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Random thoughts on camping equipment

Knowledge sharing is a critical pillar of the civilization. After I've been asked several times to share my camping experience, I decided to write this post. It is by no means a complete guide - I'm not qualified for that. Rather a few random thoughts based on my recent experience.

Note: Contains links to web sites and online shops. They are here only for illustration purposes, I'm by no means affiliated with any of these organizations.

Opening notes

Your camping (hiking, traveling) experience will always be defined by three factors, of which you can usually prioritize no more than two (or even one):

  • Budget

  • Comfort

  • Weight

Lightweight equipment tends to be expensive. More comfort means more equipment. Nobody can guess what matters for you. If you have a car, you can probably get all three (assuming you don't include the price of the car into the budget), but if you're backpacking, you need to make a choice.

Don't take too close to the heart the opinion of people who only take two pairs of underwear for a week in the mountains. I'm glad it works for them, I don't want to make it work for me. I like to smell well.

Roughly speaking, there are two sorts of camping:

  • Lightweight backpacking or trekking. When you need to walk for hours with your backpack, weight is the most important concern.

  • Relaxed camping. When your goal is to get to the site and then spend there a cozy evening (two, three, a week, ...), putting the emphasis on comfort makes more sense. If your back cannot survive carrying your stuff from the bus stop, go to the gym first.

Full disclosure: I do relaxed camping. My recommendations may be of limited use for hardcore backpackers.

Warm clothes

Never, you hear me, never save on safety! And staying dry and warm is an important part of safety outdoors. Even if don't take any underwear at all, your warm clothes must be with you.

Woolen underwear is a thing. Underpants from Icebreaker cost a fortune, but they're well worth it in spring and autumn. If your budget allows buying a whole set of clothes from them - go ahead (mine does not).

You do realize that you shouldn't have anything made of cotton on you outdoors? Because you shouldn't have anything made of cotton on you outdoors. Cotton is sorta nice while it's dry, but turns into a life-threatening disaster when it's wet. Unlike wool or synthetic fabric, cotton takes very long to try and during this long time provides next to no protection from cold.

Down jackets are a must, but are you aware of down trousers? They are indispensable when sitting next to your tent in the cold autumn (or early spring evening). On top of that, everything made of down can be packed really well. If you're vegan, your choices are much worse. Sorry.

If the existence of down trousers isn't shocking for you, down socks (slippers?) are also quite useful. In theory, you can even walk around in many models since they have something resembling a sole. I only use them when sleeping. Your feet will be the first to feel the cold, so protect them well.

Sleeping

The tent is mostly to protect you from rain and wind. Yes, a tent may keep some warmth, but your sleeping experience will base on other two components:

  • Sleeping bag

  • Sleeping mat

Sleeping bags

If you don't know what a sleeping bag is, you probably need a more basic guide than this text. Essentially, it's a cocoon for your to wrap in for warmth. The filling can be down or synthetic. Down is lightweight and warm, synthetic filling is cheap and vegan-friendly. A winter sleeping bag can easily cost several hundreds Euro.

When choosing a sleeping bag, you'll often see a temperature rating that consists of three (rarely two) numbers. You can safely ignore the lower numbers, they're marketing bullshit. The highest number is your reasonable minimum temperature that also allows for an unexpected drop in the morning.

I have down sleeping bags for 0 and +9 °C.

By the way, the temperature rating assume you sleep in basically the same clothes as walk around the camp (with the exception of jackets and shoes). Don't expect your sleeping bag rated for 0 degrees to allow you to sleep in underwear when it's +2. Woolen clothing is still a must.

Sleeping mats

These are less obvious and easier to overlook than sleeping bags. A sleeping mat is what you put underneath. It's not just for comfort: a lot of cold comes from the ground, exactly where your sleeping bag does not work well (because your body compresses it).

Sleeping mats are characterized by their so called "R-value", which describes how well the mat isolates. The usual rule applies: the better the isolation (the higher the number) - the heavier and more expensive it is. If you want it lightweight and isolating, prepare to pay at least 150-200 Euro.

R-values can vary between manufacturers, but typically:

  • < 2 is for summer (or for sleeping in a car)

  • 3-5 is a solid 3-season range, will work for you even when the temperature drops below zero

  • 6+ is for winter (and costs like a good bike)

Mats can be inflatable or self-inflating. The former should be obvious: you inflate the mat through a valve. Doing it with your mouth is possible but not recommended (first and foremost, for hygienic reasons). Get your self a pump sack: a sturdy bag with a hole that matches the valve of your mat (they differ between manufacturers).

Self-inflating mats inflate by themselves thanks to the internal structure. But there are gotchas: they're heavier, more expensive and pretty hard to deflate.

I have an inflatable Vaude Performance Winter 7 with a R-value of around 4.2. It's surprisingly comfortable, while not too heavy or expensive.

Liners

There are often overlooked but can be very useful. A liner is a thin sleeping bag to put inside your sleeping bag. Why? First, they're much easier to wash than a down sleeping bag. Second, they may add a few degrees to its temperature rating.

How much? Well, my Cocoon MummyLiner Thermolite Radiator claims to add 9 degrees. That's marketing, of course, but it's actually warm, despite being a thin layer of synthetic fabric. Bonus: not only can you wash it, but also dry in a drier!

I also have a light cotton liner. What did I say about cotton earlier? Yeah, exactly. Don't. Not only does it absorb body moisture, it's also not stretchy, which is important in a tight setting. If you need a summer liner (and you probably do), go for synthetic or, if you fancy it, silk.

Tents

Surprisingly to no one, tents are important! They won't keep you warm (a couple of degrees, unless it's a special winter tent), their job is to protect you from two vicious enemies of a traveler: wind and precipitation.

Weather resistance

Obviously, there is a balance between ventilation and wind protection. A good summer tent will have a lot of openings (protected with a mesh because of insects), for colder weather it's better to limit the ventilation to the bare minimum. A compromise? Windows that can be opened and closed.

I prefer to use double tents even though they're a bit heavier. Such a tent has an outer tent to protect from the weather and inner tent to shape the inner space and provide the floor. Why? Better isolation, more comfort. Less chances of a leak if your inner tent does not directly touch the rain water. It's a good bonus when you can remove the outer tent in the hot dry weather.

The degree to which your tent resists water is often describe in terms of a water column. Roughly speaking, how much water you can pour on a surface unit before it leaks, expressed in millimeters. 3000mm is what I consider the very minimum for the rain fly / outer tent. I don't go below 5000mm for the base (the floor). My larger tent even has 7000mm.

Construction

Tents come in different forms and shapes. I grew to like the so called tunnel tents, which look like a tube narrowing at its ends. Your sleeping section is usually occupies from ½ to ⅔ of the "tube", while the remaining space can be used as a dry outer storage. I grew to dislike the dome tents (more or less symmetric constructions) because of the limited space outside the inner tent. At the very least, you need a place to put your shoes and the rain coat, and it cannot be next to your pillow!

The downside, at least from my experience: unlike dome tents, tunnel tents are often not free-standing, i.e. you cannot set them up without attaching to the ground with pegs. Thus, they are harder to move around or use on an unstable or really hard surface. Many dome tents have a separate rain fly, which you can remove on a hot day to end up with a nice mesh tent.

Speaking of free space. Most of the "2 person tents" I've seen are designed to literally fit 2 average humans. The width may be around 120-130 cm (an average sleeping mat - 50-60 cm). Such a tent may not fit two 60 liter backpacks, and if it's also a dome tent, the bags will have to stay outside, no matter what weather. For a more spacious setup, add one more virtual person and go for a "3 person tent" if you're a pair.

Many tents come with a ground sheet: a waterproof plane that you put under the inner tent or the complete tent. You can also buy it separately. I highly recommend you get one since it's much easier to clean the ground sheet than the bottom of your tent. And yes, it will get really dirty, even on seemingly clean grass.

My tents

Our first tent was Forceatt 3 Person tent. As you can see, it's a dome tent with a separate rain fly. I've already explained the up- and downsides of this construction. With time, we started using it only for short (1-2 nights) trips when the weather is easy to predict. The reason: lack of storage space. Since it's a 3 person tent, we can somehow fit two large backpacks and some belongings, but it becomes inconvenient pretty quickly.

Forceatt 3 person tent (without rain fly)

This summer we made a variation to this setup: leave the rain fly at home and use a large tarp. This way we can observe the stars at night and keep our bicycles dry in case of a rain (yes, it's that huge). Needless to say, it's a hot weather option. But even with the provided rain fly, the tent can be somewhat cold. I'm blaming the generous mesh doors.

Our hardcore longer-term camping tent comes from the German brand Wechsel: Voyager. It can fit up to 4 people, but I rather consider it suitable for 2 adults or 2 adults with a child. The inner tent can be split into a larger sleeping compartment and a smaller storage compartment (or your child's bedroom). The vestibule is rather small because of the inclined front door; the window could also be larger. On the other hand, 6.3 kg is quite impressive, many comparable large tents weigh more than 10 kg.

Wechsel Voyager tent

Being a tunnel tent, it's really robust: we had no issues whatsoever during a summer storm on the Baltic sea. It's also not free-standing, and the inner tent cannot be used separately. An upside: although the tent is supposed to be (dis-)assembled as a whole, it's much more convenient to assemble the outer tent first, then bring everything in. This way you keep the inner tent dry even in pouring rain. There is less mesh, so the warmth is better trapped inside. We managed to sleep reasonably well in -5 °C.

Next?

I'm currently eyeing Wechsel Outpost 2 to replace the Forceatt for short trips in colder or wetter weather. Somewhat heavier and not free-standing, it has a vestibule and a D-shaped door to keep the belongings dry in rain.

Finally, I'm looking into much larger tents for when we finally get a car. We're interested in a larger vestibule and more windows (potentially even in the sleeping part). Skandika Kambo 4 Person is one of the candidates, although I'm not impressed by the reviews.

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