Camping With Kids On Cape Cod

family in a tentThere are two kinds of people in the world: those who can put up a tent and those who cannot. I’m not proud to admit that I’m part of the later group. I’m the youngest of six children and by the time I was born, my parents had given up camping for good. I wasn’t exposed to Boy Scouts and never learned a thing about camping, fishing, survival skills or the Great Outdoors.

So when my wife and I found ourselves shopping for camping gear at REI in preparation for a camping trip to Cape Cod, I was ready to pay $70 more for a tent that had only 11 setup steps, compared to 15 on a cheaper model. But my wife, who was a science major in college, is good at putting things together, so we bought the cheaper, Big Agnes Big House 4 tent, and I quietly hoped not to be exposed for the pathetic tent-setup guy that I am.

In a year when my family has been traveling nonstop since April 1, we’ve stayed in almost every type of accommodation, save a tent. We used to enjoy camping, years ago, but haven’t ventured out into the great outdoors for an overnight stay since our first child was born in 2007.We’ve always wanted to visit Cape Cod, but when I looked into room rates a few weeks ago and saw that even mediocre quality hotels on the Cape were charging two, three and even four hundred dollars per night, I figured it was time for our kids to get their first taste of the camping lifestyle.

So we bought some new sleeping bags, the Big Agnes tent, and some REI self-inflating camping pads, and piled our two little boys and all our gear into the family trickster for the drive to the Sweetwater Forest Campground in Brewster, a graceful little town on the north (bay) side of Cape Cod. We wanted to camp at nearby Nickerson State Park, but since they charge just $12 per tent site, they tend to fill up fast and we couldn’t get in. Sweetwater charges $35 per tent site, which is pricey for camping, but it sure beats paying $300 per night for a hotel room.

We were given a choice of two sites, and spent more time debating which one to take than Union and Confederate generals spent preparing for the Battle of Gettysburg. One site had far more privacy but also had lots of protruding tree branches on the only level ground suitable for a tent and both of us were reluctant to make a call for fear of being scapegoated for a bad night’s sleep, either from noisy neighbors or the protruding branches.

Eventually we settled on the more private site and my wife methodically went to work putting the Big House up. I stood around and did what I was told but contributed essentially nothing to the endeavor, though my wife was kind enough to pretend as though I wasn’t completely useless.

“Here, use your strength to pull that through,” she’d say. Or, “Why don’t you hammer these down?”

But we all knew that if I had to put the thing up, it would have taken hours, with several failed attempts, plenty of cursing and a bit of soul searching. If I can’t figure out how to put something together upon first glance, without consulting instructions, it probably won’t get done. My wife had the tent up in about 25 minutes flat, and before we knew it the boys were wrestling in the tent.

We made some S’mores at our campfire, but James, my 3-year-old, insisted on eating the chocolate bars a la carte.

campingAt bedtime, he seemed comfortable enough in his kid’s sleeping bag, but was still a bit confused by the whole endeavor.

“Is this our house?” he asked, perhaps wondering if we were planning to live in the tent permanently. “Where is our hotel?”

As we tried to get the boys to settle down and go to sleep, my wife noticed a bunch of unused tabs on the ceiling of the tent and we wondered what on earth they were for. No matter how good you are at tent assembly, there will invariably be some unused parts that cause you needless panic.

Prior to the trip, I had nightmare visions of the boys keeping us up all night with requests for water, bathroom breaks, and God knows what else – but amazingly, I was the only bonehead that didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I’d left the cap on my sleeping pad open and all the air had seeped out of the bloody thing, so I woke up 18 times in the night with a sore back and a cranky neck.

The kids were sprawled all around the tent, half over my wife and me, and not remotely inside their sleeping bags, but they did fine. On our second night, I was battling a bad stomach – and you don’t really want to be a fourth mile away from the nearest bathroom in that circumstance, but with a little Pepto, I got by. That night, I made sure my pad was inflated properly and I slept like a log.

In the morning, we were awakened by a chorus of birds, frogs and crickets, and the day’s first light that crept in through our tent. Ordinarily, I consider noise and light unwanted intrusions in the morning, but greeting the day from my tent, both seemed pleasing. Even better, I enjoyed rolling over and seeing the three people who mean the most to me sprawled in and out of a jumble of sleeping bags in our Big House.

Is it possible to get a decent night sleep in a tent with two toddlers? Believe it or not, yes it is. My 5-year-old son, Leo, told us he was hooked on the camping lifestyle.

“I want to sleep in a tent every night,” he said, right before asking us if we could download a kids movie on my wife’s Kindle.

A Tiny Sleeping Bag for Your Backpack

Wenger Visp three season sleeping bagI haven’t been a backpacker in the traditional sense in more years than I care to mention. I travel with a rolling bag and a day pack choked with electronics. But I recently found myself needing to pack a sleeping bag for an adventure that also required me to travel light. I tried stuffing my older REI down bag into a compression sack. It was small, but I figured I could do better. I settled on the Visp from Wenger.

You may be familiar with Wenger as one of the two Swiss Army Knife companies. There’s some political history there involving French speaking Swiss and German speaking Swiss, if you’re really keen, you can read up here. Over time, Wenger has expanded to make shoes and camping gear and watches and yes, sleeping bags.

I selected the Visp bag primarily because it compresses down so very small. Stowed in the included compression sack, it’s a little bigger than a football. (An American one, not a soccer ball.) I was traveling near the equator, I didn’t need loads of extra insulation, so a three season bag would do the trick. The bag weighs just short of two pounds, only a few ounces more than some of the most expensive bags on the market. It costs a bit more than my REI bag did — it retails for $224, my REI bag was $187. That’s not a huge price jump for the weight and space obsessed, considering you can spend over $300 if you’re so inclined.

I used this bag almost every night for two weeks at a variety of altitudes. Rated to 45F, I was a little cold on the nights when temps dropped into the 40s, but nothing that pulling a cap on didn’t resolve. The bags are cut unisex, it would have been nice to have a bit more room in the hips. The zip is baffled, so there are no air leaks, and the hood cinches down tight enough. There’s a pocket at the chin, nice for your phone or iPod and, as I mentioned, it comes in a compression sack so it packs away quite small.

The one features I wasn’t satisfied with was the partial zip. I wasn’t able to open the bag out flat on hot nights. This also means you can’t zip the bag in to a mate if you’re camping with the kind of person you’d want to do that with. Even though it comes in a right or a left, it’s a solo bag, which is a little sad. And, because you can’t vent it from the bottom, it’s really a fall or spring bag, a two season bag, rather than a spring, fall and summer sleeping bag.

The partial zip is the only thing that keeps me from recommending this whole-heartedly as the perfect bag for stowing in your round the world or adventure travel backpack. The insulation worked exactly as rated and the bag packed down to a remarkably small size. But I’ll consider range of use over space next time I pack for a trip that requires I carry a sleeping bag.

Kelty Gunnison 2.1 tent

Finding a tent versatile enough to bridge the gap between all your outdoor pursuits is a daunting task. Those of us who use our tent for car camping, as well as for more rugged expeditions, don’t want to invest in two shelters. The Kelty Gunnison 2.1 has the roominess of a campground tent, yet is lightweight enough for a weekend backpacking trip.

Nobody wants to spend ten minutes trying to figure out which pole goes where, or untangle a web of cords, just to find out they have the tent set up backwards. For the tent-pole-challenged among us, Kelty utilizes a pole system that has two permanently connected poles that are the same length. This means that the tent will go up no matter which direction you install the poles. In addition to the simple design of the poles, color-coordinated tabs allow the rain fly to be snapped on quickly, even on the first try. In our testing, the Gunnison 2.1 was up in two minutes. Adding the rain fly took an additional three minutes, for a total set-up time of five minutes.Dryness factor
We put the Gunnison up in dry conditions, but the weather soon went south. A thunderstorm rolled in and produced heavy rains and lightning, the perfect testing environment. Everything stayed dry inside the tent during the storm, including items we stored outside under the fly (in the vestibule areas). This was mostly due to the rain fly’s seams, which are taped, creating impenetrable corners and edges on the fabric. In serious wind and rain it’s best to use the guy lines provided to stake out any loose sections of the rain fly.

DAC featherlite poles are some of the lightest and easiest to install in the tent universe. The weight of these poles, along with the polyester walls, make for a tent light enough to carry on a backpacking excursion, where ounces count. The Gunnison weighs just under six pounds when packed, and can easily be split up among two trekkers, dividing the load.

The two vestibules are not particularly large, but sizable enough to accommodate a backpack and boots on each side. The interior of the tent will sleep two six-footers snugly, but doesn’t leave much room for storing gear inside. This is where the gear hammock (seen at right) comes in handy. Headlamps, eyeglasses, and maps can be safely tucked away by hanging them in this lightweight attic.

Price point
The Kelty Gunnison 2.1 comes in at $190 and can be found at Kelty, REI, Altrec, and most major outdoor retailers. The main competition for the Gunnison is the REI Half Dome 2. The Half Dome 2 has a similar features listing, but at $199, costs slightly more.

The Gunnison makes for a great go-to tent for multi-sport outdoor enthusiasts. Performing equally well in the campground as it does in the back country, this tent can easily make the gear list of virtually any adventure trip.

For the true tent geek, we’ve listed the specs below.

Seasons: 3
Number of doors: 2
Number of vestibules: 2
Capacity: 2
Minimum weight: 4 lb. 14 oz. / 2.21 kg
Packaged weight: 5 lb. 9 oz. / 2.52 kg
Floor area: 37 ft2 / 3 m2
Vestibule area: 10.2 ft2 + 10.2 ft2 / 0.9 m2 + 0.9 m2
Length: 92″ / 234 cm
Width: 58″ / 147 cm
Height: 40″ / 102 cm
Packed diameter: 7″ / 18 cm
Packed Length: 25″ / 64 cm

Wood-Gas Camp Stove: The Experience

Reviewing the WoodGas Camp Stove became a traveler’s tale. First, Willy did a post on the stove–then came the idea that we should do a review. Oh, the stories the stove could tell if it could talk. The saga started with Justin who took it camping with him. Because it rained the whole time he camped, he didn’t fire it up and sent it to me, who was also eager to review it. The package from Justin arrived in the mail the day my husband, kids and I were heading off to the New York State where I planned to fire it up. I put it (still packed in the box Justin sent it in) right in the trunk of our car. First stop: New York City-not exactly the place to light up a camp stove, although, come to think of it, if someone lived there with an access to a balcony or a roof, this stove would work. I’m not sure, though, what the NYC rules are for using an outdoor grill.

After two nights spent in Manhattan in my brother’s apartment, we headed to Sturbridge, Massachusetts with a plan to use the stove there. The friends we visited are avid campers. The husband is into wilderness camping and as his wife says, “is wild about camp stoves.” When I unpacked the WoodGas Camp Stove, he was impressed, particularly by the fan that blows air up into the stove to help regulate heat. “Neat,” he said. We tried the different fan settings, but since we were heading out to Six Flags New England that day, there wasn’t time to check it out by firing it up. He really did like the design though.

I loved the design too. The first thing I noticed when I took it out of its box was the carrying bag. I love carrying bags since I have a tendency to scatter things about. Whenever there is a bag that all the parts will fit in, I’m happy. I also liked that it’s lightweight, seems almost indestructible and uncomplicated. It is obvious that you plug the cord attached to the battery gizmo into the one of two holes–one hole is for low speed and one is for high. I didn’t need the directions to figure that out.

After leaving Massachusetts, we headed for outside of New Paltz, New York. My dad lives in the woods in the Shawangunk Mountains. It’s gorgeous there and a perfect place to light up a cook stove, but we were heading to a party for a Czech friend of his who has a weekend place on the road where my dad lives. This guy is a grilling fiend. I bought the cook stove over to show it off. There were several party guests, some originally from Italy, others from the Czech Republic and all are into grilled meats. My dad’s friend was actually grilling meat on his massive outdoor brick grill that he had built when we arrived. I showed the stove to several people–all were intrigued and impressed with the stove’s design but since everyone was drinking wine, myself included, no time to fire it up. [The photo on Flickr by Kristin Lou is very close to my dad’s house.]

Two days later, the cook stove was neatly packed back in our car for the trip back to Ohio. My husband, though, bless his heart, aims to please. “Jamie, come on down,” he hollered up to me where I sat in my office up on the third floor getting a few Gadling posts done before my trip to Washington, D.C. later that day. There he was on the front porch with matches, the cook stove, bacon and eggs. I grabbed the camera. Our neighbor friend, who is in the process of figuring out how to fuel his house by using vegetable oil from a Chinese restaurant, came over for the demo.

Both of them were VERY impressed with the WoodGas Camp Stove. My husband, who was a rafting guide in Montana and Alaska, and also worked in Alaska in a fish camp, has much practice cooking outdoors. As soon as he put sticks that he collected from our yard into the stove, added the One Match goop and a match, he could tell how well the stove worked. There was a bit of an adjustment to get the flame just right by using the fan, but that had nothing to do with the stove. Just like when cooking with gas, you play around a bit to get the right temperature. In no time, the bacon was sizzling. I took all sorts of pictures, but alas, I left for Washington, D.C. that afternoon and did not download the pictures. I have no idea what happened to them. Poof!!

Then two days ago, when another neighbor was off having a baby, her son was to be in my care. My son wasn’t home, so I had a reluctant charge until I said, “Hey, you want to cook some bacon?” His face lit up and he was across the street at our house in a flash. I figured if I was going to review the stove, I really ought to use it myself. Here’s the thing about me. I NEVER COOK outside. I’m not all that fond of cooking to tell the truth, but I was interested to see what I could do with the Wood Gas Camp Stove on my own. The lit stove in the photo is my doing. Yeah! I did have the two helpers–3 counting my daughter who took on the role of prep cook.

Out came the stove, the One Match goop, the bacon, my camera and the fixins’ for BLTs. My son’s friend got busy gathering wood. Then my son came home. We had a blast. I love this stove. First of all, the fan feature works great. I had no idea how much wood to use, but quickly figured out when we needed to add more when the bacon’s sizzle grew a bit faint. Periodically, I picked the frying pan up to check the flame as well. I added wood about three times, but mind you, these would be considered kindling. No large logs were needed, and in minutes the flame was hot enough to start cooking.

The other thing I liked about the stove was that the outside of it doesn’t get very hot. I sat close to it to make sure the kids didn’t get all that close and I didn’t feel that much heat. At times, I did let the flame get too low which created some smoke, but again this is something you’d figure out how to avoid if you used the stove regularly.

One thing I had to be careful of since the frying pan was a bit large, was to balance the pan on the stove’s grill. The surface area of this stove is big enough, but not so big to leave a pan unattended. When I was done cooking the bacon, after taking out the grease, I toasted bread. It would have been easy to keep adding courses to the meal. All I needed to do was add more food before the flame totally died out. Once when there was only glowing coals, I put in more wood and plugged in the fan gizmo and the fire started back up again.

Another handy feature is how the handle used to pick up the stove can also double as tongs. I used the tongs frequently. If someone asked me if I would recommend this stove, I most definitely would say yes. It is simple to use, is sturdy, packs well, and makes a great pan of bacon which I think is pretty hard to cook on a conventional stove. You could easily cook all sorts of things with this.

The Wood Gas Cook Stove Web site also mentions using it at the beach. This would be perfect. The design would enable it to easily be adusted to a sandy terrain.

Finished product.

[An apology to vegetarians and those who don’t eat pork, but the bacon did the job to help me see how the stove worked. And if you like BLTs, they sure were yummy.)