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Camping Gear

Equipment used to hike and make camp in the backcountry includes a backpack; clothing and boots; a tent and sleeping bag; and food, water, and a stove. Because types of camping vary, campers should select appropriate gear for their trip. Deciding what is the appropriate gear can be confusing, but magazines, books, veteran campers, and sporting goods stores can provide advice.

A Clothing

Proper clothing protects campers from plants, hot sun, and inclement weather. In summer many campers wear shorts and a cotton T-shirt to stay cool on the trail. While hiking on trails enclosed by bushy plants, however, hikers will occasionally wear lightweight pants to protect their legs from nettles, poison ivy, and spiny plants that can irritate the skin. They also pack warm, comfortable clothing such as a light jacket and pants to wear during the evening.

In spring, fall, and winter, temperatures can be unpredictable. Experienced campers layer their clothing to stay warm. Layering typically starts with insulating long underwear or a thermal shirt next to the skin. Many campers prefer long underwear of a synthetic material instead of cotton because once cotton becomes wet or damp, the material takes a long time to dry. Moisture also lowers body temperature and can cause chills. The next layer consists of a shirt or sweater that insulates the body. Wool, goose down, and heavy polypropylenes are excellent insulators. The outer layer is a shell, or jacket, that keeps out wind and rain. Shells should be large enough to accommodate several layers of clothing underneath.

The advantage of layering is efficiency. Campers can peel off or add on layers of clothing to suit the weather and for personal comfort. Layering also allows moisture (usually perspiration) to escape. Wearing layers permits air circulation and helps keep the body dry: the drier the body, the warmer the camper. For this reason, campers should always carry rain pants and a rain jacket. Stocking hats, made of wool or polypropylene, also help retain body heat. Many campers take a small hat to wear at their campsite or while sleeping.

Two recent advances in outdoor apparel are Gore-Tex and fleece. Gore-Tex consists of several thin layers of fabric glued together. It allows perspiration to move away from the body and keeps out rain and moisture. These qualities make Gore-Tex an excellent outer layer. Many outdoor stores carry jackets, gloves, and hats made from the material.

Fleece is a soft, puffy synthetic fabric that comes in various densities. It provides a level of warmth equal to that of wool because it traps the body’s warmth. Campers also like fleece because it dries very quickly and is lightweight. Fleece does not stop wind, however, and therefore is best used as a layer beneath a shell.

B Boots

Whether campers are spending weeks on the Appalachian Trail or taking day hikes on nature trails, boots are probably their most important piece of gear. There are three types.

Heavyweights weigh about 1.8 kg (about 4 lb) per pair. They are constructed of heavy-duty leather and are very durable and water-resistant. Although heavyweights offer maximum support for feet and ankles when hiking over rough, rocky terrain, they have two disadvantages. Because of their durable construction, heavyweights require a long break-in period and can cause blisters in the process. Many campers also find the weight of the boots tiring.

Lightweights weigh around 1.1 kg (2.5 lb) per pair. They are usually constructed of fabric and leather, and they combine the support of a heavyweight boot with the comfort of a running shoe. Lightweights break in quickly and cause few blisters. While ideal for smooth trails and dry conditions, lightweights do not stand up to rough or soggy conditions. Their thin sole also allows rocks and other hard items on the trail to bruise the bottom of the foot during long hikes. Many campers pack lightweights or sandals to wear at the campsite. Lightweights allow the foot to breathe and cause less damage to plants around the campsite.

Midweights weigh from 1.1 to 1.8 kg (2.5 to 4 lb) and combine the best aspects of heavyweight and lightweight boots. Midweight boots are generally constructed of leather and are therefore highly water-resistant. They are extremely durable, but tend not to fatigue campers as much as heavyweights. Many midweights are considered all-purpose boots and are the best choice for first-time backpackers.

Exact fit of any boot is crucial. When trying a pair on in a store, campers should wear the same socks they plan to wear on the trail. Unlaced, the boot should have enough room so that a finger can be inserted tightly between the heel and back of the boot when the toes are scrunched toward the front. When laced, the boot should allow little or no heel slippage, and the toes should be able to wiggle freely. If possible, when testing a pair of boots in the store, walk up stairs and down a ramp, to check fit, and kick the toe against a wall to check shock impact.

C Backpacks

The two types of backpacks most commonly used are external frame and internal frame. Use, trail conditions, and personal preference help determine which backpack is right. Each type has several distinct characteristics.

An external-frame backpack is ideal for hiking on established trails and is less expensive than an internal-frame model. The pack bag, where campers store their gear, is attached to a plastic or metal-tube frame and typically has lots of pockets for easy organization of gear. This type of backpack is cooler to wear because the frame keeps the pack off the back, allowing perspiration to evaporate.

In an internal-frame model the frame is hidden within the pack bag. When properly fitted, the pack hugs a camper’s back. Because the weight is close to the back, campers have better balance and control when scrambling over boulders, negotiating tough up-and-down terrain, or moving quickly. Because internal-frame models remain close to the back, campers can become very damp from perspiration.

It is important to try on a pack before purchase to make sure it fits. A bigger backpack is not necessarily better. In fact, campers who buy big packs usually find that they carry too much unnecessary gear. Salespeople are trained to match the weight a camper wishes to carry with the proper pack size. Pack frames and hip belts, which keep the pack close to the body, come in different sizes, helping to assure the right fit.

Many campers are tempted by packs with extra loops, straps, zippers, and other options. But a simple, well-made backpack suffices on most trips. Camping equipment stores may rent packs for weekend trips, enabling people to try different models before purchase.

When packing an external-frame pack, it is important to place heavy items at the top of the pack and close to the back. With an internal-frame pack, heavier objects should be packed toward the bottom, so that they are near the small of the back. Both methods distribute the pack’s weight over the hips and allow the leg and abdominal muscles to carry most of the load. Otherwise the weight pulls against the shoulders, causing discomfort.

D Tents

Tents are portable shelters made of lightweight fabrics. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most popular shape is the dome, or freestanding model. This model is easy to set up and does not require support from tree limbs or other objects.

Many tents are designated two-person, three-person, and so on, according to how many adults can comfortably sleep inside them. Tents range from small models that sleep just one camper to larger models that can accommodate groups of 12.

Manufacturers also provide a rating based on function. The most common ratings are three-season for tents that can be used in spring, summer, and fall, and four-season for tents that can be used throughout the year. Four-season tents usually have thicker walls for better insulation and stronger poles to withstand winter winds and accumulations of snow on the tent’s roof.

Before purchasing a tent, campers should decide when and where they will use it. Summer-only camping does not require a tent built to withstand intense mountain winds. Camping in areas where it often rains calls for a tent with a watertight exterior, or rainfly, that keeps those inside it dry. A tent for warm weather camping should have plenty of vents for air circulation. A cover of netting over those vents prevents insects from entering. A ground cloth—a piece of waterproof material placed between the tent floor and the ground—helps protect the tent from damage and keep moisture out.

After buying a tent, practice setting it up. Practicing at home makes pitching the tent in windy or rainy conditions much easier.

E Sleeping Bags and Pads

Sleeping bags come with a variety of fillings and temperature ratings. Campers should choose a filling that best suits their needs. Goose down works best in dry cold. Bags stuffed with down are incredibly warm but lose their insulating capability if the down becomes wet. Synthetic materials, on the other hand, dry quickly and can still keep campers moderately warm even if they become damp.

A temperature rating is displayed on the tag of most sleeping bags. A sleeping bag with a rating of 0° C (32° F) should keep a camper comfortable at temperatures above 0° C. But ratings can be misleading because they vary among manufacturers. Campers who normally become cold when sleeping should buy a bag with a rating 10° to 20° lower than the anticipated temperature. They might also consider a so-called mummy bag, which has a flap covering the neck and head. Mummy bags are close-fitting, compared with rectangular bags, leaving less cold-air space within the bag. It is a good idea to crawl inside the sleeping bag at the store and make sure it fits before purchasing it.

A sleeping pad, or mattress, can be another part of a camper’s bed. Sleeping pads insulate the camper by creating a barrier between the bag and the cold ground. They may also provide cushioning. Solid, closed-cell foam pads are inexpensive and extremely lightweight. They provide good insulation but not much cushioning. An open-celled, or self-inflating, pad inflates to a thickness of as much as 2.5 cm (1 in). When this pad is unpacked and rolled out, air slowly enters the open foam cells within the pad through a valve. These pads provide more comfort and insulation than closed-cell pads but are more easily punctured.


The type and quantity of provisions to take corresponds to the type of camping trip. Many RVs have a stove, microwave oven, and refrigerator. Car campers can carry gas stoves for cooking and coolers for keeping food cold. In the backcountry, however, campers must consider provisions carefully as they will be unable to replenish them.

A Camping Stoves

Backpackers rely on small, lightweight, one-burner gas stoves. These stoves can burn a variety of fuels, but the most common fuel is white gas. White gas leaves less residue than other fuels and evaporates more quickly should an accidental spill occur. Experienced campers take slightly more fuel than they expect to use. A stove repair kit and extra parts can prove helpful.

Camping stoves have a small rack that holds a pot slightly above the burner’s flame. A small, lightweight pot with a lid requires less fuel and heats food and boils water faster than larger, lidless pots. Lids are especially important for conserving heat when camping above 900 m (3000 ft), because it takes more heat to boil water at higher altitudes. After buying a stove, campers should read the instructions and practice operating it at home.

B Drinking Water

Water in the backcountry must be properly treated before drinking to remove contaminants. Microscopic water-borne parasites can cause giardiasis, an illness whose symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal cramps. Boiling water for at least one minute kills these microbes.

Besides boiling, several other methods of purifying water are available. Hand-held, pump-action filters force water through porous ceramic or carbon-filled filters, which screen out tiny parasites and other debris. Iodine tablets, which are easy to carry, also purify drinking water, though some campers dislike the aftertaste. Filters and iodine tablets both allow campers to carry less fuel for boiling water, and therefore less weight. They also provide cool drinking water in a matter of minutes, which can be refreshing on a hot day.

C Food

Car campers and RV campers have the luxury of refrigeration for storing food. In the backcountry, however, campers must carry their food, and so lightweight, dehydrated, just-add-water meals are preferred. These meals also create less garbage for backpackers to carry out of the backcountry. Outdoor stores sell many varieties of dehydrated food.

Many campers augment their diet with fish from a lake or river, with berries growing near their campsite, or with other available foods. But they should be aware of local fishing regulations and be familiar with wild plants and their fruits, as many of them can cause illness.

The key to staying healthy and strong when backpacking is to eat large quantities of energy-rich foods.

The key to staying healthy and strong when backpacking is to eat large quantities of energy-rich foods. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fat all help a camper’s body produce the necessary energy for a strenuous trip. Carrying a pack consumes many calories—up to 4000 a day—that campers need to replenish in order to maintain energy levels. In general, 0.9 kg (2 lb) of food per person per day should be enough. In winter campers should consume 1.1 kg (2.5 lb) per day because staying warm burns even more calories.

Regardless of the time of year, always take enough food to last an extra day. Additional food makes it easier to deal with an accident, an injury, or simply a desire to stay another night in a serene location.


Safety should be at the forefront of every camper’s mind. Each year the National Park Service warns that sunburn and sprains are the most common injuries sustained in the backcountry. Being prepared is the key. A wide-billed hat and a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt offer protection from the sun. Proper sunblock or suntan lotion is also necessary. Frequent rest stops are important on the trail. Fatigue causes campers to pay less attention to the trail, their location, and their own body, leaving them more vulnerable to accidents or injuries.

Several potentially serious conditions can occur when camping. The most common are hypothermia, dehydration, and altitude sickness. All of these are preventable with proper planning and precautions

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