Buying equipment for expedition vehicles and camping can be an expensive process, this is why it is important to have a plan, and be prepared to stick to, or modify that plan as is necessary. When you decide upon a course of action or a plan it is essential to research the equipment you intend to purchase, and to compare its abilities and capabilities before parting with any money, in this section we will look at buying specific items of kit.
This is in no way definitive as it depends upon what you want from a vehicle and camping equipment, and how far you want or intend going with modifying your expedition vehicle, some people will require everything, others, limited amounts of kit.
Comparing camping equipment can be daunting, this is why time and research need to be undertaken to compare specifications of tents and roof tents, and how they relate and work together with other items of essential equipment, so always check their features. Once these have been checked it is a case of getting out there and trying them; and being very picky with the minute details, many retailers will have demonstration models, or exhibit at shows, these are worth attending to compare models from different makers. Spend time researching and if you know other campers then ask for their advice and experience, most will be willing to sit with you and impart considerable knowledge and experience, learn as much as you can before buying.
Roof tents have to work with the roof rack and the vehicle, so see what type of rack is fitted to the vehicle, and how much it costs, check the features yourself and get inside them to try them out. Roof tents are no good if you cannot sit up or get dressed inside them, or if you have so little room that you cannot store your clothes when you get undressed, so work with these practical elements to compare differing makes and models. We know a roof tent is basic accommodation and it has space limitations but this does not mean it has to be full of compromises, it is a case of working out the best compromises and solutions, check the construction quality of the equipment and importantly, its weight.
Conventional tents mainly follow the tunnel construction principles, this is for good reasons, ease of manufacturing, durability, and resistance to the weather, or extremes of weather while maintaining a comfortable internal environment. Many variations of the tunnel principle exist, but their light weight and speedy erection times are favourable to most people under most conditions.
Spend a day at a camping retailer, large leisure chains offer the largest choices of tents, the independents offer the best service and expert advice, this is because the chains employees are on commissions and the independents are usually campers themselves. Find a retailer who has a number of tents ready erected, you can go into the tent and try every aspect.
When looking for a tent you need to work out the number of occupants you need to house and sleep, if you are a young couple it is conceivable that you may have children in the future, or middle aged couples may need space for grand children. You may be a couple or a family who may want to take a couple of friends, this is where a tent configuration becomes important. Tents are relatively cheap these days, but a correctly purchased tent will last for many years, so buy correctly.
General features to look for are as follows:
Tent configuration and layout, does it house the number of occupants you require, avoid the single bedroom types which house three, four, or even more occupants, these lack privacy from children or friends so always look for individual or separate bedrooms. How many separate bedrooms does it have, for four people it needs two individual double bedrooms, for six occupants it needs three individual double bedrooms, and so on; this gives couples the privacy when dressing and undressing.
What type of groundsheet does it have, are these fully integral, partially integral, or totally separate, these need checking fully as the only ones to go for are the fully integral groundsheets, its something less to carry and purchase. Many manufacturers have various names for integral sealed groundsheet systems, these may be mudwall, bathtub, or any other ranges of names depending upon the tent manufacturer.
These groundsheet systems basically turn and go part of the way up the side of the tent, thus forming a waterproof trough; these will keep out water even if the field or site is flooded to a height less than the height of the upturned ground sheet. This offers more protection to the camper in difficult camping conditions.
Is there sufficient height in the living area to stand up in, many have tapered sides which limit this height, does it have enough space in the living area to accommodate the number of people, a table and chairs to house them all, and cooking facilities. Many tents fall down in this area by not having sufficiently large enough living areas, and not being able to accommodate the number of occupants adequately.
Does it have more than one door or entrance, this is a useful facility but not necessarily an essential, but is beneficial if more than two people are accommodated, and does one of the doors fold out to form a porch. These doors folding out to form a porch are useful if cooking as it offers shelter from the elements without actually being in the living area to cook.
Are the poles of a substantial construction, and are the mountings in which they pass through and sit, of a durable construction or flimsy, and are the poles included with the tent, as some tents do not have them as standard, but fortunately most do.
Does the tent have other useful features such as internal storage pockets in the bedrooms, or suitable windows, and breathers or breathable material to reduce condensation, and internal hangers for lighting suitably placed? Are the seams taped for additional waterproofing, and do the zips have coverings or gutter systems to prevent water entry, are the tent pegs and guy ropes included, and is their a tent repair kit included; most tents do come as complete kits, but not all.
Check out the features and make a short list of tents and make the time to try them out properly, lie in the bedrooms, check the tiny details, and ask any questions you may feel are appropriate, if they are not correctly answered then walk away, to another dealers.
Cooking equipment is another area where attention to detail matters, most beginners will opt for gas powered equipment as it is the cheapest to begin with, so decide on what is available at what price, then take the time at your dealers to look at all the options.
The most practical option for a beginner is a camp kitchen, these are a twin burner gas cooker and many incorporate a grill. Buy these in conjunction with other cooking equipment such as pots and pans, this way you can check if everything fits onto the cooker. Place the pans on the burners, is the unit large enough to have the two largest pans on them and central over the burners, do the side and rear windshield detach or fold down out of the way, and does it come with height adjustable legs and an integral shelf. Check the legs extend to a suitable height for you to cook, and that the unit is stable when fully erected, and the construction is robust enough to be carried around in the rear of a vehicle without damage. Is the gas connection easily accessible and sturdy enough to prevent leakage, or snapping off with the weight of the pipe if the bottle is stood on the floor?
Petrol cookers follow the same rules as gas cookers, but also check that they come with the basic accessories such as a spare seal kit for the petrol pump and a cleaning kit as they require periodic cleaning of the burner assemblies.
Buying a spare single burner cooker is a good idea, this acts as a spare if you have trouble with the main unit, and as a spare burner if it is occasionally needed; these are cheap and an excellent back up.
Do they come with comprehensive and easily understood instructions, or are they merely poor translations from another language, if they are poor translations then ask the seller to cover everything in detail before you leave the store.
Lighting is one area where more than one power source is used, gas lighting is the most common for beginners, but if finances permit it is wise to opt for a petrol powered lantern as it emits enough heat to warm a tent. If you use gas for cooking it preserves the gas, and unleaded petrol is available 24/7 almost anywhere; many are spending the extra and opting for petrol lanterns due to their very high light outputs and very low running costs. Many veteran campers and expedition vehicles now use them, or are switching to them, running them at much lower settings reduces the light output and saves a considerable amount of fuel, this saves even more money on the most economical form of lighting.
Battery lighting is used in conjunction with gas or petrol lighting, these are usually in the form of a couple of torches and a lantern of some description which is used as a spare light source, or used outside as an additional source of light at the dining table. This leaves the gas or petrol powered lantern in the tent for cooking, and allows the camp area to be lit separately, always go for rechargeable LED battery lighting as these can be recharged from the vehicle. If your budget cannot run to rechargeable lighting then opt for an LED lantern which runs on AA sized batteries, and torches which are also LED and have AA sized batteries. This gives the option of replacing the batteries with rechargeable AA cells which can be recharged from the vehicle using a digital charger, at a later date.
Ask for a demonstration of the lighting, most stores will have a dark room such as a store room in which the lights can be switched off, test the light output of your selection of lighting for angle and brightness before buying.
Many of the above items require a modicum of spares to be purchased and carried, we will look at these in a little more detail, and it is always better to buy these at the same time as purchasing your equipment.
Tents may be supplied as full kits with everything included, some of this may be a little suspect for certain operating conditions, upgrading may be the order of the day, or adding a little extra equipment may be necessary.
Many tents are pegged down through a number of plastic eyelets or rubbers, purchase spares when you buy your tent, these usually come as packs containing a number of these items. Most tents come with basic plastic tent pegs, these are fine for soft ground, but adding the ribbed metal pegs is better if you encounter hard ground as the plastic types easily snap off in such ground conditions. Count the number of pegs your tent uses and buy more so you have a few spare, always buy a spare mallet for knocking them in and an extractor to pull them out again.
Buy a spool of spare guy line, if a guy rope snaps you can cut some off and make a new guy rope, purchase a pack of guy line tensioner plates at the same time, this way you can make complete new guy lines if required.
If your tent is not supplied with a repair kit then buy one at the time of purchase; and a number of spare tent poles, dealers will be able to measure your poles and supply the correct length of poles required to replace a damaged one.
Gas and petrol powered lighting uses mantles, these are essential as it is these which produce the light in the same way a filament does in a bulb, buy a pack of these as they are normally supplied in packs of two or three.
Cookers will need regulators, hose, and clips, always buy a spare regulator, hose, and clips; if you have a problem you can change them. If your cooker uses any form of seal then purchase spares.
Always remember; be pedantic and extremely nit picking when purchasing and get it right first time, and having spares and not needing them is preferable to needing them and not having them.
Freezers are changing, the trend is moving towards combined fridge/freezers, but personally I and many others find these a problem as combinations suffer two major problems. Problem 1 is the reduced size of the freezer carrying capacity, on any long expedition it is prudent to use a freezer to carry and store as much food as possible, this cannot be successfully done if this is reduced, or the size of the unit is significantly increased to compensate. This takes up too much room in an expedition vehicle where space is tight, this additional room limits the capacity for storing other important items which need storing inside a vehicle.
Problem 2 is the fridge sections usually suffer from produce freezing instead of just chilling food items, this may be a problem with many food products, particularly salad items, which do not respond to being frozen. This problem is more prominent when the freezers temperatures are reduced down to, or near to their lowest settings.
Decisions need to be made on this issue before purchase, and these decisions should not be swayed by convincing sales people, particularly those on commission.
Avoid the metal bodied freezers, particularly stainless steel; these look great but are not practical and more expensive than the plastic bodied freezers, after a couple of trips these good looks are nothing more than considerable scratching and tarnishing. Plastic bodied are the better option, being flexible means less damage, little scratching, and no tarnishing; most of the plastic bodied freezers have coloured plastic bodies which even when scratched still look presentable, and are easier to clean.
Check out the gimmicks, does it have a number of useless fixtures and fittings, if so reject them from your short list, concentrate on substantial bodies, sturdy hinges, good fitting and sealing of the lid, and any locking lid mechanisms it may have. Is it a useful shape to store items, does it have any a substantial tray or basket with dividers, and are these dividers removable, and can they be placed in a number of positions, avoid freezers with fixed dividers as they limit your possibilities.
Cool boxes are still the preferred method, in conjunction with a portable freezer, and for good reason, frozen food can be transferred from the freezer, into the cool box to thaw out slowly to a chilled state. The freezer is left in the vehicle and the cool box is removed from the vehicle to the cooking area, it is also mobile which means it can be placed anywhere in a vehicle to give much easier access to cold drinks, or milk if hot drinks are required. One tip is to carry a piece of polystyrene if frozen food is transferred to the cool box to thaw, place the piece of polystyrene between anything frozen and anything requiring chilling, many items in contact with frozen food or blocks will become frozen for a while. Many items such as salad does not respond well to being frozen and it could become damaged, as could milk and a number of other items which simply require chilling.
Avoid chilled or cooler bags as these are nowhere as efficient as cooler boxes.
Check the internal space of a cooler box, do you like chilled water and carry it in 1.5 or 2 litre bottles, do these fit, and apply the same methodology to everything you may want to carry in a cooler box. Does it have a robust body and good insulation, as well as a locking lid and good lid sealing, does it have a carrying handle and a number of spare freezer blocks. Will it fit into a convenient space I the vehicle where it is easily accessible if you want to stop and have a drink, and will it remain upright to prevent items from spilling.