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BBB: Buying camping gear can be overwhelming. What you need to know

Choose the right tent, buy good quality gear and be careful with purchasing equipment online are some tips the Better Business Bureau is offering for camping families.
camping at cheakamus lake GettyImages-1046288666
Camping in Garibaldi Provincial Park. | Getty Images

Outdoor activities have become increasingly popular as families look to activities like camping to get out and enjoy the fresh air.

This means many people wanting to enjoy the great outdoors are now in the market for camping gear. With many options for tents, sleeping bags, and other camping essentials, choosing the right gear for your trip can quickly become overwhelming.

The first step is to decide what your camping trip will look like. Are you car camping at a local  park? Are you hiking and carrying all your gear in a backpack? Will you camp out for a single night or for more extended periods?

Once you know the answers, you can start shopping for gear.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) recommends the following tips to help you purchase the camping gear that best suits your needs.  

Choose the right tent

When choosing the right tent, you should consider three primary considerations: size, weight, and seasonality.

If you’re car camping and weight is not an issue, go big. Tents are often listed by the number of people they will sleep. Even though a tent CAN sleep six, it doesn’t mean you will be comfortable. Instead, consider getting a tent much bigger than what you need. This will give you plenty of space to move around and lots of room for kids, pets, and gear. If you want to stand up in your tent, check the peak height, too. Even if you are backpacking and need to carry your tent, it’s still much more comfortable to go with a tent that is one person bigger than what you need.

On the other hand, if tent weight is an issue, plan on getting a backpacking-specific tent, which will give you enough room to sleep with minimal weight. For serious thru-hikers, nonfreestanding tents with guylines are a good ultralightweight option, though they may be more challenging.

Tent seasonality is determined by what kind of weather a tent can endure, so you’ll need to consider the weather conditions where you plan camping. Three-season tents are designed for relatively temperate conditions during spring, summer, and fall. They usually have plenty of mesh panels to give the tent good airflow and shield you from bugs. They also protect campers from rain. Three to four-season tents (or 3+ seasons) are a little sturdier with fewer or smaller mesh panels. They can be used in the summertime but are also a good choice for early spring or late fall when you might experience snow. Finally, 4-season tents, also known as mountaineering or high-altitude tents, are designed to protect campers in harsher conditions and can withstand substantial snow and wind. These tents can be used all year round but may be hot and stuffy in the summer heat.

Get a comfortable sleeping bag

There are a few things to consider when choosing a sleeping bag. Be sure to consider temperature ratings, size and shape, and materials.

Temperature ratings can vary pretty widely from one manufacturer to another, but, generally speaking, winter sleeping bags are rated for below 10˚F, 3-season sleeping bags can range from 10˚F to 35˚F, and summer sleeping bags are rated for 35˚F and higher. The bag’s EN (European Norm) ratings can also be examined. This indicates the lowest temperature you’ll want to use the bag. Women’s bags use the rating “T-Comfort,” and men’s use “T-Limit.” Be warned that temperature ratings aren’t an exact science; much will depend on your tolerance.

As for size and shape, you have a few options there too. Women-specific sleeping bags tend to be shorter, wider in the hip area and may include extra insulation in the upper body area.

If you purchase a bag at a brick-and-mortar store, hop in and give the bag you are considering a try. You’ll want to ensure your feet don’t ram the bottom of the bag. This will compress the insulation and reduce effectiveness, giving you cold feet at night. In addition, you’ll need to choose between mummy-style or square sleeping bags. Mummy bags taper down towards the feet and fit snugly, maximizing thermal efficiency. They are generally more compressible, too, making them ideal for backpacking. Square sleeping bags aren’t as good at heat retention, but they give you extra room to roll around. Square bags are better suited for summer weather and car camping.

Sleeping bags are generally made with either down or synthetic materials. Down sleeping bags have a much better warmth-to-weight ratio but aren’t suitable for moist climates. They quickly lose their insulating properties when wet. Down bags have to fill power ratings of 600 to 900. The higher the number, the warmer the bag. Synthetic bags are much better at retaining warmth in humid or moist climates, and they dry quickly but are much heavier and bulkier, making them tougher to tote on multi-day backpacking trips. A couple of drawbacks to synthetic bags are that they don’t last as long as down bags and tend to lose their insulating power if compressed for a long period. That said, they are usually much cheaper than sleeping bags.

Select your camp cookware

A basic camp kitchen includes a stove, a cooler, pots, plates, cups, and utensils. A two-burner propane camp stove will let you cook breakfast while you boil water for your coffee. It’s a good idea to bring a couple of extra propane canisters to last the duration of your trip. You’ll also need a lighter to get the fire burning.

Choose a cooler with enough room for your perishable foods and drinks you want to keep cool and fill it with enough ice to keep everything cold.

As for pots and utensils, bring everything you’ll need for food preparation and consumption. You can buy camping-specific utensils or bring them from home; make sure whatever you bring is durable enough to withstand the trip and camp use. If you are staying a few days, bring a couple of wash tubs, biodegradable dish soap, a scrubber, and a drying towel to take care of the dirty dishes.

Don't forget other camping essentials

Packing for a camping trip can be challenging; you may not be easily able to run to the corner store if you forget something. Be sure you bring your toiletries. Even if you aren’t camping at a primitive site, you’ll need soap, shampoo, towels, and, in some cases, toilet paper. Additional supplies that you should pack are a first aid kit, sunscreen and bug repellent, and hand sanitizer.

Other gear you’ll need for your trip includes lighting, such as flashlights, headlamps, and electric lanterns, camp chairs (mesh chairs dry quickly if you expect rain or dew), and a folding table if your campsite doesn’t have a picnic table. Many campers invest in a tent footprint, a custom-fitted ground cloth that protects your tent floor from damage and moisture. Sleeping pads go under your sleeping bag and provide added comfort and warmth. A Swiss Army knife or another multitool often comes in handy, too. A broom, dustpan, and indoor/outdoor mats aren’t necessarily essential, but they can help you clean your tent during multi-day camping trips.

Other camping gear considerations

Buy good quality gear

  • Read reviews online and speak with sales representatives at reputable sporting goods stores to learn about the quality of any gear you consider purchasing. You can get plenty of camping gear for cheap, but it may only last for one camping trip or less, so it’s often a wiser choice to spend a little more and invest in quality gear that will last much longer.

Be careful when buying online

  • Buying camping gear online is super convenient, but buy from a reputable online seller. When purchasing, carefully read customer reviews, gear descriptions, and return policies before clicking “buy.” In addition, it’s always best practice to make online purchases with your credit card, just in case you need to dispute charges later on. Read more tips for smart online shopping.

Practice using your gear before you head out

  • Always practice setting up your tent, using your camp stove and other camping gear, and packing and unpacking your backpack before you get to your campsite. Doing so will save you a lot of frustration and make your camping trip much more enjoyable.