There’s a 10 essentials list for hiking and backpacking—but what’s absolutely essential for camping? Put on my list of essentials these give items that add convenience and comfort: a super bright lantern; a lightweight, collapsible chair and small table; a soft-sided, highly portable cooler; and a tiny charger to resuscitate your phones. They will become staples of my trips ranging from car camping to rafting.
Mr. Beams UltraBright LED Lantern
$40, 1 lb. 4 oz. (2 lbs. 7 oz. with four D batteries)
Size: 7.25×3 inches
This lantern lights up an entire campsite—I haven’t seen a brighter lantern that’s still compact and lightweight enough to hang from a ceiling loop inside a tent. It projects 260 lumens of light and lasts over 30 hours on four D batteries (mounted in a compartment accessed by twisting off the lantern’s base), and has a low-power, 20-lumen setting that’s perfect for reading (and prolonging battery life). A USB output port lets you fully charge three smartphones, and the lantern still holds enough juice for 15 hours of light on one set of batteries. An auto shut-off feature turns the light off after an hour; it blinks before turning off so you’re not left standing in the dark. This tough, weather-resistant torch is good for the yard or camping and the company says its LEDs never need replacing.
Helinox Chair One
$100, 2 lbs. (including stuff sack)
Size: 20.5x20x25.6 inches assembled, 14x4x5 inches packed
$100, 1 lb. 8 oz. (including stuff sack)
Size: 24x16x16 inches assembled, 16x4x4 inches packed
I test a lot of new gear, and the items that consistently attract the most coveting looks from friends are those that deliver added comfort for little extra weight. So the Helinox Chair One left jaws hanging on a camping trip to Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve. Assembled quickly and intuitively, made of nylon fabric and anodized DAC aluminum poles—the same material used in poles for better backpacking tents—the Chair One is strong enough to support folks up to 320 pounds, according to Big Agnes. It held a 200-pound friend without a problem, although it’s slightly wobbly with bigger people in it. At two pounds and more compact than the Sunday New York Times when packed, it’s perfect for car camping, river and sea kayaking trips, or short backpacking trips to a backcountry base camp.
Similarly, the Helinox Table assembles almost as quickly—it took me just a few minutes to figure it out without instructions the first time—and holds plates and drinks for a couple of people. While it’s not made for preparing food on or holding more than several pounds, it’s a nice convenience when you’re camping somewhere that lacks a picnic table, like on a rafting trip.
IceMule Classic Cooler
$50, 1 lb. 13 oz., 15L
Sizes: 10L ($40), 15L, 20L ($60)
On a family camping trip to Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve, I used this soft-sided, roll-top bag as my second cooler, filling it with several bottles and cans and ice cubes. Insulated to keep contents cold for 24 hours, it fits easily into compact spaces in the back of a car, and folds up small when empty—making it much more convenient and portable than a hard-sided cooler, although it certainly doesn’t keep ice intact for nearly as long.
An air valve lets you release air from the insulation layer to compress the IceMule when storing it. The exterior fabric of non-toxic, PU-coated vinyl could take a bullet. It’s ideal for short-duration events: think outdoor concerts and plays or for camping when you need a little extra cooler space for a day and evening but don’t want something that takes up a lot of car space.
RAVPower RP-PB16 Element 7800mAh External Battery with Camping Lantern
$30, 8 oz.
Size: 3.7×2.3×0.8 inches
Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, this portable charger restores a full charge to up to three mobile phones. Besides being handy for car camping, I’ll pack it for an upcoming, weeklong, hut-to-hut trek where we’ll want to keep phones charged for everything from taking photos and videos to reading and the option of making calls when we reach areas with service. A built-in, pop-up lantern projects enough light to read by in a tent or campsite.
NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.