Gear & Beer: A guide to cozier camping
By Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben
Look at your average camping catalogue and there’s a picture of a tent pitched by a glacial lake with a broad meadow full of wildflowers. For New Englanders, these pictures are a kind of—well, dare we say it?—porn. Not the wildflowers, not the white-capped peaks, but all that flat ground. You could pitch a tent anywhere. Whereas at about 3 p.m. on a Long Trail hike one starts looking, searching at every turn, for that elusive slice of level earth. Some days the only smooth ground seems to be right on the path itself.
And even if you do find a coffin-shaped level ledge, odds are that there will be a rock or a root roughly about the place your spine will need to go. Which is why we’re fans of hammocks such as those from Hennessy Hammocks, which can take just about any stretch of forest and turn it into a campground. They’re remarkably easy to set up: a couple of straps made of seatbelt fabric wrap around tree trunks twelve to twenty-five feet apart; you lash the rope-ends of the hammock to them, and then attach a rainfly (which niftily comes with a couple of funnels designed to drain rain or dew into your water bottles). The bottom of the hammock is tough enough to feel secure and the mesh top doubles as a bug net. You do need a pad under your sleeping bag in anything but the hottest weather because air is less insulating than bare ground. Hennessy Hammocks come in a variety of sizes and weights, with the very popular two-pound Ultralight Backpacker ($249.95), able to accommodate up to a 200 pound six-footer. Hennessy’s classic Explorer Deluxe ($229.95) model, though somewhat heavier, can gently rock a 300-pound seven-footer into a woodland slumber.
Commuting between campsites also has a distinctly regional flavor. Most East Coast paddling is on ponds, marshes and small lakes. Which means one of the best tools there is comes from Hornbeck Boats of the Adirondacks, whose Lost Pond boat is a small Kevlar canoe that weighs about 16 pounds and even less if you can afford the carbon fiber version. (The classic ten kevlar model for people weighing up to 220 lb is $1395; the classic ten carbon fiber Blackjack, a featherweight at 12 lbs, is $1995.) Modeled on a 19th-century cedar strip canoe that hangs in the Adirondack Museum, the Lost Pond boat can be carried easily over the shoulder like a pocketbook—which means it’s perfect for the pocket ponds that dot Vermont and the ADK. You sit on a rigid foam seat and move through the water with double-bladed paddle, your pack in the stern, and your sleeping bag (in a dry bag) up front. This is the solo boat for our part of the world.
If you’re not comfortable sleeping in a traditional mummy bag, consider slipping into a Selk’bag. It’s a sleeping bag you wear—either that or it’s footsie pajamas that happen to be perfect for sleeping outdoors. It has legs and detachable feet. It has arms that incorporate mittens. It has a hood. True, you look like you belong to a new order of outer-space monks, but these suits have their uses, especially in colder weather, since you essentially never have to leave the comfort of your sleeping bag. There are two, three and four-season models, as well as a line of Marvel comics super-hero-themed bags for kids.
While you can’t read under the covers in a Selkbag—there are no covers– you can peel back the built-in mittens and pull out your phone to check the impending weather or add your coordinates and way points to the GPS app—at least until your phone runs out of power. It won’t, though, if you’re carrying a StrongVolt solar charger. Early versions of solar chargers for hikers were too cumbersome for easy packing. That’s not a problem with the StrongVolt 7W panel system ($79.99), which weighs less than half a pound and folds down to the size of an Ipad Mini (which it will power up in under two hours, given good sun). The StrongVolt is nicely engineered with heavy duty grommets for hanging from branch or pack, carabiners included. If you’re going to depend on a GPS to get you out of the woods (which is not a great idea, but hey) or want to make sure your phone is charged in case of an emergency, then this is an increasingly necessary accessory.
So: you’re camping in the modern world. But there’s room for some retro still, and the new Ibex W2 “weightless” wool sport shirts fit the bill handsomely. Wool doesn’t scream “workout,” but in fact Ibex’s proprietary weave of merino and nylon wicks with the ease of your oil-based synthetics, yet feels and looks like good enough to wear into town. There’s absolutely no reason not to wear these shirts—they come in long and short-sleeves and a tank top, all in vibrant colors.