Writers never really go on vacation, but I recently took a 5-day trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). I’m not talking about car camping. That’s for amateurs. I’m talking five days without movies, internet, video games or a cell phone signal. Five days without a hard roof overhead, hot or cold running water, ice, flush toilets, plush seats, or plush anything. Five days of carrying all my food, clothing and shelter with me, either on my back, or in a canoe.
Five days without a shower wasn’t nearly as bad as five days without Diet Coke. Taking these luxuries away for a few days really makes you appreciate them when you return to civilization.
But there were items that significantly improved my camping experience, and made the trip much more luxurious than it could have been. Make sure to bring these things with you to make your camping experience more like a vacation than homelessness.
Note that all the links below are amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support!
According to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the most useful item you can bring with you on intergalactic travels is a towel. But if your travels are limited to the wilderness on the mostly harmless blue-green marble called Earth, then I’d argue that the most useful item you can bring with you is Nutella Hazelnut Spread.
Why? Simple. Nutella is made from distilled rainbows, angel tears and powdered unicorn horns. Anything you smear this stuff on becomes not only edible, but infinitely desirable. The earth becomes your pantry. Pinecones. Driftwood. Animal Feces. Nutella takes the word “omnivore” to a whole new level.
The bad news is that this stuff attracts bears.
The good news is that this stuff tastes GREAT on bears.
The best thing to dip into Nutella? Your tongue.
The second best thing to dip into Nutella? More Nutella.
Blue Diamond Oven Roasted DARK CHOCOLATE Almonds
Not nearly as awesome as Nutella, but a damn tasty treat that is high in fiber and protein, these almonds are baked with a cocoa-powder coating, so they are dry and won’t melt. I always kept these nearby in the canoe. The 16 oz resealable pack lasts a long time.
Handy Tip: Don’t get the plastic container with a lid. Get the resealable bag, which will pack down smaller as you eat more.
None of us really want to know what kind of animal testing went into creating a weightless, non-greasy, waterproof, anti-bug spray that actually works. Just know that any of the OFF products with the sub-brand “Skintastic” are a must for camping, and the sub-sub-brand “Smooth and Dry” is even better.
The Skintastic line has 15% DEET (the active, bug-blocking chemical) as opposed to the “Deep Woods” line, which boasts 25% DEET. But I find the Deep Woods products have an odor that really should be called “Any Creature With A Nose Repellent”. And that includes yourself. Smell aside, the Deep Woods line is is not waterproof. And it will seriously melt any plastic it gets on, including my former raingear and my formerly favorite pair of sunglasses. My thought is that if you have to put on something that smells that bad and actually melts plastic just to hang in the woods, well, maybe you should go in late September when the bugs aren’t so bad, and stick with 15% DEET.
Meanwhile, the Skintastic line of OFF products are nearly odor-free and waterproof. The Smooth and Dry lines also feel….well, they really don’t feel, and that’s the point. Apparently, cornstarch is the magic ingredient that makes the new “Smooth and Dry” line of insect repellents smooth and dry. Who cares? You won’t even know it’s there, but mosquitoes will.
Handy Tip: Mix with Nutella and eat this to prevent Minnesota Mosquitoes from biting your intestinal tract.
My legs see sunlight less than I do, which is to say, never. I think the Vitamin D rush of my legs being exposed to direct sunlight without sunblock would probably put me in the hospital. That said, when the temp and sunlight ramp up and you’re paddling away in a canoe for hours under an unrelenting sun, even I have to roll up my pant legs and spray on a coat of sun armor to stay comfortable.
Comes in SPF 100 which means I could be out in the sun for at least a half an hour. YOU should be able to last all day. Like the OFF insect repellent I mentioned above, this stuff is weightless, waterproof and nearly odorless. You’ll forget you have it on, which is probably why I forgot when I didn’t have it on, and got sunburned anyway.
Trust me, no matter how much bug-dope you spray on yourself, some Minnesota Ninja Mosquito will find a spot you missed. No matter how much sunscreen you applied, something will get burned. Unless you wear a full-body-wetsuit underneath Plate Mail +3 vs. Wilderness, SOMETHING is going to make you itch someplace. When that happens, you’ll be glad you listened to me and brought along some hydrocortizone lotion.
Handy Tip: when you get back from the wilderness, fill the bathtub with this stuff and soak in it.
The only running water in the BWCA are lakes and streams laced with Giardiasis parasites. Maybe you won’t get sick drinking unfiltered water, but after reading the symptoms you’ll agree it isn’t worth the risk, and you’ll filter your drinking and washing water like any other sane person.
Sadly, most water pump contraptions are ridiculously labor-intensive, and you’ll pump on them till you get blisters before filling your canteen. Worse, they are chock full of breakable, plastic parts and seals that simply aren’t made to tolerate the wear and tear of even an average camping trip. But there’s a much easier way.
The Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter comes with two water bags, a filter and hoses. Simply fill the “dirty” bag with lakewater, hang it in a tree, hang the “clean” bag on a lower branch, connect the filter and hoses between them, and let gravity pull the water through the filter for you. After a few minutes, you have a bag of clean water to fill your canteens. It’s so easy to use, that everyone in our camping party pitched in to keep “The D-Bag” full and we never had a shortage of clean water.
Handy Tip: Fill the dirty bag out away from the shoreline. The less junk the filter has to filter out, the longer it lasts.
Want boiling water? Got 2 minutes? The Jetboil Flash is the closest you’ll get to a microwave in the wilderness. Its super easy to use: add water, turn the gas valve, press the ignite button, and wait 2 minutes. When you’re finished, everything packs away neatly inside the jetboil container.
No need for matches or kindling. Works instantly in any weather. We managed to lighten our food pack by bringing dried items that just need boiling water added: coffee, tea, oatmeal, and soups.
Handy Tip: This thing boils water safer than any campfire and faster than you can gather up a pile of kindling. Buy one of these. Seriously.
This Grand Mesa tent by Kelty claims to sleep six people, but it will in fact, sleep two people just fine. I’m sure six people would fit, but let’s be honest, you could probably fit twelve people in here if they were… friendly. Ahem.
Seriously, this tent would be fine for four people and their gear. It packs up at around thirteen pounds, so it weighs about as much as your old laptop. Only two collapsible poles, so it sets up and tears down easily in just a couple minutes, and if you need a manual on how to put this together then you really shouldn’t be camping without help. The fly actually extends TO THE GROUND which is unusual in tents, but if you get wind and rain at the same time, you’ll understand why this is not an optional feature.
The best thing about this tent is that it stands five-foot-ten inches at the center, so most people can easily STAND UPRIGHT inside the tent. Makes changing clothes easier and helps to prevent claustrophobic attacks, especially on rainy days.
Handy Tip: Rain water that slips under the tent will work it’s way into the tent, so bring a tarp or piece of plastic to put UNDER the tent before you set it up. That protection on the bottom and the full-length fly on top will keep you dry no matter how bad it rains.
Truth: Nothing you can carry with you on the trail is going to be as good as your bed at home. Nothing I know of anyway, so if you know of something, drop a comment. But the Thermarest brand of air mats are industrial stuff, and borderline required gear. The most important function these provide is insulating you from the cold ground. Laying on cold ground will suck your body heat away, even through a good sleeping bag. These pads also help to even out the ground, and keeps rocks, twigs and tree roots from wrecking your horizontal time.
For those who want to pack lightly, you can get a 3/4 length pad that goes to your knees, leaving your feet on the tent floor.
Oh, and the “auto-inflate”… meh. The foam that you squished down when you rolled up the mat will expand when you unpack it, and it will inflate slightly, but “auto-inflate” is a bit misleading.
Handy Tip: You get what you pay for. Avoid cheap brands, even within the Thermarest line of products. Look for the ones with the limited lifetime warranty, and keep your receipt.
If you are going to be canoeing (aka paddling) then you need some light, padded, waterproof, fingerless gloves. I bought these gloves which claim to be Neoprene, but are actually Lycra. They are cheap and work fine. They’ll work for cycling too.
Handy Tip: Do Not get real leather. Synthetic leather palms provide the same padding as real leather but are waterproof.
Anything I Missed?
Oh yeah, and don’t forget a notebook and pen. With all that time for your brain to disengage from your everyday, media-packed life, you’ll be sure to have an a-ha moment or two.
If you have any camping gear recommendations or tips, add them to the comments section.