Camping Essentials

by the Zserdin family

We have been camping in Flagstaff pop-up campers as a family for nearly 15 years and over that time have come up with plenty tried and true recommendations. So here ya' go, the Zserdin family camping rundown.

When we started out we used rental campers so we kept all our "essentials" that were specifically for camping in two big Rubbermaid totes in the garage. When we brought home the camper a day before we wanted to leave we pulled out the totes, loaded up the camper, packed clothes and food, and were set to go.

Our favorite model was the 206LTD and we did many years of camping in trusty 206s. We finally bought our own, the now-discontinued 229, took our totes and packed everything in the camper, and continued much the same - pack clothes, pack food, get on the road!

Essentials - you just about can't go without these

  • Matches - for cooking and campfire, you need something to make fire - we are divided on this, one of us prefers the click-stick lighters, one is a dedicated wood match fan.
  • Pots, Pans, Cooking Utensils - based on how much cooking you are planning. If the plan is for sandwiches and chips and cereal every day, you might be able to skip this, but otherwise we have found that a good "pasta" sized saucepan, a smaller "sauce" size saucepan and a 10" skillet can get us through most everything. Swipe them from your kitchen at home, or grab some at the thrift store, or hit the camping store and really deck them out. One of our friends cooks practically everything in a cast iron dutch oven over the fire - beautiful and authentic, but it takes some planning! Our set was a wedding gift from dear older friends, they are both passed on now, and without fail it makes us smile and share a memory of them when we get ready to cook while camping.
  • Plates and silverware - all of these can be disposable, or things out of your kitchen cupboard, or super cute matching sets from the camp store - we've seen it all and people have just as much fun with any of the above. A lot of our plates and silverware came via end of season backyard dish clearance sales.
  • Cups, glasses or mugs - again, disposable is groovy, matching sets look cute, as long as they let you get liquid in your body, they're doing the trick!
  • Pot holder, oven mitt, kitchen towels, dishcloths.
  • Bedding - sleeping bags, sheets, blankets, whatever you like best - we've been known to steal the comforter off our own bed before we bought some specifically for the camper.
  • Pillows
  • Hand soap and towels
  • Roll of paper towels
  • Trash bags - you can certainly do well with a nice roll of kitchen bags, but we most often grab a pile of the grocery store bags we are always stockpiling because we hate to throw them away.
  • Hand powered Can opener
  • 2-3 gallon plastic pail - used for catching water from the sink run off - not all campgrounds require you to catch water, but it is nicer and less messy than the water running free.
  • Short water hose - if you are at a campground that has water hookups, you can use this for water in the sink without using the tank.
  • Flashlights or lanterns - Don't forget the batteries!

Toiletries - clean up that dirty body after a day of hiking!

Depending on how long you are going camping and your own level of comfort with being "aromatic" these can be the basic toothbrush, deodorant and comb, or a full kit of shampoo, body wash, makeup, mouthwash, curling iron, you name it.

Plug in things, like razors, blow dryers, etc. will only work if you are at a 110 plug in location (they won't run off of the camper battery, so if you are off the grid, scrunchies and hats are your friends.)

If you are planning on using the showers at the campground (many, many campgrounds, both private and State have EXCELLENT shower areas) then large towels to dry with, and some kind of carrier to get all your gear down to them are helpful. We have the good ol' "dorm basket" that is easy to find in the "going to college" section with a handle to lug things around. The State ground's showers usually are pay by the minute - an average quick shower runs us around $3.

The Not-So Essentials - but necessary in our book

  • Campfire wood - Check the regulations where you are going first - due to pine mountain beetle, many areas restrict bringing in wood and require you to buy it on-site instead.
  • A small hatchet - for splitting said wood into kindling. You can also pack along some Fatwood or fire-starter sticks and skip the Paul Bunyan part of the trip.
  • S'mores fixings - Our kids like the customary variation, we're partial to cinnamon graham crackers and dark chocolate.
  • Long metal forks for campfire roasting - yes, you can just scavenge for long sticks, but depending on the area there may not be anything to work with, and take it from us, it is a bummer when everyone is primed for campfire s'mores and there is no way to make them.
  • Aluminum foil - this stuff rocks! We use it for making campfire shrimp scampi, wrapping up leftovers, grilling s'mores (when we forget the metal forks!) and making reflective things to chase away blue jays (in theory - although really, it just gives the kids something fun to make - a determined blue jay will swipe from you despite your best intentions.) One of our friends uses it to block the sun from hitting the cooler when it is in the car, too.
  • Coffee and sugar - a must for our camp. Some folks pack a coffee maker; again, you will need to be at 110 hookups for it. We use a stovetop percolator - it takes longer but we like the nostalgia.
  • Tablecloth - we eat outside as much as possible, and a cheap vinyl tablecloth with a flannel backing makes the campground tables much nicer. Ours serves double duty as a source of amusement - over the last several years the chipmunks have pulled several square feet of the fuzzy backing off ours to make nests - at first we were annoyed, now we just think it is cute that we are helping them out every time we camp
  • Dish soap - We use a natural kind that can be washed into the woods without causing problems - but really, our favorite campgrounds have huge sinks near the bathrooms to use for washing, which we much prefer!
  • REALLY long tongs for grabbing things out of the fire - we use them to cook steaks, grab the foil pouch of shrimp scampi, roast potatoes, serve up pasta noodles, toast bread...and on...
  • Camp Chairs - ours are the folding types that pull up into a tube sort of pouch. Great for the fire and nice for reading on a sunny afternoon.
  • Cards, games, books - our favorite is called Shut the Box, it is constantly passing around the fire. Yahtzee makes an appearance a lot, too...
  • Cooler and Ice - we keep the fragile things like eggs, some meats and fruits in the fridge, everything else goes in the cooler usually. We have found that rather than using loose ice, freezing clean gallon plastic jugs, like from water or milk, keeps everything colder MUCH longer, and can be used as cold drinking water as it thaws - multi-tasking!
  • Baskets or totes for dry food - we stash some things in our cupboard, but a lot of the crackers, pasta, chips, bread, etc. go in baskets that can move around the camper as we need them to, and back into the car if we are in an area that has bear warnings.
  • First aid kit - a regular small kind, plus an herbal kit that contains arnica salve, tea tree oil, lavender oil and peppermint oil.
  • Sunscreen and bug repellent - we usually use Burt's Bee that can be used on us, the kids and the dog without problems
  • Kleenex - because Brenda has terrible allergies, but loves camping too much to worry about being snuffley!


If you are staying local, be warned, CO weather is worse than a moody teenager about changing at a moment's notice. The old adage of wearing layers applies here, in force.

Mountain weather can occasionally range up and down 40 degrees or more in a day, so warm and comfy clothes for the evening around the campfire is necessary, even in the heart of July. Daytime hikes can be a wonderful 70-80 degrees, so shorts and tees are equally appropriate.

Hiking boots are nice, but we know many people that camp in nothing but their tried and true Birkenstocks (including Brenda, who does Birks and Crocs every time!).

Flannel or fleece jammies, tons of tank tops, more socks than you think you will need, big loose thermal shirts that can layer, and floppy sun hats usually complete it for us.

If you are camping with children, for night time, we love those "glow" bracelets and necklaces - they are like little beacons to track them down in the dark.

Camping with Man's Best Friend (no, not the remote control...your DOG!)

Check regulations before you go - although the vast majority of campgrounds are dog friendly, some have breed specific regulations, some charge extra fees and most will require leashing while there.

If your dog is coming with, remember to pack food and bowls, a longer cable style leash, a short walking leash and any medicines or other treatments they might need.

It is also good to really consider what your plans will be while camping before deciding - if you are intending on lots of sight-seeing, museums, shopping, etc. it may be best to leave Fido at home - even the most mellow and calm of dogs can react badly to being locked in a camper with sounds and smells all around that they can't get to, some campgrounds specifically forbid dogs being left alone and even a relatively cool day can be too hot to leave a dog in the car while you tour around. On the other hand, if hiking and hanging around the camp is on the agenda, many dogs love nothing more to be with their people, soaking up the great outdoors!

Ring the dinner bell!

Meals on our camping trips range wildly. We have had trips where nearly every meal was eaten at restaurants and trips where we cooked everything from scratch. Sometimes we are super organized and make most of the meals ahead of time, neatly packaged in reusable containers to re-heat and eat. Sometimes we are lucky to hit the store on the way out of town and buy bread and packaged things and wing it with sandwiches and granola bars. As long as it works for you and your family, there is no wrong or right way to go.

Some of our favorite meals that feel like "camping" to us are:
  • Shrimp scampi in foil on the campfire
  • Grilled veggies
  • Grilled steaks
  • Eggs and bacon for breakfast
  • Spaghetti (although do remember that elevation affects water boil temp and pasta takes a LONG time to cook - longer the higher in elevation you go!)
  • Hot dogs on sticks (as the kids call them - cooked over the fire - veggie dogs work, too)

We find that everyone enjoys snacking more than full meals when camping, so our packing almost always includes cut veggies of all kinds, dried fruit, nuts and trail mixes, mini pretzels and hummus, popcorn, granola, salsa and chips and other munchables that can sit out while everyone gets their fill.


Water is important at elevation, when hiking, in higher temps and really just about all the time in CO's dry climate.

We fill the tank on our camper, but we also have a 5 gallon blue dispenser-type camping jug that sits on our campground table while we are camping. If we know there is decent potable water where we are going we fill the jug when we get there and save the weight during our drive.

We also fill two or three gallon plastic jugs (like washed out milk or juice jugs, or large Arrowhead jugs) 3/4 full and freeze them a few days before we go out - then we pack them in the cooler. They cool the cooler without using loose ice to make everything soggy and as they melt they become fresh, icy water for drinking, too.

As much as I'm all for water, one of my favorite joys is a glass of wine by the fire, so you will nearly always find that in our stash, too.

If you're packing wine or beer, remember to pack an opener, too - and check regulations at the campground - we have only run into one place that didn't allow alcohol at all, but lots of places regulate glass bottles, particularly if they are affiliated with smaller city parks where the rules are actually for the park but apply to the campground, too.

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