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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715


Ruby River
Pioneer Mtns
Rocky Mountain Front
Forest Service Cabin Rentals
Many Glacier
White Sulphur Springs Area
Camping Gear

Camping Gear

The stuff we use, from bumper to backcountry

T.gif (911 bytes)hankfully, choice of camping equipment isn’t a topic where there are a limited number of correct choices. Everyone’s situation is a little different, and it’s not too difficult to come up with an equipment list that will fit your requirements. In my circle of acquaintances choices range from customized Greyhound buses and deluxe motor homes, to those who strap a nylon tent and sleeping bags to the top of their compact car & head out. Some never get very far off the pavement and others backpack off-trail into the wildest country around. I’d say chances are good that both ends of the spectrum have an equally good time, too. So, this article isn’t going to lay out any absolutes or state "you must have this". We’ve accumulated a fair bit of camping equipment over the last 25 years or so, though, used it under a wide range of conditions, and know what works for us.

While we don’t have a rock-star touring bus at our disposal, and might not use it too often even if we did, we do have equipment to cover a wide variety of possibilities; from utilizing a RV campground to wilderness backpack trips. I’ll review it in that order.

We utilize a pickup camper for our RV, an 11’ self-contained Alpenlite. While not as roomy as a camper trailer or motor home, it suits our purposes better. We quite often seek out the less mainstream campingMobile_Office.jpg (17561 bytes) locations, which many times lie in obscure locations at the end of miles of questionable Forest Service roads. Should the road conditions deteriorate, or the alleged attractions along the way turn out to be less than anticipated, we can always abort the venture and get turned around with a minimum of difficulty. That won’t be the case if you’re in a big motorhome or pulling a fifth-wheel trailer, and you’d better have a clear idea of what you’re getting into before heading up some unmarked "road". Also, once we reach our destination, we can unload the camper and utilize our pickup truck for un-encumbered explorations. Of course, this advantage is shared if you’re utilizing a truck to pull a camper trailer, or towing a vehicle behind a motor home, but we are able to get our camper into more remote and unique places than is possible with larger RV’s. We don’t spend all that much time inside the camper, and prefer the increased flexibility and mobility it provides over a larger RV.

While RV’s are nice and definitely raise the comfort level of camping, I have spent far more nights in tents than I am ever likely to inside a camper, a pattern I expect to continue. My wife has accused me of having some kind of compulsion or disorder about tents, as I currently have five and would like another one or two. They all get used regularly, though, and each lends itself to different situations.

Except for use in fall hunting camps, canvas wall tents have largely fallen out of favor with campers. That’s too bad, since they provide a degree ofWallTent.jpg (26489 bytes) comfort unmatched by any nylon tent, particularly when the weather is questionable. Wall tents are normally used in combination with a wood-burning camp stove, and there is nothing quite like the ambiance of a snug and warm wall tent with a fire going in the stove when it’s raining or snowing out. Even in warmer weather, a wall tent makes a superb base camp/social center for larger camping groups. Our tent is a 10’ X 12’ with five foot walls. As wall tents go, it is on the small end of the spectrum; well suited to use by two people. We use it regularly with our family of four, though, but four adults would prefer something a little larger, no doubt. Once you get beyond about 14’ X 16’, though, I think you’re past the point of diminishing returns and will find the weight of the tent and frame excessive. Besides, you can have a heck of a party in a tent that size! If you’re shopping for a wall tent, I definitely recommend going with 5’ walls as they increase interior walking-around room by a significant margin over 4’ ones. Don’t even consider 3’ walls.Kitchen.jpg (14531 bytes) Our 10’ X 12’ X 5’ tent feels roomier than 12’ X 14’ X 4’ tents I’ve been in. Making your own tent frame out of lodgepoles is traditional, but obviously not practical in many areas. In those cases you will need some sort of internal frame. I am a fan of the ones made by Kwik Kamp, http://www.kwikkamp.com. The downside of wall tents is that they are moderately expensive in comparison to a typical nylon family camping tent, generally about $400-$600, somewhat bulky and heavy (especially if you include an internal frame), and require a relatively spacious campsite. They are also somewhat time consuming to set up and break down, but if you are planning on staying in one spot for a few days and want a roomy, comfortable camp, they can’t be beat.

We also use a smaller spike tent designed for use with a wood stove, a 10’ X 10’ Alaknak. Manufactured by Montana Canvas in Belgrade, MT, theseAlaknak.jpg (25854 bytes) tents are made of a lightweight but very tough synthetic called Relite. Their main advantage is that they are super fast and easy to set up because they only utilize a single central pole. Setting up housekeeping in a wall tent always seems to use up at least an hour, but I can have the Alaknak up with a fire going in the stove in about ten minutes. Of course, the tradeoff is substantially less interior room, but for short duration trips with just one or two people it suffices nicely.

Obviously, these kinds of tents don’t lend themselves to backpacking use. Our wall tent weighs about 35 pounds (not including the frame, which adds another 60 pounds or so), and the Alaknak weighs about 20 pounds, including the center pole. Then there’s the woodstove and kitchen box, etc., plus cots, sleeping bags and pads, not to mention food, drink, and fishing equipment, etc. So, unless you’re fortunate enough to own your own pack stock, you’ll be limited to camping in areas accessible by vehicle. That takes in a whole lot of possibilities, though, and when we’re bumper camping and don’t feel like taking the pickup camper, or have more people along than can sleep in it, we get good use out of our wall tent and Alaknak. If you’ve never camped in a wall tent with a woodstove, you ought to consider going with an outfitter who uses them sometime. They add an almost decadent level of comfort and luxury unheard of with nylon tents.

Speaking of nylon tents, though, we have a few of those and get good use out of them also. Our family camping tent for warm weather is an 8-man2Tents.jpg (29143 bytes) geodesic dome; a Cabela’s Alaskan Guide model. The four of us, plus a couple of the kid’s friends and two big dogs can fit in it with room to spare. It’s no featherweight, though, and strictly a car (or horse) camping proposition. Ours came with fiberglass shock-corded poles, and we’ve had a couple of them break during thunderstorms. They’re now offering aluminum poles for those tents, and at some point I’ll probably upgrade to those.

That brings us to our backpacking tents. The first tent I ever bought, a4-ManTent.jpg (17156 bytes) 4-man backpack tent purchased in about 1976 from Eddie Bauer (back when they still sold top-of-the-line outdoor gear), still sees regular use. It’s not as technologically advanced as more modern tents, but matches up real well in terms of it’s space/weight ratio and has sheltered us on dozens of backcountry expeditions, not to mention lots of backyard adventures by the kids. It utilizes two upright poles, though, and wouldn’t stand up to heavy snow loads, so we limit it to summer use.

Our most recent tent purchase was a 2-man backpack tent, a North FaceChillyMorning.jpg (23507 bytes) Lenticular. This is rated as a 4-season tent, but after using it in some fairly wintry conditions last fall, I’d say it’s more like a 3.5 season tent. It’s well suited to warm weather use, but a little short on space when you need to bring your gear inside during nasty weather, which brings me to my next anticipated tent purchase; an expedition-quality 4-season backpack tent like a North Face Mountain, VE-25, or Mountain Hardware Trango. Then we should be set for any imaginable camping situation, at least until some new tent design catches my eye….

The rest of our camping equipment pretty much falls into the sleeping and cooking categories. We use synthetic fill sleeping bags, trading off a little extra weight and bulk for guaranteed warmth under wet or dry conditions, as compared to down bags. Update:   I finally got tired of sleeping bags too bulky to fit into my backpack's sleeping bag compartment, and bought a down bag.  It's a Marmot Never Summer; a 0 degree bag that compacts down to not much bigger than a football.  It saw quite a bit of use last summer and fall, in temperatures down to the single digits.  Thumbs up so far!   Under the bags go Thermarest-style self-inflating foam pads, and cots (unless we’re backpacking, obviously). I was resistant to the idea of using cots for a long time, thinking it was just extra weight to pack along, until an outfitter in an adjacent camp graciously loaned us some extras he had. I was instantly converted, and now only sleep on the ground if I’m backpacking. In addition to providing a flat sleeping surface (which the ground never seems to), storing your personal gear under the cots makes for a much neater and more orderly camp. We use Roll-a-cots, which collapse and roll up into a bundle. They’re exceptionally strong and roll up into a compact package, but I’ve also used Army style cots and found them satisfactory, if somewhat heavy and bulky.

We also have cooking equipment for about any possible scenario. In the pickup camper we’re set with nearly all the convenience of the kitchen at home complete with refrigerator and freezer, stove, oven, sink, and running hot and cold water. When we’re in the wall tent or Alaknak, the woodstove works great for cooking, offering a relatively large surface with varying temperature zones. In some ways it’s almost nicer for cooking on than a regular kitchen range and we’ve cooked many a backcountry feast on it. When we’re using our family dome tent, our old Coleman camp stove gets the nod. It’s a two burner white gas model, and a battered veteran of not a few packhorse wrecks that just keeps on cookin’. After using a number of backpack stoves over the years, I’ve settled on a WhisperLite white gas model by MSR (Mountain Safety Research). It’s the type that has the pressure pump and control assembly that mounts on a fuel bottle, with a hose leading to a separate burner. These stoves have proven themselves on countless wilderness expeditions worldwide, and I recommend them highly.   More updates:  I've also purchased a MSR SuperFly stove.  It's basically a single burner that screws onto a butane canister.  It only weighs 4 ounces.   It saw extensive use last fall, and I kind of doubt my Whisperlite will be going on many more backpack trips.

For cooking equipment, we utilize a set of stainless steel pans, also by MSR, and feel the slight amount of extra weight over aluminum is well worthwhile, more than offset by easier cleanup and better tasting food. If we’re vehicle camping and weight isn’t a concern, we also use a collection of regular household pans. A set of plastic plates and bowls, plus an oddball collection of surplus household utensils round out the cooking gear.

A couple of lanterns; gas burners for use in the wall tent and battery powered for the nylon tents provide illumination. Update:  I also purchased a little backpack lantern, a Primus.  It is a single-mantle lantern with a piezo lighter that screws onto a butane cannister.  It's very small and light, and lends itself well to backpack use.  No more reading at night with a Mini-Mag flashlight balanced on my shoulder!  We also used it in the wall tent,  and it's going on all our trips from here on out.  It puts out light equivalent to a 60 watt incandescent bulb.

A PUR water filter makes sure that we’re not going to host any microscopic nasties when we get our water out of streams. I’ve had two Sweetwater Guardian filters go bad on me, and burned off lots of calories pumping on a friend’s MSR water filter, and feel the PUR filters are the best on the market.

You will note that except when experience has proven a particular brand superior, I avoid endorsing any particular brands of equipment. I do advise sticking with well-known companies and avoiding cheap discount-store camping gear, though, as in most cases it just won’t stand up to hard use and is certain to fail at the most inopportune moment, guaranteed to put a real damper on your trip (literally, if your tent collapses or disintegrates during a thunderstorm!). Better to buy the good stuff to start with than have to replace cheap gear over and over, not to mention the aggravation of having your tent leak or your stove fail to light. The items I’ve mentioned have stood the test of time for us, though, and I expect them to continue to do so for many more adventures.

See you in camp….


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