When staying in the woods twenty miles from the nearest store, your gear inventory is a critical component to an enjoyable and comfortable dispersed camping adventure. I’ve done a lot of dispersed camping in a variety of climates, and over time have assembled the following kit which has served me quite well from the arid deserts of Utah to the misty rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. (Be sure to check out Part 1: Finding a Place to Camp in the National Forests to learn what dispersed camping is and how to find places to camp in America’s National Forests! And don’t overlook Part 3: Wilderness Etiquette and Comfort!)
Keep in mind that I’m mostly a solo car-and-tent guy, so you may need to scale up from what I have here for certain items (particularly cooking gear) if you’re camping with 3 or more buds.
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I’ve divided my gear list into several categories. Read everything or jump to a specific category with a click:
Something very important to remember and prepare for when going dispersed camping: THERE ARE NO TOILETS IN THE WOODS. You must come to peace with this fact, and you must accept the responsibility of properly disposing of your poop in the wilderness.
I am sharing my dispersed camping experience and gear list with you under the condition that you respect these wild places, bury your waste properly, and clean up after yourself. There are few things as obnoxious as setting up camp at a great spot only to discover piles of excrement and loose toilet paper behind every tree, and I am sad to say I’ve experienced this several times. Please, be a good steward of our public lands.
In Part 3 of my Dispersed Camping Guide, I detail the full procedure for disposing of your leavings- for now, the quick-and-dirty of it is to dig your holes 8 inches deep and 6 inches wide, at least 200 feet from any water, camp, or trail, and bury them completely when you’re done.
On to the gear!
• Compact folding shovel. (And/or a good trowel) A small digging implement of some kind is absolutely critical for dispersed camping, as you’ll be using it to dig out your cat holes- that is, your backcountry toilets. These folding shovels are perfect for the job and fold up small to save space. Can also be used to shovel a tent spot out of the snow or carving a moat- I talk more about this in Part 3 of the guide. For backpacking/hiking, bring a trowel instead.
• Biodegradable wet wipes. Nothing cleans a dirty bum like a wet wipe. If you’re not convinced, consider: what’s the best way to get dirt and mud off of your boots? With a dry towel, or a damp one? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Keep in mind the wet wipes you find at the store are almost certainly NOT biodegradable- not even those labeled as “flushable”. There’s no flushing where you’re going, so you need to get the right kind to ensure minimum lasting impact. Wet wipes are also a wonderful way to clean off the rest of you after a sweaty hike in lieu of showers! Bring more than you think you’ll need.
• Biodegradable toilet paper. Some use wet wipes for the heavy lifting, switching to a few squares of TP to wrap things up. Others go full wet wipe. Your own personal ratio of wet wipes-to-toilet paper may vary- but however you clean your ass, the important thing is that whatever you use is biodegradable. Don’t be a lazy jerk- don’t bring your normal rolls from home. The biodegradable options are quite inexpensive.
• Heavy duty trash bags. Cleaning up after yourself is the single most important part of dispersed camping. Commit to being a good steward of our public lands- commit to being a good person- by bringing ample trash bags to store your non-biological waste and bring all trash back to a dumpster in civilization afterwards. Bring more bags than you need so that you can clean up any mess the previous tenant may have left. Leave your camp cleaner than when you found it, or I swear I’ll turn this car around right now!
I’ve cooked many hundreds of (admittedly, very simple) meals over three years with these exact five items and they’re still holding up strong. I can say with confidence they are perfect for a solo wanderer like myself… or YOU!
• Compact cookware. I’ve been cooking my simple meals out of this small set for years now and it’s holding up great. The folding handles and nesting nature makes it perfect for backpacking, and as an often solo traveler it suits me on the road just fine. If you’re cooking for more than one, however, I recommend finding some larger cookware unless you’re willing to take turns.
• Compact stove. This is quite possibly the smallest stove in the universe, and has been absolutely perfect for me as a solo car camper with limited space. Folded up it fits perfectly inside the nested cooking pots I linked above. Just pop in on top of a propane/isobutane canister and you’re good to go. If you’re cooking for a party though, strongly consider a larger stove!
• Titanium spork. The ultimate camping utensil. Comfortable to hold as a spoon or a fork, easy to clean, and basically indestructible. I also use it to scrape the really tough bits of burnt grime out of my cookware after burning the chili, which I do far too often. Don’t settle for anything but titanium! Daily use over multiple years of abuse, and mine is still good as new.
• Utensil multi-tool. Because you want a knife that’s not a giant Gerber blade to cut your food withalongside your titanium spork. Also great to have a backup fork and spoon for those times when you meet a new friend on the road and invite them to your camp for dinner!
• Camp stove windshield. If you use a small backpacker’s stove like I do, this windshield will save you both fuel and frustration when the breeze kicks up. It has two attached anchor rods that drive into the dirt to keep it in place and will vastly reduce your cooking time as it not only blocks the wind but reflects otherwise wasted heat back onto your cooking pot. I didn’t pick this up until I had been on the road for over a year, and afterwards wondered how I ever got by without it.
• Water jugs. You could always go full-wild and mess with gathering and purifying water from a lake or river- which is totally rad, and more power to you- but I prefer just bringing plenty of clean water in big jugs. Fill up at home beforehand, and be aware of any places near your destination where you can refill- many ranger stations have faucets for refilling large containers. I recommend bringing one gallon per person per day for drinking and dishwashing.
• Cups, paper bowls, paper plates, and paper towels. These may be a no-brainer, but they’re worth mentioning. You can eat your soup right out of the pan if you go solo like me, but where are you gonna pour your instant coffee? What about road friends and guests? What about getting that bit of melted s’more out of your beard? Don’t forget the basics! The nice thing about paper bowls and plates is that they make great kindling after your meal- just be sure to get natural ones like what I’ve linked here. Do NOT put plastic or synthetic materials into your campfire!
Light is a precious resource in the wilds, and you’ll want several sources of it: a large central light source to keep your camp lit, a couple mid-sized portable light sources, and of course a good headlamp to safely guide you around camp at night.
Your central light source should be a lantern, either propane or battery-powered. Propane lanterns are generally much brighter and highly recommended if you have space for a couple fuel canisters. Be sure to have extra mantles and matches to light them, and practice lighting it at home before you take it into the woods- it can be tricky until you get the hang of it, but the excellent radiant light that a propane lantern produces is well worth the extra trouble.
Battery lamps are not as bright, but much more portable. They may also have alternate lighting modes which can be quite useful, doubling as an extra flashlight or a blinking emergency beacon.
Personally, I use both- a large propane lantern which stays stationary in a central area, and a small battery-powered one to carry around for nightly camp chores and for hanging in the tent.
• Propane lantern. I use an older version of this Coleman as my propane lantern, and it has served me very well. It is gloriously bright and will banish all ghosts within a 20 foot radius, guaranteed! If you plan on being out for more than a couple nights, be sure to bring extra propane canisters and mantles. Note: never put a propane lantern inside a tent! Carbon monoxide poisoning is no bueno. Battery power is the way to go for tent-lighting.
• Battery-powered lantern.
This guy uses 3 “D” cells and is quite bright for a battery lamp. It has a handy flashlight and blinking modes, and lasts for a rather long time- I’ve used it for hours every night for over a week straight before the battery indicator turns red and it starts to dim. Even then, it can still last for another week before it gets too dim to be useful. A fold-out hook on the bottom can be used to hang it inside your tent, too!
• At least two sturdy, reliable flashlights.
These Dorcy flashlights are small, bright, extremely tough, and the bright color means they’re easy to find if dropped in the brush. The carabiner-style latches make it easy to strap to your backpack, belt, or to hang in the tent. You don’t need to worry about rain or even accidentally dropping it into a stream- they are completely waterproof and float readily. They take three AA’s each, and the batteries are included. For under 15 bucks a piece, these flashlights are perfect for dispersed camping. I seriously love these things. I always have two of them ready to go.
• A good headlamp. And no, those cheaply made $1 things you get from a bin at WalMart don’t count! You will be amazed by the improvement in your after-dark camping activities a good quality headlamp can make. I use this Coleman LED Multi-color Headlamp, and I swear by it. This thing is freakin’ awesome and it is the envy of every person I’ve met on the road so far. You can tilt the light downwards, allowing you to navigate uneven terrain without staring straight down like a doofus, and you will no longer blind your camping buddies whenever you look at them. It has a ton of handy lighting modes- normal, bright, or blinking white lights; a red light to preserve night vision (an absolute MUST for stargazing!); and a blue light which is supposedly useful for tracking (I wouldn’t know as I’ve never hunted before, alas). It’s powered by three AAA’s and will last for weeks before needing to replace them. Batteries aren’t included so be sure to get some before heading out into the wild!
In addition to your tent/RV, I highly recommend these extra bits to make your dispersed campsite more comfortable and weather-proof. In my next article I’ll teach you how to use these items to make your camp truly badass- remember to subscribe at the bottom of the page if you want to know more!
• Heavy duty tarps. Ahh, tarps. A critical piece of any wilderness camper’s arsenal. Sling one over your tent to protect it from wear and weather. Strap another to nearby trees with bungees and ropes to create a rain or sun shelter. Lay a small one on the ground outside your tent where your shoes and backpack can dry after a muddy hike. I always have at least three tarps with me when car camping in the deep woods. There have been times I wished I had even more than that! Be sure to get thick, heavy duty ones. The higher cost is well justified by the increased durability- after all, a leaky or torn tarp is a useless tarp.
• Bungee cords. Never underestimate the usefulness of attaching things to other things. With enough bungee cords and tarps, you can make an impressive shelter pretty much anywhere. I am in love with this particular bundle and they are among the first things I pull out whenever I set up camp in a new spot. By chaining various sizes together it becomes simple to string up a tarp between trees quite far from each other. The tiny cords in this pack are great for helping secure a tent (you do have extra tent stakes, I hope) against inclement weather too. I’m seriously considering picking up a second set, as I’ve found that one can NEVER have too many bungee cords when camping.
• Better tent stakes. Those plastic stakes that probably came with your tent are utter garbage. Throw them away and get these instead. They are much less likely to snap into pieces, they come with some extra cordage (always useful when dispersed camping), and there’s a whole bunch of ’em. Good for attaching corners of your tarp to the ground for certain builds, too.
• Towels. “A towel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” I’ve found this to be true for earthbound travelers as well. I always have four towels available for whatever the moment calls for- extra padding on my tent floor, drying off my belongings after an overnight storm flooded my tent up in Washington, extra warmth for those really, really cold nights at Bryce Canyon in the winter… they are endlessly handy. Don’t forget to bring several.
Chopping, charging, lighting fires, and more! Don’t find yourself in the forest without these critical tools. They have served me well.
• A good full tang knife. I absolutely love this Gerber knife. Its high quality steel and full tang blade (meaning the metal extends throughout the handle) make it remarkably tough. I’ve been chopping kindling from firewood and everything else with this thing for years and it still cuts true. The included belt holster has an easy-to-use blade sharpener and an emergency fire-starter built-in. The attached whistle could save your life if you get injured off a trail somewhere. The Bear Grylls branding is kinda cheesy but this is a quality blade- I honestly can’t endorse this knife enough. Don’t skimp on quality for price when it comes to your camping knife.
• A good hatchet. I’m gonna be honest with ya. I’m currently using a cheap hatchet I picked up on sale at a Big 5 in some random town while traveling. But this is the hatchet I wish I had, and the one I’ll be picking up when my current one inevitably craps out on me. The Estwing’s single-piece construction means it’s crazy tough, it has a solid grip, and this one is even made in the USA. Soon, it will be mine, but it could be yours even sooner.
• Bear spray. Large predators like bears and mountain lions tend to shy away from the noise and bustle of busy campgrounds. When dispersed camping, however, you are a visitor in their territory. If a predator wanders into your camp and you are unable to scare it off (make loud noises and appear as large as you can), then bear spray is your best chance at warding it off- it’s essentially pepper spray with a 30 foot range and a wide field of dispersal. Read the instructions; know how to use it properly and quickly; have it within arms reach whenever you are camping or hiking in the back-country; and don’t forget to account for the wind direction- you don’t want any of this in your face.
• Long lighters. These are the way to go when lighting your campfire. The long nose ensures you can get that kindling in the center of your fire going easily and safely. Not much else to say about these, but do have a pack of matches available too as these lighters can be finicky when it gets too cold.
• Bucket. If you’re camping near a lake or river, a bucket with a spout like this one is perfect for putting out your campfire. Remember, when you’re dispersed camping, you must do it responsibly, and that includes dousing and stirring your fire at the end of the night. (I’ll talk more about fire building and extinguishing etiquette in Part 3 of this dispersed camping guide- subscribe at the bottom of this page so you don’t miss it!)
• Gorilla tape. This stuff is great, and I’ve used it more times than I can count. I’ve patched holes in my tent, reinforced my gear box and reusable bags as they wore out, fixed busted sunglasses, and even secured a loose piece of my car’s undercarriage in place until I could get to a proper repair shop. It’s super sticky and tougher than duct tape yet is easy to tear into appropriate size strips for whatever job you need it for. I never leave town without a roll of thick Gorilla Tape, and neither should you!
• Folding table and chairs. You won’t find many benches at dispersed camping sites, so you’ve got to bring your own platforms upon which to cook or play cards on, unless you fancy doing everything in the dirt. These folding aluminum tables compress into a surprisingly small bag for easy transport. Don’t forget enough chairs for your whole party, either!
• Fingerless cross-training gloves. Gathering firewood or climbing rough rocks while hiking is murder on your hands. I picked up a pair of these on a random whim and fell in love with them for camping. They make picking up and dragging logs back to camp, firewood chopping, and fire-tending so much easier and provide great grip and protection for scrambling off-trail while keeping your fingers free for maximum dexterity. I wear them almost constantly when out in the wild- they are surprisingly durable.
• Portable USB power bank. It’s a great idea to forget about your phone as much as possible when dispersed camping. However, one mustn’t deny the usefulness of a modern phone’s myriad functions unrelated to the internet or texting. With a portable power bank like this, I have no qualms with listening to an audiobook while I gather firewood, or cranking out some tunes when I have a visitor by the fire. 10,000mAh capacity will charge my old Android phone 4 times, you’re looking at 3 charges for a newer iPhone (Remember to keep your phone in flight mode and keep the brightness down as much as possible to get the most bang for your volt). By the time the bank is drained I’m on the road again and can recharge it with my micro-USB car charger on the road. The exact model of power bank I use isn’t available on Amazon any more, but this is the one I’ll be getting whenever my current one dies out.
You won’t have reception at most dispersed camping areas, so you need to be prepared and able to help yourself in the event of an emergency so you don’t find yourself bleeding without a bandage, or looking at a long hike to civilization because of a flat tire or dead battery. I always have the following items with me:
• First aid kit. When dispersed camping, you are almost guaranteed to get nicked, scraped, bumped, and bruised. If you don’t have one of these in your car then now is the time to get wise. This particular kit is highly portable and loaded with useful bits. I’ve used it many times not only for myself, but for others I’ve met on the road who were not so well prepared. In the time since I picked up this kit they’ve even added an emergency hammer which can cut seatbelts and break windows if you’re trapped in your car after an accident! Be smart. Be a hero. Carry a first aid kit at all times in the wilderness. Don’t forget to throw it in your pack when you go hiking!
• Roadside assistance kit. For roadside emergencies, it’d be hard to beat this kit. Multitool, jumper cables, warning triangle, reflective vest, mini first-aid kit and many other useful pieces have brought me peace of mind on the long stretches of highway between camping destinations- not just for myself, but for helping others too! That poor British couple I found stranded near Zion National Park were quite grateful when I came along with my cables to get them rolling again. I recommend throwing the whistle you get with this kit into your backpack- it could be a lifesaver if you injure yourself out hiking somewhere. Really, you should have a kit like this in your car whether you dispersed camp or not.
• Portable jumpstarter. These have gotten remarkably compact over the past several years, so there’s really no excuse to go without one. If your car’s battery dies while you’re out in the middle of nowhere, this will get you moving again. Charge at home and keep it in your vehicle, and plug it in every three months to keep the charge up. The one I use has a car charger- meaning you can jump your battery, and once the engine’s running you can recharge the jumpstarter as you drive or idle. The USB ports and laptop dongles can be handy too, but keep in mind there are better solutions to keeping your devices charged than draining your jumpstarter. Be sure you get one which is rated for the size of your vehicle- you’ll need more voltage for a truck or SUV. I use this one for my Honda Civic, and it has gotten me out of a pinch a few times already!
• Slime tire repair kit. Few things are as disheartening as a flat tire in the wilderness, but with one of these small kits it’s hardly more than an inconvenience. It takes around 15 minutes to fully deflate the offending tire, add the slime, and reinflate it. On a trip with my girlfriend to Glacier National Park, this product saved us when our tires kept springing inexplicable leaks. We always carry a fresh bottle of Slime in the trunk of each of our cars. Just be sure to head to the nearest tire shop as soon as you can to get a plug or a new tire- Slime is a temporary fix only!
Well, there you have it. This is pretty much everything I’ve been using to camp out and away from civilization for weeks at a time for the past several years. The gear listed here will get you in and out of the woods safely and comfortably, and you can get all of it on Amazon like I did.
Thanks so much for reading and I hope this proves helpful in preparing you for your own wilderness camping adventure!
In Part 3: Wilderness Etiquette and Comfort, I’ll teach you how to create a proper dispersed camp: wood gathering and basic fire building, dealing with inclement weather, how to take a crap in the woods (in detail) and other critical matters of wilderness etiquette and comfort.
Questions or suggestions? Did I forget something that you never camp without? Leave me a comment below! And don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter at the bottom of the page so you don’t miss future updates! (I will NEVER send you spam or share your e-mail address)
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