It’s always about the gear.
That’s a realization I’ve had over the years as I’ve tented in the backwoods of Nebraska, hiked on the North Shore of Minnesota, and “roughed it” in an Airstream that costs a cool $110,600. Every time I go camping, the same lessons rise up from the ashes of my campfire: If you don’t have the right gear for the trip, you will suffer the consequences. On a trip to Austin recently, I learned that all over again and went back to my roots as a summer camp counselor.
Back then, tent camping was the only option. We used to go out to an island with a few squirrely teens and teach them about the basics. Always flip the canoes over. Bring a jacket even if you think there’s no chance of rain. Use a tarp to keep your campsite dry.
Since then, I’ve camped in every rig imaginable, from pull-behind trailers to spacious yurts in a remote state park near Fargo that sleep seven people. Yet, I keep going back to those early days in college when I grabbed nothing but a tent and a roommate, living off the fish we caught and tying our packs up on a tree to evade the black bears. Even though I slept most nights in Austin on a queen-sized bed and watched talk shows on an HDTV, I used a tree-tent that last two nights and tested some brand new camping gear to see how it helped me relive some past glories.
The centerpiece of my campsite was a Tentsile Connect tree tent, which costs $450. You have to find three sturdy trees that can hold two adults in the tent (or one adult and two kids). The best part about this tent is the setup. It comes in one small bag with three massive ratchets. Tentsile says the setup time is about ten minutes, but I’ve used plenty of tree hammocks and had this suspended in more like five minutes with help from a friend. The tent was amazingly comfortable, although getting inside was a bit challenging when you are 6-2 and 230 pounds.
For lounging, I had a sweet Coleman ComfortSmart Interlock Breeze suspension chair that costs $60, which folds up nicely into a pouch. It has not one but two bungees for support and a 22-inch seat. As I mentioned, it’s all about the gear, and this chair made campfire vigils more palatable. I own a couple of other suspension chairs and they beat those cheap Walmart fold-ups by a mile.
What you wear at the site is almost as important as your tent and seating. I used the Garmont Prophet Low GTX hiking shoes that cost $160. My main takeaway is that the low weight (about one pound) made it easier to traverse some of the river banks near my site in Bastrop and, incidentally, worked well for playing disc golf the next day in Dallas. I tested a Timberland Mount Walsh jacket that’s fully waterproof. A seam snaps shut in the front to ward off the rain. (My first night in Austin, the rain came down so hard I was glad to be in an Airstream, not the tent.)
I brought along a Toad&Co. camping shirt called the M Debug UPF Stretch that costs $99. There’s a hidden pocket in the front by the buttons, which I used for stashing my phone. Toad&Co. has an interesting policy with their clothing—if you don’t get a compliment right away, you can return it. At the SXSW conference and at my campsite, I had a few people comment right away. The cotton-poly shirt has insect and UV protection, so it’s perfect for hot spring days.
What else? I also wore a Petzl Zipka headlamp most evenings, especially when I was rummaging around outside of the Airstream and the nights I slept in the tent. I know there are many brands that make more rugged headlamps, but I prefer the small size and portability of the Zipka because it fits inside my laptop bag (it’s about the size of your thumb). I brought along some cookware including a Hydro Flask Wide Mouth Growler for $54 that uses tech to keep your drinks cold.
My favorite campsite accessory was definitely the Schwinn Vantage F1 bike I borrowed for a few days. It costs $880 and is designed for everyday biking. I made a wonderful discovery in Austin. Right next to the convention center and down by the river, there are some of the best bike trails in the U.S. Some of the trails swing out on a bridge over the river or cross over to the other size, and the Vantage felt totally stable for some all-day riding between meetings.
This gear made the trip much more enjoyable overall, especially being in the tent suspended above the ground and being able to jump on the bike all day (riding around Bastrop and then transporting it to Austin for the day about 30 miles from my site). I was warm at night, never had any complaints about the clothes or shoes, and had one of my best tent-camping experiences ever. It’s almost enough to make me give up trailer camping. Well, almost.