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Camping can be an excellent family vacation; it's inexpensive and can be adventurous. Setting up out in the open allows everyone space to stretch, explore, and, most importantly, escape when need be. What's more, August is the perfect month to sleep under the stars and cook out in the open air. To get your campfire started, we've prepared a shopping list of the equipment you'll need to make your camping excursion one of the best family vacations you've had.
Of course you'll need a home away from home — a place out of the rain and away from pesky mosquitoes. As far as tents go, bigger is usually better: a tent listed as a 6-man space is probably actually the right size for three or four people. It's also worth investing in a tent that include a rain fly and sealed seams (which come in handy in wet conditions), and generous screens to help ventilate. For help choosing the right tent, check out these tips for choosing the perfect family-size tent.
While quality and durability matter to those who intend to go camping in harsh conditions, many causal campers only set up when the weather is nice. The occasional outdoorsmen doesn't have to spend an arm and a leg for a tent. A good fair-weather tent is the Texsport Sequoia Pass 3-Room Cabin Tent ($151.91 with about $19 s&h, a low by $5); it claims to sleep eight, is made of heavy-duty polyurethane-covered taffeta, and features plenty of screens to allow air in while keeping bugs out.
To get a good night's rest, most campers want a sleeping bag that's roomy enough wherein they don't feel cocooned. It's also important to look for a sleeping bag that is made from synthetic materials that will shed water, rather than soak it up like cotton. It's also smart to select a bag that features a temperature rating below anticipated weather conditions; if the temperature is supposed to be in the 50s at night, choose a bag that's rated to 30 degrees, just in case. The Kelty Callisto 35 Degree Sleeping Bag ($34.99 with free shipping, a low by $4) is rectangular, affording lots of space, and can be zipped together with a second bag to form a double-person space. It's insulated with Cloudloft and made of polyester ripstop with a polyester taffeta lining. Read about how to select the right sleeping bag for more helpful tips.
Most campers prefer to pad their makeshift bed with a sleeping pad for an even more comfortable night's sleep. Self-inflating sleeping pads offer additional comfort, but are more expensive than ones that require a little pumping up. The Thermarest Camper Deluxe Self Inflating Sleeping Pad ($59.98 with $7.99 s&h a low by $12; search for "62314" to find it) is a good buy, but the sleeping pads that are pumped up by hand are often thicker, like the pictured Kelty Recluse 2.5 Non-Insulated Sleeping Pad ($59 with free shipping, a low by $10)
Since the only time most people spend inside their tents while camping is spent sleeping, packing a camp chair is essential. Look for one that has carrying case with a shoulder strap, and pay attention to weight limits; if you're a generously proportioned American, opt for a heavy-duty chair. Aluminum or steel elements are a good sign of quality. If you favor a recliner, consider a collapsable chair that also has a built-in foot stool. The Bravo Sports Heavy-Duty Quick Folding Chair ($28.95 with $4.99 s&h, a low by $2) has a 500-lb. capacity courtesy of a steel frame, features oversized seat, and comes with the requisite carrying bag with shoulder strap.
While a campfire is perfect for family time, lanterns are also essential camping gear. There are two kinds of lanterns: those fueled with butane, and those lit by battery. Thanks to the magic of LED technology, battery-operated lights will wring a lot of life out of a few batteries. The pictured Eureka! Warrior 230 IR LED Lantern ($44.95 with $5, a low by $9) can run for two days on three D-cell batteries, and it comes with a remote control for easy on-off. However, in cold weather some battery-powered models don't work well, and can be dimmer than some campers like. For a stunning, bright lantern whose light can shine for a long time regardless of weather, a propane lantern — like the Century Tool 7215 Double Mantle Lantern ($31.49 with $5.99 s&h, a low by $5) — is the way to go.
Cooking over a campfire may sound romantic, but campfires are an inconsistent heat source and cooking on one involves a rather awkward setup. A camp stove is what most campers choose for their meal preparations, and a propane model is easy to refuel and use. The Coleman PerfectFlow InstaStart 2-Burner Stove ($74.95 with free shipping, a low by $2) is a propane-fueled stove with plenty of shielding to keep the flames hot even in windy conditions. Conversely, a white gas or gasoline stove (most will take either) may be better suited to some campers' needs, as it's easier to obtain these fuels, and a gallon of gas is cheaper and less burdensome than a bag full of propane cylinders. The Coleman Dual Fuel Standard Compact Stove ($114.99 with free shipping, a low by $4) will put out 14,000 BTUs of heat, enough to boil a quart of water in four minutes, and operates for two hours on one tankful of fuel.
While camping, a compact, non-stick cook set is advantageous. (You'll appreciate it the first time you have to wash up in a portable sink with cold water.) The GSI Large Bugaboo Base Camper Cook Set ($39.97 with $6.99 s&h, a low by $11; search for "82062" to find it) nests one pan/pot inside the next; they're all non-stick and come in a mesh stuff sack.
All that Frisbee throwing and campfire building and hiking can leave campers itching for a shower, but not every campsite comes complete with shower facilities. But with a little privacy, a sun shower will do the trick. This is simply a plastic bladder that gets filled with water and, when placed in the sun, heats up. The bladder then gets hung up, say from a tree branch, and the attached nozzle acts as a shower head. The Stearns Outdoor Sun Shower ($26.99 with $8.95 s&h, a low by $10) offers a generous 4-gallon water capacity, enough for a leisurely shower.
One of the joys of camping is taking hikes to better appreciate the beauty of one's surroundings, and a day pack is essential for these journeys. REI experts recommend a 30-liter bag, large enough to carry lunch, water, maps, sunscreen, extra clothing, a bird book, and binoculars without getting too cumbersome. Some models are made specifically for men, some for women. There are top-loading bags, which are more durable, and front-loading ones, which allow easier access to contents, but have more zippers that can break. The Outdoor Products Moxie Women's Day Pack ($30.91 with $5.38 s&h, a low by $3) has a narrow profile to fit the female frame, a contoured waist band, hydration pocket, and extra compartments.
While camping and hiking is all some folks need to enjoy the outdoors, lawn games are also ideal for a campout. From badminton to croquet, Frisbee to horseshoes, corn hole to bocce, and more, these games are fun for the whole family. A personal favorite is the Halex Select Bocce Ball Set ($35 with $2.97 s&h, a low by $1).
While the sum total of all of these items may seem daunting, think of them as a one-time investment: an investment in relaxation, fun, bonding with friends and family, and a growing appreciation of nature. It's hard to price on the joy of sitting around a campfire with loved ones and falling into a profound sleep serenaded by the burble of a creek and the wind in the treetops.
Front page photo credit: Play Pennies