Ready, set, camp!

By Mir
June 15, 2006

Today’s question is long, but because it starts off by telling me that I’m pretty, I’m reproducing it in its entirety:

Hi there!

I’m loving the new site; you’re pretty, too!

I live in NC, and camp occasionally, because I, too, love both the
frugal nature of the activity as well as the NATURE nature.

I want to buy gear; I’ve been borrowing. My camping to date has been
drive-up, but I don’t disregard the possibility of some day doing
some backwoods hiking and camping. I have neither a tent or a
sleeping bag. Both those seem clearly to be necessities. I don’t even
know what else to consider! What about a pad? And what kind of tent?
And what kind of bag? And I’ve used a stove before; that’s super
helpful if you get caught in the rain.

Speaking of weather, I live in North Carolina. I know it’s nowhere
near as cold as the Northeast, but if you head West to the mountains
in October, it gets really cold. Like frost cold. But there’s the
added complication of wanting to be able to beach camp. Um, cause
hello? It’s the beach.

Could you help me make a list of what I’ll need and also how to find
that balance between price and quality?

Thank you very much,

Ahhhh, camping. This one is surprisingly easy to answer. I have two words for you: Bug. Spray. You can have all the gear in the world, and if you forget the bug spray, you will be miserable. Trust me.

Oh, did you want more information than that? Picky, picky, picky. Okay, fine.

Bug spray aside, if you’re relatively new to camping gear, it can be overwhelming. Many a brave shopper has been found at REI crouching inside a rack of vests, weeping. Does the world really need two hundred varieties of sleeping bags? How can you tell if a tent is easy to set up? Do people actually eat that astronaut food in squishy pouches? And dude, do you want to pursue a hobby that seems to require an entire separate wall of knives?

Perhaps some hard-core campers will chime in, because I have to confess: I’m a big pansy when it comes to camping. Thus far in my adult life, I have only gone car camping (paid campsite where you can drive your car right up, and also where there are bathroom facilities down the road). I would love to tell you that it’s because my kids are still young and I’m a nervous nellie, but it’s mostly because I like toilets that flush and the ability to have a hot (okay, lukewarm) shower. Also I like knowing that if something horrible happens—like someone getting hurt or a big hurricane or running out of beer—we could just get in the car and depart.

Obviously, if you plan to Embrace The Wilderness and paddle/hike into your destination, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Then you have to know about packs and proper food storage so that bears don’t come eat you and such. I don’t know much about that stuff. If you car camp, you can bring anything that fits in your car, and store your food in there, and even have a power source. If you plan to go all Swiss Family Robinson, I’m not the best person to advise you. I’ll be over here in my car, in fact.

My general advice in buying camping gear: Target, baby. Target has a good selection of Coleman and Eddie Bauer camping products (sufficient for most amateur campers), and they clearance out old models regularly. Almost every piece of camping equipment I own came from Target on the off season, and every piece was purchased at 75% off. Can’t wait for the off-season clearance, or they don’t have what you need? Check out Sierra Trading Post, Bargain Outfitters, or (of course) Overstock.

Places like EMS, REI, The North Face and LL Bean have great gear as well, but the sales are harder to come by.

So. Let’s assume car camping, and go from there.

Here’s a list of things you’ll want to have, and what to keep in mind while shopping:

A Tent

Or more than one, depending on how many of you are going. Keep in mind that the standard lingo of “sleeps X people” (which you will see on every tent) assumes X people packed in like sardines. I own a lovely “6-person” tent. If I were to inhabit it with 5 other people, I’m just saying that it would require that 3 of them be midgets and the other 2 have had, or are currently having, sex with me. Ideally you want to be able to hang out in the tent if it rains, and be able to keep a bag or two of stuff in there with you, and have enough room to change your clothes in there. My rule of thumb is to divide the “sleeps X people” number by 2. My 6-person tent is perfect for me and the two kids.

I recommend a tent with (this is where I dazzle you with my techno-speak!) poles that are pieces of tubing all connected by a underlying cord. That is to say, you pull out a bundle of tubing sections that can only attach in one way because they’re already strung together. I’m not sure you can even buy the old kind, anymore, anyway, but I am not so great with the whole following-a-schematic deal… so I love that basically, my tent has two poles, and I cannot set them up improperly no matter how stupid I’m being. You also want to be sure that your tent has a separate rain fly, as well as adequate ventilation if you plan to camp where it’s warm.

Do you need the most fancy-schmancy tent they sell? Probably not, particularly if we’re talking car camping. Let size and ease of setup be your main guides. And then pick up some seam sealer (variously called seam sealer, seam grip, or seam lock) and don’t forget to seal the seams before you go.

A Tarp

This doesn’t have to be fancy. But you do need one to put under your tent, unless you enjoy being damp. (And if you do, I don’t want to hear about it.) It’s a good idea to have a spare, as well. If all goes well, it’ll never come out of the car. If you need some extra rain cover, you’ll have it.

Sleepings Bags

Again, there are features up the wazoo here, and it can be hard to determine what really matters. Sleeping bags are temperature-rated, so that will give you some idea of what you’re looking at. I happened to find this one for 75% off, and to my mind, it’s a great, versatile choice. It has a hood and a removable “comfort top,” which means it’s suitable for chillier weather, but those two components can be removed (and left at home) and then I have a basic bag to use in the Summer. I wouldn’t have paid fifty bucks for it, myself, but I’m very pleased with it for $12.

But here’s a secret: You don’t absolutely have to have a sleeping bag if you’d rather bring…

… An Air Mattress

This isn’t a viable option when you’re truly roughing it, obviously. But if you’re car camping? Why not! You can bring one of these and regular sheets and blankets, if you’d rather not do the sleeping bag thing. They make air mattresses now with integrated, battery-operated pumps, which is a beautiful thing. Or you can get a separate foot pump if you’re feeling burly. Or you can get a little air compressor that plugs into your car’s lighter (but this can be a pain, because maybe your mattress only fits in the tent if you blow it up in there and then reaching with a cord becomes problematic).

I admit that I sort of think this is cheating. So, back to sleeping bags! You’ll also need…

Sleeping Pads

Do not put your sleeping bag directly on the floor of the tent unless you’re accustomed to, and enjoy, sleeping on a bed of broken glass. Even the kids will complain that there is a rock or a stick or a squirrel under there and they cannot possibly sleep. Pads are your friend. They take camping from “sadistic torture” to “hey, this isn’t too bad.” There are a million different kinds, at a million different prices. You can get squishy foam or you can get a thin self-inflating mat. The self-inflating ones are easier to store, more comfortable, and tend to hold up better, I think, but you may feel differently. Again, these will go on sale periodically.

The main thing to pay attention to with pads is the overall size. What looks like a bargain may just be a much smaller pad. Pay attention.

Waterproof Matches and Other Fire Gear

And lots of ’em. They’re not expensive, and won’t you feel dumb if you run out? Yes, you will.

Depending on where you camp, there may be firewood you can gather, and the grounds may have firewood for sale in bundles. If you have a woodpile at home and room in your car, you might want to bring your own wood. Always throw a few newspapers in the car so that you have plenty to use to get a fire going.

So, do you need a camp stove? I’d argue that you don’t need one, particularly if you’re only going for a few days. Would it be nice? Sure. If you want one, knock yourself out. Assuming that you’re not doing the stove thing, be realistic about what cookware you need. One of those grill-tops with legs (again with the techno-speak) that you can prop over the flames and a frying pan may be all you require, depending on what you plan to cook. The key here is to be realistic. I mean… yes, that camper’s dutch oven clearanced down to almost nothing is really cool. But are you honestly going to make stew for an army? Or are you going to have eggs in the morning and eat PB&Js the rest of the time?

A Cooler (and food)

You need a well-insulated cooler. How big depends on how many people and how long you’ll be gone. How expensive depends on what you’re willing to spend. I don’t think you have to go all out, but you do want one of a good enough quality to hold the cold for a few days.

Pack your any-temperature food in a large plastic tub (or two) and then use the tub to wash dishes in while you’re out there. And remember to put all of your food back into the car as a matter of course, because you are not the only hungry beasties out there in the woods.

(Don’t forget the dish soap, extra towels, and more paper towels than you think you could possibly need.)

It’s possible to camp without a cooler, but that means no beer and no bacon. And then, really, what’s the point?

Miscellaneous Camp Gear

There’s plenty of stuff you’ll need while camping that you can buy, from a camping store, for an inflated price, that you already own or can buy elsewhere for less. If you do a lot of camping, you may wish to buy certain duplicate items so that you always have them packed with your camping stuff, but it’s not necessary.

For example: I bet you already have a can opener! And a bottle opener!

Do you need special camping dishes? Well, I certainly don’t recommend lugging your stoneware into the forest. But I don’t think you need tin plates, either. Go disposable (remember to bring a box of garbage bags), or if that offends your sensibilities, get some cheap melamine on clearance.

Do you need a fancy kerosene lantern? I certainly don’t, because knowing me, I’d end up starting a fire with it. If you want a lantern or some fancy flashlights, fine. But I bet you already own several perfectly serviceable flashlights.

Do you need camping chairs? Chairs, yes. Ones targeted at camping? Probably not. Again, your garden-variety folding pool chair as well as the ubiquitous folding captain’s chair are both going to be widely available and easy to find on clearance if you play your cards right.

I think the most important thing is to use your common sense, and start out small. Get what you think you’ll need for a 2-day jaunt. If that goes well—and assuming that you figure out a few “next time I’ll bring…” items—make your adjustments (or purchases) before the next trip. Don’t be afraid to borrow, or pick up items at yard sales. If it’s something you really end up wanting to have of your own and/or in a newer/better version, invest in it once you make that determination. You’ll figure it out as you go.


  1. Oh MY GOD!
    This is awesome! I can’t wait to check everything out. This is above and beyond anything I expected.

    Like I said in my followup email to you, I found a cheap bag with cosmetic blemishes for $25ish dollars at the REI outlet online. Which a friend pointed me to. (am. HTML. challenged)

    Thank you thank you thank you!!!

  2. Oooh! The comments are pretty, too! They turned my cut-and-paste link into clicky clicky goodness!

  3. Regarding Tents – you won’t need a tarp if you invest in a good one (like at REI, or if you’re in Canada, MEC). You also won’t need a tarp over top if you purchase a tent that has a fly that comes all the way down to the ground (pretty much, none of that partial fly crap). You can get crappy $25 tents all over the place, but you’ll have to get 1-2 tarps, spend forever putting it together, and you’ll have to buy another one next season cause they’re really not all that great. If there was ONE item I’d pay more for, it’d be the tent.

    Tip: If it’s raining, get sticks and dig a little moat/draining thing for the water that comes off the fly… that way you don’t get puddling (see you don’t need a tarp underneath).

    If you’re planning on hiking in, the the cheapo tents are also VERY heavy… so… really depends on the kind of camping you’re doing.

    As for lighting, I don’t know about you, but time often flies away with me, and setting up a tent in the dark sucks. So does trying to do it with just a flashlight (hello, you need two hands). Invest in a headlamp – one that takes normal batteries. I don’t even own a flashlight anymore, cause these suckers are great when you’re alone and need light when there isn’t any.

    Anyway, hope that helps. Let me know if you have any questions (I DO camp a lot, both out of the car kind, and the kind where you hike, have no bathrooms, carry you own water kind). Hmm, just comment in my blog I guess and I’ll get back to you.

  4. Great tips! And may I add one… Stores like REI that rent gear will usually have an annual sale where you can buy the previous year’s rental gear at great discounts. This is a good way to get top-quality gear, especially tents and sleeping bags.

  5. Also! Also! REI has an annual (or semi-annual) GARAGE SALE where you can purchase items in good condition that are just a fraction of the cost.

  6. Ooooh! Tell more about the garage sale? Is it online? At the stores?

  7. Okay this probably sounds like the dumbest thing ever but my favorite piece of camping equipment is a flashlight/lantern (it has a bulb and batteries like a regular flashlight, none of that kerosene crap) that has a remote control. My husband bought it, ’nuff said. We hook it to the top of the tent with a carabiner (I love that word) and it’s like having an overhead light with a light switch just like home! Except you can turn it off from the comfort of your air mattress! Genius!

    Also… Buy a pull-along cooler with wheels. Even over bumpy, leafy, sandy, twiggy ground it’s better than carrying a gazillion pound cooler full of ice and beer and milk.

    Great tips as always Mir!

  8. Costco usually (this time of year) has some great tents that are reasonable and hold up quite well. They are also very easy to set up.

    Need water to wash your hands? Use an old liquid laundry soap container (Such as Era or Tide with the spicket type thing on the end). When you run out of soap, save it until you go camping, fill it with water and you will have soapy water for washing your hands. (My kids love this!)When you are ready to leave, dump the rest of the container on your fire pit.

  9. Great Advice! I also camp a LOT and have my gear packed up in the shed so it only takes a few minutes to transfer into the car! I have done the “roughing it” camping, but much prefer electricity, running water, and clean bathrooms! I can single-handedly set up our 3-tent “village” and cook dinner–in the dark–in about 30 minutes (Experience, it’s all about experience!)!! You’ve got me curious about the REI thing…am going to check it out now…

  10. The garage sale is at the store. Each store has its own – and it’s SUCH a big deal that people line up outside the store the night before to get in the doors first.

    Though, perhaps they’re just being dramatic, too. Check your local REI website (rei/stores & events/choose your state/ choose your location/view events).

  11. Dude. There’s one at MY REI on SATURDAY! Wahoooooo!!!

  12. See now… I’m a LAZY bargain hound. There’s nothing I will line up the night before to get. I mean, maybe if the sale was on normal men. MAYBE.

  13. one more website to try – they have good sales –

  14. My daughter just MADE waterproof matches at her Girl Scout Dad/Daughter day. They took regular wood matches (the kind in a box, not in a book) and dipped them in clear nail polish. They got a small sheet of sandpaper (feels like a medium grit) to help get the polish off when needed because the little scratch on the side of the box won’t do it and they cutely bundled it all up in an old RX bottle.

    They’re so crafty, those Girl Scouts.

  15. Good advice, Mir! Target is a great place for beginning campers (that’s where my last two tents came from). Here are my 2 cents based on a lifetime (OK, up until I was 18 anyway) of scouting experience. If people are going to get into extensive hiking, they will need to look into higher end light weight equipment.

    Tents: I am going to echo Felicity here in that you want a full coverage rain fly. The tents with just a little partial fly thingy at the top are pretty much S.O.L. if it rains.

    Tarp: I always put a tarp (or just visquene) down under the tent. One tip: if your tarp is larger than your tent footprint, fold the edges of the tarp back so they don’t extend beyond the tent, otherwise it will catch the rain.

    Sleeping bag: I like sleeping bags over bed sheets/blankets because they’re easy to roll up, they’re compact, they’re durable, but mostly they just feels more like camping.

    Air mattress/sleeping pad: I never really used them much when I was a kid, but I’d say some kind of pad or mattress is a requirement now. You’re body may vary. I agree that the self-inflating ones seem pretty cool, but I’ve never used one myself.

    Matches/fire gear: One of my pet peaves is that most campgrounds don’t let you just gather wood off the ground to burn anymore. I understand the reasoning, but deep down I feel like if I want to build a fire I should be able to just grab a few sticks and build a fire! Anyway, most anywhere you go will have firewood for sale nearby and one of my favorite things about camping is the campfire. The hardcore groups (like Sierra Club) will tell you to only cook using a camping stove. They’ll also tell you things like not to leave apple cores on the ground. Let’s just say I don’t own a camp stove.

    Cooler: a must-have for car camping. A don’t-even-think-about-it if you’re going to carry it any distance.

    Misc: One thing I’ll say about the camping dishes/utensils is that they do pack up into a nice compact bundle. Regarding flashlights, I was pretty obsessive (or is it compulsive?) about having a light. I’d bring a flashlight, a small disposable spare flashlight, spare batteries and yes, even a spare flashlight bulb. Just for an overnight trip. A college friend of mine felt that flashlights were totally unnecessary for camping. She was clearly deranged, even with her Forestry degrees.

    As I said before, great advice, especially about using common sense and easing into it.

  16. I realize it’s five days since you posted this, but thought I could chime in with a warning about self-inflating air mattresses. They are wonderful, magical miracles and you can get them for a decent price at Costco and Sam’s Club, but still…when you pay 40 bucks for each one, you want them to last…FOREVER! (colour me cheap) Make sure that when you are storing your mattresses they are stored INFLATED and not rolled up in their stuff-bags. They may not inflate again.

    I spent an uncomfortable weekend at Girl Guide camp a couple of weeks ago on a mattress that wouldn’t inflate because it had been stored for the winter all rolled up. Someone (smarter than me) told me to store them inflated. My mattress has since revived itself (thank you Jesus!) and I’m not taking anymore chances with it.

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