There are a couple of easy methods for creating homemade fire starters, and the first is a great introduction to DIY, especially with kids. Simply dip cotton balls in a jar of Vaseline and store them in a plastic bag. When you’re ready to make a fire outside, just fish one of the greasy wads from the bag and use it to start your fire. (Adults, this part of the job is for you.) The starter will burn bright for more than a minute, giving you plenty of time to build a fire, even with wet wood.
A second and more elaborate method (read: more parental supervision required) is to take an empty cardboard egg carton and fill the wells with sawdust or small shavings. Melt some paraffin wax on the stove over low heat in a disposable aluminum pan liner and pour the wax over the sawdust in each egg well. Let this cool then tear off the individual wells of the carton for homemade fire starters. Bonus: This is an excellent chance to teach the kids about fire safety and LNT. Read more about building low-impact fires.
DIY Pulks (or Pulkas)
Based on old Scandinavian designs, these pull-behind sleds make wintertime backcountry travel with kids easy and fun. They’re also great for carting gear or firewood. Even better, you can make them for less than $20 with parts from your local hardware store.
Starting with a plastic winter sled (flat bottoms work best), drill approximately 10 holes around the perimeter sidewall of the sled. Starting at the front corner, weave a sturdy rope through the holes, working your way around the rear of the sled and back toward the other front corner.
Take the two ends of the rope at the front of the sled and guide them through two pieces of 1-inch PVC pipe, cut to 5- to 6-foot lengths. Once the rope is threaded and hanging out of the pipes, tie a loop in each end and clip a carabiner on each loop. You can clip these right onto the waistband of your pack. Voila, a snow trailer!
For increased control, cross the pipes in an “X.” Your kids can sit on a foam camp chair in the sled, or you can sew up a custom sled cover to keep the elements out and add extra insulation. Our kids spent dozens of hours in these sleds as infants and toddlers, and even heavy snowfall and high winds couldn’t dampen their spirits as they glided over the snow, safe and snug. You can find more detailed instructions in AMC’s Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping.
Dry campers are happy campers. Instead of buying expensive dry bags for $20 or more each, just line a stuff sack with a trash compactor bag. And there you have it: a dry bag for pennies! Compactor bags are extrathick plastic bags—at least 2mm thick for long-lasting strength.
When packing clothes or sleeping bags in compactor bags, we usually use two compactor bags in a stuff sack, pack the items in, press all of the air out, then twist the tops of the compactor bags shut, tucking them in between the stuff sack and compactor bag to stay sealed. We’ve done three-week river and backpacking expeditions with this method and have always had dry gear. The only drawback is that compactor bags are increasing hard to find in stores; buy from online retailers instead. Want to learn how a garbage bag can save your life? Find out in Equipped.
One of the oldest tricks in the book: Just strap your headlamp onto a 1-quart clear water bottle so the light shines through. You’ll have an instant lantern to cheer up your backcountry kitchen or tent.
Before heading out car camping, simply freeze water ahead of time in a couple of 1-gallon milk jugs or 2-liter bottles. Throw these in your cooler to keep your food cool—no melting ice to get your food soggy! Over the course of your camping trip, as you need less ice and/or you need more water, set out one homemade ice pack at a time and let it thaw.
Bike Pannier Buckets
Heading out on a bike camping trip? Rather than buying expensive nylon panniers for $100 or more per set, try bolting 5-gallon square buckets to your bike rack. You might be able to pick these up for free from a local restaurant, or your can use empty kitty litter buckets. The advantage of square buckets is that they fit perfectly against the side of a bike rack and they’re 100 percent waterproof.
You will need a sturdy rear bike rack if you don’t already have one and some U-bolts, as well. Size the U-bolts so they’re just big enough to fit around the vertical support posts of your bike rack. Line the buckets up next to the frame of the rack so the bottom of the top flange of the buckets rests on top of the rail of the rack. Mark and drill holes for the U-bolts so there are at least three connection points. Bolt them on nice and tight so the nuts are on the outside of the rack, not in the bucket. I keep a bucket permanently connected to my rack for transporting clothes when commuting to work and ice cream on runs to the store. My son has even bolted upright sections of PVC pipe to the back of the bucket for fishing-rod holders. (Want more tips on bike camping with kids? Read on!)