Saturday, March 1, 2014

Camping Gear: Doing It Ourselves

"I can do it myself!"

We've heard that a lot in our house over the years.  And now we're saying it together about camping gear.

It started when The Man started researching the Superior Hiking Trail.  It's been a goal for him from the first time he heard of it's planning and finally he would now be able to section hike it himself.

In the process of choosing gear, he came across Ray Jardine.   Ray's style of ultralight backpacking was so appealing that we jumped in up to our ankles head first!  He explains it best himself HERE but - since it is my blog - I'll show you what we did!


Since they were going to be backpacking, The Man decided the first items we would make would be the backpacks.

These backpacks are our very first.  Made with the pattern and materials available HERE, we made them all ourselves from a stack of fabric, webbing and some really great, step-by-step instructions.  The Man made his own doing all the work himself though he had not stitched an inch since junior high.  That's right!  You do NOT have to be an experience seamstress to do this project.

Tarp and Tent

The whole idea of a tarp was foreign to me until we started researching the Ray-Way.  The best way to show it is in photos of the finished products.

This is Bicycle Boy's two-man tarp.  He made it all himself and it packs down to about 4in x 4in x 8 in and weighs less than 27oz with the stakes it needs.
And here he is in his net tent that he also made himself.  It packs to a slightly small size and weighs 13 oz.

These two pieces fit together to make a versatile shelter that keeps the ticks and mosquitos out but still has great ventilation.  

On the trail! Lightweight bamboo poles were used as their uptight poles - which was very handy on the trail for keeping their hands from swelling during long walks. (If you have a pole in your hand, you don't let them hang and they don't swell up in a dependent position!)

Doo-Dah's two-man tarp and net tent (also made completely by him).  Note you can pitch these great shelters at different roof angles and heights depending on your needs and space.

Quilts and Flat Mats

A quilt is the replacement for a standard sleeping bag.  Shaped roughly like a mummy-style sleeping bag without one-third of the body section, it has some great advantages we had never thought of before!  Since the insulation underneath the body doesn't insulate once compressed, it's eliminated from the design to reduce weight and bulk.  Since the directions in the quilt kit include custom sizing, the result is a perfect fit in the smallest, lightest package possible!

Sleeping mats are the protection from the ground in two ways.  The first is to keep the happy camper on a cushion.  But the second - and most important to us in the North - is to insulate the camper from the cool ground.  In the past, we used self-inflating mats.  Now we use the sleeping pad kit for everyone!

These are out Toddler Versions of the sleeping mat as modeled by Oh Brother and Party Girl.

Do-It-Yourself leads to Custom Made

The most important and basic thing we learned from Ray & Jenny was "you can really do this yourself and come out with a much better product that is easier to maintain".  And we are certain we have!  This process has pushed us even further to think of the things we can do and adapt to our unique needs.

I've even made custom-fit toddler 'quilts' made from polar fleece.  Completely machine washable and light enough for a tot to carry themselves.

And THAT, in a nutshell, is our current camping and hiking gear set!  It's meeting our needs so well that we've actually given away our sleeping bags and inflating mats.  Encouraged by the things we've learned and the success we've had, I suspect this will be the last big change we have in our camping gear styles.  It suits us well!


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sleeping in Tents

When I tell others that we go camping and sleep in tents, I often hear these questions:
What do you sleep on?  
Isn't the ground cold and hard? 
Minnesota is cold all year around at night.
Don't those kids just freeze?!

Our sleeping gear has changed over the years, and at each stage we were pretty satisfied for the most part.

The Pile

For our first camping trips our children slept on piled, inexpensive bed comforters on the tent floor and covered themselves with a couple of polar fleece throw blankets they had each acquired as gifts as toddlers.  We took their bed pillows along for them and away we went!

See that stack on the end of the table?  That huge stack just for two or three children.
See that poor guy thinking, "Where am I going to fit all this back into the van?"
At that time in our camping, that was a good way to go for us.  All the gear was things that we had around anyway.  No extra expense & nothing else to store!  Awesome.

But the drawbacks were two-fold.  The Pile is really bulky.  Those items were well over half of our gear for the trip.  And The Pile is also not very warm.  The comforters' insulating layer is easily compressed.  It's designed to insulate by holding air above the body.  When under the weight of a body, they compress.  When the loft is gone, the insulation is gone, too.  Bummer.

So, we went on to our next plan!

Standard Backpacking Gear

There are lots of foam mats and sleeping bags that are targeted at backpackers. Boasts of light packweights and compact options abound.  When we were first buying these, we went to Cabela's store and compared them ourselves... as best as you can from the store shelf, anyway.

We came home with the version of these available in 2004.  We got two longer ones that could be velcro-ed together for us old parents to use and torso length mats for the children.

Full-body mats are maroon.
Torso mats are blue.
Unrolled and rolled & packed.
Yardstick and two-liter bottle included for size perspective.

These mats are self-inflating, open-cell foam. They were quite light weight and compress to nice, tidy packages.  Very nice pairing with our sleeping bags.

Our Kelty Light Year +45 sleeping bags, purchased at about the same time as our mats, served us very well!  Down-filled and mummy style, it was excellent insulation for all the children.  Even our toddlers did well in these bags.  

Sleeping bag hint - Short people can get lost in the bottoms of their sleeping bags.  This situation will result in midnight muffled cries and someone getting up to rescue the lost child.  A better solution is to use a ponytail holder on the foot end of the sleeping bag.  Customize the length of any bag to fit your shortest campers!

Though I love the materials and washing machine friendly features of these bags, the compact size is what made them most wonderful.  In the photo you see two full-sized mummy bags in their compression packs.  Coming in just about the size of a 2-liter bottle, we could tuck all the bags for our whole family in the little nooks & crannies of the van.  Packing was made so much easier than the days of the pile of blankets.
And now...

You're speaking in past-tense, aren't you?  What's up with that?  Well, just like we've done with our tents, we've changed our choices yet again.  Learning from ultralight backpacking and Ray Jardine, we've started making our own gear and making the adaptations to them that make them just right!   But that's another blog post, too...