Q&A With the Expert: Camping Gear Review, and Camping and Backpacking Advice

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What better way to get insight on camping equipment than from a gear editor of a premier outdoor magazine? Managing Editor Caleb Regan recently spoke with Backpacker Magazine Gear Editor Kristin Hostetter. Their conversation covered a variety of topics, including general camping gear and advice, tents, sleeping bags, lanterns and locations.

CR: What is the typical top priority when people are considering tent choice?

KH: We typically focus on real technical backpacking and base camping tents. You mentioned canvas before, canvas, really doesn’t exist in our world anymore at all. It’s just really heavy, hard to work with and almost nobody makes canvas tents anymore unless you’re talking about huge tepees or Quonset or yurts or something like that.

I think when you’re shopping for a tent, from our perspective the two things to really think about are the weight and the space. If you’re buying a high-quality tent they are all going to be waterproof, they’re all going to be fairly weather-worthy, and so all those things being equal, you’re trying to figure out what your weight capacity is, and how much space you want.

Do you ever encounter canvas tents in a basecamp with a woodstove or anything like that?

It’s very, very niche. If you’re looking for a tent to go out camping with your family for the weekend, you’re going to be concerned with how much space it has, things like how easy it is to set up, how much weight it’s going to be in your pack or how much space it’s going to take up in your car, that sort of thing.

(Photo by Fotolia/Galyna Andrushko)

Within the polyester and nylon category, can you talk about where the dome shape excels and where the square, cabin-shaped tents excel?

It’s all about weather. The square-shaped tents, we don’t do much with those at all because we focus more on tents that can really handle backcountry weather and backcountry conditions, and a simple rule to follow is the taller the tent and the bigger the surface area of unsupported nylon you have, the less weather-worthy it’s going to be. So if you have a cabin tent with a huge 10-foot-long wall that’s unsupported by a pole, it’s going to be like a sail in the wind, and it’s going to flutter, and it’s going to collapse. Dome tents – and there’s many more configurations than dome tents, these days too – they are really well-supported with the pole structure, they are aerodynamic so the wind just kind of blows right over them, and they’re generally lower in terms of height, so again, just more aerodynamic.

But there are lots of other shapes of tents that we talk about besides dome tents, and there are all kinds of different versions of dome tents too, there are really strict domes, but there are also types of modified, elongated domes, asymmetrical domes, things like that. There’s also something called a “tunnel tent,” that is a super lightweight tent that is not free standing, in other words it does not stand up by itself without stakes, so you have two poles that are hoops, and they create this tunnel-like structure that you stake out on each end, and that’s actually a very weather-worthy construction as well and super lightweight because it doesn’t rely on so many poles and stakes. There are tepee tents out there that have a long center pole and then you stake out the fabric around it. Those can be very weather-worthy if you set them up right and stake them out right; a little less common than a tunnel tent or a dome tent or a modified dome tent.

But I guess the general rule of thumb is the more aerodynamic a shape is, the better it’s going to hold up in wind and weather.

Polyester or Nylon?

Most tents are one or the other or sometimes a blend of two. I think the important thing to think about with material is, well two things for the canopy: You want to figure out what sort of conditions you’re going to be in, and you want to figure out how much mesh you want, because a mesh canopy is going to be way cooler in the summer heat. All good tents are going to have a full-coverage rain fly that goes over the mesh canopy to protect from rain or water, but that mesh underneath still allows a lot of airflow to come up under the fly and through the tent making it more comfortable. If you’re looking for more of a cool-weather tent, then you don’t want as much mesh and you want solid nylon or polyester panels in there and fewer windows to trap the heat. So that’s the main thing with the canopy of the tent.

The other thing about materials that is important, maybe even more so, are the poles. Basically you’re going to find two types of tent poles out there on any tent you’re looking at: You’re going to find fiberglass poles or aluminum poles. Fiberglass poles are always cheaper, much cheaper. So anytime you see a 2-man tent for 40 bucks, 50 bucks, 60 bucks, it’s going to have fiberglass poles. Higher end tents – I mean you can look at the price tag and pretty much know whether it has fiberglass or aluminum poles – higher end tents always have aluminum poles. Aluminum poles are stronger and lighter and more expensive, of course. I never recommend anybody buy a tent with fiberglass poles. They just don’t hold up. It’s very easy to nick the ends, and then they start to splinter, they break really easily, they’re very heavy compared to aluminum, and it’s much less of an investment, for sure for people on a budget, but it’s just one of those things that it’s one of the first things to go wrong in a tent is fiberglass poles.

Are there some aluminum poles that are better or worse than others?

The thing with aluminum poles is they bend but don’t break. If they bend, they are still totally serviceable. I’ve got tent poles down in my basement where you are inside a tent and there’s huge windstorms, and it’s blowing and bending and bucking all night, and even starts to flatten on you but bounces right back, it’s very rare that the wind, unless it’s a catastrophic wind event, that the wind is going to break your aluminum tent pole – IF it’s set up properly.

One of the huge parts about surviving a big storm in a tent is that you have to have it set up and staked out really properly and really well. Because if you don’t, you’re not giving the tent that proper rigid structure that it was designed for, that will rib off the weather. If you have a dome tent that you stake out on one side but not the other, and wind gets in and lifts up underneath that tent, that’s when you start to get breaks and snap and things like that when it’s not set up straight. But yes there are all kinds of different aluminum poles and all kinds of companies and different thicknesses – thinner poles are obviously not going to be as strong as thicker poles but they are going to be much lighter and less expensive. So there’s definitely all kinds of variations of that, but generally the tent is going to have the poles that it needs to do what it was designed for. So if you’re buying a $600 winter mountaineering tent, it’s going to have beefier, fatter, thicker, larger diameter poles that are meant to handle snow loads and really high winds. If you’re buying an ultra-light summer camping tent, it’s going to have much thinner poles because generally that’s all you need in that kind of weather.

What are people’s top considerations with sleeping bags?

The main thing with sleeping bags is whether you’re going to want down or synthetic. And it’s pretty simple: Synthetic bags are generally cheaper than down bags, but they are also more resistant to water. I think that if you’re going to invest in a sleeping bag, these days, you’re crazy not to go with a down bag. It’s very rare that I find a synthetic bag that performs as well as a down bag does, even in wet conditions. For the most part when you’re camping in the rain, you’re in a tent anyways, so water is not a huge consideration for sleeping bags unless you’re doing something really gnarly like going to Alaska for a month, river camping or paddling where there’s the possibility that your bag might fall in or something like that. Down bags are super-packable, super lightweight, really warm for their weight, and they also tend to last longer because down is very resilient and springs back to life after it’s packed up, whereas a synthetic bag tends to lose loft over time.

Are down bags too hot in the summertime?

You have to buy the bag that, again, is suitable for your type of trip. If you’re a summer camper, you’re going to want a bag that’s rated to 35, 40 degrees which is a really thin bag. If you take a bag rated to zero degrees out in the summer you’re going to be super hot. You have to have the right bag for your type of trip. Down, I also feel , and this is just an experience and perception that I have and I think a lot of people share, but down bags tend to breathe a little bit better than synthetics. Synthetic bags can get a little clammier just because your body vapor and your body heat doesn’t escape as well as through down and the shell material. And down typically has a lightweight shell material and the bags just tend to breathe a little bit better.

What are people going for in terms of shape, mummy vs. rectangle?

We typically only review mummy bags or what we call semi rectangular bags that are slightly tapered bags, but even among mummy bags the shape can vary a huge amount. So if you ever read Backpacker we always talk about the cut and shape of the bag, some mummies are very tight, very thermally efficient. The snugger the bag is, to a degree, the more thermally efficient it is because it’s your body that heats up that interior space, the bag doesn’t heat anything up, you heat the bag, and so if you have a lot of excess space in your bag, it’s going to take a lot of work for your body to heat up that space. So the snugger a bag is, the more thermally efficient a bag is, but there’s always a happy medium there because most people don’t like to sleep in a totally tight, confined environment. So you want to have a little bit of wiggle room, you want to be able to move your knees and roll around, things like that. So the best thing you can do if you are looking at a bag is to crawl in it, see how you feel, roll over onto your side if you’re a side sleeper, because there’s a lot of variation. If you’re just going summer car camping with your kids, then a cheap rectangular bag from LL Bean, or WalMart even, is going to do the trick just fine, as long as you don’t have to pack it because the more material a bag has the heavier and bulkier it’s going to be when packed as well.

What are common light sources for camping excursions?

Karosene lanterns are really fussy and hard to operate, and you have to worry about having fuel and flair ups. Nobody really uses those camping anymore. We typically use battery-powered or rechargeable headlamps or lanterns that you plop right on a table and fire it up.

What about the Termacell mosquito repellant lanterns, have you guys used them?

I have – it didn’t work for me. It’s very hard to feel any difference in terms of bugs flying around you. I don’t buy into those things at all. I’ve tried it and didn’t find that it worked. It might do something to alleviate some really light bug conditions, I don’t know, I could not perceive any difference in where the bugs fly when I was using it, but it’s a nice lantern.

What do you find are the major ways that the weekend warrior’s supply pack differs from the backpacker’s?

It’s really all about weight. If you’re backpacking, you have to carry it. And if you’re just piling everything into your car and going to a campsite, you don’t, so you can bring anything: You can bring big chairs and you can bring tables and two-burner stoves, and all kinds of gourmet cookware and coolers and things like that. But if you’re backpacking, you’re looking at what every single item in your pack weighs, and you’re counting ounces, and you’re trying to get away with as little as possible.

What are the most common errors people make when camping?

With gear, it’s easy, it’s over-packing. Most people pack way more clothes than they actually need. When you’re backpacking you tend to wear the same T-shirt for four days. People tend to pack way more clothes than they need. And food too, often.

Other common mistakes are maybe they didn’t check the batteries in their headlamp, or they packed the wrong kind of fuel for their stove. It’s really just constant and it’s practice too. Nobody goes out on their first backpacking trip and comes back and says, “Oh my God, I packed just right. I had everything I needed, and nothing I didn’t.” That takes years of practice. I’m still working on that. Backpacking, there’s this line that you want to straddle because you want to have everything that you need to be safe, if the shit hits the fan, but you really don’t want to be carrying everything for every single circumstance that might pop up. It takes experience over the years and really good planning – you should know exactly where you’re going, what kind of conditions you’re likely to encounter, what kind of problems you’re likely to encounter, and pack around that. Not some crazy hypotheticals that aren’t going to happen where you’re going.

One thing with gear, and I still do this to this day when I get a new tent to test, the first thing that I do is I take it out into my backyard and I set it up, and I make sure I know how to set it up, and sometimes it’s really easy and sometimes it takes a few tries before you understand where everything goes. But you gotta set your tent up, you gotta stake it out, you gotta know you have the right amount of stakes and the right amount of guylines to secure it. You’re crazy if you try to do that for the first time on an overnight trip in middle of the backcountry in the dark. And I think a lot of people actually do do that, is get a brand-new tent, they throw it in their pack and off they go, and they’re out in backcountry and they’re taking the plastic bags off tent poles and little elastic bands are flying everywhere that hold the poles together. Those things should be unpackaged at home and you’ve got to learn how to set up your tent before you get out there.

What are your favorite pursuits? Where do you like to go?

I’m pretty lucky. I get to travel for work and go to some pretty exotic places. I just got back from Nepal actually, five days before the earthquake I was hiking into Everest base camp. I was there 16 days, which was an incredible trip. I get to travel quite a bit for work, so I’m very lucky in that sense: I get to plan a dream trip and then make it happen. And not pay for it, which puts me in a very small percentage of people. But I love backpacking, backpacking is something a lot of people who haven’t done it, they hear that word and they think, Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to carry a big pack when you can just drive up to a lake and throw out your tent and sit there and roast marshmallows? I love doing that too, by the way, but backpacking is one of my favorite things to do because you get to explore these really remote places where there aren’t a lot of other people, and you get out of it what you get into it – So if you’re willing to hike 10 miles into the Sierra Nevada, you’re going to find some pretty amazing scenery that is just not available if you’re not willing to put in that effort. The other thing that I’ve really come to love about backpacking is yes, you have to carry all your stuff, but there is something really gratifying about going exploring with everything you need in your pack, on your back. And knowing that at the end of the day, you can unload your pack and set up your camp and have a great meal in this completely remote place where there are no other people and be comfortable and be safe and have a great time. And there’s something that is really cool about that. And I think until you get that, you might not understand the real draw of backpacking.

That’s actually one of the other things, a common mistake, when people first start backpacking, is not thinking it through. If you’re trying to introduce someone to backpacking, like the first thing I do is think about where am I going to go where the payoff is going to be huge? In other words I don’t want to just walk a dreary section of the Appalachian Trail in the woods, Big Tree Tunnel and there’s nothing to see and no big views. That might be totally fun, but it’s not going to have the big payoff.

I took my mother backpacking years ago, for a story actually, and I did all this research and found this place is Desolation Wilderness in California, where I knew we had a 6 mile hike in and up, it was a hard hike, straight up hill into the mountains, but once you get up there, into this lake basin, it was just spectacular: big peaks all around you, gorgeous lakes, huge trees, lots of wildlife. It was a huge payoff for fairly little effort. I was able to get her in there, without taking much suffering, and then I was able to show her this beautiful payoff and she got a real true sense of “this is why my daughter loves this, I can see this.” You want to plan your trips really well so you can get as much benefit as you can without much suffering. If the suffering doesn’t match the benefit, you’re not going to really tap into why backpacking is so great.

And a lot of people, and I’m one of them too, I like to suffer a little bit. I love a big bad hike up 10-miles of trail straight up hill where I’m sweating, because then you get there, and you’ve accomplished something. There’s that sense of accomplishment. But backpackers tend to have a little bit of that sense of masochism.

There’s a great gratification in it and self reliance and confidence, for sure. In our everyday lives it’s so easy to not have that, we go out to restaurants and we have people pumping gas into our cars, people do everything for us, but when you go backpacking, you’re really doing everything for yourself, and it feels good.