Herbie's Favorite Camping Things
I'm an old fashioned type backpacking camper and learned to camp in a fairly primitive manner. I have a preference for low cost, fairly lightweight (not ultralight aka expensive) items to help me with my backpacking rigs. I also like to eat well, dehydrated meals are great, but adding some fresh canned fruit or veggies really puts a good edge on a balanced diet and your tastebuds. I've taken some unusual approaches to outfitting my rig, and folks ask me about my gear and my sources of meals.
Backpacking requirements vary by person, but how it fits is one of the most important for everybody. Some prefer lightweight (3-4 lbs) with a huge central compartment, I prefer a tried and true model regardless of weight. My requirements were fit, multiple compartments, and exterior webbing where I can attach my most used items and keep my food and sweet smelling things outside of my pack and away from my clothes and sleeping system. Of course I looked around quite a bit, went shopping at the big name outfitters for ideas and prices, and eventually chose to go paramilitary. Here is my reasoning, hundreds of thousands of military personnel hit the field with everything they need in a pack that is comfortable, strong, water proof, very compartmentalized for quick access, and lots of webbing to attach all the military equipment they lug around to the outside.
Here is a photo of what I picked, it is the Voodoo Tactical Tobago Bag weighing in 2 lbs above the "lightweights" in olive drab (that is forest green for folks unfamilar with military colors). The photo does not do it justice so I'll explain what I love about this pack. It's solid, waterproof (with drain holes on the inside in case it gets submerged), and nicely compartmentalized. The main compartment fully zips open, allowing easy access to your clothing, gear, sleep system, whatever you keep in the large compartment. The large compartment has straps within it to hold items, I have found this especially nice when I rig my backpack upon a tree and want to open it up to get at things. There's also a couple of mesh pockets inside it where you can put your dirty/wet clothing if needed. Just ouside the large compartment is a medium sized compartment with many internal compartments. Mesh zippered linings, pockets for maps, notebooks, pen holders, and radio holders that work great for your electronic gadgets, all in the safety of waterproof lining and zipper guards. Another layer of pocketing is outside that compartment as well and is perfect for rain gear or drop cloth/emergency blanket. Of course the external side of this is lined with MOLLE webbing. MOLLE allows you to snap on other MOLLE bags as needed - for example I have one I put my food in (which easily disconnects to put up in a tree at night to keep the critters away), another for my cook kit, and one for my first aid kit. Just below that compartment is a wide pocket that fully zips as well - I put my water purification filter in there, spare filter, and hat and gloves. On each side of the pack are two large zippable pockets, with plenty of room for your water bottles - I don't use it for that as there's a built in camel-back pocket just behind the back padding. It's a great place to store ropes, camp shovel, lights, whatever.There's also webbing attachments on the bottom of the pack for your bedroll and tent (get some good webbing straps).
Now for what needs to be improved upon. The belt that comes with it is a standard hip padded belt, with straps that come from the hip to the front quick-release buckle. That's fine and dandy, unless like me you like to be able to have your pack belt double duty as a day-hike or excursion belt. The folks at Voodoo at least designed it so you can replace the belt (it's got a velcro attach pocket like all other good packs) but they don't sell a replacement. For a replacement belt, I went to an army supply store and picked up a padded MOLLE belt which has MOLLE webbing all around it. This belt is significanly more comfortable than the one that came with it, allows me to have my military style 2-qt. canteen on the front of my body (as a counter weight on one side) and my cook kit on the other front hip. I love this setup. When it's time to day pack away from the camp, I don't have to lug the entire pack, I remove the belt, attach my daytime goodies (cook kit, canteen, first aid kit, knife) to it and off I go.
Again, I shop for bargains. One of the first places I go look for stuff is at Sportsman's Guide. They're an online close-out type company, get lots of military surplus gear, last years camping/backpacking models, and have decent prices. I've been very pleased with their customer service and selection. With packs, you really should try before you buy so find a local dealer and go try one on. I live in the Raleigh/Durham NC area so I found a local vendor who also has a great selection of all sorts of paramilitary gear, Captain Dave's. He's setup really for online selling, not a retail shop where you can look around. But, he's very helpful if you show up at the front door. I shopped his website, wrote down what I wanted to look at and try on, and he took me into the warehouse to check the gear. His prices are fair (not the best I've found on the 'net), but there's something to be said about actually seeing the stuff you want to have in your possession for the next 20 years or so. Good alternatives online that I've found are Army Surplus Warehouse and TacGearStore.com. Tac Gear Store seems to have the best prices on MOLLE gear that I've seen.
Cook Kit/Mess Kit Selection
Let me first express my bias, I like simple multi-use equipment. To me an ultralight compressed gas cook set that costs as much as a week of groceries is great if that's what you like, but an inexpensive cook kit that includes burner, windshield/cooking stand, and a 6 cup "boiler" with a warming/serving tray is simply an excellent value at $13!
This is an alcohol fuel stove, which you can fill with grain alcohol (multiuse - fuel, disinfects, sterilizes, and might go well with sundown), or any of the non-multiuse (i.e. fuel only) alternatives: denatured alcohol from the hardware store, the gas line antifreeze "Heet", or other sources of at least 90% alcohol by volume.
I picked this up from Army Surplus Warehouse. Watch YouTube Video
This unit packs all within itself, with room for the burner, fuel bottle, a dishrag, a small spice container, matches, drinking cup and a few paper towels. I lug this around in a MOLLE gas mask pouch which fits this entire kit, my utensils, a can of chicken breast or tuna, hot cocoa or tea, instant soup pouches, and some trail snacks. The weight of the entire unit claims 2 lbs 4 oz but everything except the stove itself is aluminum. The stove is brass and fairly heavy - this is where the Penny Alcohol Backpacking Stove comes into play. For the cost of drinking a six pack of Heineken and a few hours of crafting/testing, you can build this stove which burns better than the stove that comes with this kit, is significantly lighter, uses less fuel, and boils 5 cups of water in this kit in less than 10 minutes. On a recent campout where the weather was in the 20's, this kit boiled water just fine, while the compressed gas stoves where still trying to warm up. Enough said.
Let me add a couple more goodies I include with my kit. Drinking cup. Yeah the ones at the big name stores have measurements inside them, but to me they're not sturdy or large enough for a really good cup of tea. Luckily I found what I feel is the best drinking cup for camping one could imagine. It's almost triangular in shape, very sturdy but light plastic, with a hole in the handle in case you want to put it on a lanyard or something. I got it from Sportsmans Guide in a pack of 10 for $15. Ten might sound like a lot, but this thing's big enough for you to have a meal in one, and your drink in the other. When your friends see you drinking out of it, they'll want one too. One last thing - can opener. Yes, I still take canned food on backpacking trips - I like the variety and canned pre-cooked chicken breast keeps much nicer than fresh. Multi-use knives and other gadgets include a "can opener" but they're not very handy nor do a good job if you're going to have your can do double duty once it's empty. The military folks will know what a P-38/P-51 can opener is, but for those of you that don't, it's a very small (1-2") lightweight can opener that can be put on your keychain, thrown in your mess kit or whatever. I picked mine up at a local army surplus store, if you can't, then Army Surplus Warehouse sells them 10 for $6.
Food SourcesI love to have eggs and meat in the morning on the weekends, and that includes when I'm in the woods. Dehydrated eggs are a must have and I've found pre-cooked canned bacon (yep, all you do is warm it up by the fire and you've got 40-50 slices of bacon to share with the crew). If you get fancy and make cakes or breads, dehydrated milk becomes a must. For most other quick and simple backpacking meals, deyhdrated meals and veggies fits excellently. I have a couple sources online where I get my food: Wilderness Dining and MRE Depot.
In SummaryEverybody has their own preferences, mine focuses on durable, multi-use components at a low price. Sure I'm lugging around a few more pounds that the other folks, but I'm healthy enough that I still call that exercise.