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I have recently been asked by a few friends for camping tips and gear recommendations.  Since we have gone camping more weekends this summer than we have stayed home, I have learned quite a few lessons along the way that I am happy to share.  My primary suggestion is to prepare and organize at home as best you can, and bring only what you need.  That will free you up to enjoy the camping trip and not waste time packing / unpacking / organizing / prepping / searching.  I love camping because I appreciate the quiet, beauty and serenity of the wilderness and want to soak up every minute that I can.

The creek along a recent campsite

When we started camping about a year ago, it was exclusively car camping and I felt the need to be prepared for anything and everything.  I figured if we had the room in the car (I have a large SUV) I might as well fill it up.  This is a bad idea and something I no longer do at all.  Even if you are camping feet from your car, all that extra stuff needs to be dealt with which takes time and effort, and it can make it difficult to find the things that you really do need.  This takes practice but has really made a difference for me.  We can now unload and pack up the car in a fraction of the time that it used to take.  If you are not sure whether you are going to need something, odds are high you won’t need it.

Some feedback on gear that we have picked up along the way and either like, love or none of the above:

Tent

Coleman Ara 6-person tent

We have the Coleman Ara 6-person tent.  I got it at Target a year ago and we have been very happy with it.  This tent is easy to set up, has a great vestibule for storing gear, shoes and even ourselves during rain, and it is well ventilated with the rain fly is up.  It is not very light though so this is not suited for backpacking.  It is, however, a perfect car camping tent for hot summers.  It is not 100% waterproof but does pretty well in the rain.

Car Camping Stove

I have mixed feeling about the Coleman stove that I also got at Target.  It cooks quite well, but not great (hard to control temp), and the latch that holds it closed broke immediately.  So the feature that allows one to carry it like a briefcase never applied to ours.  We went camping with friends who had this Century stove and if I had to get another, I would get that one.  The temp guage was very sensitive and this seemed to definitely be a higher quality product.  It has mixed reviews on REI’s site, however, I had a great experience when I used it.  Sorry Coleman.

Backpacking Stove

The Coleman stove is way to heavy to carry backpacking, even if the latch worked, so I got a small backpacking stove that I LOVE.  My adoration may be a function of how cute and compact it is but it works pretty well.  The temp is hard to control sometimes, and after it has been on for a while, it turns down on its own, but it can boil a cup of water really fast.  I also use this on car camping trips in the morning to make coffee and I bring it on hikes when I want to heat things up for lunch.  You can use other pans on the stove too, but nothing too big (I used a small fry pan on this stove to make camping pizza).  It is very compact and everything, including the fuel, fits into the cup.

JetBoil set up to cook

Storage

A few storage items that I highly recommend:

Collapsible Storage Bowls

I found these bowls when I was looking for a collapsible dog food bowl (which can oddly be very expensive).  These are great – three sizes and they take up very little weight or space when compact.   I use them as a dog food bowl, mixing bowl, serving bowl and food storage.  They come as a set on Amazon and while I recommend getting the trio, you don’t need to bring all three on a trip.

Publix Picnic Bag

This bag is sold by my local grocery store as a cooler bag for picnics, and I bring it on every camping trip.  Why?  It zips closed unlike most fabric shopping bags, and when full, it does not fall over when you put it down.  I put dry goods and cooking pans in here and can hang them from a hook or tree branch and the zip top keeps out the critters.  This is not expensive at all ($3?) so if it got wrecked or torn it would not be a big deal.  I have a spare for when that day comes.

Random Cosmetics Bag

I use this small cosmetics bag to store our utensils, spices, olive oil (in small plastic container), wine opener, instant coffee, paring knife, swiss army knife and any other small kitchen items that would get lost in the bottom of the big bag above.  This makes it really fast and easy to find the kitchen essentials when I need them.  HIGHLY RECOMMEND this system of organizing (don’t just throw it all in one big big or bag because you will spend ages searching for some small item).

Plastic Egg Carton

This is a nice to have and not a need to have, but it effectively protects eggs from breaking.  And if you are backpacking this is no easy feat.  I also have a 6 egg holder for trips when we don’t need a full dozen.  Random tip – if you bring eggs in a carton from the store and put them in your cooler with ice, don’t buy eggs in cardboard.  It will get wet and fall apart.

Drinks

Unbreakable Stemless Wine Glasses

I used to bring full size plastic wine glasses but don’t anymore because they are just too big.  If we have people joining us, four of those glasses practically need their own pack.  Target carries small stemless glasses (this link is from another site as I could not find them on Target’s site) that definitely feel like wine glasses, but they take up a fraction of the space.  If you drink wine when camping, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND these.  You can also drink other cold drinks from them too.  If you want them to stay clear and unscratched, wash them by hand and not in the dishwasher.

Starbucks Instant Coffee

I am not a coffee aficionado by any means, but I do like a cup of hot coffee in the morning, especially when camping.  After bringing along a french press on one trip, I was advised to try the Starbuck’s Instant Coffees.  They are really quite tasty and come in a variety of strengths, and even a few flavored versions.  They take up no space and generate minimal garbage.

Cooking

Camping Pots and Pans

Making the investment in camping pots and pans will only be worthwhile if you plan to camp multiple times.  However, one of the best qualities of these pans is that they stack very nicely so three pans (actually two pots and one pan) can nestle together and take up minimal space.  The handles are removable and the two pots use the same handle.  This set up allows me to cook three things at once if needed which sometimes happens when car camping and we have the stove and the JetBoil.

Even if you don’t want to invest in camping pans with removable handles, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND bringing non-stick pans.  Some cheap teflon pans scratch easily but when camping on stoves that can burn hot at times, having that non-stick surface will save you hours of soaking or scrubbing.  I have used cheap aluminum pans camping and never will again.  The clean-up with teflon is a snap.  Even if you don’t use teflon at home for health reasons considering making an exception for camping.

Flexible Cutting Boards

I laugh when I think back to the trips when I brought a full size cutting board.  Talk about unneeded weight and bulk!  These inexpensive flexible cutting boards (which can also act as a placemat for kids or even a serving dish for steak or burgers) are inexpensive and weigh next to nothing.

Random Tips

- Don’t bring a whole roll of tin-foil.  Cut off a few sheets and fold them into small squares in case you need foil (comes in handy when you want to keep dishes warm or keep out bugs)

- Bring matchlight charcoal.  Cooking over an open fire can be tricky because you need to get the wood to the right temp which can take a while.  Also, when backpacking, there is no guarantee that you can find dry wood (that also applies to car camping) so a gallon ziploc full of matchlight can mean you get dinner cooked over an open fire

- Don’t bring huge containers of snacks.  Portion out what you will eat in smaller baggies, and if you are worried about running out, leave a second set of baggies in the car.  This will also help keep the picnic table clear of clutter from huge containers of stuff

- If you like milk for your coffee but no one else needs milk, buy milk in juicebox containers and just bring one

- Bring a plate and a fork for everyone.  Bring only one or two spoons and knives.  Most camping meals don’t need a spoon or knife and if they do you can share

- Bring dehydrated or instant foods.  I wrote a post about camping recipes that can help you to plan tasty and easy meals

- If you are camping at primitive spots that do not have a picnic table, this is a real treat.  I have a dog and a three year old, so I am nervous about using the stove on the ground, and it saves my back from having to bend down to cook.  It is also great to have a place to put food for serving above the ground.  We love this table but it is way too heavy for backpacking

- Our first season of camping we slept on cheap air mattresses from Target.  Between the dog’s nails and my son jumping on them, they popped frequently.  One time we got to the campsite and the air pump had mysteriously lost its charge.  Air mattresses are comfortable but they are a pain in the neck and are really heavy.  We got REI camping pads recently and I really like them.  It is not the same as sleeping in my own bed, but they are much lighter and easier to deal with than blow up mattresses.  We brought them backpacking once even though they are on the heavy side

- When car camping, we usually bring folding canvas chairs that you can get at Target, Walmart or Dick’s.  At the primitive sites we like, there is no picnic table and sometimes after a day of hiking, I need to sit in a chair with a back.  When backpacking though, there is no way we could bring those chairs.  I got these nifty little chairs at REI for backpacking that are remarkably comfortable and super lightweight.  Not good for muddy conditions though because you sit on the ground

The Tarp

- It has been a wet summer in Georgia and it has rained during every camping trip this year (except one).  I got this tarp after getting caught in the rain and it has been wonderful.  It allows us to stay outside in light rain and keeps our stuff (chairs, table, stove) mostly dry.  The rope that came with the tarp was way too short (4 short pieces) so get an extra roll in case the trees are spaced far apart.

Feel free to share in the comments any tips or gear recommendations you have.  I am always on the lookout for cool camping gear and love ideas on how to make things easier!