Gear review: Affordable housing for the car-camping family |

Gear review: Affordable housing for the car-camping family

Rating: 3.5 stars

Way back when, my husband and I were backpackers. Car camping was for sissies, or for when the partying was the point of the outdoor excursion.

Two kids and one neurotic dog later, and we’re bona fide car campers. We still enjoy backpacking, and hope to do more of it as our kids get older, but it didn’t take us long to realize that car camping is all about comfort. Why not? If you’re backing the truck right up to the gravel pad beside the metal fire ring and picnic table, then it’s no big deal to pack in everything.

With that in mind, we ditched our ultra-lightweight, two-man backpacking tent for a three-person Mountain Hardwear number within a year. When kiddo No. 2 arrived, we knew we needed more: more room (for a pack-n-play crib), more “who cares if the baby barfs in the tent and we have to throw the tent out”; more car-camping cheesiness. Why not embrace what you’ve become, after all?

Enter the Ozark Trail. Made exclusively for Wal-Mart – yes, that fine outdoor retailer Wal-Mart – the Ozark Trail line has it all: sleeping bags, camp cots, chairs, lanterns, tents and more.

Tents is where our expertise lies, and here is what we’ve learned: a cheap Wal-Mart tent will last you about two camping seasons (we paid $54 for our latest model; if we camp 20 nights per summer, that’s a little over a buck a night – and we figure that’s a pretty good deal); they’re easy to put up (my 7-year-old and I can do it lickety-split); and while they’re by no means designed for extreme weather, they can take a bit of a beating (this summer’s monsoons have proved the point as we stayed dry inside all night long on more than one occasion).

Another tip from the trenches: Don’t go too big. Do you really need the 3-Room XL Vacation Lodge Camping Tent? The model we currently sleep in – the 13′ x 10′ Dome Camping Tent – is, as advertised, “the perfect family tent.” With a center height of 6 feet, you can stand upright; and there is plenty of room for two comfy queen-sized air mattresses and all of our junk.

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All of this said, however, the Ozark Trail is not a battle-tested, high-tech tent – eventually the zippers will rip, the poles will break and the seams will leak. But when this happens (or when the baby barfs that one last time), throw out the tent and buy another. Remember, you get what you pay for, and sometimes – especially when car camping – cheap and cheesy is the name of the game.

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