Hotel rooms are expensive; heck, even primitive cabins aren’t cheap. Either that or I’m a skin flint. Maybe a bit of both.
As I sit on the couch, trying to figure out where to go with my wife of 2 years for our anniversary in October, I realize I’d need to take out a small loan to spend 4 nights in a decent cabin or hotel room. Last year we went to the beach to escape the crowds (and the peak season prices) but now we’re foolishly heading towards the mountains where all of the people are. While hotel rooms have never figured big into our vacation plans, we can’t even find a 1-room camping cabin at a KOA. Instead of turning tail and heading to the beach, I think the plan will instead be buying the poor man’s portable cabin (the rich man’s portable cabin is called an RV).
Just as it makes no sense in the long run to rent a house your entire life, it doesn’t make sense to “rent” a vacation home constantly. I’ve heard more times than I can count that camping gear is too expensive, but nobody seems to bat an eye on spending $200+ for 2 nights in a hotel room that you never get to use again. Instead, how about spending that same money on a nice tent you can use for the next 10-15 years? The same argument can be made for purchasing all types good quality camping gear, and if you doubt me, I just argued this point successfully with my wife. Yes; I’m really good at multitasking.
The first order of business is the tent, quite literally your portable cabin. We actually scored a great deal on a tent last year at an REI yard sale that fit all of our criteria: it had to fit on a standard 8x10 tent pad, the rain fly had to cover the entire tent (not one of those skimpy bikini style tops), the vestibule had to be roomy enough for us to setup 2 chairs and sit inside, and the tent poles had to be aluminum not fiberglass. All of the major manufacturers make tents that fit the bill, so just find one from a reputable dealer that is on sale. We’ve now taken that tent on 4 camping trips in both good and bad weather and don’t have a single complaint. Not bad for $90.
Inside of the tent, my top priority is a good sleep system. Huge air mattresses that double as pool toys are okay in the summer, but I don’t use them when the temperatures start to drop; the cold air settles right below you and will keep you shivering all night since there's no foam to retain heat. I’m a big fan of Thermarest and their “infinite” guarantee where if something of theirs breaks, they will fix it for as long as they’re in business. I’ve had a size large Basecamp pad which is very comfortable and warm year round; they now offer an XL size which is 30" wide instead of 25". It was around $100 when I bought it 7 years ago and it shows no signs of wearing out.
A new accessory that I just found on their website (multitasking; remember?) is a down coupler which turns 2x large size pads into a full size mattress with a down pillow top. It's a little steep at $129, and would probably be too warm in the warmer months, but there might come a night in October that I'd be willing to pay twice that. They do make a normal coupler for only $13 but honestly I think you can pick up the same straps for $5 at any sporting goods store. Oh, and camping pillows? If space is an issue, I take my pillows from home and put them in compression sacks; I sleep better with my normal pillows and usually they can pack down small enough.
What you put on top of the pads is very subjective. I sleep as stationary as if I was laid in a sarcophagus and put out enough heat that I typically take a summer bag with me until the temperatures drop below freezing. My wife, while a warm and loving person, apparently has a frozen core because she requires a 20 degree bag when the temps get near 40 at night. She also has the curious habit of being a 5' 3" person who can take up a queen size mattress. In our case, getting a large rectangular flannel sleeping bag, unzipping it, and using it as a blanket is probably our best bet; if it's extremely cold out, it makes more sense to have individual sleeping bags which are more efficient. They do make "double" sleeping bags, but I'm still undecided about how well that actually works. If I happen to find a good deal before October, I might take a chance on one but I think I'd rather spend the $150+ elsewhere.
Cooking and the subsequent cleanup is by far the biggest chore of camping for me, so it's a good thing my wife loves the cooking part. Neither of us is a huge fan of the cleanup part though so as I start going through my mental list of camping gear I need, a nice camping kitchen is high on the list. Googling "camp kitchen” I find pictures of awesome chuck boxes like my great-grandfather made that have built in tables and enough shelving to double as a pantry at home. Until I have a car larger than a sedan though, I don’t' have room for a huge, heavy wooden box. Coleman though has a very nice setup that packs down to the size of a small folding table and gives plenty of space for both cooking and cleaning.
Several of the links for camping kitchens I click on keep on using this term "glamping" which I had to look up. "Glamping: Shorthand for glamorous camping; luxury camping." That makes me feel a little, well, French. Maybe we'll just cook over an open fire with trout caught by my bare hands in a lean-to fashioned from branches I gnawed off trees myself. Probably not. That Coleman kitchen looks pretty cool, and I don’t feel like pretending to be Bear Grylls.
While walking through Academy Sports the other day I spotted a burly looking camp stove and a quick perusal of their website led me to it: the Camp Chef Weekender, a 2 burner stove that could probably fry a turkey if need be. Originally, they only sold an enormous 3 burner version that my grandfather bought years ago and still works great. Sure, it takes a man, a boy, and a small mule to haul it around, but if you need to cook 20lbs of bacon at the same time it's your only option. All of their stoves run off the 20lb propane canisters you typically use for BBQ grills so you shouldn't have a problem with running out in the middle of a large meal. I wouldn't expect delicate simmer settings from these stoves though; if delicate cooking is your game, I still think getting a class Coleman Dual-Fuel stove and throwing a 20lb propane tank adapter on it gives you a great system. The Camp Chef Weekender is around $100 and I’d personally pick up a good quality used Coleman from an antique store or flea market in the $40-50 range.
Finally, all that's left in essential camping gear is an adequate chair. I’ve tried a lot of chairs over the years, and I still haven't found a chair that I'm entirely happy with because I want one that's padded but also dries quickly if it rains. One that will stand up to years of abuse but I won't be making payments on for years either. Until I find my dream chair, the closest I've found is made by Alps Mountaineering called the "King Kong" chair. Considering that the $20 chair I bought last year is already worn out, $55 for a chair that has a powder coated steel frame doesn't seem like a bad investment.
Not including purchasing new gear and whatever food we bring, I just reserved 4 nights at the water's edge at Devils Fork State Park and it only costs $80 after tax and fees. That's far less than a single night at any syphilis free hotel rooms that I've been able to find. So if my math is right, I just might be able to get that most excellent stove...
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.