Camping. There are a lot of different ideas attributed to that word. People hear it and grin, cringe, or look baffled. For some, it means loading up their pack with all the gear and food they need to survive and then walking off into the mountains for a week. For others, camping is sleeping a couple of nights in a permanent or semi-permanent structure(yurts, cabins, tipis, etc.) located in or near the wilderness. What most folks picture when they think of camping is a developed, yet rustic, campground with lots of specific sites for either tents or some sort of RV(motorhome, pop-up camper, travel trailer, etc.)
There is always plenty of debate about the best way to camp and what is considered “true” camping, but I’m not going to waste time talking about that. All methods of camping have their pros and cons and ultimately, it’s ridiculous to tell someone that there is only one way to enjoy their time outdoors. For a family trip, I find that using a tent in a designated campground with your car nearby is the most affordable and the most practical way to camp. In the future, I’ll probably touch on the other “styles” of camping, especially backcountry, which I believe can be a great adventure once a family gets some experience with the tamer stuff, but good ole car camping is how my family does it most of the time, it’s what I know, so that’s what I’m going to write about.
So, if you are going to go camping, the first thing you are going to need is some gear. Here is a list of the basics:
Tent - Your home. It’s your bedroom, your dressing room, your storage closet. When buying a tent for car camping, you really don’t have to get top of the line. We have always bought generic brand tents from retails stores and they last for years and see plenty of use. One thing I have found is that you can’t really trust what the manufacturers say regarding how many people can fit in their tents. If you buy a “sleeps four” for your four-person family, after one night you will realize that it should have said “uncomfortably crams four.” A good rule of thumb is to always pretend your family has 2-3 more bodies when choosing a tent. Almost all tents come with a rainfly, which is basically an extra bit of protection that attaches to the outside of your tent. This not only keeps out moisture (to a degree,) but it also helps keep in warmth if you are camping during colder weather. If you are expecting heavy rain, don’t rely on just the rainfly. I suggest bringing a large tarp that you can stretch over your tent using cord tied to nearby trees. Even a really good tent is eventually going to get saturated and start leaking if it rains long enough. You should always lay a tarp on the ground underneath your tent as well to prevent holes or tears due to sharp rocks or sticks. It also helps keep your tent clean. Finally, get some extra tent stakes and a mallet.
Sleeping Bags - Again, you don’t have to break the bank on these if you are typically going to be camping in pleasant weather. If you camp a lot in late fall or early winter, it’s worth it to spend a little extra money on something that’s better at keeping you warm. For your kids, get the cheap sleeping bags and just pile blankets on top of them if it’s cold. It’s just not worth it for pricey bags when they outgrow them so fast. Bring pillows. You’re car camping. Why wouldn't you?
Sleep Pads / Air Mattresses - For a long time, my wife and I considered ourselves “purists.” We scoffed at people that brought big inflatable air mattresses on a camping trip. We were completely content with our thin sleep pads. We were tough. We were real campers. We didn't know what we were missing. We decided to borrow a couple of twin air mattresses from my in-laws for a camping trip when my wife was 6 months pregnant with our second daughter. She is in first grade now and we still haven’t given them back. Sleep pads are great for backpacking, and they are fine if you are camping on soft, level ground without hidden lumps, rocks, or tree roots. But when you compare a sleep pad to an air mattress, it’s the difference between sleeping on your bedroom floor or in your bed. Even in perfect conditions, one is just WAY more comfortable than the other, plain and simple. Especially if you deal with any kind of back or joint pain. And get the self-inflating kind, it’s worth the extra $20-$40 to just plug it in and walk away instead of manually pumping it up with your arms or God forbid, your lungs. Once again, the kids get the shaft. They will be just fine on sleep pads. They are lighter and the ground won’t beat them up as much as us old folks. Get them a decent brand that won’t pop easily, though.
Camping Chairs - Get something cheap and simple. Armrests and cupholders are nice. If you want something fancy and really comfortable, you’re going to have to spend a little money. Or just ask for it for your birthday like I did.
Camp Stove - The only things that are truly simple to cook over the campfire are marshmallows and hot dogs. Anything more elaborate can be either really fun and delicious or frustrating and burnt. Get a compact two-burner stove that runs on propane and you can cook most anything that you can cook in your own kitchen. When cooking, make sure you keep the flame pretty low. I’ve found that a lot of camp stoves cook a lot hotter than they appear and can burn your grub quickly. Again, cheap works just fine as long as you take care of it. If you want, you can purchase some camping cookware or just use stuff from your kitchen. We do a combination of both. Also, a cheap, portable table to cook on isn’t a bad idea in case your campsite doesn’t have a picnic table.
Cooler - Something to keep your perishables cool. Find out if your campground sells ice. Also, it’s a good idea for everyone to have their own water bottle that seals instead of dealing with a bunch of cups.
Headlamps / Lanterns - Battery-powered or gas, you definitely want some kind of central light source available, even if you don’t use it the entire time. We use a big one if we are trying set things up or cook after dark, and then switch it off to enjoy the firelight, stars, etc. Get a small battery powered lantern to leave in your tent. Everyone should have their own headlamp. Again, cheap works just fine. Check all the batteries before your trip.
Miscellaneous Necessities - a trash bag or two, bug spray, paper towels, hand sanitizer, first aid kit, a box of wet wipes (camping is messy,) plates and cutlery (disposable or not, up to you,) a power inverter for your car's cigarette lighter if your car is old (like mine) and doesn't have a built in outlet, and this might seem more for backcountry camping, but bring tp and a spade. You can’t always guarantee that your site is going to be close to the bathrooms.
Bells and Whistles - hammocks with straps, hot dog forks (laugh all you want, I’ll laugh even harder when your stick breaks and your perfect, golden marshmallow falls into the flames,) something to read, a separate canopy/shelter for cooking or hanging out under if it’s raining, playing cards. Anything to make your camping experience more enjoyable and comfortable.
Obviously, you don't want to go buy all this stuff at once. If you have absolutely nothing, start collecting items slowly over time. Look at bargain stores and especially yard sales. If you're really itching to get out there, but only have some of what you need, see if you can borrow some items. Just take very good care of it and definitely clean it up before returning it promptly when your trip is over. Unless its your in-laws air mattresses. In that case, just hope that they never ask for it back.
So, this should be a good guide for what you need to get started. If I’ve left out anything important or if you disagree with something or if you have any additional tips, please let me know (nicely) in the comments.
I’ll talk a lot more about camping soon. How to make your campsite “home” in a campground with lots of other campers. Choosing the optimal campsite. The role your site plays in a trip that is more than just camping. What to do if camping just isn’t your thing. Lots of stuff. Please email me with any specific questions or topics you would like me to discuss.