Whatever you did, you didn’t want to touch those walls in a rainstorm. And it was heavier than all get-out. When I was a young boy, and even today, the family camping tent was and remains an important tool and a special space. I remember laying down in that big green canvas tent – fairly certain it was a Coleman – and feeling so awfully ill after one of the first times my older brother gave me a few leaves of chewing tobacco. I must have been 10 or so. Just the same, I look forward every year to Fourth of July camping trips with my wife, when it’s just the two of us, and we team up to make sure our gear stays dry and we’re safe out of the elements.
As a youngster, camping for my family was all about sleeping under the sky and hearing the crickets, frogs, and other sounds of the night; and the camaraderie that goes with that experience. I remember legitimately camping as a family – away from our farm – only one or two times through the years. But it was fairly common to dig that heavy bag out of storage and beg Mom and Dad to let us pitch the tent out by the campfire that was next to the machinery shed. It was so heavy we needed Dad’s help, but they’d often cave to our plea.
Somewhere around 20 years later, one of my brothers and I packed a rinky-dink (by comparison) two-man tent on horseback into the West Elk Wilderness near Gunnison, Colorado, for an elk hunting trip. We didn’t capitalize on our one encounter with a bull elk, but we sure did learn a lesson or three in survival and what it’s like to be in the true wilderness for an extended stay. And the sound of sleet and snow on a polyester tent provided for awfully peaceful sleep.
No matter your passions, camping can afford you all the opportunity to step away from daily routines and experience nature without the everyday comforts that we often take for granted. It says something to me about the authenticity of the primal experience that it can be so fun and fulfilling to step away from a comfortable home with a comfortable bed and choose to sleep on the hard ground and cook food over an open fire.
And to have the best experience you possibly can, it’s important to have the right gear to get you there. Read on, because we’ve got you covered.
Pitch a Tent
Pull into any state campground during Memorial Day weekend or the Fourth of July, and you will get an idea about the variety of tent styles on the market today. It amazes me the engineering that has come along in the tent-making market and how far we’ve come – in some cases for better, in others for worse – since the late 1950s and early ’60s when Eureka! changed the game with easier-to-set-up freestanding tents.
The main questions you have to answer relate to material and shape, and to get the answer to those questions, as with other tools, you have to ask yourself what you want to use it for. Heavy canvas tents are still around today, and they are still durable, reliable, heavy-duty, and … heavy. If you find a quality canvas tent, you’ve found the only tent you’ll ever need for recreational camping. The material can take a beating, even in a Kansas wind, and come back tomorrow asking for more.
Polyester and other lighter-weight fabrics work well for hiking situations and other cases that require mobility and packing in equipment. I used to prefer canvas in every situation where I could stand to haul it, because canvas oftentimes was the only viable option if you wanted more than 6 feet of standing room. Nowadays, however, there are a multitude of dome-style tents that offer standing heights in excess of 6 feet – a nice thing for taller people who like to get dressed standing up, and who enjoy walking instead of crawling into their camp space.
The main thing when choosing a tent is to consider how you’ll use it, and the many variables. Packing your gear on your back for a springtime hiking and fly-fishing trip? A small lightweight dome tent might be the way to go. Looking to stay for multiple weeks in the high country, complete with wood heating stove? A canvas cabin-shaped tent is probably better suited.
Among the various considerations when choosing a good tent, selecting something waterproof is at the top of the list in most parts of North America. Strong seams, good materials and superb craftsmanship are worth the price when it comes to staying dry – wet camping trips are most often miserable camping trips, and spring-through-fall rainstorms can pop up out of nowhere. Make sure your tent will hold out water and keep your supplies, and your persons, dry – spirits will be much higher, believe me. Most contemporary tents also offer screened openings to keep insects at bay, a must-have for summer outings in areas where mosquitoes, flies, wasps and the other usual suspects are a factor.
A Bag to Sleep In
Like tent selection, there are multiple materials and shapes of sleeping bags, and the conditions on your trips and common outings are going to determine what you need. On that elk hunting trip, few things were more valuable than the mummy-shaped, cold-weather sleeping bag I took that was rated to negative 40-degrees Fahrenheit. I took that same bag to a local walleye lake for a Fourth of July camping trip, and it was no more than a blanket to lay down for padding – I’d be soaked with sweat in no time if I’d crawled into it.
Among the attributes associated with sleeping bags, consider fit, weight, warmth, packed size and special features – an example of special features would be a sleeping sheet integrated into the design.
My mummy bag was great in an extremely cold environment, and it packed at an impressively small size. However, if packing and warmth are not top priorities – say you want something for a warm-season fishing trip – I love the extra legroom of a rectangular sleeping bag, and a lightly insulated polyester material will likely serve better than heavy down insulation. There are also warm-rated down-insulated bags that are extremely comfortable. Get the most from your equipment investment by looking closely at how and when you camp, then shop around for different styles of bags based on your priorities and budget.
Light in the Night
A third must-have on any camping expedition is some source, and hopefully multiple sources, of light. We have two kerosene lanterns, and I love the muted whistling sound they make and their wide glow. When electricity goes kaput in our house during a heavy storm, there’s nothing I’d rather reach for. However, we typically leave the kerosene lanterns at home during camping excursions.
Battery-powered lighting devices are a safe, dependable alternative to the kerosene or other oil-fueled lantern. I don’t leave home without my trusty headlamp and a new set of three AAA batteries, and whether it’s preparing dinner on the grill after getting off the water a little too late or a middle-of-the-night call of nature, the hands-free lighting is a luxury.
Obviously, hiking trips require an altogether different set of tools for emergency fire starting, lighting, and even first-aid scenarios. For routine camping, I’ve found a headlamp and a couple of reliable flashlights work fine, as well as the glow of a campfire when you can have one.
Though not at the top of the list in this particular article, a quality cooler can be a major difference-maker in your degree of comfort, and even health and safety, depending on the trip. For most folks, keeping a cooler full of cold beverages or raw meat on ice for an afternoon is no tough task, and most coolers manufactured today are up to the work. But for the more serious camping enthusiasts, superior ice retention can become more important and worth more of an investment.
For multiday trips, this is a major factor and determines whether you are making daily ice runs (if that resource is available) to keep your perishable food and refrigerated items cold.
Yeti, Icey-Tek and a few other manufacturers have made a name for themselves in the hunting industry for long ice storage times and durable, rugged coolers. I’ve seen a quartered deer stay frozen in a closed Yeti cooler for the better part of a week, and I processed the meat afterwards. No hint of spoilage.
Those higher-quality coolers come at a steeper price, and for the recreational camper heading out for a few days of the year, rarely in very remote locations, the usual coolers made by Coleman, Igloo, Rubbermaid and others may suffice, and run less than $100.
Go For It
Through the years as camping becomes a regular pursuit, the enthusiast will find so many specialized products for camping that it’ll make her head spin: air mattresses, camp stoves and cookware products, clotheslines, hammocks, portable power units, water purifying kits, and the list goes on.
The important piece to it all is that those products are specialized to make your experience more enjoyable, so by all means, and despite any perceptions outside your own, learn from trip to trip and add to your kit. I’m not at all ashamed to say that in our mudroom there’s a big green plastic tote my wife put together that includes some really sensible, necessary items (an extra rubber mallet for driving tent stakes), as well as some items of a more luxurious nature (a battery-powered fan for warm July nights). We’ve built that kit over the years so we have what we need to best enjoy our time outdoors – which was the aim when I was 10 years old, and remains a passion today.
Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, sneak off any chance they get to camp and fish the lakes and rivers of the Midwest and their home state of Kansas.