Waking up for the umpteenth time in a dark tent with a sore back and itchy arms is the worst time and place to come to the realization that your arsenal of family camping gear really does suck.
Roughing it for a couple of extended weekends each summer may sound like a fine path to family bonding, but hitting the woods with insufficient or just plain crappy gear is more apt to get you a trip to the chiropractor and give your kids more anti-family Facebook ammo then they'll ever need.
But good camping gear is like wisdom, bad advice and gray hair — it's generally accrued over time.
So heading into this summer's camping season, consider investing in at least one new gadget or gizmo for your cache of camping gear this and every year. It'll make each year's camping experiences that much better, and you'll have one hell of a garage sale once the kids fly the coop.
Here are 10 items — each costing less than a C-note — that will help make camping trips more of a pleasant, future memory than a running family joke.
And not that $20 inflatable double mattress you keep in the closet to punish in-laws who use you as a free motel when they're driving down Interstate 5.
A good personal sleep pad is a must now, and it will become even more valuable with age, particularly yours. There is no logical point in sleeping outside when you can't get to sleep or stay asleep because of rock-hard ground or a pathetic excuse for a pad.
Most sleeping pads now are small, rugged and self-inflatable. Therm-a-Rest's Pro Light Plus self-inflating pad goes for about $80. It's a bargain at $2.42 per vertebrae.
If you already have a Therm-a-Rest pad, then splurge $40 this year for a cover that protects the pad from punctures and turns the pad into a very comfortable, back-supporting camp chair.
You spend 51 weeks a year doing your best to keep plastics out of the landfill by drinking filtered water out of a reusable, stainless-steel bottle, then you go to the woods and blow through three cases of plastic-bottled water in four days?
Get a 5-gallon plastic water cooler that you can fill with water and ice, and refill it with gallon water jugs. Igloo makes a decent one for $30, but its "Maxcold" upgrade really does keep water colder for $20. You can get stainless-steel bottles as cheap as two for $7.
Just resist putting a chopped lemon in the cooler. It can take forever to get the lemony tinge out of the plastic.
Coleman makes an awesome nonstick griddle that fits perfectly onto its two-burner stove — the staple of American camp cooking. They clean easily and make the best pancakes. At about $30, it's easily a camp-gear essential.
Everyone wants to have souvenirs that remind them of their family camping trips, but nine of those green, pint-sized, propane canisters with a few ounces of gas left in them strewn around the garage certainly don't have to fit that bill.
You can get a steel, 2.3-gallon propane tank for about $55. That will carry plenty of juice to run all your propane appliances for a single camping trip. But the best way to use that tank is with a tree that allows you to run two stoves and the camp light from one source — and you'll never put another half-filled bottle of gas in your garage again.
Most trees run about $40 but they are standard-sized for tanks.
Your kitchen cupboards are the last place you want to look for cooking gear for the field.
Pots and pans made for domestic use don't usually translate well to propane stoves and fire pits.
Decent camp cooking sets are a must, and when you're done they should remain packed away for the next trip. And they don't have to be bank-breakers.
Open Country makes a six-person camp cook set that covers your needs for $50. It has two kettles, a non-stick frying pan, coffee pot, six cups and six plates. Everything but the sporks.
When you dine in the dirt, don't eat with your fingers. The Giardia Diet might be Kirstie Alley's last hope, but the last place you want to spend a weekend in the woods is inside a pit toilet.
The spoon-fork hybrid of Boy Scout lore is a must. Get a set of four for $10. Splurge for the ones in different colors so everyone knows whose is whose.
Places like Diamond Lake can turn into mosquito hell in the summer. That's why a simple pop-up shelter made of insect netting could sell for $1,000 up there some days.
You can buy a 12-square-foot model from Coleman, Eureka, EZ-Up and other companies for about $100. One person can put it up or take down, giving the whole family a place to escape the blood-suckers while they eat lunch with your new sporks.
Sometimes you forget the lantern. Other times you forget enough flashlights. You never bring enough of the right batteries, and it can get so damn dark in a tent that you need a flashlight to find a flashlight.
What camping families need is an uber-light — that ultimate combo light that serves all camping luminary needs.
The best combo light out there is the Signature XPS Duo Lantern by Coleman. It's a heavy-duty lantern that runs 75 hours on four D batteries and throws enough light for a whole camp. But its coolest feature is the removable panels that act like personal flashlights, each with its own on/off switch and 1.5 hours of battery time. They even recharge when stuck back in the lantern.
Spending $60 for a light might sound like a stretch, but you've spent $60 on way more things less useful than a lantern-flashlight combo.
We're not talking sleeping-bag flatulence here.
The real Dutch oven is a cool cooking device that provides more than fresh biscuits, cakes, cobblers and even pizzas in camp.
They also provide a more constructive way for the kids to play in the campfire.
Face it, the best part about camping for kids is playing with the fire, so you might as well teach them how to cook in it while they play with it.
With an investment of about $30 for a decent cast-iron oven, they're worth the space in the camping tote.
Besides, after three days of canned meat and pancakes, Dutch oven biscuits and gravy makes for a happy morning.
And that's a far better family camping memory than Spam, Spam and more Spam.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.