The best camping stores will have these things, otherwise you could find a better place.
Spring is here and we're already thinking about the awesome summer camping trips we have planned.
We can't wait to turn off the cell phone, stoke up the campfire and head down to the nearest lake with our fishing gear to catch dinner.
Of course, before you go, you need to pick up some essential camping supplies.
With that in mind, the best camping stores aren't just big box stores where you can pick up sleeping pads, first aid kits and other outdoor gear. They're places to gain knowledge and confidence before you head afield.
Here are five things camping stores should have if they want to be considered among the best.
1. A great selection
This may seem obvious, but I've been into plenty of so-called "serious camping" stores that had a deficiency in the amount of equipment they had for sale. It was just the usual cheap air mattresses, water bottles, hydration packs, multi-tools and camping tents that can be found at any Walmart across the nation.
Often, they charged more for these items, too. What's the point of going to a dedicated camping store if they only sell overpriced junk?
The best stores have huge sections where there is more than one brand name of sleeping bags, knives, hatchets, hiking boots, rain gear and other outdoor wear.
While we're talking about clothing, it'sworth bringing up the fact that women's clothing is something that doesn't get mentioned often. Many stores seem to cater almost exclusively to men. Others just have just a tiny section devoted to women's footwear and other gear for the ladies. The best stores have a good balance of both.
We also really appreciate stores that use their floor space to put up demo versions of their tents and other camp furniture where we can get a better idea of what we're spending our money on before we buy. Looking at pictures on a sealed box doesn't do it justice; if we can actually walk into a tent or zip up a sleeping bag, all the better.
2. Knowledgeable employees
This is one of the hardest things to find in any camping store. I live in southwest Michigan and it is darn near impossible to find this here. If the employee can't tell you if that expensive Patagonia sleeping bag has synthetic or down insulation (or what the difference is between the two), they're probably not being paid enough to care about you or your trip anyway.
There's nothing worse than shopping for jackets and have the employees pushing you to buy the most expensive North Face or Columbia gear without telling you why.
The best camping stores have pro employees who know their products and are honest about them. They'll also tell you which ones they've used in the field and what they honestly thought about them. They also won't be afraid to tell you about new products that are coming out that are major improvements on what you're looking at. Maybe it's worth waiting them out, and an honest, in-the-know retail employee would tell you that.
In short, the best stores don't just want to sell you something, they want to create a relationship with you that brings you back for all your camping gear needs. In my experience, most stores like this in the United States are located in western states like Wyoming, Colorado or Arizona. If you live in those areas, count yourself lucky!
3. A great return policy
This is something you likely won't get at Walmart or any other big box store. The one exception to that rule is REI, which has a fantastic return policy. But outdoor and camping gear is always so tricky to buy.
Maybe that new pair of hiking boots doesn't hold up more than a week. Maybe you bought some paddle boards for your cabin and you discover a deep scratch on one you didn't see at checkout.
Again, this is why we love REI, because they have a 100% satisfaction guarantee. If you aren't happy with a product you can return it within 90 days. With a little searching, you can find many mom and pop-type camping stores with similar policies. Granted, we admit these are getting harder and harder to find.
But if you can find one, it's worth giving them your business because you know you're guaranteed to have gear you can depend on even if your first purchase doesn't pan out.
4. Hunting and fishing gear
While we enjoy a good camping specialty store, we also enjoy stores that are set-up to cater to all our outdoor interests. It's especially nice when a store also stocks fishing gear because fishing and camping go together, as Forrest Gump might put it: 'Like peas and carrots.'
If we're going to be buying camp cooking supplies, we might as well get the gear used to acquire the dinner we'll be cooking in them! We give even more bonus points if a store sells things like kayaks and canoes too.
This goes back to the store employee thing too, but in some of the best stores the employees might also be able to give you some great hunting and fishing tips for the local area.
5. Proximity to adventure
As I stated earlier in this article, some of my favorite camping stores have been ones close to the adventure I'm taking. This is why I've particularly enjoyed shopping at stores in the American west. There's nothing better than walking out of a store and straight into adventure in the mountains with your new gear.
As much as I love the Bass Pro Shops in Portage, Indiana, the closest to my home, it just doesn't beat the experience of walking out of a store in downtown Jackson Hole, Wyoming and seeing the snow-capped Tetons in the distance.
The hunt for a good camping store is often long and difficult, but look for these things in the ones local to you and you should be able to find a place that will keep you supplied for adventure for years to come.