My family is a camping family, and through trial and error, they’ve found the best gear to make camping as easy and comfortable as it can get. Over multiple Christmases, we’ve been equipped with the gear that has made our non-van camping days possible, and, dare I say it, pleasant. Hopefully we can help save you some effort in finding the best camping gear. And I should note that this is all just the opinion of the McNamara family – no corporate influence here, I promise.
EMS NorthStar two-person tent
My parents have this tent. My brother has this tent. We have this tent. It’s a cozy, lightweight two-person tent that doesn’t feel cramped. If you’re expecting rain, or wind, or a crowd, the rain fly provides excellent shelter and privacy. If clear skies and horizons are in the forecast, you can skip the rain fly and watch the stars cross the night sky through the no-see-um mesh.
There are two entrances and two generous vestibules. Having two entrances is very important — you don’t want someone crawling over you, trying to put on their shoes, making a bathroom run in the middle of the night. And the vestibules are large, large enough to protect any gear that you don’t want to put inside the tent.
EMS seems to have replaced the NorthStar with another version called the Sugar Shack. Same idea, much better name.
I remember sleeping in a tent as a kid. We had a real cheapo at that time; any claims to waterproofing were long gone memories. One especially rainy night, I watched a stream run by me through the tent. One of the worst parts of camping at that time was the foam pads we attempted to sleep on. They had a texture that was supposed to be either comfortable or insulating, but really, you were just sleeping on a thin, hard, bumpy piece of foam about ¼ inch thick. If you accidentally put your face directly on the pad, you’d wake up with skin the texture of an orange peel. Then there were the Therm-a-Rests. These air mattresses seemed like the height of luxury after the cardboard foam, but they were expensive, and they didn’t last. The self-inflating aspect was great, but they were prone to springing leaks that couldn’t be found or fixed. Supposedly, you could submerge an inflated mattress in the bathtub, watching for bubbles to find the spot that needed to be patched. How big is your bathtub? When flat, they were worse than the foam.
Then came the Big Fat Agnes. My Dad claims the Big Agnes air mattress will enable him to continue camping well into his sixties. The Big Agnes is a big, fat air mattress. There’s just one problem. You’ve got to blow it up yourself. I can’t do it. Luckily Paul has the lung capacity to fill two. On our first trip west, we would inflate them, then just slightly deflate them the next morning, enough to fold in half and stow in the backseat, so we didn’t have to blow them up from scratch again that night. But when you drive up and over mountain passes in Colorado, the changes in air pressure wreak havoc on a partially inflated Big Agnes. At one point, I opened the valves so they didn’t burst, but then I forgot to close the valves and they fully deflated. Lecturing ensued.
But even though the Big Agnes is a pain to get big and fat, it’s very comfortable to sleep on. It just requires a little finesse to get the perfect firmness. I like to fill it all the way up, then lay on it and let air out until I’m comfy. You just want to ensure that no parts of your body are punching through the mattress to the ground. That gets cold and uncomfortable.
This is too much of a luxury item for the rest of my family, but I can’t sleep without it. My brother got us two Therm-a-rest pillows one year, knowing what a baby I am about sleeping comfortably. These pillows are amazing. They’re made of foam, and they compact down into a small bundle. They’re great not just for camping, but also for road trips and plane rides. We used to pillow our heads with a bundle of that day’s pants, cushioned by whatever other piece of clothing you weren’t already wearing. This is no bed pillow, but it’s a million times better than a wad of dirty clothes. And if you drool on it, you don’t have to wear a drooly sweatshirt all weekend.
This stove is a beautiful little piece of engineering. It’s a simple valve that attaches to the top of a small tank of fuel. The tank is the base of the stove. There’s a valve to regulate the flow of gas, a lighter, and a four-pronged burner that can support a fairly substantial pan. Turn on the gas, light the jet burner, and you’ll have boiling water in a few minutes. We often use this stove by choice over our old-school Coleman tank of a stove.
It’s very lightweight and easy to use, and the fuel tank lasts for a week of twice daily use. The only issue is disposing the used tanks. You can’t just throw them in the trash (at least you’re not really supposed to). The only place I’ve seen recycling stations is in one campground at Joshua Tree NP. On our first trip west, we were desperate to get rid of our two cannisters before our flight home. We asked around at our last campground at Rocky Mountain NP, with no luck. We went back to the REI where we bought the cannisters, with no luck (the salesperson we asked looked at us like we were the craziest, and most dangerous, people she’d seen all day). We looked online, with no luck. Finally, desperate, we tossed them in the garbage can in the cell phone lot at the airport. I still feel guilty about that. Now we don’t have the same urgency, but we do have four empty tanks clunking around the trunk. Better recycling options are needed.
Both of our down sleeping bags are rated to about 40 degrees, meaning that at air temps at or below 40, you’ll start to feel a bit chilly. Paul’s bag is new, and I covet it. It’s soft and silky, orange, grey, and blue. It smells nice. Mine is from 1994. It’s rough and heavy and smells like smoke and adolescent me. But it still works great, and that’s the important thing. Both of our bags are from EMS, like the majority of the outdoor stuff my parents buy. When buying a sleeping bag, buy down. Even in the summer, you’ll get chilly outside at night. And down is lightweight, compactible, and cozy. The lower the temperature rating, the more expensive and less versatile the bag.
The plastic bag
This is my own little addition. Too many times have I woken up with a spider in my shoe. Too many times has it rained unexpectedly, causing me to scramble to find my camera or boots. Now I always pack a few plastic bags, and bag things up before sleep. No more spiders in shoes; no more wet socks. Just sweet dreams.
The Needs Improvement award
After all that product love, we finally come to the needs improvement category. This is where our MSR nesting pans fit in.
My Dad had a set of MSR nesting pans for decades. They were aluminum, and got all kinds of bent and beat up, but they worked great. We have a modern set of MSR nesting pans, and they aren’t going to last for more than a few months of regular usage. These are fancy pans. They’re non-stick, which is great for cleaning, but causes problems in camp applications. Are you really going to bring special utensils to use on non-stick pans? Nope. So the coating is going to get scratched, and quickly. Worse, the gripper that they give you to use has a handle has utterly shredded the outside coating, which seems to be made of plastic. Each time we use them, the plastic shreds and melts a little more. And, even worse, they retain odors terribly. It’s got to be the non-stick coating. Cook chili in the pan, wash the pan well, then boil water in the pan the next day for tea. What do you get? Chili-flavoured tea! Cast iron pans are supposed to be seasoned for better and better tasting things like eggs. When you’re camping, you do not want seasoned pans. We’re keeping our eyes open for the old fashioned version.
MSR seems to have caught on to these flaws, because the pans on the website now look like they are much better designed. But they are also massively more expensive.
Update: After my mom contacted EMS, they offered to exchange our pans for a new set. Great customer service!
What do you think? Have you found a camping product that rocks your world? What things make your camping experience more pleasant? Share your tips and suggestions in the comments.