Camping For Nerds 101

It’s summer, and you’re looking for a little family adventure. Not just an adventure, but a true family bonding experience. Something educational, that pulls your kids away from an onslaught of electronic entertainment long enough for them to really appreciate the world around them. There is only one solution: a family camping trip. Some may call it ill advised, but your optimistic determination rivals that of Clark Griswold.

Camping is an art, and this is just a basic guide for the beginner. (Though, it doesn’t hurt for experienced campers to freshen up on the latest in camping tech before planning their next trip.) It will explore what you’ll need for a two- to three-day “car camping” trip, which is to say it assumes you’ll be driving right up to your campsite and staying put for the duration of your trip. More advanced trips, like multi-day hikes and multi-locations are a topic of their own.

When you’re planning a camping trip, it’s important to have a clear understanding of need-to-have versus nice-to-have gear. This will help you prioritize your shopping and packing. And make sure you don’t forget to think about fresh drinking water while drooling over the latest GPS technology.

Once you’ve decided to go camping, you’re going to need to decide how you’re going to do this thing. Are you going to camp like your dad did, with a tiny canvas tent, a Swiss army knife and a pocket compass? Or are you going to nerd up and pack the car with a ton of geeky camping tech? I think we all know the answer.




Fieldcandy’s Board tent should make techies feel right at home.

When thinking of camping essentials, it’s easiest to break it down into basic survival necessities of shelter, food and water. You can throw hygiene and safety into this category as well. So, let’s begin with the most iconic piece of camping gear, the tent.

When you’re camping with the family, here are the questions you should ask up front:

  • Do we want the kids in the tent with us, or in their own tent?
  • How much space do we need?
  • What kind of weather are we expecting?
  • What features do we want?

The answer to the first question is totally your preference, but unless your kids are still at the age where they can’t spend the night in their own bed, I’d recommend putting them in their own space. Camping forces people into very close contact, so having a little space at the end of the day can be a blessing.

Speaking of space, it’s good to know what exactly it means when tent manufacturers specify a tent’s sleeping capacity. Basically, if a tent says it sleeps X number of people, what this means is that, sure, the tent can fit X adults on its floor. However, those four people will be pretty close to spooning once everyone is in, so if you’d like a little more space, or are a larger than average person, you’ll probably want to get a tent that sleeps 1-2 more people than you plan to put in it.

The features of tents are really a matter of preference, but include vestibules, garages, partitions, extra doors and extensions. Vestibules and garages are useful because they provide a little extra rain-protected space for storage of equipment, but otherwise these features really fall more into the “nice to have” category.

While comfort and space are essential considerations, the tent is your best opportunity to show a little personality at the campground. Can you imagine how camo-green with envy your campsite neighbors would be if you showed up with one of these great nerdy tents?

Treetents were originally created for tree-sitting activists.

The Treepee is really more of a bouncy treehouse for the kids. Despite the name, they’re still going to have to hoof it to the bathroom.

Decathalon’s 2 second tent takes away the most agonizing part of tent camping: the assembly

Sleeping Systems

Classic Coleman Adjustable Comfort Sleeping Bag with a zippy twist

As important as the tent (or perhaps more important) is your sleeping equipment. There are two necessary items you’ll want to have for each camper, a sleeping mat and a sleeping bag.

The main purpose of sleeping mats and sleeping bags is to keep you from freezing to death in your sleep. In an age where many of us never spend a night outside of a temperature controlled environment, it’s easy to forget how merciless the whims of nature can be. Even in the summer, it is possible to die of exposure at night in temperatures as warm as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep when your teeth are chattering.

Your sleeping mat provides a thermal barrier between you and the ground. While it seems like maybe just a matter of comfort, it is an essential piece of equipment. Sleeping on the bare, cold ground puts you at risk of hypothermia as your body heat merrily obeys the laws of thermodynamics. Sleeping mats have an R Rating, that indicates what temperature conditions they can be used in. This ranges from 2 to 7, and protects from 0 to 50°F, respectively.


Sleeping mats come in three basic types: self inflating, air pads, and self-contained pumps. Self inflating mats use memory foams to draw in air, which is then held in by a valve. Air pads require manual inflation, and self-contained pumps have small electric air pumps built into them. The differences between these are mostly a matter of convenience if you’re not worried about space or weight, but if you do plan to go backpacking in the future, you may want to invest in something lightweight and highly compressible like an air pad.

The Windcatcher air pad economizes your lung power with SCIENCE.

Sleeping bags are much more straightforward. They generally have a temperature rating, which indicates the coldest temperature from which they will protect you. The most important consideration is whether you want a rectangle or a mummy bag. Mummy bags are tapered to match the shape of a human body, and are better insulated due to the lack of open space inside them. If you’re claustrophobic, or don’t enjoy not having any room to kick your feet around, you’ll probably want to go with a rectangular sleeping bag.


The other thing to consider with sleeping bags is whether you want a down-filled bag, or a synthetic bag. Down traditionally is more compressible, but loses insulation ability when wet while synthetic bags maintain insulation when wet. However, recent technological advances have produced down bags that function well in wet weather and synthetic bags that compress well, so the choice may come down to finances more than anything else.



Move your legs however you want in the MusucBag Sleeping Bag Suit.


The Grub Hub is a pretty impressive camping kitchen that packs into a soft backpack.

Making sure you have enough food and water for a camping trip seems obvious, but novice campers may be surprised at the logistical considerations involved in planning their meals. If you’re camping out of a car, you have a lot more options, since you can just pack food into a cooler. This is what I recommend, unless you are thinking about trying more primitive camping in the future and want to try out some trail rations. Otherwise, who would voluntarily subject themselves to that?

The first thing to think about is how much food you’ll need. There’s (usually) no pizza delivery out in the woods, so you’ll need to make sure you’ve accounted for each meal during your trip. With the luxury of a cooler, you are free to bring pretty much whatever you like. The best word of advice is to do all of your prep work before you leave home. Chop, slice, marinate, whatever your food in advance so you don’t have to worry about it at the campsite. Ideally, all you’ll need to do is set your food over the fire to cook it.

This leads us to our next consideration, which is heat source. Do a little research. Most rental campsites have charcoal grills or fire rings in them, in which case you’ll just need to bring some fuel to start cooking. If not, look into a camp stove. These usually run on butane (or even gasoline), and can boil water fast. It’s actually not a bad investment to have one even if you know you’ll have a grill on hand, since they’re easier and faster to set up.


Cook food and charge your phone with the Biolite Cookstove.

Finally, you’ll want to bring plenty of fresh water for your camping trip. A gallon or two per person per day should be plenty, unless its very hot and you expect to be very active (such as hiking or biking), in which case you may want to bring more. Even though many campsites have running water, you’ll need the water for drinking and cooking, unless you have some way to purify tap water. Often water at campsites is unfiltered well water, so you never know what might be living in there.


It may seem like a small consideration, but don’t forget to bring some sort of light source. If you’ve never been away from city lights, you may be surprised just how quickly and completely you lose light at the end of the day. Fumbling around your campsite it total darkness isn’t only inconvenient, it can be dangerous. Lanterns are ideal as they cast light in a broad area, and we like this solar powered lantern from ecogeekliving, but you can get by with flashlights. Just make sure you have enough extra batteries or fuel to last the full trip.

Headlamps are great for camping, but LEGO headlamps are SO MUCH BETTER.

Hygiene and Field Sanitation


Hygiene and sanitation may be less obvious, and less appealing to the gearhead, but are nonetheless essential to a successful camping trip. I’m not talking about deodorants and body washes (the fragrances from such products may actually attract insects), but site cleanliness and personal protection.

Regardless of where you camp, you’ll want some sort of insect repellent. More than just annoying, insects are vectors for diseases and can leave you with such gems as Lyme disease and West Nile virus. There are lots of repellents out there, each with advantages and disadvantages. DEET and Picaridin can be applied directly to the skin, while Permethrin is not safe for direct application, but is instead applied to your clothing and allowed to dry. Permethrin is very effective at keeping biting insects and ticks away, and will persist on your clothes for up to four washings. For repellants that are less chemical-heavy, head over to and check out their selection of natural insect repellants.

Most rented campsites will have bathrooms and showers available, so you probably won’t need to worry about digging a latrine. If, however, there are no facilities nearby, there are a number of field toilets available on the market.


These are generally small seats with a hole in the middle that you can place over a pit. Again, do your research before you go to make sure you are prepared. If you do end up needing to dig your own latrine, a good rule of thumb is to keep it at least 100 feet away from your main camp, and away from any source of fresh water.

Finally, have a plan for your trash. It’s best to set up a trash bag or some other container at the very beginning to be your trash collection point. This is a detail that’s easy to forget that will end up making your trip much more frustrating than it has to be. Just remember to be good stewards of the environment and pack out everything you brought in.


Information can save your life. Take the time to do as much research on your campsite as possible. As mentioned already, you’ll want to know what facilities are close by, the weather forecast, dangerous flora and fauna, and what family-friendly activities are nearby. Having guidebooks on local plant and animal life is also a good idea. Roasting a marshmallow on an oleander branch can be fatal.

The bottom line is that you don’t want any surprises to ruin your camping fun.


Once you’ve figured out exactly what you need to have a successful camping trip, you might want to start thinking about what you can bring to make the trip more comfortable or enjoyable. The possibilities are endless, but here’s a short list of some things you may want to consider.


Is there a more relaxing way to make it through your annual re-reading of the Harry Potter series than to do so while gently enfolded in one of these blissfully comfortable contraptions?

Musical Instruments


Playing music around a campfire is a tradition that probably predates civilization. If your kids are learning any instruments, encourage them to partake in this ancient rite.


Many parks and campgrounds forbid the local collection of firewood, so if you want to have a nice fire in the evening, you’ll need to pick up a cord or two on your way there.

If you don’t have anything to use to start your fire, you’re going to have a bad time. Try making some firestarters out of dryer lint and egg cartons at home before you go.


Camp chairs

Most Westerners aren’t accustomed to sitting on the ground all the time. Years of sitting in chairs has left us unable to comfortably sit or squat for long periods without some sort of back support. You’ll enjoy your trip much more if you bring a few folding camp chairs so you can lounge in style.


Hive, an insect-themed strategy game, won’t blow away in the wind like cards might.

Without TV or the Internet, you may find that you have a lot more time in the evening to spend with the kids. This is a great time to teach them a new card game. You might even want to bring something like a horseshoes set  to run a family tournament. Or bring a geeky board game or two. This is bonding time. Make the most of it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *