When my two boys, Andrew and Jordan, were old enough to camp without being too homesick, I realized that the two-man tent that had served me well would no longer work for a family.
After considerable comparison and analysis, I bought Cabela's Alaskan Guide Model with the optional vestibule. The 8-man capacity at first thought seemed like overkill, but compared to other options it was a real value. At the time we only had two boys and a chocolate Labrador, but one never knows what the future might hold. In hindsight, when you have two boys you can't have a tent that is too big, especially if you throw in the dog and a full load of "guy stuff."
Once you start packing for a camping trip, buying a utility trailer begins to make more sense. Remember you'll have a cooler, backpacks, CD player (roughing it), food, flashlights, cots, pads, sleeping bags, and the list goes on. That's where the vestibule becomes a major advantage.
"What's a vestibule?" my youngest asked. "It's a place to put your stuff where it won't get wet," I explained. I learned later that he had other ideas.
Our first mission was a test run in the front yard, before an actual bivouac.
When unpacked, the number of poles and pieces make this task appear somewhat overwhelming -at first blush. After a couple of miscues, the tent was up and ready for occupancy in about 15 minutes. I kept looking in the bags to make sure nothing was left off. The pessimist in me kept saying this was just too easy; there must be something wrong! From the picture it looks like a monster, but the designers who put this unit together have definitely spent some time outdoors. Once the poles are slid into place, the dome goes up quickly, and is very stable even in strong winds. The fly provides excellent protection in the rain, and shade as well.
I don't know about you, but I hate to crawl around on my knees. This tent has 6' 8" of head room, and with 120 square feet of space, you don't have to worry about an errant elbow in the eye.
Our first planned outing was to a little lake in south central Nebraska, for a combined camping/fishing/male-bonding trip. I didn't realize until the date got closer that this was a major event in these youngsters' lives. When we arrived and got things set up, I was amazed at how fast things got done the first time they were told. This was definitely not like trying to get them to pick up their room or mow the lawn!
It only took a casual mention of building a fire to have a huge pile of wood gathered. They scoured the woods for a hundred yards, dragging every fallen limb that was small enough to move. When it came time to turn in for the night, there was just too much excitement in the air for Jordan, our youngest.
After an hour of "adjusting" his sleeping bag and fidgeting Jordan was nowhere near sleep. His incessant flopping was keeping Andrew and me awake. Hoping that adult logic would prevail, I reasoned, "Son, you've got to go to sleep. We're getting up at dawn to go fishing." With wild-eyed enthusiasm he responded, "Dad, I can't go to sleep. This is the greatest night of my life. Let's just live here forever."
"What about your mom?" I asked. Evidently he had spent some time considering the proposition, because his answer came quickly. He bolted upright and said resolutely, "She can have the vestibule."
"Well Son," I said, "there are a few things you have to learn about women, and I can tell you from considerable experience that program will never work." Apparently disappointed, he lay back down and eventually went to sleep.
Even though you won't be spending "the rest of your life" in a tent, picking the right tent is an important decision.
While not an all inclusive list, here are some of the most critical camping considerations.
Do you intend on taking the tent up a mountainside on your back, or will you have access to your site from a vehicle? Weight isn't that important until you get about 100 yards from your vehicle; then it becomes very meaningful.
When weight isn't a consideration, take the number of people you intend to sleep, and double it. If you have kids they often want to bring a friend, and there is nothing that will substitute for room if the weather turns bad. Too much space is not a problem; not enough definitely is, if you want to get a good night's sleep. You might also want to consider separate tents for the kids. Having their own "fort" is a special treat for kids, especially boys. Of course being alone in their own tent means plenty of flashlight batteries.
No matter how flat your selected site, there will always be lumps or buried rocks. A rollout pad or cot is a major blessing for the back and consistent sleep. Kids don't seem to mind sleeping on the ground, but dad and mom don't fare as well.
Most tents have walls, a floor and some zippered doors. Look for additional features like storage pockets on the walls for temporarily getting items out from under foot. Another nice feature are loops on the walls for tying up gear. Better quality tents have heavy-duty zippers. You will want to buy one that has at least number 8 zippers. On most branded zippers, the rating number is cast into the face of the zip pull. A zero indicates a 10 rating. The larger the number, the more durable the zipper. Blown-out zippers in the middle of a trip let in a lot of bugs and cause an irritation beyond bites. Have you ever tried to go to sleep with a mosquito buzzing around your ears?
Light Up The Night
Boys will never admit to being afraid of the dark, but I can assure you, once the sun goes down they are on the lantern like a duck on a June bug. Flashlight batteries only last a weekend when there are hooting owls and shadows to illuminate.
For lanterns you can take the traditional approach and go with Cabela's Candle Lanterns. The candles last nine hours, and you don't have to mess with smelly fuels. The Coleman 2000 dual fuel lantern is an old stand-by, with a new twist. This new lantern allows you to use Coleman fuel, or either white or unleaded gasoline. The main advantage with the Coleman lantern, beyond their patented battery-operated, electronic ignition system, is the brightness and duration of light. These units will burn for 7 hours on high, and up to 14 hours on low. That will accommodate a lot of campfire stories.
Every tent has mosquito netting, but you'll want to make sure you get the finest mesh possible. Those pesky no-see-ums will drive you crazy, not to mention their bites can cause severe reactions.
Guys don't mind a stint in the wilderness roughing, but even for guys there comes a time. If you're going to make this a family expedition, a shower might be a worthy consideration. A Cabela's Shower Shelter is an easy-to-set-up enclosure that provides a measure of privacy for your camp shower or toilet. Solar heated water and a little soap can work wonders on sore muscles and attitudes as well.
You'll also want to take along a repair kit, just in case junior gets careless with his new hatchet. Throw in some extra ropes, stakes, and a first aid kit as well. Even small cuts combined with dirt can turn into nasty wounds if not attended to promptly.
When you take that first trip remember you're camping to relax; eventually you will go home.
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Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.
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