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The Right Stuff: Camping Made Easy

New camping gear, for everything from hot showers to fresh-ground coffee in the outback



Tyson Herrera’s head is spinning. Standing in the middle of the sea of merchandise that makes up REI’s camping department, the gangly kid is overwhelmed by the choices of plastic containers that confront him as he tries to shop for a simple weekend camping trip to Yellowstone. The large outdoor sporting goods store has stacked jars and boxes of all shapes, sizes and colors, extra lids, bowls and bottles on one of many islands that display the latest in camping gear.

“Look at all this stuff,” he murmurs to his friend Jen Christensen, shaking his head. “It’s ridiculous.”

Tyson has already picked up several packages of freeze-dried backpacking food, as well as a big, blue cooking kit that includes spice holders, salt and pepper shakers, a wire whisk and other backcountry cooking supplies. His basket is almost full, but the bright plastic jars tempt him to keep loading up.

“We definitely are buying more than we should,” he admits. “You can rough it, but this stuff makes it more fun. It makes you want to do it more often.”

Jen agrees. “Yeah,” she says, “to be able to make dessert.”

Across town at Kirkham’s Outdoor Products, Greg Burdett wears a similar expression on his face as he stands in front of a rack displaying propane-powered heaters and showers. Middle-aged and dressed in a suit, Greg had just run into the store on a break from work to buy a pair of shoelaces, but these contraptions caught his attention. The different models are hung on a wall—small green propane tanks screwed two at a time onto tiny tubes, pipes and nozzles amounting to comfort in the out-of-doors.

“I’d never seen one,” Greg says with awe. He is impressed at the wonders of the outdoor industry, but also a little put-off. “It seems convoluted if you need to pay $300 for a hot-water shower in the outdoors,” he says skeptically. “I just don’t go for any of that. Taking what you need is hard enough. Now you can have all the conveniences of home, but I don’t want to have to mess with packing all that.”

Still another customer, an elderly man roving the shelves of REI with a basket, who we’ll call Dawson, grumbles about the proliferation of items marketed to today’s outdoor enthusiast. “It’s overindulgent,” he said. “There’s way too many things to be bothered with. When I first went backpacking, you took your blanket and fishing pole and food and went.”

But Dawson is not without his favorite advances in outdoor equipment, like the plastic egg-holder he is purchasing for a trip to Yellowstone. “They need a good, lightweight plastic holder for bread,” he pronounces, heading off toward the long checkout line. “I’ve never been able to find that.”

Such is the ambivalence of today’s outdoor enthusiasts toward the slew of merchandise available for stays in the wild. Especially in Utah, the last decade has seen an explosion in people hiking, biking, climbing, skiing and camping in the state’s mountains and deserts. It’s a trend represented nationwide, and the outdoor industry has not been ignoring it. Corresponding with the increased interest in the outdoors is an explosion in the number of goods developed and marketed for outdoor use. Where customers once had five tents to choose from, they now often have 50. And while more choices means a better chance that campers and backpackers can have exactly what they want, it also means more time spent in the stores, thumbing through catalogues and surfing the Internet, sifting through all the stuff they don’t want.

Outdoor enthusiasts are not alone in feeling that there are more and more things to buy, that perhaps going outside has become one giant shopping experience. Architect Rem Koolhaus believes that all aspects of American life are devolving toward shopping. The consumer ethic has taken hold of museums, universities, libraries, even churches, he argues, and they have become part of one gigantic mall. Eventually, Koolhaus says in his recent book, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, “There will be little for us to do but shop.”

Little to do but shop and head to the mountains to get away from it all, right? Don’t be so sure. The outdoor experience has in many ways become as quantified as a trip to the supermarket. Practically every outdoor magazine is full of lists like “50 Greatest Spots to Practice Yoga” or “10 Best National Parks to Take Prospective Investors.” When you backpack in popular areas, you usually have to pick a numbered campsite when you pay your fee. Adventure travel companies pitch entire experiences by the numbers: Seven-day, 50-mile treks up 13,000-foot peaks followed by two-day river trips through 21 miles of Class IV rapids, always followed by three-course meals, all for just $3,999. In many ways, the outdoor escape has become a commodity.

And, perhaps most noticeably, the outdoor industry has heeded the shoppers’ mantra: Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize. Unsuspecting campers and backpackers like Tyson Herrera and Greg Burdett are finding this out as the route-finding skills they honed for their backcountry trip come in handy in the vastness of their local camping supplies store.

Car-camping heaven

It doesn’t take much to head out into the outdoors for a night. Really, all you need is shelter, sleeping bag and food. But that’s not what the outdoor industry would have you believe. Nowadays, not only can you go outside for a night, you can do it comfortably. Very comfortably. With all the stuff for sale in REI’s camping department, the average person could set up in the middle of the store’s parking lot and live in luxury for months, even years on end. Consider some of the more cushy items: A pepper grinder, $6.95; a hand-crank blender, $69.95; a stove stand, $25; a cutting board, $5.95; a champagne flute and a wine goblet, $5.95 each; an entire shelf of coffee paraphernalia including two sizes of mini espresso-makers for $12.95 and $21.95; a French press in a mug, $15.95; and an espresso cup, $3.95; chopsticks, $24.95; a woman’s travel kit that includes lotion, deodorant, vanilla-essence soap, cypress shampoo and green tea conditioner, $15; a corn popper, $17.95; a tent brush, dustpan and portable “attic,” $3.25, $5.50 and $18, respectively. In addition, the store carries some 80 different backpacks, 50 tents and 40 sleeping bags.

It’s not the fact that all this stuff is available that is remarkable, but that it’s been specifically made and marketed for the outdoors, often at a much higher price than conventional accessories. “This is car-camping heaven,” says Paul Dance, a green-vested salesman at REI, waving his hand grandly over his department where he helps customers sort through the multitude of equipment. “I’m not saying you can’t use your kitchen appliances for camping, but you generally are not going to bring along all that stuff.”

Hence, the coffeemakers and blenders designed specifically for easy transport, easy cleaning and manual or battery power. “Manufacturers have clued into the fact that people like to drink espresso in the campground,” Dance says. “You see these creature comforts coming in. Now there is everything available for camping that is available at home.”

While the popularity of the outdoors has spurred these comforts, many of them would not have been possible without the adaptation of technology to outdoor equipment. Central to the revolution is Lexan plastic. Outdoor companies like Nalgene used to use plastics like high-density poly urethane (HDPE) for their water bottles, which, when hot, absorbs the moisture in the container. But Lexan holds off the food and liquids it contains and is stronger than other plastics. Now Nalgene has switched almost entirely to Lexan, as have the other companies making bottles, containers, plates, bowls and silverware. Porcelain enamelware, sometimes called “granitoware” because of its spackled finish, often chips over time and cannot keep up with Lexan. It is almost a dim memory in high-end gear stores like REI.

Some revere these technological advances like a new religion. Carlos Cardenas, a salesman at Kirkham’s dressed to the nines in slick Ex-Officio fast-dry pants, excitedly flips through a catalogue from Snow Peak, a Japanese company specializing in lightweight camping gear. He finds what he’s looking for. “Now this, dude, this is the bomb,” Cardenas says, wide-eyed, pointing to a stainless steel portable fireplace that collapses into a disk the size of a sheet of paper. He bought the fireplace and now he’s hooked on Snow Peak’s gear, which includes a stove barely larger than a tube of chapstick. He works so much to purchase the gear that he barely has time to use it in the outdoors.

Cardenas buys into outdoor technology to the degree where he has begun to use the stuff at home. He points to a set of steel pots in the Snow Peak catalogue, which he ordered for his house. He is also head over heels for Lexan. He grabs a Lexan champagne flute off a rack and screws the bottom off, cupping it on top of the glass. “If you want to make a martini,” he smiles, “shake it up, baby.”

Then Cardenas turns serious. “Plastics, man. It’s technology, take advantage of it.”

No matter how wonderful the technology is, though, many believe the products fashioned from it can go overboard. Dance admits that occasionally the outdoor companies can cross the line. An avid backpacker, he would never cave into buying the champagne glass or the wine goblet. “That’s stuff,” he says, “I would never go backpacking with.”

In addition, the easy-clean benefits of some items do not make up for their high prices. Dance walks over to a rack of cooking accessories and holds up a spatula. “Here’s a spatula for $5 here at REI,” he says. “Walk across the street to Fred Meyer and see how much their spatulas are.”

Even Cardenas sees the game in the industry. “It’s a marketing barrage,” he says. “Customers are way too overwhelmed with the merchandise on the market. How many bivy sacks can you make?” Being around the gear and the consumerism all the time sometimes makes Cardenas want to have nothing to do with it. “You just want to go out and enjoy the outdoors, buy a military survival manual for $6 and pick up a walking stick.”

But people buy the stuff, all of it. “Head to Moab for Jeep Safari or to Escalante on Memorial Day Weekend and take a look into people’s campsites,” Dance says. “You see tons of sun showers, tons of tables. It’s pretty amazing how comfortable you can live because of things that 20 years ago you’d never think about.”

Going light

J. Williams has no need for the pepper grinders or the propane-powered showers. Williams, a sturdy guy with thick white hair and bulging calf muscles, is a proponent of the lightweight school of backpacking. “I find it a lot more enjoyable if you can do it with less,” Williams says. “A lot of it has to do with the simplicity with which you can live in the backcountry.”

Williams has devised a system of bringing just what he absolutely needs. He eats only the necessary meals, boils his water instead of lugging a purifier and re-packs prepackaged food, cutting out the recipe to tape on the bag. Where some may bring 50 or 60 pounds on a trip, Williams gets by with less than 30.

There are entire books written on the subject of going light into the backcountry. J. Williams hands me one to check out. It is The Ultralight Backpacker: The Complete Guide to Simplicity and Comfort on the Trail, by Ryel Kestenbaum. In the book, Kestenbaum advises those wishing to go light to cut off and drill holes in toothbrush handles and snip tags off sleeping bags and tents. He also recommends against packing a book. “I’ve come to realize,” writes Kestenbaum, “that our brain’s need for stimulation is the product of living in a world of television shows and billboards and shopping malls, where being bored is akin to being locked in a dungeon. Most of us hardly ever give ourselves time to enjoy a little peace and quiet. … Reading a book can be just another distraction from the serenity that surrounds us in nature.”

This deceleration Kestenbaum writes about is exactly why Williams goes backpacking. “I just like to get out in touch with nature,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to switch gears, change pace, get away from normal life and all the information we’re bombarded with.”

But there is a strong consumer element in going light. Ironically, reducing your load can require the most intense shopping experience of any type of outdoor activity. Much of the skill of saving weight is in buying the lightest, and, often, highest-priced gear. “Obviously, it’s expensive,” says Williams. “There are certain things you would have to upgrade.”

This lightweight gear is Dave Price’s obsession. At REI, Price shops for odds and ends for an upcoming trip to the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. So far, he’s got two Mountain House dried-food packages—a lasagna and a spaghetti. Price buys the special backpacking food for the weight he saves. It’s why he buys everything.

“I have all sorts of gear, and I’m always in the market for other stuff,” he says, perusing a rack of backpacks. “But weight is the most important factor. I’m meticulous about what I put in my pack.” Price tells me he only allows himself one luxury item, the heaviest of which was a 10-pound camcorder he brought along one time.

Price can rattle off a detailed list of his gear on a dime. When he heads into the wild he packs up his REI Northstar internal frame pack, 5,500 cubic inches, with his Mountain Hardware South Col four-season tent. It weighs five pounds, three ounces and has a “cool, orange fly” that Price notes marks it as the tent many mountaineers climbing Everest use in the movies. He sleeps in a North Face Snowshoe Endurance sleeping bag, stuffed with synthetic fluff and rated to five degrees below zero and surrounded by a water-resistant shell and draft collar. He cooks with an MSR Whisper Lite stove and a set of Snow Peak titanium pots, which weighs a scant seven ounces.

Price’s favorite piece of high-tech equipment is his North Face Kichatna Gore Tex XCR shell jacket, his most recent purchase. “It’s ultra, ultra waterproof,” he says, and worth every penny of its $450 retail cost. With all of this stuff, however, Price admits its worth in the elements comprises only about 60 percent of its value. The rest is the look and the name brand.

When he isn’t shopping in stores, Price reads Backpacker magazine and surfs the Internet, all day sometimes, looking at the latest lightweight gear on the market and hunting for deals so he can purchase the name-brand stuff at an affordable cost. He spends more time researching and buying the gear than using it. In fact, Price says, buying and having all the stuff is probably more important than going outside in the first place.

Invisible gear

When Isaac Wilson was a teenager living in Provo, he and his dad would head up into the Uintas for multi-day trips with as little gear as they could manage with. Sometimes, he remembers, it was just a tarp, sleeping bag liners, fishing rods and a grill for putting over the fire to cook the fish they caught. It was just 15 years ago, but long enough that lightweight backpacking meant leaving luxury items at home. “He started me off in a very minimalist way,” Wilson remembers. “We were always trying to see what we could get away with, what the differences were. We saw what we could leave behind.”

Now, Isaac Wilson is better known as a member of Team Earthlink, just having competed in the most recent Eco-Challenge in New Zealand, a multi-day “adventure race” orchestrated and televised by Survivor producer Mark Burnett. He races professionally and, ironically, gear is his life.

Wilson has a gear shed that looks not unlike a small outdoor equipment store. Inside are hanging some 30 backpacks, a half dozen bikes, shelves stuffed with stoves, tents, water bottles and other camping supplies and climbing gear, the state-of-the-art stuff from each year of the past decade. He pulls out a large bag of prepackaged dried turkey and beans. “You don’t even need a stove for this,” he says. “Just pull a string and you have a hot meal.” Now, Wilson is letting the industry see what it can get away with, and to him that’s just fine. He, too, is a believer in the outdoor industry. “I don’t believe that consumerism is a bad thing,” he says. “Consumerism drives every sport. It’s good for the industry and makes them think more. [And] every bit of [the technology] contributes to a better experience. It’s nice to have stuff.”

Wilson’s dad, meanwhile, is still the same, fashioning his own tents out of coated nylon, trying to bring as little as possible. But, Wilson says, whether you’re buying a $750 Bibbler tent or making your own, the goal is the same. “The whole point and purpose is to make your gear invisible,” he says of the outdoor experience. “It’s what we’re evolved to do, to walk in the outdoors and deal with the elements.”

The ringing clarity with which Isaac Wilson understands the language of outdoor technology, however, is a garble to others who continue to set foot in outdoor stores, which grow larger and larger to accommodate the burgeoning selections of merchandise from the industry that more and more people are embracing with a religious fervor. But for every believer there are plenty of heathens. Back at REI, no one can be seen going for the espresso makers and blenders. Bountiful resident Mark Earl scratches his head trying to find the right way to spend a gift certificate. He picks up a nifty backcountry saw, then puts it back and moves on. He passes on the pepper grinders and Lexan cocktail glasses, laughing as he goes by.

“I guess someone out there’s buying it,” says Earl of all the stuff. “I just hope they’re not camped next to me.”