamped us in the 70s. She did it very intentionally and thus, organizationally. She used the cardboard storage boxes you fold together yourself and turned the trunk of our Duster into the camp kitchen, once we unloaded it at the campsite. We had pool float air mattresses. Had to blow them up daily lol. I still have the folding shovel we had to buy one time it decided to rain continuously on the Chesapeake bay. Its great for my car trunk as we live in the arctic of NYS.
I did it to my older kids a few times as I had all the equipment from her. Then we used the 2 room tent, yes it was HUGE…in summers in the backyard till it got ruined over the yrs.
Im never tentcamping again. Altho that air mattress in your pic looks promising, I know about the rest of tentcamping, very well lol I would rather spend a day somewhere and go home. So an RV is for me! 🙂
I just got back from a tent camping trip and I tried to tough it out on a simple sleeping mat, and girl, I agree! Air mattresses or bust from now on! Lol! I got horrible sleep on that stupid mat. That’s a non negotiable for me.
Right?!? Only took 1 night for me!
Do you. Amp at campsites with electrical hookups, or do you use solar, etc.?
Hi Sarah! We typically camp with electrical hookups.