Camp Stories: Camping Gear and Best Hacks, Part 2

We just got back from our annual Fourth of July camping trip—the better to avoid the erstwhile war zone that our neighborhood becomes every year—and we came back with some new hacks and gear suggestions to add to your list.

Hot water? Just open the spigot!

In the first post in this series I shared our best hacks collected over decades of car camping, from staples like a folding camp table and lidded bins to a hatchet and leather fireplace gloves. Hacks included a zip line to keep pets contained and a brilliant hot water dispenser (left) that Dave made from a three-gallon water jug, among others.

With an eye to cost, efficiency and space considerations, here are our latest must-haves:


Bedding: We recently traded in our double sleeping bag and blowup mattress for a "sleep system" from REI that included a blowup queen-sized mattress, a padded bottom sheet and fitted top sheet with a comforter that fits over the whole bed. Benefits include more room for Dave's 6'4" frame, the secure fit of the sheets and comforter that prevents it from slipping off the mattress (a problem with all the double bags we've ever had), not having zippers to fumble with in the dark when one person hears the call of nature, and the compact bag that contains it all, making packing simpler. Downside: If the temperature outside dips too close to the system's lower temperature range, you might find yourself sleeping fully clothed.

Sleep system? Bring it on.

Several camping couples of our acquaintance have switched to cots with pads and sleeping bags because they are easier to get in and out of, particularly for older knees and backs—one couple uses ergonomic lounge chairs because they can adjust the head end to their preferred angle. Cots also provide storage room underneath for luggage, dog beds, etc.; downside is that they are generally bulkier than a mattress and bedding.

Tent light: One small piece of equipment that stays packed with our camping gear is a small battery-operated lantern with a clip handle. Most tents have a loop or tab to clip it to, and it's invaluable when we want to put the dogs to bed so we can enjoy a few quiet moments by the fire, not to mention it helps in finding your jammies in the bottom of your bag at bedtime.

Headlamp: Okay, kind of obvious, but we resisted these for years for some reason—they still look ridiculous—but now we can't do without them.

Tablecloth: I nearly had a panic attack on our last camping trip when I thought I'd forgotten the ancient camping tablecloth I'd inherited from my parents' camp kit. The heavy duty, easy-to-clean plastic top and non-skid cloth backing still has the small-ish slash I put in it when, as a youngster, I forgot to use a cutting board. It keeps grimy schmutz off prep surfaces and tableware and makes cleanup so much easier.


Hot water dispenser: Rinsing dishes and washing your hands is so much easier with this hack (photo, upper left) that I described in my last post, but it's so brilliant I have to share it again. All you need is an empty water jug with a spigot—we always take along three-gallon plastic jugs for drinking water, which goes really quickly between us and the dogs. Slice off the top third (or leave the back end attached so it acts as a hinge), then pour in hot (but not boiling) water and position it over your wash tub. Voilà! Lovely hot water on demand.

Freshly baked scones for
breakfast, anyone?

Cooking (and baking) with briquets: Dave loves to bake any time and any place, and he has hacked a working stove from rocks and briquets (top photo), and he also uses briquets to heat and bake with his footed cast iron baking pot (left)—the rimmed lid holds hot briquets to provide heat from the top.

Cooking fires: A hatchet, rather than an axe, should be sufficient for splitting camp wood; and bring newspaper for starting fires. If you need shorter pieces of kindling for starting a fire, you can use the heavy bars of the top grate of the firepit to break longer pieces of kindling in half by inserting it between the bars of the grate and levering it down. If you need a quick bed of coals for cooking, using smaller pieces of wood rather than larger ones will speed up the process.

Freezer chest: Over the years I've found one of the most challenging parts of camping is freezer chest management. Keeping cold things cold and not swimming in melted ice is a challenge, especially now that we feed the dogs raw food, which can't come in contact with the other contents of the chest. (A separate chest is a non-starter for space and hassle reasons.) First, the chest should be placed on a slight slant where any moisture can run out of the drain at the bottom end. Then the ice, usually two bags, goes in the bottom of the chest at the lower end. All foodstuffs are in plastic zip-lock bags by category—meats, vegetables, fruit that requires refrigeration, eggs, cheeses, etc. The cartons of raw pet food—in a separate bag as well—are placed at the drain end of the chest so any leaks go out the drain without contaminating other contents (bring extra bags in case of leaks). Milk, mayonnaise, etc., that needs to stay cold are placed closest to the ice, and vegetables, bread, and other items that don't need to be icy cold can be placed further away.

Read Part One of my best gear and hacks.

Camp Stories: Return to Paradise

It was a frantic beginning to a trip that was supposed to be all about chilling out. First, a record-breaking heat wave upended the balmy summer weather typical of Western Oregon in late June, which followed on an exceptionally dry spring. Indoor temperatures, even with fans blowing and our window air conditioner blasting on high, were hovering in the high 80s.

Home away from home.

The generous offer of a beach retreat from a friend was one we couldn't refuse, so we threw the dogs and the ice chest in the car and took off for two nights, returning mid-week. On returning home we quickly emptied the car, started a load of laundry, threw the tent in the car and dashed to our targeted campground, hoping to find a site where we could spend the Fourth of July weekend, a yearly pilgrimage considering our noise-averse pups.

Paradise Creek, a rustic campground in the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest where we've camped in years past, has around 40 sites, 60 percent of which are reservable with 40 percent available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Some of the best sites along the creek (particularly numbers 27 and 29) are non-reservable, so we hoped that by arriving mid-week we might just snag one of those.

Puppy's first camping trip.

As we turned into the campground, I said a silent prayer that the camping goddess would favor us with a good campsite. We noted that there were indeed a few available near the entrance (bordering the road) that might be okay in a pinch. As we rounded the turn to the creekside spots, I held my breath.

We ticked them off as we crept past. Nope. Nope. An inside site, across the road from the creek, was open, but we rolled on knowing we could come back around if we had to. Site 27, a large double, was taken—crap!—and there was just one more site on the creek side, number 29, beyond it.

Astonishingly, it was open! We parked the car at the site and I practically ran to the registration stand to fill out the slip and deposit our check while Dave started setting up the tent. The plan was to leave the tent set up on the site overnight—allowed if you return within 24 hours—then dash home to pack up our gear and come back the following day.

G&T on the rock(s).

The next evening found us settled in, with drinks in hand and pasta bubbling on the campstove, ready to be smothered in a Bolognese I'd brought from home. The following days were blessedly quiet—this campground is normally punctuated by birdsong rather than generators—full of walks, reading by the creek, naps and relearning how to relax. After our COVID year, it was more than welcome.

Read more Camp Stories about our favorite places here and here, and get my list of must-have gear and hacks collected over our decades of camping!

Camp Stories: Must-Have Camping Gear and Best Hacks

Getting ready to go camping means making lists. Lots of them. Gear, cooking utensils, food, first aid supplies, dog food and, at least for us, cocktail fixings.

Paella over the fire, anyone?

As I've mentioned before in this series, we're what is known as "car campers" so we eschew freeze-dried packets for fresh ingredients that'll be prepped and cooked at the campsite, whether over the fire or on our trusty Coleman campstove. So paring down to the lightest, most essential gear isn't always the point, especially now that Dave has become a devotée of all things cast iron. Then there's glassware, and cocktail fixin's and…well…you catch my drift.

Need a side table? Improvise!

Recently it occurred to me that it might be valuable to share our decades-in-development list of staples for those of you just beginning your camping journey, or if you've reached that point when you're ready to trade in your backpacking tents and sleeping pads for a double bed-sized blowup mattress. (Welcome to the club!) The suggestions below are, of course, in addition to tents, sleeping bags, camp chairs, stove, headlamps, etc., etc. And I'd love it if you'd add your own must-have camping necessities in the comments below.


Camp table, lidded storage bins: An indispensible part of our kitchen gear is a simple folding table where we can get our supplies off the ground and easily accessible without squatting while you're rummaging to find which bin the silverware is in. Lidded bins are also easily stackable, water and critter-proof and the lids make handy cutting boards and serving trays.

Sierra (Cup) martini.

Waterproof tablecloth: I still have my parents' green vinyl camp tablecloth (left) that has covered every campsite picnic table during decades of family outings. (There's even a minor slash from when I was in high school and sliced vegetables without a cutting board. Sorry, Mom.) It cleans easily, and makes those sometimes funky campsite picnic tables more presentable.

Sierra cup: This old-school backpacking cup (above left) was purchased on one of our very first camping trips and is now a requisite piece of gear. Handy for drinking, dipping water out of hot pots, and even as a spare cocktail glass, it hangs at the ready over the back of our decades-old campstove.

No steaks in the fire, thanks!

Folding campfire grill: It may look flimsy, but this over-the-campfire grill can be used over the fire, or can fold flat to use for cooking over the sometimes gross firepit grates. It also helps position items over the fire with more finesse, can stop hot dogs from falling through the widely spaced camp grates, or when you need to extend grill space (e.g. for steaks and corn for 10…we've done it!).

Cast iron frying pan: A well-seasoned frying pan is a thing of beauty, and Dave keeps ours in prime condition. Goes from campstove to fire easily.

Cast iron griddle: Again, seasoning is the key (top photo). Great for batches of fried eggs, hash browns, pancakes, etc.

Best pot for baking in the wild.

Cast iron Dutch oven: Large and heavy, but if you love to bake out in the woods, it's indispensible. (Mostly for advanced users or inveterate bakers.) Also great for heating up dinners for a crowd over the fire.

Hatchet: Because camping requires fires. (Duh.)

Long-handled metal spatula and tongs: You're probably going to be cooking over the fire (steaks!), so these are a necessity.

Leather fireplace gloves: Handling hot pans, placing logs on the fire. Thank me later.

Cocktail bag: Once again, a brilliant idea from our friend Keith, the MacGyver of the campsite. He stocks an open-topped canvas gear bag with fifths of booze, using smaller lidded bottles for vermouth, etc., with tiny dropper bottles for bitters and other flavoring agents. Utensils and other accoutrements go in the outside pockets.

Three-candle lantern: Keith has become inordinately fond of this three-candle lantern over the Coleman propane-powered version, though I think Dave might argue over that choice.


Zip line: Keeping dogs contained within a campsite is tough, but Keith turned us on to an easy zip line made from a rope strung between two trees with small carabiners clipped onto it and that you can then clip to the loops of the dog's leash. Can also double as a clothesline, as long as you don't have a super active dog.

Three Corgis on one zip line might be pushing it…

Hot water dispenser: Made from a 2.5-gallon water container with a spigot, this was a brilliant hack Dave came up with last year and has made washing dishes and hands a dream. You'll need to empty the container first, which usually happens the first day in our case, what with filling pots for hot water, cooking and drinking. The ones we get are made of lighter plastic (like the stuff used for milk jugs), so it's easy to slice around the front three sides near the top, leaving the back attached as a hinge. Put it on the table with the spigot over a dishpan on the bench, pour in some hot (but not boiling!) water and, voilà, hot running water!

Dish scrubber: Cooking over fire often causes food to stick stubbornly to pans, and in the absence of a scrubber pad, Keith uses a short piece of thin, flat wood with the end squared off to scrape off any burned-on gunk. Brillz.

Read more Camp Stories, including recommended campgrounds, sites and easy recipes that'll please everyone.