Pitch a tent, but not the family budget


When the air gets so heavy and dirty that it sits on the Baltimore skyline like an old wool Army blanket, I start thinking about camping.

I am thinking about it right now.

This past week was just a calling card for the humid weeks of summer ahead. Time to plan a trip to the hills of Pennsylvania or Virginia, or the mountains of northern New England.

Sure, you can spend on camping gear the equivalent of the gross national product of some small nation. You'll look wicked cool setting up under the trees with stuff from The North Face or Sierra Designs.

But why spend $400 on a tent and $200 on a sleeping bag when you'll use them a handful of times a year - at best - in the mildest of climates? Save some of that vacation money for a couple of gallons of bug spray, a ton or two of boxed mac and cheese and a gazillion C- and D-cell batteries.

To find out how to make the most of camping while spending the least, your intrepid outdoors writer borrowed the keys to the company Land Rover (yeah, right) and rumbled up to Sunny's The Affordable Outdoors Store on York Road in Timonium. I was met at the door by manager Bob Bradley and camping buyer Steve Bachman, who understood my mission to be the cheapest camper in the forest.

"If you have a lot of disposable income and not a lot of obligations, sure, go buy the high-end stuff," says Bradley. "We're here for the families looking for a weekend away."

Bachman says that before you go into a store to plunk down your cash or plastic, it's important to ask yourself three questions:

How often will this equipment be used?

Where will it be used?

When will it be used?

How many people are going?

Assuming the answers are: a couple of weeks a year, tops; around the Northeast at drive-in camp grounds; late spring through early fall; and four, here are some suggestions.

Bachman says a two-room tent by Winnebago costs about $180 and gives a family flexibility to separate the kids from the adults or the kids from each other. A one-room tent, 8-feet by 15-feet by Texsport, is $120. Family tents have high ceilings, screen windows for good ventilation and a rain fly to protect the windows.

Yet another option is two separate tents (Winnebago, $70 each).

Sunny's and many other outdoors stores have pictures of their tents on display that include dimensions and features. Bachman says Sonny's will set up any tent you want to see.

Look for a tent with a bathtub floor, that is where the floor rises up the walls of the tent to keep moisture out. To save yourself some labor, look for a tent with factory-sealed seams that keep the rain on the outside. Even with factory-sealed seams, I take a tube of waterproof goo and seal every inch of stitching on the tent. I reseal every year.

Under the tent, you want to place a tarp or old shower curtain to protect the tent floor from rocks and roots and to put another waterproof layer between you and Mother Earth. Cut the ground cover so that it is slightly smaller than the tent floor. That way the plastic doesn't collect and channel water under you.

"The tent is primary, but unless you and your family want to stay in the tent all the time, you need an awning or gazebo to protect the picnic table and cooking area," says Bachman.

A 12-foot by 12-foot sun shelter can be done on the cheap for about $15 (the drawback is a center pole that gets in the way) or $40 for a slightly smaller shelter without the pole.

For bedding down, your body needs the same protection as the tent floor.

"If the ground is colder than your body, the cold will radiate and you're going to feel it," explains Bachman.

Sleeping pads, $10 to $45, provide a barrier to the cold and protect your body from uneven ground. Sleeping bags come in all shapes and temperature ranges and can be filled with a variety of insulation. "If you're going to use it often, you're going to want to invest a little more," says Bachman. "If you're going to Garrett County on Thanksgiving weekend, you're going to want to buy something a little warmer."

A Nebo Sports bag for adults, rated to 10 degrees, goes for $65. A bag rated for 40 degrees can be had for $16.

The better bags unzip at the bottom to provide ventilation. Darker colors on the inside of nylon bags hide the dirt and dry faster when you turn them inside out in the sun.

An alternative to the sleeping pad and bag combo is buying an air mattress ($45 for a king size) coupled with a top sheet from home and an unzipped sleeping bag as a comforter. But that arrangement, while comfortable in the summer, is cold in the spring and fall because your body can't heat the air in the mattress.

Shedding light on the camping experience means a lantern. There's the old reliable, but pain-in-the-neck Coleman gas lantern (about $50), the rechargeable Coleman ($40), the battery-powered Dorcy Luminator ($20) or the old-fashioned candle lantern ($10-$20).

If you read or play a lot of cards or have senior eyes, you'll want to experiment with the lighting capabilities of each type.

Same goes with the stove. If your crowd is mostly into boiling water for hot chocolate or to add to freeze-dried foods, a $40 two-burner propane stove by Century will do the trick. A $2 bottle of propane will last about four hours on simmer, one hour on blowtorch mode. This model is a Boy Scout favorite because it is easy to clean. The two-burner Coleman stove ($64) that runs on Coleman fuel or unleaded gasoline is a pain to fill and prime, but the flames burn much longer for more elaborate meals and the flexibility of fuels is a bonus.

You could buy a kitchen's worth of cookware and eating utensils, "but when you're just starting out, I'd recommend taking old stuff from home and buying paper plates and cups," Bachman says.

Don't forget a good cooler (Igloo Ultra Cold, $30), matches, a first aid kit ($20-$30) and a camera.

Another inexpensive outfitting option is Campmor, a New Jersey-based company that has a killer catalog and Web site (www.campmor.com). The catalog makes a great camping primer for the uninitiated.

And a third source is Recreational Equipment Inc., with stores in Timonium and College Park. This co-op that costs $15 to join - but you don't have to. The merchandise is a little higher priced, with some bargains available, and the staff is very knowledgeable.

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