Camping Gifts for Dad

sillyband tentIt’s the season of shopping and you may be wondering what your family will get you. If you don’t think of something reasonable, soon, you’ll end up with more emblems of your favorite, losing, sports team, probably on a pillowcase or license plate holder.

Or, maybe you’re out of ideas for your husband, and he pretends he already has everything he needs.

Either way, dads never have everything they need. They always need more camping stuff. Dads are responsible for teaching their family to survive and enjoy the outdoors (see here). This requires lots of gear, including different variations of the same tools and equipment.

Assuming that the bigger, more expensive items (e.g., tent, sleeping bags and pads, hiking packs) are either out of the budget or already taken care of, here are my top ten most important pieces of camping gear for under $50:

  1. Knife/multitool
  2. Camp stove
  3. Hatchet
  4. Headlamp
  5. Things for lighting fires
  6. Mess kit/cook set
  7. Ropes and cords
  8. Gear box
  9. First aid kit
  10. Camping chair

Because they’re so basic, most of these items have a pretty low “that’s not the one I wanted” factor – variations across brand/make/model are minimal.

If you have to choose between them, I recommend the hatchet – it’s guaranteed to increase the toughness and ruggedness of whoever wields it.

For more gear ideas, see here.

Canoe Camping on the St Croix

Sunrise on the St Croix

We’ve had three successful canoe trips with the kids this summer – two with very reasonable crying/whining to fun ratios (Minneapolis chain, Phelan chain), and one with nearly as much crying and frustration as fun (we capsized – more to come in a later post). On average, I think we were all ready for our first overnight river voyage.

There are plenty of rivers to choose from in the land of lakes, but not many that met our requirements of being kid-friendly and close to the cities, with free camping. We charted a course on the St Croix, which creates most of the border between MN and the land of cheese heads to our east. The St Croix is contained within a national scenic river-way, so the campsites are easy to find and well maintained, unlike those on the Minnesota river (see here).

We convinced a friend to come with his son, which put the crew at two dads manning the oars, and three kids crammed in the middle of the boat with all the gear. Starting at Interstate State Park, near Taylors Falls, MN, we made it to the Eagles Nest group camp (pics below) just before dusk. The site was excellent, and we would have enjoyed an evening by the campfire, but no piece of foliage was dry enough to burn, not even the dead leaves and pine needles (not the first time it has happened – see here).

Add the lack of campfire to a thick fog of mosquitoes and we had a campsite that was really only worth sleeping in. But, the rest of the trip went well, with much more fun than crying. The kids enjoyed it, and that’s pretty much all that matters, right?

I’d do it again just to see the sunrise over the river – it gave me goosebumps, at least, I thought it did. They turned out to be mosquito bites.

Canoeing the St Croix

Eagles nest campground on the St Croix

Eagles nest campground on the St Croix

Vedauwoo

Vedauwoo, pronounced vee’-da-voo, according to a forest ranger who seemed pretty smart, has nothing to do with gris-gris (voodoo) or South Korean auto manufacturers (Daewoo). It has everything to do with beautiful campgrounds surrounded by strange rock formations.

On the first leg of our journey this summer from MN to CA, we covered Iowa and Nebraska – not the most exciting states of the union, at least from our perspective on the infamous highway 80. We pulled into the Vedauwoo campground at 7 PM, after 14 hours in the van. The kids legs started spinning, like wind-up cars, and we set them loose on the first trail we could find.

That night we hiked until sunset and then had a bonfire with the leftovers from the rocky mountain bark beetle infestation. The next morning we hiked until sunrise before hitting the pavement.

Vedauwoo sunset

Vedauwoo campground

Vedauwoo rocks

Vedauwoo hiking

Vedauwoo sunrise

I highly recommend it, especially to weary road trippers who want to save on lodging. The sites are clean and spacious (28 tent sites, potable water, vaulted toilets), the rate is low ($10), and the location super convenient (only a few miles from the freeway: Google map).

See the USDA website for more info.

Ragu and Ragogu

Ragu to goHaving spent a couple years in southern Italy, and having a great-great-great-grandpa Antonio who immigrated here from Palermo in the late 1800s, I’m pretty much cosa nostra, and jarred sauce is an abomination in my sight. Only homemade, capice? My fave is the ragu, which works especially well as a camping or backpacking dinner over precooked ziti or rice.

A ragu is a meat and tomato based sauce, and the ingredients, including the type of meat, vary widely. I’ve had ragu alla Barese, made with horse, and Bolognese, with beef, chicken, and pork. If papa Corleone were to join us for dinner I’d prepare it as follows.

Ingredients

  • Some olive oil
  • 1 large garlic clove
  • 1 lb beef, ground or in small cubes
  • 1 large onion, some shade of white or yellow
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 1 bell pepper, any color
  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 28-oz can petite diced tomatoes
  • 1 large chicken breast, whole
  • Some basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pep

Procedures

The amounts above are only estimates of what you should probably bring home from the store. Here are the sauce ratios by which I cook:

  1. Excluding tomato, 1 part meat to 1 part vegetable
  2. For the veggis, excluding tomato, 1 part each (err toward less onion)
  3. Overall, 1 part meat, 1 part veg, 1 part tomato (err toward more tomato)

Drop things into the pan, on medium heat, as you cut them. Once the beef is brown and the veg aren’t crunchy, add the tomatoes, chicken, and spices, and simma down. Simmer time depends on how much the tomatoes have already been processed, or precooked.

The tomato processing spectrum starts at the vine and ends in tomato paste. The more cook time you have, the lower on the spectrum you can go, and the better the sauce. Simmering all day, use fresh tomatoes when available, otherwise, canned whole or diced. For a last minute ragu, you might go with crushed or sauced. In the end, use paste and water to get the right consistency.

On the Go – Ragogu

Freeze it in baggies and they’ll thaw by the time you set up camp and heat the noodles. In an ice chest they’ll last another day. To reduce the carry weight and pack size, cook everything fully, excluding the chicken and tomato, then stir in a can of tomato paste. Reconstitute with water when you’re ready to eat. Bam!

Let me know what you think.

State Forest Campgrounds

Frog huntBack before the shut down of our state government and DNR, a huge crew of us dads and kids spent a night at Kruger campground, just off the Mississippi on the Zumbro river. With our uncoordinated efforts combined we probably had a hundred hot dogs and enough marshmallows to sculpt a life size Micheline man. As should always be the case when car camping, it was a veritable smorgasbord.

Campfire at KrugerAfter the food frenzy we went on a night hike in search of frogs and fireflies. Then, we spent a few hours around the campfire. The younger kids started getting delirious, begging for bed, around ten o’clock. The dads were spent, from chasing mallow-fueled children and from finishing off the hot dogs. My son and I pushed it to midnight – the last ones to hit the sack.

Anyway – here are three things about state forest campgrounds that make me a happy camper:

  1. The price is right – the going rate is $12 per night per non-reservable site. State parks range from $20 to $30.
  2. There’s more space – a site typically maxes out at 8 people in 2 tents, though we fit 18 people, 6 tents, in 2 sites and the ranger didn’t mind. State parks usually draw the line at 6 people, 1 tent.
  3. Fires are ablaze – you can gather wood, and it’s usually in abundance.

S'moreeseoKruger is one of many MN state forest campgrounds. The DNR refers to them as primitive, where only the basic needs are met – a picnic table, fire pit, tent pad, and toilets. Usually there’s access to potable water as well. Besides hotdogs and s’moreos, maybe a s’moreeseo or two, what more do you need?