I forgot to pack a tent when my wife and I went camping last month.

Picked one up, set it aside, got distracted by a hunt for headlamps in my gear closet, and left the tent behind as our truck swung out of the garage, bound for the Sonora Pass, 200 miles east.

I discovered the tent missing, as you’d imagine, once we’d arrived at camp and I pawed through the bed of the truck, finding everything but our shelter, which was necessary with the iffy weather forecast. Eventually, I remembered that I’d seen the tent sitting there in the basement, waiting for me to come back to pick it up and add it to the gear pile in the truck, where it still lay.


No matter, though. The truck has a camper shell, we had sleeping pads, the missing tent didn’t matter at all. Kinda prefer sleeping in the truck anyway, to be honest.

About an hour later, camp kitchen all set up, food getting prepped, I reached for the corner of our two-burner camp stove where I typically hang our microfiber camp towel and whiffed, grabbing only air.

My god, the camp towel wasn’t there. It too was back at home, I remembered, as I stood there fuming next to a pristine creek, alpenglow beautifying an uncrowded slice of the central Sierra range behind me. I’d washed the towel and meant to stuff it in the camp box, right after I grabbed the tent, actually. The tent I could easily do without. But no camp towel? This was not good.


Did I mention this was an unplanned, spur-of-the-moment trip?

Not normally scatterbrained, I’d spent the better part of the morning futzing with a bike rack on the truck, then quickly threw the essentials in the back and sped off for the mountains. Or I thought the essentials had made the truck.

I can’t quite explain it, but camping—whether car camping or backpacking—just ain’t the same without my beloved orange camp towel. It stuffs down to the size of a walnut and weighs less than a neutrino. I use it to wipe and dry cookware. I use it to wipe and dry my face. And my hands. I sling it over my shoulder while backcountry cooking like I’m Gordon Ramsay. It makes everything about camping better and more pleasant. I couldn’t stand that I’d left it at home. Just awful.

It made me wonder about the other bits of camp gear that don’t get the same attention as tents, sleeping bags, and backpacks, but can nevertheless feel just as essential even if, in all reality, they aren’t.

Leatherman multi-tool. I bring a Leatherman with me pretty much everywhere, it’s an everyday carry item for me. That includes the backcountry where, in all my years of backcountrying, I’ve used something other than the knife part of the tool exactly once, when I couldn’t get the hook out of a trout with my forceps while fishing. I could just as easily bring only a knife, but no, always the whole multi-tool comes with me, because, well, it feels indispensable.

Book. Abso-freaking-lutely essential. Of course, I rarely actually read them in the backcountry. I’m far too busy just staring at the scenery during down times. I wouldn’t dream of going camping, even backpacking, without a book or two, but I dip into them at maybe a 10 percent clip.

This one filthy rounded brim hat I own. I don’t know. It’s my lucky camping hat. I’d turn around and drive 100 miles back home if I was mid-way into a camping roadie before I realized the hat wasn’t on my head.

Binoculars. Not sure I’ve ever, even once, used these while camping. But they’re always with me. What if I see, like, a Sasquatch-looking figure picking its way down a talus slope in the distance?

Hatchet. I don’t usually need to split wood for a campfire while car camping, but it sure is fun.

What about you? What are your not really necessary, but totally indispensable pieces of camp gear?