Camping Equipment Essentials for Budget-Conscious Families

A personal tent glows warmly from within as dusk settles in the mountains.

Camping in the scenic Sierra Nevadas. Photo © Ian Vorster.

For families preparing to camp for the first time, here is Tom Stienstra’s list of camping essentials, along with helpful comments explaining his choices. Newcomers can supplement basic gear with equipment from home, like cooking gear.


Campsite reservation (when you venture to a popular park or area)

The worst moment in the outdoors is to get stuck for the night without a place to camp. That is why I wrote Moon California Camping, so I’d never get stuck, ever. If you do choose to camp at a state or national park, or a very popular area, get your campsite reservation set before you leave on your trip. We updated every campground in California for the 2013 edition, so having a copy of the book would be incredibly helpful if camping in the Golden State.


Sleeping bag/pillow, pad/air bed, and tent

A key to your adventure happiness is a good night’s sleep. Out camping, a lot of people get eight hours each night, but it comes in about ten installments. You must be warm, dry, and cozy, and immersing into your sleeping bag should be like submerging into a perfect nest. Practice at home to get the perfect set-up—if you can’t make it work at home, it definitely will not work out in the wild. One year, I spent two hundred nights in my sleeping bag. For me, I sleep better camping than I do in a bed. If you have youngsters, you will ruin their trips if they get cold and don’t sleep, and they will never want to go camping again.


Ice chest, stove, and cook kit

You can set up a great portable camp kitchen that doesn’t cost much. If you have a flame, you can cook anything that you could at home on a stove. A frustrating issue is if all your ice melts in your cooler and someone has to stop the trip to buy more. Instead, simply avoid buying a cheap cooler. For about $50, you can get a fifty-quart Coleman Xtreme blue cooler that will keep ice frozen for five days. Also, camp cook kits are great because you get everything you need, instead of scrambling at home to assemble something that might not work well.


Lantern/flashlight

First, a question for you: What moment do Americans prize most in the outdoors? The answer, according to a survey, is time around the campfire with family and friends. A lantern casts the trademark glow over your camp and picnic table and is one of those things that will imprint a youngster the same way campfire time would. Remember, it is important for everyone to have their own flashlight; no sharing. This is one way that kids learn to rely on themselves.


First-aid kit and sunscreen

Sunburn is the most common injury on camping trips. Prevent it by using high-quality sunscreen and wearing a hat with a brim, like I do. With a baseball cap—or no hat at all—the tops of your ears and sides of your neck can get burnt to a crisp. The latest first-aid kits are great; they are affordable, yet filled with essentials for minor issues. Sometimes all you have to do is put a Band-Aid on a youngster’s “ow-ee” and it will make them feel better.


For a full list of Tom’s recommendations, see Tom Stienstra’s Camping Checklist (PDF) or pages 72-73 of Moon California Camping.

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