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How to Camp for Free: Essential Gear for Wild Camping

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The pull of the great outdoors tugs on my heart constantly.  And I have to admit – I’m a sucker for a good deal.  Camping for free is the best of both worlds – surrounded by nature at a price I love to pay:  FREE!  I suspect you are probably the same – otherwise, why would you be here?  And what better way to experience the rugged beauty of the Wild West than to be immersed in it:  wild camping in some remote corner of the desert, miles from your nearest neighbor?  And did I mention that you can camp for free?

In this follow up to our comprehensive post How to camp for free: where and when to wild camp, we address another crucial element:  your equipment.  Without the proper equipment, your wild camping adventure could quickly turn into a nightmare.

Two men sit next to a bright campfire. The fire illuminates their faces, the tall joshua trees surrounding them, their tent, and the truck and rock formation behind it.

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  This means that I receive a commission – at no cost to you – if you purchase one of the products I’ve linked below.

Wild Camping Equipment Checklist

  1. Camping Gear
  2. Tools & Equipment
  3. Cookware
  4. Food Storage
  5. Clothing
  6. Other Supplies

Want to know how to find great wild camping locations?  Click HERE

In order to safely camp for free, you’re going to need to be relatively well equipped.  The desert is not to be trifled with – it is still very much an untamed landscape – and you will be several miles from help should an emergency arrive.  I won’t bore you by repeating the full disclaimer list on the “When and Where” post, but I will reiterate one thing before we get started:

Do not wild camp if you are not an experienced camper

A few of the suggestions below are things that we had to learn about the hard way – we either didn’t have the correct gear, or we simply didn’t bring what we needed and had to buy it along the way.  Learn from our mistakes by being fully prepared ahead of time.  A few are items that you hope you never need to use, but are extremely wise to have with you just in case.

The tops of scrub covered hills start to glow with the first light of sunrise in the Mojave Desert. A tent and open truck bed sit in the foreground.
Watching the sun rise on the hills overlooking our wild camping site in the Mojave Desert

Wild Camping Gear

Tent – My Quest four person tent (which appears to have been discontinued; this is a comparable tent) that we used was perfectly fine for virtually all nights and conditions – even nights when it dropped below freezing.  The tent has plenty of room for two to three people plus their gear (what you aren’t storing in your vehicle, of course). Anyone up to 6’ tall or so can comfortably stand in the tent, and it’s water and insect proof.  

It was when powerful winds whipped up that we had an issue.  It only happened to us once, but that night was a memorable one!  The tent poles didn’t break, which impressed me, but the boxy shape of the tent meant that we were lifted up off the ground several times that night… even with two fully-grown men and our gear inside.

A large blue tent sits on a free camping site in Big Sur, overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway and the cool blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. A brilliant blue sky overhead is nearly cloudless, and the wild grasses are dried and yellow. This campsite was free.
We had already secured the tent with the substantial rocks you see here – but even that was not enough!

Fortunately, we had secured the tent as extremely as I’ve ever seen it.  Had we not tied the tent off to our truck with several yards of 750lb paracord, I think there’s a good chance we would’ve blown away.  It’s a great all-around tent, so I’ll still use it, but it’s something to be aware of and take precautions against.  

If you’re already in the market for new gear and are considering an extreme weather tent, here are some great options to consider.   Also, the two-person tent from REI that we used on the cross-country road trip was phenomenal – it kept us clean and dry during one heck of a downpour in the Ozark National Forest.  

Sleeping bag – This is another area where I learned the hard way.  Not all sleeping bags are made equal, and some don’t truly qualify for the temperature range on the packaging!  

Temperature drops precipitously at night in the desert, and you’re going to need a good sleeping bag to be prepared for this.  I had a Coleman bag that’s rated to 30 degrees, but in my personal experience was unpleasant when temps dropped below 40.   

After that experience, I opted to cover my bases and get this bag:  Coleman Mummy bag.  Several of the nights on our cross country trip in the Porsche dropped into the 30’s, and I was plenty warm!  

 

Pro Tip:  On a cold night and without the appropriate sleeping bag, you do have an alternative option.  Once you’ve put your fire out, (carefully!) wrap one of the large rocks from the outer edge of your fire ring in a heavy cotton or terry cloth towel.  The rock should be too hot to touch, but not so hot that it will melt your towel.  It should be large: roughly the size of a watermelon. Put the rock inside your sleeping bag, either down by your feet or near your waist.  If done right before going to bed, this should keep you comfortably warm for most (if not all) of the night.

Sleeping mat – I used to live cheaply and get inflatable pool loungers with pillows.  However,  the time (and effort!) required to inflate and deflate the pool lounger every time we moved was exhausting.  After struggling with this far too long, I spent a couple bucks extra and got a proper sleeping mat.  My word, what an upgrade that was!!  Super easy to inflate and deflate, and incredibly comfortable – my sleeping mat was worth every penny!

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Important Camping Tools & Equipment

Rather than discussing each of the following items individually, I’ll just say that they are good things to have with you – whether for safety, repairs, or site maintenance – on any camping trip, wild or otherwise.  Packing these tools, plus the knives and tent, was the primary reason why we checked bags on our flight. A few of the items were bought on arrival.  Some essential items follow the list.

Fire extinguisher – This is such a crucial piece of equipment that it might make sense to have two.  You should always have one in your vehicle – both at home and while traveling.  The other one can be kept with you at the campfire, in case it gets out of control.

A man prods a small campfire in the desert, kicking numerous sparks up into the looming darkness
Even a small campfire can kick up a lot of sparks!

Camping Chairs and Table – Like the sleeping mat, this is an area where I suffered far too long with inexpensive, inferior products.  Traditional straight-backed camping chairs are ridiculously uncomfortable.  They’re heavy and take up a lot of space … and they’re uncomfortable. For the cross country road trip in the 911, we didn’t have the space for bulky chairs.  The Kelty High Back Chairs were unbelievable.

Yes, they’re expensive, but they are worth every single penny.  They’re insanely comfortable, durable and strong, easy to set up and break down, lightweight and compact….  and did I mention how comfortable they are?  The matching table was of similar quality and worth the money.  I was surprised how useful having the little side table actually was.

Knives and Hatchet – This is a good segue between cooking and tools, because if there’s any item that covers both topics, it’s a good pocket knife.  I nearly always have two knives on me: the stainless steel (which resists moisture and corrosion) Opinel #8, and a carabiner multi-tool.  A Leatherman is also a classic option, but takes up more space in your pocket and the blade is shorter.  I recommend getting a hatchet that has a hammer or mallet head on the non-blade side, which is useful for driving tent stakes.

First Aid Kit – As I’ve stated a number of times, you are going to be several miles from help if an emergency arises.  Having a well-stocked first aid kit – and knowing how to use everything in it – is a crucial part of wild camping. Don’t leave home without one!

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Camping Cookware

This is an area where you will be grateful that you have a vehicle, as you are not limited by size or weight like you would be on a backpacking trip.  To a degree, this list can be adjusted based upon personal preference or vehicle size, but in my experience, these are items that you’ll be grateful to have:

  • Enamelware Coffee Percolator and mugs (oddly, the red pot is more expensive, but the blue mugs are more expensive….)
  • Folding Campfire Grill – Get the extra large.  Even with 3” longer legs, it’s still going to sit low to the fire and cooks very hot.  You’ll be grateful for the extra height… and if you’re like me, cooking over an open flame built from ponderosa, mesquite, or other native woods is going to be one of your favorite parts of wild camping.
    • NOTE – if you need a more compact grill, as we did on our trip in the Porsche, the Wolf & Grizzly set is worth every penny.  It’s well-built, compact, very easy to use, non-stick, and quite effective.
    • Alternate idea – I’ve always been intrigued by stake grills, but I’ve never used one.  This option has great reviews, and seems like it would be a good alternative to consider.
  • Cast Iron Skillet – at least 6” or 8” diameter, and the older and more well-seasoned, the better. If at all possible, it should be either a Griswold or a Wagner Ware, and if all else fails, a scrubbed and reseasoned Lodge is acceptable.  Head to your nearest antique shop or garage sale and start searching!
  • If you are lucky enough to have a Cast Iron Dutch Oven, by all means – bring it.  With potatoes, onions, peppers, broth, and the other items needed to make the most delicious stew you’ve ever had.  Pro Tip:  once hot, the flat surface of most cast iron dutch oven lids can double as a small cooking area, OR you can stack hot coals on it for a more uniform cooking temp inside the oven.  An excellent alternative is a deep skillet with a lid, which combines the benefits of a skillet and a Dutch Oven.  

 

  • Any sort of sauce pot for broths and stews and soup, to be used in addition to your skillet.
  • Propane Stove or Bottle Top Stove – these make handy backup cooking equipment, and are essential to have with you if fire restriction levels are high in the area where you’re camping.  An excellent (albeit pricey) alternative is a WhisperLite Gasoline Stove – which is what we carried.  A hand-pressurized tank filled with regular gasoline at the pump, a WhisperLite is typically for backpacking adventures.  It’s light, compact, and lasts for several days.  Add in that it’s cheap and easy to refill, and it becomes a critical piece of gear if you’re planning on hiking or backpacking frequently.
  • Long-handled Tongs, Spatula, Large Spoon, Ladle – silicon & aluminum if weight is a concern (for future backpacking trips), or steel if not.  Long handles will save your fingers from burning. And, of course, don’t forget your spork!

Food Storage

Five Day Cooler – A five day cooler is another critical piece of your equipment, and is not an area to cut costs on.  The Coleman Extreme cooler is one of the most battle-tested pieces of equipment in my camping gear, and it has never failed me. 

It says it keeps ice for five days in hot (90*F) temperatures, and it does exactly that. You can pick from a couple sizes and shapes, but I’ve found the 70 quart rectangle cooler to be the most useful for camping.  Square coolers make up for the volume lost in length by adding depth, so you really have to dig to get to the items at the bottom – no thanks!

Pro tip:  Make your life easier at night by getting a cooler light.  If you’re a beer drinker, the bottle opener is another convenient accessory.  Also, don’t open one of your bags of ice if it can be helped, and you can use the separate cubes within for your drinks!

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Clothing for Wild Camping

The very short version of my advice for how to pack your clothing:  dress in layers and expect a lot of variation.  As I mentioned in the section about tools, you’re not backpacking, so space and weight aren’t a significant concern.

Bring a variety of clothing you can wear in layers so you can adjust as the temperature fluctuates.  Make sure to have two pairs of jeans (in case one gets wet).  Have a good waterproof jacket, just in case.  Ankle or higher boots and/or hiking shoes, both for the stability they provide and the protection against nips from critters.  We didn’t take gloves because when it was cold we were either by the fire or in the sleeping bags.

A significant recommendation:

Merino wool base layersTop, Pants, Socks, Beanie (knit cap) – Yes, merino costs more, but I’ll never go back to traditional long johns or other base layers.  Comfortable, soft, breathable, and warm – Merino wool checks all the important boxes, and the best part is that it’s not going to make you too hot when you wear it.  I’ve worn my Merino long johns at work after riding the motorcycle in on a chilly day, and am comfortable all day long.  Merino wool is the best!

 

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Wild Camping Supplies and Other Provisions

Food:

  • Have a couple kinds of meat in your cooler to cook over the fire… or do like we did and stop for food every day or two.  Only buy enough for each meal.  You don’t want to waste, and leftovers are a real pain on road trips.  Buy meats that are sealed in packaging so they don’t contaminate the other food in your cooler – or have a separate small cooler only for raw meat.
  • Fruits and veggies that are easy to store, wash and eat – apples, peaches, pears, peppers, corn, etc.  If you’ve never roasted corn over the fire – now’s a great time to try it out!
  • Snacks – a couple bags of chips or pretzels are handy, both for munching by the fire, and while you’re on the road.  Munchies Cheese Fix was hands down the favorite snack of all the trips!
  • Jerky – a convenient and filling source of protein on the go.  Try to get local sourced jerky – lots of different kinds of meats and preparations are out there!
  • Trail mix – another convenient and filling source of protein and carbs, a good option for those wanting healthy snacks.
  • We always had a loaf of bread and peanut butter handy, and hard boil eggs early in the trip.  Keep the eggs in the cooler.
  • Coffee, Creamer, and sugar
  • Seasonings – you won’t need much.  Cooking over a campfire adds a lot of flavor.  What we often do is buy local seasoning mixes, or a comparable national brand, and use that on all meats.  BBQ, taco, or ranch mix all go well with fire-roasted meats and veggies.

Our typical dinners were meat, baked beans, and bread toasted over the fire.  We occasionally roast peppers, corn, onions, or other veggies as well.  Breakfast was boiled eggs or peanut butter with toast and coffee.   We usually did not re-start a fire and cook bacon or sausage, because we would only spend one night in each location.  Coffee was brewed over the propane stove.

If you’re spending more than one day at a site, though, cooking breakfast is a great option – and there’s nothing like breakfast meat cooked over a fire.  Treat yourself to it at least one morning of the trip – it’s especially good after a really cold night!

A hearty breakfast of sausage, texas toast, and a large percolator of coffee all cook on a grill over wood coals.
A real mountain man’s breakfast!

Other provisions:

  • Toilet paper (and make sure you know how to properly dispose of it in the wilderness)
  • Paper towels
  • Paper plates (as a precaution against animals, we burn our plates and napkins after each meal, and wash the utensils near the fire)
  • Hand sanitizer – you’re going to need lots of it!
  • Metal utensils
  • Camping towels (which are designed to dry much faster than normal terrycloth – I went with the largest size, 40×72)
  • Large bottles of water – we bought several gallons every time we stopped.  Use it both to drink and also for washing your other equipment.
  • A quality bottle of scotch, bourbon, tequila, or whatever else might be your spirit of choice.  There’s nothing like a hearty nip to warm you by the fire.

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Where to Camp for Free:  Wild Camping

If you are looking for information on finding great wild camping locations, click HERE.

If you’re looking for a list of gear you’ll need for night sky photography, click HERE.

If you are looking for information on taking a cheap cross country road trip, click HERE.

Lastly, for a list of the best back road by state, click HERE.

A tent sits tucked in between tall joshua trees and a small evergreen shrub, underneath a vast expanse of stars overhead. The entire scene is lit up by the warm glow of a nearby campfire.
Happy Camping!
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2 thoughts on “How to Camp for Free: Essential Gear for Wild Camping

  1. I am not a camper and never will be, but I found this article to be very interesting. Plus, it’s a great list of things to buy for Christmas for the camper in your life!

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