top of page
  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Insulated mug with leash
Hilliberg Kaitum tent

Knife, hand-axe, folding saw

Newcomers to camping are often put off by the all the things they “think they need” to have a good time. Frankly, you can get by with very little, especially if you are an expert and know what you’re doing. Witness the tales of mountain men like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson who traveled desolate country for weeks with only a few well-chosen tools. The key here is well-chosen. These men knew what they were doing!

Am I suggesting that you forgo essentials to save weight, space and dollars? Of course not! George Washington Sears, who wrote under the pen name of “Nessmuk” in the early part of this century, wrote: “We come to the wilderness to smooth it. Life at home is rough enough”.

If you have the right gear—and know how to use it—you will always (yes, always!) be warm, dry and in command, whether you’re camping out of your car or tent at a public camp ground, or hiking in the mountains or desert or canoeing in Canada. The important thing is to realize that “skills are much more important than things”. So best not to start wildly buying stuff until you’ve identified what you really need. A few good books on camping will get you started right and save you from spending unwisely.

Mountaineering books suggest you always carry these TEN ESSENTIALS when walking outdoors.

1. Map

2. Compass

3. Flashlight / Headlamp

4. Extra Food and Water

5. Extra Clothes

6. Sunglasses

7. First-Aid Kit

8. Pocket Knife

9. Waterproof Matches

10. Fire starter

This minimal list is for day trips on marked and beaten paths, not for general camping or where help is an airplane ride away. There’s a whirlwind of gear to confuse you: Here’s what I’d buy first:


1. A roomy nylon tent. Here’s the minimum I demand:

  • Adequate size: I prefer a two person tent for one; a four person tent for two, etc. You’ll appreciate the extra space when rains come to stay. The slight additional weight and bulk of a larger tent is hardly noticeable.

  • Double walls—a porous inner wall (canopy) to let body-produced moisture out and a waterproof outer wall (fly) to keep rain from getting in. I dislike single-walled tents (even Gore-tex ones) because the single wall allows rain that gets through pin holes in the fabric to fall on you!

  • A bathtub floor: The floor wraps up the walls of the tent like a bathtub and is sewn to the inner canopy several inches above the ground. There are no perimeter seams at ground level exposed to the weather.

  • Twin doors for good ventilation and for shooing bugs out. And if a door zipper fails, you can just tape it up and use the other door.

  • The bug netting should be colored black. Other colors reflect light into your eyes and make it hard to see outside.

Tip: Always use a plastic groundcloth inside your tent. Make the groundsheet a foot larger than the tent all around so it flows up the side-walls a foot. Now, ground water (rain) that seeps into your tent through worn stitching and fabric won’t drench you. DO NOT put the plastic groundcloth under the tent floor as recommended by some “experts”. Flowing ground water will become trapped between the plastic sheet and floor and be pressure wicked by body weight into the sleeping compartment. You’ll really have a sponge party!

2. A comfortable sleeping mattress. I prefer a nylon covered air-foam pad like the popular Exped, NEMO or Thermarest. Make a light merino wool, polyester or cotton cover for your pad. The cover will eliminate the sticky feeling of “sleeping skin-against-plastic”, and it will protect the pad from punctures, add warmth and prevent sliding on the slippery tent floor.

3. A rain suit. Avoid ponchos that dribble through. A two piece nylon rain suit is best. It can be waterproof/breathable Gore-tex® or coated nylon.

Tip: Don’t use your rain coat for protection from wind. Any garment you wear constantly will eventually develop holes that will let rain in. Save your rain coat for rain! Wear an unlined breathable nylon shell to stop wind.

4. Suitable clothing. Wool rules, followed by nylon, polyester and acrylic. Cotton is suitable only in July heat. Note: synthetics don’t have as wide a temperature comfort range as wool, and they are less durable. If you want to go first class, check out the itch-free pure merino woolens by Ice-Breaker®, Smartwool® and KLAR Ullfrotte®. They are awesome!

Don’t leave home without sunglasses, sunscreen and bug dope. Bring leather gloves so you can safely feed the fire and handle hot pots.

5. Proper footwear. You don’t need fancy hiking boots for general trail walking. Tennis shoes work fine if you wear pure wool socks inside.

Tip: Buy your shoes a half size larger than your daily work pair and wear two pair of socks—one medium weight, one ultra-light liner pair—inside. Wear the liners inside out (seams away from skin) to prevent blisters from developing along the seams.

6. Camp stove: White gas (naptha), propane or butane, your call.

Tip: Gasoline stoves burn hottest and are least expensive to operate. Propane stoves run hot but they’re heavy and bulky. Butane stoves are compact and light but they don't work well in cold weather. They are also expensive to operate and their fuel containers aren’t available everywhere.

7. Sturdy knife: fixed blade or folder. If a folder, it should have a locking blade. I can’t imagine going camping without a good knife!

8. A folding saw and hand axe. The saw is needed to cut small logs into short lengths for splitting; the hatchet is used to split the cut pieces into kindling size fire wood. Even wood purchased at campgrounds may need splitting to get at the dry heartwood inside, especially if the wood is damp.

9. Cook-set: Dedicated camping pots are nice, but castoffs from home will work fine. Pots should all have covers. A tea kettle that can be handled with one hand is handier than a coffee pot that requires two hands to pour.

10. Day pack: A light nylon day pack or fanny pack. It should minimally include the ten essentials.

11. A welcome addition! A 10 x 12 foot or larger nylon tarp, with pole(s), stakes and cord for rigging. Erect the tarp before you pitch your tent so you’ll have a dry place to work and play if rain begins. Some tarps have bug netting attached—an extra cost option that’s worth its bulk if you camp where insects are a concern. Be sure to bring nylon parachute cord (I suggest 100 feet) and stakes to rig your tarp.

Tip: If you’re going off the beaten path, choose a bright colored tarp that can be seen in an emergency. My favorites are those made by Cooke Custom Sewing ( in Lino Lakes, MN.


Stick with camping for awhile and you’ll have everything (and more!) listed below. But at the start, it’s better to spend your money on things you really need, and leave luxuries for last. Every expert camper has his or her ideas on what is least important. Here’s mine:

First aid kit: Serious first-aid kits are for “serious trips” off the beaten path. The best ones are expensive. Colin Fletcher, one of North America’s best known long distance hikers, and author of THE COMPLETE WALKER, suggests a simple first-aid kit that will fit into a zipper lock plastic bag. You probably have everything you need in your medicine cabinet.

GPS: Nice but not essential. Few people who own GPS units know how to use them. Master map and compass navigation before you buy a GPS.

LED headlamps are nice, but the small flashlight you already own will also light up the night. The compact, solar-powered Luci Light is my favorite camp light.

Stainless-steel or titanium drinking mug: Prices range to more than 30 dollars! An inexpensive double-walled plastic mug with fitted cover (the kind you find at gas stations) works as well. Tip: You won’t lose your cup cover if you leash it (fishing line works well) to the handle. Choose a brightly colored cup you can see amidst the forest green.

Stainless steel or aluminum water bottle: A plastic soda bottle is lighter.

Specialized camp clothing: Gore-tex® and merino wool clothes are wonderful, if you can afford them. If you can’t, you’ll do fine with discount store nylon, fleece, acrylic and polyester.

Entertainment/toys: Most people go camping to get away from the crowds and to experience solitude and the delicious sights and smells that go with living outdoors. The wilderness provides all the entertainment you need. If you want a full (real) camping experience, leave games at home. Instead, walk in the woods, climb the hills, sit by the stream and ponder the beauty of nature. Trust me; you won’t be bored!

Camping with children? Give children some cord, a note-book and pencil, a simple compass and magnifying glass (and a whistle for emergencies) and turn them loose to explore near camp. At day’s end, ask them what they learned. You will be pleasantly surprised. This is how native Americans taught their children.


0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page