Family camping essentials

Camping as a family often requires a lot of kit. Here is our review of 14 of the best gear buys for cooking, sleeping and all round comfort on your summer camping trip

23rd June 2017
Camping under the stars

Here are 14 items worth packing on your next trip:

Helinox Camp Chair
The Camp Chair's elasticated framework collapses and fits neatly in the stuff sack

1 Treat seat

Camp Chair, Helinox, £125

There are a lot of comfortable but bulky chairs out there – and a lot of compact but uncomfortable ones, too. These excellent chairs from Dutch firm Helinox are easy to assemble, light (1.232kg) and small when packed. Many other collapsible camping chairs push you forward at the shoulders and offer no support in the lower back, leaving you feeling hunched, but this is comfortable and supportive in the right places. That low weight means you can take add it to your pack for a moderate distance (a fishing trip, the beach). The even lighter (622g) Ground Chair is suitable for backpackers or hikers who like to keep things civilised when they stop to relax.

 

Robens Navigator Chair
The Navigator feels more robust than the Helinox chair but is significantly heavier

2 Relax in comfort

Navigator chair, Robens, £109.99

This robust chair folds down to a remarkably compact size – handy when it comes to pack your car. The comfort level is at a similar high level to the Helinox chair above, the aluminium frame is tough and there’s a drinks holder in one arm. If weight matters, note that the Navigator weighs an extra 500g compared to the Helinox above. 

 

Vango Gastro kitchen unit
Handy storage, especially if you like to use large gas bottles for cooking

3 Get organised

Gastro Kitchen, Vango, £120

This roomy kitchen unit will soak up food, plates, pots and cutlery, keeping everything ship-shape. There’s space on top for a gas hob, with a windshield to protect the burners from a breeze. A small metal worktop to the right can be easily removed and replaced with a washing up basin, though if you are going to use it, you have to take great care not to slop soapy water over the rest of the unit, so you may doubt its utility. The right hand cupboard has been designed for a large gas bottle – which may suit you, but many UK campers tend to use smaller bottles, leaving you with a lot of redundant space.

It’s extremely easy to install. Needless to say, with a width of 122.5cm it’s a significant size, so check there’s room in your tent. And note that the pack size is also bulky at 122cm and 11cm thick – a significant extra for your car boot.

 

Sea to Summit kettle
The X-Pot has an aluminium base and collapsible sides made of silicon – ideal cramming kit in a small car boot

4 Time for a brew

X-Pot Kettle 1.3 Litre, Sea To Summit, £36

Some ultra-light backpackers will use a single pot to make food and boil water for tea, but I think it’s always worth the luxury of bringing a kettle that is purely for boiling water, and always free of the taint of food.

This collapsible kettle boils a full litre of water and weighs only 186g. There are lighter kettles – for example, the (rigid) titanium Titan by MSR (just 118g, but smaller, too, at 850ml; £55) – but the X-Pot Kettle concertinas down to a tiny packed size of just 15cm x 3.5cm. Just take care to keep those silicon sides away from the flame: it’s designed for use over a stove, not a campfire.

It can also double up as a pot, but if you want clean-tasting water, I would cook only pasta and rice and other bland foods in it.

 

Outwell EcoLuxe coolbox
The EcoLux takes a while to cool down after switching on, but then delivers on capacity and flexibility

5 Keep it cool

EcoLux 35L coolbox, Outwell, £165

This stylish coolbox looks like something Nasa made. Designed for family camping where an an electrical hook-up is available*, it’s fairly bulky in your car boot, but at 35L compared to the standard 24L, that extra space will come in handy in your tent, keeping food fresh and helping you avoid a daily trip to the shops.

It’s not exactly a mini-fridge; it will cool to between 18C and 25C below the ambient temperature, whatever that may be. To keep things nice and chill, you need to add an ice pack – which doubles as a divider, fitting in the centre of the box. (It might be worth buying a spare, to keep in the campsite freezer – if there is one – and swap over once your original thaws out.)

Other useful functions include an LED light in the lid, and a USB port so you can charge your phone. The split lid allows access to bottles (up to 2L) without losing cool air from the food compartment. That’s useful when you have guests over for a few drinks.

It operates with a low whir that may keep you awake at night; so its best unplugged before bedtime, but the insulation should keep stuff cool until morning.

TIP – Shop around – you may well find the EcoLux available for significantly less than the rrp.

* The coolbox can be plugged in to your car – and as with most coolboxes there’s a risk that this will flatten your car battery. Happily, when the car battery is beginning to run low, the Ecolux 35L (though not its 24L sister) is fitted with an alarm. Handy, assuming you’re not away at the beach or up a hill when it goes off. 

 

Falcon enamel beakers
Like any traditional enamel coatings, the beakers may chip, so handle carefully

6 Old-school style

Tumbler (£6) and mini-tumbler (£5), Falcon Enamelware

Classic retro-style enamel beakers in ‘special edition’ samphire and sage colours. 

 

MSR cooking pots
The pots fit neatly together, saving space in the car boot

7 Cook real food

Ceramic 2-pot set, MSR, £50*

If you want to travel light and compact – but still want the flexibility to cook real food – this pair of lightweight aluminium pots are a very good option. The 2.5L and 1.5L pots are lightweight (at 460g); to shave off a few grams, there’s only one lid and handle (which is easy to attach and remove). If you want to cook real food rather than stuff from packets and cans, they will make life that much easier. The packed size is 20cm x 13cm, with room inside for a mug and even plates. And both pots are coated with a non-stick ceramic coating that makes both cooking and washing-up easier. (Non-stick coatings are hard to assess until they have come in for some serious use: many quickly lose their non-stick properties unless given careful treatment. I will report back after I’ve given mine a full test.)

*Shop around – for example at the time of writing, Ellis Brigham were asking £34.99 for this set.

 

Campingaz Party Grill 400
The versatile gas-fired alternative to a barbecue

8 Easy grill

Party Grill 400 CV gas stove, Campingaz, £119.99*

When a barbecue is just a bit too much hassle, this gas stove makes life much easier.

It’s highly versatile – giving you the flexibility to cook in various ways. There’s a wire grid for cooking with a pan, a griddle for meat or veg (reversible, with one smooth side, and one corrugated).

And the lockable lid doubles up as a wok (though this takes a bit of careful handling). 

It’s all pleasingly self-contained. Unclip the lid and inside you find all the components, including the detachable legs.

It’s portable over short distances – it all zips into a carry bag, and that 5kg weight (plus a 700g gas bottle) is fine for taking down to the beach, or carrying from your car to a picnic spot.

You’d expect a product like to rapidly get pretty greasy and stained – but there is one useful feature to help you keep it clean.

Pour some water it to a little container beneath the burner, and much of the cooking grease will collect inside, where it’s easy to drain off. Then wipe the whole thing down. 

*Shop around as the product is widely available at a price of around £90.

 

Primus Kamoto firepit
The Openfire pit folds out to make a barbecue, or remove the grill for safe camp fires that won't spill sparks on to the ground beneath

9 BBQ and campfire

Kamoto OpenFire pit £120 (small) and £140 (large), Primus

This smart Swedish product doubles up as a barbecue – and a campsite-friendly fire pit.

Beautifully made from stainless steel, it is easy to set up – it opens from a hinge, then you slide three stainless steel plates into place at the ends and fire bed – and that’s it.

It’s a fair size at 60cm wide and 39cm tall, so there’s plenty of capacity for substantial logs. 

The large base beneath it catches any escaping sparks and hot ashes, but you may need to find some means to further protect the ground beneath, as the grass beneath that warm base will wilt.

(The grass roots may well survive but you wouldn’t want brown patches on your lawn, and I imagine many campsite owners might not be too keen either.)

If you are cooking, the grill is large and well made. It holds your food a fair distance from the fire so you will need to build up some good heat beneath: if cooking over charcoal you may find that quite a lot of fuel is required.

Carrying is not easy; the whole thing weighs 6.1kg, and a strap binds everything together rather feebly. The packed Kamoto is too wide for most rucksacks, but a specially designed ‘pack sack’ is available separately for an extra 30 euros.

 

Luci solar lantern
The compact lantern is easily inflated for use (right)

10 Solar powered

Lux lantern, £25, Colour lantern, £30, Luci

These superb waterproof lanterns have a solar panel that charges during the day and runs for charge 12 hours on brightest mode (50 lumens). The Lux (£25) gives of a mellow white light, with two brightness setting and a flashing mode. At 125g they are light enough for backpacking too, but Luci also make an even lighter (69g) version called the EMRG, which gives out 25 lumens.

 

Coleman Twist+ lantern
The rechareable Twist+ 300 saves on battery costs

11 Bright light

Twist+ 300 LED rechargeable lantern, Coleman, £69.99

The design world has been profoundly changed by a certain computer company with a crunchy fruit logo. Products from all sorts of other brands and markets now resemble something that Californian tech company might make. Think Sigg for example. Now there’s this lantern from Coleman. Very Apple. Or maybe even Star Wars; but I digress. For actually it is rather good. It has lithium ion batteries, rechargeable via a USB, and will run for five hours on the brightest, 300-lumen (ie very bright) setting; more than enough to read by. Other, dimmer settings are available and will allow the battery to last longer. A diffuser makes the bulb less dazzling, and the quality of the light cast is quite pleasant. There’s a handy device that disengages the battery so it won’t drain while not in use, as others do. Finally, you can charge your phone from the lantern battery via a USB socket

 

Comfort Plus sleeping mat
A cutaway shows the foam structure of the Comfort Plus sleeping mat

12 And so to bed….

Comfort Plus sleeping mat, Sea to Summit, £135

On my family camping trips there’s always a mish-mash of mats, and some jockeying between my daughters for the best. I’ve learned, though, not to judge a book by its cover, especially not when it comes to sleeping mats. No one is ever interested in my Snugpak, which is thin and drab but actually very comfortable (though unfortunately also now punctured). This Sea to Summit mat, in contrast, was the premium mat on our last trip. It’s not hard to see why: thick (8cm), soft and plush, it really looks the part. And sure enough, it is actually pretty comfortable: there is a pleasantly luxuriant feel about it. Although not quite as comfortable as the Dreamboat (below, also available as a single). There is a slight ‘rolling’ effect as you near the edge of the mat, and overall not quite such a refreshing sleep. On the other hand, for such a thick mat the weight is a modest 890g, making it suitable for backpacking, depending on how obsessive you are about travelling lightweight.

 

Outwell Dreamboat double sleeping mat
If consecutive nights on a lilo leave you feeling stiff and aching, it might be worth investing in a top quality sleeping mat

13 Luxury slumber

Dreamboat double sleeping mat 7.5cm, Outwell, £239.99

That sounds a lot of money, but if a good night’s sleep makes the difference between camping and a hotel, this could be the economical option. Because this mat really is exceptionally comfortable. This product has seen your reviewer through two long family camping holidays, and has me bounding from my bed like a lamb every morning. That’s largely because it actually does feel as comfortable as a real bed. Yet it’s almost totally self-inflating, needing just a few breaths.

What helps is that it’s 7.5cm thick – much more substantial than most mats – but this does mean that it’s pretty bulky when packed: The official pack size of 70cm x 26cm is optimistic and will not be achieved without ninja-level camper skills. The 12cm version ups the comfort levels once more; and is necessarily bulkier.

 

Sea to Summit Aeros ultralight pillow deluxe
Sea to Summot's super-comfortable pillow deflates to fit in a stuff sack the size of an orange

14 Lay your head down

Aeros Ultralight Pillow Deluxe, Sea to Summit, £45

If you struggle to fit all that kit in the car, this inflatable pillow is an expensive but surprisingly comfortable luxury. Also light (at 130g) and compact enough for backpacking. I found it most comfortable when slightly soft... you choose.

 

Lifeventure silk liner
Pleasant to sleep in during sultry weather, this liner also adds a little warmth when nights are cold

15 For hot nights

Ultimate Silk Sleeping Bag Liner, LifeVenture, £52.99

When the weather gets really hot, cast aside your sleeping bag and envelop yourself in soft silk instead.

In cooler weather, the liner can be used inside your sleeping bag to add a little warmth and luxurious texture. On the practical side, it helps to keep your sleeping bag clean. If you have an expensive down bags, you may find it deteriorate with washing – using a liner should keep it clean and thus lengthen its life. Treated with Polygiene to keep it smelling fresh, the liner is also washable and weighs only 134g. Mummy-shaped or rectangular versions are available to match the shape of your sleeping bag.

Obviously with all that silk the price is stiff – but much affordable polycotton versions offer some of the same benefits and can be had for a tenner; or you can sew one from an old sheet for next to nothing.

 

Kit pictures by Steve Sayers

Main image: Getty

You are currently reading: Family camping essentials - 23rd June
Get your first 5 issues for just £5 when you subscribe to BBC Countryfile magazine!

Subscribe to BBC Countryfile Magazine today and you can enjoy generous savings from the shop price plus, free UK delivery and discounts off special editions and back issues.

Countryfile Magazine - Current Issue