Field-Tested Camping Gear of 2012
By Kevin Callan
I had a good season. A really good season. So far I've slept in a tent 48 nights (and there's still a few more trips planned). Not spending too much time at home has it's disadvantages of course. The garden didnít do well, I had a group of alley cats living (and breeding) under my back porch and my neighbors started a rumor that my wife and I split up and we were going to sell the house. But it was all worth it to paddle in so many places - and finally take some quality time to really field test some new gear. Here's a breakdown of some goods and bads of my top five gear choices for the season:
Therm-a-rest's NeoAir Mattress
I ended up buying the traditional NeoAir rather than the brand new NeoAir XLite (http://cascadedesigns.com/therm-a-rest/mattresses/fast-and-light/neoair-xlite/product). It was on sale. The two are similar but the new model is definitely a sleeker design. I may splurge and get the newer model next year, but there's no need - I loved sleeping on this mattress. First off, it was very lightweight. In the past I had always packed an ultralight 3/4 length Therm-a-rest to keep the weight down - but that meant I didn't have a full length pad to sleep on and the comfort was moderate. The NeoAir packed down to the size of a 1 liter water bottle and was just as lightweight than my previous mattress but the sleeping surface was far better. It had a lot more loft, lift and thickness. The extra loft and insulating properties also provided exceptional warm, especially during my early Spring trips.
There's a few bad points I soon realized by mid-season, however. Inflating the NeoAir did required a lot more time and far too many deep breathes (I suffered a few dizzy spells when trying to blow the mattress up). Deflating it was easy but the air expelled always had a sour odor to it. Odd. The biggest negative, however, was that my tent mates hated me using it. It seems every time I moved, my NeoAir would make a noise - sounding something between a plastic bag being crinkled up and your thumb rubbing against a inflated balloon. The sound didn't seem to bother me - I slept through it all.
I picked up a Slatgrill at the Midwest Mountaineering Spring Expo. Rather then get the conventional size (18 in x 12 in) I chose the smaller version (9 in x 9 in). It was more compact. Also, to cut down on the weight, I went with the titanium instead of the 3 lb. anodized aluminum/stainless steel model. It was much pricer ($240 rather than $70) but I tend to throw money at any camp gadget that will keep weight down in my pack. Initially I planned on using it as a lightweight camp grill, to be used as a lighter and more compact version of a firebox. That never happened. I ended up using it exclusively as a pot rest for my camp stoves instead. My MSR Simmerlite is an excellent lightweight stove. The problem, however, is that it doesn't distribute the heat evenly and becomes a real pain when trying to cook a meal. By using the Slategrill I had a way to distribute the heat, a stable place to place my cooking pot and a perfect wind screen to cut back on fuel. I also used it in combination with my Trangia stove (read my article on it) - it was a match made in heaven.
OR storage bag
I'm a bit obsessed when it comes to storage bags. My wife claims I have more than she has shoes (not sure I believe that one). Properly storing your gear, however, is fundamentally important. Keeping things organized, waterproof and compressed in your pack can add greatly to any trip.
Outdoor Research has made some great storage systems in the past but their latest designs really excel (http://www.outdoorresearch.com/en/or-gear/storage-systems.html). Their flat dry bags with a see-thru urethane window worked great for storing my assorted gadgets that needed to stay dry. However, care had to be taken to properly roll up the top seal and buckle to make sure water didnít seep in. The Zip Sacs are roomy, easy to open and close and worked perfect for storing my toiletries and first-aid. They're advertised to be water resistant but I made sure all the items stored inside that I didnít want to get wet (i.e. toilet paper) were placed in a Zip-lock as well. The last of my OR storage bag collection this season was various sized Ultralight Z-Compression sacks. These are amazing light weight bags that have a new single-pull pulley system to compress what ever is inside. I've traditionally used Outdoor Researchís AirPurge compression bags but decided to give the Ultralight Z bags a try. They're not totally waterproof, so they have to be stored in a pack liner. I didnít like the extra cordage hanging free after compressing the bag (there is a storage area for the extra string but I kept forgetting to use it). Overall though they're much lighter and compress better then an AirPurge system.
I've never worn new boots on a trip right out of the box. It's a good way to really mess your feet up with nasty blisters. My first trip of the year, however, I found myself doing the unthinkable. It was a poorly planned trip - meaning I decided to pack the day before. During the process I discovered my old boots from the previous year had become a nest for a family of mice while being stored in the basement. They were trashed and I had to resort to buying new boots. I chose a pair of Keen Gypsum lightweight hikers. (http://www.keenfootwear.com/ca/en/product/fw12/shoes/men/trailhead/gypsum)
At the end of the trip - which included 14 miles of portaging - my feet were fine. My canoe partner's were not. He packed his old pair and was nearly crippled by the end of the trip. The Gypsum were obviously a good choice of boots. They didn't have excessive ankle support but enough for portaging. The tread was sufficient. The weren't 100% waterproof, but I didn't expect them to be. They were water resistant though and after slogging through a wet, muddy portage the water squished through the material nicely and they dried quicker than any other boot I've owned. The only complaint is that my toes tended to get jammed into the front of the boot. Not sure why. For some reason my foot kept slipping forward and smooshing my toes no matter how tight I laced them up.
I've always packed After-Bite in my first-aid kit for when my daughter gets bit by mosquitoes and blackflies (http://www.adventuremedicalkits.com/products.php?cat=31). I've even used it on a few nasty wasp stings. It works. The gel formula is fast acting and very soothing. Best part, however, is that this season I also discovered how effective it is on jelly fish stings. I was kayaking along the eastern shore of Newfoundand and got stung by a jelly fish and my paddling partners, oddly enough, all offered to pee on my wound. I declined and rubbed on a bit of After-Bite. It worked - thank goodness.
Here's a YouTube video of Kevin's trip to Algonquin - McKaskill Lake, Spring 2012:
Kevin Callan is the author of 11 books including "Wilderness Pleasures" and "The Happy Camper." A regular keynote speaker at major North American canoeing and camping expos for over 20 years, he has received three National Magazine Awards and four film awards, including top award at the prestigious Waterwalker Film Festival. Callan lives in Peterborough, Ontario, birthplace of the modern-day canoe.