Walk Softly, and Spoil Yourself Rotten

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, July 1999
Walk Softly, and Spoil Yourself Rotten
Who says traveling light is right when it comes to car camping?

By Donovan Webster

Gimme Shelter | To Sleep, Perchance... | Dining Out
Clean, Well Lighted | The Toy Department

I spend maybe 90 nights a year sleeping outside on reporting assignments, and not all those evenings are pleasant. One drizzly November midnight in Borneo, for example, I found myself bunking on a plywood platform scavenged from a truck as squadrons of mosquitoes tapped my blood. I was the first member of a caving expedition to hit camp, and my bag and tent were stuck a day behind. With no other recourse, I reached for a foil packet of sleeping pills (to combat jet lag), and in a flash of desperation I minted a new form of ultra-spare camping: the tranq-bivy. All you need is a few milligrams of Ambien, and thenùwham!ùyou're too soporific to be miserable.

There are more wholesome and sane ways to enjoy a similarly velvety, ethereal tranquillity in the woods. In fact, when I have the opportunity to camp with my wife, Janet, and our kids (Anna, four, and James, six), I forgo stupefied minimalism and instead go to the opposite...well, extreme is the only way to put it. I'm talking luxe, deluxe, and superluxe. We take every piece of gear we need and then pile on everything else we could possibly need, stopping just shy of an automatic dishwasher. That would be excessive.

Still, anything else that'll fit in the car is fair game, I figure. After all, if you're going to drive right up to your campsite, you might as well embrace the opportunity and pack all the superfluous and self-indulgent stuff you could never wedge into a pack. Ever thought of bringing along a queen-size air mattress, amphitheater-scaled sound system, cast-iron skillet, or batterypowered blender? Maybe it's time you did.

Gimme Shelter
First and foremost, family camping requires a tribe-size tent, a shelter in which you can stand. My family's favorite is the Headquarters by Eureka! ($460), a rectangular nylon manse that's seven feet tall and measures 8.5 feet by 12 feet. It's just one big, open room, but four screened windows offer great ventilation. If, however, separate sleeping chambers are a must (got teenagers?), Cabela's Extend-A-Dome ($240) is the right call. With its three 25-square-foot enclosed vestibules radiating from a cavernous 10-by-12-foot dome, this thing is the Monticello of tents: Tenticello. Given the number of doors, you'll like the nylon lanyards on the zipper pulls, which make them easy to grab when you're fumbling in the dark.


To Sleep, Perchance...
One of the more sublime perks of car camping is that you can stretch out in something roomier than a space- and weight-saving mummy bag. Instead, try the Walkabout from L.L. Bean ($99; tall, $109). It has two layers on top that unzip independently, letting you customize your climate (it's rated to 45 degrees in its warmest configuration). For a mattress, the truly shameless comfort route is the Coleman QuickBed ($35), a queen-size raft that you'd best inflate with the battery-powered QuickPump ($20). The QuickBed's nappy surface keeps your bag from slipping off, and you don't have to worry about bursting its seams: These have withstood thorough testing by my team of leaping junior assistants.

Finally, no campsite of mine is complete without a double-size Mayan Hammock ($99) from Hangouts. It's a soft, cotton-and-nylon number from Central America that you hang between trees in a preposterously deep U. Slip into one and kick back, and you'll want to call it an afternoon. if you run up against a particularly stubborn brute, is a conventional Teflon/stainless steel disk.


Dining Out
Without question, campfires remain my preferred means for cooking alfresco. I always bring the Kamp Grill from Cabela's ($45). This cast-iron beauty is essentially a grill on a pole; hammer it into the ground and swing two round grates over the coals. Throw your meat on the lower level while keeping your cast-iron skillet ($30, from Lodge Manufacturing) of fried potatoes warm on the upper one. And if guests don't trust your word that the chicken is thoroughly done, maybe they'll put some stock in Brookstone's Chef's Fork ($25). The stainless-steel tines on this battery-powered utensil are actually temperature probes, and the handle's LCD screen tells you when your main course is ready. Ingenious.

For cooking without a campfire, the PowerMax Grill/Stove ($117) from Coleman is incredibly convenient. Alongside the grill is an easy-to-clean single burner, and both are powered by a butane canister. You can turn the flame way down to simmer, which makes for a hell of an omelette. But man doesn't live by whisked eggs alone. Which is why I bother to lug the cavernous, 72-quart Marine-Series Cooler by Igloo ($70), brimming with chilled cans on ice. Be sure to save some cubes for the Black & Decker PartyMate, a battery powered blender ($60). By rigorous trial and error, I've found that frapp‰ing ice, the juice of limes and lemons, triple sec, sugar, the pulp of an orange, and the fermented juice of the blue agave cactus creates a jaunty little elixir. And the blender's batteries last for 20 batches, so you'll have no trouble befriending neighboring campers.

Regardless of how much blender time I've logged, I never stray from a certain culinary ritual. The last thing I do at night is boil water and seal it in a stainless-steel, one-liter Vacuum Bottle from Outdoor Research ($50). The next morning, instead of reviving campfire coals or trundling off to fetch water, I become the man I want my children to see: a model of controlled civility. I fill my insulated Coffee Press from Nissan ($40) with ground coffee and pour in the still-hot water to brew up a big, honking carafe of steaming joe.


Clean, Well-Lighted
Luxe means never having to eat off your lap, so I always set up my collapsible Wooden Roll Top Table from Avid Outdoor ($57). It's a clever design: The legs fold in, and the top, which works like the lid of a rolltop desk, wraps around them. Then I arrange the comfortable Maxi Pop-Up Chair and RSX Recliner from LaFuma ($69 and $180), whose tubular enameled aluminum frames fold away to almost nothing. For that just-so ambience, I plunk the Stelton stainless-steel kerosene Lantern from the Museum of Modern Art at the table's center. You pay a healthy sum for its high-tech beautyù$435, to be exactùbut its round wick throws an uncommonly rich light. Those less discriminating about the source of their lumens will love the handy Remote Control Lantern from Coleman ($35). Powered by eight D cells, its fluorescent U-tube bulb burns bright and cool, and a nifty little remote means you can control the stage lighting for ghost stories.


The Toy Department
With your family's creature comforts taken care of, there's time to...do what, exactly? Explore? Fly a model plane? Swim? Toss around a ball? How about all of the above? As soon as we arrive anywhere, the kids always want to poke around on their own. But thanks to tiny, water-resistant walkie-talkies from Cobra, I'm less anxious when they go exploring. Clip the new FRS-310WX ($150 each) to a belt, and you can keep in touch up to two miles away. When the younguns run off, I turn on the musicùassuming, of course, that we're not camping cheek-by-jowl with some other nature lovers. There's no better way to bring along the beats than with the RV-B99 ($330) from JVC. The grit-resistant, cigar-shaped CD/cassette/AM-FM entertainment system, with a built-in woofer, gives new meaning to the term "boom box." Aside from the usual features, an external jack renders it a guitar amp, and a karaoke microphone lets you make a spectacle of yourself in the woods.

If you're camped near an open meadow, don't be without the Air Hog by Spin Master ($40), a plastic plane about a foot in length that powers its propeller with compressed air. Pump up the tank in the Air Hog's fuselage, spin the propeller into action, and the plane zips off for up to 100 yards. Perfect for wearing out the kids. Or, if evening is coming on, you can toss around the Zoam Turbine football from Patch ($10), which has motion-activated strobe lights. It may seem a little childish, and in fact it is. But hey, family camping without all the extrasùincluding a few nutty toysùis really just surviving, right?



Avid Outdoor, 800-782-2843; Black & Decker, 800-258-6003; Brookstone, 800-926-7000; Cabela's, 800-237-4444; Cobra, 773-889-8870; Coleman, 800-835-3278; Eureka!, 800-572-8822; Hangouts, 800-426-4688; Igloo, 800-364-5566; JVC, 800-252-5722; LaFuma, 800-514-4807; L.L. Bean, 800-221-4221; Lodge, 423-837-7181; MOMA, 800-793-3167; Nissan, 800-831-9242; Outdoor Research, 888-467-4327; Patch, 800-524-4263; Spin Master, 800-622-8339

Donovan Webster, a former senior editor of Outside and a decorated T-ball coach, camps on North Carolina's Outer Banks when he has a choice.

PHOTOS: Corey Sorensen

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!