8 Versatile Camping Essentials for New Campers

Camping Essentials at a Glance

  • Light sources
  • A decent fixed-blade knife
  • Tools for starting a fire
  • A way to carry and collect water
  • The super-versatile shemagh
  • Cordage
  • Carabiners
  • Cookwear

I don’t have the numbers to prove it, but I’ll bet COVID-19 has done wonders for camping. Without the option of easy air travel, my family looked close to home. And we set a record for camping this year.

And I’ve heard of a few new-to-camping who are wondering what they need to get started.

That’s a huge topic, especially because smart campers could write massic tomes about “shelter systems” (tents, to the layperson, and hammocks to the slightly-less-laypeople). I’ll get into selecting a hammock in a future post — I’ve been through the beginner learning curve, and I’d love to help some people flatten that curve so they can start hanging with confidence. (That sounded terrible, but there’s no way I’m deleting it.)

I’m going to focus this particular post on the type of stuff nobody really mentions, yet will still be incredibly handy.

Here is my list of items I consider camping essentials, and highly recommend for any camper who is doing some short-range backpacking or car camping. This isn’t for RV people.

Go to the Light

camping essentials
The MPOWERD Luci solar-powered camping lantern boggles my mind with awesomeness.

Campers absolutely need light. I recommend a minimum of two types: a head-mounted light that allows you to operate hands free, and a lantern of some sort.

I’m largely brand- and model-agnostic about head lights.

But I am a hardcore fan of the MPOWERD Luci solar-powered inflatable lantern. Stick it in the sun for 8 hours to get about 12 hours of charge out of it. Heck, hang it deflated on your backpack.

It’s waterproof, low-fuss gear that will not let you down. It’s also cheap, with models starting below $20.

Get an Edge on the Nature

A good knife is a camping essential. And no, I’m not talking about a Swiss Army knife. I don’t trust any folding knife at all. I’m also not talking about some stupid phallus extension straight out of a Rambo or Crocodile Dundee movie.

camping essentials
A camping knife doesn’t need to be big. The little ESEE Izula – the little green one – is among my favorite camping knives.

While my personal preference is a full-tang fixed blade like an ESEE-4, they can be a bit spendy. I also like the tiny little ESEE Izula.

For a new camper looking for a good deal, I recommend the Swedish Fireknife, a simple, low-cost, decent-quality knife with a firestarting flint built into the hilt. It’s made by Mora of Sweden, and you simply can’t go wrong with it.

You won’t feel guilty treating it mean, and you can do anything with it. Need to turn a biggish branch into small branches? You can use the FireKnife and another branch to baton that branch into a manageable size. It’s easy to sharpen, and it keeps its edge well.

Keep the Fire Burning (Carefully)

Making a fire (when conditions allow) is a huge part of the camping experience. From cooking your evening meal to simply keeping warm, this is an important skill you’ll need to master.

Good firemaking tools are next-level camping essentials. I mentioned the flint in the Swedish FireKnife, which is great for making fires with one caveat: You have to be skilled enough to make a tinder bundle and have the patience to get the whole thing going.

There’s also weather conditions to consider. Sometimes, it’s hard to use the flint in sloppy, wet conditions.

So I advise keeping a second way to start a fire. REI has all sorts of heavy-duty camp matches that come in sealed containers. If you really want to prepare, bring a few cotton balls and a tube of Vaseline. A dab of Vaseline on the cotton ball can get your tinder going quickly and easily.

An Even Better Way to Carry Water

Right now, I know most people prefer hydration packs for carrying water. Fair enough. They’re handy and hands-free.

But let’s say something pokes a hole in it. You’re in trouble.

camping essentials
This water-carrying setup is reliable and versatile – and uses many items on this list: Paracord, carabiner and water bottle.

Even if you carry a hydration pack, bring two 32-ounce Nalgene bottles with you. They are indestructible. It’s also far easier to refill them from streams and other sources – they also give you a very easy way to disinfect water – a few drops of 2% tincture of iodine (another overlooked camping item) in each bottle and a half hour of waiting is enough to disinfect water from many sources.

You can also get some other uses out of the bottle: If you use a bit of paracord secured to the bottle with duct tape, you have a way to carry extra duct tape for any of thousands of uses. Hang the whole setup from your backpack with a carabiner.

Keep Yourself Covered

Imagine a giant bandana that is software and more comfy than a bandana.

That’s a shemagh, a familiar sight to anyone who has seen news coverage from the Middle East. It is a tool of infinite use, and your creativity is its only limit.

You can turn it into a headwrap to keep the sun off your noggin. You can do an even fancier wrap to cover your face if you’re dealing with smoke or airborne dust. And it’s perfect for hauling a big bundle of pine cones for your fire.

A shemagh can even be a good way to filter water. One of the most-effective, low-cost camping essentials I can recommend.

Tie One On

Sometimes, you just need to tie something up. Like a shemagh, cordage of any kind is only limited by your creativity.

I’ve used it to string up a few LUCI lights to illuminate a campsite in areas with fire restrictions. It’s also helped me secure the ends of my hammock fly to the ground. That’s just to name a few.

Warning: Not all paracord is created equal. Here’s a nice guide to buying paracord.

Connecting Everything Together

“By golly, I brought too many carabiners,” said absolutely no camper ever.

I’ve already mentioned hanging water bottles from them. They’re also handy for hanging my hammock, storing gear inside my tent or hammock so I can find it quickly, keeping my keys where they belong, hanging my LUCI lights at night – you name it.

Be sure to get carabiners that are rated for climbing if you plan to use them for hanging a hammock or anything like that.

Considering that a decent Metolius carabiner is only a few bucks more than a light-duty one, it makes sense to simply go heavy for all of them.

How many do you need? Start with a 10. You won’t regret it.

Cooking Something Up

My home state of Arizona has been absolutely plagued with fires. That means fire restrictions.

That’s a bit of a bummer. But you can still cook with a decent camp stove. I use this
MSI Whisperlite setup along with one of their cookware sets. The cookware comes with collapsible utensils. Don’t rely on them. Get a set that’s more durable, even if they’re less convenient.

I’m also a bit brand and model-agnostic on camp stoves. This is the only one I’ve ever owned.

Go to your friendly outdoor outfitter. Get some advice and see what works for you.

Wrapping up the Camping Essentials List

I could probably go a lot further than this in listing some of my favorite camping essentials. Let me know if you want to know about anything not on this list.

But before I go – there’s one camping essential you can’t buy.

That’s knowledge.

All this gear is only as good as your ability to use it. Camp with people who are more experienced and can show you what works for them – in person! A blog post is great to get you started, but working with this stuff hands-on is the way to go.

To supplement the hands-on experience, I also recommend picking up a copy of Cody Lundin’s 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive. It’s a survival book, and there’s admittedly a difference between camping and survival.

That said, his info on shelter, first-aid kits, selecting a knife, disinfecting water and even choosing clothing have a lot of overlap with camping comfortably and safely.

I also took the Provident Primitive class at his Aboriginal Living Skills School. Even though I’d been camping for decades, I still took away an amazing amount of new skills. And I had a stupid amount of fun.


Bike Gear I’ll Never Buy Again

The Specialized Comp shoe looks good, but has room for improvement.
The Specialized Comp shoe looks good, but has room for improvement.

Sometimes, I cross the fine line between brilliant bargain hunter and mere low-rent cheapskate. And it usually happens with mountain bike products. Here’s my list of mountain bike gear that’s burned me the worst.

Specialized Shoes
After 10 years with a pair of Sidi Dominator 3 mountain bike shoes, it was time to get a new pair. I was hoping for a bargain, so I picked up a pair of Specialized Comp bike shoes. You can read my full review for all the dirt. Bottom line? Weak ratchets and a plastic-like feel that never seemed to mold to my foot like the Sidi Dominator 3.

You could say I saved $60 by buying the Specialized Comp bike shoes. But I think I set $140 on fire when I should’ve just bought the updated Sidi Dominator 4 in the first place.


Stay away from Clarks Skeletal disc brakes.
Stay away from Clarks Skeletal disc brakes.

Clarks Brakes
I was skeptical of disc brakes at first, and I whinged when I had to bring home a bike that had the Hayes Nine hydraulic disc brake. My skepticism didn’t last but a ride.

When it came time to slowly gather parts for a new bike, I realized that hydraulic disc brakes are a big chunk of change to buy separately  Then I heard about a special deal on Clarks Skeletal disc brakes. There wasn’t much buzz about them – kind of like when I bought my first Santa Cruz Heckler way back in the pre-Superlight days. This was another chance to lead the way in finding something new!

Um, no. The Clarks Skeletal brake levers rattle like skeletons shagging on a harpsichord. Their stopping power is far below the generations-old Hayes 9 brakes, and far inferior to the Avid Elixir 5 brakes on my Santa Cruz Superlight. Never again.

For years, Cytomax kept my soreness and dehydration at bay. I loved the tropical fruit flavor. It was my gold standard.

A little more than a year ago, I picked up a new can of Cytomax. Mixed a bottle, froze it, hit the trails and took a drink. And nearly spit it right back out. Something tasted weird. And not in a way I could tolerate. Well, it turns out that Champion Nutrition added the sweetener Stevia to the ingredients. Sure, it’s plant based -- but I’m suspicious of low-cal sweeteners. Mind you, I didn’t know about the switch when I drank it. I detected the off flavor, researched and found out about the Stevia switch. So, see ya, Cytomax. These days, I’m in the middle of experimenting with Gu Brew, Nuun (bring back my cola flavor!) and Skratch Labs.

MagicShine Lights

For awhile, the MagicShine lights were THE hot pick for bargain hunters. Cue a battery recall, and everything just went down the crapper. The main MagicShine dudes,, even went out of business. Look, I’m convinced light systems are overpriced. But even at the low prices of the MagicShine racer’s specials, they were still more TragicShine (or MagicShite?) than MagicShine. I hate to say it, but you have to lay out cash for good lights. And if you mountain bike at night, you need something you can count on. Nightrider, Lupine … stick with the big guys like them.


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Gear for the First-Time Traveler: 5 Essentials

A selection of must-have items for a traveler.
A selection of must-have items for a traveler.

Earlier this week, I found out my 17-year-old niece is taking her first international trip … without her parents. She’ll head to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, as part of a youth group. There, the group will get its hands dirty with some public works projects.

My official notice of her plans came as a form letter; members of the group are asking friends and family for some dollars for their trip. You probably already guess that my niece asked the right guy. I called her up and told her that I’d not only send some dollars, but I’d also make a run to REI to pick up a few odds and ends that will be handy for her Mexico trip … and any others that await.

So what does an intercontintental traveler/uncle send his first-time traveler niece? Here’s a breakdown of her Wandering Justin travel care package … and how each item earned its place.

English: Petzl Tikka XP
Not a Tikka 2 … but still a great headlamp. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Petzl Tikka 2 Headlamp
Light, water and air – you can’t live without them. A Petzl headlight can take care of at least one of them. And I’ve used my Petzl headlamp everywhere … from a blackout-stricken hotel in Dallas to a rainforest in Belize. It’s one of the first things I pack for a trip of any duration. Don’t even think a normal flashlight will do: A headlamp frees your hands, which can be essential when – as Forrest Griffin would say – the shit goes down. And the Tikka 2 has everything you need without any superfluous junk.

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Daypack
There is no limit to the Ultra-Sil pack’s usefulness. Folded up, it’s about the size of a D battery. Shake it out, and it’s a perfect piece of carry-on luggage. Going out for the day and don’t want to lug your full-sized backpack? Throw your stuff in the Ultra-Sil and call it good. If you’re camping (whether in a forest or an airport), stuff the Day-Sil with some puffy clothes and you have a pillow. Perfect for the international first-time traveler.

Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200ER at Canberra A...
If you have a bottle, you’ll always have water on an Asiana Airlines 777 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Platypus SoftBottle
Remember that water I mentioned earlier? Here’s where you can put it. Breeze through the TSA security checkpoint with your empty bottles, then fill them up on the other side. No forking over $5 for 16 ounces of water for you! Once you’re on the plane, you can fill the Platypus bottle at one of the water taps throughout the cabin (well, that assumes you’re flying something awesome like an Asiana Airlines 777, my favorite plane out there right now). At your destination, carry the Platypus bottles with you everywhere. Drink, refill, repeat. I chose a pair of 17-ounce models for my niece; they’re more compact than the 34-ounce model.

Guyot Designs MicroBites
I remember watching a bunch of Europeans noshing away on a trail in New Zealand. They weren’t eating anything great, but it was better than my energy bars. But I didn’t have utensils to dig into something more substantial anyway. Never again, since I got my Guyot Designs MicroBites. They’re hard to destroy, and handy anywhere from a mountaintop to a hostel kitchen. They wash easily, too. And my niece will have a hard time losing the bright-red set I picked!

Energy Bar Mix
Sometimes, some solid pre-packed foods are just what you need. Airplane food’s too gross (or expensive)? Whip out a good bar. Have a long hike in front of you, and you’re keeping weight and bulk to a minimum? Energy bars, done! I’m hooked on ProBar – I got her a few different varieties including the big high-calorie ProBar Meal. They give you a huge amount of energy while taking up barely any room in your stomach (a very important point when traveling).

I also added a few Rise bars. I brought its entire line with me to Norway, and it powered me through a long, hard hike in conditions from sleet to sunshine, with more than a bit of wind for good measure.

Other Items Worth Considering
I could’ve gone hog-wild equipping my niece at REI. I went for some main essentials, but also gave thought to a few nice-to-haves:

Electrolyte Tablets
A kid from the Midwest could get dehydrated pretty easily in Mexico’s heat. Water alone might not do it – you need sodium, potassium and other good stuff along with the H20. Dissolve some electrolyte tabs in the Platypus bottle, and you’re good to go. So why didn’t I get some? I don’t know which of the myriad flavors she might like. Me? I love Gu Electrolyte Brew tablets in Peach Tea flavor. Another good point: If the water doesn’t taste good, electrolytes can mask the nastiness. That makes you drink more and stay hydrated.

Travel Towel
There are several companies making travel towels. These magical bits of fabric pack into no space at all, and yet the absorb water like a 500-pound sheep. Not a necessity, but handy.

last bit of advice: If you’re travelling solo, be sure to do some research on the destinations before you hit the ground. Websites such as Travel Associates have some really great must-read information on places to visit for solo travelers  Packing your gear is always easier if you know a bit about your destinations!

This post contains sponsored links.



Gear Review – Tasc Performance

I have a reflex action every time I see someone sporting those oh-so-trendy Lululemon workout clothes -- a shake of the head. An eyeroll. A muttered-under-my-breath exhalation of "sucker."

Go to any yoga studio or CrossFit gym, though, and you’re sure to see people who paid upward of a hundred clams for the privilege of sporting that omega logo on their workout duds. Why they’re so willing to shell out when there’s a company like Tasc Performance, I’ll never know.

I picked up a bunch of Tasc’s bamboo gear during a blowout sale at Sports Authority -- back when Tasc was known as Thriv (neither name is very good, but I think Thriv fits the eco-friendly vibe better. Clearly, this company needs hard-core, visionary branding consultants.).

Here’s the deal: Bamboo fiber is allegedly less stinky when exposed to sweat than my typical synthetic gear. And it’s soft – like polish-your-camera-lens-with-it soft. I ran a wide range of gear through the ringer -- two fitted t-shirts, two pairs of gym shorts and a pair of fitted boxer-briefs. I didn’t pay more than $20 for any single item (on-sale, but retail prices were still reasonable).

All were ludicrously comfortable. And yes, I noticed that I smelled far less worse when wearing Tasc gear. Here are a few observations about each item.

Hybrid fitted SS Crew – The sleeves are a bit long, coming slightly below the biceps. But that’s no big deal. Perfect performance and fit for yoga, CrossFit, running -- just about anything that breaks a sweat. I can’t think of a single improvement.

Shorts – Off-the-charts comfort, but I want the exact same shorts with two changes: Lose the built-in underwear, and add pockets. Getting rid of the undies means they’ll pair well with the Ventilate compression shorts. Other than that, these are very close to perfect.

Ventilated compression shorts – I wish all my underwear fit this way. But I noticed immediate wear in the meshy area up-front. Nothing should develop a hole by its second use, so some quality control should be high on Tasc’s list.

Other stuff to note: Tasc’s website is a touch clunky; I’m hitting items in the drop-down menu that don’t seem to take me anywhere. The company could also improve and focus its social media efforts: Tasc needs to interact, not just talk about its products. Social media sells me on organizations. A strong social media can encourage me to try a product that I can’t otherwise get my hands on -- the unexpected find of cool bamboo stuff at Sports Authority was fortunate happenstance on both our parts. But I think Tasc needs to work the social media hard to get its name out there more. Especially vital since Tasc sells on its website.

I also wouldn’t mind seeing some pants for hiking and some for yoga, along with socks. This bamboo thing is for-real, and what body part needs anti-stink support more than our feet?

Tasc could use some Twitter followers. Get over there and get them talking!


Gear Test: Giro Xen Gloves

24 Hours in the Old Pueblo Justin Schmid
Notice the always-reliable Fox gloves.

I love Giro bike helmets. Even its less-expensive models are beyond reproach.

This track record had me pretty excited about trying out its Giro Xen gloves. I picked some up at South Mountain Cycles in Ahwatukee, Ariz., in December of 2009. Since then, I’ve been able to test two pairs and have some strong opinions about them.

They had a lot to offer: full fingers (nice for cooler temperatures), lack of bulk, nice fit. And they looked cool with a swirly gray-and-black urban camouflage pattern. The hook-and-loop fasteners were a bit odd, wrapping counterclockwise around the wrist. But that seemed to be the only major deviation from convention. They were reasonably priced at $30.

Giro Xen
It didn't take long to start poking holes in the Xen.

Unfortunately, they’re also the flimsiest gloves I’ve ever owned. Within four months, stitching on the palm of the right glove started coming unraveled. I couldn’t find my receipt, but Giro was accommodating enough to send a new pair. They arrived for the hot summer riding. I split my time between the Xen gloves and an old pair of Fox half-finger gloves.

The palm started unraveling, too.

Despite a fairly light workout, the newer pair developed problems. By December, the left glove’s index finger developed a pinhole. By December, my finger was poking all the way through.

My Fox gloves, on the other hand, are so old that I can’t even remember buying them. Age and heavy use have made them crusty and skanky – even after a thorough tumble in the wash machine. But they are still in one piece.

That makes my next glove purchase a no-brainer: I’ll get another pair of Fox gloves. Unfortunately, Giro’s gloves are nowhere near a match for the excellence of its helmets.

The Xen gloves DO look cool, though.