Hit the trail: Camping necessities for much less at the dollar store

When I was a kid, camping was the only summer vacation my parents could afford, but my brothers and I loved it. In these tough economic times, camping may be an option you'd like to consider for your family. It isn't entirely expense-free, but it's a lot cheaper than a trip to Disney World, and investing in a tent and a camp stove now could mean years of enjoyment down the road.

As for the legion of other camping essentials you'll need, the dollar store has many of them for much less than your local hardware store and the quality is there. Many times, the difference in price is reflected in less packaging or a simpler design. Here's a sampling of what I mean. Please check prices and availability in your area.

Flashlights and lanterns -- I found a 10" waterproof flashlight for a buck at the dollar store. It requires three D size batteries, so after purchasing two packages of two for $1 each, this flashlight cost me $3. A comparable flashlight at the local hardware store, which includes the batteries, cost $16.99. A set of three mini lanterns that run on four AA batteries each, cost $24.99 or $8.33 for each lantern. The dollar store has mini lanterns for a buck each. Factor in the batteries required (three AA) and you're still paying less than $2.00 per lantern as you can get a package 6 AA batteries for $1.

Vinyl table cloth and table cloth clips -- Most people want to cover campsite picnic tables before setting it for dinner. The hardware store charges $5.89 for a 54" x 72" vinyl tablecloth and $4.99 for a set of metal tablecloth clips to keep it from becoming gone with the wind. Dollarama has 52" x 70" flannel-backed tablecloths for $2 each and a set of 8 metal or 4 spring-loaded tablecloth clips for only $1 per set.

Multi-use line -- After a day spent swimming in the lake, you need a place to hang up wet beach towels and bathing suits. What you don't need is to pay $11.69 for 50' of polypropylene rope when you can get 29 1/2' of polypropylene rope for $1.25 at the dollar store. That's plenty to string between two trees as a makeshift clothesline.

Tent pegs -- The plastic tent pegs at the hardware store have jagged edges, presumably to get a better grip in the ground, and are 8 1/4" long. They cost $5.49 for a package of 6. The same tent pegs, with smooth edges, cost $1 at the dollar store.

Metal knife/fork/spoon set -- Mom used to pack an older set of household cutlery when we went camping. Certainly, the metal sets are probably meant for the backpacker. You can get a set of this sturdy cutlery at the dollar store for only $1.50 or pay $4.69 for the exact same thing at the hardware store.

Tent whisk and dust pan -- That's what the hardware store calls this mini set for cleaning up the tent. Then they price it at $3.99. Find the same thing in the cleaning aisle at the dollar store for only $1.25. Better yet, pack a regular broom for sweeping the sand out of the tent, as my mom used to do. I dunno - it just seems to make more sense than fussing with something so small.

Foam camping mat -- We used to put our sleeping bags on plastic air mattresses when we went camping. Apart from having to inflate them for sleeping on and deflating them so you could fold them up when you were ready to leave, those air mattresses often kept Dad busy patching holes. These days you have foam camping mats that bypass all the hassle. You can pay $10.99 for a colored foam mat that's 71" long, 20" wide and 5/16" thick at the hardware store or $2 for a mat that's 72" long, 19" wide and 4/16" thick at Dollarama. Either one seems awfully thin to make for comfortable sleeping, but what do I know? I haven't been camping since Daniel Boone was a lad.

One more thing: While I have found most dollar store gear to be of excellent quality, including flashlights, you should test out anything like that well before you hit the road to the campgrounds. There's nothing so unnerving as being stranded in the wilderness with no light.

Marlene Alexander is a freelance writer and dollar store diva. She writestips and ideas for home decorating using only items from the dollar store.

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