The Joys of Camping : Basic Equipment Needs

Text: Rick Schunk, Linda Schunk • Photography: Christa Neuhauser

With limited space available, motorcyclists who camp when touring must be very selective in choosing gear. Compact and lightweight are the concepts to keep in mind. In addition to a good quality tent (covered in May '10, "Tents for Staying Warm, Dry, and Bug-Free"), there are four additional items you'll need: a sleeping bag, sleeping pad or air mattress or cot, a flashlight, and a pillow. And of course for the latter, a rolled up sweatshirt will do just fine in a pinch.

Key Features to Consider for Sleeping Bags:

Insulation

People tend to lean toward bags with much more insulation than needed - even in Denali, Alaska, a -20-degree bag will quickly become a sauna, on a fifty-degree evening. To calculate the degree of insulation needed for your trip, take the coolest nighttime temperatures you're apt to encounter, subtract 10 degrees, and use that number when comparing the temperature range of bags. Typically, a sleeping bag in the +40 range is about right for summer camping in North America.

Filling

Filling is important too, with several available choices. Old favorites like goose or duck down are still highly desirable, although technology offers a number of synthetics, like Hollofil II and Polarguard®. While down bags pack smaller than the synthetics, synthetic fills dry much faster than down. Do keep in mind that when riding in the rain with your bag bungeed behind you, your best assurance against the weather is to line your stuff sack with heavy-duty plastic.

Shape and Zipper Length

Most camping experts agree a mummy or tapered bag is the most practical. It takes up less space to pack, which also means less space for your body to heat. Additionally, mummy bags frequently feature an insulated hood, which can be really nice on cold evenings. Regardless, whatever shape bag you chose, a full-length zipper is a must. Without one, exiting your sleeping bag will be much like a snake shedding its skin, although not quite as compelling.

When comparing sleeping bags, it's good practice to climb in and try one out, to ensure body-fit — even if you purchase online, you'll save yourself a lot of hassle if you visit a camping store first.

Storage Tip: During the off-season, don't store your sleeping bag in its stuff sack; drape it instead across a hanger or place it in a large laundry bag to preserve the loft of the insulation.

Sleeping Pad, Air Mattress, or Cot?

What you choose to sleep on can make the difference between an enjoyable evening afield or a torturous night. Not only do pads offer a softer surface, they also provide added insulation between you and the cold ground. Closed or open cell pads pack small and are lightweight, but except for the thickest pads, we believe they offer less comfort. A better, yet perhaps more expensive option, is an air-filled pad like the self-inflating Therm-A-Rest® pad.

Test your choices before buying. Naturally, you shouldn't bottom-out. If you decide on a Therm-A-Rest pad, treat it with care, and it will repay you with years of faithful service. You can also get fitted sheets for some, which help prevent you from sliding off in the middle of the night.

During warm weather camping, a good thick air mattress is the Coleman Air Bed. These are hard to beat for all-out comfort. A queen-size mattress, with a small 12-volt inflator, packs as small as two Therm-A-Rest pads. Keep in mind though, you'll want to avoid a thick air mattress if the nighttime temperatures are expected to dip below 50 degrees. Filled with only air, these mattresses offer almost no insulation value. On a recent tour to the Southwest desert, we packed our Coleman Air Bed, two lightweight flannel sheets, along with our down-filled sleeping bags. During most nights the sheets provided all the warmth we needed and on cooler evenings, we threw the sleeping bags on top. A perfect combination.

On the technologically advanced side of the spectrum is the High Tech Cot, available from Aerostich. We've not actually tried one, but based on the description, it sounds like it might be the best of both worlds - albeit rather expensive. It packs to a reasonable 16 x 5 inches and weighs just 3 pounds. Not as small or light as a medium-sized Therm-A-Rest pad, but lighter than a queen-size air mattress and pump.

Flashlights

Torches, as the English refer to them, have undergone nothing short of a revolution with the recent introduction of LED technology. My old Mini Maglite® pales in comparison to modern LED lighting systems. However, if you hate to part with an old friend, Nite Ize makes a 3-LED array conversion kit for the Mini Maglite. As with all LED lights, battery life is extended and the light intensity far greater than the original Maglite Xenon bulb. For less than ten dollars, you can keep the old boy employed.

An alternative to the flashlight is a headlamp. If you can get past the feeling of looking a bit nerdy, they're the ultimate in convenience - whether setting up camp or doing some late night cooking, they allow for hands-free activities with lots of light. The drawback is that the headband and battery pack don't pack as small as a Mini Maglite, and it doesn't make for good interactions with a partner, should you forget having it on and turn a blinding eye. There are no shortage of manufacturers, and most recommend using alkaline or lithium batteries - you may also want to consider rechargeable NiCd (nickel-cadmium) batteries as an alternative.

Pillows

Although we've used a rolled up sweatshirt in a pinch, we're quick to admit sleeping much better with a goose-down, polyester, or air-filled pillow. All types are readily available, and with the exception of goose down, they're relatively inexpensive. For the ultimate in compressibility, nothing beats an air pillow. If you can stand the hassle of deflating it each morning and have a good set of lungs for the evenings, they take up less room than a pair of riding gloves.