Great Camping Gear – 3 Items to Check Out ASAP

great camping gear
The ESEE-4 knife is a piece of great camping gear.

Great camping gear can make all the difference in whether I’m motivated to go camping or not. And I admit I’m even more motivated to actual go camping when I, A) have a good place to camp that isn’t on a campground with numbered slots and, B) can find everything I need without turning my house inside-out.

I still don’t of any company that makes a self-loading backpack, so the organization part is my burden to bear. But for all the other stuff I need for a camping trip, where is some great camping gear I used on my latest camping trip to the Arizona Rim Country.

Therm-a-Rest ProLite Self-Inflating Mattress
I never considered using a self-inflating mattress until I got the paperwork for attending the Aboriginal Living Skill School class called The Provident Primitive. It turns out an inflatable mattress is not just for cushioning your carcass against the ground – it also creates a barrier between you and the cold ground. The school staff recommended a Therm-a-Rest, so I went to REI to grill the staff about which one. As usual, the REI staff members were helpful -- and they had a 25-percent of sale on Therm-a-Rest gear. The sales dude recommended the Therm-a-Rest ProLite. Done!

But how did it work? I was skeptical when I first deployed it. Will this skinny ProLite thing really be worth the trouble? After a night of the best sleep I ever had in a tent, the answer is -- this is a great camping gear. I should’ve bought one years ago. It turns out this is my second piece of Therm-a-Rest gear – I’d been using a Therm-a-Rest pillow on my travels and camping trips for years. It’s another one of those items that seems way too flimsy to be effective, yet somehow works way beyond its weight and bulk. I had a bit of sticker shock when I learned that the Therm-a-Rest ProLite sells for about $125. After just one night sleeping on it, I get it. Worth the clams, or bones, or whatever you call them.

great camping gear
The Therm-a-Rest ProLite blew my expectations away. Great camping gear, no arguments. That little black roll is another ProLite all rolled up.

ESEE-4 Camping Knife
A little more than a year ago, my brother came to visit with his two kids in tow. Well, my then-8-year-old nephew took one glimpse at my old Schrade camping knife. With its handle cut from an antler and old-school looks, he decided it was the coolest thing ever. Since my brother – his dad – gave me the knife, I had no choice: I coughed it up for the nephew to use during his Boy Scout adventures.

Which left me a knife short: I set out researching knives, and stumbled upon ESEE Knives. American made, decently priced -- but impossible to find in Phoenix (That, my friends, is Phoenix in a nutshell: You can find all sorts of big-box crap here, but just try walking into a store and finding something like an ESEE knife.). I ordered an ESEE-4 (with a 4-inch fixed blade) online, hoping for the best. What I got is one helluva solid chunk of metal with textured grips. This knife has heft. It can chop, it can whittle, it can slice. I used it to chop a nearly forearm-thick branch in record time with no discernible effect on its edge. I didn’t need to gut or skin anything this time around, or build a hut from  … but I feel assured that it would be up to the task

I guess I owe the nephew one for forcing me to get a new camping knife. Or better yet, I’ll have to talk to his dad about getting him an ESEE-4 for an upcoming birthday. It seriously whoops that old Schrade knife in all sorts of ways, and I think a Scout winding his way up the ranks would dig it. Great camping gear, no doubt about it. I’ve seen them starting at $75.

After using the ESEE-4 for awhile, I started using a great technique called batoning to split larger chunks of wood. The blade on my knife, which is a clip-point blade, is not as good for batoning because the back edge isn’t all flat. If you plan to baton, be sure to choose the Plain Edge version.

great camping gear
The Swedish FireSteel 2.0 lights up your life.

Swedish FireSteel 2.0 magnesium fire starter
Well, when I head to the Aboriginal Living Skills School, the Swedish FireSteel 2.0 will have to stay home: The school staff considers it contraband for the Provident Primitive class. As well they should. This crazy, compact little fire starter makes it almost too easy to get a blaze going.

Since campfires are off-limits in most of Arizona at the moment, I only used it to crank up our MSR WhisperLite camp stove. That’s OK – I love eating freeze-dried food while camping, for some reason. And it leaves a way better taste in my mouth than the possibility of torching millions of acres of forest. Anyway -- the Swedish FireSteel 2.0 is great camping gear that should be in everyone’s pack. It provides a big spark with every strike. It’s about $20. If you think that’s overpriced for such a small gizmo -- well, saving money won’t keep you warm when you’re trying to light a fire with wet matches, cheapskate.

I’ve since used the Swedish FireSteel to start many fires, from campfires to lighting up a charcoal grill. You’ll need some good tinder with some fine stuff on top to get it going. I’d also advise scraping a few shavings of your FireSteel on top of the tinder.

Other Stuff
I also swear by my The North Face sleeping bag and tent (The Cat’s Meow and Rock 22, respectively). But I’ve been using them a good long time, while these other items are much newer to me. Still, check them out if you need other great camping gear.


Views from North Scottsdale – Third Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge

McDowell Sonoran Challenge,, phoenix mountain bike examiner
This is a look I call "Blue Steele"

I was hanging around having a hot dog at the Weenie Wagon; then I heard the phrase of the day from a guy who works at Sunday Cycles in Phoenix:

"I felt like I was getting seasick!"

It might sound like a complaint, but it wasn’t. Having just finished the 20-mile bike course of the Third-Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge, I knew what he meant. The course is filled with big rollers made by years of use from off-road motorcycles. They’re part of what makes the trail network running through the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and bits of State Trust Land one of the best outdoor recreational sites in Scottsdale.

Big Bumps, Lots of Challenge

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, unicycle
Yes, this madman's ready to rock a unicycle!

But boy, there was an awful lot of these rollers. How many? So many that I often had a hard time finding a long-enough stretch of trail to drink from a water bottle or slurp down an energy gel. Each time I took a gel, I’d wind up riding for a few minutes with a half-empty package of Chocolate Outrage-flavored Gu clenched in my teeth, waiting for a chance to finish it off.

And that is better than riding flat, straight, way-too-wide trails. This was real desert mountain biking, with the occasional steep pitch and super-hard turn. There was also so much sand that I suspected David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson were course volunteers – not so much fun, but that’s mountain biking for ya.

McDowell Sonoran Challenge
Numero Uno Cinco Cinco

I also loved the really complete, thorough, clear trail markings. I was never in danger of veering off-course. Gotta love that! After the race, the expo area was not the usual explosion of commercial hoopla – just a few vendor tents and people hanging out. I also liked the swag bags. My favorite bits were the t-shirt with the event logo and the reusable shopping bag with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy (the event was a fundraiser for the conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving open spaces as part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve).

McDowell Sonoran Challenge
Nice scenery

Smart Set-up at the Starting Line

The starting area was pretty cool. There were chutes for each event. Course marshals asked everybody to do a reality check and line up accordingly – that prevent fast people from getting stuck behind the newbies. Good thing, since it’s a narrow course without a lot of room to pass! Another great idea: Riders "launched" in a fashion similar to a time trial. Two riders would leave every 10 seconds. It really prevented the angst, drama and frustration of a mass start.

Here’s what I can’t figure out: There’s a place in the plaza where organizers had the expo called Rare Earth Wine and Coffee Bar. I had an hour to kill before the race started, and I locked onto the words "Coffee Bar," anticipating a nice americano to warm me up. But no – Rare Earth is apparently far too leisurely to be up at 8 a.m. Not until 11 a.m. most days, and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Huh?

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, Sunday Cycles, hot dogs, Weenie Wagon
Questionable for all the right reasons.

Other Stuff

I guess it was a show of solidarity for people doing cool things for outdoor recreation and preserving open space: Rand Hubbell, supervisor of McDowell Mountain Regional Park, was out spreading the word.

Without meaning to, I’ve put together an unprecedented-for-me streak: I’ve done three races in the past few months: The McDowell Dust Devil series race, the Four Peaks12 Hours in the Papago and the McDowell Sonoran Challenge. And I’ll be in the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo later this month. That’s a lot of racing in a short time -- for me, anyway!

See results for the Third Annual McDowell Sonoran Challenge



Primal Strips Vegan Jerky is Eco-Friendly, Healthy – and Tasty

Primal Strips - worthy of a place in my pack.

Soon, I’m going to get on a 6-hour flight. A day later, I’ll put on a backpack and head into Iceland’s remote Landmannalaugar region. Right now, the road to Landmannalaugar isn’t even open yet. There will be no Starbucks, no fast food, no convenience stores. It’s all gotta go in with me.

That means I’ll need some snacks. They have to be compact, of course. But they also have to be tasty, relatively healthy and a bit on the salty side. Tasty and healthy are obvious. But why the salt? I’m planning to sweat out some eletrolytes.

Before I really got far into planning the contents of my pack, the folks from Primal Strips contacted me to ask for a review of their vegan “jerky” snacks. They sent two of each of their flavors.

I’d planned to take the whole lot to Iceland for testing. But I got a little impatient and opened my first a few weeks out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s talk about jerky first – the kind made from meat. I have a love/hate relationship with it. Cheap jerky is leathery and briny. Good jerky is expensive, and a bit less salty. Exotic jerkies like shark, ostrich and bison are fun, but they’re often a bit on the chewy side.

This all means the idea of a vegan jerky intrigued me. I’m an ominover. I think meat is delicious, but I have absolutely no knee-jerk ideological hangups about eating something that didn’t “have a face,” as so many people do.

Primal Spirit Foods makes the Primal Strips from soy, seitan (a type of wheat gluten) and shiitake mushrooms. Different flavors use one of the three as their main base. The first one I tried was the Thai Peanut flavor, which is made from seitan.

It had a meaty appearance, right down to some bacon-like marbling. I poked at it to gauge the texture and took a bite. What I found was a surprisingly meaty texture – a tad more spongy than jerky, but far easier to chew. And I liked the spicy peanut flavor. I was pretty impressed – so much so that I knew it would be hard to stay disciplined and not eat them all before boarding my Icelandair flight.

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