Outdoors: Camping's comfort zone expands with innovative products

Jul. 25—Our family camping trips were the highlight of a young boy's summer.

There was fishing, marshmallow roasting, rock-skipping, tree climbing, exploring, swimming, campfire building, frog catching, and looking up to discover a night sky with at least a million stars.

This was camping the traditional way — an Army surplus tent, a time-consuming set-up involving a couple of dozen stakes and an array of metal support posts, sleeping on the ground in a flannel-lined sleeping bag, lanterns powered by white gas, food stashed in a metal cooler, and meals cooked over an open fire, or on a Coleman camp stove.

It never seemed like it at the time, but compared to today's camping equipment and supplies, what we engaged in was definitely primitive camping and roughing it. Camping is still done outdoors, in the elements, but the essentials are light years ahead of the gear we used to rely on.

That old metal cooler was durable, but recharging the ice every few hours was tedious, it seemed like we were constantly wrestling with it to tip the cooler and drain the water out, and you always ran the risk of food going bad.

Today, coolers have gone space age. The Iowa-based Grizzly company is one of a number of manufacturers that make a line of hard-sided coolers that are rugged and super-insulated. A bag of ice stashed in one of the mid-sized Grizzly coolers will keep for a couple of days, even in the summer heat, due to the thick layer of pressure-injected polyurethane foam. The cooler drains without tipping and has easy-to-use latches and an integrated hinge system built to last. If our old camping cooler was a Model T, this thing is a Tesla.

Starting campfires was always a tension-filled time, since there were hungry and chilly kids pacing around while crumbled up newspaper, thatch, and kindling were coaxed to ignition, often requiring multiple attempts. If the wood was damp, having any fire at all was a crapshoot.

About 50 years later, someone came up with an ingenious, foolproof, and safe way to start a campfire without matches, lighter fluid, or kindling, and even in the wind or the rain. In a tiny box-shaped package weighing just four ounces is something magical called Pull Start Fire. The name fits, since this product allows you to just pull the string and have a roaring fire in minutes. The combination of sanding dust and light wax burn for 30 minutes, so pull the string, add firewood, and fetch the hot dogs, marshmallows, and s'mores.

Working flashlights were another contentious issue around our campsite full of kids since someone would invariably leave the light on and run the batteries down, and then we would scramble, in the dark, to find more batteries. Technology took a giant leap forward with GoSun's Solar Flashlight, which has a solar panel integrated into the handle and can also be charged with a USB cord. There is a lantern mode, spotlight mode, and a red strobe for emergencies, all packing 280 lumens.

Our camp chairs were these clunky three-legged stools that always seemed to be on the verge of collapsing. The campsite seating options of 2021 are luxurious by comparison. Kijaro makes a comfy, durable chair that rides in a carrying case and then locks in place when opened. It has two mesh cup holders, and it is made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles.

On some days our family campsite resembled a MASH unit, with bee stings, splinters, sunburn, mosquito bites, upset tummies, and eye irritation, but we had the advantage of having a doctor and a registered nurse on site. For those who don't travel with a medical squad, MyMedic makes a line of first aid kits that are neatly packaged in a nylon carrying case and include supplies for bleeding, airway issues, burns, hydration, medicines, sprain and fracture materials, and more. The MyFak model (My First Aid Kit) holds 100 high-quality first aid and trauma supplies that are effective in real-life situations.

An all-natural option for those minor cuts and scrapes that always seem to come with kids and camping are skin-friendly bandages infused with medical-grade Manuka honey, which research shows support healing and protects against infection. There is also a Manuka honey ointment to bring relief to minor burns and cuts.

Our sun damage awareness was likely quite low decades ago when we piled into the station wagon and went camping, but sun protection is mandatory today, especially for kids with sensitive skin. With all of the swimming and sweating a summer camping trip includes, water-resistant protection is essential, and Dermatone's SPF50 Mineral Sunscreeen and flavored lip balm combine moisturizing with protection from sun, wind, and cold. The sunscreen comes in an easy to apply no-touch stick.

The battle with bugs around the campsite usually targeted mosquitoes with repellent that came in lotions or sprays, and after a few days, young, tender skin would develop a rash due to the harsh chemicals. The much better option available today is setting up a zone of protection, and citronella candles can hang the "Keep Out" sign for the skeeters to read. Don't let the name scare you but the Malicious Women Candle Company makes soy oil citronella and citrus candles in four-ounce tins that will give you 20 hours of burn time and keep the bugs away.

There is no question that camping has certainly gone high-tech and hyper-advanced in the years since I first slept on the ground and gathered sticks for the fire, and recently camping's popularity has spiked. A recent market study showed that the demand for camping tents has increased more than 90 percent since a year ago, while the demand for camping gear overall has increased nearly that much since 2019. The demand for sleeping bags and camping chairs has more than doubled over the past two years.

Campers can still enjoy the unlimited fresh air, warm campfires, and the sky dotted with twinkling stars, but the essentials, the accessories, and the other products available today make camping 2021 a very different experience than that of the canvas tents, wobbly stools, and sling-back chairs, and those unreliable lanterns of my youth.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.

First Published July 24, 2021, 9:00am