6 tips for evaluating and optimizing your camping gear
If you’re an avid camper then you’ll understand the desire to manage the balance between necessity and luxury, between ultralight and ultracomfort camping. The real work – the less enjoyable part of camping – is the process of packing for the trip and unpacking when it’s all over.
But there are ways to increase your enjoyment. The answer for me was in taking less camping gear. The following tips will show you how we took stock, made changes, and increased our enjoyment with considerably less effort and far less gear. It can work for you too.
Audit your camping gear to eliminate non-essentials
I’ve continually added to my camping gear over the years. A family tent. Comfortable chairs. Dutch ovens and a fantastic camping stove. We had children so it naturally doubled many of the things we hauled along like sleeping bags, chairs, duffel bags filled with clothes. You get the idea.
But last year it began to take a toll on me. We made a few weekend camping trips to Valley of Fire, a popular State Park less than an hour from our home in the Las Vegas burbs. Because our oldest is in school now, the easiest logistical plan was for me to hit the first-come campground in the morning to snag a campsite, set up camp and then head back to town to pick up the family for an evening return.
The second trip in as many weekends was when I had the realization that I NEEDED to find a way to streamline my camping gear, to find a way to simplify the setup and tear down phases of our weekend adventures.
I returned home and laid out all the gear in the garage to begin an audit in hopes of discovering a way to decrease the load and increase the enjoyment of the process. The following two realizations made the most impact.
Understand the difference between essentials and luxuries
One of the most glaring opportunities to reduce the amount of gear was in identifying each piece of gear as either essential or luxury. Essential camping gear is something that serves a purpose that you absolutely need like shelter, fire starting, or camp cooking. Luxuries are those gear choices that are nice to have but ones that you can most certainly live without for a short weekend in the wild.
In my camping gear assessment, the following items were deemed essential and are now the cornerstone to my camping gear list:
- Shelter – tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags
- Fire – lighter, matches, Vaseline & cotton balls, stove
- Food – water storage, cooler, prepped meals
- Tools – knife, hatchet, GoalZero Yeti 150, plates & utensils, dutch oven, stainless steel cups
- Security – First Aid kit, Cell phone, Jerry can
Take multi-purpose camping gear
The other ah-ha moment in my gear audit was when I realized that cutting out a piece of gear altogether was better than simply looking for a lighter version of it. Plus, it’s much more expensive to buy a new piece of gear to replace something you already have just because it weighs less.
I scattered my essentials on the garage floor and began the evaluation process to see exactly which items served a dual purpose, which ones could meet a need making something else a luxury or unnecessary completely, and which select pieces of gear could be used in ways I hadn’t even considered before.
Here are a few of my multi-purpose discoveries:
- Can your hatchet be used as a hammer to drive tent stakes? Ours can. Of course, I hadn’t contemplated that when I bought it, but you should if you’re in the market for a hatchet.
- I have a camp table that breaks down and fits into a long bag like a collapsible chair. We no longer take it because our storage bin offers a similar surface area when the lid is closed. It makes for a great prep table for meals.
- We have a battery operated lantern that we would always hang from the ceiling in the tent. But now that our boys are old enough to wear their own headlamps, we just suspend those. One less thing to pack!
- The storage bin for our dinnerware is a perfect wash basin when dinner is over and it’s time to tackle the dishes.
- Compression sacks make great pillows (see below).
- Frozen gallons of water are a great way to keep food cold in the cooler and they’re great drinking water when they thaw out on day three!
Limit wardrobe changes
Of all the challenges we’ve faced in camping with our two young boys, I would have to say that clothing is the biggest challenge. Our two year old seems to spill something on his shirt as soon as he puts it on.
So you could pack for a weekend camping trip thinking that you will need a few changes each day. But here’s the kicker…no one cares what you look like!
We let our kids run wild when we’re camping and our plan is usually to take something for them to wear during the day and then jammies for bedtime. They’re going to get dirty and that’s part of the experience so don’t stress their wardrobe too much. But it’s good planning to take an extra outfit or two for that unplanned plunge into the creek. It happens.
Adults are a bit easier to dress. Think layers to manage the changing temperatures throughout the day. Short sleeve, long sleeve, fleece, jacket, coat. That’s our plan for the top half. For the lower body, think convertible pants which rock. Too warm? Zip off those legs!
I can’t tell you how many times we returned from a camping trip only to wash clothes we never wore because they smelled like camp fire.
Create an efficient basecamp
Looking back, most of the excess gear that I hauled with me each time fell into two primary categories – basecamp gear and cooking gear.
In the past, we would take an old area rug to use on the floor of the tent, 4 pillows, rope lights, a lantern, a collapsible table for the vestibule, and a queen size air mattress. Those days are gone for the most part.
Here are the ways that we were able to dial in our basecamp a bit, reduce the amount of gear we used, and actually elevate the comfort in camp as a result:
- Double sleeping bags offer a great way to snuggle up with the kiddos, replace 4 bags with just 2, and can be connected to make one really big sleeping bag for four.
- Larger tents in colder weather present a challenge because it takes longer to warm the air inside. We decided to buy one with a smaller footprint – just big enough for the two double sleeping bags – which will keep us warmer on early and late season trips plus save a bit of space and weight in the back of the truck.
- Compression sacks filled with a bit of air and covered with a t-shirt make for great pillows. Plus, the boys love doing it themselves.
- Self-inflating pads save a ton of effort when you’re setting up basecamp. Just open the valves when you get to camp and top off with a few deep breaths before you turn in. We used velcro to connect them for a slip-proof base for the double sleeping bags and they’re just as comfortable as the inflatable mattress without the need for a compressor or power source.
- Suspending our four headlamps from the tent ceiling provide ample light with a great mood (we use the red setting) and replace the lantern and rope lights we used to take.
Wood is a heavy space hog
Wood is by far my biggest space and weight saver. I would bring as much as the extra space in the back of the truck would allow. Who doesn’t love a raging campfire! Then I would pack up the majority of it when the trip was over because we didn’t use it.
Last year I decided to take a more scientific approach to the process by measuring my use. Here are my primary takeaways:
- Know your burn rate. We wait until the last possible minute to start a fire usually because we are busy with other things. It only requires 12-14 split pieces of wood to cook dinner with a dutch oven and enjoy the fire until midnight or later if you start with good dry wood.
- Take good wood. A mix of soft and hard woods give you the best of both worlds. The softer woods are great for starting the fire and making coals quickly but the hardwoods burn longer. Anything that’s still green (meaning not dried and seasoned) will produce more smoke and impact your enjoyment.
- Build a rock surround for the firepit for radiant heat. The rocks absorb the heat and give it off as the fire dies down. It’s a great way to create a bit of a barrier for small kids too. Plus, those small rocks on the outside of the ring are great for warming your bag 30 minutes before you climb into it!
- Still have wood left after your trip? No worries. I bet your campsite neighbors would buy it from you so you don’t have to haul it home.
Don’t get cooler happy
We’ve all done it. One cooler for drinks. One for food. Maybe even one to hold the jello shots! But one thing is certain, no one wants to carry those damn things up the hill to your walk-in campsite.
Here are a few ways to reduce the load of your coolers or even the number of coolers you use:
- Freeze gallons of water to use in the cooler. They are great sources of cold water late in the weekend.
- An Igloo-style double insulated water cooler with two handles is easier to manage than a half dozen gallon jugs. Take it empty if you trust the water source in camp. Saves space and weight.
- A mesh laundry bag makes for a great redneck refrigerator. Fill it with drinks and drop it into the creek to keep those basecamp beers cool without monopolizing your cooler space.
- Not everything needs to start out in the cooler. Take extra drinks that you can put into the cooler as you use the cold ones. This allows you to take a smaller cooler to start.
- Prepping meals at home – cutting veggies, bagging portions, downsizing the packaging – can save on space in the cooler and prevent you from returning with a ton of unused portions.
Plan your menu like an executive chef
I am guilty of taking WAY too much cooking gear on camping trips. I’m a foodie at heart and my home kitchen is dialed in. But I discovered last year that I was hauling countless items on trips that were simply unnecessary and often never used.
I took a long hard look at the “tools” I took for camp cooking and realized there were numerous ways to cut back to save time, space, and effort:
- We own two stoves – a two burner tabletop stove and a badass Camp Chef three burner stove for big outings. Despite my desire to always take the larger stove, we now make the decision based on the menu. Unused burners are a waste and so is the extra effort it takes to move the 45 lb monster to a remote campsite.
- Prep as much as you can at home. You will make mealtime more relaxing in camp and you won’t have to take as many kitchen tools with you on the trip.
- Think about meals with common ingredients or ways to use leftovers from the previous meal. For example, leftover baked potatoes make great home fries the next morning.
- Assemble utensils, plates, bowls, and cups that you can store as a set. It cuts down on waste and saves space compared to that stack of 100 paper plates, plastic forks and spoons, and the Red Solo Cups you’ve been using.
- Think about your pots and pans. I do most of my camp cooking in a cast iron dutch oven. It’s great for soups, stews, stir fry, sauteing, or deep frying. A large dutch oven can do almost anything you need it to in camp. It can even be used over coals instead of bringing that large camp stove.
- Take a few MREs as a backup. They’re lightweight, take up very little space, and taste great in a pinch.