As Cub Scouts begin the transition to Scouts BSA, many parents are starting to think about the gear they and their Scouts will need for camping and other outdoor experiences. Here are some of my suggestions.

Sleeping

Nothing is better than a good night’s sleep after a long day of backpacking. And nothing is worse than getting a poor night’s sleep and having to trudge back to your car the next day on no rest!

Tents

When looking for a tent, remember that the person-rating is for survival, not comfort. A two-person tent will fit two average-sized people, but maybe not all their gear in the tent as well. I usually get a tent one person up from the number I expect to be camping in that tent. For example, when one adult camps with one child, a three-person tent is pretty roomy.

Another consideration is the type of tent. Larger tents obviously have more room, but tend to weigh more and take up more space in a backpack. Backpacking tents are generally optimized for weight and size, but don’t tend to have a lot of headroom, for example.

There are some pretty cool instant tents which are great for truck camping, but they will probably be too large (even folded up) to fit into a backpacking bag.

Hammocks

Some people prefer to camp with hammocks instead of tents. Personally, I love sleeping in a properly slung hammock! As someone once told me, ‘there are no roots or rocks up in the air’. That being said, hammocks do have some limitations you might want to consider:

  • You’ll obviously need two trees the correct distance apart. Hammocks are not going to be an option when camping in an open field without a hammock stand (heavy!), and sometimes all the good trees around a campsite are already taken by other hammockers.

  • As comfortable as hammocks are, they might require more gear than you think to get a good night’s sleep. In addition to the hammock, you’ll need hammock straps (never use rope to hang a hammock– it’s terrible for the tree bark), and depending on the time of year and weather conditions, you might need mosquito netting, a tarp to serve as a rain fly (with stakes), or an under-quilt. All these items might weigh as much as a light tent!

Sleeping bags

Much like tents, sleeping bags are rated for survivability instead of comfort. For example, my bag is technically a 0ºF bag because in an emergency it can keep me alive at that temperature but the comfort rating is more like 30ºF. My bag is considered a three-season bag because it’s not quite warm enough for mid-winter use. Since most of my camping is in Spring, Summer and Fall, I felt like this was a good trade-off to have a bag that keeps the chill off but doesn’t cook me in the middle of the summer.

  • Consider a sleeping bag liner. These are small, light, and inexpensive, and can lower your bag’s temperature rating by about 10ºF. Plus, in the summer you can simply sleep in the liner instead of the bag! They also keep your bag cleaner, and it’s a lot easier to wash the liner than the bag.

  • Your bag will come with a compression sack for use when camping, but please don’t store the bag in the sack all the time. The compression will damage the fibers over time and the bag will lose its insulation ability. Instead you can drape the bag over a curtain rod or loosely store it in a larger bag (some sleeping bag manufacturers will give you a storage bag as well).

  • Some bags are made of goose down feathers, and the rest are made of a synthetic fiber blend. Down sleeping bags are extremely comfortable in cold weather but are a lot more maintenance (they shouldn’t get wet, for instance). I prefer synthetic for that reason, but it’s a personal preference.

Sleeping pads

Broadly speaking, there are three different kinds of sleeping pad: closed cell foam, air, and self-inflating. You will find advocates for each kind. Check the R-value of whatever you’re looking at– this determines how warm they will be. You want some insulation between the ground and your sleeping bag on cold nights!

  • Closed cell foam pads are cheaper, lightweight, and pretty durable because they can’t really tear. I don’t have a lot of experience with them, because I find them pretty uncomfortable– I feel every rock and root.

  • Air pads use baffling to create comfotable air pockets (once you blow them up). They are incredibly small and light-weight. They can be loud if you tend to move around a lot. The basic ones have very little insulating effect so they can feel cold on chilly nights (you can mitigate this somewhat by wrapping it in a blanket).

  • ‘Self-inflating’ pads aren’t really that self-inflating in my experience. Opening the valve lets ambient air pressure in, and you can close the valve once it’s equalized. I like to blow more air in for a firmer feel. They take up a lot of space (usually you’d attach these to the outside of your pack) but I think they’re the most comfortable. You should also invest in an inexpensive patch kit for field repairs in case you get a leak.

  • Cots are great for truck camping, but I can’t recommend them for backpacking due to their weight and bulk.

Cooking gear

Stoves

  • Jetboil type stoves are incredible for one thing: boiling water really fast. They have an insulated cup for more fuel efficiency. They’re not really good for anything else than boiling water, but for backpacking, where you might be eating a lot of dehydrated meals, they’re fantastic. They take fuel canisters which are not refillable, so make sure you have enough fuel for your trip.

  • WhisperLite type stoves are great because they are tiny, take multiple kinds of fuel (white gas, kerosene, and even gasoline), and can cook a variety of meals. They can be finicky to light and keep lit in the wind, and you have to bring a separate bottle for fuel, but it’s refillable.

  • Biolite stoves are a really interesting concept: you don’t have to take any fuel with you because you use sticks to make a small fire inside the stove. The fire heats up an element in the stove that generates electricity which powers a small fan to force more air into the stove. The stove even has a USB port that can (s-l-o-w-l-y) trickle charge your phone. As cool as they are, I can’t really recommend them. They are bulkier and heavier than the stoves above, and what if you can’t find suitable sticks? What if it’s pouring down rain on your trip unexpectedly? etc. That being said, I think they are a really cool technology!

Cookware (Mess) kits

Generally speaking, backpacking cookware is made of one of three metals: stainless steel, aluminum, titanium. You don’t want to be carrying cast iron in your backpack! They tend to pack up in creative ways to save space in your bag.

  • Stainless steel is easy to clean, cheaper, and durable, but also the heaviest of the bunch.

  • Aluminum is lightweight, heats up very quickly (too quickly! bring a mitt), and usually affordable.

  • Titanium is very lightweight and durable, but also costly.

Backpacks

Backpacking bags are measured in liters so you can compare the internal storage available easily. Depending on how much gear you bring, kids can probably handle 30-50L bags and adults can handle 50-70+L. Whatever kind of backpack you buy, make sure you get a waterproof cover for your bag. This can be as simple as a plastic trash bag pulled upside down over the pack, or you can find a nylon one that stretches over your pack exactly.

  • Internal-frame backpacks tend to be the most comfortable and stable backpacks and are very popular. The structure of the pack is built into the back panel.

  • External-frame backpacks are the kind of classic backpacking bags you probably have in your head. They tend to have an aluminum or steel frame. They are a little more rigid (which can be a good or bad thing) and have lots of ways to mount gear on the outside that won’t fit within.

  • Frameless packpacks are great for dayhikes and those who travel extremely lightly. I wouldn’t recommend them for an overnight if you can help it.

Make sure the backpack has a comfortable waist strap as you want to tighten that so the load goes to your hips instead of your back or shoulders.

First Aid kits

  • You need one. 🙂 Plenty of companies make great backpacking kits with waterproof pouches to keep everything dry. Be sure to inventory them every once in a while to make sure you’re not out of anything and that your medicines aren’t super out-of-date.

  • I always like to thrown in some extra moleskin for blisters and a rash stick for when I get sweaty during a hike.

  • A waterproof wilderness first aid book is a great idea, but nothing beats taking the wilderness first aid class and having it in your head.

Where to buy

I’d recommend buying sleeping bags and backpacks in store so you can test them out for comfort. You can probably get away with buying things like cookware and tents online, but be sure they have a good return policy, just in case.

  • In Charlottesville, Great Outdoor Provision Company is a great resource for buying all sorts of gear. They have literally everything you need for outfitting yourself for a backpacking trip. They offer a 10% Scout discount on anything you will need for camping but you might need to bring some formm of identification to prove you’re a scout.

  • REI in the West End of Richmond isn’t too far of a drive away and has even more selection than GOPC. I don’t think they offer a Scout discount but it couldn’t hurt to ask. If you are buying anything, it is a good idea to join their Co-op for a small lifetime fee. Once you do, you get member sales and an annual rebate based on what you bought that year. They also have incredible sales on lightly-used gear during their ‘garage sales’. You can buy online from REI and return to store.

  • ALPS Mountaineering has a program for scouts called Hiker Direct. They offer great prices on their tents/sleeping bags/backpacks, etc. I have bought a couple ALPS tents in the past few years and my kids have ALPS sleeping bags, and really like the value:price ratio. You can also buy ALPS directly on Amazon.