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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


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, if you are a skilled camper. Witness the tales of mountain men like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson who traveled desolate country for weeks at a time 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, hiking in the mountains or desert, or canoeing in the wilds of 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 exactly what you really need. My book, CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS will get you started right and save you from spending unwisely.

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

1. Map

2. Compass

3. Flashlight / Headlamp

4. Extra Foodand 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 paths, not for remote country where help is far 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 because the single wall allows rain that gets through pin holes in the fabric to fall on you! Gore-tex tents are bulkier, heavier and much more expensive than equivalent double-walled nylon tents. I’ve never found a Gore-tex tent that worked reliably under severe conditions.

  • 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.

  • 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! Putting a plastic sheet under a tent floor is similar to pitching the tent on a slab of non-porous concrete!

Note: Don’t be wooed by “designer silliness” (plastic windows that will cloud and tear over time, interior LED lighting, phone charging station, color-matched bug-netting). Budget concerns? Eureka! makes many of the best mid-priced three-season tents.

2. A comfortable sleeping mattress. I prefer a nylon-covered air-foam pad like the popular Exped, NEMO and Thermarest. Make a light 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 it from sliding around on the tent floor.

3. Sleeping bag: Most people are buying sleeping bags that are TOO WARM. For summer camping, a lightweight, ultra-compact, summer bag is all you need. For trips where temperatures may drop to freezing, a three-season bag is the right choice. Pair a three-season bag with an ultralight summer bag and you’ll be cozy warm down to zero degrees Farenheit. I prefer down bags over synthetics: Down bags have a wider temperature comfort range than synthetics; they are lighter, more compact, and have much greater longevity. The shell of a down bag will destruct long before the down. If you use a plastic groundcloth inside your tent, you will never get your sleeping bag wet!

Important: To save a few ounces, sleeping bag makers are using smaller and smaller zippers in their bags. These small zippers often jam when run from inside the bag. Climb in any bag you plan to buy and try the zipper from the inside. If it jams, don’t buy the bag! Exiting a bag quickly can be important if there’s a fire or animal attack!

4. A rain suit. A two piece rain suit is best. It can be waterproof/breathable Gore-tex® or coated nylon. Don’t use your rain coat for protection from wind. Any garment you wear constantly will eventually develop holes. Wear a breathable nylon shell to stop wind.

5. Suitable clothing. Wool rules, followed by nylon and polyester. Cotton is suitable only in July heat. Note: synthetics have a much narrower temperature comfort range than wool. 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.

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

7. Camp stove: White gas (naptha), propane, butane, alcohol, 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 extreme cold. They are also expensive to operate. Alcohol stoves are the most compact and trouble-free of all stoves, but are slow to boil water.

8. Sturdy knife: fixed blade or folder. Blade thickness should be less than one-eighth inch at the spine and the edge should not be serrated. Thick blades and serrated blades are awkward for cutting kindling and preparing food—the primary use of a camp knife.

9. A folding saw and hand axe. The saw is needed to cut small logs into short lengths for splitting; use the hatchet to split the cut pieces into kindling size fire-wood.

10.. A 10’ x 12’ or larger silicone nylon tarp, with collapsible pole(s), stakes and cord for rigging. Erect the tarp before you pitch your tent so you’ll have a dry place to work if rain begins. Be sure to bring nylon parachute cord (I suggest 150 feet, cut into 20 foot lengths) 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, Minnesota.


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 low on the list. Here’s mine:

  1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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. My book, BASIC ILLUSTRATED MAP & COMPASS tells all.

4. A powerful (pricey) LED headlamp. A 15 dollar headlamp or similarly priced solar powered Luci light (my favorite) is all you need.

5. 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 to the handle. Choose a brightly colored cup you can see amidst the forest green.

6. Stainless steel or aluminum water bottle: A plastic soda bottle works as well.

7. Specialized camp clothing is nice if you can afford it. If not, you’ll do fine with discount store nylon, fleece and polyester clothes.

8. 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!

9. 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.


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