Camping: What We Did Wrong!

So, If you’ve read my blow by blow account of our camping trip last weekend, you know that it didn’t quite go off without a hitch. In this article, I’m going to discuss our planning and gear – and see if I can come up with ideas to make it work better next time. First, a litany of the biggest problems:

  1. I didn’t sleep well.
  2. There was too much physical work for me – and I was exhausted.
  3. When the kids got tired and cranky, I didn’t have an activity ready to go.
  4. I forgot our lunch entrée.
  5. The snacks were boring, and the good stuff was gone too early.
  6. I am inexperienced with the fire thing, and it took too long, and was too much work. (Just to be clear, I rocked it – I got fire four times on my first try… but I had to do a lot of processing to get there.)

So, lets break down the different elements of the trip and address them one by one.

First, Planning:

Trip Length – While I think we could have pushed through Saturday afternoon and had another great night and morning… I probably should have planned a single night for our first trip in years. Next time we’ll go for one night and only expand to two after we have a completely successful single night trip.

Meet Up – The uncertainty about when Jason would show up put a crimp in our Saturday morning. Next time we’ll all come together or we’ll have a more solid plan about leaving him a note telling him where we went and when we expect to come back.

Food – I was too excited to be cooking over fire and planned to have hot meals for every meal we were out. Next time, we’ll grill our dinners, but no hot breakfast or lunch. Also, better snacks.

Load Out – It seems pretty simple to just move a pile of stuff from the garage to the car, but just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Also, because our gear is cheap and/or repurposed, none of it is particularly small or light. As a result, I had to jigger the packing several times to be sure there was room for the kids. Even so, they had to sit with the firewood boxes in their foot wells, so they were crisscross for the ride in. If we’re doing less grilling, it’s possible we could get away with not bringing and ice chest – which would free up a ton of space. I can keep one night’s worth of grilling and a few other bits (half and half!) cold in chill bag instead. This means using frozen ice jugs (we use half gallon milk jugs) so that there’s not tons of ice to leak everywhere.

Unrelated Chores – I also had a ton of housework and a few errands that I had to do on the day we left. Next time, I’ll try harder to be sure the only thing I have to do the day we leave is pack the car.

Next, Gear and Process:

Shelter: Tents – We have an old Coleman three person tent. It’ not ultra-light or ultra-cool, but it totally works for me and the kids. It has mesh for air flow on the top half of each side wall, and both the front and the back have zip open windows that reveal mesh as well. So, with everything opened, and the rain fly off, we have a fantastic view of the stars. Someday when we’re backpackers instead of car campers, we’ll have to get something lighter, but until then – I actually love this tent. This link is a version that’s pretty close to what we’re using.

We also got a new two person tent because we wanted to be able to house all four of us if Jason decided to stay. Now, why not just get a bigger tent? Well, I also want a tent that’s small enough for me to take backpacking – which is in my plans. This way, we get one new piece of gear that covers both needs. We didn’t even put it up though.

On the plus side, I wanted to do an unboxing video for the new tent, and now I get to do it right. It seems a bit like cheating if you do an unboxing video on something you’ve already used.  

Shelter: Sleep Systems – Sleeping pads are crazy expensive! Holy moly, I was surprised. We didn’t have any before this trip, and to save money, we used some pads that my folks use when the kids are sleeping over at their house. They’re not designed for backpacking and were the largest things in my load out. They worked fine though, and we’ll continue to use them for a while. Both kids fell asleep quickly and slept well.

I did get new gear for the grownups. I bought this sleeping pad from Amazon because it was the cheapest two person pad. When we got it, I was not particularly surprised to find that it wasn’t actually a two person pad, but it’s fine as a car camping one person pad. I got a Klymit pad for myself, which I will be able to take backpacking. I got new sleeping bag too. The bag was an impulse purchase, one of the adult bags was old and has a weird fuzzy fabric inside that always catches on stuff. While I was pretty comfy, I may try packing a yoga mat to lay under my pad to see if that keeps me comfortable enough to sleep for longer periods.  

What we have is mostly big and old and cheap, but we’re camping in California and when the overnight low is 60° F., you don’t really need much. I will change the load out though… Next time, I’ll have Jason pack his  sleeping bag and pad in his car, which will create some extra space in mine for things like children.

Shelter: Sleep Aids – The only huge problem we had with the sleep systems was my inability to sleep. I do have issues with insomnia, so I should have had melatonin with me. The other lesson learned was due to my chatty neighbors – I’ll bring ear-plugs next time.

Fire: Wood – Those boxes of fire-wood don’t have kindling in them. As a result I processed down fairly large logs to get some smaller pieces that would take the flame. It was fun and I felt all bushcrafty batoning my kukri through a big log… but it took too long and was too much work. Next time, I’ll pack everything from tinder to thumb sized pieces of wood so that I can get the fire going quicker.

Fire: Grill and Stove – I got a new flat grill – which I left at the campsite – bummer. The grill worked perfectly, and I was happy to have something with a finer mesh than the big beefy grill provided at the site. I’ll need to replace that for next time. I also used my new twig stove, which took much longer than expected to boil my water for coffee. I’ll have to practice with it, and possibly modify it so that my pot is closer to the flame. I also will pack processed firewood so that I have plenty of twig sized wood to feed it.

Fire: Cooking – I had a Firebox billy pot, a huge Lodge cast iron skillet, several Klean Kanteen water bottles, and tongs. Next time, I’ll add a spatula and metal chop sticks. My only big problems with cooking were about comfort – I didn’t have a comfortable place to sit, and I was trying to run my kitchen out of the back of my car – which was too far away. I need less up and down, trekking from the table to the fire to the car to get everything organized. I also didn’t have any shade by the fire pit. Next time – camp chairs, an organized kitchen roll that has spices, utensils, a rag and pot holders. Also, as noted above, I need to cook less. No more days with 3 hot meals.

Clean-up – We did fairly well with the clean up – putting all the dirty dishes in a bag, taking it to the communal clean up sink, and putting clean but wet dishes back in the bag. I then laid them out to dry when we got back to camp. I might add a dish pan or bucket for doing small loads at camp… but we really did fine without it.

Food and Water – We had a gallon jug for water and a faucet nearby, so that worked perfectly. Next time, maybe we’ll bring two, so that the boys both have one to fill up. Food – I’d do very differently. Simpler food, and better snacks. I’ll also try to make meal kits with everything I need for each meal packed together.

Clothes – We did fine, but a more organized packing, with outfit packs for each change would have let the kids figure it out without my help.

Camp comfort – We need camp chairs, shade, and light. A comfortable place to just sit and hang out would have made a huge difference. Also, my primary camp lantern is a candle lantern (which I love). With the fire ban though, that’s not cool – so we ended up using a solar battery bank/lamp – which was way too bright. We have some rechargeable lamps at the boat, I just need to bring them home for the next trip.

Activities – Next time, I’ll do more research ahead of time and have activities pre-planned. I’ll pre-scout swimming, fishing, and hiking options and download maps for each. I will also have some planned activities around camp for the kids. They usually do a great job just inventing games and can entertain themselves for hours with free play, but I need a plan for when they are low on energy and bored.

Some things that I’m thinking about are scavenger hunts, art projects like drawing things we see at camp, and light easy toys like a beach ball, bubbles, etc. They also would have liked to play in the tent, and I wouldn’t let them because the sleeping gear was all set up in there. Before our next trip, I want to see if we could all three sleep in the new two person tent (two kids being somewhat equivalent in size to one adult). If so, I could have one tent for sleeping and one tent for playing.

Finally, a ‘To Do’ List:

New Stuff – grill, spatula, metal chop sticks, kitchen roll, klean kanteen lids, camp chairs, and camp mugs for coffee and hot coco.

Packing list – ear plugs, melatonin, scrub brush, bar soap and holder for dishes, ice jugs and chill bag, rechargeable lanterns from the boat.

Figure out – portable shade, will mom and kids all fit in two person tent, activity list, pre-packing, plan and test new backpacking meals, practice with the twig stove.

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