Go ahead, say it out loud: You have never been camping before.

Never pitched a tent in a cold drizzle or fallen asleep listening to the wind in the trees.

If you’d like to try camping but don’t know where to start, this one is for you: a primer to get you outfitted for a weekend of car camping. Don’t blame us if the experience turns you into a Gore-Tex-clad, bivouacking backcountry warrior by summer’s end.

A weekend of car camping could run less than $200 for basic, no-frills gear or could top $1,500 forhigh-end, name-brand equipment.

“It doesn’t have to be an expensive adventure. Make it a short camping trip for starters during a relatively pleasant time of year,” advised Michael Rutter,the Orem, Utah-based author of “Camping Made Easy.”

Before you go, ask yourself some questions about what kind of camping you’ll be doing – and be honest:

Fair weather, summer only? Developed campsites where your car is close at hand? Then inexpensive equipment will work fine. “There’s no sense in buying something expensive or high-tech if you’re not going to use it,” said Will McComb, a sales representative for Kelty outdoor gear.

Any weather, any time from spring to fall?

Backpacking as well as car camping? Then you’ll want to invest in gear that will last more than a few outings.

You can rent gear for starters or buy everything at once – REI (www.rei.com) sells a basic family camping package (four-person tent, two sleeping bags and camp stove).

Better yet, borrow gear from your backpacking neighbors. Then slowly start your own camping collection.

“But don’t skimp too much on your investment by just looking for the best bargain. … It’s a long-term investment,” said Rick Granstrom, an REI camping sales associate who is still camping with some gear he bought 30 years ago.

Gear: five must-haves

1.TENT: Price range: $40 to $450 for a four-man tent.

Key differences:Weight and quality of the materials and construction. Shock-corded poles mean you can set up most tents in five minutes or less.

Tips: Choose a tent for the toughest conditions you’re likely to encounter. A basic three-season tent works well for the majority of car campers. Take the tent-capacity rating with a grain of salt – a four-mantent may not be big enough for two adults, two kids and their gear. Some tents come with sealed seams; others require you to do it yourself using a bottle of seam-sealer. Test-drive your tent by setting it up in your front yard before you go camping.

Look for: Aluminum poles (lighter and more durable than fiberglass); a large rain fly that covers the whole tent (not just the top); good ventilation; doublestitched seams and a wide-tooth zipper; pockets or a storage “attic” that suspends your gear from the roof.

You also may want a tarp matching the same “footprint” of the tent to protect the tent bottom from tears and moisture.

2. SLEEPING BAG: Price range – $18 to $300.

Key differences: Temperature rating, material and quality of construction. Synthetic is cheaper and provides decent insulation when wet. Down is lighterweight and compresses to a smaller size but provides little insulation when wet. Down also lasts longer if cared for properly.

Tips: Choose a bag for the coldest nights you expect to face. Mummy-shaped bags keep you warmer but can be constricting; rectangular ones give you more space but are bulkier and don’t keep you as warm. You can add an inexpensive fleece liner in a sleeping bag and drop the temperature rating 10 to 15 degrees.

3. SLEEPING PAD: Price range -$6 to $200.

Key differences: Material, style, thickness. Self-inflating pads are the most expensive, comfortable and compact. Unroll it, open the valve and it’s ready to use. Open-cell foam pads are comfy and cheap, but bulky and spongelike in wet conditions. Closed-cell foam pads are cheap and durable, but thinner and not as comfortable. Air mattresses are relatively inexpensive (and can double as water toys for the kids), but they’re bulky and prone to punctures.

Tips: Some pads can be combined to create a larger surface. Some can be converted into camp chairs.

4. STOVE: Price range – $13 to $150.

Key differences: Number of burners; size and weight; fuel (propane or white gas); BTU rating – thehigher it is, the more heat it puts out. Most are suitcase-shaped, tabletop stoves. Some have legs andgrill/burner combos.

Tips: Propane is easier to get, and requires less maintenance. You can use a disposable bottle or refillable tank. White gas (or Coleman fuel) burns cleaner, hotter and longer but requires pumping and priming the stove to get it started.

Look for: A wind screen. And a fuel line that’s attached to a stove means you’re less likely to lose it.

5. COOLER: Price range – $13 to $100.

Key differences: Plastic or steel; hard or soft.

Tips: A basic plastic cooler will do. Get a wheeled one for convenience. A hard-sided one can double as a shelf or chair. Instead of buying ice, consider freezing water in zip-top bags, giving you a convenient source of clean water for drinking or cooking as it melts.

EATING AL FRESCO

Food: Keep it simple. One-pot meals save time on cleanup. Or do the food-prep work – cutting veggies, marinating meat, making sandwiches – at home.

Easier yet: Cook hot dogs on a stick over the fire.

Gear:You can buy all kinds of special cookware and kitchen gadgets for camping, but there is really no need – just bring pots, plates and spices from home.

If you forget something – and it’s almost guaranteed – it’s likely to be a basic piece of kitchen or cooking equipment: matches, a sharp knife, condiments, a spatula, oven mitts, butter, soap. But part of the fun of camping is improvising, and some of the best camping memories come from surviving things that go wrong.

ONLINE KNOW-HOW: For camp songs, camp recipes, camping checklists and more, try these sites:

n www.familycampinggear.com

n www.michcampgrounds.com

n www.campfirechronicle.com

n REI Web site: www.rei.com. Includes detailed articles on how to choose a tent, a sleeping bag and other basic gear.


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