In Which I Find Myself Overthinking Camping Gear
“Ah, what happened to the good old days when camping was simple? No backpacks overstuffed with the latest and greatest camping gadgets from Cabela’s.”
These words were spoken by Mr. Westerly, the grandfatherly figure of the local Scout Troop. He was shaking his head at the Therm-A-Rest self-inflating sleeping pad and Camelbak hydration pack the Assistant Scout Master was pulling out of his pack.
“Ouch!” John laughed. “So says the guy with the hundred-pound backpack! Oh, and by the way, I’ll be out on the river by the time you get that tent of yours set up.” The last comment elicited a few chuckles from those listening. The length of time it took Mr. Westerly to set up his twenty-five-year-old tent was a running joke throughout the Troop.
I always thought John’s gear was cool, but I couldn’t afford it myself. However, I wasn’t sure Westerly’s obstinate nostalgia was warranted either. I was passionate about the history of Scouting, but I hadn’t found any clear-cut principle to guide me in the process of selecting camping gear.
Was I overthinking this? Probably, but that’s what I do. So, in search of guidance on this issue, I set out upon a journey through the history of camping. In this article, I will share some insight I’ve found along the way that will help you and your Scout group establish some camping gear best practices. So let’s get started!
On the Dawn of Camping
We’re going all the way back to before recreational camping – before Scouting. Our great-great-grandfathers didn’t have much trouble seeking out the wilderness. They had the opposite problem! They were too busy trying to carve out civilization from the midst of it. The wilderness was a dangerous place that claimed many lives. When they needed to venture out beyond the protected communities they created, they generally traveled slowly and heavily. Pack animals and carts carried all the gear they could muster to increase their chances of survival.
Throughout this time, there were certain individuals who literally made it their business to become experts in the outdoors. These woodsmen had much knowledge gathered from personal experience and learning from aboriginal peoples. This knowledge replaced gear. These men traveled light because they could. Then there came the time when they were no longer needed.
With the advent of the industrial revolution, it became exponentially easier to avoid the harshness of the wilderness. It wasn’t long before the wilderness became a distant thing in the minds of the masses now struggling to survive in the urban environments they created. Unfortunately, these were not the utopias they dreamed of. They began to fondly look back on the wilderness as a place of peace and spiritual wholeness. Perhaps something important was lost in the transformation to modernity.
Thus begins the age of recreational camping. In search of that which was lost, men and women created their own sabbaticals in the seclusion of the forests. This method of recreation was spreading like wildfire around the time of the nascency of Scouting and helped to fuel its popularity.
What Consumerism Had to Say About This
With this whole new category of avocation, there was a new field ripe for the harvest of capitalism. All sorts of gadgets and gear were developed to enhance the camping experience. Avid campers bought them up and very quickly an industry developed around camping as a recreational activity. People’s packs became heavier and their camping setups more elaborate as they sought outdoor comfort through equipment.
Not everyone was on board, though. Remember those backwoodsmen who replaced stuff with skills and knowledge? Many people held up these men as ideals to shoot for when going camping. They advocated the selection of high-quality camping gear, but they maintained that one shouldn’t try to bring civilization with them into the wilderness. Seek comfort outdoors, they said, but seek it primarily through knowledge of nature and outdoor skills.
Among this group were the early Scouts. They held the heroes of the backcountry in high esteem and sought to emulate them in their own camping. Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, was a skilled backwoodsman. Even though he lived after the industrial revolution, his occupation as a military scout gave him intense field training in this area. Daniel Carter Beard (one of the founders of American Scouting) even started up his own organization called the “Sons of Daniel Boone” which later merged with the Boy Scouts of America. Many other founders of Scouting were proud proponents of emulating the outdoor skills of the historic frontiersmen.
They made the study of nature and how to thrive in the outdoors with minimal equipment integral to the Scouting curriculum. However, it’s hard to resist the allure of glossy camping magazines. Early media filled with advertisements from various companies offering a dazzling array of camping paraphernalia.
Addressing the Current State of Camping
Cultural interest in the outdoors has ebbed and flowed over the decades. Over the culture in general (as I have seen it) there seem to be two categories of people interested in camping.
The first desires high adventure and extreme experiences. Their appetite for nature consists of nothing less than primitive backpacking up a mountain or white water rafting. Their taste in gear trends toward the expensive side. Ounces matter. Any way technology can be leveraged to maximize the experience is taken advantage of.
The second group takes their fill of nature by pursuing normal recreational activities in an outdoor setting: socializing around a campfire, fishing, hunting, canoeing. They try to camp as comfortably as possible in favorable weather conditions. Weight isn’t important. Campsites are designed to imitate civilized life. Hence, their taste in gear is elaborate and targeted for comfort.
These are broad generalizations, of course, and most individuals fall somewhere on the spectrum that is created by those two extremes. Where should Scouts fall on this scale? That remains to be seen, but something very important is missing.
On Distracting Scouts
Much to my surprise, my journey into the history of camping has revealed that I started off with faulty assumptions. I wanted to point a derisive finger at cheap modern gear or cumbersome nostalgic equipment. I wanted to praise ultralight camping and chide the bloated baggage trains of so many modern campers. That’s what I wanted, but it turns out I was taken in by quite a grand distraction.
It’s not about new gear versus old gear. It’s not about heavy accouterments or light ones. Scout camping should not be about the gear at all! To think this way is to fall into the trap of commercialism. Early camping advocates had simple advice for campers: take only what you need. No more. If you can afford higher quality gear, by all means, go for it if it’s worth that to you. If you can’t, then very little is lost. The quality of a Scout’s camping experience really isn’t about gear.
Scout camping is about skills. Scout camping emulates the backwoodsmen and the pioneers in spirit. No, we are not in a historical re-enactment group. Technology has created much better gear than they probably imagined was possible. We can take full advantage of this without sacrificing or getting distracted from the true purpose of Scout camping.
Gear Guidance for Scouts
Based on this basic principle, we can now do a thorough inventory of our camping gear and put each item to the test of two simple questions:
- Can this item be easy replaced by a smaller/lighter/more versatile one? (e.g. This skillet and pot can be replaced by a saucepan.)
- Can it be replaced by skills or be created onsite with available materials? (e.g. This cooking canopy can be replaced by a well-pitched tarp cooking fly.)
Then, after each camping trip, ask yourself a couple of diagnostic questions:
- Were there annoyances or uncomfortable moments that resulted from low-quality or inappropriate equipment? (e.g. I was freezing last night because my sleeping bag was a Dollar General special?)
- Could these instances be eliminated by better planning/camping skills? (e.g. My camping stove failed on me because I didn’t take the time to maintain it in the way it was designed to be. A new Jetboil stove isn’t the answer.)
In addition, here are some guiding principles for selecting camping gear:
- If you can build a piece of equipment yourself instead of buying it, opt for that.
- If you have the budget for it, invest in well-made versions of the essential camping items. They will last a lifetime.
- Never stop iterating your equipment list. Every single camping trip will teach you something new.
- Don’t neglect the “be prepared” gear. You hopefully won’t have to use it, but a Scout is always prepared.
One of the best books I’ve read on camping is “Camping’s Top Secrets” by Eagle Scout Cliff Jacobson, an experienced outdoorsman in our day. It is full of great gear selecting tips and sound advice based on the prioritization of wilderness skills. I highly recommend adding it to your to-read list.
The Task of Looking Forward
Emulating the skilled backwoodsmen of the past will always be the foundation of Scout camping. Advanced technology will create better equipment, but it won’t change the basic way we Scouts camp. That is because no matter how futuristic civilization gets, Scouts will always train themselves with a set of skills that allows them to be self-reliant when cut off from civilization.
The character growth that comes with this training is something nothing else can replace. In addition, every single day disasters occur which temporarily nullify the protection civilization normally provides for us. Scouts will be there using their skills to serve others during those times.
There are many distractions that we face today in Scouting that seek to take our attention away from the fundamental purpose of Scout camping. Chasing after the perfect set of camp gear is just one of those distractions.
It is up to you to make sure those distractions don’t ultimately win. If we don’t keep Scouting focused, nobody else will.
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Most importantly, practice traditional Scout camping and pass it on.
“Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort, and enjoyment.” Sears, G. W. “Nessmuk” (1920) Woodcraft and Camping.
“Real woodcraft consists rather in knowing how to get along without the appliances of civilization than in adapting them to wildwood life. Such an art comes in play when we travel “light,” and especially in emergencies, when the equipment, or essential parts of it, have been destroyed.” Kephart, H. (1906) The Book of Camping and Woodcraft
“When we talk of camping we mean living under bark, brush, or canvas in the ‘howling wilderness,’ or as near a howling wilderness as our money and time will permit us to reach; in other words, we want a camp in the wildest place we can find, except when we go to our own scout camp, and even then we like it better if it is located in a wild, romantic spot.” Beard, D. C. (1920) The American Boys’ Handybook of Camplore and Woodcraft
“Camping is the joyous part of a Scout’s life. Living out in God’s open air, among the hills and the trees, and the birds and the beasts, and the sea and the rivers – that is, living with nature, having your own little canvas home, doing your own cooking and exploration – all this brings health and happiness such as you can never get among the bricks and smoke of the town. Hiking, too, where you go farther afield, exploring new places every day, is a glorious adventure. It strengthens you and hardens you so that you won’t mind wind and rain, heat and cold. You take them all as they come, feeling that sense of fitness that enables you to face any old trouble with a smile, knowing that you will conquer in the end. But, of course, to enjoy camping and hiking, you must know how to do it properly. You have to know how to put up a tent or a hut for yourself; how to lay and light a fire; how to cook your food; how to tie logs together to make a bridge or a raft; how to find your way by night, as well as by day, in a strange country, and many other things.” Baden-Powell, R. S. S. (1908) Scouting for Boys