Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


Posted: February 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

A good knife is a really great piece of camping equipment.  Having a nice knife instead of a crappy one is like having a smartphone instead of a flip-phone: you were surviving OK without it, but once you have one you’d never consider going back.  If you have a pocket knife, Swiss army knife, or hunting knife around the house, use that and see how it treats you.  If you don’t, and are interested in getting something better specifically for camping, read on.

tl;dr: If you want a folding knife, get an Ontario Knifeworks Joe Pardue folder, or an Ontario RAT1 folder, both about $25.  If you want a fixed blade, the Schrade SCHF10 Extreme Survival model is a good bargain at $40, among currently available full-tang knives made from decent materials.  Know that these are very different from most normal home kitchen knives, and are razor sharp when delivered- never cut toward your hands or toward yourself with one of these knives.

What to look for in a good knife.

SAFETY.  The most important feature that a nice camping knife should have for me might not even be on the list for some people: it should make it hard for me to cut myself.  Having a tiny, slightly lighter, razor sharp knife in my cold or wet hands, possibly far from medical attention, is just a great way to potentially have to end a camping trip early for someone to go get stitches, or worse, in my mind.   Even among larger, less-clumsy knives, the designs often omit the forefinger groove (a little dent on the handle’s underside, for your pointer finger to sit in securely, so it doesn’t slip forward toward the blade), or the thumb rise (same deal on the top of the handle, to keep your thumb from sliding forward), or the jimping (a series of tiny dents in both of these spots to give some texture and improve your grip even more).  If possible, I’d like a knife that keeps my paws well-separated from the pointy bits, even under crappy (icy, wet, cold) conditions.  This also means that for folding knives, I need to know it won’t fold up until I tell it to.

Durability.  I also like a knife I can baton with.  Batoning is when you use a stick to whack across the back of your knife, typically on the back of the blade just ahead of where it meets the handle, so you can split wood.  It’s a very useful skill to know, and best learned in person, although I’m sure there’s no shortage of youtube videos.  For fixed-blade knives, you want a full-tang knife, for batoning, and really for any use.  The tang of a knife is basically the bit of the blade than extends into the handle- on a full-tang fixed blade knife, the entire handle has a delicious center of blade, all the way to the back end.  If they haven’t made the handle so that you can see the metal center all the way back, it’s very unlikely to be a full-tang knife, regardless of what anyone claims in the fine print.

Perhaps surprisingly, many good folding knives with metal frames can also be used for batoning if you keep in mind that they need a bit more TLC.  The equivalent of full-tang for folding knives is an all-metal frame.  The frame is the bit of a folding knife that the blade folds into- although there may be plastic or wood “scales” to give the grip its shape, the center layers of a good folding knife frame should be steel or titanium.  Most folding knives have an all-metal frame, but a few discount models now have a polymer-only frame.  Avoid these.  While folding knives are inherently less sturdy than  fixed-blade knives, I almost always camp with a good folding knife, and I’ve never had one let me down while batoning.  I would definitely Google a review for any particular model you’re considering, to see if they tested batoning with it hands-on.  (Trust me, someone has).

As just mentioned, I (slightly) prefer a folding knife.  That’s because the best knife is the one you always have with you in your pocket, not the huge Rambo knife that you left back in the tent or car.  For much longer trips, or more extreme use conditions, the scales might tip toward the additional durability of a fixed blade.  Your mileage may vary.

Steels.  There is a lot of ink (electrons?) spilled online about the type of steel a knife’s blade is made of.  Most often, the type of steel is stamped or engraved directly onto the blade of the knife.  Here’s a primer.  Long story short, there are three rough categories in non-flea market knives: 1- old-school (some of which are outstanding), 2- new and nice but but not super-overpriced, and 3- new, slightly nicer knife-nerd steels that are only used in knives that cost an arm and a leg (ATS-34, 154CM among others).  You’ve probably already guessed that the blades of the knives recommended here are all made of steels from the middle category- mostly AUS8 / AUS8A or 8Cr13MoV, to be specific.  These are both stainless steels.  I’ve seen a few knives sold in two identically named versions that are either AUS6 or AUS8; keep an eye out to be sure that if you’re looking at a knife like this, you get the AUS8 version.

Serrations.  Many knives that meet the requirements laid out here come in two versions- one with a smooth blade all the way to the hilt (handle), and one with the back part of the blade serrated with small indentations.  Although many people imagine the serrations are for sawing, they’re not- a better tool for that is an actual saw.  Serrations also need to be sharpened using a special tool, when they finally become dull.  Nevertheless, after using many knives with and without them, I slightly prefer partially serrated blades.  Here’s one example of the subtle things you can use them for when you get used to them: often you are trying to cut something spherical or cylindrical, that may also be slippery or wet.  Starting at the serrated part lets the little points hold things for you, to get your cut started more safely.  These blades are also all large enough that there is plenty of edge left ahead of the serrations.  Although I lean toward the partially serrated option, almost all knives that offer a partially serrated edge also have an identical model with a smooth edge, if you prefer.

Tip for the people who spend a lot of time on the web.  Many knives that meet the requirements above are custom designs from knifemakers who are in high demand.  These are out of our price range.  Often, some well-known knife makers will agree to a limited mass-production run with a big knife company, which effectively makes their top-of-the-line designs available for cheap.   These types of knives always go out of stock quickly.  However, if you do a lot of web-surfing, you can get an amazing knife for around $30 by keeping an eye out for one of these.  Recent past examples include the outstanding Timberland Kelley Worden, the CRKT Crawford Kasper, and the CRKT Jim Hammond Desert Cruiser.  Basically, if the knife model has some dude’s name in it, that’s probably a good sign that it’s a decent knife, and also that it won’t be around in stock forever.

If obsessively Googling custom knife designer names isn’t your idea of a good time, there are a few great production knives that more than meet our requirements without breaking the bank.  Read on.

Recommendation: For a good bargain on a great folding knife that’s in production, I would first pick the Ontario Knifeworks Joe Pardue Utilitac II model, with the partially serrated blade, for $25.  Because it has some dude’s name in it, it may not be around forever!  A very similar non-signature model is the Ontario RAT1 partially serrated.  The RAT1 is also available with a black-coated blade, if that’s your thing (enjoy looking for it at night if you drop it!).  Both of these knives have an AUS8 stainless steel blade and a metal frame, with a nice grip design.  If you prefer a more sturdy but bulkier fixed-blade knife, there are fewer bargain options out there that have a full tang and decent steel, but the Schrade SCHF10 Extreme Survival for $40 stands out among currently available models.  It has a full tang 8Cr13MoV blade, and a great grip design.  There isn’t a comparable Schrade model without the black “ninja” coating of the SCHF10, so you’ll have to go full-ninja if you want to rock this excellent bargain camping knife.


Ontario Knives Joe Pardue Utilitac II


Schrade SCHF10 Extreme Survival

First knives.   Although I think the larger knives described here are actually much safer in an adult’s hands than something tiny, for kids the opposite may be true, and this is certainly most people’s perception.  If you have a smaller-handed young knife user who has thoroughly learned knife safety , a nice starting tool is the Victorinox Huntsman Swiss-Army knife.  Although you can save $10 or so by getting one at Amazon or on ebay, a place like Swiss Knives Express or Swiss Knife Shop will offer handle engraving for free, and kids love things with their names on them.  The steel in Swiss army knives is much softer than in the other knives recommended here.  This means it’s much easier to bend or break these by treating them too harshly, and it also means that they’ll need to be sharpened more often.  The Huntsman is also a great adult backup knife for camping, because in addition to a small but very usable knife, it has excellent sharp scissors, a can opener, small saw, corkscrew, awl, bottle opener, and tweezers.


Victorinox Huntsman

Sharpening.  Sharpening camping knives may be new to you if you’ve only honed kitchen knives on a metal rod until now.  There’s more than one school of thought on the best way, but here is one place to start: the Smith’s TRI6 Sharpening Stone system is meant for  beginning knife sharpeners, and contains  an angle guide.  It comes with everything you need, for $27.  Is it the best of all possible sharpeners?  No.  Is it great for beginners, close to as cheap as you can get, and good enough to put a razor edge onto a camping knife quickly?  Yes.  Depending on which edition you get, the stand that comes with this sharpening set may have a slick bottom- if you find it slipping around on the table during use, set it on a towel.


Smith’s TRI6 Sharpening Kit


First Aid

Posted: February 6, 2014 in Uncategorized


Posted: February 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

For camping and backpacking, it’s really nice to have a couple of good light sources at night.  If you’re a weekend camper, you will often hit a patch of traffic and make it to your campsite on Friday night when it’s already getting dark. Although your eyes will adjust if there’s some light available, pitching a tent and starting a fire for dinner in the dark can still get old quickly.

tl;dr: Get an Energizer Pro 7 LED headlamp for $16 from Amazon, or about $20 at Home Depot in person. It’s brighter, more water resistant, and cheaper than most better-known outdoor brand headlamps.  It runs off of 3 AAA batteries, and has three brightness settings as well as a red LED mode for preserving your night vision, which comes in handy more than you might think.

In terms of technology, LED is the only thing you should be thinking of at this point.  In fact, I won’t talk about any other light technologies here.

For getting started, any lights you already have around the house will work in a pinch- just make sure they have fresh batteries, and go camping!  If you go with experienced buddies, you will immediately envy their hands-free headlamps if you only have a hand-held flashlight.  The LED headlamp is the PB&J of camping lights, and if you only have one light, it should probably be one of these.  These lights are very cheap to manufacture, and have been around for a while, so some companies add a lot of anti-features, like USB recharging and light sensor auto-adjusting, in order to justify higher prices year after year.  I think of all of these features as new and exciting ways for my light to break, or for it to freak out and go into “disco” mode, right when I’m trying to set up my tent.  My recommendation is to strenuously avoid this type of gadget-y light, and further, to take any zealous salesperson’s stance on these goofball lights as evidence of how (un)trustworthy their other gear recommendations might be.

The granddaddy of modern camping headlamps is the 4-led, 3 mode model best exemplified by the original Petzl Tikka, currently still available as the stripped-down Petzl Tikka 2 for about $30.  You can walk out of any big outdoor gear store like REI with one of these, and be good to go- there are many copycats that you can spend more on, but nothing that’s worth it.  You can also find no-name Chinese clones of the Tikka on ebay for as little as $2 shipped!  Take it from me, the $2 clones aren’t worth it either- I’ve thrown away a half-dozen of them that had to be held together with rubber bands and tape after only a couple of weekends, and the switches on them are very sensitive, so that they turn themselves on in your pack constantly, which runs out their batteries.

Recommendation: Although the no-name clones stink, we can still find a better bargain than the standard Petzl Tikka 2, in my opinion.  I have an Energizer Pro 7 LED Headlamp that cost me $16 from Amazon, with the first set of 3 AAA batteries thrown in for free.  I’ve seen a hard-hat branded version of the same light at Home Depot for about $20, if you want one and can’t wait for it to be delivered.  The Energizer Pro 7 LED is bright (58 lumens max), and has three brightness modes, and a red LED mode that won’t blind you or wake your tent-mates if you just want to go to the bathroom during the night.  It’s more water resistant than a lot of more expensive headlamps, including the Tikka 2: the Energizer is IPX7, submersible to 1M, vs. the Tikka 2’s IPX4, splashable.  Nevertheless, I don’t recommend pushing your luck just to see what will happen if you dunk it.


Energizer Pro 7 LED

One is none, two is one.  For myself, I like to have one other hand-held light besides my headlamp, as a backup, and to be able to point my light without pointing my head, for certain things.  Realistically, you’ll do fine for short trips with just the one headlamp, especially if you’re camping with someone else where your buddy’s light can be your backup.  A budget conscious hand-held backup would be any AA or AAA powered LED light; they’re between $1-$5 at checkout stand impulse-buy sections everywhere, from Home Depot to 7-Eleven.  For the superlight ounce-counters, you might be tempted to get a tiny keychain LED light as your second light.  Although there are fancier variations available, decent versions of these can be had 10 for $6, and they’re great to give out to kids or Scouts, in an inexpensive “Altoids Tin Emergency Kit” gift, alongside a tiny liquid filled compass, a P38 can opener, and whatever other small, inexpensive, and useful items you want to throw in.  These tiny guys use replaceable little watch-style batteries that are easy to find online for next to nothing.

Getting carried away with flashlights, on a budget.  If saving money as much as possible is driving all of your gear decisions, you can pretty much skip this next bit.  It turns out that flashlights are kind of a thing for some people.  There are whole forums and websites, with downloadable spreadsheets and tons of youtube video reviews, dedicated to getting carried away with the humble hand-held LED light.  The one company that makes the actual guts of these lights, Cree, pretty much drives developments.  Each time Cree puts out a new generation of LEDs, dozens of small manufacturers put out new, unimaginably bright hand-held flashlights based on the latest new Cree LED.  Unfortunately, many of these models are to flashlights what a Rolex is to watches: very nice, but they cost about 100-1000 times more than they need to, on the off chance that someone who gives a crap will notice which kind you have.

Maybe this intrigues you, and now you want a ridiculously bright backup light based on all this latest-thing technology, for scaring bears, or for potentially angering your neighbors at car-camping campgrounds if you’re not careful.  Kidding aside, there are lots of times when a very bright light comes in very handy, and these lights always have a great “low” and “medium” setting as well.  Of course, you don’t want to get fleeced (think Casio G-Shock, instead of Rolex).  If this is you, I recommend the Cree XP-G2 based ThruNite Archer1A, for $27 at Amazon.  Although Amazon was the cheapest I could find it, you might double-check, as it’s widely available online from lots of places.  The ThruNite Archer 1A runs off of 1AA battery, and has a max intensity of 178 lumens!  That’s BRIGHT.  It’s built like you could drive a truck over it (side note, do not drive a truck over it).   It still only weighs a few ounces though, depending on the battery.  It’s also IPX8 water resistant (immersible up to 3m or ~10 feet, indefinitely).  As before, I don’t recommend testing this unnecessarily yourself, only to find out you didn’t screw the cap on tight enough.  You can definitely live without this light, and get by with a single headlamp, or with a $1 backup light.  However, if you do want a very well built, super bright backup light, it’s currently impossible to beat ThruNite lights on price / performance.  I use a ThruNite Archer 1A as my backup light, when I have one.


A brief bit about batteries.  The easiest battery to use in you camping lights is a normal alkaline battery- they’re cheap and you can buy them anywhere. However, non-rechargeable lithium batteries have a lot to offer in a very bright light like the Archer1A.  Although lithium battery specs will show the same number of mAh (the amount of energy stored) as alkaline batteries, non-rechargeable lithium batteries last up to 3 times longer than alkalines when used under high loads.  Energizer makes a widely available line of lithium batteries that you can find at many supermarkets and drugstores.  Although you can get the Energizer brand lithiums from Amazon for about half the cost of in-store, the off-brand equivalent Tenergy is cheaper still, and gets good reviews.  The most reliable source for Tenergy AA and AAA lithiums online is Newegg. If Newegg is ever out of stock, you can check a box to have them send you an email alert when they get more in.  I use a Tenergy lithium AA in my Archer 1A Backup light.


Tenergy Lithium AA

One last tip for nighttime gear.  There’s no question of whether you will drop your flashlight, headlamp, lighter, etc. in the snow / leaves / dirt at night.  There’s only a question of when, and how often, and how cold and rainy it will inevitably be that one time you really, really wish you could find the thing that you just dropped.  As long as there’s one person left around who has a flashlight, you can find dropped things a LOT easier if you wrap a bit of 3M Scotchlite tape around them.  This is made out of the same stuff as the lettering on stop signs and interstate signs, so it lights up if any light hits it, even a dim light.  A small roll is about $6.50 and will wrap a family’s worth of flashlights, lighters / matches cases, and other droppable nighttime doodads.


3M Scotchlite Reflective Tape.


Posted: February 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

Camping cookware  is something people almost always have way more of than they need.  We’re not making aspic, we’re just scrambling some eggs.

tl;dr: For car camping, you can probably get by with a skillet from home, or from the dollar store, and use plastic utensils nabbed from a fast food place for free.  If you want to upgrade from there, or for backpacking, for 2-3 people, cooking actual food, get a GSI Extreme Cookset ($30, light but strong aluminum, durable non-stick, non-slip), and eat directly out of the pans using a couple of Light My Fire XM sporks ($8 each).   Drink right from your re-cycled 32 oz. Powerade bottle, or your $7 HDPE Nalgene.  If you start to really put some miles on your Nalgene, consider the $6 CapCap upgrade!

Longer version: If you’re car camping, use a skillet with a metal handle from home, and you’re all set.  Boom done.  I’d go with something non-stick: scrubbing dishes while camping is a sign that you’re a serious masochist, or a tenderfoot.  If your home pans are fancy-pantsy, just get a crappy non-stick skillet from the dollar store, or if you don’t have a dollar store, get a GSI Bugaboo campfire skillet in whatever size you like.

For backpacking or more regular camping use, there are two types of pan sets: one more for normal cooking over a campfire (or stove), and one more for boiling water to make rehydrated meals.  I favor the first type, because that’s the kind of cooking I mostly do.

Recommendation: For this style, I love the GSI Extreme Cookset ($30).  Throw away the little plastic cup and bowl that come with it, which are pretty so-so.  The actual pans and handle are AWESOME!  Lightweight, very slippery and durable non-stick coating, non-slip bottoms, and sturdy.  You can cook a meal for two in this set no problem.  I also got weird with it and drilled a lot of tiny holes in the soft aluminum pot grabber / handle of mine, to lighten it even further.  This worked great, and was probably still not at all worth the time it took, but there you go.  I keep the handle in a ziploc bag when it’s inside the kit, so it won’t scratch up the nonstick coating.  There are fancy titanium cooksets that will shave a tiiiiiiiiny amount of weight off of your pack if you choose carefully, but (a) it’s really not much weight for the money, and (b) they’re rarely offered with non-stick coatings, because they’re tailored more for the ‘boiling water to rehydrate meals’ style of camp cooking.


GSI Extreme Cookset

Eat directly from the pans with non-scratching plastic utensils- either free ones scrounged from fast food places, or the super sweet, much sturdier $8 Light My Fire Sporks . I like the full-size “XM” sporks over the mini ones, and I recommend going with a bright color so you can spot them when you drop them.  If eating from the pan doesn’t do it for you, grab a couple of disposable plastic bowls from the supermarket or dollar store.  Drink right from your water bottle, whether it’s a re-used Gatorade or Powerade bottle, or a for reals HDPE Nalgene (lighter than the more common transparent Tritan Nalgenes, but just as awesome).  Nalgenes can handle hot liquids like coffee if you like.  If you’re like me and can’t drink from your wide-mouth Nalgene without getting half of it on your shirt, give up a couple of extra ounces of weight for a $6 Humangear CapCap.

light my fire xm

Light My Fire XM Spork


Nalgene HDPE Water Bottle


Humangear CapCap

If, unlike me, you’ll mostly be boiling water for re-hydrating meals, and want to conserve fuel, a taller pot with a heat exchanger, possibly insulated, is more your speed.  If you have a JetBoil, or the Chinese knockoff version, the pot’s built in.  Otherwise, there are several great options for about $30 for this type of efficient boiling pot, that you can combine with a cheap isobutane stove.

Tip: If you get really into this style of camp cooking and have an uninsulated pot for boiling your water, and want a little “pot cozy” for it like the JetBoil pots have, lots of people make their own custom pot cozies using a bit of Reflectix insulating material and some foil tape.


Posted: January 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

Stoves are another piece of camping gear that people can end up spending a lot of money on, but you don’t have to.  My stove needs are a little out of the ordinary, so your mileage may vary.

Overall tl;dr: Do you really need a stove at all?  Not if you’ll always have a campfire!  If you’re on the fence about whether you need a stove, think about just getting a $5 isobutane stove from Amazon for now.  For my (admittedly specific) needs, I recommend the excellent and inexpensive Coleman Exponent Multi-Fuel, soon to be replaced by the very similar Coleman Sportster II Dual Fuel.  The Exponent Multi-Fuel can be had for about $50 on ebay if you keep an eye out, and the Sportster II Dual Fuel for around the same price on Amazon any time.


Not sure if you need a stove?  These are about $5 on Amazon or ebay.  You’ll also need fuel if you go with one of these.

Types of stoves.  We can use the type of fuel as a way to break down the stove options out there.

Propane stoves like big heavy Coleman muilti-burner stoves use the same stuff as backyard barbecue grills, although usually sold in smaller containers.  If you’re thinking of getting one of these big boys for car camping, I’ll suggest that a little more practice at making campfires, and cooking over them, might save you the investment.  Maybe give that a try first.

Isobutane stoves are especially popular with backpackers who only boil water to make freeze-dried meals on the trail. There are a couple of stoves that have some nice technical tweaks to make them very fuel efficient, most recognizably the JetBoil.  If you won’t be making fires where you are planning to go, and will only be using a stove to boil water for rehydrated meals, JetBoils are made for that!  They’re not cheap, but you can put together something similar using the knockoff $5 stove mentioned earlier paired with some of the heat exchanger pots from the cookware article, or you can get a Chinese JetBoil knockoff for about half the price of the real deal.

Alcohol stoves can be light, and can also be homemade (aka free); Google tuna can stove for some nice homemade alcohol stove designs if you like making your own gear.

Solid fuel stoves typically use hexamine, which smells like cat diarrhea if it gets out of its packaging, which it probably will.  For me, that’s a dealbreaker, but solid fuel stoves do have their fans.  Some older stoves and military meal heaters used to use trioxane rather than hexamine, but trioxane fuel is increasingly hard to find.

Wood stoves are maybe the overall lightest option discussed here, because you don’t have to carry any fuel.  They typically use clever gas-mixing baffles to burn twigs very efficiently.  Some protected camping areas that won’t let you have an open campfire will still let you collect twigs for a small wood stove.  If I did a lot of stove-only camping, I’d be tempted to try a twig stove like the solo stove or the less efficient but cheaper siege stove.  If you don’t want to pay the $60 for the solo stove or the $20-ish for the siege stove, you can also make your own solo stove.

Most liquid petroleum fuel stoves use “White Gas”, but some are multi-fuel and can also burn things like kerosene or unleaded gasoline.  Among liquid fuel models, there are the more commonly seen detached-fuel type, which has a fuel bottle separated from the burner by a hose, and the older attached-fuel design.  The main difference is that if you run out of fuel in the middle of cooking, with an attached-fuel stove you’ll need to let things cool down before you can safely add more fuel.  In the end, I think a liquid, multi-fuel stove is a great stove for all around use.  Many people agree, and MSR makes several variations of this style with detached fuel sources.  These MSR models are popular award winners, year after year, and are also lighter (although much more expensive) than the stove I use.



Coleman Exponent Multi-Fuel, and Coleman Sportster II Dual Fuel

My Stove: My own requirements for a stove are a little more unique than for some other kind of camping gear, which is why I’ve linked to a lot of the other excellent styles that might suit you better, depending on your needs.  For myself,  I never plan to camp in places that universally do not allow campfires, and if I have a campfire, I don’t use a stove.  My stove is for when I show up somewhere and find out there’s a recent fire ban due to dry weather, and maybe potentially for use in a natural disaster.  Because of this, I wanted a stove that would burn unleaded gasoline, which is cheaper and easier to find in remote places than many other fuels.  I also wanted it to be cheap.  There are two stand-outs that meet these requirements: the Coleman Exponent Multi-Fuel, which is still very widely available, but appears to be being phased out for the nearly identical newer model, the Coleman Sportster II Dual Fuel.  The older Exponent comes with an additional jet for kerosene, while the Sportster II only runs on either white gas or unleaded gasoline.  Although ebay is far and away the cheapest price on the Exponent, you can also find the Sportster II for a great deal on Amazon .  Wal-Mart also appears to carry the Sportster II in-store, if you’re looking for it off-line.  A cursory reading of these stoves’ specs may make them seem much heavier than similar MSRs or detached-fuel models, but if you remember to correctly compare the stove and external fuel tank together for the MSR style, they’re actually not that much lighter than these much less expensive Colemans, especially if you’re not planning to carry yours that often (like me).

Extra tips:   You’ll need a little funnel to fill a liquid fuel stove like this one, which you can find at most stores from Wal-Mart to REI, right next to the cans of white gas, as well as online.  The tiny chain that comes with the funnel is crap; throw it away and find another way to attach it to your gas can or stove.  I use some paracord and a #2 steel S-biner.  If you’re going with unleaded gasoline as fuel, you’ll also need a gas can if you don’t have one (it pays for itself in fuel savings).  The cheapest place to get a small approved gas can is actually at any gas station.

Safety stuff. Just to be clear in case you’re inexperienced: GASOLINE IS EXPLOSIVE!  It’s a whole different animal from things like alcohol or lighter fluid, and it has to be treated accordingly.  If you’re in any doubt at all about what this means, get it straight before using gasoline as a stove fuel, or for anything other than putting it in your car.  On the same topic, never use gasoline to light a campfire; it’s basically the definition of the phrase “recipe for disaster”!

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Sleeping Bags

Posted: January 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

Sleeping Bags are the last of the BIG 3 items (tent, backpack, sleeping bag) that contribute most of the cost and the weight to a set of camping gear. In general, I try to recommend things that hit the sweet spot of price/performance where you get something that won’t let you down, without getting gouged.  For backpacks and tents, the things I’d recommend are pretty mainstream and could be grabbed off the shelf at many REI’s or outdoor retailers.  For sleeping bags, I recommend an imported item that’s a little more off the beaten path, for the weekend to week-long camper like myself.

Overall TL;DR: get a High Peak Extreme Pak 0 degree (mine is the XL), synthetic, about 3 pounds, good to around freezing, about $80 new at Amazon, available in both left and right zip if you want a matched pair to zip together or use separately.  You won’t get anything else close to this for under about $250 new.

Down vs. Synthetic.  All magazine articles about sleeping bags are required to discuss this down vs. synthetic thing, and you will see it talked to death out there, so I’ll mention it briefly.  Down has a better warmth/weight ratio than good synthetic, but usually loses a lot more of its warmth when it’s wet than synthetic does.  There, done.  They’re not the same, and a ton more could be said.  The bottom line is that you can find serious thru-hikers on the PCT, Appalachian Trail, etc., who are using both types (down and synthetic).  I take this to imply that  neither is a slam-dunk over the other.  Another huge difference other than down vs. synthetic, that’s often less talked about, is the difference between different fills of down.  Long story short, not all down is created equal, by a long shot.  A good down bag manufacturer like Western Mountaineering or Feathered Friends will break it down for you on their website.  Higher fills have better warmth for the same weight, and cost more.

Temperature ratings.  Sleeping bags are often described by the temperature they are rated to: for example 30 degrees, 10 degrees, etc.  People will spend lots of time telling you how to interpret this number, based on whether it means “worst case but you’ll live” temperature, “warm and comfy” temperature, etc.  Ignore all of this, because it all overlooks the fact that there is no universal standard for these numbers, and manufacturers can say whatever they want, so in practice there is a huge amount of variation in what these numbers might mean.  You should get real, end-user feedback for a specific sleeping bag when deciding how cold it can be used comfortably or safely, and ignore the temperature numbers stuck onto bag names or labels.  If you’re worried about getting stuck by surprise in temps dangerously below what you had planned for, something like this mylar bivy / bag is very cheap insurance so that you don’t feel any anxiety about not shelling out for a $400 bag just to do some summer camping!

Big square car camping bags.  If you have one already or can borrow one, this is fine for car camping in the summer, or for trying camping on for size.  Otherwise, don’t do it!  Very heavy, and not that warm.  They are more for slumber parties or camping in a bunk at the cabin.  If you don’t already have one laying around, I wouldn’t spend money on one, even for car camping.

Here’s my left-field pick.  The High Peak Extreme Pak 0 degree is cheap, well designed, reasonably light, and comfortable to about freezing at least.  It’s about $80 on Amazon.  It comes with its own sturdy stuff sack, and has a nice drawstring and internal baffle layout.  It’s available in a regular or XL size, and can be had with a left-sided or right-sided zipper, so you can order a matched pair that can be zipped together, if you want.  I’ve slept in mine down to the high 30’s (F) with my clothes and beanie on, and not woken up once from cold.  Based on this I think you could push it into the 30’s with a little more bundling up or more ground insulation (I only use an uninsulated air mattress).  People’s responses to cold can really differ, so feel free to find multiple reviews on any model of sleeping bag, including this one, to see what the range of comfortable temperatures really is.  To get something much warmer or any lighter, you will have to spend closer to $350 as opposed to $80- Just to get something equivalent will run you upwards of $250.  If you get the High Peak Extreme Pak, the stuff sack has some decorative heavy nylon strapping that’s not structural.  If you’re sure you can tell which are the straps you compress the bag with, and which are the extra decorative crap, I’d cut all of that crap off.  You can probably get from the listed 3.2 pounds to 3 pounds total weight (for the normal size) by doing that.


High Peak Extreme Pak

Alternatives. If you’re planning on camping in temps a lot below freezing, or want to get the weight of your sleeeping bag down from 3 lbs to 2 lbs, you should be ready to spend quite a few bucks more.  If that’s you, I’d recommend Western Mountaineering as a real standout in price/value for nice down bags, although even then down bags are expensive!

Extra Tips: Compressing your bag makes it a worse insulator.  Don’t store it in its stuff sack between trips: hang it by the loop on the toe end, or tie it up loosely (not air-tight) in a big lawn-size hefty bag.  For the same reason, as soon as your tent is up, you should shake out your bag and let it expand a bit before bed.

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Posted: January 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

Backpacks come in a bewildering variety of options.  They’re one of the BIG 3 items (tent, backpack, sleeping bag) that contribute most of the cost and weight in camping and backpacking gear.  I’m going to use three somewhat artificial categories to exclude a couple of broad chunks of packs that aren’t good for me, or for recreational campers with similar needs, and then hone in on one pack that I love.  While in tents, for example, there are only a few obvious price/performance gems in a field of mostly way overpriced stuff, with backpacks there are tons of great packs that have their legitimate pros and cons.  I’ll just give one angle on the 10,000 foot view and then tell you what I picked, mentioning a few close alternatives along the way.

Overall TL;DR: For starting out car camping don’t bother buying a new backpack at all!  Once you’re sure you’ll use it for backpacking, get an Osprey Atmos 50, or maybe for women an Aura 50, and if your total pack weight with food will be below ~25 lbs, definitely consider the newer Osprey Exos.

The three categories: first is ultralight, which means that the packs save a pound or two (or three maybe?) by having absolutely no frame or suspension, on the assumption that you will be carrying so little that you won’t need a frame anyway.  If this is you, then you want this type of pack (say total pack contents with food never exceeds 20 pounds).  GoLite is one of the flagship gear companies for this crowd, although not the price leader by any means.  I’d also check out ZPacks for this type of pack, although there are many more manufacturers of ultralight packs.  Because I’m not hiking the Pacific Coast Trail for a month straight, but rather camping over three-day weekends and that kind of thing, I’ll never do the kind of hike mileage that makes this kind of ounce-counting more than an academic exercise, albeit a sometimes addictive and fun one (on which, more later).  With that in mind, I decided not to sweat it, and to stick a few more luxuries and “very slightly heavier while tons cheaper” gear items in my pack, that an ultralight backpacker usually wouldn’t carry.  I also use my backpack for vacation travel.  Because of these decisions, I got a very light pack with a frame, not an even lighter frameless ultralight pack.

The second category that I’ll exclude is military-style packs.  Like ultralighters, enthusiasts of this type of pack have a lot of forums and youtube reviews and that kind of thing, so you will run across these packs if you’re using Google or DuckDuckGo as your starting place for info without any other frame of reference.  These are MUCH heavier than recreational packs, because they are intended to carry much heavier loads, day in and day out, far from the possibility of repair or replacement.  There are some amazingly designed packs in this category, that are incredibly designed for the job they’re meant to do.  However, they are much heavier than you probably need if you’re not carrying heavy gear like weapons and ammo, and they’re more expensive as well.  If this sounds more like what you need (unlike me), Kifaru and Mystery Ranch are examples of pricey but very well respected companies that make this kind of pack.  Because heavy pack users are largely either professionals or gear geeks,  discount pricing is extremely hard to find in this category of packs.

Finally, there are frame packs for recreational campers.  Osprey, Gregory, REI, Kelty, and Jansport all make decent entries in this category, among a huge number of others.  A decent correctly sized pack from any of these manufacturers will probably do you right.  If you’re looking for the rock bottom price on something decent (say for a kid in Scouting who may outgrow the pack), maybe check out Jansport packs at, or at Amazon.  One standout is the now-discontinued JanSport Forsyth50, which has a suspension very similar to the Osprey Atmos I own, and can sometimes still be found on closeout for about $100.  Both JanSport and Osprey offer a lifetime warranty on their packs, by the way- if you buy one, take advantage of it!  Price aside, I’d say of these companies, Gregory and Osprey offer the best models currently, and unlike some other pieces of camping gear, the price difference between an Osprey or Gregory backpack and the best bargain you’ll find isn’t a ton of money.  In the end, the Osprey Airspeed suspension seems to me like the best engineering solution to lightweight pack frames on the market- it knocks the crap out of the “two unconnected pieces of soft flat aluminum” solution that is still inexplicably common in internal frame packs, and distributes loads a lot like an old aluminum external frame pack doess an example of a very pricey but very well respected company that makes this kind of pack,.  I would suggest having a look at any of the Ospreys with the Airspeed suspension, if the recommendations below aren’t exactly what you need.

Sizing.  For backpacks, I strongly recommend trying on a few in person first.  Ideally you should take one on a hike, and borrowing from a friend is the perfect solution if at all possible.  All of that being said, sometimes you may have a big trip on the horizon with little time to get your gear- if you’re feeling lucky, and want to roll the dice and order a backpack sight unseen, pack manufacturers have sizing charts on their websites to let you know what size to order.  The pack that I use, after trying on several, is the same size that the Osprey website would have pointed me to.

My Pack: I wanted a pack that wouldn’t make me sweat my butt off in warm weather, and that wouldn’t be large enough to tempt me into packing more crap than I need for the kind of camping and traveling I do.  With that in mind I got the Osprey Atmos 50 (large). I got it from e-OMC which is the source linked here- they’ve consistently had the best pricing on this pack, although let me know if you see it cheaper elsewhere.  Although the Atmos 50 is closer to $150 online and you can get a somewhat similar JanSport for closer to $100, in this particular case for me the devil is in the details, and even though I hate spending money unnecessarily on camping gear, I’d spend that extra $50 every time.  This pack is one of my favorite pieces of gear that I have, for any activity.  It’s made up to 40 pounds seem weightless (and cool and breezy to beat) for a month in Thailand, a few miles of large elevation changes at around 7000′ in the Sierras, and everything in between.  The details of the strap layout, pocket layout, buckle design, etc. are tied neck-and-neck with Gregory packs for the best out there for this type of pack.  The Osprey Atmos is laid out for hydration, but does not come with a bladder.  If you want a hydration bladder for this pack I would recommend a Platypus Big Zip SL in 1,2, or 3L as a great bargain, although for moderate hikes I prefer water bottles like a free leftover Powerade Zero 32 oz. bottle.  I lose caps easily, so I like to spend a few extra ounces and about $7 on at least one overbuilt bottle with an attached cap and ounce markings on the side, like a Nalgene HDPE trail bottle.


Osprey Atmos 50

Alternatives:  The pack I’d most consider as an alternative to the Osprey Atmos 50 is the Osprey Exos 46 or Exos 58.  These came out after I bought my pack, so I’ve never hiked one, but if I didn’t already have my Atmos I might be on the fence between it and an Exos.  The Exos line is about a pound lighter overall, but built with lighter materials and rated for closer to 20 pounds vs 40 pounds as a high-side load.  If you know you’ve decided to go a pretty light/ultralight route with your whole setup, and won’t be using your pack for anything burlier, you can drop another pound-ish by getting the Exos vs. the Atmos, and still have a great solid frame that a GoLite or Z-packs ultralight model might not give you.  On the other hand, just having one sturdier pack that can also tackle heavier loads for month- long travel backpacking and other air travel might seem worth that extra pound.  There is also a larger Atmos 65, which is basically otherwise the same, and a Women’s style of the same pack called the Aura 50.  The most comparable other model would be the Gregory Z55.  As a point of reference, among the people I camp with who aren’t squeezing a few more trips out of a super old hand-me-down or something, the Atmos 50, Aura 50, and Gregory Z55 make up 90% of the packs represented, and all of us did our pack shopping and selection independently.

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Posted: January 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

Tents are one of the more expensive pieces of gear you’ll purchase if you’re getting into camping.  Tents also have a bewildering variety of options to choose from if you’re starting from square one and trying to sort it out.  They’re part of the BIG 3 (Tent, Backpack, Sleeping Bag) items that contribute the most gear cost and weight.

Overall TL;DR: If you’re only trying camping on for size, a $20 big box (WalMart, Big5, Academy) tent will get you through a weekend, but won’t hold up to much real use if you decide you like camping.  For 2 or 3 people, get an ALPS Chaos 3 (5.6 lbs total, sleeps 3, full fly, 3 season).  I got it for $106 on clearance at REI and it’s $125-$150 usually online, depending on the season.  For 1 person get the ALPS Zephyr 1 if you want a free-standing tent.  Whatever tent you get, don’t buy the separate Floor Saver or Footprint- get a non-crinkly mylar sheet, (an Adventure Medical Kits SOL 2-person blanket), for $8 on Amazon or $7 on ebay instead- it’s warmer and lighter than the standard tent footprint.  Cut the mylar sheet to size so it doesn’t stick out from beneath the tent and catch rainwater, and use it shiny side up.

I think of modern fully enclosed tents in three broad price/weight categories now, although there are some exotic exceptions.  With many tents,  within these three pricing categories there are also two independent sturdiness or “number of seasons” options  (3-season or 4-season), which I’ll also talk about.  I’m completely skipping giant canvas expedition tents,  silnylon teepee / portable stove setups for extremely cold weather,  ultralight tarp-only setups, hammocks, and bivys, just to let you know what you’re missing.  These omitted types are a lot less likely to be what you’re looking for if you’re just getting into camping.

First price category is fiberglass-poled big lots store tents.  (section tl;dr: don’t get one of these it will break).  You can get one of these for 20 bucks at a Big 5, Wal-Mart, Fred Meyer, etc.  These are far less expensive because the fiberglass poles are much cheaper, although they are also heavier and easier to break than the anodized heat-treated aluminum poles you get at the next level.  If this were the only real difference, they could be a good bargain for a lot of casual users.  Unfortunately, tents in this group are always pieces of crap, as I learned the hard way while trying to go this route.  They universally use terrible zippers that can’t knock more than a buck off of the manufacturing cost, but will always break within a weekend’s worth of use.  Also, rather than steal fabric patterns from nicer, extremely well-designed tents, the bargain class tents always use clunky designs that allow the poles and tent stakes to put huge strains on all of the zippers and fabric seams at all times, further shortening the already tiny chance that one of these tents will make it through a weekend.  I’m sure there must be some sturdy exceptions in this category, but I haven’t found any personally, so I decided it isn’t worth trying to navigate this minefield of crap.  These might be good for letting kids camp out in the backyard, or for testing out whether you like camping, but they won’t hold up to much use and are liable to fail on you just when you really need to stay dry.

The second, and largest, category (section tl;dr: get this kind, with a complete all-over rainfly) is polyester and mesh tents with anodized heat-treated aluminum poles held together with elastic cord.  These are inherently lighter and more durable, and also have much better patterns and designs, (which, as mentioned, are inexplicably never copied by the fiberglass pole discount models).  They range about 100-200 bucks unless you’re getting fleeced, which is quite possible in this category, so heads up.  Within this group, there are two different common ways they knock some weight off of backpacking tents.  One is to make the main tent out of more mesh and less solid fabric, and still have the rainfly cover the entire tent head to toe.  The other is to keep the mesh down to a couple of windows and only give you a rainfly that does not cover the entire tent (many otherwise good Eureka tents fall into this incomplete-rainfly group).  The possible downside of the “lots of mesh” style is it might be less durable in the long term.  The possible downside of the other “incomplete rainfly” style is that any solid part of the tent which isn’t completely covered by a second rainfly layer will leak every single time you rub touch it. Because modern patterns put very little strain on the mesh panels from the frame and zippers, I strongly favor the “lots of mesh” style of mid-priced lightweight tent, for normal recreational camping use.  I’ve had a mesh-heavy style for 4 years, with 2 large clumsy humans and a 70 pound dog and it’s none the worse for wear so far.

The last group (section tl;dr: fine but not worth the $$$$) is often made of silnylon fabric, or most recently Cuben fiber, a high tech laminate that started life as material for America’s Cup sails.  These are lighter fabrics, paired with the same aluminum poles as the second group, or sometimes with carbon fiber poles.  These are all generally outstanding tents.  However, even if you intend to do 15-plus mile hikes at altitude every day, the small weight savings that they offer is never ever worth the large additional cost.  As long as you have the money, and are willing to admit to yourself that you’re just trying to impress your camping buddies with a logo, or have started to get a little carried away about your gear, knock yourself out- these are excellent, well designed, unbelievably light tents.  I would use one of these if someone gave me one for free, for example.  If you’re hoping to find one of these without spending an arm and a leg, maybe check your local REI Garage for a returned one with no rips (REI has a lifetime return policy, and re-sells the returned items at a steep discount).  If you really want under-a-pound level lightweight coverage, many people eventually decide to give up a freestanding enclosed bugproof tent, and get a tarp with the sides open and stakes and lines holding it taut, or go with a hammock.  For myself, I like knowing my dog can’t slip away in the night so I stick to an enclosed design.

On to the “number of seasons”.  For mainstream tents, within a particular price category, for each “number of people” size (2-man, 3-man, etc.) you’ll often see two different models of tent from the same manufacturer.  These will usually be called “three-season”, and “four-season”.  Four-season tents cost a little more and are heavier.  This is because they’re to not collapse on you under some snow as easily as a three-season tent would.  If you need to sleep in a tent while a foot or two of snow gets laid down, definitely go four-season.  In fact, read the fine print in some end-user reviews to be sure your four-season tent is really four-season.  If you’re not planning to camp during heavy snowfall, three-season is definitely the way to go: lighter, cheaper, with more mesh for stargazing on nice nights and for ventilation in the summer.  I have a three-season tent.

Recommendations:  ALPS Mountaineering completely runs away with the price/performance game on tents, if you shop the sales online, or hit up Amazon or Google shopping.  Kelty is a distant second if I had to pick one, and about once a year REI will have a blowout price on one of their nice tents, which are otherwise about twice the price.  A few other companies are all over the place on price depending on the particular model.  Finally, some great manufacturers with very similar tents to these, such as Big Agnes, will never show competitive pricing with ALPS, or even with Kelty or REI (on tents), so don’t bother waiting for it to happen.

My tent: Alps Mountaineering Chaos 3.  This is a three-season tent from the second, midrange, category.  I got it for $106 on sale (REI outlet with in-store delivery) and have often seen it online for under $125, although the price goes up and down over time.  The Chaos 3 comes with the rainfly and a gear hammock to stow some items in the top of the tent, but not the footprint. Although I found the footprint (“Floor Saver”) for it this tent for $11 also on sale at REI Outlet, I actually recommend using a non-crinkly reflective mylar sheet cut to size ($8 on Amazon or $7 on ebay) as a footprint for this or any tent- it’s lighter and warmer!  I use this tent for two large adults (6’2″ and 5’11”) and one 70 lb dog, and it’s got plenty of room for us all.  Everything about the design, from frame to door placement to mesh placement, is very much best-in-class.  On that point, it’s worth noting that the frame design for most tents of this type- whether the Chaos 3, the REI Half-dome 3 or 2+, or the overpriced but lovely Big Agnes Seedhouse 3- is actually usually done by the same couple of engineers, who work for the company that makes the patented style of aluminum tent poles that all of these tents share in common.



Alps Mountaineering Chaos 3

Very comparable items would include the also great, incredibly similarly designed REI Half-Dome 2 Plus, which is typically around twice the price of the ALPS although it goes on blowout sale about once a year.  The Half-Dome 2 plus shows up used on Craigslist reasonably often, although not always for a reasonable price.

The four-season cousin to the Chaos 3 is the ALPS Extreme 3, which is also an awesome tent at an unbeatable price, if you need a four-season tent.  I camp with someone who has the Extreme 3 and they love it.

Its smaller cousin is the ALPS Chaos 2, whose small weight savings and zero cost savings are not a great advantage over the Chaos 3, for most users.  For a solo tent , I would suggest the free-standing ALPS Zephyr 1 over the non free-standing ALPS Mystique series, although at that point a bivy or a hammock might be a better option, depending on your needs (not for me, since I have a dog).

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