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As the night dragged on, the four-year-old wailed with growing pains. The pregnant mama made her third trip to the bathroom across the campsite. Exhausted dad wrestled to find a comfortable position in the tent.... Seven years ago was our last family camping trip. It was not a Norman Rockwell scene. So, when hubby Patrick broached the topic of another camping excursion, I vowed to go prepared this year with tips from seasoned campers.

Our friend Mike, a veteran camper, advised, “Always set your tent up at home prior to going camping to make sure it works and you have everything. Don’t just buy a tent and go camping. It makes you more efficient if you know how to work everything in advance. Nothing is worse than having to read the instructions of how to use your camping equipment while out in the wilderness.

“You’ll be doing some cooking while it’s dark,” Mike continued, “and hanging your lantern is often a problem. Never pound a nail into a tree; you should respect your environment. A lot of people use a bungee cord around a tree branch, but I use a propane tree. I plug the lamp into the tree and put the lantern on top, so I have light right next to my stove [two-piece, three-outlet Stansport Distribution Post, $39.98 at Walmart].”

As for tents, “I don’t like any tent that you can’t stand up in. If you have to stoop in order to put your clothes on, it isn’t fun [Eddie Bauer Alpental Sport Dome four-person tent, $99.99 at Target].”

Erica, another camping expert, echoed the taller-tent idea. “And we always bring two roll-up rugs,” she offered. “One is placed right outside the door of the tent, the other right inside; it helps control the dirt. And we leave a chair right next to the tent for kids to sit on to take shoes off. We carry extra wipes for wiping kids’ legs and feet before they go into the tent…if they are really filthy.

“And we always pack a broom to sweep out the tent. You never want to pack up a tent dirty or wet.”

Inside Erica’s tent there’s an air mattress for the adults to sleep on and a blanket or two under the kids’ sleeping bags. “I don’t like the real slick, cheap vinyl sleeping bags,” Erica said, “because the kids end up sliding all over the tent, especially if you are on any kind of an incline. The sleeping bags with stitching across the short length last longer than the bags with stitching up the long length.” If you plan on camping regularly, invest in quality bags. “After one washing, the batting on the cheap bags is spent [Coleman Harbor king-size sleeping bag, $56.99 at Sports Authority].”

“We don’t bring a sleeping bag for every kid. For the little ones we will zip two bags together and let three people sleep in it. It saves a bit of room in the car.”

For sitting, “Every person has a chair,” she added. “It’s good for sitting around the open fire roasting marshmallows, and a little safer for little ones.

“I plan meals ahead of time,” Erica continued. “We cook with a two-burner Coleman stove, though some of our meals are done over the hot fire — hot dogs, for instance. Before our trip, I cook up some meat for a burrito, tostada, or pasta meal and freeze it. Then when we leave on the camping trip, I throw the frozen meat in the cooler so I just have to reheat it. It also helps keep the cooler cold.”

Happy camper Teresa brings a lot of non-cook food, but she’s careful about what she buys. “The kids would get constipated because they wouldn’t drink enough and they were eating all this starchy snack food,” she explained. “So, now I always pack a lot of fruit and granola bars.”

For tent comfort, Teresa says, “We bring a rolled-up memory-foam pad. Though it’s a bit bulky to pack, I think it is worth it because it gives support under your back.”

Teresa also suggested camping near water. “It makes the whole experience a cleaner one,” she laughed. “The swimming washes off the camping grime.”

Birk, camper extraordinaire, leaves pillows at home. “They take up way too much space, and you never camp on a level surface, so the head is uphill anyway.”

After a water bottle is empty, “I drill a hole in the top with a pocket knife, refill it with camp water, and put it next to the barbecue. It is then a portable hand-wash sink.

“Invest in a really good ice chest that holds things cold for five days,” he added. “We freeze a bunch of stuff ahead of time, so we avoid using ice. We just bring freezer blocks.”

Birk’s final bit of advice: “Always pack way less than you think you need because you always bring way more than you’ll ever need.”

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