Hey everyone! We hope you all had a great Labor Day weekend and unofficial end of summer. We spent our week at one of our favorite places, a campsite in the Thousand Islands region of New York. We go here every year, sleep in a tent by the water, cook over a fire, read, swim, watch wildlife, and generally “get away from it all.” (Then I come back and get depressed over the complicated nature of real life in the real world with all its responsibilities and noise)
I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I decided to write another post about how to have what I think is the perfect camping trip. I noticed that our set-up was much more “minimalist” than all of the other campsites. I want this entry to focus on our camping style which contains none of the fuss that makes camping more work than fun. So if you’ve never gone tent camping or called it quits after a bad experience,
WARNING! For the first time, I am experimenting with affiliate links, and a few of them are in here. We’ve never made a red cent from this blog, and that’s maybe as it should be. But if you buy any of the supplies linked, we will get a cut, but you can be sure, we will not not steer you wrong!
Childless Couple Pro-Tip: The post-Labor Day week is your golden hour!
We’ve spent years returning to this same campsite every summer, and I don’t know why it took us so long to realize that timing makes all the difference. The major benefit/problem with our campsite is how beautiful the location is. Every day we get lookee-loos stumbling on it and saying “Oh this is a nice site. We should try booking this.” Well, you have to get up pretty early in the morning (literally) to book this site before I do. But needless to say, our site and the ones around it are always popular and are booked throughout the summer. That means we have neighbors. Sometimes lots of neighbors. And if you’re looking to having a quiet commune with nature, this is the problem.
But while the campground is fully booked during Labor Day weekend, it is virtually empty by Tuesday! Those kids have to go back to school! That is our car all by its lonesome above. After Labor Day, the only people left are retirees and childless couples… like us! We had a huge swath of riverfront all to ourselves to explore. And since it’s technically still summer, the weather is nice and the water is still as warm as it’s going to get. The first week of September is definitely the time to go camping.
Unlike most of our neighbors at the campground, we use a tent. I see so many people driving in with big campers attached to a truck, or driving a dedicated RV. Then I watch them spend hours setting up and fussing with things, running loud generators, messing with weird pumps and faucets. There always seems to be something that they need to tend to with the RV. Then I imagine the cost of driving the thing. All of our gear fits neatly in a Honda Civic which gets 30 MPG. The typical RV gets 5-10 MPG. It takes us ten gallons to get from home to our campsite. That means it would take an RV thirty to sixty gallons! Yikes. (Although I was a bit jealous of our neighbors with Airstream and Shasta trailers)
So you’ll need a tent. What makes a good tent? Size is part of it, but smaller is actually better! We don’t recommend overbuying when it comes to tent size. You might want to buy the biggest tent you can afford, but you will be sacrificing quality. Previous to our current tent, we had a $70 Eddie Bauer tent (see left) from Target that leaked like a sieve in any substantial rainfall. Even with the fly on, the rain wouldn’t stay out unless we also put a tarp on top of it all.
Our current tent is a 2-3 person tent from Mountain Hard Wear called the Hammerhead 3. The Hammerhead is smaller and much more expensive than our old Eddie Bauer, but is a much better buy. It takes a serious downpour before a drip of water will seep into the sleeping area, which I can only remember happening once or twice. And for nice, dry nights, there is an enormous panel on the front that opens up so you can sleep under the stars, but with a screen to keep the buggies out.
It also has a well-designed fly that extends far away from the tent, so rain doesn’t drip near it. It also creates a vestibule for each sleeper’s door so you can place your shoes outside the tent and they won’t get wet.
Let our neighbors be a cautionary tale to you. Their tent’s fly laid on the tent walls and didn’t even extend to the ground. After their first night, they had to lay all of their clothes and their sleeping bag on the picnic tables to dry out. Everything got wet their first night. A good time was not had by all.
We were worried at first that the Hammerhead might be too small, but there’s enough room for all of our stuff, and since it’s so functional otherwise, we would forgive it a lack of space. You don’t need to enough room for everything you own. You’re supposed to be spending time outside anyway! We keep our luggage in the car. We change clothes in the campground bathroom anyway, so it doesn’t make sense to keep all of our clothes in the tent. We got the Hammerhead as a wedding gift nine years ago and it still performs perfectly. Unfortunately, Mountain Hard Wear doesn’t make this tent anymore, so you’re going to have to do your own research for your tent!
Having a successful camping trip means being prepared for the weather. Keep yourself and your things dry should be your #1 concern, because as soon as your stuff gets wet, your trip can be ruined!
But if you can’t fit your stuff in your tent, where does it go? For years, we tried bringing all of our food and supplies in various plastic containers we had. Inevitably, they weren’t very waterproof and we’d have wet bread, damp matches, etc. A few years ago we invested in two Rubbermaid ActionPacker Storage boxes. We have a 24 gallon and an 8 gallon box.
This is yet another wise investment for campers. During the off-season, we keep our tent and air mattress in the large box, and all the various things like paper plates, plastic bags, flashlights, aluminum foil, tongs, batteries, etc. in the small box. When it comes time to head to camp, all we do is make sure nothing needs to be replenished in the boxes, and throw the boxes in the car. Then at camp, the big box holds all of our food. Pretty much everything stays in these boxes. We don’t leave anything out. So if it ever rains, we don’t have to worry about it.
Also, TARP IS GOOD. Tarp is must. We usually have a pile of firewood and collected branches. Heaven help you if your firewood gets wet. Having a tarp is a must to throw over the wood pile if there’s a storm coming. All you need is a simple 8×10 foot tarp like this one.
Also, don’t be afraid to throw things in the car! Chances are, it won’t be far from your campsite. If the sky suddenly darkens and fat raindrops start falling, we’ve been known to throw things in the trunk. Our chairs especially can’t get wet. There’s foam in the seats and backs, which is great for comfort, but if they get wet, they can take a whole day to dry out. We find these chairs more comfortable than the typical camping chairs which are thin fabric held up by a bunch of poles. I wish I could tell you what these are called, but we bought them twelve years ago and there’s no labels on them!
For a table, we use that simple APAK Goods folding table. There is already a picnic table for doing any serious food prep. The folding table is mostly holding our food and drinks in place
I think you only need two good lights: A interior tent light and a flashlight. Lanterns are good too, but not as useful as a flashlight. Besides, a campfire serves some of the same purpose as a lantern. At this point, for any camping light you should only be looking at LED lights.
We recently did away with our original Coleman tent light. It’s very solidly constructed, but provides only a dim light and really seems to burn through batteries. Now we bought these two E-Trends LED bulbs that simply hang from any hook and provide much more bright light. They’re much lighter than the brick of a Coleman light. Marge said the new lights make our tent look like an art installation.
Key tip: Don’t bring food with you. We made this mistake a bunch of times, bringing not only boxed food from our pantry, but a whole cooler full of ice and meat. It’s all just more to pack. Since the packing process occurs four times (packing up at home, unpacking at camp, packing up at camp, and unpacking at home) you want to make that as painless as possible. More work hinders fun!
Buy all the food you need after you get there. Unless you’re serious backpackers, you won’t be far from civilization. We just make a trip to the local grocery store after we set up camp and buy whatever we want. One of our camping supplies that’s remaining unchanged over 12 years is our Coleman Xtreme Cooler. This was a good buy. I think we picked it up for $25 back in the day. It seems well insulated, and we keep it out of the sun on hot days.
Key tip: Buy block ice, not ice cubes. We put two big ice blocks in this cooler and we are set for at least five days. Ice cubes melt much more quickly because of the amount of surface area, and you’ll be buying a bag or two every other day. Also, instead of draining the ice water from the cooler, leave it in there and keep your food in plastic bags to keep it from getting wet. The water will slow the melting of the remaining ice blocks.
We also keep cooking extremely simple. We only have this very basic Texsport steel camp grill. We cook steaks or hot dogs or toasted sandwiches, veggies wrapped up in foil with seasoning, and have many ingenious s’mores recipes, but those would requite their own entry. Having a propane stove might add convenience, but that also adds more stuff, including propane tanks that need to be re-filled. We try to buy just enough food that we’re able to finish it all by the time we leave. That leads to some creative re-uses, like the pizza weenie (hot dog wrapped in provolone and pepperoni) seen above.
You’ll also probably want to keep a supply of water on hand. We’ve found that this 5 gallon collapsible water tank from Coghlan more than fits our needs for when we want a drink of water or need to wash our hands off.
As described in our earlier camping entry, we have a system for making a comfortable bed. We have the cheapest air mattress sold by Coleman which has held up for years. We inflate this, lay a basic Coleman sleeping bag out on top of the mattress, put a fitted sheet over the whole thing, then sleep under another sheet and a quilt. This feels better than crawling into a sleeping bag because it feels more like a real bed and you have more freedom of movement. We had one cold night this time (40 degrees) and we wished we had brought another blanket, but usually this set-up is sufficient, at least down to 50 degrees.
The Coleman mattress is nothing special. We had a couple leak early on, but this one has managed to last six or seven years so far. I don’t recommend spending extra money on an air mattress. Our neighbors with the wet clothes had a huge air mattress they had to inflate at the bathrooms and carry back because, I guess, they didn’t have a battery-powered pump. I can’t imagine how much space it took up in the tent.
You’re here to have fun, right? What fun stuff are you going to bring? Since everything is going to be exposed to the elements, I recommend buying your stuff used. You don’t want anything expensive to get ruined, right?
We bring kayaks with us. Kayaks are not cheap water toys. You can easily drop several hundred dollars on a small, basic kayak. Years ago, I was having a hell of a time getting used kayaks for cheap on Craigslist. But when that happens, we don’t give up. We put up an ad asking for what we want! Yes, I put up an ad asking for two 12′ long kayaks, looking to pay $250 each. And it worked! (This is also how I found my beloved Schwinn Suburban commuter bicycle for just $140) The people we bought them from were leaving the area and needed to get rid of them.
We also brought our used Kindles with us, loaded with library e-books. The two Kindles cost a total of $30. Sure they are older models, but does that matter? Bringing a Kindle is not only lighter weight-wise compared to paper books, but I’d argue maybe even better for the wet weather. Paper books get damp easily, while you can get a cover for your Kindle which will actually keep the rain out of it.
We are always disgusted by the people eating and shitting in their motor homes, letting the excrement collect either inside their little house or in little gray tanks underneath. Yuck. No thanks. We use the campground bathrooms like civilized people. We each have a little grocery bag with travel size versions of all our toiletries that we take from the car to the bathroom, with a little clamshell container for the soap. That’s it.
Our showers and bathroom breaks are also typically the only time we can charge up our cell phones or iPods. Camping is the time to get away from such nuisances, but we still need to be minimally connected to the world. Using showertime as the only time to add another 10% charge to your phone is also a good way to artificially limit your cell phone use as well.