Whether I'm out for a night or crossing a continent, good camping equipment makes life on the road that much easier. I've been bikepacking and bicycle touring for over a decade, and in that time I've tried out a lot of different things. Here are some of my favorite bits of camping equipment. All the pictures you see are of my own personal equipment, most of which has seen a lot of use.
The Sea To Summit Ultralight Air Mat is probably comfier than my bed at home. Add to that its very light weight and small packed size, and you have a winner. What's more, the quality seems to be up to the task—I've used mine fairly regularly over three years, and it hasn't punctured once, nor shown any signs of wearing out. They're cheaper than their main rivals, Thermarest, and it comes from an Australian-owned company. It also features an innovative valve design that allows you to inflate quickly, and deflate almost instantaneously. I own the uninsulated version, but if I had my time again, I would definitely pay that little bit extra, and carry that little bit more weight for the insulated one, as it makes a noticeable difference to your overall warmth on a cold night.
While I'm on the Sea To Summit bandwagon I may as well mention their Aeros Ultralight air pillow. I used to think inflatable pillows were in extravagance: why would you buy one when some folded-up clothes will do the same thing? It's just an unnecessary item weighing you down. But more recently I realised that an inflatable pillow actually allows you to pack lighter. You can wear all those clothes you were using as a pillow, which allows you to pack a lighter sleeping bag. They're also much more comfortable than folded clothes, quicker and easier to pack and unpack, and they're friggin' tiny, weighing only 70 grams. Air pillows are rad, if you're willing to shed a bit of that 'rugged outdoor type who uses their clothes as a pillow' image. For a good night's sleep, I am.
The Orikaso folding bowl is nothing more than a flat piece of plastic with creases in it, but I reckon it's the best piece of camping equipment I've ever bought. I paid $11 for it about ten years ago, and have been flogging it ever since. I've use it as a chopping board, a plate, and a bowl (yes it holds liquids). I've even used it to cook rice in a microwave. It ticks almost every conceivable box: it's cheap, clever, rugged, versatile, very light, very packable, and easy to clean. And it can double as a very amusing hat for fireside antics.Whilst I've only ever used the bowl, Orikaso do other things like cups and plates a well.
Why would you fork out $200 for an MSR Whisperlite multi-fuel stove when you can make one yourself for the price of a beer? In a word, fuel. Yes, you can make yourself a very light, rugged and quite effective stove for yourself out of a can of beer, or a can of tuna, but these run on methylated spirits (alcohol) which can be expensive and hard to find in more remote parts of the world. Also, depending on your design, you may struggle to bring a large pot of water to an energetic boil.
The MSR Whisperlite, on the other hand, can run on unleaded, diesel or kerosene, and will boil things fast. Yes, in the pamphlet that comes with the stove it says scary-sounding stuff about these fuels clogging up the lines and the burner and shortening the life-span of the stove, and it recommends you use shellite (aka white gas, naphtha) instead. But shellite is even harder to find than metho, which is not much good when you're out the back of Meebumole. Plus, the warnings about using dirtier fuels appear to be overwrought.
I was first made aware of this when I spent a few days riding through South Australia with a couple who had been cycle touring around the world for a couple of years straight. They were using regular unleaded with their MSR Whisperlite. But doesn't it clog up the stove? I asked. They said they had been using it for ages with no problems. You just need give the lines a clean from time to time.
And for the last three years that's what I've been doing. Petrol smells, and leaves a black residue on the stove, which inevitably ends up on your hands, but that's a small price to pay for dirt-cheap, ubiquitous fuel. Every one-horse town has a gas station. Fill 'er up, pay about $1.20 and you're set for another week. An alcohol stove is still a good option, particularly for short trips where you won't have to refuel, but the MSR Whisperlite is unbeatable for long-term travel, especially in remote areas.
At first glance, Human Gear Gotoobs look like one of those unnecessary products dreamed up by the outdoor adventure industry to commercialise a free activity. That is until I bought one on a whim, half-way through an extended trip a few years ago, and discovered that they are in fact really handy. On that trip I used it to hold liquid soap. Until that point I had been carrying a bar of soap in a plastic bag, which is a bit messy and inconvenient. The Gotoob allowed me to fill up from soap dispensers in public dunnies or hotel rooms—free soap—and when I had a shower I could stick it to the wall via its suction cup, where it dispensed the soap easily and without mess. When you spend a lot of time on the road it's the little things like that that make a big difference. Unfortunately I forgetfully left that Gotoob stuck to the shower wall, and when I went back to collect it it was gone—presumably because somebody else found it to be really handy as well!
This is only one possible use for Gotoobs. They can hold and dispense any number of things—sunscreen, toothpaste, insect repellent, sex lube, whatever. And the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me, from both an economic and environmental perspective. Let's take the example of sunscreen. When I go out on a short ride, say two or three days, I only want to take a small amount of sunscreen. You can buy a small tube of sunscreen from the supermarket, but it's much more expensive per mililitre than a large pump bottle. Also, they're all nonrefillable, meaning you'll be buying one after the other, creating a lot of waste. With a Gotoob, you can buy that huge bottle and just fill your Gotoob with however much you need for that trip. Neat.
I only recently bought some more Gotoobs, so I can't speak of their longevity yet, but by looking at them I would be surprised if they didn't last quite a long time—they seem to be quite simple and well made.
What are your most prized or useful camping items? Leave a comment below.
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