I have developed this ten step camping gear buyer’s guide over many years. I hope it will help you and your Scouts select the right gear for your individual use.
1. Buy the best you need
Waking up (or worse yet no being able to sleep) chilled to the bone in a cheap sleeping bag really drives home the importance of having adequate gear. If you and your Scouts aren’t warm and dry or don’t sleep comfortably you’ll have miserable camping trips.
If you are my age (50+) and go backpacking with 70 pounds of gear in a backpack you used in high school you’ll suffer. I’ve invested in the best sleeping bag, pad, backpack, raingear and clothing I can afford. Most of these things will last me for many years. I promise you that you’ll never regret spending a bit more on good gear and almost always regret going for the cheapest option.
So what’s the difference between a $40.00 tent or sleeping bag at the discount store and one that costs $400.00 from a gear boutique? The $40.00 option may work just fine and the $400.00 option could be much more than you really need. What we are looking for is some middle ground: a choice that stands up to constant use and performs well without breaking the bank account.
2. Determining the “Best You Need”
An average volunteer Scouter will go camping for 25-30 nights a year (one weekend a month and one long-term camp of five to seven nights). Over five years (rough average tenure for a volunteer Scouter) this equals 4-5 months of camping. It’s worth investing in gear that will see you through in comfort.
Your local conditions and your pocketbook all factor into your best choice.:
- What are the coldest and warmest temperatures you’re likely to encounter?
- During how many of these trips are likely to encounter snow or rain?
- How comfortable do you want to be?
- How many of these trips will you be carrying your gear in a backpack for several miles?
My buddy Larry down in Florida and my buddy Jerry in Oregon will be camping in significantly different climates. Jerry may go backpacking more often and Larry may find himself out in the rain more often than Jerry. They’ll make gear choices based on how and where it will be used.
Quality gear is cheap in the long run. Spending twenty times as much for a decent rain jacket and pants than your buddy did for his $5.00 plastic poncho seems very inexpensive when, in the middle of a driving rain, his ‘bargain’ tears to shreds.
As an example let’s determine what sleeping bag is the best choice for a given set of criteria. The average temperature range where I do most of my camping is lows of 35F and a highs of 80F. I really don’t need a sleeping bag with a rating of -10F when a lighter, cheaper bag rated 20F will do quite nicely. I go backpacking once or twice a year so spending slightly more for a lighter sleeping bag makes sense.
Let’s say my cheapest option is $50.00 and my most expensive choice is $250.00. I’ll need to consider how long I am going to use the bag and it’s importance to being safe and comfortable relative to other gear I may need to buy. I probably don’t need the most expensive option, nor do I want the cheapest. I’ll narrow things down with a little more research… read on!
3. Read reviews, ask friends
Most veteran campers are happy to share their ideas and experiences with the gear they have used; ask them! Most popular gear has any number of internet user reviews. You’ll find them just about everywhere. Some reviews are very thorough based on actual field testing by experienced people. Some are just a couple of sentences by someone who loved (or hated) a possibly insignificant product feature. Reading these reviews will give me a pretty good idea of what to expect and may suggest a superior choice or method.
There is so much information out there it can bring the decision making process to a standstill. Sometimes I just need to get out the credit card and buy the darn thing. Then I’ll have a chance to give it a look (keep reading!).
4. Try it out
There’s really no substitute for hands-on evaluation. Most online retailers have generous return policies (who’d shop for shoes online if they didn’t?). Spending a few bucks on shipping to actually get your hands on a high-ticket item makes sense.
Given time and access I’ll visit a store to test something as well as I can without buying it but making sure that they have what I am looking for and finding the time to actually get to the store can be pretty involved. I have ordered two or three different items to compare them and returned the ones I don’t want. Doing this a lot easier and cheaper than trying to find them in a store.
5. Shop for bargains online
A lot of the gear I take camping was purchased online. I’ve had few problems and encourage you to give it a try. I do want my local brick-and-mortar businesses to thrive but more often than not there’s no nearby store that has what I need.
I’ve saved some big money buying sleeping bags, sleeping pads, packs and clothing used on eBay. Occasionally people report that they’ve had a bad experience on eBay but I’ve been very pleased with my purchases. Most eBayers are good, honest folks. You do have to wait for what you want to be listed for sale; but waiting can mean big savings. eBay has a saved search option that sends an email alert when what I am looking for comes up for sale.
I check pricing using Google’s shopping search feature. It calculates shipping if I enter my zip code.
6. Upgrade important gear
Technology and design advances sometimes make it desirable to upgrade.
My backpack is a good example. I started with a basic external frame pack that I had for about five years; it was heavy and not all that comfortable. I upgraded to a lighter external frame pack with a much better suspension system that I carried for five to ten more years.
Next I switched to an internal frame pack that was even lighter and more comfortable. After five or six years I traded that pack in for the very light internal frame pack I use now. Each upgrade represented a big improvement and vastly improved the backpacking experience for me.
Upgraded gear can also enhance safety. This is especially true with clothing and rain gear. Polypropylene clothing and well-made waterproof raingear are just as important to health and safety as a well stocked first aid kit.
7. Go with proven products
Inexperienced campers should look for safe choices. The most useful, durable and well-made products change little. I look for gear that’s been on the market for several years, has a proven design and has been used by a lot of people.
A good example is this list we distribute annually to our Scouts. Most of that list hasn’t changed in a decade because we know it is reliable, inexpensive and proven gear.
8. Scout Discounts
Many retailers offer Scout or team discounts. Few of these discounts are available to individuals and most will have some hoops to jump though. There’s a number of things that Scouts need to go camping and it takes a lot of the uncertainty about what to buy and where to get it if you buy as a group.
9. Refunds and Replacements
There’s been quite a revolution in customer service over the past several years. Reputable manufacturers and retailers go to some length to assure people are satisfied with their products or services in ways that they never did twenty years ago.
If something does not perform as advertised or becomes damaged in the course of normal use many retailers and manufacturers are willing to do what they can to make good. I’ll mention again that most online retailers have very generous ‘no questions asked’ return policies; don’t like it? – send it back.
10. Use it up, wear it out, hand it down, make it do, or do without.
If you choose quality gear there’s a good chance it is going to last far longer than you are going to need it. Most of my camping gear is ten or more years old and some things are going on thirty. I’ve hardly ever replaced anything because it was worn out or unusable.
Missing buckles broken zippers, rips, tears, burns and dents can all be repaired. Tents, tarps and clothing can have their waterproofing restored. Sleeping bags can be washed, pads can be patched there aren’t many hopeless causes when it comes to camping gear.