Gear: Car camping edition, Canada focus
May 14, 2019 10:31 AM   Subscribe

This summer I am taking my two children, aged 13 and 8, on a road trip that will involve some car camping in NY and Pennsylvania state campgrounds. I have backcountry camped before but not in over a decade. I would appreciate recommendations for gear that won’t break the bank, namely tents, sleeping bags, and anything else you find essential.

I would be happy to hear about what I should look for in general as well as specific items. I'm waffling between cheap tent because we don't know if we're going to love it to pricey tent so it doesn't leak and the zippers don't break. Please guide me!

I’m in Toronto, and prefer to shop as Canadian as possible. I’m not planning to do a whole lot of campsite cooking, just snacks and breakfast. I’m fine with looking like a huge dork. Thank you!
posted by warriorqueen to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: No recs for tents, etc. But, are you aware of the tick problem in those areas? Be sure to get a tent with good screens, inspect everyone thoroughly every day, and maybe get one of these tools. Here's some more info on tick repellents.
posted by mareli at 10:42 AM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know how long this trip is, but you could look into gear rental. MEC (who is in my experience the best price vs quality point for buying outdoor stuff as well) has a gear rental department; so do local universities and probably also private companies. The longer the trip gets, the closer gear rental gets in price to buying, of course. (But you don't have the storage space hassle).
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:46 AM on May 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you don't know whether you'll love it, my opinion is to get a cheap tent so you can spend your $ on things like sleeping bags, thermarests (or other lightweight sleeping pads), camping hammocks, portable camp stove + gas, and lightweight cooking gear. None of the cheap tents (Ozark Trail) we've bought in the past two years have disappointed us by leaking or ripping. However, we have been very sad when we neglect to bring good sleeping bags or sleeping pads.

This opinion brought to you by a GS troop leader who has in the past two years helped outfit and lead two overnight backpacking trips of newbie scouts (group sizes 9-18 persons).
posted by smuna at 10:53 AM on May 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I came in to also suggest that, if you don't camp frequently, renting gear from MEC might be a good idea.

If you are buying, I would also suggest MEC. It will likely be more expensive than Canadian Tire, but much better quality. That said, from all of the lines they sell at MEC, I tend to default to the MEC brands which are also usually the cheapest they sell (e.g. their 3-person tent, which we've found to be excellent - and half of our friends have basically the same model).

The MEC staff at the downtown Toronto store are very good, and can help you balance cost and quality.
posted by jb at 11:35 AM on May 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Car camping can become quite luxurious with a blow-up mattress.
posted by anadem at 11:41 AM on May 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Renting might be good, but if you're looking for specific recommendations, I've enjoyed the Coleman Instant Dome tents. They're bulky but set up and break down in a flash, which takes a lot of the stress out of it. A 3-person is a bit snug for two people to be in with their stuff so I'd go for the 4 if it's for the kids at that age.

A good cooler that will last the trip but not necessarily any longer will be great. Some solid ice packs as well.

Something you might want to splurge on a little but not a lot are camp chairs. The $10 ones fall apart/rip really fast but the $20-25 ones will last years. Beyond that it seems like a waste of money.

And seconding anadem's recommendation of a blow-up mattress. These don't cost much and are waaay more comfortable than foam (though not so good thermally). I had a gigantic Camprite one that was lovely but truly huge. I'd get a compact one that's a couple inches thick, not the little thin guys. They compress down really well. Get an electric air pump you can run from the car but also a cheap manual one just in case.

Hope you have a great trip!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:46 AM on May 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Ask your friends. Freecycle or Buy-nothing group is also a good option. 75% of people went on a camping trip and have a tent in the garage. Mine is an easy-to-put-up tent from Goodwill, where those garage tents go when people move, also sleeping bags, foam pads, etc. Car-camping means weight is not really an issue, so a tent tall enough to stand up in is nice. The rain fly is a required component.

I have several yoga mats and foam pads, because comfort. Down, mummy sleeping bags are so shaped to save weight, so go with ordinary lightweight sleeping bags and extra fleece blankets in case it's cold. I'm not a big fan of air mattresses but some people love them if they have a blower that runs off the cig. lighter.

When I went on an extended Road Trip, the challenge was keeping electronics charged. Get an inverter so you can charge a laptop from the lighter, and a solar charging mat for phones, and a power pack, and always be charging stuff. You may want an adapter to double the cig. lighter, but don't overload it because Safety.

A cheap cooler can be improved by disassembling it and using spray foam to insulate the inside, then using some reflectix or other insulation to wrap it, even a fleece blanket. A cooler with a latch will always stay colder. Have several jugs of water, freeze when possible to use as ice; when the ice melts, you have fresh, cool water.

I always carried spare newspaper and candle stubs to light a fire quickly. Everybody should have their own LED headlamp. Old, non-LED flashlights are not worth saving. Luci lights are nice. LED solar string lights are fun, and I have read by them. I have a battery/ solar/ crank emergency radio flashlight. This stuff is handy at home for power outages or backyard use, too. Camp chairs are really, really pleasant to have if you have space.

I kind of hate Walmart, but they carry a lot of camping stuff and I have found it to be reasonably well made and certainly affordable.

I have a ridiculously thorough car camping packing list. Have fun.
posted by theora55 at 11:50 AM on May 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: A blow-up mattress would be my exception to the MEC-over-Canadian Tire rule. Since weight isn't an issue, you can get a good blow-up mattress from Crappy Tire for about $40, and it's useful for camping or home use. I would recommend a foot-pump to make it easier to put up (or electric, if you think you can charge it on the go).

My SO and I are enthusiastic backcountry campers - but we've taken an air mattress like this canoe and kayak camping and the size/weight isn't a problem. And it's so much nicer to sleep on than solid granite (aka most of the Canadian Shield).
posted by jb at 11:50 AM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I find the butane stoves sold at Chinese groceries good things to have car camping. They're cheap, reasonably compact, and stable. Like this one.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:29 PM on May 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: we have a setup with cheap stuff that works well.

Ozark Trail Instant 4- Worked really well, instant has been a great time saver
2 Tarps - 1 for below the tent and 1 for above in case of rain or shade.
Paracord for tarp grommets and hanging things.
Coleman bed with built in pump - helps us from forgetting a pump
2 sleeping bags 20 degrees - cant remember the name right now
Pillows and blankets from home - regular size

If you are going when temprature will drop down to below 45 F then consider adding a pad between you and the bed as they provide 0 insulation from the ground
posted by radsqd at 1:04 PM on May 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We spend two weeks camping in Western PA every summer.

I'm going to go against the grain here and say that you should NOT get air mattresses (for a variety of reasons) but should instead go with a lightweight cot like this one (low to the ground, suspended sleeping surface) for each person. Air mattresses can have serious heat transfer issues on cold nights (leaving the sleeper cold) and also cots have a much smaller chance of failing in the night than an air mattress does. Also, if your tent leaks, the cot has you sleeping up off the ground, instead of on a potentially wet floor.

If you go with a cheaper tent, be sure to also get a couple of tarps. Use one as a ground cloth EVERY TIME you set it up, and keep the second one in reserve as an extra fly in case your tent does fail.

Don't skimp on sleeping bags. Get a 20 degree bag (or warmer) for each person, and also let the kids bring their own pillows from home. Don't get a down bag (down loses its insulating capacity when wet, and takes a long time to dry). Get Primaloft or a similar man-made lofting insulation.

Keep a complete set of clothes for each person clean and in the car in a plastic bag at all times, designated for emergency use only. Dry socks can make a big difference for happy kids.

Also, buy/pack a mesh laundry bag for each child. Damp dirty clothes in with clean laundry make everything smell, and dirty laundry in a temp solution (like a garbage bag) is going to be gross when you open it.

Get a good headlamp for each person. Handsfree light makes such a big difference.

Be CERTAIN you know how to put up and take down the tent before you do it in a campground the first time. Also, extra tent stakes are super important. You'll lose some.

Get a pair of Crocs or other similar cheap slip on clog-style shoe for each child, designated only for use at night. Hunting for shoes in the middle of the night for bathroom runs is a pain.
posted by anastasiav at 1:32 PM on May 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'm dipping my toe back into camping after a couple of decades as well, and one of the things I've decided in my research is that if you've got a number of people and aren't backpacking in (so weight is not so much of an issue) you might consider a "cabin tent" - that is, a larger straighter-walled tent an adult can stand up in, sometimes with multiple interior rooms, in a style like this or this, with the big screen room/porch.

I grew up camping with my parents in "8-person" or similar tents, and they're for 8 sardines OR 3-4 people with human elbows and all their shit, if they don't want to sleep touching. And it's a coin toss whether you'll encounter really hot (or not that hot but super still, which is also unpleasant) weather where you're planning to travel, but you do not want to be packed up in a tiny tent with two other people and their breath on a hot still night if you have a choice. These big tents (especially the ones with the attached screen room) can be a real boon if you end up in a skeetery/rainy area where it'd be pleasant enough to sit around in folding chairs playing cards by lanternlight if you could be behind screens/under cover but it's so buggy you just go to bed grumpy. They're not that much harder to put up than a sleek little tent, if you and the 13-year-old are fairly tall.

Woven-plastic "camping mat" or "RV mat" rugs like this are amazing. I use a large one on my home patio, I have another smaller (maybe 5x7) one for the park, festivals, stuff like that, which we'll be using when we camp.

Any carry-able water jug with a decent spigot plus a jumbo helper shelf (or similar something to raise it up 6-10 inches) plus a dollar store dishpan or litterbox = camp sink/wash station. I would stick around the 2ish gal/10L size for weight, to carry back and forth to the campground water outlets; it may or may not be officially potable (or may be potable but not tasty) depending on where you are, and you'll want to carry drinking water, but you don't want to waste that on washing up.

Portable safe that you can cable-lock around the steering wheel or under a seat. Summertime campgrounds can be pretty chaotic and there are grab-and-run opportunists, I would keep my passports and at least half the debit/credit cards and emergency cash in here. You might want to bring an additional cable lock that you could use to secure a lockable suitcase in the car or trunk for storing all the electronics etc.

Get a AAA subscription - name brand AAA, not a "roadside assistance" coverage policy attached to credit cards or mobile phone plans or whatever. You may have to call them, since you have a Canadian address, but I am certain it can be worked out.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:53 PM on May 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The Coleman tents are a good mixture of lowish cost and quality. One of mine is going on a decade of moderate use and still going strong.

If you have space for an EZ Up style canopy, they make car camping much nicer. They can be shade from sun or rain over your eating area or put it over your tent for an extra layer of protection. If you get caught in a miserable, day long storm, having a dry area that's not inside the tent is really nice.

Pack things in tubs if possible so they stay dry and bug-free.

The super expensive coolers aren't worth it for most people. My $55 cooler performs almost as well as my $250 one.

LED rope lights are nice for making the place homey.

Don't bother with the solar charging USB batteries, they charge so slowly they're not worth it.
posted by Candleman at 2:01 PM on May 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: ... they're for 8 sardines OR 3-4 people ...

Tent capacities are almost uniformly grossly overstated. I've even encountered "2-person" tents that were too small for one average-sized adult. Renting, and getting advice from the renter, would likely save you from a too-small tent.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:13 PM on May 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Costco! Right now they will have everything you need. A fine tent (prob a coleman for about 100-150 bucks), sleeping bags for maybe 35 bucks, and likely pads(for cheaper than you can get them anywhere else).
We've been car camping with the kids for the past 11 years. (In a VERY rustic place).

Have all food in a good big tupperware with a bungee cord. Raccoon go to town at night at state campground kind of places.

My kids have a backpack they have to maintain. Their books and their toothbrush and water bottle. Have them fill it when it's empty so no ones asking me for a 3 dollar bottle of water because they are thirsty. What ever they would have asked me for a hundred times-- goes in there and they are responsible.

Rainy day? Hit the laundromat! Dirty clothes are a drag and take up so much room. I always do laundry half way through - that way I can bring half the clothes.

Everyone gets a well labelled headlamp. I love having lots of cordage and lights.

Oh and hammocks are a big treat. I love our outdoor rug but that may be more trouble than it's worth if you are staying in a place only one night and moving on.

They have one campfire hoodie per kid. We spray the heck out of it with bug spray and they wear it the whole trip - just for the fire. It stinks like fire and deet.

We like board games and I fit about 20 board games into on medium tupperware container. All the vital parts of the game I put in a labeled ziplock baggie.

Anyone bringing a bike? Having at least one bike is so nice for doing campground errands. Makes a trip to the shower or bathroom quick (or if they have a store with wine).
posted by beccaj at 2:58 PM on May 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hand sanitizer. Lots of hand sanitizer.
posted by kerf at 6:14 PM on May 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For car camping in summer you don't really need sleeping bags. If you're looking to keep expenses down and you're not sure this is going to be something you'll do more of, it would be very reasonable to just bring a sheet and a fleece blanket for each person. Your mattress/pad/cot is going to be more important than your bedding in keeping you comfortable. Thermarests aren't cheap but they're pretty comfortable and don't have the problem of making you feel like you're sleeping on cold air, like standard air mattresses. Your kids, being young, light and flexible, will probably be comfortable enough sleeping on almost anything. If they won't throw a fit about it, you could probably just get them cheap foam pads and buy yourself a Thermarest. And I second the recommendation to ask friends if they have a tent you could borrow.
posted by Redstart at 7:04 PM on May 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Have you considered hammock camping? Trees are plentiful in NY and PA, and even the cheapest hammock and tarp setup immediately eliminates the majority of issues with tents:

- No seam-sealing because the bottom is off the ground and the top is usually one piece with no seams. Or, at most, one long seam, easy to seal.
- No padding necessary because you're not on the ground.
- No danger of tracking mud "in"; you just sit on the edge of the hammock to don and doff your shoes.
- Well-ventilated. Rain when tent-camping is like being confined in a damp basement closet. Rain when hammock-camping is glorious.

Since you're car camping, you don't care about weight. Get a blue tarp from the home improvement store, some stakes, and some tarred nylon twine, mason line, or paracord, and you're all set. The hammock you'll probably want to buy, but you can get them really cheap, as cheap as $20 each. You'll also want a cheap foam pad, for bottom insulation. A yoga mat works fine in the summer.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 8:50 PM on May 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Things we used back in the day...
Tarp: If it goes under the tent, cut the tarp a couple of inches smaller. If it shifts around, the nightly moisture will run down the outside of the tent and follow the exposed tarp edges underneath the tent. It does not have to rain to leave you with a soggy inside tent floor.
If the tarp is inside the tent, fold the edges and let the oversize tarp make a "bathtub floor," again to keep moisture away from your stuff.

Another tarp can be suspended above the cheap tent. This protects the tent from sun and rain, creates an awning, and may give you a bit of privacy if you choose not to use the rain fly. It can be set up as a privacy wall on clear starry nights or if you want some room to change clothes.

Tarp hanging styles -- skip down to the illustrations, beginning with "1. A-Frame," and take it with a grain of salt.
More tarp hanging styles, and more tarp hanging styles, and even diagrams for tarp hanging styles, because this is a thing. The one wrong way to do this is by damaging the trees.
One point I will make: don't lay a section of tarp on the ground and expect it to be hole-free later.

Hanging nets or pockets inside the tent are good for glasses or other objects that can be broken. I usually put my eyeglasses inside my purse, along with a headlamp and cell phone.

I'm all about Sterilite boxes to keep things organized and easily stacked.
Garbage bags with clothes and gear can be thrown out by mistake. I'd rather use dry bags or nylon stuff sacks lined with small trash bags. Ziploc bags come in one- and two-gallon sizes (transparent is always a good thing).
I bring dark towels to cover our stuff in the back seats and lock expensive things in the trunk.

Essential clothes: Surf shoes / water shoes for the pool and beach, good broken-in joggers for hikes, tennis shoes for camping. More socks and underwear than you think you will need. Sunhats and baseball caps. A warm set of clothes just in case the weather changes. Rain gear. Swim gear, including mask and fins if desired.

The Bag of Boredom: 13 and 8 might be a bit old for this, but I brought a bag of dime-store toys and games, doled out one at a time, and later exchanged for new treats. This can keep a child occupied on long road trips.
At these ages, the kids can create their own bags. You can bring a few surprises to add later in the trip if you know what they plan to bring.
posted by TrishaU at 9:11 PM on May 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Tarp vs tent vs hammock.
I'd go with a tent while car camping with children, for several reasons.
Shelter protects you from five things -- heat and bugs and cold, and cold is made worse by wind and water (from the sky and from your own body's sweat and breath).
A tent will protect against all five things.
A tarp or hammock needs extra noseeum or mosquito netting (at least a head net). Both shelters need skill and time to set up properly. A hammock tends to be a one-person shelter, with its own tree setup and tarp. And a tarp has the same limitations as a tent when it comes to location -- a flat level surface that is free from rocks and debris and that will not turn into a puddle in the rain.

These might prove enjoyable if a child is interested in learning these skills. But I would look at the teaching trio of Experience vs Equipment vs Environment, and only change one of these things at a time to progressively build a skill set. For instance, set up the tarp together in the backyard, have a sleepover until the novelty wears off and the child is ready for an indoor bed, then try again in a week at a local state park, etc.
If you do try it, have a bailout plan if one of the children is no longer interested in hammocks or tarps.
Also, there may be restrictions on tarps and hammocks at the places where you want to camp.
posted by TrishaU at 9:45 PM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much everyone! This is really helpful and is informing my decision-making a lot. I think renting is out of reach because we're only camping a few days but away so long, but I'll check out the U of T option for sure. Love the lists! We are tick-aware as we live right near a great big wooded national park, but I'm looking forward to picking up permethrin while we're south of the border. I do have a question about the safe - I have a locking glove box, is that sufficient for passports etc.?
posted by warriorqueen at 5:39 AM on May 15, 2019

Best answer: Anything that travelers can think of to protect their property, a thief has already considered.
I don't have knowledge of locking safes. Our game plan has been --

Carry two credit cards, one for each adult. A friend of ours just got pickpocketed in France this month. Second time that's happened to her in that country. This time, her husband had another credit card and some of the cash.
Note that credit cards can be frozen temporarily after use, such as paying for a long-term hotel apartment stay. We run into that when going out-of-state for scuba diving. But the second credit card can be used for the next 24 hours while the first is being processed.
Do let your credit card company know that you will be traveling, so that the company does not freeze your account by mistake. We usually keep our purchases on one card and check the bank statements for the next several months for strange withdrawals.

This article has several good ideas for traveling safety. I particularly like the ideas on "21. Store all your important documents on the cloud." If your passport is lost, stolen or destroyed, you are in a better position to get it replaced. In that situation, I've heard that having a few extra passport photos is helpful (sounds like overkill in the U.S.A., since we have Walgreens and other stores all over the place).

I've mentioned keeping general stuff covered or out of sight in the vehicle. I usually do the same thing in hotel rooms or apartments. Honestly, we are too optimistic once our stuff is in the room, but small valuables are put in any hotel room safe. The vehicle is an easy target for thieves, so we try to make the inside less of a temptation overnight.

Door stops and bathtub plugs. Using the security peep hole and not letting anyone in who doesn't have a key. Noting who is in the hallway when entering the door. Staring down strangers when moving gear from the car to the hotel room and back again.
Post-It notes to let others in your group know where you are going and when you will be back (laundry room, swimming pool, etc.) Cell phone tag, just in case a child pops into a public bathroom while the parent isn't watching. Meetup plans, where everyone will gather in case of an emergency (the vehicle, in our case).
posted by TrishaU at 8:34 AM on May 15, 2019

Best answer: Something I remembered from reminiscing about my childhood camping days: for a smaller child (this might work fine for the 13yo too) the old clack-clack-clack-style folding chaise lounge, with a bit of egg crate foam if you're fancy, works fine for a travel cot plus serves its usual purpose during the day. It's a little narrow for an adult-size person to sleep on unless they're pretty motionless sleepers.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:29 AM on May 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I just wanted to report back on what gear we used and how it all worked out:

Tent: I took the great advice here to get a tent that was more on the inexpensive end (although not at the bottom) but also easier to set up. That ended up being the Core Instant Cabin. We had perfect weather so I never got to test it in the rain but it was:
- suuuuuper easy to set up and take down; this advice was the best
- extremely well ventilated, which works for us as we will be primarily summer campers
- I got a tarp to go under it because I don't think the floor of it is that durable. As far as I can tell there's no custom footprint available.
- because we were in a car the size and weight wasn't an issue

Sleeping bags/pads: I got 1" self-inflating Woods air mattresses which were fine for our non-aristocratic sensibilities and for us were the right trade off for packing/storage size. I also got my kids Woods sleeping bags which again, were fine. These were all on massive sale at Canadian Tire.

Other gear: Lanterns (Costco) were nice and I had a headlamp already
- cheap charcoal round grill that fit in the NY State fire pits to cook on, and we enjoyed that approach in the evening. We weren't cooking breakfast as we were moving swiftly each day so not sure how dealing with the coals would have been. Using restaurants for breakfast and having simple dinners saved us a decent chunk of change and let us appreciate the pleasures of the outdoors.

- permethrin socks for each of us were an easy way to keep ticks at bay, besides other measures
- folding chairs were worth the trunk space
- we had electrical hookup one night and I brought an indoor/outdoor extension cord with 3 outlets, and that was very useful for charging Kindles. Kindles make reading in the tent so much better!
- I just locked everything in our car and that worked fine

I can't recommend the NY State parks enough for ease of use and cleanliness of facilities and campsites. As a solo-travelling parent I felt pretty safe, but I would have some thoughts for others especially if you are a visible minority, so if you are reading this as a future searcher and have questions, MeMail me!
posted by warriorqueen at 5:26 AM on August 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

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