It took me a long time to get to where I’m at with outdoor gear. Reading and weighing options, buying and trying out, weeding through what worked and what didn’t. Truth is gear is a tricky subject; the fact is you need different gear for different kinds of trips. I am certainly not an expert, but I know what works for me and I continue to learn.
First in a series of gear-related topics that I’ll write about is shelter in the outdoors. Tents, Cowboy Camping, Hammock, and Bivy Bag and Tarp. I’d like to begin at the beginning.
I don’t remember doing any real outdoor overnights in my childhood. As a kid, I heard one of my brothers camped out down the road from where we lived. “In a tent right here.” my mother told me as we drove through what was once woods but then was a newly constructed road, black and freshly paved.
“A tent? I want to camp in a tent,” I remember saying. It would be quite a while before I’d get to do that and even so, not in the woods, but in our own backyard.
It wasn’t our tent. I believe it belonged to a kid who stayed a few weeks one summer with our next door neighbors It was an orange or yellow pup-tent. It wasn’t camping but the cool of the pre-dawn morning is something that was new and I still haven’t forgotten. Nor have I forgotten the exact date. It was August 10, 1977, the day that David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, was captured.
It wasn’t until I was 21 and had moved to Los Angeles that I actually went overnight camping in the great outdoors. My brother and sister-in-law introduced me to the joys of camping in the Los Padres Forest in the hills just above Ojai. We used three-poled dome tents. I liked them. You could easily move them while they were up and even shake them out. We never really had a need to peg them to the ground as camping conditions were always pleasant.
I bought one of my own from a Big 5 sports shop. $29.99 on sale. I used it a lot on weekends. I don’t remember much about the tent itself. We were always car camping so weight and pack mass were not an issue.
When I relocated to Germany, I drifted away from camping so for many years I was tent-less. About six years ago we decided to bicycle to Budapest. Since we’d be camping we bought a tent. Being familiar with dome tents and remembering the good times I’d had with them, I did a quick online search. I must have read a few reviews which I suppose convinced me to buy a Salewa Denali II. A simple but roomy two-poled, two-man dome tent with rain fly and fairly inexpensive.
I actually ended up with my first one-man tent as a result from some ill-prepared planning though. I had packed for a week-long solo cycle trip along the Danube. Fully equipped, or so I thought, I hit the trail and rode a full day along the Isar river to the Danube. When I arrived in Deggendorf and stopped for lunch, I realized I had forgotten to pack the Denali II. Luckily it was early enough in the day that I was able to find a sporting goods store and buy a Nordisk Pasch PU tent. Cheaptents Outdoor Gear Blog has said: “Pasch is a surprisingly roomy one-man tent, pretty much perfect for most backpackers – plenty of length and width inside, with enough length for taller people to stretch out comfortably, which is a problem in some of the ultralight tents. There is so much room inside that we think it should really be classed as a 1.5-man tent, or a one-man and his dog tent!” First thing I noticed straight away was how much lighter and smaller it was than the Denali. It was and is a great tent although I have since upgraded.
When noticing the weight difference in the Nordisk I began a kind of quest into the realm of Ultralight camping. If I think back to my very first bicycle trips I shudder to remember the heavy and bulky gear I was packing. Today I can get by with very little. I’ve tried to minimize my shelter set ups. I have to state here and now, I prefer some kind of shelter. I have no problem sleeping out under the stars or Cowboy Camping, if the conditions are to my liking. I actually feel safer sleeping out this way as I don’t like not being able to see what’s around me at night. It all depends on location and season though. I’ve had wonderful, comfortable nights sleeping beneath amazing star filled skies. I’ve also been driven to near madness with an onslaught of the most ferocious midges who were insistent on gaining access to my brain by crawling in my eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. Bastards! Overall, I’ll choose shelter and at the moment that would be a tent set up. I’ve been toying recently with the idea of a bug tent and tarp combo though. The never ending quest for the perfect set up!
Bivy sack or Bivy Bag or Bivouac Bag whatever you want to call them is also another shelter I’ve explored. To those unfamiliar, imagine a giant condom shaped bag that you and your sleeping gear (sleeping bag and matt) are inside of. I like them and own a few different ones. I started with an Exped Event/PU model. It’s made of waterproof and breathable eVent fabric on top and a PU coated bottom. It is well made and has extremely effective no-seeum mesh to keep even the smallest of bugs out. I’ve used this on a couple winter overnights as well as on a three week hiking trip I did through Sweden with my dog, Lu.
One problem with the bag I’ve discovered is that since it only has a zipper at chest level, you have to really scoot your way in. This makes getting in and out of the bag a bit challenging. I also need to get out to pee more often than I’d like to while camping so that means crawling in and out with effort. The other problem was, that as soon as the bugs appeared while in camp, the only real relief was to go inside the bag. I thankfully discovered that it is large enough for both me and the dog (a medium-sized shepherd mix). Luckily she had no qualms sleeping in such a confined space as the bugs were a menace to her and as soon as I broke out the bivy Lu was trying to crawl into it. Downside was – we were trapped!!! Some evenings the bugs were so thick and they appeared very early and so just laying in the bag wasn’t the most of fun. I used a tarp over the bivy for rain protection.
I’ve since received two bivy bags from a small and wonderful Montana-based company named Borah Gear. They custom make gear and they are wonderful. One bag is the super light-weight Side-Zipper Ultralight Bivy they offer. I have one with the M90 material. Only 7 ounces!!!! I’ve yet to field test it but I did try it out in the living room with air mattress and sleeping bag and as soon as Lu saw me going in, she came in too so the size is good! It was also so much easier getting in with a side-zipper.
The second I received from them is the Snowyside eVent. This is mainly a cold-season bivy. Very similar to the Exped bivy but with a side-zipper! I also have only done the living room test and yes, Lu joined me as well. She is definitely my bivy buddy! The Snowyside only weighs 20 ounces which is really light. It is very sturdy and is an easy replacement for the Exped. I do prefer the Exped’s bug net though. It is incorporated and closes with zippers. Borah’s Snowyside keeps the bug netting optional and you can attach it with velcro. If the bag is used in winter or shoulder seasons, then I guess it isn’t really necessary, but I’m not so sure of the efficiency of it with velcro in a bug situation.
Lately I’ve been relying on two tents that I can’t say enough about though. First up would be our Hilleberg Nammatj 2. This is THE two-man tent in my opinion. It is for the ages and will definitely never be shelved or sold. This was a present I received for my birthday last year and it got a very heavy workout in Iceland this past Spring. An expedition grade tent that is both easy to set up and pretty good as far as weight and mass go. Not the lightest two-man tent on the market, but in my opinion, the best.
The other is my Hilleberg Enan. One-man tent and weighs just over one kilo! This tent is so awesomely light-weight and so very easy to set up. It’s a dream. Hillebergs are expensive but they last. They are handmade in Hilleberg’s new plant in Estonia. Each tent is produced singly, by one employee from start to finish. I was able to sell off unused equipment to buy this and it is also a “go to” tent for solo trips.
The only downside to the Hillebergs I own are they are not freestanding tents. This of course means that a pitch needs to be worked out a bit. I’ve yet to have had any problem pegging down the tent in rocky soil. There are ways and means to secure tents without pegging them anyway. Hilleberg does make freestanding tents as well, but the added weight over the Enan has kept me uninterested…for now!
Hammock camping has sparked my interest too. I have done some trial overnights with an Exped Ergo hammock. I am a side sleeper and that’s why I’ve tried this particular model. Very easy to put up but “hanging” is something one must work on. Insulating, motion sickness, and my biggest fear even with tent camping– crushed by falling trees! For solo trips, this is another option I hope to explore more but I really prefer sleeping on the ground and in a tent.
Whether any of this is really useful to anyone I highly doubt. I have read so many amazing articles about gear online and there are folks out there with much more experience than I. I just feel kind of passionate about the gear I own and even writing about it brings me to the outdoors in my thoughts. People often add the disclaimer that they have no beneficial association with the companies with whose products they write about. Nor do I.
I wish I did though!