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What to pack when you camp from your car

By Kari Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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On our wilderness adventures, my husband and I carried backpacks not much bigger than a teenager’s book bag. We toted a tent that packed to the size of a bread loaf, used feather-light cookware including a titanium pot, bowl, and spork, slept on weight- and space-saving mattresses that stopped at our knees, and heated dehydrated meals on a stove that fit into the palm of my hand when packed. Our decadent backcountry treat was a travel-size French press.

A child changed all that.

Now, we use a tent that has a footprint nearly as big as my home office, sleep on bedrolls that are the size of our old backpacks when stored, and grill burgers on a fancy no-stick propane stove in an elaborate kitchen that even comes with a sink. Once we adopted family car-camping, we embraced it — and all of the elaborate gear — wholeheartedly. Here are some of our favorite picks.

The Big Agnes King Creek 6 tops our list for luxurious car-camping digs. With 86.5 square feet of floor space, it should be roomy enough to swallow your family, the neighbor’s kids, and all your bedtime creature comforts. This palatial, free-standing shelter sleeps six people — or several adults and a handful of munchkins — stands 6 feet tall, and has two large half-mesh doors that provide easy access and added ventilation when the temperatures spike or the space is packed. But its crowning glory are the two vestibules, one of which is so spacious (110.25 square feet) that it can serve as a mud room, hangout spot (there’s room for a card table and chairs), and gear storage vault, where you can stash your bikes, kitchen equipment, and other gear if you are out for the day.

The cream-colored roof helps brighten the living space, and the interior has ceiling loops for suspending your lantern and a gear loft (both sold separately), and oodles of large mesh pockets for storing headlamps, trail maps, Dr. Seuss books, and other essentials.

We have slept on foam bedrolls, Australian swags, cots, and expedition-style blow-up mattresses over the years. Therm-a-Rest’s DreamTime mattress blows them all away and is so comfortable, I actually got a good night’s sleep while eight months pregnant. The 3.5-inch luxury bed has a self-inflating sleeping pad that is topped with a body-hugging Isotonic Memory Foam layer and a soft microfiber slipcover. Added bonus: The cover is machine washable.

If you already own a camping mattress and it measures no more than 30-by-77-by-3 1/2 inches, consider getting the DreamTime Comfort Cover, which is simply the DreamTime mattress system without the inflatable pad. You can slip your mattress inside the cover and get the benefits of the memory foam layer and microfiber top.

Deuter’s Little Star EXP and Starlight EXP grow with your kids, so you don’t have to buy new sleeping bags year after year. Both mummy-style bags have an expandable “footbox’’ that extends the length of each bag by 12 inches. Just unzip the bottom of the bag and the Little Star EXP expands from 37 to 49 inches (good for children up to 40 inches tall), while the Starlight EXP expands from 63 to 75 inches (to fit anyone up to 67 inches). The bags have a soft nylon outer fabric, a micro-fleece lining, and a high-loft synthetic fill that stands up to wear and tear. And the bags are more affordable than many of their low-tech, character-themed equivalents.

When making s’mores or lazing around the campsite, children can kick back in Lucky Bums’ Moon Camp Chairs . These padded, collapsible chairs, made by a company that specializes in children’s outdoor clothing and gear, suit pint-sized campers weighing up to 95 pounds, and their super-sturdy construction enables them to take a beating: Ours has withstood tantrums, tugs-of-war, and oversized users. Each chair comes with its own stuff sack for travel.

Kelty’s Basecamp Kitchen takes luxury camping to a new level. This relatively lightweight (just under 18 pounds), fully-collapsible kitchen sets up in less than 10 minutes and comes with many home amenities: a deep shelf, decent “counter’’ space, and a two-tiered pantry. Add to that hooks for your grilling utensils or dish towels, a paper towel holder, and a wind screen for added protection. What really sets it apart are Kelty’s handy Binto bags (sold separately), including a 16-inch-deep storage bag, a cooler, and a sink. They’re made with a super-durable rip-stop polyester fabric, help keep your kitchen supplies organized, and even have shoulder straps for easy portability.

We love the kitchen because it frees up our picnic table. It’s also sturdy enough to balance a pot of steaming pasta (the loaded Binto bags help weight the unit), yet portable enough to relocate around the campsite.

The Primus Profile DUO stove comes with one high-powered (12,000 BTU), adjustable burner that is ideal for boiling pasta, heating beans, or making morning pancakes, and a removable, nonstick grill (9,700 BTU) for cooking everything from hot dogs to shish kebabs. The propane-fueled stove has piezo-style auto-igniting burners (so you can fire it up without using matches) and a built-in windscreen to keep your meals cooking.

GSI Outdoors’ Pinnacle Camper cookware is like a set of matryoshkas (Russian nesting dolls that stack one inside another). In this case, the compact cookware bundle contains two large aluminum pots that have plastic lids with built-in strainers (one of our favorite features), a nonstick frying pan, a collapsible pot handle, four virtually unbreakable plastic plates, four plastic bowls, and four insulated cups with lids, all of which pack into a 9-by-4-inch heavy nylon waterproof pouch that doubles as a sink. Each individual place setting (plate, bowl, and cup) is also color-coded, so you can keep track of yours. As we discovered, the stackable unit can also provide hours of entertainment for curious toddlers.

Light up the night with Black Diamond’s compact, battery-powered LED lanterns . The 250-lumen Titan can practically illuminate a mountainside (or so it seems), yet it won’t blind campers, thanks to its frosted globe and reflector system. We use the smaller (80-lumen) Apollo model on the picnic table to light up dinner and card games (it has three foldable legs for added support), and the even smaller 45-lumen Orbit suspended inside the tent as a nightlight for little campers. You can dim the brightness of all three lanterns by pushing and holding the on/off button, a handy feature.

Finally, we bring an iMainGo portable speaker system for projecting lullabies or Baby Beethoven tunes into the tent to put mini campers to sleep. Our iPhone or iTouch fits snuggly inside the padded device, so it’s protected if our toddler decides to play with her favorite apps. The compact unit will work with any device that has a 3.5mm connection.

IMainGo makes two speaker versions: the iMainGo X and iMainGo2. The X model offers superior sound, but it comes with a built-in proprietary battery that must be plugged into a wall socket or car jack to recharge (not always the handiest option while camping); the battery lasts about 12 hours. The iMainGo2, on the other hand, still offers impressive sound quality, yet it runs on two AAA batteries.

You’ll need a voluminous trunk, a roof rack, or creative packing skills to transport your car-camping gear, but it will be worth it when you are making high-end campsite cuisine and then sleeping luxuriously under the stars.

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.