Gear: All the Right Stuff for Backpacking

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
The Tenderfoot's Almanac

Gear: All the Right Stuff for Backpacking
By Douglas Gantenbein

Sleeping bags and pads

When buying a sleeping bag, your main choice is whether to go with down or synthetic insulation. Down is generally warmer for its weight and lasts longer, while synthetic bags are less expensive and easier to care for (they're washable). One excellent synthetic bag is The North Face's Cat's Meow ($170-$180), redesigned for 1997 with new Polarguard 3D insulation. The women's version is cut a little shorter overall and wider at the hip. In a down-filled bag, Sierra Designs's new Sundance ($199) won't bust the budget yet has technical features like a snug-fitting hood and a water-repellent polyester shell. A roomier bag is Mountain Hardwear's Two Bit Bag with Crazy Legs ($175) which has an expandable Lycra knee section. For youngsters, Slumberjack's Aurora Junior ($69) is a warm bag that fits kids up to young teens and stuffs down compactly for easy carrying. And for little tikes, Tough Traveler's Baby Bear ($85) wraps three-year-olds in a semi-mummy-shaped bag. To keep bags grime-free while being slept in by clammy bodies slathered in mosquito repellent and sunblock, use Cotton Mummy Bag Liners ($20-$29) by Design Salt.

Nothing is worse than following a hard day's hike with a hard night's rest on lumpy, rocky ground. Cascade Designs's self-inflating Therm-a-Rest Staytek Long pad ($63) will cushion all but the biggest bumps, yet is light and packable. Lighter still is Casa Artiach's Skin-Mat Mid Regular ($63), which has a sticky polyurethane shell so sleeping bags don't slide off. Slumberjack's Standard Camper ($60) is a wide, durable self-plumper with its own mesh carrying pouch. And Basic Designs's Ergomat ($45) is contoured for comfort and has independent air chambers that can be adjusted for more support. It also has a built-in pillow--and if that isn't enough head cushioning, Basic Designs's Super-Size Pillow ($21) will make you think you're back in your own bed. Perhaps no modern camping invention, though, is as welcome as the chair kit, which converts most self-inflating pads into a handy chair for relaxing around camp. Crazy Creek's ThermaLounger ($51) goes with you wrapped around your pad. Cascade Designs's Therm-a-Rest Sport Seat ($19) is a light, self-inflating cushion that's useful in the stadium as well.

Cookware and stoves

Ah, dinnertime. Hungry kids are unhappy kids, so you want dinner ready quickly. It's then that you'll appreciate Peak 1's Backpacker Stove ($40). It's fueled by a butane/propane canister, so there's no white gas or priming to fool with. Click the built-in igniter, and you'll have a quart of boiling water in under four minutes. Traditionalists, meanwhile, can't miss with the MSR WhisperLite ($52.50), a reliable white-gas stove that is hot, quiet, and allows simmering so you don't burn the stew.
And if you do, so what? Cascade Designs's Evolution II cookware has a non-stick coating both inside and out, so it's always easy to clean up. Get the family-size set ($37), which has 1.5- and 2-liter pots and lids, a potlifter and scrubber pad. Carry condiments and utensils in Outdoor Research's handy Compact Outdoor Kitchen Kit ($29), which comes equipped with just about everything you need to do your Martha Stewart Goes Hiking routine. Keeping a family going on the trail also means lots of water for hydration. But giardia and other waterborne nasties can result in a mass visit to the doc once you get home. So take along a PUR Hiker ($55), an effective, easy-to-use filter that will keep everyone tanked up. MSR's MiniWorks ($65) offers slightly more effective filtering and greater convenience, but is harder to pump.

Tents best-suited for family camping need to be a little larger than ordinary backpacking tents, so there's room for everyone to crowd in when it rains. But they still need to be light enough to carry on your back. One tactic is to buy two reasonably-sized tents so that parents and kids have their own sleeping quarters; if you go this route, there are few better tents than Sierra Designs's Comet CD ($365). This roomy tent is a good hangout for dad, mom, and two small children, and at seven pounds, it's easy to carry. The North Face's new Cumulus ($395) is another three-person-plus tent that offers roominess and durability. Also light is EMS's Thunderlite ($200) that weighs just four pounds, 11 ounces, and is a good second tent for the kids. But if you choose to buy a single tent that can sleep the whole family, REI's Camp Dome 6 ($249) is the size of a small house and tall enough for six-footers to stand upright. Eureka's Mountain Pass XT 4 ($290) has two covered storage areas for keeping boots and packs out of the rain. And campers on a budget will appreciate Camp Trails's Escape 4 ($199), which has big, easy-access doors and great ventilation, although its fiberglass poles make it a little heavy (13 pounds). L.L. Bean's #4 Geo Backcountry ($280) also isn't light at 12 pounds, two ounces, but it's roomy and sturdy. Just tell the kids that carrying a tent is character-building.


Good generals know they must look after the troops' feet. So should you. For adults, Merrell's new M2 Ventilator High ($130) is a perfect summer boot--light and comfortable with an over-the-ankle design, a rugged polyurethane footbed for support, and mesh panels to keep your feet cool. Salomon's Adventure 7 ($155) offers a bit more support and weather-resistance and also has sticky soles for traction. For wet weather and light packs, you'll appreciate the Gore-Tex liner in One Sport's Skyline GTX ($135). Hi-Tec's new Trilogy ($75) is a light, all-leather hiker that has good impact protection and a durable outsole. And Timberland's Midweight Backpacker ($180) has long-lasting all-weather construction and a comfortable flex for trail hiking. For kids, Nike's Air Skarn ($60) offers good traction and foot stability in a comfortable, cool-looking, low-cut shoe. For more support, Vasque's All-Leather Kids Klimber ($55) has an over-the-ankle design and an unusual adjustable insole that lets you peel off layers as your youngster grows, giving you more wear out of the shoe.

First-aid kit
Face it, bumps and scrapes are inevitable on vacation. But you can minimize the damage with Atwater Carey's Backpacker First-Aid Kit ($21.60) which won't mend exposed broken bones, but has fabric bandages, moleskin, wound closure strips--even some antibiotic cream. Another handy kit is Adventure Medical's Day Tripper Kit ($38), which includes butterfly bandages and an elastic bandage for sprains. And for big jobs, Outdoor Research's Family Camping Medical Kit ($68) has enough supplies to last for an extended tour.

W H E R E   T O   F I N D   I T
Adventure Medical: 800-324-3517; Atwater Carey: 800-359-1646; Basic Designs: 800-328-3208; Camp Trails: 888-245-4985; Casa Artiach: 800-569-4110; Cascade Designs: 800-531-9531; Crazy Creek: 800-331-0304; Design Salt: 800-254-7258; EMS: 603-924-6154; Eureka: 888-245-4984; Hi-Tec: 800-521-1698; L.L. Bean: 800-341-4341; Merrell: 800-359-3050; Mountain Hardwear: 510-559-6700; MSR: 800-877-9677; Nike: 800-344-6453; One Sport: 800-826-1598; Outdoor Research: 800-421-2421; Peak 1: 800-835-3278; PUR: 800-449-2837; REI, 800-426-4840; Salomon: 800-225-6850; Sierra Designs: 800-736-8592; Slumberjack: 800-233-6283; The North Face: 800-447-2333; Timberland: 800-445-5545; Tough Traveler: 800-468-6844; Vasque: 800-224-4453

Photographs by Jennifer Moller

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