I spent a night last October sleeping in a tent on a bluff overlooking the ocean in Big Sur. Had I slept in a bed at a hotel, I'd have spent at least $200. But the cost of my sleepover with nature was a mere $30. Since that night, I've slept in a tent a handful of times and have enjoyed them all. Being away from everything—if you're lucky, you'll pick a site where you don't get cell-phone service—is really the best way to wind down from life's highs (and lows).
Camping necessities such as tents, sleeping bags, lanterns and coolers are relatively easy to find, but I've learned that the little things determine the success of a camping trip. Behold, a few extras that'll make you want to return to the wilderness.
Nomad Ventures is located in the heart of downtown Escondido (405 W. Grand Ave.) and has an adorable, old-school storefront; this is no big-box camping store. Though it's more of a specialty shop for serious backpackers and rock climbers, the novice camper will be welcomed with open arms. Pick up a Petzl headlamp, that funny light you wear like a headband that's super-useful for nighttime bathroom trips; you can thank me later. Be sure to ask about Nomad's gear rentals if you're not ready to splurge on a tent or sleeping bag, which can get expensive if you purchase high-quality stuff. Rentals range from $5 a day for a sleeping pad to $30 a day for a four-person tent.
You may have seen Adventure 16 (4620 Alvarado Canyon Road, Mission Valley; additional locations also in Solana Beach and Oceanside) off the eastbound Interstate 8. It's the building with a tent on its roof, so it's hard to miss. The store's been open since 1977, and though it's located in a semi-strange office-type building (Adventure 16's corporate headquarters are housed there, too), it's actually a really cool retail space. The Eno Hammocks had me as soon as I figured out what they were. These ingenious hammocks are simply swaths of colorful nylon that you hang between two trees using their Slap Strap Pro device. Could be scary but could also be awesome. If you're a germophobe like me, pick up Coghlan's portable toilet-seat covers to make using a pit toilet just a teeny bit easier.
Think of REI (5556 Copley Drive, Kearny Mesa; locations also in Chula Vista and Encinitas) as the Walmart of outdoorsy retailers. It's gigantic and people get paged via intercom constantly. However, it's well-stocked with harder-to-find camping goodies. Here's where you'll find the Camper's Dream Play and Freeze Ice Cream Maker ($25). Load it up with ice-cream ingredients and rock salt and kick it around the campsite. Twenty minutes later, you'll have fresh ice cream. REI also has an amazing stainless-steel, retro-esque Stanley flask ($22) for campers who need a little liquid courage. The line of Rite in the Rain all-weather outdoor journals ($6 to $10) is a great option for those who might be inspired to pen the next Walden. I was also intrigued by the Bear Vault, a "bear resistant" food canister that keeps bears out of your edibles. Because that is something you have to worry about when you're camping. There's also baked enamelware, my most favorite camping accessory—the white-speckled, retro-looking blue bowls, plates and mugs that I love so much that I use them in my own kitchen.
Now all that's left to do is to get to reserve america.com and book a campsite. And stay away from bears.