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Camping Equipment

Different styles of camping require different considerations when choosing your equipment. Back-country camping: Pack light. Car-camping: Have fun!

General Discussion Tents and Sleeping Bags Food Storage and Cooking, Water Treatment Light First Aid Kit Knives, Hatchets, Saws Specialty Equipment In-Page Navigation, Camping Gear Page
[ General Discussion ] [ Tents/Sleeping Bags ]
[ Food Storage/Cooking ] [ Light ] [ First Aid Kit ]
[ Knives, Hatchets, Saws ] [ Specialty Equipment ]

General Discussion

There's camping, and there's camping, and then there's camping. Of the three kinds of camping - what I'll call "luxury camping," "car camping," and "back-country camping" - I'd like to spend most of my time discussing "car camping." That's how I do my camping most of the time in recent years.

Where appropriate, I'll give a nod to special considerations for back-country camping, because it has some special concerns that I can understand from old experience.

I won't mention much about luxury camping, because it doesn't require much special consideration, and because I barely understand it. If your idea of "camping" involves four rigid walls, whether a cabin or an RV, you know what you need to bring with you, and why, far better than I do. And you have the luxury of space and carrying capacity such that you don't need to be too picky about what you bring and what you don't bring.

Now, when I describe "car camping," I'm referring to camping in a designated campground, usually in a state or national park or national forest recreation area, where you drive right up to your campsite. In this style of camping, everything you need is either a few steps away in the trunk of your car, or you left it at home and you'll figure out how to make do without it.

For back-country purists who don't get it, there are three main points to car camping:

  • You wake up just a couple minutes drive away from the hiking trail or fishing stream or whatever, so you can be in the woods right after breakfast.
  • You go to sleep just a couple minutes drive away from your outdoor activities, so you can work yourself to exhaustion in the woods and you don't have to worry about saving enough energy to drive home at the end of the day.
  • It's a way to get friends and family members out into the woods who don't have the constitution or the will to do any real back-country camping. (I'll admit it, it's cushy.)

Even though I'm discussing cushy car camping, I still advocate a minimalist approach to camping equipment. Bring what you need to survive and to enhance your enjoyment of the experience, and don't bring what you don't need. And think carefully about what "enhances your enjoyment" and what is just more junk to pack and unpack and pack again.

I also advocate quality. Whatever you bring with you, make sure it is worth the bother of bringing. You may regret saving money on a tent when the wind and rain start, or when the poles break while you're trying to settle down for the night. Bear in mind that you get what you pay for, and prepare yourself appropriately.

By unfortunate coincidence, I end up possessing far more camping equipment than I need. Simply to put a mark on the calendar and to make sure I didn't let a year get away from me without a camping trip, I established a tradition of a family camping trip on my birthday. That's a fine thing, and we have kept the tradition unbroken for 25 years now. The downside is that people often give me camping equipment as birthday presents. And then I have to bring it with me next time, ... Stuff accumulates!

So, on this page you'll find a few ideas regarding what you need and what you don't need, and how to choose "good" equipment.

The main Web store I recommend for hiking and camping equipment is Amazon.com. They've got everything, they usually have the best prices, and they have an active community of reviewers, so why go anywhere else?

Again, the emphasis on this page is on items that are on sale and that receive good reviews. If you are interested in the most popular, best-selling camping and hiking equipment, check out OutdoorEquipmentReport.com. There are separate pages, with real-world reviews, of the best selling Hiking Boots, Tents, Sleeping Bags, Backpacks, and Cameras and Optics for outdoor use.

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Tents and Sleeping Bags

Tents

A tent is not really essential all the time, but when you need it, you do need it. (No, you can't just sleep in the car!) If the weather is nice, I usually sleep in a hammock slung between two trees. I always pitch the tent so I can retreat to it if it starts to rain.

Most tents these days are made of rip-stop nylon and held up by flexible fiberglass rods. This general construction is so popular because it is so practical. If you find a tent of some different style, it is probably very old or some new invention that hasn't had time to prove itself yet. Go for the conventional.

There are bigger, heavier tents supported by aluminum poles. They provide room to stand up, they have separate interior "rooms," and other luxuries that don't make much sense to me. I can stand up outside, and for all the space and weight (and difficulty in set-up), I would rather bring two smaller tents than one of these canvas palaces.

For car camping, one of your main considerations will be space. You probably shouldn't plan to have four people sleeping in a four-person tent. Maybe two adults and a child, but even four children would be uncomfortably cramped in a four-person tent. Plan for a tent rated for at least half again as many people as you will have sleeping in it. Remember, besides people, you will have to accommodate all the stuff they will want with them - extra clothes, sleeping bags, etc. And if possible, you don't want anything touching the walls of the tent (as that promotes leakage in rip-stop nylon).

For back-country camping, consider a "bivy" - a small, low tent that is barely bigger than a sleeping bag. You might think it's no different from simply putting your sleeping bag on the ground, but it really does provide much better protection against the rain, and it can provide additional warmth in very cold conditions.

Most tents are supposedly waterproof from the factory, but don't depend on it. Use a waterproofing spray after you set the tent up.

Tents come with pegs that work in most normal circumstances. These are usually simple steel or aluminum wire with a hook bent into one end. For loose soil or for camping on snow, you may want to look for oversize plastic tent pegs or for "Y-peg" style tent pegs. These have a broad face that provides better anchorage.

Avoid those tent pegs that consist of a metal stake with a plastic head - either a "T" or a hook. They break. Read the positive reviews, and you'll see that they're from people who have not used them very long. Solid steel or aluminum wire tent pegs for general use, oversize plastic ones for soft soil, snow anchors for snow or sand.

One item I've seen in recent years is glow-in-the-dark plastic tent pegs. Considering how many tent pegs I've found over the years, I know somebody is losing them! If it's you, try these Coleman Glow-In-the-Dark Tent Stakes. I've got your lost ones, so I don't need to buy any right now.

For some of this month's best-selling tents, with reviews based on real-world experience, visit OutdoorEquipmentReport's Tent page.

Sleeping Bags

The main thing you want in a sleeping bag is warmth. Especially for back-country camping, an important secondary consideration is light weight. These two considerations conflict a bit, as a warmer sleeping bag will be heavier.

sleeping bags come in several general styles, but virtually any serious sleeping bag these days will be pretty close to the "mummy" style. There is an opening for your face, usually with a drawstring that can allow it to open quite wide.

Unless you plan to do all your camping in very cold conditions, look for that wide opening. It's very convenient to be able to slide your shoulders out of the bag in conditions that are only slightly cool.

Also look for hook-and-loop tabs over the zipper to help hold it closed.

Nylon zippers are much better than metal ones. They are less likely to get seriously jammed, and they can "recover" from a jam much more easily than a metal zipper can. They also work more freely in extremely cold conditions.

You could consider sleeping in blankets. If you sleep in a hammock, as I do, it's just about impossible to keep the blankets around you all night, so a sleeping bag is just about essential. A sleeping bag also provides a built-in cushion - not much, but something - that blankets alone do not have.

For some of this month's best-selling sleeping bags, with reviews based on real-world experience, visit OutdoorEquipmentReport's Sleeping Bag page.

Amazon's best reviewed tents:

Large:


Small (On sale):


Bivy (Higher rated Thermo-Lite 2 Bivvy is more of an emergency shelter. Interesting, but not for many repeated uses.):


Amazon's best reviewed sleeping bag (Price looks like a toy or a kiddie sleeping bag, but description and reviews are excellent.):


And for the kids:


(Same as above, but in a girly color and print):


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Food Storage and Cooking, Water Treatment

Food Storage

One of your main considerations for food storage while camping is to keep your food out of the reach of animals - from ants to bears. This is not only to make sure you don't go hungry at the animals' expense, but also for safety. If the animals can't get at your food, they won't hang around your campsite.

Where I usually camp, the bears have not yet realized that they are strong enough to break into cars. In the very busy national parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, your car is not a safe place to store food, and the parks provide bear-proof steel boxes for your food and garbage. In most car-camping places, the car is the best place to store your food.

When camping in back country, you'll have to make special arrangements. Sling your food over a tree so that it hangs at least ten feet off the ground and at least five feet away from any branch strong enough to support a bear. You don't need any special equipment for this, just a backpack and a rope.

But even if your storage is reasonably safe against a determined attack by a bear, you can make your campsite even safer by storing your food in airtight containers. You can't seal up your food such that an animal can't smell it at all, but reducing the odors will reduce the attraction, so fewer animals will come, and those that do will spend less time trying to get at the food.

In addition, storing your food neatly and carefully will reduce the amount of food odors that get into things that aren't food. A raccoon doesn't necessarily know that it can't eat your backpack if your backpack smells like peanut butter.

Especially, don't get food onto anything that's going inside your tent, or on the tent itself.

When camping in back country, you also want your food containers to be light but sturdy. Don't want them to pop open in your backpack. Things that simply "snap" closed might not be good enough. Look for containers that screw closed or that have latches.

Cookware

In the relative luxury of car camping, I am able to bring a massive iron skillet to the woods with me. Wouldn't want to carry it in my backpack, but it is an indispensable part of the family camping tradition. By the same token, we also use an iron Dutch oven that could double as an anchor.

Only slightly less cumbersome are the two-sided Broiler Baskets with long handles that we use for everything from toast to steaks. They're just too big for backpacking, but car-camping wouldn't be the same without them.

About the only considerations for cookware when car camping are that is needs to be sturdy enough to withstand cooking on an open flame, and easy enough to clean and store in the relatively primitive conditions of the campsite. Glass casserole dishes are out of the question, and most cookware with non-stick coatings will not hold up to a campfire. Stick with cast iron, and wire grills.

Back-country camping presents interesting challenges for cookware. It has to be sturdy, but light. The best approach is to consider your cooking style in combination with the challenges of back-country camping. Frying is probably just not the thing to do, because a frying pan heavy enough to cook well on an open fire and to stand up to back-country scouring is just too heavy to carry. Plan on a lot of boiling - soups and stews and freeze-dried food - so you can cook at lower temperatures. Simple, thin, light aluminum pots will work just fine.

Stoves

Besides a charcoal grill or a wood fire, you really only have two choices for cooking stoves while camping: liquid "white gas" or propane.

It may be a matter of personal preference or prejudice, but I am strongly in favor of propane. If it springs a leak, it doesn't turn everything around it into a fire hazard. True, flammable or explosive fumes can accumulate if it leaks in an enclosed space, like the trunk of your car, but the same is true of liquid fuels. With propane, once the fumes dissipate, there's no lingering smell and no lingering risk of your extra sweater going up in flames.

Bear in mind, too, that your choice of cooking fuel will also interact with your choice of lighting fuel. You can use the same fuel for your stove and for your lantern.

My own camping tradition generally does not include a stove. We do virtually all of our cooking on the campfire. However, even at that, a couple of times we've used a stove to warm up a rainy morning with hot cocoa. Car camping gives you that luxury of bringing a stove and not using it.

For back-country camping, weight is everything. You can get a very lightweight single-burner stove adequate for a can of stew or a couple of cups of coffee that is well worth the space and weight it takes in your backpack.

Water Treatment

In most places where you go car camping, there is an ample supply of safe drinking water. However, make sure before you go! In the worst case, you can bring all the bottled water you need in your car.

There are three general approaches to water purification: Chemical treatments, boiling, and filtration. Boiling has long been the preferred approach for many reasons. It is a more certain way of destroying harmful germs than any chemical treatment. It has no chance of harming the people who will drink the water (provided you let the water cool off first), which can not be said for certain of any chemical treatment. The only disadvantages to boiling are the fuel it consumes and the time it takes to boil the water and then to cool it.

A relative newcomer to back-country water treatment is filtration. Modern micro-filters can remove all protozoans and bacteria and leave just about any mountain stream water as safe to drink as your tap water. Bear in mind that a micro-filter will not remove chemical contaminants, such as petroleum products leaching into groundwater from abandoned gas stations, but chemical contaminants are hardly ever present in back-country water supplies, and boiling doesn't always remove chemical contaminants, either. I've read about these micro-filter systems, and I've talked to people who use them, and I'm beginning to come around. Though the initial price for a portable unit can seem high, it costs only about ten times as much as a single-use chemical treatment kit, and it treats a hundred times as much water before you have to replace the filter. And it's faster than boiling.

Notice the unit I'm recommending at right. Read the product description with a grain of salt. Though it mentions viral pathogens as a reason you should purify your water, it does not state or directly imply that this filter removes virus from water. In fact, it absolutely does not. However, viral pathogens are not present in back-country water, unless a sick person is spitting into your canteen, so you usually don't have to worry about them. It's only the pathogenic bacteria and protozoans that you need to be concerned with in the back country, and this filter does indeed remove them.

I'm coming around, but I'd still recommend having a small supply of water treatment kits just in case. I always carried one in my backpack on back-country trips, but I never used it.

By the way, water presents no storage challenge as far as avoiding attracting animals. You can safely leave a jug of water outside all night, and it won't attract any unwanted visitors.

Amazon's best-reviewed items:

Food storage (One unit rated higher, but it doesn't look very practical for camping.):


Cookware:


Stove (On sale):


Water treatment (On sale):


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Light

You have many, many choices for light while camping. You can use candles (or just your campfire), battery-powered flashlights or lanterns, hand-cranked electric lights, liquid-fueled lanterns, or propane lanterns.

All have their advantages and disadvantages, most of which are obvious. For the most part, considering wind blowing out the candles and the cost of batteries, I long ago settled on the use of a propane lantern. By the way, these days, a liquid-fueled or propane lantern usually comes with a hard case to protect it in transit. Good idea! I lost the globe of my ancient propane lantern once, and couldn't find a replacment for years! I've got a sea story about that ...

I also have a hand-cranked L.E.D. lantern, which I would not hesitate to bring on a back-country trip, or if I were flying to some place where I would go camping. For the usual near-home car-camping, this hand-cranked lantern is just a novelty (it was a gift), and the propane lantern is the main source of light.

As to the choice between propane and liquid fuel, it's the same personal preference I mentioned under stoves. I think propane is safer than liquid fuel.

Look for a wide range of adjustment in your camp light. It's important to be able to turn the light way down low so you can see the stars, yet still not have people tripping over things.

I happen to have two propane lanterns (got the second, as a gift, while the older one's globe was broken, ...), the older of which is continuously variable, and the newer of which has "detents" in its adjustment knob. With the newer one, it's sometimes hard to know if I can turn it down one more notch without it going out.

Amazon's best-reviewed lights:

Battery-powered (On sale):


Hand-cranked (Nice. AA batteries, charge from car, and/or hand-crank.):


Liquid fueled (Dual-fuel model uses either Coleman fuel or unleaded gasoline) (On sale):


Propane (On sale, great price, new item, only one review, but looks quite good):


Butane:


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First-Aid Kits

A first-aid kit is an essential part of camping. Don't think the little kit you carry in your day pack is good enough. The kinds of things people will be doing in camp increase the risk of injury, so have a more complete first-aid kit available. Just as with your hiking first-aid kit, replace it every couple of years, even if you don't use it, to make sure the medications are fresh and the bandages are still sterile.

The content of your first-aid kit should be related to your risks. Your risks are related to your activity, the weather, the time you plan to be away from "civilization," and personal health factors of yourself and the people you're camping with.

If you need any prescription medications, be sure to pack more than you expect to need, in case you get delayed unexpectedly.

And remember to store your first-aid kit and medications as if they were food. Medications can smell quite appetizing to a bear or a skunk.

Amazon's best reviewed First-aid kit for your campsite (On sale. Maybe a bit light, but nothing else to recommend for a large camping group this month.):


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Knives, Hatchets, Saws

Camp cutlery might not really be an essential part of camping. You don't need to cut firewood if you're cooking on a stove, and you don't really need a pocket knife.

But for most of us, it just wouldn't be camping without a hatchet and a pocket knife! Indeed, this is a ritual that marks the sad end of my camping trip: Take the buck knife off my belt and put the cell phone on.

For back-country camping, a hatchet is almost indispensable. You're certainly not going to pack in all the firewood you'll need. A lightweight camp saw might be good, too. It's quieter than a hatchet, but not as versatile. I never used one on a back-country camping trip myself, but you might try it to see what works best for you.

For car camping, go ahead and bring both. My kids, especially when they were young teenagers, so enjoyed the bonfire that they'd be chopping all night long if I let them. In consideration of the neighbors, I insist on the saw when it gets late.

For a pocket knife I recommend simpler things, just as I do for almost everything else. Yes, I carry my swiss army knife in my daypack, and a more elaborate multitool in my weekend pack, but on my belt, I just carry the single-blade Buck 110 Folding Hunter. It does everything I need it to do while camping. Buck also offers an amazing array of variants of the old 110, including the Buck 110FG Folding Hunter with Finger Grooves. They also have a decorated Buck 110 for each branch of the U.S. armed forces (like the BUCK 110 Folding Hunter Navy Pocket Knife), and an assortment decorated and crafted by Navajo artist David Yellowhorse, ranging all the way up to the $500+ BUCK 110 Yellowhorse Mammoth Tooth Spirit Mountain Folding Hunter 1/1 Pocket Knife Knives.

Remember that a cheap knife won't save you any money if it doesn't stay sharp or if it doesn't hold up under the kind of wear you subject it to. Look for a knife and a hatchet from a manufacturer with a good reputation, and pay for the quality you'll need. And if you really need carvings and inlaid semiprecious stones and such, knock yourself out.

While you're thinking of knives and hatchets, look for a good set of sharpening stones, too. You'll want a separate "coarse" stone for your hatchet, or for taking major nicks out of your knife blade, and a finer stone for maintaining the edge on the knife.

Amazon's best reviewed camp tools:

Hatchet (On sale):


Machete (Great sale price this month.):


Knife (Sale price this month, varies by color):


Saw:


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Specialty Equipment

Depending on where and when you are planning to camp, you might need to look for a few special items.

You can always find a rock or log to sit on, especially when back-country camping. But for car camping a folding canvas camp chair is nice to have. I have a luxurious chair with a cup-holder built into the arm rest. (It was a gift!) Folded and stowed in its canvas bag, it takes up more room than my tent, but it's worth having when a rigorous day-hike has reduced me to so much luggage, and I can kick back with a cool drink while the younger folks cook dinner. (You rough it your way, and I'll rough it my way!)

Camping in the desert? You'll need extra water containers, and a sunshade. You'll probably also need those extra-wide tent pegs I mentioned earlier.

Camping in winter? Don't forget a small shovel to clear the snow out from under your tent. And snow anchors in case you're pitching your tent on top of the snow. And by the way, a snow anchor ranks as the best-reviewed tent stake this month: Sierra Designs Snow and Sand Stake

Setting out on a multi-day canoe trip? You can bring a little more equipment than you otherwise would on a back-country camping trip. Depending on how rough the water might be, you'll need waterproof canoe bags to pack everything in, and make sure it's securely tied to the canoe or to something else that will float.

Amazon's best-reviewed items:

Camp chair (There is a higher-rated item for nearly 4 times the price: Lafuma RSX Camp Chairs):


Tent pegs (That's the price of a single stake, or buy a 6-pack for $27.42. There's also the tried-and-true MSR Ground Hog Stake Kit, at $19.95 for 8 stakes):


Camp shovel (Sticking with this one, even though there are 7 rated higher. The others are more like portable snow shovels, or vastly overrated camp shovels. You can read the reviews for yourself, but my read is that this is the best general-purpose camp shovel.):


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