Wecome To RVs and OHVs

This blog is all about RVs (recreational vehicles) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), camping, and survival
and how they work together to provide wholesome family fun and great learning opportunities.
Many posts are intended to familiarize novice campers and RVers with RV systems and basic camping and survival
skills. But even experienced RVers and campers will enjoy the anecdotes and may even benefit from a new
perspective. Comments, questions, and suggestions are encouraged.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where to Get Camping Equipment

The simple answer is: wherever you can find it!  But you have to look.   Don't wait until you need something specific for an upcoming outing.  If you feel pressured to get something right away you're likely to settle for something less than you want or pay too much for it.   Always be on the lookout for good deals on equipment and supplies.  There are many places in addition to camping, outdoor, and sporting goods stores, some you might not ordinarily think of:  department stores, thrift stores, home centers, garage sales, flea markets, ebay, craigslist, local classified ads, and magazines. TV, radio, and email may bring you ads for sales.  You may find things you need or want at camp stores or may be able to purchase them from fellow campers who have duplicates or no longer need them. You may also find things you need in your own kitchen, garage, or attic!  I recently found a lot of brand new camping equipment on a year-end sale at 50% off at my local farm and ranch store.  Such closeouts are fairly common as retailers clear out seasonal merchandise to make way for a different season.

New or used is a question you want to answer before you go very far in your search for camping equipment.  If you have an unlimited budget, you can fill your shopping cart at L.L. Bean, REI, or Cabella's with wonderful new equipment and you're set to go.  However, most of us don't have that luxury and have to seek more cost-effective alternatives and almost everyone likes to get a bargain. Some highly desirable and venerable items are no longer available in stores so you may have to search the used market to find them.  Funny how once popular staples of camping can be discontinued, but I've see it happen more than once.  And just about everyone enjoys getting a good bargain.  Watching for and taking advantage of seasonal sporting goods sales can net good savings on new equipment, but used equipment at good prices is more readily available year round.  Keep in mind that new equipment is only new once -- before you use it the first time.  After that it is used anyway.   Some people have reservations about using personal items that others have used.   Sleeping bags are at the top of this list, with tents and kitchen items following close behind.  If you have any concerns about the cleanliness of any item, it can be taken care of.  Sleeping bags can be dry cleaned. Tents can be washed and sanitized.  Kitchen items can be cleaned and sterilized in your dishwasher.  Even Port-a-Pottis can usually be easily cleaned and sanitized.   The question of "new or used" will most likely be answered by how much you are able to spend and whether the item is still in production.  Very often the "used" camping items you will find in garage sales or classified ads will have been gently used if at all.   Perhaps the used car dealer euphemistic designation of "pre-owned" might be a better way of thinking of it.   Many of these pieces of equipment find their way into garage sales because of dis-use or even non-use.  People sometimes accumulate duplicates over time or receive them as gifts and never get around to using them.  Used camping gear can be an excellent investment.  It is not unusual to find brand new camping equipment for sale by private parties.  People sometimes buy stuff thinking they will use it or receive items as gifts and just leave them on the shelf.   Over time, many of us accumulate duplicates as we find good deals on things we like, creating additional candidates for garage sales.  Unless there is a significant factor of durability, wear, damage, or warranties, new usually has little real advantage over used.  After all, as I said before, something in only really new once -- the first time you use it.   Some vintage items aren't even still available in stores so the only way to get them is to buy used.  Sometimes stuff finds its way into garage sales, thrift stores, and classified ads because it is worn out, but most often things fall into dis-use long before their useful life is over.  Even so, you want to carefully inspect each purchase to be sure you know what you are getting.  Sometimes you can find used items that are no longer available new in retail stores.   I much prefer the old style metal containers for Coleman lanterns over their modern plastic "clamshell" counterparts and the only way to get them these days is to buy them used.  The metal containers are more square and fit better in cabinets and trunks.

Many department stores offer camping supplies.  Places like Walmart, K-Mart, Target, and Sears have large, well-stocked camping departments and are good choices.  Camping specialty stores and sporting goods stores like REI, Cabellas, and Big 5 of course have super selections.   However, you may find some camping supplies in your local grocery store and places like Rite Aid or even at truck stops.   I have had very good luck at farm and ranch stores.  I like to browse through the camping displays at any store whenever I have a chance.   You never know when you'll come across a new gadget or a "Manager's Special".   I once picked up a $125 Camp Chef stove for $25 on a year end close out by checking out the Clearance Table at Big 5.  I found a rather unique T-handle socket set at a truck stop when we stopped for gas on a routine family car trip.  Granted, a socket set is not directly a camping tool, but with several RVs and OHVs to maintain, it is closely related.   It has been very useful and I've never found one like it anyplace else.   A good rule to follow is, if you find something you like, get it while you can.   On a few occasions I have found items later at a better price, but not nearly as many times as I've passed up an item, then wished I had gotten it, usually because I can't find it anyplace else.

Ebay and craigslist are also good places to look for camping stuff.   Be sure to do your homework on checking prices before you bid on ebay or run out to buy that "bargain" tent on craigslist.  I've seen people over-bid for common items on ebay, things they could have purchased at their local Walmart for 2/3 their bid or less.  You may run across unique items for which you can't get any price comparisons.  In that case, set your maximum price based on your budget and how much the item is worth to you.  I got into bidding war over an Autolite 12-volt air compressor I wanted for my motorcycle trailer.  It was a very unique item, not one of the flimsy little toys that plug into a cigarette lighter, but one with a motor the size of an automobile starter.   I suspect the other bidders also recognized the uniqueness of the item and together we probably pushed the price higher than it should have gone, but I have never regretted having purchased it.  It serves the function for which I bought it and there is no doubt I would have kicked myself if I had let it get away since I've never seen another one.  On the other hand, I saw bidding for a Marine grade (water resistant) 12-volt socket soar past $17 when the very same item could be purchased at the local Walmart for under $8. Of course, if you don't have a local Walmart, snagging something on ebay may be your best course of action and it may be worth paying a little extra for the convenience of having it delivered to your door.  But it could have been purchased on line for less from walmart.com.  While you can get true bargains on ebay, keep in mind that in order to win an auction, you have to be willing to pay more for the item than anyone else in the world!  Getting a good price is often a matter of timing.  Bidding early or waiting until near the end of the auction are both strategies that have merit.  Bidding early makes you the first winner and if the minimum bid is near the actual or perceived value or you don't have a lot of competition, you might not get outbid.  Bidding at the end of an auction limits the possibility of being outbid.  There are even computer programs that can monitor your bids and bid for you just seconds before the auction ends so no one has time to outbid you.  I like the "Buy It Now" option that completely eliminates the possibility of being out bid.  Always check the shipping and handling.  A few unscrupulous sellers offer unbelievable (and unrealistic) low prices on items only to hit you hard on "shipping and handling" charges.

Local classified ads and garage sales can often be the source of excellent bargains.   Here again, perform due diligence to know the quality and price of the products you are interested in buying.  You will often find gently used or even brand new products at a fraction of their original prices.  People sometimes buy or receive as gifts items they seldom if ever use.  Unfortunate as the circumstances may be for the seller, estate, moving, and divorce sales can produce good opportunities for the savvy shopper.  Loss of employment in today's lousy economy has forced a lot of people to liquidate recreational items.  Don't be afraid to negotiate for a lower price or seek a discount for purchasing multiple items.   Getting to a garage sale early in the day ensures the best selection, but shopping late in the afternoon can get you the best price on anything that is left.   Since garage sales are random events and the availability of any particular item even more random, your best bet is just to browse every garage sale you see.   You may find that tent or camp stove you're looking for stuck under one of the tables or behind boxes or furniture.  Or you may come across interesting and helpful items you hadn't even considered.  I lucked out one day when I stumbled on a set of 4 manual RV leveling jacks for a fraction of their retail price. They were mechanical jacks designed to work on a travel trailer but with a little creative engineering I was able to make them work on my 28' Class A Motorhome.  They were not nearly as convenient as automatic levelers, but a lot easier to use and more stable than leveling blocks.

You cannot predict what you will find at garage sales but you can often find great bargains on camping equipment there.  I've found good deals on both tent camping items and RV accessories at garage sales.  Be sure to check out the condition and functionality.   Even items that need repairs can be a great find, as long as you know what it will take to restore them -- and have the ability or funds to do so.  Gas stoves and lanterns often need the pumps rebuilt or the generators replaced and both are easy and inexpensive tasks.  Leaking fuel tanks, on the other hand, tell me to keep looking.  Sometimes you might pick up an item you can use for parts but make sure it is compatible with what you are fixing.

Thrift stores can be an excellent source of bargain camping equipment, especially kitchen items. Tents, sleeping gas, camp stoves, lanterns, and ice chests may be harder to find but when you find them you will likely save a lot of money over new prices.   Thrift stores usually have a large supply of kitchen items at all times so you can fill out your cooking and serving needs or replace lost or damaged items very quickly and economically.  You may have to keep checking back for other camping equipment.   I suggest getting cast iron cookware unless you need it for hiking or back packing.  Cast iron is durable and can be used directly in your campfire.  If you plan to cook on a campfire, avoid light weight aluminum cookware.  I've seen aluminum pans melted into shimmering puddles in a campfire.  A little breeze acts like a blacksmith's bellows and can create pretty high temperatures, high enough to melt pans and completely consume aluminum cans.   An advantage of building your camp kitchen using thrift store items is you won't be out a lot of money if something does happen and they get damaged or lost and you can easily and cheaply replace them as needed.

"Dollar" stores are an inexpensive way to augment your galley and other provisions.  Pots, pans, glasses, cups, plates, dishes, kitchen utensils, spices, and cleaning and hygiene supplies can be found at most dollar stores.  I've found a lot of good first aid supplies and OTC medication there too.  I like to check out their hardware section and have found some useful hand tools from time to time. I can usually count on finding bungee cords, a package of 2 each of 3 different handy sizes.   They aren't big enough for securing loads in my pickup truck but they are perfect for packs, keeping lids on camping totes, controlling sleeping pads and sleeping bags, etc.   I stocked my camp kitchen with large, sturdy, stainless steel spoons, forks, spatulas, and ladles from Dollar Tree.  You can often find inexpensive flashlights and batteries at dollar stores.  Flashlights may not be as convenient as Coleman lanterns for general campsite lighting, but getting them at the dollar store will be a lot cheaper.   Even efficient LED lights are starting to show up there now.   LED lights last hundreds of thousands of hours and batteries last a LOT longer (about 10-12 times longer) than when using ordinary flashlight bulbs.  Dollar store flashlights are perfect for kids, who have a tendency to break or misplace them fairly regularly. I tried to avoid letting my kids use my $30 Maglites and when they did get their hands on them the results were disappointing and expensive. My son once "borrowed" my brand new, blue anodized Maglite to explore a local cave. It came back in one piece but it looked like it had been through a war!  Dollar stores have "D" and "C" cell plastic flashlights and "AAA" powered aluminum LED models that are perfect for pocket, purse, fanny pack, or little hands.  Cheap flashlights make good loaners too, since you don't have to worry too much about getting them back.  Recently they've had solar walkway lights,that are good for marking your tent pegs so you don't trip over them in the dark or to mark your RV steps and sometimes you can remove the stakes and add some kind of hanger or stick the stake into a can filled with sand, beans, glass beads, or rice to use them as small, general purpose hanging or table lights.

Military surplus stores can be an excellent source of camping gear.   Tents, sleeping bags, tarps, first aid kits, mess kits, canteens, and troop cook kits are just the start of what you may find there. You can always find creative ways to use surplus parachutes and paracord.  Boots, coats, and other combat uniform items make great hiking and camping wear.  One word of caution: the popularity of surplus military items has created a market that invites imitations.  Be skeptical if the Army coat or skillet has a label that says "Made in China" -- unless it is a Chinese army coat.  Hand tools designed for military use can be handy for camping.   Folding shovels and axes are among the favorites. Bayonets are popular as hunting or survival knives, but most survival experts recommend a smaller fixed blade knife, with a 3-5" blade.  It is more convenient to carry and works better for more survival tasks, which tend to be more carving than hacking.  Unfortunately, the popularity of military surplus items for camping has inflated the price over what it once was when I was younger and there was a lot of "war surplus" items to be had, but you will still often find sturdy merchandise that is well suited to camping at reasonable prices.  Military first aid kits are compact and usually pretty complete.  Sometimes you find things there you won't find anyplace else.  You probably won't have much use for troop sized cooking and first aid kits unless you have an  unusually large family or intend to regularly support some other large group.  Some of the military field medical kits contain far more supplies than most people would know how or be qualified to use, so make sure you buy what is appropriate for your needs and your skills and training. Most of us would have little use for a field surgical kit but it might make a good addition to your emergency supplies if you have, know someone, or are able to get some appropriate training. 

Home centers and hardware stores can also be a source of camping supplies.  Tools are among the more obvious options at these locations.  I like to carry a "roofers hammer", which is a combination hatchet and hammer.  Some home centers and hardware stores have extensive camping sections.  I even got a great close-out price on a tent at a home center.  I've also found it more economical and more convenient to purchase my awning mats from home centers.  They sell indoor-outdoor carpet in bulk in a variety of colors, including an artificial grass style, that works well for awning mats.  You can buy just the length you need to correspond to the length of your awning and I've usually found it to be less expensive than pre-made awning mats from RV supply stores.  However, some of the awning mats are made of materials that lend themselves better to their intended use.   For example, some will let rain pass through whereas indoor-outdoor carpet might retain water and other spills.   By buying just the length you need to match your awning you avoid paying extra for two mats when one isn't long enough for your awning.  I add grommets to each corner and about every 3' along the long sides, plus one on each side of where the RV step will be.  I use 12" nails with flat fender washers on them to secure the mat to the ground.   If you have a welder, tack-weld the washers to the nails so they don't get lost.  If you don't have a welder cut some discs from heavy plastic like motor oil bottles and push the nails through them so they retain the washers against the heads of the nails so they don't get lost in storage between uses.  When parking on asphalt, I use a 22 caliber nail gun to literally shoot my mat to the pavement where tent stakes won't work.  One of our favorite camp sites was on a once paved cul de sac in an abandoned housing development in the Mojave Desert near California City.  There was enough pavement remaining beneath the sand that had blown in to completely cover the old roads that it was impossible to drive ordinary tent pegs.

Most department stores have camping sections and often the prices are lower than you'd pay at specialty camping, sporting goods, or RV stores. Walmart, K-mart, Sears, and Target always seem to have pretty complete camping selections during camping season.  Pre- and post- season sales can deliver excellent bargains, but selection may be limited.  If a Coleman lantern isn't in your current budget, kerosene lanterns are a lot less costly.   The light isn't as white and bright as a gas lantern and it gives off a distinctive kerosene odor similar to a jet engine, but they were the staple of lighting not only in camping but in homes and businesses for many, many years before electric lighting came along.  If you find the kerosene odor objectionable you can burn scented lamp oil or unscented liquid paraffin.  Using citronella oil will also help repel insects.

Camp stores.  Whenever you stay at a commercial campground, check out the camp store.  They often stock unique camper related items you won't find anywhere else.  Prices may be higher for regular RV and camping supplies, but it is usually worth the convenience if you happen to need something right now.  If nothing else, you might get some ideas of things you'd like to add to your gear and can shop around for better prices when you get home.  Be sure to hang on to a business card or receipt from the camp store so you can contact them if you can't find an alternate source.  They might be willing to ship it to you.   Just to be sure, grab anything that is manufactured or produced locally when you see it.  You probably won't find it anywhere else.  It just might be worth paying more for something when you see it rather than miss out on it entirely.  I have NEVER bought something on the spur of the moment and then regretted buying it but many times I've regretted NOT buying something when I had the chance.

Gas stations and travel centers often stock a few camping and RV supplies especially in areas where camping is prevalent.  This can be convenient if you need something while on the road.  You probably won't find the lowest prices here but you sometimes find unique items you won't find any place else or be able to pick up a necessary item without having to make special trip to town for it.

Garage sales and flea markets can be an excellent way to get real bargains on pre-owned camping equipment.  Sometimes you may even find brand new items.  Flea market vendors often purchase liquidated merchandise and offer it at a fraction of its original suggested retail price.  Individual owners may have brand new equipment they received as gifts or simply never got around to using. Even used items will often be in excellent condition.   Often the reason they are being sold is they have gotten little use.   Check used items to be sure they are complete and look for damage that you might not be able to repair.  You will want to set your own guidelines for what you'll pay for used gear.   My usual target is 50% of retail. I might pay more for a particularly rare item or one in exceptionally good condition -- like new-in-the-box.  It mostly depends on now badly I want it and how much disposable cash I have available at the time.

Your own garage/basement/attic.   You may find useful items you already have in your own garage, basement, or attic.  Tools and kitchen implements and small appliances you set aside when you upgraded or replaced them may find new life in your camp gear.  Or you may have duplicates that have accumulated from gifts over the years.  Old clothing, towels, and linens might serve well in camp.   Some tools, like axes and hammers, may have multiple uses around the house and in camp. Why spend money if you already have items you can use?  Allocating duplicate or "retired" items specifically for camping makes spontaneous trips easier.  The old 2-slice toaster you replaced when your family outgrew it may be just the right size for your camper.  Converting items for camping might give you a good excuse for upgrading your kitchen stock at home.   If you have duplicates, or your budget will allow you to acquire extra tools specifically for camping, it will make hitting the road easier and reduce the chances of leaving something important at home. You can save money by using some of your home tools for camping, but you'll have to remember to pack them when you go and to unpack them when you get back.  I may go overboard in this area -- I have separate tools in my motorhome, my garage, and my motorcycle trailer, plus a "race kit" I can toss in the truck when we're going somewhere with the dirt bikes without taking the enclosed motorcycle trailer.  I've never been sorry I brought along any tool.

Rummage sales and church auctions.   Like garage sales, these events can often produce amazing bargains.   It may take some searching through tables of uninteresting junk or piles of musty smelling clothing to find something you want or need, but it is often worth the time and effort.   Since items for these events are usually donated, the seller has no cost-of-goods to recover.   Like garage sales, you'll find the best selection early in the day and can negotiate the best prices near the end of the event.  An old Army field jacket makes a great camping/hiking coat, and it is even more versatile if you can find the fleece liner that adapts them for colder weather.  I've seen them in rummage sales and thrift stores for a few dollars each, often in remarkably good condition.

Make your own.  You can make some of your own camping equipment.  Not only can this be fun, it can save you money.  Don't have a camp stove?  Make one from an old 1-gallon tin can.  Hot coals from charcoal briquettes or wood fires will burn through the thin tin over time, but it will be sufficient for preparing several meals, which may be adequate for a short camping trip or to get you through a few days during an emergency.   Check on the Internet for how to make your own "alcohol stoves" too. These usually consist of a roll of toilet paper placed in a 1 qt paint can and saturated with denatured alcohol.  You can make a very efficient "rocket stove" from a #10 can an 4 soup cans.  Rocket stoves can prepare a meal for 4 using just a handful of twigs as fuel.  Simple tents can be formed using inexpensive tarps. They probably won't provide the 360 degree protection you get from a commercially made tent with screened windows, a zippered door, and a sewn-in floor but they'll keep most of the rain off.  You can make up your own "cowboy bedroll" instead of buying expensive sleeping bags.  The ideal and authentic cowboy bedroll is made from sturdy waterproof canvas, but again, an inexpensive tarp will be OK to get you started or in an emergency.  You need enough of this outer material so it is a little longer than as you are tall and wide enough to fold over and under your body.  You lay it out, then lay out blankets, quilts, or comforters, and fold it over in thirds.  When it is done you should have at least 2 layers of the outer material on the bottom and two or three on the top to protect you from cold, wind, and rain.  Having the finished product a little longer than your height by 2 or 3 feet allows you to fold it over to protect your head once you're snuggled inside.   For detailed instructions search "how to make a cowboy bedroll" on the Internet.   If you expect to use it frequently or for a long time, investing in good quality canvas duck for the shell is a good idea.  If you just want to try it out once or twice and inexpensive poly tarp will do.  Simple hotdog and marshmallow cookers can be made from wire coat hangers. I like to bend a handle into one end. Then I slide them into a piece of 3/4" or 1" PVC pipe before I put them in my outside RV cabinets.   It keeps the mess off everything else, keeps them from getting tangled, and even helps keep them cleaner than they would be loose in the bottom of the cabinet.  Burn the paint off the end before you cook your first hot dog or marshmallow so you don't cook the paint into your treat.  After that you'll probably want to burn the rust off the end before mounting your treat.

Get it when you can.  When you see something you'd like to add to your camping gear, get it if you can.  Many times I've thought I'd wait and pick it up later only to find that it was no longer available. I snagged some half price bargains a few weeks ago and when I came back the following week they were already sold out so I was glad I bought them when I could.  There have been many times I've thought "Gee I wish I'd bought xxxxx" but I don't think I have ever looked at any of my camping gear or tools and said "Gee I wish I hadn't bought that!"   Even though I have sometimes accumulated duplicates that later had to be sorted out and passed along to other family members or garage saled, I have never regretted getting any of it, but have often regretted passing up an opportunity.  My wife keeps telling me we need to thin out our camping gear but the last time we did that the kids came asking to borrow stuff shortly thereafter -- even though they had been strong proponents of putting in a garage sale in the first place.  Likewise, it wasn't very long before we found ourselves lamenting having disposed of some of the items.  Being a pack-rat isn't productive, but it often pays to be judicious in choosing what to get rid of.  Sometimes, when you're traveling, you'll come across things you don't usually find near home.   Try to give yourself a little room in your budget and your vehicle, to take advantage of such discoveries.   I discovered a locally owned discount auto parts store in the distant city where my parents lived and often augmented my home and RV tool boxes with great bargains I never saw at home almost every time we visited.   But don't assume you can get the same deals on stuff at big box stores when you get home.  I bought some battery powered LED above ground pool lights with remote controls on sale at a Walmart in Colorado to use as tent lights.  I like them so much I wanted more, but I had trouble finding them at any local Walmart and on the Internet when I got home and when I did find a few they were 4 times as costly!  Remember, "Manager Specials" may or may not be the same across different locations of the same retailer.

Shop smart!

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