The Outdoor Life Guide to the Best Summer Camping Gear
A rundown on some great products for making your next overnight adventure one of the best ever
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School is out, summer is finally here, and camping season is upon us. Whether you enjoy pitching a tent in an assigned space on some roadside site, or hiking up and into the mountainous backcountry, you’ll need the toughest, most reliable gear you can get your hands on. To help you have all your bases covered, here is a short list of equipment you might want to add to your inventory of supplies. Before you pack up your rig and head out, take a look at some of the latest and greatest items that can help you make a night under the stars one of your most memorable.
I’m a big fan of pack hammocks—they’re easy to carry, great for bivy hunts, and the perfect tool for sneaking in a quick afternoon nap in the woods. But recently I’ve started to see new hammock designs, like the Trillium 3-person Hammock, that is both unique and useful. Made from a heavy duty webbing, the Trillium can support up to 880 pounds across 92 square-feet of space after anchoring the three hatchet straps to mature trees. This triangle-shaped hammock is great for relaxing near a river or under the shade of some dense trees and perfect for raising the “wow” factor when you’re camping with your kids.
One of my favorite pieces of camping gear is my sleeping pad. It’s lightweight, easy to inflate, and it feels terrific on my back and legs after a long day of hiking or hunting. Not only does a pad make it easier to get some Zs, but it also provides that critical barrier of insulation between you and the ground on those cold nights. The high-density nylon pad from My Outdoors is inexpensive, tough (puncture resistant), lightweight (one pound), thick (2 ½-inches), waterproof, and because it has an inflatable pillow attached, that means you have one less thing to pack. If you need even more reason to invest in a sleeping pad, remember you can use it as a floating lounger when you’re camping near a lake, or make the wife mad by showing your kids how to ride one down the stairs like a sled.
Accidents happen, and camping gear can sometimes fail, so it always pays to have a backup. I learned this the hard way on one trip when I forgot to put my camping stove back into my pack and had nothing (other than fire) to boil water. Since then, I’ve stashed a couple Etekcity camp stoves in places like my truck glove box, my hunting packs, and I even have one “on standby” in my storage closet should I happen to lose any of the others. I typically rely on a JetBoil to prepare my meals, but if it’s ever not up to the job, I know I have a tiny stove that can attach to the same fuel tanks. Made from aluminum and stainless steel, it has a flame-control knob and push-button electric start, so no matches or lighter required.
While most people go camping to get away from technology, there’s nothing wrong with a little music. In the appropriate setting, the right playlist can accentuate the experience of being outside and keep the mood around camp light and fun. The JBL Charge 3 is perfectly suited for such an occasion. You can connect up to three smartphones or tablets at one time and take turns playing music and it can stay loud for up to 20 hours on a single charge. There is a built-in microphone if you want to answer phone calls, and you can charge smartphones or tablets using a USB cable. But the best part about this little unit is it has a waterproof rating of IPX7, which means it’s completely waterproof, so you can also take it into the shower at home when you’re cleaning off the dirt and dust from your camping trip.
Designed by Chuck Cook of Dundee, Oregon, the Persevere Axe Head from Columbia River Knife and Tool (CRKT) is a unique little implement, you’ll be glad to have when you need it. This 5-in-1 tool acts as a splitting wedge, knife, axes, chisel, or adze. It’s powder coated (black) with glass-reinforced nylon pins, and comes with a black cord, tie bead, and polyester sheath. If you’re passionate about bushcraft or compiling a survival kit, this is one item you’ll want to check out. It’s light, easy to pack, and extremely useful in the right hands.
There’s a running joke in our family about my poor fire-building skills. If there’s a way to choke the life out of a flame, I’ll find it—that’s if I can get a blaze lit in the first place. If you struggle to get a burn started, check out the Folding Torch from Snow Blaze. It connects to any standard butane tank (like you’d use for a pack stove or Jetboil) and once ignited, produces up to 14,000 BTUs of heat—more than enough to get things started inside the fire ring. It’s compact, easy to use, and also doubles in the camp kitchen if you need to do something like sear your steak.
Anyone moving from one body of water to another is encouraged to clean their vehicle, boat, or other gear to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. As an angler, I’m adamant about cleaning my wading boots, and a few years ago, I found a Rinse Kit portable sprayer helped make an otherwise tedious job, fast and easy. Once it’s filled and pressurized (no pumping or batteries required), the hose nozzle sprays a steady stream of water every bit as powerful as water coming from a spigot at home. Each unit has a carry handle, on/off valve, hose bib adapter, and quick-connect hose. You can also use a Kit to rinse off sand after a day at the beach, give your dog a quick bath, clean dirt off a kid who can’t resist mud puddles, or take a quick shower when no one is looking.
I can’t stand mosquitoes, but I’m also apprehensive about spraying DEET all over my skin because of the health hazards. Thankfully, a few years ago, a friend turned me on to Thermacell. I’ll admit I didn’t believe the product would work, but the first time I used one, I noticed the bugs were gone in a matter of minutes. The devices themselves are light and easy to use. A small, internal butane heater warms a replaceable card that gives off a scent mosquitoes can’t stand. Each card can create a bug-free zone for about twelve hours before it needs to be replaced and are available at grocery stores, sporting goods retailers, and just about anywhere else you’d also find bug-repelling sprays.
If there’s anything I can appreciate when I’m camping, especially if I’m also hunting or fishing while camping, it’s a good night of rest. I’ve slept on cots, foam sheets, inflatable mattresses, self-inflating mattresses, and hammocks, and of them all, I sleep best on a cot. Cots are fairly comfortable on my (sore) back, easy to pack up, and great for staying off the ground on an especially cold night. Therma-a-Rest has been making sleeping pads and mats for years, and their Ultralite Cot is a great option if you use also use some backpacking gear in the fall, say for a bivy hunt in elk country. The large version is 26-inches wide and 77-inches long and supports up to 300 pounds. Simply unroll the sleeping pad and attached the include ribs and feet and you’re ready to rest. When not in use, it fits into a compact bag and is light enough to carry in a backpack.
I can’t imagine life without my water-filtration pump. I drink a lot of water when I’m resting, and quadruple that amount when I’m out hiking and hunting, so if there’s something that’s light, easy to use, and effective at filtering out all the wee-beasties from my H20, I’ll gladly hand over some frogskins. That’s precisely what I did for the MSR TrailShot. It’s a pocket-sized filter that’s perfect for purifying water when you’re on-the-go. Weighing just 5 ounces, it fits into nearly any pocket. When you need a drink, submerge the hose into a source, and squeeze and release the bulb like you’re working a stress ball. The action pulls water up, runs it through the filter, and expels safe-to-drink aqua out the top. You can drink directly from the pump, or fill up a canteen. It takes about 60 seconds to siphon one liter, and the filter is good for up to 2,000 liters.
Cascade Mountain Tech
If you ever want to dictate the direction of the smoke from your campfire, position my chair at that angle and there’s a good chance the sparks, ashes, and plumes will fly right into my face. It never fails—it’s like I’m a magnet for smoke. Thankfully, over the years, I’ve learned the key to avoiding campfire smoke inhalation is to get low and let it all go over my head. If you’re also needing a low-and-comfortable solution for sitting next to the fire, check out the Mountain Tech chair from Cascade Mountain. Made from a breathable mesh fabric over a steel and aluminum frame, it has padded armrests, a storage bag with shoulder straps, is 20-inches wide and sits just 9 inches off the ground. It just might be the most comfortable ground-level chair I’ve ever sat in, and works just as good at the beach or on the lawn as it does next to a campfire.
When I think a company like Gerber has created knives, tools, and implements for almost any situation, they surprise me, and new in 2019 is one of most unique eating utensils I’ve ever seen. The Onyx is actually four components—a spoon, fork, spatula, and multitool—in one combination. Weighing less than three ounces and just under 8-inches long, the set nests together for slim storage. Take it apart, and you can attach the spatula to the fork or spoon to create a set of tongs, and use the multitool to open cans or bottles, peel vegetables or fruit, or cut through thin materials or food packaging. The Onyx is a great little tool for backcountry treks and makes a terrific gift for birthdays or Christmas.
One of my favorite things to prepare in camp is coffee. Don’t ask me why—maybe it’s the propane flame, the seasoned inside of a kettle, or maybe the state grounds—but coffee prepared and consumed outside just tastes better, especially if I know its percolating next to a skillet of sizzling bacon. It’s the perfect job for Camp Chef’s Everest stove. Each burner can produce up to 20,000 BTUs of heat, there’s a stainless steel drip tray, a matchless ignition system, and side panels to block out the breeze. Just pair it with a propane tank and you’re ready to roll. Packed down, the stove is about the size of a briefcase and weighs only 12 pounds.
I can honestly say that in all the camps I’ve put up and taken down, I’ve never really encountered a gear emergency where something breaks or tears and leaves me wondering, “Well, now what am I going to do?” Part of that reason is that I take care of my gear, but the other key is being prepared for things to go wrong. A few years ago I tore the rainfly on my pack ten while elk hunting. Thankfully, I had some Tenacious Tape to suture the hole and prevent the cover from splitting in two entirely. Tenacious Tape has an incredibly strong adhesive backing, comes in numerous colors, has a waterproof coating, and works on natural fabrics, nylon, and plastic. You can buy it in 3×5-inch patches, but I recommend the 3×20 inch tape in case you need to cut a custom Band-Aid for your gear.
Camping usually means someone is cooking outside, but if you have a large family or group at your site, real estate on a picnic table might be a premium. The Mountaineering Camp Table from ALPS is a lightweight, yet sturdy aluminum platform that’s perfect for camp stoves, dishes, or a makeshift wet bar. Weighing just 9 pounds, it folds down into a carry bag, and when erected, offers a 28×28 inch working area 27 inches off the ground, and is equally suited for car camping or in a canoe for overnight voyages down some river.
One of my favorite memories from my childhood are those times my entire family would sit around a picnic table near a roaring fire and under the glow of a gas lantern, playing UNO for what seemed like hours. These days, I’m doing the same thing with my children. Though there are several iterations of the classic card game, the original version is still a hit. My only advice is to grab more than one deck, especially if you have some cheaters at your table that often misplace the cards they’re hiding.
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I’m not a fan of doing dishes, especially camp dishes. In fact, the last few years, I’ve dined by the campfire almost exclusively with paper plates and plastic cutlery. But I also know there are those that insist on stainless steel or enameled plates, bowls, and mugs. If you’re one of those campers, then you’ll need an easy way to clean them up after a meal. The Coleman Folding Wash Basin is an excellent solution because it’s compresses to a slim, easy-to-store briefcase. Unfolded, there are two 10×10 inch basins—one for washing and one for rinsing—separated by a rigid plastic divider, and three carry handles make it easy to handle, even when filled with water.
When it comes to simple, easy to erect tent designs, it’s hard to beat a two-pole, free-standing setup like the ALPS Lynx. Not only is this model light and easy to put up and take down, the polyester rain fly repels the heaviest raindrops, prevents UV damage, creates two vestibules for extra storage space, and covers the entire tent all the way to the ground—an important feature not found on many pack shelters. Inside are storage pockets and a gear loft, and two doorways for getting in and out. Weight just under six pounds, the two-person version has a 5-foot by 7 ½-foot footprint, with 46-inches of headroom and comes with ground stakes and guy ropes to keep it from blowing away.
If you sometimes struggle with starting a fire like I do, then you know the value of having reliable fire-starting material that burns hot, and burns long. The blend from InstaFire does just that. Made from natural materials, a single pouch can sustain a flame for up to 25 minutes—more than enough time to add more fuel to your fire. But what makes it truly unique is it can burn on top of water, sleet, snow, or ice, and in winds up to 30 mph. Unlike fire-starting cubes or fuel-based lighters, InstaFire is made from recycled wood, rock, and a food-grade paraffin wax and it doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals. The pouches are small and light and have a 30-year shelf life so you can keep them nearly anywhere in case of emergencies.
You can dive into my bivy pack and take my beef jerky, take my pack hammock, and even take my wet wipes—but I won’t let you take my Jetboil. Since a friend turned me on to this little device years ago, it’s been the most efficient tool I carry into the backcountry, and the Zip system is just an iteration of the devices classic design. Able to boil water in just over two minutes, it uses less fuel than a conventional pack stove and can be used to prepare a meal or as a French Press for a quick cup of morning coffee. The neoprene cozy insulates the contents, and the three-pronged canister stabilizer prevents accidents. If you’ve been thinking about trying a Jetboil but don’t want to spend more than you have to, this is a great model to try out.
I’ve been in many campgrounds where the forest floor is so clean void of firewood I thought I’d never find enough fuel to kick start a campfire. However, I’ve found that if I venture farther from the campground, or even down the road, I can find more kindling and dried-out deadfall than I know what to do with. The problem is getting it trimmed up so my kids can help me carry it. That’s where the Taskmaster foldable saw comes in. It has a 7-inch long serrated carbon-steel blade that extends from the handle with the click of a button, and it makes quick work of small- or medium-sized limbs and logs. The rubber handle doesn’t slip in your hands, and since the blade locks in place, there’s no danger of it folding back and closing on your fingers. Not only have I found it useful in camp, but also at home for small landscaping chores, and in my backpack when I need to clear a shooting lane during hunting season.