When planning a trip, you must select a set of clothing and equipment that will keep you comfortable for the entire trip but yet is compact enough to pack in your car (or on your motorcycle). To make the best decisions for a particular trip, learn as much as possible about current camping and outdoor equipment, about probable weather, and about your destination. To learn about your destination, begin by reading the campground's official web page. Then search the web for reviews, photos, and videos. When packing for the trip, organize your equipment into the following 15 equipment groups. Be sure to pack all of the Essential equipment and include as many Desirable and Optional items as packing space allows. Also note Undesirable items within each group. For more information about each equipment area, please read my book, Basic Tent Camping.
Clothing packed in small soft-side duffel bags
Essentials: extra nylon underwear, extra pair of wool socks, polyester or wool short-sleeve T-shirt, polyester or wool long-sleeve T-shirt, polyester or fleece athletic pants, polyester or fleece hoodie, knit cap, hat or cap & rain coat.
Underwear: ExOfficio and Duluth Trading Buck Naked nylon boxers are great for camping and other outdoor activities. I wear them under a pair of polyester shorts as my swim suit.
Rain Gear: Mil-Tec Poncho
Desirables: When packing space permits, pack as many as 7 pair of socks and underwear to minimize time needed for washing clothes.
Convertible pants such as REI Sahara are very versatile.
Undesirables: Cotton garments such as denim jeans, cotton sweat shirts, sweat pants, socks & underwear.
Use duffel bags as pillows in camp.
Primary Shelter packed in a large duffel bag
Essential: a good tent that provides protection from rain, wind, mosquitoes, bugs, and dirt.
Most small families should consider a 6-person tent. This size provides a good balance between comfort, packability & campsite fit. It offers ample space for bedding, clothing, and personal items - plus it is usually high enough to stand in. Couples with no children could save a few dollars and be almost as comfortable in a 4-person tent. Smaller (1, 2, & 3-person) tents typically are used for backpacking and provide more storm/wind protection, but they are hard to enter, even harder to exit, and offer minimal room to move around. Larger 8 to 12-person tents offer more comfort and can accommodate cots well, but they frequently are difficult to set up and squeeze onto many developed campsites and tent pads.
After reading hundreds of reviews, watching dozens of YouTube videos, and talking with dozens of fellow campers, I have compiled my list of the best 2018 tents for family camping in developed campgrounds. These are good quality tents that have strong poles and tough materials that should last over 20 years with proper care. The list, posted below, includes current prices for 6-person (first column) and 4-person (second column) models - and links to sites that provide additional information.
Partial Coverage Rainfly with No Vestibule
Eureka Timberline 550 240 Discontinued but still available
Eureka Copper Canyon 260 200 Very popular umbrella style tent
Eureka Sunrise EX 240 180 Popular dome tent
Cabela's Getaway Cabin 225 400 4-person includes screen house
Big Agnes Big House Deluxe 400 350 New design of a popular hot weather tent
Full Coverage Rainfly with Vestibule
Marmot Limestone 490 360 Great hot weather tent
REI Kingdom 440 390 Popular tunnel tent
REI Base Camp 430 370 Dome with two large vestibules
Kelty Sequoia 350 250 Tall and spacious
Kelty Trail Ridge 295 225 Discontinued but still available
Big Agnes Flying Diamond 700 500 Also good for cool weather
Browning Glacier 500 350 Also good for cool weather
You can save $100 to $200 by buying used tents from e-Bay or second hand stores and by buying last year models.
Although "instant tents" have become very popular over the past five years and are frequently seen in many campgrounds, I suggest that you read reviews before purchasing one. Several owners have complained that they leak and are easily damaged by wind.
I also recommend that you avoid discount department store tents priced under $200 because they will usually fail before 20 nights or 5 years. They have thin fiberglass poles that are difficult to set up and easy to break - especially in cool weather. They also have cheap zippers that will fail quickly, poorly sewn seams that will rip with minimal pressure, and thin materials that will easily tear.
A few campers enjoy sleeping in hammocks, but they should not depend upon hammocks as their primary shelter because they will not find two or three good trees in every campsite.
Bedding packed in an X-large duffel bag
Essential: a warm and comfortable mattress. Invest wisely!
We use a thick insulated self-inflating pad such as the REI Camp Bed top of a Thermarest closed cell pad.
Air beds are comfortable but frequently spring leaks after limited use.
Desirables: an insulated ground carpet or blanket, a fitted sheet, pillow cases & a blanket or sleeping bag.
A standard fitted sheet will hold two mattresses together.
Sleeping Bag: Marmot Trestles 30; Marmot Trestles 15; Wool Blanket: Pendelton Wool Blankets
Could use a rolled blanket or a clothing-filled duffel bag for a pillow.
In cool weather consider a heated mattress cover.
Secondary Shelter packed in a medium or large duffel bag
Desirable: In addition to your tent, pack a second shelter to protect you from sun, wind, dew fall, and rain during the day. Under this shelter, you can may relax in folding chairs, prepare meals, eat meals, repair equipment, play games, and read books.
Many campers use screen rooms or EZ Up folding canopies but we prefer three economically priced 8 x 10 poly tarps with reflective silver on one side. One tarp is used for the top, the second is pulled out to make the back side, and the third is dropped from the top to make a sidewall/wind block for the stove and kitchen area.
Face silver side up in hot weather to reflect sun's radiant energy and down to hold in heat in cool weather.
Support fly with three 8-foot poles and one 6-foot pole.
Tools packed in a heavy Cordura tool bag
Essentials: Tent stakes, pocket knife (or multitool) & cord.
Victorinox Tinker is a good pocket knife.
Desirables: Camp axe, large camp knife, folding saw, wedge, baton, channel lock pliers, rake & small shovel.
I prefer reconditioned vintage camp axes but if you want to buy a good axe under $50, consider Husqvarna Curved Handle hatchet. The discontinued Council Tool Camp Axe also makes a good camp axe but you must purchase the sheath seperately.
Folding saw: Bacho Laplander folding saw or Silky Pocket Boy folding saw
Camp knife: Mora Companion knife is economically priced and great for wood cutting. Many prefer the carbon steel blade.
You can make a baton and wedge from small pieces of hickory firewood. Use baton to drive in tent stakes and split firewood. Use wedge to split firewood.
Splitting platform: Pack a tree round or make a platform from 3/4-inch plywood. Use it to split firewood when tree stump and tree round are unavailable.
Cordura tool Bag Husky 17-inch Tool Tote.
Furniture packed separately
Desirables: table cloth, folding chairs, 1 or 2 four-foot folding tables & hammocks.
Armless quad chairs fold into a small space. Alps Mountaineering Adventure Chair makes an extra strong chair.
Personal Items packed in a day pack
Essential hygiene items: tooth brush, soap & towel. Desirables: tooth paste, floss, brush, razor, nail clippers, tweezers, cotton swabs & scissors.
Essential shower bag items: soap, wash cloth & small micro-fiber towel. Desirable: plastic shower shoes. Add pair of clean underwear and shirt to bag
Optionals: books, games, radio & iPad.
Portable Radio: Sangean DT 400W
Toys and recreational equipment.
Use the day pack to carry water, sun screen, first-aid supplies, and jackets on day hikes and to make a pillow at night.
Electrical Items packed in a milk crate
Essential: A small headlight or flashlight for each person plus a spare and extra batteries are all you need in summer months when the sunsets around 9 or 10 p.m.
Desirable: In early spring and late fall, acquire a variety of battery and/or electric powered lights for campsite and tent because sun sets around 4 or 5 p.m.
Acquire 3 or 4 grounded outdoor extension cords plus multiple outlets.
Compact lighting: Etekcity Folding LED lantern
Rope Lights: Izzy Creations Rope Lights
In cool weather, pack a heated mattress cover or electrical space heater and make sure to reserve a campsite with electrical connections.
In hot weather pack a fan and wear a cotton shirt soaked with water. The breeze blowing over the wet shirt will produce an air conditioning effect.
Undesirable: Candle lanterns, gas lanterns, and other open flame light sources because they are messy to pack and create a fire hazzard if brought into the tent.
Medical Supplies packed in a small Cordura bag
Essentials: First aid kit, sun screen & insect repellant kept in an accessible location in your car
Desirable: Assemble a second first-aid kit for your tent.
Kitchen Items packed in 2 milk crates
Essentials: Mess Kit - can opener, cup, pate/bowl & spoon
Desirables: Pots, frying pan, cooking utensils, eating utensils & a bucket or large stew pot to catch grey water.
Select pots, pans, plates, bowls & cups that nest together.
Can opener: Nogent Super Kim
Kitchen knife: Opinel #8 Stainless steel knife is best for most chores; #10 cuts through watermellon like soft butter.
Optional: Coffee maker; Thermos Nissan Insulated French Press; Timberline 6-cup coffee pot
Stove & Fuel packed separately
Basic tent campers staying in developed campgrounds usually have their vehicles in or near their campsites and either restaurants or grocery stores located just a few miles away. Thus, basic tent campers can eat a wide variety of foods that do not require cooking - or can buy charcoal and grill many more foods in their campsite fire ring.
Essentials: Two or 3 butane lighters.
Desirables: a small compact stove and fuel.
If you plan to cook with wood, make a fire starter kit at home containing small twigs for kindling, used printer paper for tender, and your butane lighters.
Several small wood burning stoves are available for backpackers but these stoves are too small and too fragile to hold heavy cast iron cookware and cook large portions needed for family meals. So, I developed a large portable wood burinng stove - which I call Woody The Campfire Stove or just Woody. It allows you to cook a complete family meal over a campfire in any campground - regardless of the type of fire ring available. It features:
1) heavy duty 11 GA carbon steel back and sides that are strong enough to hold large cast iron dutch ovens and frying pans filled with food;
2) a large 13 by 13-inch cooking surface that can accommodate a 12-inch frying pan, a 10-quart stew pot, or 3 smaller pots;
3) a stainless steel cooking grate that locks into place and can be used to grill steaks, hamburgers & pork chops;
4) two piano hinges that allow you to fold the sides flat for travel;
5) high quality welding and fabrication;
6) good fuel efficiency that allows you to cook a meal or boil a pot of dried beans for an hour with one large piece of firewood.
Woody weighs 10 pounds and can be placed on the ground, inside a fire ring - or combined with a commercial Aluminum baking pan to maximize fuel efficiency. A limited number of Woody Stoves with cooking grates are now available for $125 plus shipping costs. For more details. please watch my YouTube video and contact me. My contact information can be found by clicking the "Contact Information" link below.
When planning a trip to a particular park, visit the park's webpage and read their firewood policy. Some parks have burn bans in effect and prohibit all camp and cooking fires.
When campfires are permitted, most state and federal parks prohibit cutting standing trees and burning firewood that was cut over 50 miles away from the park. Furthermore, many also prohibit removing dead wood on the ground because deadfall provides food and habitat for small animals and insects low on the food chain. Consequently, most campers must buy firewood bundles from local dealers or the park concession. Local firewood dealers usually give the most wood for the money but be sure the wood has been seasoned before buying it. Grocery stores and convince stores also give a reasonable amount of wood for the money and it is usually heat treated U.S.D.A. or state certified pest free firewood that has a federal or state shield on the package. Park venders vary considerably in terms of the amount of wood they give for the money. Some give a reasonable amount of seasoned wood for the money (4 pounds for $1) but a significant number sell unseasoned wood or very small bundles for high prices.
Firewood sold in bundles typically are about 6-inches in diameter - too large for starting fires or cooking meals. Consequently, campers should split these larger pieces down to kindling and small pieces of stove wood about 1/2 to 3/4 inches in diameter with a camp axe and wedge.
Campers should always pack a backup cooking stove with fuel in case the park has a burn ban in effect.
Essential: Personal water bottle.
Desirables: one or more 1-gallon water jugs. Gator-aid jugs and bottles are economical choices. Most developed campgrounds have potable water near their campsites but some spigots are several yards away. You will need containers to get it from the spigot to your campsite.
Undesirables: Avoid large 3 to 5-gallon containers because they are difficult to carry from the water spigot to your campsite, difficult to move about your campsite, and difficult to pour.
Unnecessary: water filtration and purification equipment.
Non-Perishable Foods packed in 1 or 2 milk crates
Essentials: None - If you camp in developed campgrounds, you can buy a wide variety of restaurant and grocery store take out foods.
Desirables: Cereal bars, nuts, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables & other snacks
Couples and small families should pack an assortment of vegetables and fruit packaged in small cans.
Repackage beans, pasta, rice, grits, flour, and other dry goods in small or medium-sized plastic mayonnaise or peanut butter jars.
Perishable Foods packed in a 50-quart cooler
Desirable: Store eggs, butter, cheese, milk, meat, juice, and other foods in small waterproof plastic containers.
Undesirable: Avoid coolers with wheels and handles because your food (cooler) should stay in your car at all times to avoid animal scavenger problems; wheels and handles require unnecessary packing space and add additional weight.
Essential: A good roadmap
Desirable: GPS receiver or cell phone maps App.