Fall is a great time to camp because it’s not heinously hot and it’s generally less crowded than camping during summer vacation. Plus, leaf-peeping AKA looking at leaves is a storied New England pastime that’s been adapted to other locales. That said, it’s colder and gets dark earlier, which means you’ll need to think through your gear choices more carefully. A lot of people (ahem, gear manufacturers) make nice, warm gear and will sell it to you. But whether you buy new or rummage in your garage, here’s a baseline list of what to bring fall camping.
Read this list if you’ve been invited to go camping in September but really haven’t been camping that much any other time.
What you need to survive the night:
- Sleeping mat: Thermarest Z-Rest is a classic. If you have a garage full of junk, check for a leftover foam pad too: that’ll work for now. An inflatable mattress for indoors will work if you have electricity available and a big enough tent, although some people will judge.
- Sleeping bag: should be rated to 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) below the weather you expect. Borrow one if possible since they’re expensive. Go with a synthetic fill if you’re just looking for something to get through the summer. If you’re looking for spring, fall or winter trips it’s worth paying more for down-filled bags because of how much smaller they pack down. Here’s a really pretty option.
- Puffy Jacket: Get one and never be cold again. Look for sales and discount codes (signing up for email lists etc.) since they’re an investment and you’ll be wearing it and taking pictures with it on so you want to like how it looks. This one’s on sale right now and yes, the hood is removable. You can wear the hood in the woods but people might judge: know that you’re cooler than them. Note, don’t stand anywhere near a campfire since parks will burn holes in the jacket and smell like smoke for years.
- Wool socks: not cotton, and make sure you bring a thick pair for sleeping at night. You’ll probably want a thinner (also wool) pair for hiking during the day.
- Hat & Gloves: Comfy hat for hanging around camp, and also fleece gloves (not cotton). Something you can wear while opening and closing the zipper on your sleeping bag. You don’t need to buy a tech-y outdoor hat: whatever you have that’s cute.
- In Case of Campfire: Crappy big cotton jacket or shirt to wear over your expensive down jacket. Great time for a huge flannel. Also #fashion)
- Close-toed shoes like sneakers: Or crocs if you can stomach them. The point is you can put them on easily when you’re getting out of your tent in the dark (although you won’t be trying to hold a flashlight in your other hand, so that helps). Flip flops are not the choicest choice because you can’t wear them with socks and you might kick a stump and hate your life.
- Insulated Mug: You’re car camping, so there’s gonna be coffee. Make sure you’re prepared to sip slowly in comfort (while wearing your gloves if it’s frosty).
- Headlamp: Flashlight is not your best option since you’ll need your hands free to do things at night, like clean up from cooking. Basic starts at $20, and there’s no need to pay more.
That’s what you need to bring to survive the night like a snug and comfy semi-professional-grade car camper. The key point is that warmth is 90% of comfort. Note that you are in camp and not moving much during the coldest part of the day (dusk, the dead of night) and so need to bring considerably more layers than anyone would need during the day.
Car Camping Stuff Someone Will Need To Bring:
This is the list of stuff that the person who asked you to go camping should be providing if they’re not irresponsible trash:
- Tent and Ground Cloth: For like, shelter and stuff. But they’re actually warmer than just lying on the ground at your campsite. Plus, they provide a bit of privacy (not if they’re lit from inside at night though: everyone outside can see your shadows and always hear everything you’re saying).
- Cooking Plan and Supplies: Stove, fuel, cooking pot, cooking utensils, eating utensils (sporks optional for car camping) and bowls. Bring tupperware instead if you hate doing dishes so you can just close the lid and wash the containers once you’re home. Also, bring food that’s very easy to prepare (mac n’ cheese) because it gets dark and cold early.
- Hiking/Activity Plan They’ve Shared in Advance: Find out what you’ll be doing during the day so you can bring the right stuff. Half-day hike? Who’s bringing the backpack with a snack, jackets, water, and a map? Any chance it’ll be icy? That’s their job to tell you.
So that’s a basic list of what to bring fall camping.
It’s not exhaustive, but the other items will depend a lot on what your personal nightly routine looks like. Camping at a place you can drive to makes it easier to have more familiar comforts like pillows, pajamas, and lots of bulky snacks, so it should be a fun and not traumatizing experience. Plus if it ever gets really cold you can get in the car, or follow my mom’s pro tip and hang out in campground bathrooms since they’ll be heated so the pipes don’t freeze. I’d choose the car first, but the point is you have options. Enjoy your trip and don’t forget to PUT ON the layers you packed before you get too cold! Take some pictures for me!